Laguna Niguel

When polluters meet green advocates to talk shop, important lessons emerge

April 7, 2011: 10:31 AM ET

At Brainstorm GREEN, environmentalists and big businesses looked for ways to ride the wave of sustainability together.

FORTUNE -- I'm just back from Fortune Brainstorm GREEN 2011, an amazing collection of sustainability representatives from industry (aka "polluters") and environmental advocates (aka "their tormentors") who meet once a year under Fortune's auspices to have cordial conversations about the state of the environment, environmental policy and sensible sustainability strategies.

How unusual is this conference? Well, the photo at right was the scene from the terrace of the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel. And yet our meeting rooms were jammed from daybreak to sunset with earnest conversations. (Yes, sponsor UPS provided bikes for tooling around the neighborhood, and surfer Laird Hamilton taught a 6:30 a.m. class on standup paddling. Oh, and scores and scores of participants boogied down Tuesday night to an all-Stones selection of songs led by Rolling Stones keyboardist -- and environmentalist -- Chuck Leavell. But I digress.)

So what is the state of sustainability? In the cup-half-empty category, the historic Clean Air Act is under attack. Nuclear energy hasn't looked worse in two decades. Climate-change legislation in the U.S. is further from being enacted than before President Obama was elected. China undoubtedly is going to kick the U.S.'s butt in so-called clean tech. As for the cup half full, there's a lot of cool innovation going on in energy technology, and there's a more rational, more serious, less shrill conversations going on about the very meaning of sustainability in corporate America.

Highlights of the conference (all of which can be viewed here; Registration is required but the videos are free): More

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