Notes from the First International Project Drawdown Conference at Penn State

Project Drawdown‘s first international conference was Sept 16-18, 2019.

Only a few who wanted to attend could. And in Indiana alone, millions of people are beginning to care deeply about global warming. They will wish they had been there, as well, once they appreciate both the crisis we’re in and the solutions Project Drawdown offers.

So for these reasons I felt responsible to absorb as much value as possible in order to pass it on.

For example, I took 19 pages of notes, invested in an out of the ordinary art installation to evoke imagination, and prepared a poster presentation about Indiana Drawdown.

I hope these notes inspire you to more effective action (and a healthier way of being). The conference organizers also were awesome enough to record all of the sessions.

Notes From The Conference

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I’ve never been more excited for a conference. Drawdown is the framework by which I organize information about the climate. Without it, that information is a flood that overwhelms me.

Who knew, for example, that managing the chemicals in refrigeration systems effectively is about 8x more important than getting everyone switched over to electric vehicles?

To promote this, the EPA actually has a program — GreenChill — which helps grocery stores save money by reducing how much refrigerants they leak. Most reduce leakage from 25% to 10% annually. Only one grocery store in all of Indiana, however, takes advantage of this program. We have 700 in the state! Can you say low hanging fruit?

Sometimes we feel overwhelmed and helpless, but there are useful levers we can pull. Drawdown ranks them by cost effectiveness. This is unimaginably helpful. It helps us create strategy that’s effective and hope that’s grounded.

This conference was invigorating. Personally, I enjoyed meeting fellow “Drawdown nerds” (I check the website almost daily) and participating in what one person called “the Manhattan project of our era.”

Poster Presentation on Indiana Drawdown

Three Insights from the Conference

1) We Must Listen to and Lift up Indigenous Voices… and We All Benefit When We Do

Hands down, the best workshop was “Indigenous Knowledge Systems” in which representatives from five tribes around the world shared their perspectives on global warming.

Remember this gem?

We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.

Albert Einstein

As vital as Drawdown is, it has it’s limitations. One is that it’s the child of a highly technocratic, and therefore limited, worldview. This is the same worldview that’s destroying the planet at an accelerating rate.

What do we mean by “technocratic?”

It comes down to fear. First, our technocratic culture is afraid of this basic fact: nobody knows why we exist on this planet. Nobody. This is stupefying. It should be on the cover of every newspaper around the world every day. Artists should continually reinterpret it into every mode imaginable so that we perceive it afresh constantly:

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

Pablo Picasso

Instead, our culture tends to ignore this mystery. It tries to tile it over with abstractions. Those abstractions numb us into routine. They also serve to give us a sense of control, because they can be measured and manipulated. And in the end, if part of the mystery can’t be tiled over, it’s ignored. A neat and tidy system. Case closed!

As it relates to global warming, it sounds like this: “Okay, okay, we have a problem, but it’s not that bad. It just comes down to carbon in the atmosphere. We can measure that and twiddle some knobs. Voilà!”

Most thinking people agree this way of approaching life is limited:

  • Carol Farley eviscerates it in her young adult short story ‘Lose Now, Pay Later
  • The 20th century philosophers Jacques Ellul and William Barrett contextualize it for us into the wider history of ideas
  • The nonprofit heretic-reformer extraordinaire Dan Pallotta proclaims it from the TED stage and
  • One of the most famous Orthodox Rabbis of the 20th century elucidated it through a novel interpretation of Genesis in ‘The Lonely Man of Faith

For this and other reasons, I told the tribal representatives that I feel they should have run the entire conference.

One such person — AlexAnna Salmon from the Yup’ik people living in what’s colonially known as “Alaska” — updated us on how the climate is collapsing there:

She also reminded us that it’s not just about the climate emergency. We’re also in the sixth mass extinction. For example, in the past 30 years we’ve lost 50% of all the fish in the oceans and 90% of the big fish.

AlexAnna Salmon is only 33 years old, but she remembers a time when there were “hundreds of thousands of caribou crossing our river… There used to be more than enough for everyone. Now, however, each family is limited to just one animal per year and we must travel far to get that one animal.”
“Here’s my son looking for seagull eggs. Our people used to love eating them, but even seagulls are in decline now.”

When it came time for questions, I jumped up to the microphone (on video at 1:12:52 here):

I have a question about paradigms… How do we transform our Judeo-Christian inheritance to be a blessing and not a curse? What does it mean to “decolonize our theologies?” How do we “re-indiginize” ourselves so that we’re connected to our surroundings in a healthy way?

Below are some of their responses. The question triggered about 20 minutes of conversation from other audience members and the panel (again see 1:12:52 here).

Hanareia Ehau-Taumaunu (Maori):

Many people think this Earth is merely a way station on their way to the Kingdom of Heaven. They live as if we can fight wars, kill, destroy… as long as we are redeemed before we die. We need to realize that this Earth is not just something we can use and throw away like a piece of trash. This Earth is Eden.

Sachem Robert HawkStorm Bergin (Chief, Schaghticoke First Nations):

Language is critical. In English, my name looks like “HawkStorm,” but it’s actually untranslatable. It’s actually a fantastic image, a huge hurricane of birds overhead.

How many in the audience remember six generations back? [Only a few out of about forty raised their hand]. I can remember 15 generations back. That’s erasure people. You are being erased. If that was happening to me I’d be angry. I encourage you to dig into your roots, re-indiginize yourself. Connect to the rituals of your ancestors. I find the seven generations concept extremely important.

Stop looking out there for answers. Get quiet. Listen. Recreate the mythologies and rituals we need.

Baxter Firefly Clinton (Schaghticoke First Nations):

I agree, language is critical. A long time ago my tribe had no word equivalent to the English word ‘I’. Instead our version — akiin — meant “myself and everything around me, including the Earth on which I stand.” Using this concept of akiin, it made no sense to ‘own’ land or to treat natural resources as things we can use up and discard. During colonization, we were taught to use a new word — aki — which is similar to your word for ‘I’. With this new word, the colonizers could teach us to own and to control. This word made an unhealthy paradigm shift possible.

If I had to summarize everything I learned regarding indigenous perspectives into a single word, it would be imagination:

  • Imagination as I tried to evoke it with this art installation for conference attendees.
  • Imagination as encouraged by Rob Hopkins’s new book From What Is to What If (review by Indiana Drawdown coming soon).
  • Imagination as represented by the “Dreamscape” in Jim Henson’s remade Dark Crystal. I mentioned this show to Firefly, and he said HawkStorm also loves this show.
  • Imagination as represented by the Pachamama Alliance‘s Awaken the Dreamer course. This NGO started out by helping indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest protect their land from oil companies. They offered legal and financial assistance. Soon the indigenous people said, “Thank you, but we also need you to go back to your people and change their dream.”
From left to right: Chris Powers, Sachem Robert HawkStorm Bergin, Baxter Firefly Clinton, Daniel Poynter.

Project Drawdown is a critical part of the solution… and a technocratic one. That approach worked for me a year ago. It will work for others too. Since then, though, I’ve realized much deeper transformation is needed.

So let’s continue using this Drawdown framework when it works, but once we’ve engaged people point them to an even more powerful leverage point. Let’s invite everyone, including ourselves, to reimagine the world we’ve inherited and to transform it into what our ancestors prayed for for countless centuries.

Source: xkcd

2) Let’s “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”

Our technocratic worldview tempts us to ignore the best, most miraculous, things in life out of fear. Fear shows up in another way too…

I once hired a professional coach. He was a nationally competitive college wrestler. Then he went on to coach hundreds of entrepreneurs. He noticed a pattern among his clients: The salesperson is too afraid to call the prospect. The manager is too afraid to have a difficult conversation. Etc.

That is, they avoided the very activities which would make them grow the most. If they listened for the fear, it was usually a north star they could follow. Feel the fear and do it anyway. He wrote an excellent book about this which I outlined in-depth here.

What does this have to do with Project Drawdown?

The conference was jam packed with valuable material, but it was old fashioned in a top-down sort of way. Brilliant people presented brilliant lectures — or had conversations with a few other brilliant people on stage — while hundreds of other brilliant people sat patiently in the audience.

Of course, there was usually room for a few questions at the end, and there was an unconference after the official conference ended, but human potential was far from unleashed.

This is a really common error, especially within academic culture. I think it comes from fear. When we derive our self-worth or income from being an expert in a thing, we’re often afraid of relinquishing control to a facilitation process that can unleash the genius of a group. Think Peter Block or Liberating Structures. Instead we’re tempted to hold onto our identity as the expert of that thing.

So Less of This

And More of This

No matter our level of expertise, let’s present it to our audiences, create a framework for participation, and then step back to watch it all bloom.

Word of caution: facilitation is a science and an art. I’ve seen it done poorly much more than I’ve seen it done excellently. Invest in expert facilitators.

3) Two Big Solutions for Indiana

It’s critical to listen to and to lift up indigenous voices, and it’s valuable to feel the fear of a facilitative approach and to do it anyway. What about specific solutions? “Just tell me what to do Daniel!!” Okay, okay. You’re in luck. That’s where Drawdown shines. One of their goals is to give local/federal/international policymakers “decision ready information.”

You can explore the 100 solutions yourself. The ones I feel most strongly about for Indiana have to do with carbon farming and the built environment.

Carbon Farming

Did you know Indiana soil is more unhealthy each year? That farmers need to pump it full of more and more fertilizer each year to get the same results? Soil degradation is becoming a crisis in its own right. This article in Scientific American says we have “sixty harvests left.” Then what? We won’t be able to grow food. Soon, we will have no choice but to let the soil heal through “regenerative agriculture.”

It turns out this also has a climate benefit. As we heal the soil, it can sequester a ton of carbon.

The IPCC just came out with a report on the importance of land use. A lot of that has to do with how farmers treat the land. It looks like land use is as important as renewable energy is. Does it get anywhere near the same amount of attention?

That’s where “carbon farming” comes in. Turns out, the author of the Bible on the topic was at the Drawdown conference:

You can watch a recording of a session partially about carbon farming here. Eric Toensmeier also participated in a session about Drawdown solutions as an interconnected system. I also enjoyed a documentary about healing farmland, ‘The Biggest Little Farm.’

Indiana is part of the breadbasket of the country. We supply food to the world. We have an immense opportunity to contribute to reversing global warming.

Built Environment

In the built environment session, Jay Arehart taught us that the three areas on which to focus are:

  • Building envelope (e.g. insulation)
  • Appliances and
  • Systems (e.g. automating HVAC and lighting)

Insulation is the biggest bang for the buck, but insulation must be made from low carbon materials. Even better if it’s carbon negative (like industrial hemp insulation). Lucky for Indiana, farmers can now grow industrial hemp.

Graphic shared by Jay Arehart.

Dr. Erica Hameen, a professor from Carnegie Mellon, said her staff did “drive bys.” That is, they drove by large buildings and took notes on things like if lights were left on or not. Even from this limited data, they could create valuable plans to help building owners save money. Her example was $32,000/annually for a 100,0000 square foot building.

Angelica Ciranni, VP of Strategy & Innovation with the Green Building Alliance, spoke about the 2030 Districts program (of which Pittsburgh is a part). She said over 13 cities are participating, including 540 buildings represetning 84.8M square feet.

Angelica Ciranni, VP of Strategy & Innovation with the Green Building Alliance.

John Fernandez, a professor at MIT, said that, soon, cities will spend more on climate adaptation than mitigation. Treating the symptom. Sound familiar? He also talked about his recent book, in which he analyzed cities with a systems perspective.

Shawn Hesse, of International Living Future Institute, was very impressive. A “Living” building is one with a certain certification. It’s much, much more dificult to get than a LEED certification.

You can watch a recording of the built environment session here.


I had conversations with, or took notes on lectures by, about thirty more people. Too much to go into here. I’ll follow up with most of them to see how we can collaborate to reduce Indiana’s GHG emissions.

Post Script

Next time you go to a conference, consider getting an Airbnb with others attending. A few of us met through the Drawdown Facebook group, and we had a blast. Missing Chris Powers here. You’ll notice the dominos from another post

From left to right: Sam Levac-Levey, Ryan Hagen, Damien Michael Nichols, Daniel Poynter.
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