Report from Hallbarhet2009: Sustainable Strategy in the 21st Century


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What does it mean to "work in sustainability" in the 21st century?

Earlier this month, I traveled to Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia to attend the North American regional gathering paralleling the international sustainability conference Hallbarhet2009 in Australia. The event and its regional iterations attracted leading thinkers from around the world, including longtime Worldchanging ally Alan AtKisson. The purpose: to re-energize and more thoroughly network the professional sustainability community through dialogue and shared experience, and to work toward strategies for increasing the impact of their work.

It was great to have the chance to step back from my own day-to-day and view this nascent, changing field as a whole. While I feel privileged to do my own form of outreach from behind the screen here at Worldchanging, I feel like the colleagues I met in Canada are, by and large, out there on the front lines. By engaging with businesses from the small to the megacorp, steering leading NGOs and embedding in local and regional governments, these individuals are changing the course of how we as a society envision both business and policy. They hold the white-collar green jobs, the posts of experienced scholars and managers who hold advanced degrees and are well versed in strategy.

In Whistler, B.C., the combination of a several-years-old strategic vision for sustainability and the accelerated development associated with the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympic Games has fostered a convergence of political will, economic support and public engagement that's unique, particularly in North America. During the weekend, we heard from a variety of leaders from the local business and government, including Whistler's charismatic mayor Ken Melamed, and management-level representatives from the Games, the Whistler 2020 city plan, and the local economic cornerstone, the Whistler Blackcomb resort.

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Pictured: Whistler village. Top photo: Vancouver, taken from Stanley Park.
Photos by author

There is definitely progressive work being done here. As part of its mission to leave a lasting legacy of sustainability for future Olympic Games, the Vancouver Olympic Committee has included green building standards, environmental stewardship, and social inclusiveness into its model. Whistler Blackcomb has an aggressive timeline for achievements in zero waste, clean energy and more. For example, by 2010, the resort expects to complete a local micro-hydro project capable of meeting all of the resort's power needs, as well as to install rooftop windmills on most of Whistler Blackcomb's small restaurants. Of course, there are still limits. When asked about the problem of travel-related CO2 emissions generated by the resort's two million annual guests, Whistler Blackcomb's mountain planning and environmental resource manager, Arthur DeJong, replied that the resort's sustainability plan doesn't extend beyond the town's borders.

Each vision combined distinct economic and social goals with a sustainability plan. But it seemed like in this setting, there was consensus on at least a meta-level: in order for these plans to succeed with a majority of stakeholders, they must be as practical and as profitable as the unsustainable models they replace. Whether for a business, for an event, or for an entire community, achieving sustainability requires careful strategy around a clear long-term goal. In Whistler, the stakeholders adhere to the framework developed by the NGO The Natural Step, which we've discussed before. But whatever your methodology, without a practical argument, it's nearly impossible to gain willing participation from all sectors of society and economy. And without engagement at all levels, the plan cannot be sustainable.

To put it another way, while there is no question that a bright green economic recovery will involve green-collar jobs at the industrial level, getting us there will also take a new kind of boardroom leadership. In the next 20 years, I hope to see many of the same people I met in Canada earn seats at the heads of these tables.

So here's to an enormous—but increasingly possible—task at hand for sustainability professionals everywhere.

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