Government officials and the media are (finally!) trying to transform today’s children from couch potatoes into naturalists. The movement started with Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In 2007, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD) proposed the No Child Left Inside Act, legislation that would provide $500 million to implement environmental education programs in America’s schools. And now, some states are taking action, too: This year, environmental groups in New Mexico lobbied for a “sin tax” on new televi­sions and video games—if imposed, the tax could provide $4 million a year for outdoor education programs.


Landfills are suffocating under the more than 200 million tons of garbage that Americans produce each year. To remedy the situation—and eliminate the concept of waste altogether—eco-minded companies are creating Cradle to Cradle–style products and take-back programs (see page 67). Patagonia customers can return used Common Threads apparel, and the company will turn it into new clothing. Nike takes back worn athletic shoes (of any brand), grinds them up, and makes sporting and playground surfaces. And pet-toy manufacturer West Paw Design asks customers to return chewed up toys from the Zogoflex line—the company will make a new toy from the remains, free of charge. 


Why should green housing be the exclusive domain of eco-conscious movie stars? Shouldn’t our nation’s low-income residents—about a third of American households—also benefit from lower energy costs and improved indoor air quality? A recent report by the affordable housing group Enterprise Community Partners found that greening the nation’s existing affordable housing stock could save “up to 50 million tons of CO2” over a ten-year peri­od. Proof of the health benefits can be seen at the High Point Homes, a former housing project turned thriving, mixed-income community in Seattle, where the percentage of asthmatic chil­dren needing “urgent clinical care” dropped from almost 62 percent to 21 percent. With green afford­able homes, the poor and the planet benefit together.  


During the next 50 years, the world’s population may reach 9 billion people, and the vast majority will live in urban areas. Feeding those hungry mouths could require clearing an additional 10 billion hectares for farming (an area the size of Brazil). But there is another, more innovative solution on the table: farming in skyscrapers. The Sky Farm, proposed for downtown Toronto, would stand 58-stories high and produce enough food to feed 35,000 people each year. Envisioned for New York City, the 30-story Vertical Farm would cultivate a variety of produce and grains, support aquaculture and perhaps poultry, and employ energy- and water-saving practices—all without pesticides or transportation costs.


Newsflash: Communes aren’t just for hippies anymore. You don’t have to pat on patchouli or live in a tent to join one of the 385 registered eco-villages or 500 cohousing projects around the globe. Eco-villages—communities or towns united by residents’ attention to sustain­ability, conservation, local living, and respect for nature—won’t save the world all on their own, but they are safe-havens for the ambitiously eco and inspiring models for the rest of us. Offshoot concepts such as farm shares (for example, Community-Supported Agriculture shares, or CSAs), student co-ops, urban housing coop­eratives, and even green retirement homes are already sprouting up countrywide. 


Gone are the days when writers, producers, and media corporations were content to sprinkle a token green-bite into their regular programming. Television, print, radio, film, and the Internet are experiencing a kind of revolution. It’s now protocol—even high-brow—to devote an entire issue, radio show, or news website to environmental coverage. But the most extreme eco-media gamble to date? The Discovery Channel’s 2008 launch of Planet Green, the first-ever 24-hour TV channel devoted entirely to the environment.


As green business grows, so does skilled employment in sectors like energy retrofits, sustainable building, infrastructure, and food production. These green-collar jobs provide training and pay better than a living wage: They’ll also seed environmental awareness and economic well-being in low-income neighborhoods. A 2007 report by the City of Berkeley, California, recommends the nation remove barriers to entry such as lack of a high school diploma; form a Green Business Council; and provide more affordable space for green businesses. And early-action programs in inner-city communities—like the Green Jobs Corps in Oakland, California, and Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training in New York—are giving youth a grip on the green career ladder. 


Not to be confused with carbon offsets, carbon labels reveal the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during a product’s manufacture and shipping. Tim­berland’s “nutritional” label gives a shoe a carbon rating from zero (less than 2.5 kg of CO2) to ten (100 kg). Suit manufacturer Bagir gives its new recycled–wool/poly menswear a 15 kg carbon label. In the UK, each packet of PepsiCo’s Walkers potato chips accounts for 75 grams, and Tesco supermarkets have carbon-labeled 20 items. But that’s not all: Britain’s Carbon Trust (, a government-funded nonprofit, is setting uniform national standards to avoid the pitfalls of company self-monitoring.



There’s a new approach to retrofitting residences for energy efficiency: Make it so affordable that renters and homeowners get onboard. Under new Pay As You Save projects in New Hampshire and Hawaii, an energy provider would supply the capital for renewable energy products like, say, solar water heaters. Tenants then pay an extra charge on their monthly utility bill to cover the provider’s investment, but because of the energy savings, the overall bill is lower. Through the REnU program, homeowners in all but nine states can rent solar panels for one, five, or twenty-five years, paying a per-kilowatt fee instead of a local utility bill. The fixed monthly rate means that as energy prices rise, participants will reduce their carbon footprints and save money. So far, more than 30,000 people have signed up.  



Soaring extinction rates and declining biodiversity have spurred international projects that collect, store, and analyze life, and use those findings to aid in conservation. In February, the Encyclopedia of Life went live; currently the online database contains few entries, but the goal is to cover all 1.8 million known species. On the same day, the Global Seed Vault opened its doors, aiming to stockpile seeds to preserve crop diversity. The San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo has lofty aspirations to cryogenically preserve genetic material from every animal on the earth to conserve genetic diversity. And one of the most ambitious projects yet, the Consortium for the Barcode of Life, is developing technology to quickly and accurately identify creatures by a genetic sequence, much as supermarket scanners distinguish products with Universal Product Codes.
Story by Anuj Desai, Dan Fost, Liz Galst, Tobin Hack, Jessica A. Knoblauch, Alisa Opar, Sarah Parsons, Mindy Pennybacker, Victoria Schlesinger, and Jessica Tzerman. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in September 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Part 1: Plenty 20: Green people

Part 2: Plenty 20: Green people, cont'd.

Part 3: Plenty 20: Green businesses

Part 4: Plenty 20: Green ideas

The Plenty 20 awards for 2008, Part 4
Plenty Magazine recognizes 20 businesses, 20 people and 10 ideas that will change our world.