Defining the Eco Message

Is the enviro movement due for a branding makeover?

Philippe Cousteau Jr.
Philippe Cousteau Jr. (Photo courtesy of Arnold Wells)

What did Occupy Wall Street do right that the environmental movement has done wrong? That was the recurrent question at last week's inaugural SXSW Eco conference. The common answer was that the green movement has lost traction in the battle against professional climate change deniers and anti-green energy lobbyists. However, there seemed to be little agreement among the speakers on how to reverse that trend. Should environmentalists make a more emotive case, or should they sell green technology as a new business model, or should they hit the panic button? Instead of consensus, an underlying tension was revealed – particularly from some of the younger participants – that the same old guard responsible for losing the current debate seemed unwilling to accept new blood or new tactics to reinvigorate the movement.

Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter: "There are people who've started to see climate change as a political wedge issue, a way to separate people from one side to the other. As they did that, clean energy got swept in the undertow. A lot of people who've quit talking about climate change talk just about the job-creating potential for clean energy, the ability to compete locally with China. ... I was just with a vice admiral who's now the head of the American Council on Renew­able Energy, and we had this conversation about national security and renewable energy. You say, 'Why are you talking about that?' Because it bridges this fault line that I see between folks who deny that climate change is happening and people who believe it."

Bill Ritter
Bill Ritter (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Simran Sethi, journalist: "I've been teaching now for four years. I used to make it clear to my environmental journalism students to blind people with science, douse them with facts. I have an M.B.A., so I can make a business case for sustainability. And I said, 'Whatever you do, do not ever, ever, ever tell people that that is the right thing to do.' That was before I moved to Kansas."

Erik Assadourian, Worldwatch Institute researcher: "Even our very language is being co-opted by consumer products. Black­Berry, Apple, Amazon. These used to be geographical or fruit names, and now they're more brand products than anything. Even the word 'consumer' now is a synonym for a person, an individual, a citizen. That really shows how deeply we are in consumer culture."

David Buckland, Cape Farewell founder: "The climate scientists 10 years ago were screaming from the rooftops, saying, 'Why isn't anyone listening to us?' So I thought, 'Well, the language you're using, that's why it's not going to get out into the popular domain.' The language they're using is graphs, technology. You all use that language, but the media don't pick up on it, and the public, as soon as you talk science about climate change, you can see everyone glazing over. ... Most of our major decisions in life are made on an emotional basis."

David Buckland
David Buckland (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Tom Brookes, managing director of Ener­gy Strategy Centre: "Someone was saying to me earlier on, 'Well, we have got Repub­lican candidates who believe in climate change.' Well, if that's a success, how low is this bar? We've got Republican candidates who believe in cups. ... You actually want right and left fighting over who's got the best solution to your problem, not whether or not the problem exists."

Courtney Hight, executive director of Energy Action Coalition: "There isn't a climate movement in this country, so we want to create it. Young people have always been at the forefront of all social movements, so we should be at the front of this one, bringing together all voices, ranging from mainstream environmental organizations but really bringing in the justice lens that we didn't feel was there at the national environmental conversation. First it was 'let's move our campuses to be green,' but then realizing that there's this entire political system that is really reigning over the decisions we are making."

Philippe Cousteau Jr., CEO of EarthEcho Inter­na­tional: "I cannot tell you how hopeful I am because of you young people in this room. Every time I get depressed ... all I need to do is visit a school and see how fired up and powerful you are, and recognize that they're trying to change the world, not just tomorrow when they get older, but today as well."

Bee Moorhead, executive director of Tex­as Interfaith Power & Light: "The faith perspective in the climate conversation is a little different from a lot of other organizations, partly because or largely because we are a multi-issue constituency. The faith community is having to balance low-income people and needs of all the different issue areas that faith communities are concerned about. Education, hunger, human rights, child abuse, all those kinds of issues, and the environment is just one of them. It's in line with all of these other very important issues. ... Where it's probably frustrating for secular environmental activists a lot of times is that we are consistently contrarians, [such as] when it comes to bringing in the low-income people just when it was easier that we didn't talk about them."

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SXSW Eco, environment, Bill Ritter, Philippe Cousteau

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