Environmentalism: Uncomfortable and Scratchy?

Thinking outside the (burlap) box at SXSW Eco

Philippe Cousteau Jr.
Philippe Cousteau Jr. (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Environmentalism faces one key problem: burlap bags. Or rather, says Grace­ann Ben­nett, managing partner at Ogilvy & Mather, it's what burlap bags represent – the idea that "green" means scratchy, dull, substandard, or just plain uncomfortable. At the second SXSW Eco conference, held last week at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, ecologists, scientists, and experts grappled with the thorny problem of making environmentalism culturally relevant to everyone.

Bennett argued that green companies often shoot themselves in the foot with bad branding on good products. Why, she asked, is the Chevy Volt outselling the Nissan Leaf? Because "Volt" sounds cooler. Lance Hosey, chief sustainability officer with RTKL, voiced concerns that people see a chasm between pleasing design and sustainable design. He argued that his architect peers need to start absorbing new lessons – primarily that a green building doesn't have to be ugly, and that the convergence of green design and aesthetically pleasing design is coming.

"There are no boxes in nature," he noted, suggesting instead that organic and curved structures can be both easy on the eye and easy on the environment. More importantly, he proposed that buildings designed around sustainable techniques, rather than being retrofitted on the drawing board, are providing engineers with big cost savings: For example, new structures using those precepts are using less steel, with no sacrifice in floor space or height.

But how to break through that cultural divide? DJ Spooky presented his Sinfonia Antarctica – a musical piece constructed from ice flow samples – while SXSW Eco 2011 keynote speaker Philippe Cousteau Jr. announced that the Bay Game, a water management system developed by the University of Virginia, is being expanded to include the Texas water system as its 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."

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's 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. "One problem with the plan is that it's unfunded. The other problem is that it's unprioritized." She hopes she can encourage state and local shareholders and politicians to play the game and take on its message of collaboration in resource management.

For a longer version of this story, including DJ Spooky on race, celebrity, and environmentalism, and Philippe Cousteau Jr. on how his grandfather Jacques Cousteau saw the learning potential of a Game Boy, see the Newsdesk blog.

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SXSW Eco, Chevy Volt, Graceann Bennett, Philippe Cousteau Jr., Lance Hosey, DJ Spooky, Laura Huffman, Nature Conservancy of Texas

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