If you’re reading this post, you know that sustainability conferences are now so ubiquitious that you can’t swing a cat without hitting one. This is so cool–because it means the word is getting out big time. But as is my nature, I find myself massively dissatisfied by most (though not all) events, which typically bore the crap out of me. (An exception was a recent “Green Boot Camp” put on at Harvard by Living Cities, the goal of which was to actually figure out how to implement deep energy retrofits in buildings. It rocked becuase it tried hard to solve the problem, and recuited a host of my favorite people–the trench warriors actually doing the work. Another exception was an Aspen Institute seminar with ex-CIA chief Jim Woolsey and his equally credentialed wife Sue, who talked and conversed with the room for hours … riveting. So I’m not completely negative here.) 

I do feel qualified to talk about this: I have sat through scores of conferences during and since my days at Rocky Mountain Institute where I attended them all the time–BSR, CERES, The IOU, the UOMe–and I’ve spoken at hundreds. Here are my gripes, to satisfy my need for a daily rant:

Why Can the Keynote Only be Ray Anderson?

Seriously, people, how many times do we need to see McDonough or Ray Anderson? These guys are absolutely top notch presenters, and some of the best speakers out there, but are they (and a few others, also good people) the ONLY people who can keynote the conferences? Is there some sort of unwritten rule here? Are we not ready for some new ideas? There are absolute scads of great, talented speakers out there who could do the job extremely well. And there are also bad speakers doing really incredible work who might be useful and valuable, if not entertaining. Just as a limited example, one of those great speakers nobody knows about is Randy Udall, who just wrote a must-read essay on natural gas as a climate solution.

What’s the Deal with Panels?

Whaddup with panel discussions? They’re hellacious for audience and participants alike, like holding your hand in fire. Most times people spend five minutes each introducing themselves, then say a few canned things, and then it’s over and the audience might ask one or two questions. Hideous. If you’re lucky, sitting on the panel, the guy before you doesn’t hog all your time. If you’re really lucky, you had a few cocktails beforehand and were able to decant some gin into your Fiji bottle. Panels seem to be for speakers deemed not important or good enough to have their own talking time … so instead they get worse than nothing. But if someone’s worth having talk at all, let them run with it … Or at least get the audience involved. If someone doesn’t like you, they put you on a panel.

It Ain’t Cheap and Easy

Seems like every single conference just HAMMERS on the idea that sustainability is a good idea but it’s also green both ways, and affordable. But it’s not. It’s friggin’ difficult, more like trench warfare than surgery, and sometimes ROI doesn’t exist. We still need to do it, but let’s not delude people about the on the ground reality. (One of the reasons lots of consultants think it’s cheap and easy and fun is that … they haven’t actually ever done the work!) This has been my consistent message, but this green is green thing is so much the sterotype that someone recently blurbed one of my talks as “Schendler talks about how sustainability is easy, simple, and cost effective,” even though my message is actually the exact opposite!

TED is Cool Because It’s Exclusive

A lot of conferences seem to be migrating to this TED model whereby everyone gets 20 minutes–or 17, or whatever it is–to talk. But it’s very hard to express much of a thought, let alone a story, in 20 minutes, especially in the wildly complicated and nuanced field of sustianable business. Imagine giving Bill McDonough 20 minutes. I’m sure he’d do a great job–but you’d miss so much from the guy! Scrap the TED model. It’s only cool because TED is cool, not because it’s a good idea.

Too Much Success

Finally, the one gripe that trumps all others is that every presenter at these conferences has a massive conflict of interest in that they are all, almost without exception, trying to sell themselves. Green architects are trying to get work. Government officials are trying to make their programs look good. NGO’s are achieving their mission, or at least, need to show they are. Consultants are trying to get more clients. But hearing about successes is not very useful. (*In particular because most of those successes are, in fact, big failures, or contain big failures, cover-ups, lies and obfuscations of reality. Trust me on this one–I’ve done it myself.) And worst, we don’t learn from glory stories, we learn from stories of disasters and overcoming them. You don’t learn to hit a curveball by hitting it, you learn by missing. Imagine going up there and saying: “Hey, I totally screwed up this project, and I’m going to show you how, because then you can learn and avoid my mistakes.” Nobody’s going to hire that guy, right? But you  SHOULD! That’s what we need. Let me know next time you see someone do it, though. It’s as rare as a green bulding that lives up to its hype and billing.