By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
I confess, I didn’t tweet while attending the SXSW Eco conference in Austin this week.
This fabulous gathering of activists, artists, entrepreneurs, thinkers, doers and paradigm shifters was totally tweetable. But the conversation was too riveting.
I just kept taking notes as speakers from around the world — architects, activists, artists, academics and, skipping forward in the alphabet, journalists, sustainability directors, small and big business owners and venture capitalists wrestled with the environmental questions of our time.
While I was not tweeting, expert after expert took the podium at Eco’s third annual gathering to offer their ideas about how in the world we are going to save the world.
Yes, it’s that big. Bigger even than solving a “partial government shutdown,” this was about avoiding a planetary shutdown.
We need to plan for a world of 9 billion people, where there’s still enough food and water, our land and air is not permanently poisoned, and our cities and wild spaces are not overwhelmed and dysfunctional.
Of course, people aren’t trying to solve it all. But finding solutions big and small was the focus or a slice of every session at Eco, which attracted 3,000 for its third annual gathering, held at the Austin Convention Center Oct. 7-9. The experts aimed to inspire and advise the innovators and eco-preneurs in attendance, and their ideas have broad applications for any of us who’re simply concerned about the planet and the future.
Here are three key takeaways.
This is the stock and trade of eco companies. From the people on the exhibit floor with the self-contained, automated, worm-fed, worry-free mini-greenhouse that trumps a regular backyard garden to the big wind farm producers who are undercutting fossil-fuel electricity by capturing the infinite wind, new economy companies seek and find better, cleaner, simpler ways to bake the cake.
Keynoter Robin Chase, a co-founder of ZipCar, took this dialogue to a new level.
Chase spoke about how new tech-minded companies are growing exponentially by working with existing communities. Instead of adopting a traditional top-down approach, they tap grassroots energy and resources already in play. This new way of conceptualizing business as a facilitator has produced a wealth of emerging robust companies, like Etsy, Fiverr Community and Airbnb.
Airbnb, a lodging service that connects travelers with homeowners who have short-term rental space, be it a bedroom or a spare house, has become as big as some traditional hotel chains in just four years by drawing on a pool of property owners eager to make money as travel hosts, Chase said.
Another way of looking at it, is that Airbnb capitalizes on “excess capacity” in the economy, she explained. This was the key idea behind another company she founded, BuzzCar, in which car owners pool their assets in a peer-to-peer rental car system.
BuzzCar, which operates in France, recognized that people’s cars are typically idle 95 percent of the time, creating an asset that can be put to work.
“It’s the second most expensive thing you own, and it sits idle 95 percent of the time,” Chase said.
BuzzCar created the online platform and the participants jumped on board, providing either the cars or the cash to rent one. The program is direct, easy and reaches markets where conventional car rental companies don’t go.
“This new way of doing business is changing everything,” Chase said.
Many other SXSWEco speakers outlined how their companies/projects are thriving by re-imaging needs and goods being served more efficiently.
Companies that are developing “meat analog” foods, for example, are trying to cut out both literal and economic fat and waste by finding efficient, less planet-damaging and more humane ways of providing people protein foods.
“It takes eight kilograms of soy protein (via soybean feed for cattle) to make one kilogram of beef,” said Glenn Zorpette, a science writer with IEEE magazine, in a session entitled “Hunger Solutions: Feeding 10 Billion People.
Wouldn’t it be smarter, he asked, to feed those 8 kilograms of soy protein directly to humans in a meatless “burger?”
Organizations working for climate action also are discovering that they must find efficiencies to get their message out.
Chase cited the climate action work of 350.org, which crowd-sourced 50,000 photos from people around the world to show that climate change and climate activism is everywhere.
Which brings us to another pillar of success touted at SXSW Eco, collaboration.
Businesses and social cause groups will be faster and more effective if they collaborate, Chase said. In fact, they fail to collaborate at their peril.
Chase’s latest venture, a program called Peers Inc., encourages large companies to work with small companies.
In this scenario, the big guys provide capital and experience while the cash-strapped little guys contribute flexibility and (sorry big guys) innovation. Instead of eating each other up, the David’s and Goliath’s accelerate their efforts, she said.
Rainforest Alliance founder Daniel Katz made the identical point in a separate address to the SXSW Eco crowd.
A longtime NGO leader and philanthropist himself, Katz admonished mainstream non-profits to collaborate with their smaller grassroots counterparts. Too many large, mainstream NGOs are stuck in their separate silos and fail to fully engage outside their comfort zone, he said, adding that philanthropists have the same problem and must start to give more power to the communities they’re trying to help.
“We have to trust the people and build the people into the movement, and then we will have a movement,” he said.
Katz gave a shout out to the Tar Sands Blockade, a group of landowners, environmentalists and clergy that staged several protests against the Keystone tar sands pipeline for successfully bringing diverse people together around a common cause.
He also praised Greenpeace’s leader Phil Radford for modeling collaboration by raising money for smaller grassroots groups, not just his own.
Katz’ panel mate, Terry Kellogg, the Chief Impact Officer of 1 Percent for the Planet, sounded a similar note about bringing people together. Step one toward doing that would be to “drop the doom and gloom” messages about the impending climate disaster, because it is paralyzing people instead of motivating them to act.
As evidence that organizers must turn over a new leaf, Kellogg noted that environmental causes only garner a meager 1 percent of the dollars donated to causes in the U.S., yet their collective cause, conserving the earth is a pretty big one.
A better strategy would be to emphasize the positive – he showed his group’s new campaign slogan “Do You Love Blue?” as an example. Companies also must join hands with many companies and groups working for good, despite having varied motivations. (Example: A hunter’s group that works to conserve the wetlands is doing worthy work, even if you don’t agree with their rationale, to save ducks, and hunting.)
Which brings us to the final takeaway, which is intertwined with the first two.
This year’s Eco brought in a range of people, business types and activists, including some who told sobering stories about how climate change, deforestation and fossil fuel pollution are affecting the poor, disenfranchised and people in developing nations.
Women from island or African nations who belong to outreach collective Climate Wise Women said extreme weather, rising temperatures and oceans are depriving their communities of food, housing and a safe future.
Climate-related floods and droughts have wiped out harvests, worsened malaria and destroyed housing in Constance Okollet’s village in Uganda.
“There was a lot of wind, rain and everything,” she said recalling one flood. “Children died. Sometimes you would even step on a person because so many people are sick.”
Okollet leads a group of 1,200 people in Eastern Uganda who are working to build homes that will withstand the floods, plant trees and modernize agriculture to adapt to changing planting seasons. But she says “nobody has come up with any solutions about what can be done for us” short of curbing the carbon emissions heating the planet.
In the US, people living near natural gas fracking operations are suffering respiratory ailments, nosebleeds and other sicknesses, said Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health.
“Fossil fuel companies in their communities are poisoning their land and water,” he said, citing examples in Texas and Pennsylvania. Yet, the people cannot even get good information about what chemicals are being released, and sometimes even the doctors are gagged and cannot fully inform their patients.
The CEH is working to break the silence by reaching out to mothers with sick children and bringing academics working on environmental health together with people in affected communities to “build power” for both the experts and the afflicted, Green explained.
The Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus also spoke passionately about the need for inclusion and broadening the movement for economic and environmental justice.
“I am totally against the fact that our movement is controlled by the NonProfit Industrial Complex,” he said. “We must move out the time card activists” and bring in the grassroots. Those who are “sick and tired of being sick and tired” know what needs to be done and can ignite the movement, he said.
Yearwood said he knew he had to be fully committed to the climate movement a few years ago when he delivered a gut-wrenching funeral service for a teenager whose mother had been unable to buy her the inhaler she needed.
“I had to bury a 14-year-old who had asthma, who lived too close to a landfill . . . During that service, the mom was trying to climb into the casket and lay in the casket.”
“When there are babies lying in coffins and mothers trying to climb into it,” people of all races and backgrounds need to come together around our common cause, the survival of the planet and ourselves, he said.
“I’m in it for the clean air and clean water,” he said. “I’m looking for my people to be free of this fossil fuel industry.”
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