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The Two Decade Perspective

     by Stephen Morris

a survey of environmental leaders (and friends of Green Living)

A birthday ... what better excuse to get in touch with folks who have shared the journey with us. Our questions were simple:

1. Where were you and what were you doing in 1990 when Green Living was born?

2. What are the most significant changes you've seen in the past two decades?

Bill McKibben

Oddly, I've been doing much the same thing these past 20 years. 1989 saw the publication of my book The End of Nature, which was often described as the first book for a general audience about global warming. 2009 saw me coordinating 350.org's Global Day of Climate Action, which CNN described as "the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history," with 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. Wish I could report that we'd won the battle; we're still trying.

Amelia Sheaquiet zone

Shortly after 1990 I signed on to be the ad rep at Green Living in hopes of contributing to the effort to make environmental news more accessible. Since that time the awareness of the importance of preserving and protecting precious natural resources is slowly making its way into mainstream consciousness- largely driven by crisis rather than forethought.

Most change at this point has to come through individual, local and like minded collaborations. This was shown at the Copenhagen Summit in the inability of government leaders, mired in outdated perspectives, to act. People need to lead the way in their own lives through holistic and sustainable living practices. Respect for the interconnectedness of all life is the important underlying principle.
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Jim Schley

Managing Editor, Tupelo Press

(photo credit: Luciana Frigerio).

In 1990 I was traveling and performing with a Swiss theater troupe, spending months at a stretch touring through Poland, Czechoslovakia (then one nation), and Hungary right at the cresting wave of those countries' revolutions. In July, 1990, in Prague I danced on stilts accompanied by accordions and a brass band at the presidential inauguration of former dissident Vaclav Havel.

Far and away the most momentous change for me since 1990 has been becoming a parent. Our daughter was born in the spring of 1993. During this period of time my wife and I also built our own home, with the help of friends and a minimum of hired labor, and this mortgage-free, solar-powered home on land owned cooperatively with our neighbors has been a haven emotionally and also financially as we've tried to ride out the economic upheavals around us, which for me have included being laid off twice from jobs I really cared about. While parenting and home-making has for me meant less time for activist work, I continue to be engaged in environmental education, more aware than ever how much our efforts matter. And the circle of those who are conscious of the urgency does continue to grow.

Bravo to Green Living for twenty years of news -- enlightening as well as useful!

Larry Plesent

Founder, Vermont Soap Company

Twenty years ago organic personal care products did not exist, and natural, nontoxic cleaning products were looked at as something so outside of the norm as to be un-marketable. All this has been, and continues to be in process, as organic moves towards mainstream. Eventually organic will BE mainstream. What thinking person really wants to use poisons in their world anyway?

Paul Scheckel

Author, The Home Energy Diet, New Society Publishers

In 1990 I was building my house. Since then there has been a dramatic increase in building science knowledge and venues to get that information into builders hands and heads. If I had known then what we know now, I would have split about half as much wood over the years, possibly sparing me that lower back surgery in 1998.

I was also converting gasoline cars to electric operation. It's surprising how little has changed in electric power efficiency and control, availability of electric cars, and the state of electric power storage technology. Back then we were sure that in "10 years" we'd have dramatic improvements in battery technology, maybe even hydrogen cars! 100+ years later, Edison's lead acid battery is still king.

William Shutkin

Entrepreneur and educator in Boulder, Colorado

In 1990, I was a third year law student doing a semester-long "externship" at a start-up NGO based in London (with a DC office as well) called the Centre for International Environmental Law. I researched and wrote an article, later cited in several major international environmental law cases, on the intersection of international human rights and environmental law as applied to (a) indigenous tribes in Ecuador whose livelihoods were threatened by oil exploitation and (b) small island nations at risk from rising sea levels due to climate change.

The CIEL experience would shape my entire career. It inspired me to become a social entrepreneur working domestically in the areas of environmental justice and community development. It also colors my reaction, twenty years out, to the changes that have taken place since then. On the one hand, I'm disheartened, disgusted really, at how little progress we've made, in the U.S. and abroad, in dealing with our addiction to fossil fuels and the harms that addiction has caused and continues to cause the most vulnerable among us, to say nothing of the planet. On the other hand, I'm inspired by the growing awareness, the results of COP-15 notwithstanding, of the need to create a new global economic order powered by renewable energy technologies and, equally important, committed to shared prosperity. This is an evolutionary shift, I believe, long in the works but only recently gaining traction. I'm eager, if a bit anxious, to see what the next twenty years hold.

Paul Freundlich

The issue in 1990. before we talked about "sustainability" and when "green" usually referred to bucks, was could we change the mainstream to be more responsible and acccountable, or would we get changed in the process? I was launching an international initiative to find markets for fair traded products in the USA; had resigned as Exec Director of Co-op America; completed a term as President of the Social Investment Forum; and was deeply involved with establishing the CERES Coalition to pressure Wall Street to accept environmental impact as material to business.

I would say that my work with Joan Bavaria and others on CERES far exceeded our most sanguine hopes and has been a good part of the traction the environmental movement has gained. Besides the Fortune 500 companies working with CERES, we spun off the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) in 2002 which has developed widely accepted guidelines for corporate accountability, and on January 14, I attended the 4th Investor Summit on Climate Risk at the UN, another project of CERES, reprenting investor assets of more than 20 trillion dollars. CERES has been frequently consulted by the Obama administration and helped by organizing a positive business response to environmental legislation.

Obviously there is much more to be done. I'm impressed that change is happening on the personal/community level as well as the macro level of government and corporate policy - but even more that thousands of organizations and hundreds of thousands of individuals around this planet who individually have small inputs, collectively and collaboratively are revising the infrastructure of society towards a sustainabile future. We have a terrible legacy to overcome, but I remain quite hopeful.

Paul Freundlich serves on the Boards of CERES, Green America and Envirolution, and on the Stakeholder Council of the Global Reporting Initiative, which he chaired from 2007-2009. He is the President of the Fair Trade Foundation. His novel, "Deus ex Machina" (2007, The Public Press) charts a bizarre and entertaining approach to saving the world, and is available through Amazon.

Denise Hamler

Director/co-Founder of the Green Business Network at Green America - a vibrant community of 5,000 businesses committed to creating a better world, established in 1983 with 10 businesses.

At Green America celebrate our first 26 years – I am struck by the magnitude of what we have accomplished together – thanks to our many business and individual members we're tackling climate change, building fair-trade systems, stopping corporate abuse and growing the green economy.

America's 27 million small businesses produce 51% of the private sector output- make 47% of all sales and employ more than half the country's private work force

That's half the economy.

In Recent decades small businesses have created 60-70% of all new jobs

Small businesses are also the front of innovation – they get more patents, employ more scientists and engineers

They possess all the brains and talent needed to advance us

Small businesses are in every nook and cranny of society – from the inner city where they provide 80% of jobs to rural areas where they provide 66%

Our work in the next 25 years is even more crucial because no matter who is in the White House, we need a strong focus on green economy to achieve real sustainability. The current economic uncertainty is evidence of what you and I have known for years - the economy is NOT working for the majority of people or the planet.

www.GreenBusinessnetwork.org and www.greenbusinessconference.org Green America's Green Business Network(tm) is dedicated to helping socially and environmentally responsible businesses emerge and thrive to form a global green economy.

Marshall Glickman

Green Living founding publisher/editor Green Living Books and Echo Point Books & Media (802-257-6900)

In 1990 I'd just finished an around-the-world backpacking trip with my then new wife Margaret. We settled in Vermont and I started Green Living, figuring what could be more important than raising environmental awareness.

The most significant change is that pretty much every reasonable person--including the president--now knows that global warming is a crucial issue that needs immediate attention. What should be the most surprising is that this knowledge hasn't changed that our government's policies much, but alas, that actually isn't that surprising.

Rosemary Gladstar

herbalist and author

Where were you and what were you doing in 1990? Wasn't that just yesterday? I had recently moved to the East Coast from Northern California. In California, I had been actively trying to change the health care system (without knowing that I was doing this, by the way) by re-introducing herbs as a viable way to self health care; an inexpensive safe alternative to some of the more modern methods introduced. We felt we were quite successful; there were herb schools, herb shops, herb classes and herb conferences happening all over Northern California, much radiating from Sonoma County, the area that I had been born and raised in. My motto was 'an herbalist in every community' but in Sonoma County, especially Sebastopol where I lived, there was an herbalist on every corner! We were abundant!!! When I moved to Vermont in the late 1980's, I was surprised to find not much happening in the way of herbs or natural healing. Well, in fact, there was a lot happening, but not much networking or coming together amongst the different practitioners. They were there, but 'hiding in the bushes'. Being that I love people, love networking, and am totally devoted to herbs as a way of life, I impassionedly began teaching again, first classes here on the Mountain were I live, then inviting other herbalists to come and teach, then starting to network with others, to try to find out who and what and where everyone who was working in the herbal world was…. WE started hosting large conferences that brought herbalists together, started apprentice programs, classes, etc. It was such fun and magic discovering the green underground movement that was here. Now, like in Sonoma County, I'd say, we not only have an herbalist in every community, but an herbalist on every corner' at least in Central Vermont where I live. My new motto is 'an herbalist in every family'! That's how it use to be and we were a lot healthier because of it; a time when people depended more on their own knowledge and resources to care for themselves.

What are the most significant or surprising changes that have happened in the two decades?

How easy it is to change the world, if we set our hearts, minds and resources to do it. When we are completely dedicated and impassioned by some thing, by life and energy and love and good health, and we devote our energy to establishing more of that, we can do it. We are doing it. I think about the herbal health movement as an example. It was really started by a group of 'kids' in the late 60's who really had nothing more than passion and dedication and the ability to work hard on their side. Mention that you were an herbalist to anyone outside the 'long hair/flowing clothes' circle in the 60's and, unless they were ethnic and/or lived in Appalachia, they thought you were talking about one herb, an illegal one at that, and would turn away. Today, just a few years down the road, there is an entire culture that is interested in self healing, herbal remedies, holistic treatments, and about sustainable medicine.

Even within the herbal community, I have seen conscious grow and mature. In the 60's all the way through the 80's, any one interested in holistic medicine was primarily concerned with their personal health; i.e. what the plants could do for them. But today, there is a switch in the thinking. People have begun to ask questions of concern about plants themselves: what is the health of the plant communities that we are harvesting from? What is their role in the health of their own communities? Are we using them sustainably? Are we ensuring these plants will be here in the future…. I see a maturity, a greater sense of community, a greater willingness to make changes for the betterment of the whole.

I might conclude that there seems to be a general malaise and pessimism permeating people right now; a sense that we've tilted so far there's no return; no hope for the Polar Bear who has become our modern canary. When I read the newspapers and listen to the news, I, too, can become drenched in hopelessness. But when I look around me and see the changes that people are making, the home gardens, the sale of seeds, the shifts in food consciousness, the rise of whole foods again, the young activists and kids taking action, the return of herbal medicine, recycling bins, compost piles, when I see all of the small changes that are necessary to make a shift in consciousness happen, I'm reassured that we have hope. That we're not a doomed race on a doomed planet. I have much greater faith in the powers of Mother Earth. And I see her children rising to the occasion.

John Schaeffer

president and founder of Real Goods Solar and the Solar Living Institute.

In 1990, Real Goods had been selling solar for 12 years, but the market was still limited to a few hippies and survivalists in the backwoods trying to power their off-the-grid homesteads. That's when the big breakthrough came: Earth Day 1990 brought environmentalism (at least recycling and compact fluorescents) to a much wider audience (not even close to 'mainstream' though). Real Goods was in high demand to do shows and fairs around the country because there really weren't any other big players out there.

What's changed since 1990? Solar grew up, net metering happened, incentives and tax credits happened, Japan and Europe got smart and dominated the solar boom. We in the U.S. are still playing catch up, but we're getting there. And Real Goods is now a $65M public company trying to ride the solar wave. It's both flattering to have been a part of the environmental revolution, and depressing to see how long it has taken and how much farther we need to go to ensure the survival of our species.

Stephen Long

Editor, Northern Woodlands magazine

Twenty years ago, I had just moved from Santa Fe to Vermont and built a house in the woods. A love for what surrounded me led me to start a magazine covering all aspects of the woods: plants, wildlife, recreation, and the loggers and wood workers who depend on it.

In those 20 years, I've seen the forest industry go from a stance of "I own this land, and you can't tell me what to do on it," to one in which nearly all of the large land holdings in the Northeast are managed according to green certification standards audited by a third party. In the same time, I've seen mainstream environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy change their strategies to include managing large tracts of forestland. Both of these are huge changes and very positive for the forest. Stewarding this resource -- not skinning it of all value or not just locking it up -- that's the new common ground.

John Quinney

General Manager, Energy Co-op of Vermont

In September 1990, I opened a retail store for Seventh Generation. Like the catalog, the Seventh Generation store carried a wide range of products with environmental benefits – clothing made from organic cotton, energy efficient light bulbs, bathroom tissue made from recycled paper, and so on. Six months earlier, Earth Day 1990 had energized millions around the world with the idea that there were lots of simple actions each of us could take to help save the world. Buying environmental products was one such simple action.

Twenty years later there are very few environmental stores left. Surprisingly enough however, some environmental products have gone mainstream - Walmart is now the world's largest seller of compact fluorescent light bulbs. Back in 1990, few saw that coming! I'm also happily surprised by the strong growth of renewable energy, especially commercial wind and solar, driven in part by enlightened government support. Energy-efficiency has moved well beyond the notion of "freezing in the dark" thanks to the work of organizations like Efficiency Vermont. I expect that President Obama's commitment to efficiency and renewables will make a big difference in addressing climate change, an issue that was of little consequence twenty years ago.

Chris Plant

New Society Publishers

1990 was a memorable year. David Suzuki had been calling for a "turn-around decade" to truly make a difference in environmental affairs, and my partner Judith and I decided to take him up on the challenge. We were in life-change mode at the time -- moving our home to the west coast -- and had a unique opportunity to devote our energies to saving the world by building on what we'd already been doing for five years: publishing. So we threw ourselves into this new phase – focusing on books about sustainability -- with vigor. After all, we were young enough that we could readily see devoting a decade to such a worthy project…

So the first surprise was that ten years so easily became twenty! It seemed like we had barely got going on our self-appointed trajectory by the ominous Y2K, and the century rolled over with barely time enough to ask the question of whether or not we should continue for another ten years. The answer was obvious: of course we should!

It was obvious in part because sustainability had proved to be such a hard sell, and there was still a long way to go. These were economic boom times, when there seemed no end to the silver linings. Despite the black clouds on the horizon, money was being made at warp speed as globalization gobbled up space and time and resources. Few people in such a climate wanted to hear about the nature of the clouds, or what to do when the weather changed.

Curiously, at the same time, we gradually became aware that some of the ideas we had been promoting seemingly in vain were now showing up more and more in the mainstream. The idea of bioregions, for example, and localization. Or the notion of ecological footprints which we had originally published and which we watched with awe as it eventually became included in the Oxford dictionary, no less.

As we entered the early years of the 2000s, topics that we had helped to launch, such as green building, transformed very quickly from being marginal to mainstream, and then just as quickly got greenwashed. But the overall change in people's reception to sustainability ideas was palpable in this period. There was a thirst for our books like a drug, and this was reflected in ever higher sales -- to the extent that we even became successful as a business: something we never really anticipated!

So, together with so many other fellow travelers, we clearly helped make a major difference in 'mainstreaming' the sustainability topic (for want of better shorthand). But this, in turn, brought its own kind of surprise.

We had thought, in 1990, that radical change of the kind being called for was mostly a matter of raising awareness to a certain threshold, beyond which widespread action would be inevitable. In fact, the rub is that, while many more people are now aware of the need for transformational change in the way society is organized, the dysfunctional structures that dominate our institutions have consolidated to levels previously quite unanticipated. People's lives are tied to these structures more tightly than ever, meaning that there's still a reluctance – or an inability -- to make the deep changes required.

The result is that while more people 'get' climate change than ever before, for example, they don't necessarily embrace peak oil, or comprehend ecosystem depletion. And they might 'get' green growth, but not zero -- or negative – growth. And while I get the distinct feeling that a large number of people are just waiting for the system to collapse before actually doing something different with their lives, there's still the strong tendency to wait for the government to act, or to trust the banks and corporations just one more time. Instead of getting on with the hard and actual task of post-carbon organizing. Maybe – and with luck – that's the next ten years…?

Alan AtKisson

Author, Believing Cassandra and The ISIS Agreement


In 1990, I was sitting in a basement office on Bainbridge Island, working with the Gilman family on the little magazine they created, "In Context: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture." That word "sustainable" was known only to a very small number of ex-hippies, MIT computer modelers, resource managers, and high-level UN bureaucrats -- together with the 2,000 subscribers to our little journal. And the various groups overlapped a lot: e.g., an MIT computer modeler might also be a resource manager and an ex-, or even fairly non-ex-, hippy.

Today, of course, "sustainable" is mainstream. We're not really "being sustainable" yet, as a world. But we are talking a lot about it, we are innovating, we are changing energy systems and materials and even local economies. There are corporate "Vice-Presidents of Sustainability" as well as spunky little community groups, UN agencies and grade-school projects, all carrying the same banner.

In 1990, world scientists were starting to review the various threats to our world, and in a subsequent 1992 statement, they raised alarms about ... ozone depletion. Not climate change. Wasn't even in the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity" issued that year. A little-remarked fact is that we actually solved the ozone depletion problem. It's off the list, just the way the bald eagle is off the endangered species list. There have quite a number of amazing "green" victories over the decades, and we have never really celebrated them.

Now, of course, all eyes are on the problems we haven't solved yet -- global warming, ecosystem loss, biodiversity degradation, water. Okay, so it's a long list. But in this rapid-yet-decades-long race against time, we have chalked up a few really impressive wins; and these can inspire us to keep winning.

We just have to win. We have no other choice!

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