SXSW Eco: The Culture War to Save the World

Punk, hip-hop and literature sign up for the eco fight


Evolve to Devolve, one of the enviro-activist pieces that Shepard Fairey showed during his speech at SXSW Eco 2013

Maybe it's the fixation on burlap. but American environmentalism has long been associated with hippydom. But in the eco-battle for hearts and minds, it may be two great street cultures – punk and hip hop – that can blaze some trails into the popular psyche.

Change the culture, and you'll change the world. The genius of Ronald Reagan and the fossil fuel right was to appropriate the iconography of America to represent the powerful future of a carbon-powered US. If you didn't believe in gas-guzzling trucks, then you must hate 'Muricah. For SXSW Eco keynote speaker Shepard Fairey, it's beyond time the progressive and environmental movement take those images back.

In a Judas Prius t-shirt and jeans, the graphic designer/activist gave the crowd a slide show breakdown of the semiotics of his work. Stylistically, he conceded that his art had been following a clearly recognizable evolution for over two decades. "You can say they're juvenile, you can say they're heavy handed," Fairey explained, "but if you've been living life in a trance, sometimes you need something heavy handed." It's a style that has become, in its own primary-colored, woodcut and silk screen way, become ubiquitous. "You can say that from 1991 to 2013, I've been creatively stagnant, or you can say, like the Ramones, I got it right early on."

It really started with a 1991 photo he took of an old gas pump. "I was mesmerized that this thing that has a sign saying, danger, contains lead. It's literally telling you it's dangerous but the way in which the paint had peeled metaphorically said this is a symbol of danger, the way it looked like a skull." In promulgating the image, his target was "the unrealistic idea that gas would fix all the world's problems in terms of energy and transportation."

Fairey admitted that the street artist and skate boarder him of 1991 wasn't as much of a committed activist as today's family man and corporate punk. What changed over time – and with parenthood – was the message. or rather, the emphasis. He said, "I don't want to say that my care about the environment was not as deep or as genuine as it is now, but it was not as deep or as genuine as it is now."

There was an undeniable element of confrontationalism (which remains his stock-in trade) but it's become deeper as he understood more about the issues. For example, when he moved to Providence for school, he was blown away by how beautiful the sunsets were. He found out later that they were caused by the hideous pollution from down the coast in New Jersey.

In part, he credited his green awakening Wednesday's keynote speaker, former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach, who was studying at Brown University while Fairey was over at the Rhode Island School of Design. "He came to me while he was president of the Sierra Student Coalition and said, 'Shepard, I'd like you to do some graphics about the environment. We're looking at problems with air quality and problems with water quality. They're things that are really harming people but are difficult to make tangible.'"

Fairey has played for years with the impact of propaganda and advertising: His breakthrough work, the "Andre the Giant has a posse" stickers, subverted the whole concept of advertising. With this early work for the Sierra Club, the challenge was to "impact people viscerally, emotionally, and also intellectually." Much of his work has been inspired by phenomenology, "Heidegger's theory that people have become numb to their environment, and they need novel experience to reawaken and resensitize them to the implications and nuances of things."

That means that there's a certain immediacy to his work. Or, as Fairey put it, "A lot of this stuff is very self-explanatory, so coming up to speak for an hour about it, I feel a little bit ridiculous." But then, if they weren't obvious, they wouldn't be working. It's the same effect achieved by Rachel Carson with seminal enviro book The Silent Spring. "It's making the invisible visible," said Fairey. "Evocative and provocative metaphors that conjure something that is difficult to conjure with statistics."

Not that every image has to be immediately shocking. During the conference, artist Chris Jordan's work Toxic Forest was on display.


Toxic Forest by Chris Jordan

The image itself is less terrifying than the name might imply. It's an impressionistic landscape of a forest. Look closer, and it's a mosaic, created from 139,000 cigarette butts collected around Chicago and Austin. The pretty image pulls the viewer in, the closer examination reveals the message, and a board next to the print explains that the number of butts is the number discarded every 15 seconds in the US. All incredibly toxic, and far from biodegradable.

The images Fairey created for Werbach – a skull in a raindrop, Laby Liberty in a gas mask – were early examples of his use and usurping of iconic imagery. But it also started Fairey's education on environmentalism. "There are things like air and water and wildlife populations that are commons assets. They shouldn't be owned by a corporation or an individual or a government. They should be protected for everyone, because everyone's livelihood is dependent on their health."

Like Fairey intended, there's something visceral about the images, a gut punch. As he put it, "things that connect with people emotionally go a lot further in terms of shifting people's perceptions about issues." For Cara Pike, founder of Climate Access, there's too much concentration on the "information-deficit" approach – that enviro-advocates spend too much time thinking that if they can just give folks more information, they will suddenly get it. Wrong. You have to emotionally engage them. She said, "How will this affect the beer I like or the sport I like to play? That's where people are."

There's still some reticence to become a creative activist, and in part it's a fear of the popular response. "People don't read fiction to be preached to," said Karen Thompson Walker, author of climate change novel The Age of Miracles. She went through a similar experience to Fairey, in that her research for the novel made her much more of an environmentalist, but still sees the process ongoing in the wider community. She said, "The more the culture in general begins to absorb it, the better it becomes a backdrop."

Don't put all the blame on readers. There's also a chance of "a miscalculation on the publisher's side," said Walker. When she was working as a book editor, no-one believed that there would be a market for An Inconvenient Truth. She said, "Editors are worried about putting out depressing books."

That said, as Vice Magazine senior editor Brian Merchant reminded everyone, The Hunger Games is explicitly a climate change franchise, since the districts have all moved inland to avoid rising sea levels.


"There's something terribly wrong when I catch the bus in DC and in the morning times every kid on that bus has an inhaler."
Rev. Lennox Yearwood at SXSW Eco
Photo by Richard Whittaker

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, cofounder of the Hip Hop Caucus, gets the need for a gut punch. That's why he got the crowd pumped for his talk with a quick blast of "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy. Wryly noting that he could have come out with his "Georgetown voice," he ran through a few talking points in soto voce lecturer tones. But he knew that the rippling rhythms of the street would make the point more forcefully.

Imagine this sentence two ways, in those two voices, Rev. Yearwood versus Professor Yearwood. "There's something terribly wrong when I catch the bus in DC and in the morning times every kid on that bus has an inhaler." Which works better for you?

Contrary to the smug, sometimes racially tinged idea that minority communities cannot be environmental, he argued that for young people, drenched in hip hop culture, "This is not a game," said Yearwood. They know what it means to be ignored by mainstream press, and that's why the impact of and response to Hurricane Katrina was such a perfect model for what is wrong with American culture. Yearwood said, "We saw what climate change can do and what it means to those communities."

The Hip-Hop Caucus has four tenets – strengthening democracy, climate change, civil and human rights, and economic empowerment. Those four issues are tied together and inseparable for Yearwood, who sees those same kids struggling with asthma as the same ones suffering from social inequality and poverty and police brutality. "Our ultimate goal is to save the planet for the next generation, and to that end we use celebrities." Cue footage of rapper Drake and his call to arms for the Green the Block campaign. "Young people will see Drake and become engaged."

Coda: Yearwood had to reach out to Drake. The ideal is that rappers and hip hop artists with that kind of appeal will start coming to him, because they're already engaged and active. That's still where there's a short fall. "If you have five million people who are engaged, and two hundred and ninety-five million who are not, then we are not doing what we need to do," Yearwood fumed.

And while Yearwood talked about the need for love, maybe it does takes a little dose of anger as well. There's no doubt among anyone that's been paying attention that, from global warming to oil spills and urban pollution, oil hasn't been an unquestionably benevolent buddy. And Yearwood doesn't see a kumbaya moment with Shell and Exxon any time soon. "Just going to the fossil fuel industry in terms of their morality, it does not work," he told the crowd. "What affects the fossil fuel industry is their money."

Yearwood sees a simple equation. "You cannot wreck our climate, and then profit from that wreckage." The game is to turn them into outlaws, the same way that tobacco companies have become outlaws.


"You can say they're juvenile, you can say they're heavy handed, but if you've been living life in a trance, sometimes you need something heavy handed."
Shepard Fairey on the immediacy of his work at SXSW Eco.
Photo by Richard Whittaker

That means everyone in the enviro and progressive movement has to be unified, as everyone was with the anti-Apartheid movement. "There's a tendency to only be with your own culture," said Yearwood. "Being in this movement, sometimes you think, am I the only one that thinks this way?" Even among enviros, there is a silo mentality, with anti-frackers slow to communicate with the anti-mountain top removal groups.

It's a conundrum. The way forward for environmentalism may be to have cultural taste makers and creatives become standard bearers within their communities. After all, that's the power of having a music or art scene, that there is a pre-built network. But then how do they communicate beyond those distinct networks? For Pike, one solution might be "coordinated redundancy": Rather than trying to break down those bunkers, make them interlink, so each group can engage their target audiences, and bring them together as one allied force. That's why the Keystone XL pipeline campaign was so successful – it cut across cultural divides and demographics.

Yearwood had historical precedent for such movements succeeding. South Africa didn't drop Apartheid because the white government realized it was evil: It was because they got hit in the wallet. To a degree, artists lead the way. Musicians stopped playing Sun City, and that started the ball rolling on a full economic boycott. That's why Yearwood is pushing for individual investors, commercial fund managers and charitable trusts to end their investments in oil and gas. End result: there are 400 colleges divesting themselves of fossil fuel shares, and so are many cities.

Of course, there are two sensible ways to get rid of outlaws. First, prosecute them for their criminal activities. Second, get them to become law abiding citizens through positive means. That applies to environmental criminals too. It may still be a controversial stance, but businesses can be greened in a way that isn't greenwashing. As Fairey noted, Werbach had helped Walmart go greener. In 2010, they committed to cut the greenhouse emissions from their supply chain by 20 million metric tons by 2015. Even though Werbach himself has called the end result "a mixed bag," for Fairey it's still a blow to the idea that "doing the right thing for the planet and doing the right thing for business are mutually exclusive."

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