The SXSW Music Conference in Austin, TX has gained notoriety worldwide for breaking new artists and attracting top names on all sides of the industry. Since its inception as a regional music conference 25 years ago, it has expanded to include Film and Interactive. The latest incarnation, SXSW Eco, was born out of SXSW Inc.’s corporate belief in the importance of sustainability, with the goal of having an international conversation about society’s greatest environmental challenges across the public, private and academic sectors.

I was inspired by the solution-based discussions that were sparked at this inaugural event, although many of the attendees, panelists and speakers acknowledged the need to extend the conversation beyond this “eco-focused population” in order to achieve real change.

Former Governor of Colorado Bill Ritter is known for his accomplishments in passing clean energy legislation – 57 bills, to be exact. He was interviewed in a featured session to kick-off the conference, after which we discussed if “Climate Change” is a taboo phrase in government.

Off-camera he remarked, “It’s hard to believe the hesitation. Even if you take climate change off the table, it seems obviously beneficial to support clean energy.” 

Why take it off the table?
Unfortunately, the “political fault line” elected officials must cross in order to address this issue is a risk many are not willing to take. Despite the speculation about federal regulation of clean technology, it is more likely that solutions will be reached in the near term through private sector innovation. But whose interests does the private sector serve?

Erik Assadourian from Worldwatch Institute assembled a slideshow demonstrating how marketing has shaped culture and normalized consumerism, from the 1940’s branding of the color pink for girls’ items to promotions for cars and Happy Meals aimed directly at schoolchildren. Economic prosperity depends on consumption, but it’s a slippery slope.

As Assadourian presented, population is growing too much as it is, and more consumption per capita decreases the number of people the earth can support. To counteract this, we must pro-actively transform our culture to living sustainably, just as we are inherently consumers now. 



Alex Steffen (above right), the first day’s keynote speaker, is considered a “planetary futurist”. The over-consumption he most vehemently stressed was that of energy, and its use, he says, is determined by infrastructure and culture. So he conceptualized the design of futuristic compact communities in which transportation and local sourcing support more sustainable living. The imagery of bike-friendly roads with a narrow “car lane” may have been exaggerated to make a point – but other ideas were echoed in the success stories of existing cities with innovative climate policies.d.

As the world is becoming more urbanized, many believe tackling challenges and implementing solutions in major cities can most efficiently address our greatest environmental issues. To this end, a network of cities formed the C40 climate leadership group, which includes San Francisco. I spoke with San Fran’s Director of Environment, Melanie Nutter, about their achievements, and what other cities (such as her hometown of Chicago) could do to follow their lead.

Nutter and other environmental leaders stressed the value of community engagement, and bringing stakeholders together to talk about eco-minded changes that make economic sense. I am all for consensus building, which can lead to broad-reaching solutions, but the most relevant ‘special interest’ has no voice!

Scientific fact doesn’t seem to be doing the trick; it’s about time Mother Earth called in some backup.

A reoccurring theme at SXSW Eco could be summed up in this way: Legal representation – in the form of laws with consequences – will protect the environment by forcing a change in the behavior of industry and citizens. But America must overcome political and corporate interests in order to confront an issue that is considered non-partisan elsewhere in the world.

Recognizing a benefit in paying emission penalties vs. investment in reducing one’s pollution seemed like an abhorrent lesson to be teaching students in business school – unfortunately, my grade in Macroeconomics reflected my repeated vocal refuting of this flawed equation. But it helps underscore why, in a quantifiable way, we’ve got to get nature on the balance sheet.

Innovative companies like Google and Puma are currently identifying the impact of resource depletion in their operating costs. We’re not talking “tree hugger” philosophy here… these forward-thinking companies recognize the negative economic impacts of climate change on their business, as well as the cost-savings associated with strategic, sustainable practices.

The art and entertainment worlds have not generally focused on conveying messages of eco-consciousness, nor has the media taken on the role of reporting the worst offenders or greatest conservationists. But that can change – and it may be a matter of semantics and style. 

Filmmaker David Buckland and his Cape Farewell organization combine art and science to engage the public in the issue of climate change, and influence a cultural shift in values.

Other visual and musical artists – from Andy Goldsworthy to Jack Johnson – have created art inspired by their ecological concerns, or communicated them to fans and inspired activism.

These exceptional efforts are unfortunately not as far reaching as mainstream media outlets. So, we heard from a few bigger media/entertainment companies on their approach to activating audiences around the environment.

Morgan Clendaniel of Coexist, the upcoming on-line offspring of Fast Company, told us, “Being right doesn’t work. Rather than spreading a universal message of truth, we must determine how to change people’s minds.”


“Rather than focusing on problems,” says Kelly Cox of Ironway Films, “focus on stuff we’ll lose if climate changes.”

And Kelleigh Dulany, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility for Comedy Central, stressed the importance of crafting messages that resonate with your audience. For her network, they keep it simple… something along the lines of “Don’t be a douche.”

It’s not easy to change politics, culture, infrastructure or opinion. All of the troubling facts and figures about climate change can make even the most optimistic, eco-conscious citizens fret – but today’s challenges inspire tomorrow’s innovations. Global leaders have identified tangible ways to mitigate the damage that’s done, and adapt to the changing world. And we, as individuals, have the power to raise our voices and change our own behavior. What’s the risk in trying?