Working for the green, a panel discussion

Here at Art Scatter central, we’ve always thought of ourselves as environmental. Meaning simply that we believe that we share and shape a variety of environments — physical, cultural, political, literary, etc. You can carve them up as thinly as you want, but you also have to realize that they don’t stay sliced — they intrude on each other, for better or worse. Maybe connect is a more value-neutral word than intrude. Anyway, yes, environmental, and even literally so. We even have an “environment” category.

But we don’t talk about it in a specific way. Art Scatter doesn’t know solar cells. Art Scatter doesn’t have a platinum LEED rating. Despite Art Scatter’s best intentions, we are sure that we are using non-renewable energy sources as we type. One way or another. In fact, we are pretty sure that this laptop is going to be the very devil to recycle, when it blows its final gasket. (This is how technologically bereft Art Scatter is: We think our computer contains gaskets that might be blown.) So, even this construct, Art Scatter, which you would think we could manage sustainably, isn’t green.

Which is all just the preamble to the topic at hand — a report from Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Idea Studio on Friday morning at the Gerding Theatre at the Armory. The panel discussion, led by Susan S. Szenasy, editor-in-chief of Metropolis Magazine, wrenched me into thinking about the environment, the physical environment, in a much more concrete way. I’ll discard my one disappointment first: The panelists really didn’t answer the question in the title of the program, “How innovative is Portland in the quest for a sustainable city?” — which led me to think we were in for some thoughts about how to stimulate creative engagement with the problem of energy use/greenhouse gases/global warming/sustainable living/etc. This didn’t happen.

What we got instead, though, was interesting in its own right: Several intelligent people, each deeply involved in thinking about and employing sustainable practices in the world, contributed their thinking about the provocative questions posed by Szenasy, who in her opening salvo ordered them to be honest and forthright. I knew I was going to like this panel! For those who want the short-form version, here’s what the group agreed on: Portland is still a national leader in green practices; a lot of the reason for this is historical, not just our own initiative; at this point, we need to think much more boldly about making our future much more sustainable than we are now, and the panel was optimistic that the stars were starting to align politically to help make this happen (Sam Adams as mayor on the local level, a possible Barack Obama Presidency); at the same time, we have to be practical about what improvements we can make at any given time; don’t build an 8-lane I-5 bridge (it just encourages driving).

Before we get into this a little bit more, a caution: You are at the mercy of my feeble note-taking ability and memory.

So what were the historical developments that led to our Green leadership nationally? Randy Gragg (editor of Portland Spaces) mentioned the land-use achievements of Gov. Tom McCall and Mayor Neil Goldschmidt (though not by name) in the 1970s, specifically the Urban Growth Boundary. Greg Baldwin (design partner for ZGF Architects) went back even farther, to the Native American and pioneer sustainability practices (overlooking the environmental destruction wrought by the generation after those same pioneers), and Mark Edlen (co-founder of Gerding Edlen developers) said it was in our DNA. As Baldwin said, “It’s easy to do well here.” More recent achievements include the establishment of the city’s Office of Sustainable Development (represented on the panel by its director, Susan Anderson) and its success in developing public-private solutions to problems. And as Scott Lewis said, the emergence of developers like Gerding Edlen.

Lewis is the founder of Brightworks, a sustainability consulting firm, and he was exactly right: We can’t give all the credit for the emergence, even militancy, of today’s Portland Green movement to McCall and Goldschmidt, even though they were important. Something cultural has happened, which Anderson acknowledged. And frankly, Edlen, a level-headed AND passionate advocate for sustainability, is more committed to green practices than McCall and Goldschmidt ever were. If anything, Lewis is pushing even harder, rhetorically at least, than Edlen. Both were clear about how much needed to be done. Edlen cited the strength of Portland’s green design, engineering and construction communities, but warned, “We’re on the verge of not thinking big enough.” Baldwin talked about the same thing in slightly different terms, “I don’t think we necessarily put the pieces together.” Anderson’s office, of course, has done a lot of the leading through City Council (and there are more initiatives on the horizon), but she also was looking forward to more leadership from both the City and the business community.

Here, things started to get confusing, primarily because the panelists, mostly, forgot about the importance of another local invention, the Portland Process. Do we need a big comprehensive planning effort, a la Tom McCall way-back when, as Gragg suggested? Do we need to be incremental, building on where we are now, as Baldwin argued? Do we need a business leader to emerge and unite our smaller companies into a corporate juggernaut that will sweep all before it, as Anderson hypothesized? None of it matters if we the people aren’t on board to begin with, if we don’t take as our own the goals that Lewis, for example, has for us — to be completely fossil-free in 30 years, to incorporate sustainability in our lives, to live differently, as Edlen’s company hopes to enable us to do. Again, I think Lewis is right: Give us some goals, show us a vision that is possible, then we can start working toward it, in exactly the thousands of small steps that Baldwin thinks are necessary, that Anderson is committed to helping along, that Gragg’s comprehensive approach might guide. Just make sure those goals are enough.

Working on the physical environment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. At various times education was mentioned, most directly by Edlen, and Szenasy reminded us that three billion people in the world live on less than $2 a day — it’s hard to worry about the best sustainable practices when you are hungry. Everyone assumed that we were creative enough, at least technologically, to arrive at solutions to our green problems. Whether we have the creativity to make the social environment work, that’s another question entirely. You can build wind turbines if you want, but if people are tearing them down to sell the metal as scrap, the turbine won’t help. And if you have to build a police state of one sort or another to protect them, then what’s the point?

That dystopian outcome is hard to imagine in our particular cultural environment, and that’s a good thing, because it allows us to face our uncertain future with a certain degree of optimism, no matter how grumpy and irritated we get at the upsets along the way. And we’ll need optimism to live smarter and better, which is what the panel reminded us we need to do.

Some links:
Photos of the event from the PNCA web site.
The web site of Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development, Susan Anderson, director.
Metropolis Magazine’s web site, Susan Szenasy, editor.
The web site of Scott Lewis’s Brightworks.
The Portland Spaces web site, editor Randy Gragg.
The Gerding Edlen website, Mark Edlen, co-founder.
The very spiffy Zimmer Gunsul Frasca web site, where Greg Baldwin is a design partner.