Two days in, there are a few themes developing around SXSW Eco.
For the most part, the speakers and panelists at the events are smart folks, tired of the insular, circular discussions that come up whenever sustainability and conservation are discussed. They know that insisting that we all need to use less, give up our cars and consumptive ways and scale back the society we’ve built, until it’s something that seems more manageable and feasible, is not exactly a political or social winner. If that’s the point you are focused on, congratulations! You’ve got a very small coalition of people who are willing to discuss it with you, and you’re all going to get increasingly frustrated as the rest of society crosses the street to avoid you.
So the second day of SXSW Eco focused largely on shifting that conversation. You know the old saw about praying for “the strength to change what I can, the peace to accept what I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference?” At its best, day two of SXSW Eco was about ways to find that wisdom.
Panels and presentations had names like “Solving the First and Last Mile Commute Problem,” to discuss practical ways to make public transportation of actual use to suburbanites; “Consuming Better: What Neuroscience Says About a Sustainable Future,” which started from the position that human beings are hard-wired against reducing consumption, and posited that we needed to look for ways to make less feel like more; “Building a Better Climate Movement,” a discussion of organizing tactics that could help broaden coalitions; and “Let’s Stop Talking About Sustainability: How Our Current Vocabulary is Failing Us,” in which representatives from Wal-Mart and AECOM joined the project manager from the Environmental Defense Fund and others to talk about why their shared ecological goals struggled to resonate with people.
In short, it was a relatively new conversation. This is, at its core, what SXSW does best: it finds ways to catalyze around the new, whether that’s social networking circa the 2007 launch of Twitter at SXSW Interactive, the the coming retro-soul revival that started with Amy Winehouse’s debut at SXSW Music that same year or The Hurt Locker gathering momentum for its Oscar win by appearing at SXSW Film in 2009. And while there’s still a lot of uncertainty at the mixers, receptions, and dinners about what, exactly, SXSW Eco is, the fact that there’s a strong push toward a new way of talking about the same things we’ve been discussing for years is encouraging.
Of course, that’s not strictly the attitude of all of the conference’s attendees. It’s important to incorporate a broad spectrum of ideas, so panels like “Building A Better Climate Movement” and “Let’s Stop Talking About Sustainability,” as relatively unmoderated Q&A events, spent a lot of time fielding questions of the “Why can’t everybody just accept that everything about our society the way that it’s structured right now needs to change forever” variety. It wasn’t uncommon for a conversation at one of the conference’s receptions to be hijacked by any of the numerous people at the conference looking to preach the same set of talking points to the already-converted.
It’s a complicated arrangement that speaks to some of the major challenges that people interested in sustainability face: namely, how do you reach the massive numbers of people you need to communicate with in order to make a change when your most vocal ambassadors spend their time ranting in language that turns those same people off?At SXSW Eco, right now, the possible answers are being discussed alongside walking, talking examples of the problem.
Of course, that’s probably to be expected. After all—if changing the way that people talked about these things were easy, there’d be no reason to bring them together to hold a conference in the first place.