Five Themes from SXSWEco 2012

By Daniel Noll

SXSWEco convened last Wednesday and the conference program (printed using wind power, vegetable-based inks, and a deforestation offset program) boasted an impressive depth and diversity of content. Yet before the conference began, I found myself wondering if any, amongst a crowded hotel full of advocacy groups, venture capitalists, futurists, biologists, artists, and even students, would succeed in uniting the conference participants under a common message.

Here are five themes that emerged during SXSW Eco 2012:

The climate truth won’t set us free

In at least two separate sessions over the week, an audience poll was conducted to ask if any climate-deniers were in the crowd. Perhaps sensing the piercing glances of fellow conference-goers, not a single hand left an armrest. National polling data suggests a recent trend towards acknowledging anthropogenic climate change, but Americans remain much more fragmented on the issue than many panelists at the conference were willing to acknowledge.

Discussing his recent book on the climate debate, Michael Mann remained surprisingly optimistic about the chances for near-term consensus. Co-Founder Bill McKibben stirred his audience into frenzy with his plea that room for inaction was running thin and a prognosis that the threshold for a global temperature rise of 2 degrees would be reached within 16 years. Common to all of these remarks, however, was the acknowledgement that simply providing opponents of the climate change movement more information has not been effect in swaying public support.

During her closing keynote, Story of Stuff Project founder Anne Leonard called attendees to a renewed sense of civic engagement to retake government from the gang of big oil, big chemical, fracking, and other fossil fuel businesses labeled as fundamentally opposed to a sustainable future.

A return to nature 

Numerous sessions contemplated the relationship between sustainability and the built environment. Most prominently the concept of biomimicry, where natural design elements and systems inform human creations, was cited as a path to a more enjoyable future. Architect Lance Hosey described the need for a convergence of the culture of art and culture of science in creating urban spaces that foster “high touch” solutions that support values of beauty and joy instead of mere efficiency. From the choice of colors and patterns to the choice of building materials, looking to nature for solutions can offer benefits that improve the quality of our daily lives. In a panel on urban ecology, Kathy Zarsky expressed the need to foster the living world instead of only the physical world in order for both to coexist in harmony. Only by imitating nature can the triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental benefits be achieved.

Go green to make green

When asked about her impressions of the conference, one attendee who had won tickets commented to me that she was surprised by the abundance of commercial products on display at the event. And there were many. An unmistakable aspect of the conference was the promotion of products and businesses that profess a commitment to sustainability.

These entrepreneurial endeavors can be divided into two categories. Many of the companies, such as Vital Farms and YardSprout, have a clear origin in a new economic calculus that seeks to redefine a cost-minimizing business model by taking a more holistic accounting approach whereby an environmental consciousness is viewed as a business imperative. Other companies represented, such as Staxxon and Omni Water Solutions, operate with a profit- and growth-maximizing strategy, but do so to offer a lowest cost alternative to existing technologies while simultaneously giving a relative advantage in terms of environmental impact. Whether a normative distinction should be made between each type of business is a point for debate, but if the number of businesses in attendance between the first and second year of SXSW Eco is any indication, investment in sustainability-oriented product lines is picking up steam.

Diversity under a big tent

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the conference was the look and appearance of its attendees, who represented a range of ages, industries, and arrived from at least a dozen countries. Messy-haired computer programmers sipped coffee and paced the lower level corridors during a 24-hour hackathon bender while sharp-suited entrepreneurs could be found behind corners rehearsing their 3-minute pitches for the Start-up Showcase. Beyond the commitment to environmental consciousness, you might not find much in common between the conference goers.

Idealism trumps pragmatism

When Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute suggested that environmentalists bear responsibility for polarizing the debate over climate change and that there is a need to compromise on issues such as the use of nuclear power, his argument for pragmatism was met with strong opposition by fellow panelists and a chorus of boos from the crowd. To his credit, Nordhaus’ appreciation for limits of environmental consciousness is well supported by economists and academics. Most energy economists forecast little difference between the current mix of energy resources and those that economies will employ in 50 years’ time. Yet overwhelmingly, sessions at the conference focused on defining the ideal and motivating attendees to pursue it, rather than discussing practical steps for achieving it.

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