(SXSW Eco)

SXSW Eco: Who Owns Environmentalism?


Now in its third year, South by Southwest Eco is part Aspen Ideas Festival, part grassroots movement-building and part corporate branding opportunity—all under the banner of environmentalism. You can feel the competing impulses. At SXSW Eco, there are grassroots activists still glowing from acts of civil disobedience brushing shoulders with brand experts and corporate sustainability officers.

Who owns environmentalism in 2013? Is it a tech entrepreneur with the Next Big Thing? The anti-fracking crusader on the frontlines of the shale play? Or Chipotle sponsoring a panel on sustainable meat and passing out cute packages of cilantro seeds extolling “family farmers” as the company’s “heroes”? Is it all of the above?

And hanging over all of this—increasingly so, with every passing year—is the specter of climate change and the persistent question of what to do, what to do, what to do. In the panels and get-togethers and coffee klatches and mentoring sessions, these currents all pull, sometimes in the same direction, sometimes at cross purposes. Nothing perhaps defined the cognitive dissonance of SXSW Eco than a keynote speech yesterday (“Peak Stuff, Baby Pigeons and the Heartbeat of Cats”) by Adam Werbach, the Sierra Club wunderkind-turned-corporate-consultant-turned-tech-entrepreneur.

In Werbach—whose last book was about teaching corporations how to embrace “sustainability”—it all came together.

While most 23-year-olds are just starting their careers, Werbach was the youngest president of the Sierra Club ever, the hand-picked successor of the legendary David Brower when he took over in 1997. When he left the Sierra Club, Werbach made a break with traditional environmentalism by setting up a corporate consultancy and avowing, in 2004, that he was no longer an environmentalist. Then, in 2005, he went full heretic by going to work for Wal-Mart, a company he had once impugned as “a new breed of toxin.” Fast Company gleefully put him on its cover with the triumphant headline, “He Sold His Soul to Wal-Mart.”

(During his keynote, Werbach appraised his 7-8 years at Wal-Mart as “kind of a mixed bag,” though he added that the company “has taken stigma away from sustainability.”)

From his San Francisco base, Werbach is now peddling yerdle, an app that facilitates the sharing of stuff. Need a shovel to dig a hole once a year? Don’t run off to Home Depot and buy one; get on yerdle and find someone in your network who can loan you one. Cut down on your stuff by 25 percent!

Like almost all of the speakers here, Werbach wasn’t too sunny about the prospects of fighting climate change at this moment of government dysfunction. “Pretty dire,” was the phrase he used. What to do?

“I think we have a baby pigeon problem,” Werbach said. No one ever sees baby pigeons because they stay in the nest until they are fully-formed. Only then do they come into the public spaces where we, humans, see them. So it is with people. We have ideas but they are still on the nest, awaiting their public showing. “That makes me pretty hopeful actually,” Werbach said.

When it comes to having too much stuff, Americans are having a “baby pigeon moment” because we have reached something called “peak stuff,” that moment when we decide we recognize we have the problem of too much.

It’s not an easy realization to come to, Werbach argues, because the human brain is wired for accumulation. Marketers and advertisers certainly know this. “The most powerful word in marketing is ‘new,’” Werbach said. It’s not better we seek, it’s new. The six-bladed razor, not the five-. The squagel.

Werbach said he was inspired to create yerdle after visiting the “savings circles” of Mumbai, India—neighborhood-based networks of families who help each other save and pool resources. From that seed, Werbach came up with yerdle, a kind-of Craigslist for sharers.

Which seems kinda cool and also completely inadequate to any of the staggering challenges Werbach acknowledged. And also wholly unnecessary and missing the point of those Mumbai social circles. How about getting to know your neighbors so you can borrow a damn shovel when you need it? Or living close to your family? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some squab to go eat.