A Conversation With Matt Petersen, Global Green USA President

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Petersen-Post.jpg Most people are familiar with the Red Cross and its humanitarian aid efforts, but fewer know that there's also a Green Cross with a similar emergency response model for ecological issues. Matt Petersen is doing his best to spread the word.

A California native, Petersen leads the American arm of Green Cross International, an organization founded about two decades ago by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Green Cross has branches in 31 countries around the world, including Petersen's Global Green USA.

Through Global Green, Petersen fights climate change by helping to create greener houses, schools, cities, and communities. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, for example, he launched a design competition to build the first sustainable village in the Lower Ninth Ward, complete with LEED Platinum homes, a multi-family apartment complex and a community center. Internationally, Global Green also focuses on eliminating weapons of mass destruction and extending access to clean drinking water. Here, Petersen discusses the power of social media, the importance of thinking about the big picture, and how the environment would benefit if women were treated with more respect.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

Well, I often have a tongue-in-cheek refrain for those who ask me what's going on, which is, "I'm just trying to save a world that doesn't want to be saved."

My less cheeky answer is that I run Global Green, an environmental group working to find innovative solutions and new approaches that help the Earth and people -- whether by greening schools, building low-income housing, or helping rebuild New Orleans. Our projects range from policy initiatives to high profile campaigns, such as our recent "I AM" campaign to address sea level rise.

My central focus, however, is inspiring people to become citizen entrepreneurs -- people who are part of the solution, take leadership, and join with others in making their neighborhood, school, or city a better place to live. We can all become a living, breathing solution to the environmental and economic crises we are simultaneously facing.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about sustainability?

While it's not new, whole systems thinking and design can be a game-changer. More people and more businesses are thinking about sustainability in terms of how the waste materials of our products can become the birth materials of something new. We also need to think about how we empower those in need and most at risk -- including protecting women and girls from violence and educating our children.

However, I have to say that social media is doing more than anything to impact how people think about - and do something about -- sustainability. With Occupy Wall Street, 350.org, and Tahrir Square, we have seen social media begin to move the needle for change. That's exciting. And so sorely needed.

What's something that most people just don't understand about what you do?

When they hear environmental group, some people think Global Green is just telling people to change their light bulbs and recycle. Or they remember how we sent celebrities to the Oscars in hybrid cars, attempting to make hybrids seem fun and sexy to drive. So perhaps people think I just hang out with influencers in Hollywood.

Truth is, I spend most of my time thinking of ways that we can help leverage change through ideas, projects, and people. That often means delivering impact through green community development and other channels not traditionally used by other environmental groups. My title is president and CEO, but I see myself as entrepreneur-in-chief at Global Green. One of our internal values is the nimble yet professional risk-taking entrepreneur. A mouthful, but it guides us.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

As we see more and more individuals change how they eat and grow food, I think we will also see more people make larger connections to environmental issues.

I see people taking environmental action in their neighborhoods and communities, and we need a strong government with clear rules and regulations to help support these initiatives, deal with climate change, and address other major environmental challenges. But we also need citizen action and individuals making a difference.

As I said earlier, we need more of what I call "citizen entrepreneurs" who don't just see themselves as consumers, but who reclaim our role as citizens by taking the "anything is possible in America" approach to solving the problems of our economy, our communities, and our Earth.

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Samantha Michaels, a recent graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, is beginning a fellowship at The Jakarta Globe. She has also written for Condé Nast Traveler and PoliticsDaily.com.

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