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Reinvention and Arianna Huffington at Sustainable Industries economic forum

January 14, 2010 |  4:56 pm


Business-minded eco-warriors – or green-friendly business people – gathered in Santa Monica in droves this morning for an economic forum hosted by the Sustainable Industries magazine.

Paul Hawken, chief executive of the Pax Group in Sausalito and a prolific author of sustainable economy texts, delivered a sweeping speech on the need for reinvention and unity in the green effort. He also held a question-and-answer session with Arianna Huffington, former gubernatorial candidate and editor-in-chief of  the Huffington Post news website.

“This is a civilization movement, as opposed to a crisis,” Hawken said of the push toward sustainability. “The whole industry needs to move.”

A self-professed “doomer” – a prophet heralding environmental despair – Hawken said that he and his fellow forecasters help motivate innovators to try to slow, or at least stall climate change.

But the situation is dire and complicated, he said, and a solution will require more than just flowery rhetoric. Nongovernmental organizations and businesses are the best agents of change, he said, because they are more efficient and focused on hard data.

“In a society that is completely obsessed with the probability of disaster…hope has to be pragmatic,” he said. “It has to pass a sobriety test and walk a pretty straight line to reality.”

Politicians, as shown at the recent climate talks in Copenhagen, are “the rear end of the inchworm in terms of climate change” – a necessary part of the process, but also the slowest, he said.

Huffington also had harsh words for the government, which she called “anti-reform termites,” and was particularly disapproving of President Obama.

“Many of us hoped that a knight on a white charger would come and save us… but we are all at different stages of disillusionment,” she said. “There are no lobbies in Washington for the future.”

She also complained about standard media coverage of green issues, saying that most outlets are “obsessed” with the idea that there are two sides to every issue, with the truth situated squarely in the middle.

“Earth is not a little bit flat and a little bit round,” she said to laughter.

For his part, Hawken also cautioned green companies against being too hubristic and individualist. In the model of the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, he proposed similar eco-friendly organizations for every industry, including banking, dentistry, manufacturing and so on.

“We have to stop thinking of the Promethean green business. I’m not interested in heroes anymore,” he said. “I’m interested in allies.”

The event also featured a panel discussion with speakers including Carmen Rad of Los Angeles printing company CR&A Custom Inc. and Shelley Billik, vice president of environmental initiatives for Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Andy Cohen, executive director of architecture firm Gensler, said work during the recession has come less from new buildings and more from eco-friendly renovations of existing buildings, many of them government-owned structures.

At the moment, the government is also the biggest investor in the green sphere, said John Babcock, a partner with Santa Monica venture capitalist group Rustic Canyon Partners.

But the enthusiasm and “giddiness” associated with environmental businesses is eerily similar to the excitement during the tech boom.

“We’re in a bubble right now,” Babcock said. “It won’t be that a bunch of people earn 15%. Probably one leader in the industry will earn 50 times his investment…we’re separating the wheat from the chaff.” 

Sustainable Industries was launched in 2002 in Portland, Ore., and hosts forums there, as well as in San Francisco, Seattle and Denver. The Santa Monica event was held at the Sheraton Delfina.

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Arianna Huffington in 2008. Credit: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times