USGBC’s president and CEO, Mahesh Ramanujam, reflects on highlights from the past year.

Most years, right about now is when I look forward to looking back.

When December rolls around, I anticipate the annual recaps and articles. The holiday season arrives and I find it

comforting to take a breath, get a little nostalgic and explore the time capsules renowned writers and photojournalists have so kindly cataloged for us.

We get Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

The top ten movies, music and television. Best and worst can be fun to read.

Lists of the most impactful events — the moments that moved all of us.

We see portfolios of striking photographs from around the globe that reveal, in great detail the best and worst of another year in the books.

If nothing else, for me, it always feels like December brings a chance to look back with fresh eyes and gain an inspiring new perspective for the year ahead.

But 2020 has dampened that tradition for me — and I doubt I’m alone.

Mustering the energy to click on this year’s retrospectives comes with an odd mix of emotions — a blend of survivor’s guilt, of the anguish I feel knowing that some of my loved ones haven’t made it to the fourth quarter of the pandemic and of the sympathy I have for those in the same or worse position.

At the end of the day, I’ll read them — and I’ll look at the photographs — as I always do. Because bearing witness is the bare minimum we can do for one another. But as I’ve thought about what the bare minimum is, I’ve also been giving a great deal of thought about the other end of the spectrum. About what we can offer an abundance of.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that, as the President and CEO of USGBC, one of the most important things I can offer is the extraordinary gratitude I feel for my own health and for the health, resilience and achievements of my colleagues, friends and members of this community.

In other words, I can create USGBC’s own eventful list, its own highlights, and its own time capsule for the people in our international green building community — for the people who, despite the unprecedented obstacles we’ve encountered this year, have persisted and have dedicated their lives and their time to creating a better standard of living for all.

In May, we explored the importance of a greener good. We honored leaders in Europe who have created an alternative way of leading — who, instead of opting for the traditional decision-making centered around the concept of a greater good, have focused on a future rooted in a greener good. What each of our European recipients have in common is that they envision a world in which human life isn’t compromised, but instead championed as the focus of why we build in the first place. It was truly an honor to be able to recognize them and to share the best practices of those already prioritizing the four pillars of USGBC’s second generation — sustainability, health and wellness, resilience and equity.

Over the summer, we were set to convene in Mexico City — and on the day of what would have been our arrival, Mexico was hit with a 7.5 magnitude earthquake. We saw people in the streets with their masks on, looking up at buildings, fearful and waiting for them to topple. And we learned pretty quickly that a 7.5 magnitude earthquake isn’t complicated by the fact that people are already experiencing the devastating effects of the pandemic, as some people were prone to saying. It’s not complicated by it. It’s all connected.

We’ve known for some time that climate risks are tied to health risks. We’ve known that racial injustice is tied to environmental injustice. But this year has brought us leaders in the Latin American region who rise to the occasion with a deep reverence and humility, and with a profound belief that progress only happens when we stop compartmentalizing our crises.

Visionary project teams, businesses, and members of the USGBC community in the region have truly shown us not only that better buildings equal better lives… but that healthy people in healthy places equals a healthy economy.

And in November, we gathered virtually for our biggest Greenbuild event of the year. What would have been an international expo in San Diego became one of our most poignant and relevant conferences in the history of USGBC.

During my Leadership Awards remarks, I told the story about a house in Pacific Heights, San Francisco, one that held a tremendous LEED score as far back as 2009 — and that in pitching it, a real estate agent began “marketing air as a health-and-wellness amenity.” I mentioned the article because of its prescient capturing of what we face today, in terms of air pollution and the spreading of a deadly virus through respiratory particles. But I also mentioned it because something the developer’s wife said really disturbed me:

“Truly, the greatest luxury in life is your health,” she remarked.

No. Building is a precious — and profitable — commodity. As it should be. And of course, amenities can be an alluring part of this work. But in the United States, in the wealthiest country in the world, in a time where the vast gaps in environmental justice and standards of living are becoming more and more evident, I felt compelled to reiterate that air is not an amenity and health is not a luxury.

And in that same moment, I felt proud that I could speak on that video conference to a community of USGBC leaders from around the country, and wholeheartedly say that what sets every one of them apart is not only a deep and inherent understanding of these basic human truths, but also a fundamental commitment to health and well being.

I felt proud that I could truthfully say that every single one of these leaders has a profound sense of responsibility to the idea that green building is not about amenities.

They know it’s about access.

They know it’s about knowing that healthy air should be accessible. They know healthy buildings should be accessible. And they lead knowing all of that is at stake.

Over the last twelve months, during some of the darkest times in this planet’s history, USGBC leaders from across the globe have delivered on our four pillars and are continuing to create a world where we don’t have to choose between public health and economic prosperity — where we can expect a guaranteed standard of living instead of a perpetual disparity in our wealth and wellbeing.

Under the banner of sustainability, instead of just reducing environmental damage, with LEED Zero and the LEED Positive vision of regenerative buildings, leaders are pushing the market to implement a new level of performance in green building. We’re already seeing people implement plans to rise to the goal I set for requiring all LEED new construction projects to achieve LEED Positive starting in 2025 and all existing buildings to be LEED Positive by 2050.

With health and wellness, we’re already seeing the seven LEED Safety First Credits being used by hundreds of projects around the world.

We have also launched Arc Re-Entry — which provides tools and analytics designed to assist companies with best practices for safely and efficiently re-entering their facilities.

When it comes to resilience, USGBC leaders are expanding on our solutions for safer, more durable buildings and communities. Together, through LEED and RELi, we are promoting and advocating for principles of design, construction, operation, and maintenance that address resilience goals.

And delivering on our 2019 promise to a new approach to equity, we have launched All In, the formal program and roadmap for how USGBC will lead in this area. It includes actions USGBC will commit to, to ensure we help our leaders and stakeholders address the social, health and economic disparities in their communities. (Of note: You can access this strategy on our website — and please know we are seeking feedback and comments so that we can create a final all-encompassing strategy.)

And while we will all doomscrolll, while we will all inevitably click through the year-end reviews I mentioned — I wanted to offer up my own capsule of optimism, my own list of USGBC’s incredible international achievements. I wanted to sincerely write of my profound appreciation for the leadership shown this year, and for what it says about a momentous decade ahead.

Because while this year has revealed a lot about how the systems in our society, in many ways, have been designed to uphold the very inequitable circumstances we, as a green building community, have always fought to improve — it has also revealed a year of innovation, of renewed belief in humanity, and of revolutionary ways we can position our USGBC leaders as health, sustainability and economic allies in a post-pandemic roaring twenties.