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SXSW Eco: Beyond the Burlap Bag

Environmentalists ponder how to mainstream eco-culture

By Richard Whittaker, 1:55PM, Wed. Oct. 10, 2012


"We go straight to the artist and ask them, what’s on your mind?" DJ Spooky aka 'Origin' magazine editor Paul D. Miller on providing artists an eco-platform
Photo by Richard Whittaker

Environmentalism faces one key problem: burlap bags. Or rather, as Graceann Bennett, managing partner at Ogilvy & Mather, told the audience at the second SXSW Eco conference, it’s what burlap bags represent – the idea that green means scratchy, dull, substandard, or just plain uncomfortable.

In its second year, the green strand of the SXSW conference moved from the Downtown Hilton to the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center. There was still the expected emphasis on the science of sustainability and climate change, with a heavy sidebar on eating in an environmentally conscious way. However, that burlap was itching at the back of attendees' heads, with ecologists, scientists, activists, and experts grappling with the thorny problem of making environmentalism culturally relevant to everyone.

The underlying tone was that sustainability does not need to be antithetical to technology. Friday’s keynote speaker, Ann Leonard, rose to fame with her website TheStoryofStuff.org: Her 20 minute exploration of the life cycle of consumable materials used stick figure animations to make the message more palatable, and has scored over 15 million views. Similarly, DJ Spooky performed his Sinfonia Antarctica, a piece using of sampled sounds from ice flows and glaciers, plus music extrapolated from the same algorithms behind snowflake structure.

There was similar design wisdom from Lance Hosey, chief sustainability officer with RTKL. "There are no boxes in nature," he noted, suggesting instead that curved structures can be both easy on the eye and easy on the environment. He proposed that his architectural peers need to start absorbing new lessons – primarily that a green building doesn’t have to be an ugly, and that the convergence of green design and aesthetically pleasing design is coming.

Hosey also advocated for a localized component: As plants change from region to region, he argued, so should buildings vary in response to the environment. By taking a one-size-fits-all approach to "good" design, Hosey accused architects of missing millennia of lessons from builders who have created localized engineering solutions. When desert dwelling nations made houses with small windows, it was not because they looked good: It was about responding to the conditions. For Hosey, the new challenge for architects is to create structures that are environmentally sound and also reflect the local culture.

It’s the cultural aspect that interests DJ Spooky, aka Paul D. Miller. Aside from performing at SXSW Eco, he was present as executive editor of Origin magazine. Along with founder Meranda Pleasant, he discussed the role of the media in bringing more media coverage to environmental and sustainability concerns: So far, the magazine is the No. 2 bestseller at Whole Foods, and Pleasant announced that a new deal means it will be available through Barnes & Noble.

Both Miller and Pleasant are determined to highlight innovative uses of sustainable materials and techniques, but there’s an underlying tension in their opposing viewpoints. Pleasant has succeeded in putting a series of high-profile names on the cover – Woody Harrelson, Yoko Ono, Val Kilmer, Bjork – but Miller is wary of sticking a star on the cover, and is drawn to artists like Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei or Brooklyn’s Bamboo Bicycle Studio. For him, it’s the same democratization of content that can be seen in the Internet, bypassing the gatekeepers of the mainstream media. Miller said, "We go straight to the artist and ask them, 'What’s on your mind?'"

Yet there’s a contradiction there that Pleasant summed up when she called Miller "the new Kevin Bacon." Having collaborated with so many diverse performers and artists – and now in his new role as artist in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – he is capable of reaching out to big names in the creative field. However, for Miller that simply means he has a better platform to allow artists to talk about issues that drive them. "We on the left over-credit celebrity stuff," he warned, "and it’s really important for me that it’s about people."

Origin may have solved the problem of getting diverse voices about sustainability and creativity, but it still struggles with a diverse audience. As Pleasant noted, the overwhelming majority of attendees at SXSW Eco were white and middle class – the kind of reader that has made it such a success at Whole Foods. The big challenge now is to expand the audience into communities that have not traditionally been so involved.

The challenge is cultural relevance: Half-joking, Miller suggested that there’s a conversation that links the urban African-American fascination with ice – Ice T, Ice Cube, back to Iceberg Slim – as a way to tackle the disappearing Arctic. Pleasant noted that ?uestlove of the Roots is an Origin contributor, but possibly more telling was a recent article in which she asked Ice T and Chuck D about how to encourage eco-thinking in African-American communities. She said they told her pretty bluntly, "'We’re not thinking about plastic bottles, because we are just trying to survive.'" For her, that makes environmentalism a social justice issue, where people are making enough to be able to worry about global warming. "Reggie Watts was like, 'You have to get art and sustainability and design and these ideas, or you’re going to have robots who are very frustrated human beings.'"

Not that Pleasant is letting any ethnic group off the hook. While the majority of attendees at such conferences may be white, the majority of white people are still disengaged. That includes the Texas Legislature, and that’s where Pleasant gets most frustrated. She said, "They’re not talking about climate, and they’re not talking about Keystone Pipeline. They’re taking away people’s land and giving them below value to put a pipeline that’s going to destroy our water supply, fuck up our watershed, and not one white politician on either side, Democrat or Republican, is saying: 'Hey, we’ve got climate change, we’ve got all this happening in our backyard.' So the real thing is not only how to get African-Americans and Latinos, but how to get Texas to the table together."

With the Texas budget so stretched, the economic advantages of truly green thinking may be the leverage point with lawmakers. Bennett and Hosey had come to the same conclusion, that it may all come down to pocketbook issue. Hosey suggested that many construction projects are designed as conventional project first, and then the project managers spend a fortune trying to "green" them up later. Instead, he argued that sustainable techniques should be part of the original concept, and that engineers doing so are making big costs savings: For example, new structures using those precepts are using less steel, with no sacrifice in floor space or height.

Similarly Bennett cited solar panel firm Sunrun for its innovative giveaway: The panels are installed for free, but then customers pay the company for the energy produced. That’s a big selling point, she said, because "regular people don’t look like the super greeny neighbor, the crazy person that puts solar panels on their house." Bennett argued that green companies have shot themselves in the foot: Why is the Chevy Volt outselling the Nissan Leaf? Because "Volt" sounds cooler than "Leaf." Yet many firms insist on this moribund and off-putting post-hippy style of branding that does not connect to mainstream consumers.

Sometimes, she argued, it may be up to the retailer to lead good behavior through price. Traditionally, organic produce has been more expensive, so buyers felt they were paying a green tax for sustainable behavior. Walmart recently re-priced apples so they were no longer more expensive than a Twinkie, and so customers had a real choice on snacks. Ultimately, if the green movement is to truly make its message go mainstream, she said, "Saving money trumps dolphin babies."


"To provide the opportunity for anyone to grasp, in an interesting and fun way, the complex interaction in these systems is critical if we’re going to solve these problems." Philippe Cousteau at SXSW Eco 2012
Photo by Richard Whittaker

For Philippe Cousteau Jr., the key may be in shifting from predatory self-interest to an appreciation of the mutual benefits of sustainability. The latest in the Cousteau eco-dynasty returned after keynoting the inaugural SXSW Eco (see "Defining the Eco Message," Oct. 14, 2011) for the Texas launch of a new tool that he hopes will sway some minds. The Bay Game, developed by the University of Virginia and backed by Cousteau’s green marketing firm Azure Worldwide, allows large groups of players to simulate water management across an entire watershed. In March 2012, UVA researchers brought their test version, mapping out the needs and demands on the Chesapeake Bay, to SXSW Interactive. At SXSW Eco, they announced that they will be using the Texas water system as their new simulation. Cousteau said, "From the beginning, we’ve envisioned the potential of this game to expand globally, of this game to model watersheds around the world and help us come together and solve the defining crisis of the 21st century." So far, the game is being tested and played by policy makers and stakeholders, who get an opportunity to be in one another’s shoes. Cousteau said, "To provide the opportunity for anyone to grasp, in an interesting and fun way, the complex interaction in these systems is critical if we’re going to solve these problems."

Game theory – the idea of playing out different scenarios to perfect policy – has been a mainstay of U.S. political practice since the Kennedy administration. However, new technology opens up these opportunities well beyond the think tanks that adopted it in half a century ago. Cousteau actually credits his grandfather, legendary oceanographer and ecologist Jacques Cousteau, with teaching him that lesson. He said, "I went to have dinner with my grandfather, and at the time he was 79 years old. We sat down and he was talking about conservation and global issues, and at 9 years old, this was starting to get a little long in the tooth and I started to fade a little bit. But he turned to me and said, 'What about that GameBoy?' Immediately, I lit up."

The technology may have changed, but Cousteau believes the lesson he learned from his grandfather his remains the same: that the message must be filtered through a lens that excites the audience. "He saw the potential for games, and the potential for technology, not just as a means for entertainment, but as a tool for education."

In the UVA Bay Game, players are broken into community groups, and within each group they play the roles of different stakeholders. By simulating variables like oxygen and nitrogen levels, and water demand and quality, the game allows policy makers, experts and the general public to understand, for example, how developments at one end of the bay effect crab fishing at the other. Cousteau argued that the game breaks down the silos between people. In early rounds, players take a very adversarial approach, competing over resources: The kind of gameplay you would expect to see in a first-person shooter. However, he said, "Over the course of the game, people begin to see each other as allies."

UVA Insight Lab director Eric Field credited the collaborative element with the unexpected result that "one plus one equals three. New insight happens just by juxtaposing these things." He cited Foldit, a game that models protein folding at a molecular level: Last year, scientists used its crowdsourcing potential to solve a complicated problem related to AIDS. Field said, "Within two weeks, gamers had found solution to this problem that had stifled engineers and scientists for 21 years."

Laura Huffman, state director for the Nature Conservancy of Texas said the game "is about teaching each of the major water users why and how they need to be worried about each other’s problems." As the multiyear drought starts to look like the new norm, there is a need for forward and potentially radical thinking on water. Texas does have a 50-year statewide water plan, "which is the good news," said Huffman. "The problem with the plan is that it’s unfunded. The other problem is that it’s unprioritized."

Huffman hopes she can encourage state and local shareholders and politicians to play the game and take on its message of collaboration in resource management. So far, the game is designed for small groups, but the team has ambitions to expand the underlying idea to make something that will work for school kids and as a larger online project. But at the moment it remains within the niche of ecologists, scientists, and policymakers. The conundrum is about expanding beyond that small group – and maybe dumping that burlap bag.

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