World, Interrupted

Saving the planet, one Web warrior at a time

Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben (Photo by Nance Battaglia)

Last year, South by Southwest went green with an investment in wind energy. In 2008, columnist (and Chronicle contributor) Jon Lebkowsky hopes to see it go "bright green" – this time, with an investment in the future. Thanks in part to Lebkowsky and Austin Green Art's Randy Jewart (who secured the appearance of heavy-hitting environmental journalist Bill McKibben at this year's conference), SXSW Interactive will be hosting five panels devoted exclusively to sustainability issues (five more than in previous years, if you're counting). The discussions will bring unlimited imagination to bear on the limited resources of our planet, and below you'll find just a glimpse of what our green techno-future might hold.

Building a Worldwide Climate Movement March 10, 3:30pm, Room 19AB

Seasoned environmentalists know Bill McKibben as the guy who wrote the first layman's book on climate change, 1989's The End of Nature. But newcomers are more likely to recognize him from his recent achievements spearheading the Step It Up campaign, the movement responsible for last April's National Day of Climate Action, which saw 1,400 simultaneous demonstrations around the country all pressing one message: Cut carbon 80% by 2050. The campaign, which began just a few months prior with the launch of, is considered a remarkable success in placing that all-important carbon-dioxide-emissions goal squarely on Washington's political agenda. "And we did it all," McKibben points out, "over the Web." During his panel, McKibben will discuss building on the lessons he learned from his Step It Up, which achieved its goal in record time. "We had pictures up online by the end of the day and in congressional offices by Monday," he notes. And because he was able to build a campaign without having to build an entire organization, says McKibben, "now we can just move on to the next thing." (Hint: The "next thing" involves building a worldwide climate-change movement.)

Visualizing Sustainability March 11, 11:30am, Room 9

If you've ever played a game like Civilization, in which you can build an entire civilization (or several) from the ground up, you know firsthand the consequences of mishandling resources – and the power of a game in making something intangible, like your ecological impact, suddenly very real. So what would it be like if we were able to run our real-life endeavors through such simulations? Would we make better real-life choices? In Visualizing Sustainability, panelists will explore ways to take further advantage of the game medium, as panel moderator Jon Lebkowsky puts it, "to help users model the complex data sets associated with their resource and energy use" – in other words, to help them anticipate the consequences of their decisions. Panelists will discuss the usefulness of games in helping groups collaborate on projects that involve complex systems, but they'll also consider the prospect of including environmental impact in regular "swing-swords-around kinda games," says panelist Dawn Danby. As a product-design consultant who has learned that "behavior changes when people get feedback about things that are normally invisible," Danby envisions a world where even our kitchen appliances could show us how much energy they're using as we're using them – the way today's Prius displays its energy-consumption right on the dashboard. Danby and Lebkowsky will be joined by Pliny Fisk (the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems), Jamais Cascio (, and Joel Greenberg (Electric Sheep Co.).

Green Software. Really? March 11, 3:30pm, Room 9

User-experience designer Kim Laama coined the phrase "green software," but even she's not exactly sure what it means – so she put together this panel to find out. The concept could apply, she suggests, to software that's coded to require less energy of the computer that runs it. Or it could apply to applications that help people make eco-friendly choices: Imagine a grocery-store cash register, says Laama, that calculates not only the cost of your groceries but the "sum total waste that will result from the products you purchased – itemized by compost, recycle, and trash." The term "green software" could even imply a certification standard, ensuring that software developers practice green behaviors even as they develop a product to help you do so as well. You'll hear from a range of voices on this issue, among them Nature Publishing Group's Gavin Bell (on green coding), Avoiding Mass Extinctions Engine ("the world's energy meter") founder Gavin Starks, Frog Design's Sara Todd (on green design and initiatives), and Editor Katie Fehrenbacher (on green business).  


10 Ways to Green-ify Your Digital Life March 11, 10am, Room 9

Can Enterprise Save the World March 11, 5pm, Room 9

Bike Hugger Beer & BBQ March 8, 4:30-6:30pm, Brush Square Park

Plutopia: Tech Gathering of the Tribes, a sci-fi party devoted to our green, utopian future March 10, 6pm-12mid, Scholz Garten

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