Under the Big Tent

SXSW Eco brings together engaged people and active projects

Chris Sonnier
Chris Sonnier

Grand Problems, Grand Solutions

Does working from home help save the environment? Chris Sonnier might prove it does. While he's been booking speakers as SXSW Eco's program manager, he's also been working on his masters in sustainability and environmental management at Har­vard. There's been a lot of telecommuting, he says: "The carbon footprint of me taking a plane to work every day would not be so hot."

He jokes, but it's the joke that could kill. Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave a dire warning that nations must act seriously to cut carbon emissions, or in 15 years the climate will pass a tipping point. With the recent collapse of the Antarctic Western ice shelf, there are other environmental researchers who say we've already irrevocably tipped. Sonnier understands that sense of despair. He said, "There are some models that say the war has been lost, that we should give up the fight, and consume as much as we can and say goodbye on our way out the door. But that's just unacceptable."

There are multiple environmental conferences around the world: In fact, when SXSW Eco was founded in 2011, it was scheduled in October to be the end point of the summerlong eco-convention calendar. The others are mostly subject-specific – energy, water, biotech, agriculture. Yet, as Sonnier noted, "No one sector is going to save the world. ... Oftentimes you just find that solutions to one challenge cause problems for someone else up or down the chain." Case in point: Texas' ongoing fascination with natural gas. While it may be less directly polluting than burning oil, Sonnier called it "resource-intensive, just blasting water and taking it out of the cycle. ... It's a potential solution – and I say potential with shaky hands – to a low-carbon infrastructure, that is creating huge problems for naturalists, for agriculture, for public health."

That's why, he argues, SXSW is different. "First off, it's about solutions," he said. "This is not a conference that gets together to just complain or explain what all the problems that we're facing are." The conference encourages new interfaces between global market forces and sustainability, highlighting not just eco researchers and innovators, but traditional industries and financial sectors that are getting green. In the War Stories panel, for instance (Mon­day, Oct. 6, 11:45am), Matthew Nordan of venture capital firm MNL will discuss Asia's ascendant role in the environmental economy. In part, the region seems to be accelerating because the U.S. is failing to move forward on new manufacturing technologies. Sonnier said, "The Chinese are really going to be the leaders in bringing cleantech online, especially with the political climate in the U.S., and the lack of funding."

However, on the roster of 400 speakers, there will also be space for more traditional and longer-credentialed environmentalists, including opening remarks from Texas Southern University Professor Robert Bullard (Monday, Oct. 6, 9am). Sonnier calls Bullard "the father of environmental justice," because from the early Sixties on, he's made the connection between civil rights and sustainability. "When it comes to articulating the potential for climate change to impact minorities exponentially, he's on the case."

The grand problems of the environment will take grand solutions. In Digitizing Landscapes (Wednesday, Oct. 8, 3:30pm), Karen Yuen of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories will explain how universities and research entities are integrating big data in ecology, taking huge volumes of satellite information, in order to "lump them together, layer them, and use them in ways that are beneficial," Sonnier said. That kind of data will probably be useful for participants in the Ecological City workshop (Monday, Oct. 6, 3:30pm), which Sonnier described as fusing ecological design "not only into singular buildings, but all the buildings into an area, and into all the green space and the open space. Thinking about that as one larger habitat, and how to implement it."

Sonnier argues that SXSW Eco's interdisciplinary approach under a big tent enables the discussions that will lead to big scale solutions, but just as important is knowing that there are other researchers, inventors, and investors looking for those same solutions. "You feel like you're on an island," he said. "I've thought, I'm the only person who cares about these things, I'm the only person working on these things, et cetera, et cetera. But you get in this room, and you're surrounded by thousands of people who very much share in this passion and share in this vision. And they're not just thinking about these things. They're actually doing these things."


SXSW Eco runs Oct. 6-8 at the Austin Convention Center. More info at www.sxsweco.com.

  • Under the Big Tent

    SXSW Eco Brings Together Engaged People and Active Projects
  • Whales and the Navy

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