Lessons From SXSW Eco #2: What Makes Us Think

We learned that we need better green messaging, cities are where we’re going, and children should spend time in nature early and often.

The first annual SXSW Eco conference was a success by many measures. The number of attendees exceeded the organizers’ expectations, the sessions were lead by well-known industry pioneers and up-and-comers, and the discussion was informative and productive. Here were some of the highlights we found most applicable.

Senior Editor, Andrea Newell:

The green movement is losing the messaging war.

As Anna wrote earlier, the green movement is facing the sad truth that people aren’t moved to combat climate change when confronted with grim statistics, alarming graphs scolding and guilt. It isn’t working. We need a new way to connect with people and get them to care.

Knowing your audience is Business 101, yet green has promoted a generally one-size-fits-all rationale. Comedy Central’s Kelleigh Dulany, VP of Corporate Responsibility talked about how she narrowed the focus of the message to Comedy Central’s demographic, made it relevant to them, and, of course, delivered it with humor. Dulany said, “Make the change small, make the result big and make the impact local.”

Due to what many feel is alarmist green marketing, people get the idea that if they are not significantly changing their lifestyle to be green, they are not doing enough. So they do nothing. The truth is that if many people made small changes in their conservation habits, that would make a bigger impact than a few people making big changes. So, taking baby steps toward a greener lifestyle still helps.

Most of us will live in or near cities by mid-century.

As our population grows, it will naturally consume more space. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in or near cities. Cities will expand because that is where the jobs, education and resources are. The turning point will be how those cities react to their increasing size and population. Infrastructure is crucial. Sustainable cities in the future will include better public transportation, bike trails, child-friendly spaces and quality education, good jobs, and access to healthy food.

In addition to planning for better cities, many metropolitan areas need to plan for environmental changes. Melanie Nutter, Director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, projects that sea level will rise nearly 55 inches by the end of this century. For San Francisco, surrounded by water on three sides, this is a serious issue. The airport will be underwater, as will 99 miles of roadways. These are eventualities that she knows she must start planning for now. Amongst many aggressive environmental initiatives employed by the city, currently it leads the country in waste disposal (more than 77 percent is composted, recycled or reused) and has set a goal of zero waste by 2020.

Robin Rather, CEO of Collective Strength, Inc. makes the argument that we’re all in this together – cities, suburbs and rural areas. Our current us-versus-them mentality works against progress and change. She contends that we all have to face this problem united, whether we live in super-hip cities like San Francisco, cities in dire straits like Detroit, a Rhode Island suburb or rural Nebraska.

The children are our (environmental) future.

Several speakers and organizations have identified a new, desirable demographic to target – children. (Relatively) free of cynicism and unswayed by complicated charts, children easily believe that the environment is precious and important simply by spending time outside.

Keynote speaker Mark Tercek (The Nature Conservancy) fell in love with nature when he wanted his children to develop an appreciation for the outdoors and they planned many exploratory family trips. TNC supports programs that help urban youth who would not otherwise get to spend time outdoors participate in nature activities. Keynote speaker Philippe Cousteau certainly was brought up to love the water, but his foundation, EarthEcho International focuses on encouraging children to appreciate oceans and their ecosystems. Disney reaches out to children through Iron Way Films using creativity and imagination, and Comedy Central speaks to teens and young adults through humor.

It’s fitting. Children will inherit our planet, so the idea that they should learn to care about it early on is the right one. If children hold so much sway over parental buying decisions, perhaps they can exert influence over some greener behavior, too.

Marketing Manager, Anna Brones:

It’s all about food.

What is the one thing that connects us? The one thing that can get anybody talking? Food. “We cherish our connections to food. We do not cherish our connections to turning off our lightbulbs,” said journalist Simran Sethi. If there is one thing that binds us, no matter what side of the political spectrum we are on, it’s what we eat, and when it comes to talking about the environment and our health, food is also one of the main common denominators.

We need to have uncomfortable conversations.

Population control, religion, race – these are all things that many of us steer clear of, but if we don’t bring these important issues to the table we are going to have serious missed opportunities. Roger-Mark De Souza of Population Action International made the connection between access to reproductive services and family planning and climate change; if we slow population growth we can limit carbon emissions. Here is an area with potential for significant impact, and yet it is one of the many important questions that won’t be on the table at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in 2012. If we continue to veer from the difficult questions, we can forget progress.

Listen before talking.

Action is needed, but to inspire action we have to know who we are talking to and how they will respond. This requires listening. Identify not only what communities need, but what they want. We live in an era that requires serious action, and we need it now, but if we continue to preach, we won’t effect real change. As Andrew Hutson of Environmental Defense Fund, pointed out, we cannot lead discussion “with ideas that threaten people’s core beliefs and values.”

Editor-in-Chief, Sara Ost:

Life, sustainability, and the pursuit of happiness.

“We need a Rosetta Stone” for green messaging was Gary Lawrence’s quote retweeted round the conference room in “Let’s Stop Talking about Sustainability: How Our Green Vocabulary Is Failing Us.”

We need a ring decoder, someone else said. We need to know how to market and message for our target audiences, another panelist noted. Well, yes.

What are these words that will work? We know what they aren’t. Green, eco, sustainability, environmentalism, climate change, global warming, conservation, cutting back, recycling, reusing, reducing and worst of all: sacrifice. Green doesn’t just have a sex appeal problem (on the level of Christian rap; besides, who wants to be a color?), it has a happiness problem.

We environmentalists can argue about consumption, mitigation versus paradigm shift, and technology until the grass fed cows come home. The fundamental problem is that green, The Movement, asks for sacrifice and gets snippy when it doesn’t happen. If sacrifice were going to work, it would have already. We live in a nation where the grand directive from our President in the weeks after 9/11 was for us to shop. I don’t think we’re at a point as a culture anymore where we can be asked to sacrifice in the face of very real problems – at least not without government involvement (think enforced rations circa WWII).

I’d like to remind people that Obama was able to win an election on simple appeals to our common humanity, to the good in us: “Change” and “Yes we can.”

In this particular panel, Lawrence asked us to consider appealing to the core emotions we all share. These are fear, aspiration and nostalgia. He then said what I consider to be the most profound thing I heard at the entire conference: “We are forgetting about happiness.”

It strikes me that we live in a culture where happiness is not a value – despite the fact that it’s written right into our Declaration of Independence. What American doesn’t recall having to memorize “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in grade school? Yet we don’t take  vacations. Paternity leave? What’s that? Hell, we barely get outside. Take a look at infant mortality rates, the number of adults on antidepressants, the media we consume – it’s awful. On the flight in, I happened to sit next to a woman who counsels Fortune 50 executives on communication and negotiation. She had that glow that really present, grateful, active people have. I was riveted by the earful she gave me about high stakes negotiating, and equally moved when she said, after a pause: “People who live here don’t see just how self-loathing we are. Other cultures are blown away by it.”

Of course, I also couldn’t help but think about Steve Jobs and his impact on the world during all of this green discussion and debate. People love Apple because there’s an element of happiness to the products. Design is soul.

It’s simple, but green needs some soul.

Image: Kewl