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Greenbuild 2019 - Barack Obama’s Candid and Inspiring Keynote Conversation with Mahesh Ramanujam

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You couldn’t ask for a better start to Greenbuild 19 than listening to Barack Obama live and in person with a few thousand colleagues, all focused with rapt attention.  So many things our 44th President seemingly effortlessly and candidly shared in his conversation with USGBC President and CEO Mahesh Ramanujam clearly resonated strongly with this passionate crowd of green builders.  Some top themes from this talk: Walk the walk; Listen - and consider others through this listening; Take everyone along, respectfully.  

President Obama didn’t mince words, stating early and pretty clearly, “Climate change is not like other issues; you can be too late.  It can become irreversible.” The President urged us all to be more collaborative - and inclusive, pointing out that he doesn’t see how we resolve our climate challenges if we have continued "huge gaps in opportunity and education.”  Reaching for a goal as a disjointed, disconnected community, “undermines our sense of politics and community, and people can also become resentful.  It’s harder to mobilize the body politic around taking collective action,” if we’re not raising everyone up at the same time.  

A top piece of advice was just to work to LISTEN more, and to pay attention to people’s legitimate concerns and costs, and who’s bearing the burdens.  Ultimately, if we’re not making sustainability in a way that is more affordable, people are not going to buy in. The President acknowledged a “chronic problem of do gooders: we like to tell people what they should think is important rather than asking them, ‘What’s important to you?’” And shockingly he guaranteed that one thing we will hear is that people don’t like paying high bills.     

The President also shared some of his own early connection to the environment, growing up in Hawaii.  His point was part playful but also very serious that having something beautiful and nice kind of makes you not want to lose it… The President also recognized his significant advantage over others in making decisions and encouraged us all to change our lenses.  Think instead as a couple in their 30’s looking for a starter home, or someone who finds housing unaffordable.  He also spoke of his mother’s experience in seeing the consequences of poor plans and decisions, of "crops destroyed, people then worse off.” He shared a story of a beautiful area he enjoyed as a child destroyed when the land was developed.  Really, he illustrated his own point that what moves people are stories and connection. (We agree!)  

President Obama also briefly used the experience of staying in fancy Presidential Suites to challenge us all to think about perspective and how much we really need, as a society and as individuals.  Personally, he’s not an “air-conditioning man.”  So, if he can’t open the windows in a building, he’s not going to be happy.  Talking to stakeholders about circulation in advance is of course a lot easier than finding there’s a problem, later.  And of course, "What’s true of a paying client is also true of the taxpayer or the constituent or anyone else.  We need to ask where people are at right now, what’s important to them, and how we form a sustainable agenda around the concerns we hear."  On how much we really need, the President reminded us that big is a part of our DNA - Big Macs, Whoppers… everything big.  But we need to ask about what’s needed for satisfaction as opposed to what’s going to make us feel good.  I mean, you don’t need the Presidential suite if you really just want to sleep, after all. (He told this better and in more detail, but maybe there’s a transcript as he put this in better perspective than we will.)

Another way to look at satisfaction and consumption: "Sometimes just having a nice meal instead of going back to the buffet - and you feel better as well.  What’s going to give you satisfaction versus what is going to make you feel good.  That’s true of buildings, that’s true of life."

Recognizing that the sustainability movement is now coming up from the bottom, the President reminded the audience that a key question now is how we’re going to train and enable to next generation of leaders, all those Greta Thornbergs out there.  We can give these young leaders tools, but he also advocated for giving them agency and letting them know their voices count.  Additionally, he talked of sharing strategy and giving specific steps and advice on how to move the levers of power and also motivate businesses and consumers.  

The President asked the audience to consider a value tree, asking what matters and where we spend our time, and energy.  And next, to review how these match up. “It doesn’t matter whether you say you believe," if this isn’t where your time and effort goes, and if you don’t walk the walk, "then you don’t really believe it, that’s just a story you’re telling yourself to make yourself feel better, but you don’t really care about it. We should all be striving to align what we say we’re about and our core ideals with what we do. If we say our kids and the next generation are the most important things, then we have to act in accordance with those values.  Presumably, that should be reflected in your policies and the people that you support.”

In closing, the President offered some optimism and reminded us that we can make more progress together. “Currently, there’s more divergence [between values and our actions as a society] than I would like,” he said. “I think it’s very important in our personal lives, but also collectively, to get those back into alignment, and each of us can do our part. Non-profits, the private sector, and governments all have roles to play as well, he said, in developing a framework around which we can make better decisions. If we do, then I'm optimistic about our ability to solve these problems that we've created for ourselves.”



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