Red and Blue Make Green @ SXSW Eco 2014

Red and Blue Make Green @ SXSW Eco 2014

For the past five years I’ve regularly attended conferences on sustainability, clean technology, green building and energy engineering – most recently, SXSW Eco 2014. Others I have attended include Tech Connect World, the World Energy Engineering Congress, GreenBuild, and the New Cities Summit. Speakers such as Colin Powell, Sylvia Earle, Bill Clinton, Geoffrey West, R. James Woolsey, Robin Chase, Al Gore and Jaime Lerner have inspired me with stories of the hard work that is happening around these issues. And if there’s one common theme throughout these very different events, it is this:

Sustainability is not just a matter of exercising common sense in resource management, new technology, good governance, better business models and environmental ethics. Sustainability is also a matter of national security for the US, and a matter of survival for the human species.

When Republican Hank Paulson, former Goldman Sachs executive and Secretary of the Treasury, comes out in the New York Times and states that climate change is a clear and present danger to America, you know a different wind is starting to blow.

When hawkish Democrat and former Undersecretary of the Navy and Director of the CIA R. James Woolsey says that a centralized grid and energy infrastructure are an unacceptable risk to national security, you know that change is afoot.

When the US Conference of Mayors lists climate protection as one of its top priorities – and over 1,000 mayors from every major city in the US (except Houston) have signed the Climate Protection Agreement – you know that the partisan gridlock in state and federal government is giving way to cities moving forward as the new nation-states.

And when the Department of Defense’s Operational Energy Strategy for 2014 outlines the extraordinary challenges facing the US Military in the 21st Century stemming from climate change – including civil war, mass migration, epidemic, famine and terrorist insurgency – you know the lights have gone on in the building.

Of all of the great conferences that are handling these issues, SXSW Eco stands out as the most unique. Whereas other conferences are about famous speakers, research, venture capital, breakthrough technology and global corporations, SXSW Eco is about you and me, and what we are going to do about it. SXSW Eco is also diverse. There, artists, writers, students, CEOs, scientists, entrepreneurs, retirees, restaurant owners, builders, farmers and advocates ranging from ages 18 – 80 immerse themselves in the amazing cultural ecosystem that is Austin, Texas.

This was my third year and each one has been special, but this year was better than ever. I stayed in the Austin Motel (funky but clean), where there’s a great neighborhood percolating south of the river from the Convention Center on South Congress. The motto of the motel is “So Close Yet So Far Out” – something you would expect to see more in Berkeley, CA or Cambridge, MA. In fact, similarly great neighborhoods are springing up all over town.

They say Austin is a blue island in a red sea, but let’s not forget that the Red Sea was miraculously parted – and miracles can still happen today. For instance, SXSW Eco proves that it is possible to incite positive social and cultural change in the middle of “red state” Texas. In fact, Austin’s particular blend of fierce independence, citizen action, libertarian socialism and collaborative capitalism in a Republican, right-to-work, gun-toting, community property state is like one of the best chicken & sausage gumbos you’ve ever eaten. It just gets better here.

At the conference I heard about marine biology and plastics pollution in the ocean; a book that tests water quality and then turns into a set of water filters; how beer and green infrastructure can save the world; and how an ex-marine Republican Mayor’s sustainability program is saving money and the quality of life. But there’s a plateau you reach after 6-8 hours inside at a conference, a kind of heightened reality where you’re not sure whether you’re a lot smarter because of the fierce intake of information, or whether your brain cells have been burned to a crisp in a sensory forest fire. But SXSW Eco gets the balance right. For example, after sitting in on numerous sessions demonstrating that the human race is on its way to extinction, you go to a park across the street and talk to a professor who has been living in a dumpster for almost a year. There isn’t much room in there but he’s figured out how to make it work (didn’t ask but am assuming no carnal relations are going on in there.)

In all seriousness, one of the best sessions at SXSW Eco 2014 I attended was about public policy. Building Bipartisan Consensus in the Green War was a panel discussion where three of the four panelists were Republicans, one panelist worked on environmental policy in the Clinton-Gore White House, and the moderator was clearly a Democrat. All of these people defied the stereotypes of fire-breathing fundamentalists or yoga-studio bleeding hearts. In fact, this panel discussion remained very civil, very engaging and surprisingly reasonable. The panel discussion stayed centered on real accomplishments, practical solutions, veering away from partisan whining and ideological warfare.

Democrat Beth Viola, a senior policy advisor at Holland & Knight and chief environmental advisor to Al Gore in the Clinton White House, talked about earmarks and the appropriations process and how it has to evolve (like trying to get Australopithecus to become Homo Sapiens overnight). She also mentioned the efficacy of the Defense Production Act and how it has seen bipartisan support there for advanced bio-refineries. She was optimistic, despite the gridlock that has become like a traffic jam of cholesterol in our political arteries. Speaking with her later, she agreed that we need a National Energy Bank (good luck with that).

Republican Dave Carney, who has been in political campaigning and strategy since 1980 and who has worked for a Who’s-Who list of Republican candidates and officeholders (Dole, Kemp, Bush, Sununu, Perry, Abbot), stated that bipartisan approaches do not have to involve conflict. Rather, what’s good for business requires phase-in, gradualism and monetizing the mission. Developing new forms of energy, using bridge fuels like LNG, and cleaning up the environment can create jobs and profits for business, but there are “huge” transition costs.

Republican Fred Maas, founder and CEO of Pacific EcoCompanies, LLC, a merchant bank that specializes in financing for “green” projects, has a long list of Republican politicians he’s worked with (Schwarzenegger, Dole, McCain and Kemp). But Mr. Maas has also done extensive, very successful private-sector work with sustainable development and green building. He believes that the political dynamics created around the environment in the Clinton years can be de-politicized, and green technology can be brought to the forefront as good for everyone. But does the electorate really care about energy beyond events when gas prices go up? He isn’t seeing real commitment from the citizens. His solution: elect a Republican president who is also energy-conscious.

Republican City of Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a veteran of the Gulf War in transportation and logistics (e.g., getting fuels through the battlefield) Legion of Merit, launched RebuildIndy in 2010. The highly successful program in urban redevelopment has upgraded streets, sidewalks, bridges, drainage and decaying neighborhoods while creating a thriving environment for businesses and workers. Mayor Ballard stated that sustainability is practical, but you have to grow it up at a grassroots level and get citizen engagement. He uses policy to get people involved, “not to do it for them.” He urged us to ignore the “wing nuts” on both sides of the aisle and stay focused on practical, everyday, local solutions. He also mentioned the war on terror, which so far has cost $1 trillion in hard costs as well as $1 trillion in soft costs. Without naming names, he suggested that we could be spending that money a lot more wisely in economic development.

Takeaways from these conferences? Republicans and the Democrats need to put away the long knives and get back to the business of building a nation. At WEEC 2014 in DC in September, Bill Clinton talked of many of things in the 50 minutes he spoke without slides or notes – a mesmerizing performance. Like a preacher who removed the dogma from his sermon, he recast our challenge using a universal theme: when it comes to ensuring sustainability on this planet, we’re all in this together. And at SXSW Eco, we all came together to do something for sustainability.

Austin image via

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