Rob Parsons

Green Festival Shows New Way Forward

Change tangible at California eco event

by Rob Parsons

November 19 , 2009

On a sunny autumn morning as crisp as a Fuji apple, a gathering crowd fills the sidewalk at the corner of 8th and Brannan in San Francisco. In front of a renovated train station—now the Concourse Exhibition Center—Cirque du Soleil performers dressed in bug costumes do a booty-shaking, Bollywood style dance to entertain those awaiting the opening of the 8th annual Green Festival.

Inside, co-founder Kevin Danaher is doing a radio interview while staff, volunteers and vendors make last-minute preparations for the three-day event, set to feature more than 125 speakers and 400 exhibitors. Those offering the latest in green building, natural foods, eco-fashion, renewable energy, clean technology, socially responsible investing, green media, organic foods and green careers must go through a rigorous screening process and meet strict standards of social and environmental responsibility. "There's a lot of green-washing out there," says Danaher.

San Francisco is the birthplace of the very first Green Festival, which now travels to Seattle, Chicago, Denver and Washington, D.C. The event is a joint project of Global Exchange, the international human rights and fair trade organization Danaher founded over 20 years ago, and Green America, which uses economic strategies and other tools to promote social and environmental justice.

More than just a green trade show, the Green Festival also walks its talk, recycling or composting nearly all the waste generated with the help of volunteers—some 1,000 strong for the weekend—monitoring exactly what goes into each color recycling bin throughout the exhibition hall. Coffee, tea and chocolates are certified Fair Trade, beer and wine are organic and biodynamic and vegetarian food is served on compostable plates.

The gathering is intended to offer hope, inspiration and practical ideas. To Danaher, there is recognition that the transition to sustainability must happen soon, not because it's trendy, but because it is absolutely essential. "We're in the cancer stage," he says, "where money values are rapidly eroding life values."

This is a seismic transition, says Danaher, who equates its magnitude to when feudalism gave way to capitalism some five centuries ago. "If you look at avalanches," he says, "you'll notice that they start small. Basically, we've got to accelerate this transition to a green economy, or we're screwed."

Danaher goes about his work, along with co-producer Alisa Gravits of Green America, with a staff of 50 putting on a $1 million festival, while paying himself an annual salary of $40,000. It's enough to get by, and far more than millions of people worldwide whose lot Danaher has tried to improve by spearheading development projects and going to bat for the rights of women, farmers, children, laborers and indigenous communities.

A single entry or three-day Green Festival pass costs $15. Those arriving via mass transit receive a $5 discount, as do those arriving by bicycle (a bicycle valet service is free). There are samples galore: skin care products, energy bars, green cinema trailers, organic apples, kombucha, eco-magazines, atmospheric water. The Hemp Industries Association Pavilion showcases hemp clothing, bags, paper, nutritional foods and oils, body care products and educational materials.

Speakers cover the gamut of green topics: Medea Benjamin (Code Pink, and Danaher's wife) addresses "Moving from hope to action: Ending war in the age of Obama"; renowned mycologist Paul Stamets unveils his plan for how "Mushrooms can save the world"; Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! explicates the power of independent journalism; others speak about bamboo as construction material, aquaponics, the politics of food safety, teaching green justice and youth empowerment/green career programs.

Participants can be treated to a free "Hands-on stress evaluation," or a mini-massage. Pet owners can pick up "SWheat scoop" kitty litter, made from non-toxic grain chaff, or 100 percent flushable dog waste bags. There are myriad green printing options, and even paper made from elephant dung. It's all part of a retrofit for an economic system that is in disarray and desperately calling for a complete makeover.

Author David Korten addresses the issue in his newest book, Agenda for a New Economy: Why Wall Street Can't Be Fixed and How to Replace It.

"A 30-year experiment with trickle-down economics that favored the interests of Wall Street speculators over the hard working people?proved not to work," writes Korten. "We now live with the devastating consequences.

"Corrective action begins with recognition that our economic crisis is, at its core, a moral crisis. Our economic institutions and rules?consistently place financial values ahead of life values. We must now come together to create the institutions of a new economy founded on a values-based pragmatism that recognizes a simple truth: if the world is to work for any of us, it must work for all of us."

Korten is adamant that there be no more government bailouts of failed institutions. He advocates for vigorous antitrust enforcement to break up excessive concentrations of economic power and to help restore market discipline. He says we need to strive for food independence by rebuilding local food systems, and energy independence by supporting local entrepreneurs creating businesses to apply renewable technologies. He favors rebuilding our infrastructure to promote walking, biking and public transportation, and to aid the recovery of our farms and forestlands. He seeks to create a true ownership society where people have an opportunity to purchase a home they can afford to keep and a stake in enterprises on which their lives depend.

It's not pie-in-the-sky thinking, and it can happen. But we need to shift some major practices and institutions, both Korten and Danaher understand. Danaher tosses out the number of U.S. military bases around the world—865—and says the tremendous amount of resources being poured into them is part of the imbalance that is eroding life values.

At a time of unprecedented focus on our economy—in Hawaii, California and globally—the Green Festival and its founders are offering real, viable solutions for strengthening local communities with eco-friendly products, services, investments and programs. It's part of a mission to work with businesses everywhere to grow a green economy that's good for the people and the planet.