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The Aspen Ideas Festival: TED Meets Davos at 8,000 Feet
Joel Makower, 10 Jul 05

Joel Makower is a widely respected writer and consultant on issues of sustainable business, clean technology and green markets. His essays on environmental business and technology are a regular feature of our Sustainability Sundays. Take it away, Joel:

This post comes to you from the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colo., where I've been in residence since Tuesday. This is a first-time event, produced by the Aspen Institute and Atlantic magazine, and has brought together an amazing group of speakers, including current and former politicos (Bill and Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, Wesley Clark, David Gergen, William Bennett, Dianne Feinstein), media heavyweights (Jim and Kate Lehrer, Ken Auletta, David Brooks, Jim Fallows, Cokie and Steve Roberts, Chris Matthews), and assorted others (Steve Case, Jeff Bezos, Arthur Schlesinger, Dean Ornish, Arriana Huffington, Toni Morrison).

Think of it as TED meets Davos at 8,000 feet.

And that doesn’t even include the environmental heavy-hitters: Jane Goodall, Peter Gleick, Sylvia Earle, Amory Lovins, John Holdren, Gus Speth, Tom Lovejoy, and others.

It's been quite a line-up, and an exhausting few days, with no fewer than seven tracks -- Global Dynamics, Leadership, Global Economy and Society, Health and Bioscience, American Experience, Culture and the Media, and State of the Environment -- with sessions running from breakfast well into the night.

I’ve been part of the environmental track, running two sessions, one on sustainable business practices and another on renewable energy. The latter of those featured a more-or-less dream team: Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute; James Woolsey, former CIA director and now VP at Booz Allen Hamilton; John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins, the legendary Silicon Valley venture capital firm that’s funded many of the big dot-coms; and John Calaway, a Texas oil man who now runs Superior Renewable Energy, a wind farm developer. Together, we explored renewables through the lens of national security, venture capital, geopolitics, and other topics.

The festival has been the beneficiary, if you can call it that, of world events. The opening night’s session on the future of the Supreme Court -- featuring David Boies and Ted Olson, who represented Gore and Bush, respectively, in the 2000 election’s Supreme Court case -- came just four days after Sandra Day O’Conner’s announced resignation. A session on The American News Media in Crisis -- with David Brooks, Evan Thomas, Jim Fallows, Juan Williams, and Ken Auletta -- came on the day the New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail. A session on global security took place just hours after the London bombings.

But in many ways it was the less timely, more perennial topics that seemed to capture many participants' imagination. For example, a session on “The Problem of Evil,” featuring two theologists, Baptist minister and professor Peter Gomes and Saddleback Church founder Rick Warren, was the talk of much of Friday. It explored how various religions and ethical standards address evil and how we respond to it, from resistance to retaliation.

That session was one of the few that offered a genuine and serious debate, perhaps the only criticism I have of the event. The Aspen Institute’s mission -- "to foster enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue. . . to promote nonpartisan inquiry" -- didn’t always shine through. A session on the challenges of globalization featured raging agreement among three pro-globalization speakers. The “challenges,” it turned out, had to do with making globalization work better, not whether it's a worthy experiment in the first place. (I admit to being complicit in this. My session featuring four renewable-energy advocates might have benefited from someone arguing nuclear power’s climate friendliness, perhaps fomenting a healthy discussion about the role of nukes in a carbon-constrained world.)

But I’m happy to cut the organizers a little slack, given that this was a maiden voyage. The Aspen Ideas Festival has great potential to become a potent breeding ground for the next generation of breakthrough, world-changing ideas.

Note: All of the sessions were recorded. At present, the festival's organizers weren't certain whether or how they would make the recordings available. Check the Aspen Institute web site for updates.

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I can't help by notice that all of the 'heavy hitters' you mention are either Democratic politicians or Dem supporters. If you can't include the majority party in your conversation, you're going to lack long-term results.

You do want results on climate change, right?

Posted by: Brock on 10 Jul 05

You may have missed Joel's inclusion of Colin Powell, David Gergen, William Bennett, David Brooks, Chris Matthews, and Ted Olsen, among others.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 10 Jul 05

Chris Matthews? Colin Powell?

Posted by: Sean Regan on 11 Jul 05



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