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Perilous Times Call for Transformational Thinking, and Action

For three late September days in a traffic-clogged New York City, the famous and the powerful gather at the Clinton Global Initiative annual conference to share charismatic thoughts and large-scale commitments to address issues in global health care, education, poverty alleviation and energy and climate change. Attending the conference this year as a facilitator in the energy/climate change track, I heard inspiring words throughout each day from the likes of Bill Gates, William McDonough, Lester Brown, Tony Blair, T. Boone Pickens, Michael Bloomberg, Bono, Wesley Clark, Van Jones, and no less than three of the past four Nobel Peace Prize winners: Al Gore, Muhammad Yunus, and Wangari Maathai.

?But it was a line from Rocky Mountain Institute founder and energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins that, to me, best reflected the spirit of this conference — and conveyed a key message for anyone involved in meeting the world's energy challenges in these most troubled and perilous of times. Describing Ford Motor's 2006 hiring of CEO Alan Mulally, who had spearheaded Boeing's decision to focus on energy- efficient aircraft with the Dreamliner and other projects, Lovins said Mulally had come to Ford with "transformational intent." ?

?The Clinton conference, of course, took place against the backdrop of Wall Street's financial crisis playing out just a few miles downtown. We are in a time of staggering superlatives — a US $700 billion bailout package, a 777-point stock market drop, and a 19-square mile ice sheet (the size of Manhattan) breaking loose in northern Canada one month ago. In every facet of life — population, health, education, energy, environment, and now, financial markets, we face big, big challenges. But size alone will not create the solutions. We need transformational intent. ?

?The intent of Muhammad Yunus, the microcredit pioneer and founder of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, was changing the thinking around how to assist those at the base of the economic pyramid in one of the world's most impoverished countries. "We have to get out of the mentality that the rich people will do the business, and the poor people will get the charity," he said. "Don't call me a philanthropist. I'm a businessman." For more than 30 years, Grameen has extended micro-loans to more than 7 million people, more than 95 percent of them women. It has helped transform rural economies not only in Bangladesh, but through microfinance institutions supported by the Grameen Foundation in 25 other countries, including the United States. ?

?When it comes to energy, as Albert Einstein said, the serious problems we face today won't be solved by the same minds that created them. Offshore drilling won't solve our energy challenges, nor will Senator John McCain's proposed 45 new U.S. nuclear plants by 2030. "More of the same, only bigger" will not get it done. If we're going to address climate change in any meaningful way, shift the geopolitical dynamics of imported oil, and rebuild our beleaguered economy based on clean energy, we need dramatically new ways of doing things. ?

?The good news is that transformational intent is present and moving forward in thousands of clean energy, transportation, and green building initiatives around the world. In Israel and Denmark, where Silicon Valley entrepreneur Shai Agassi's Better Place aims to create nationwide all-electric car networks in both countries, with more to follow. In China, where the Joint U.S.-China Cooperation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) non-profit is working with Duke Energy and GridPoint to deploy smart-grid technologies on a large scale. In Abu Dhabi, where the Masdar Initiative is constructing the world's first 100 percent renewable-energy-powered city of 60,000 people. And in Denmark again, where Social Democratic Party leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt says her nation intends to be the world's first carbon-neutral country (it's already 30 percent clean-powered today). ?

?Here in the U.S., Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz is investing US $3 billion in a 900-mile transmission line to bring wind power from southern Wyoming to the populations of Las Vegas, Phoenix and southern California. In the Pacific Northwest, Clean Edge and Climate Solutions are releasing a study, Carbon-Free Prosperity 2025, that maps out a transformative vision for the clean-tech future of Oregon and Washington. Google is investing in concentrating solar power, geothermal and other technologies to fulfill its tranformative mission: make clean energy cheaper than coal. In Newark, New Jersey, 39-year-old mayor Cory Booker is working with the Apollo Alliance and others to make his working-class city a model of green-collar jobs, cleaner transportation, and green buildings. And T. Boone Pickens, dubbed "the John Madden of new energy" by Tom Brokaw at the Clinton conference because of his current media ubiquity, is proposing massive changes in the way we generate electricity and power vehicles.

??I don't agree with all of the Pickens Plan, but its dramatic scale and ambitious targets for wind energy are great examples of what I'm talking about. I'm glad he's out there, with Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, advocating a dramatic new energy direction. Like the people driving the examples cited above and so many more, Pickens has transformational intent. We need it today in our financial system, and we damn sure need it today — and tomorrow — if we're going to have any hope of building a sustainable energy future. ?

Clint Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and a blogger about clean-tech issues for The Huffington Post. E-mail him at

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