SXSW Eco: Encounters with Visionaries & Techno-Fetishists

William McDonough
William McDonough speaking on the “Carbon Positive City.” Image: Greg Harman

AUSTIN, Texas—This week, at SXSW Eco, a prominent conference bringing together sustainable business leaders, planners, and others, there are innumerable sessions devoted to startup businesses, socially conscious consumption, “bio-based economies,” genetic engineering, and synthetic materials. It is, by and large, a tech conference targeting industry- and city-scale innovations intended to steer global industrial society through the eye of the needle we are fast approaching.

With only a few hours to spend, I find myself pressed between two choices, one on high-tech food-scanning apps and another with somewhat grander aspirations.

I stop in to listen to DuPont representatives wax on about “How We Feed, Fuel and Clothe Billions of People Without Destroying the Planet.” There isn’t time to inquire about the multinational’s horrendous track record of doing just the opposite. No time to discuss their practice of destroying communities across this planet they are now ostensibly seeking to save. Not its funding of ALEC. Not claims of biopiracy or its quest to monopolize the world’s food system.

That is not to say there are not panels and breakouts geared toward grassroots, community-scale solutions. With the largest gathering of indigenous nations and tribes in 100 years occurring at the Standing Rock standoff against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota taking place right now, with the increasingly indigenous-led climate movement creeping into the territory of a global spiritual revival, there is a single session offered on indigenous storytelling. A schedule search for “environmental justice” turns up one other session, this one on industrial hog farming.

A keynote Wednesday, “Designing a Just City,” promises a Right to the City context through the elevation of “Hip Hop Architecture.” I kick myself (softly, compassionately, of course) for not being able to attend.

But there is little on offer when it comes to questioning the durability of expansionist global capitalism that so many here seem to be endeavoring to make “less bad,” as William McDonough, of “Cradle to Cradle” book-slash-certification, describes most sustainability efforts at an afternoon session. Alternative forms of social and political organization? I’m groping.

These are, to my mind, the conversations we should be having in light of our rapacious appetites, the quest for ultimate material comfort that keep the gears grinding in the mines of extraction as our biosphere is picked apart bit by multiplying bit.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the ambitions behind “bio-based economies” and promises to ramp up non-petrol, liquid energy sources (though I’m skeptical of the promise of biofuels, crop- or algae-based). Carbon can’t continue to flow into the atmosphere and oceans. It’s all hands on deck, meaning the struggle to wrench the valve shut on greenhouse emissions is a noble one whatever the motivation.

The issue I have right now is that I’m not hearing a corresponding cry to flee our basic behaviors–the heavy-footprint behaviors straining the earth’s ability to provide for us and all our related families.

I’m reminded of last month’s essay by Glen Barry lamenting the framing of the “war on climate” called for by 350.0rg’s Bill McKibben:

Climate change could be solved tomorrow and soil erosion, ecosystem loss, nitrogen and phosphorous deposition, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, emergent disease, toxic synergies, ozone pollution, mass extinction, ocean decline, water scarcity, over-population, inequity, perma-war, and any number of other social and environmental issues could still decimate and perhaps end humanity. Climate change is a symptom of a larger human sickness, deeply entwined with deeper maladies, which will not be successfully addressed in isolation; and clearly it is not a matter of simply powering the status quo with renewable energy, which while important, is far from enough.

I take a couple turns around the sprawling exposition space inside the Austin Convention Center to shake the grip of this Du Pont-inspired disappointment. I walk to shake off the stench of what Barry refers to as the “techno fetishist” and open myself once more to the great wealth of positive human intention that is present around me.

I’m killing time before the presentation by William McDonough. Despite my own days as a freelance reporter for Guardian Sustainable Business, I’ve never heard this early visionary of closed-loop production speak.

I find a dozen-odd environmental problem-solvers of various stripe: those dedicated to building peace through micro-solar and African honey, those retreading scrap tires into sleek-looking chanclas, others promoting biodiversity conservation and human health in urban environments, and, helpfully, lighter living.

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I realize my critique is with emphases that are largely by design. There is no fault, no foul in a gathering dedicated to business concerns. It’s right there in the mission statement:

SXSW Eco creates a space for business leaders, policy makers, innovators and designers to advance solutions that drive social, economic and environmental change.

It’s my interests that have shifted these last few years. The questions I’m asking now, which I hope to co-travel with at Deceleration, are more philosophical, spiritual, anthropological. I’m feeling out the root of our crises alongside close friends, asking what is it about the human animal that causes us to malfunction the way we do.

Is it innate?

Is it the dream of empire we’re born into? The settler ethic and its visions of expansion and dominion? Where does that “illusion of separateness” come from, which one workshop leader I engaged with recently (podcast forthcoming) described as the origin point of human violence against ourselves and against the earth? (Same difference, of course.)

These are the senses now mixing with the conference references, the shades of values I’m now weighing alongside one another. Inside this gyre I settle down in my plush seat in a dimly lit hall with a few hundred others open to the talk to come.

Then my prolonged morning grousing is struck dumb. I am shut up by a 35-minutes tour of centuries of meandering human thought, the rise of human-rights conceptions, followed by “the pollution century,” followed by the weakest of “green” policy responses. The much-lauded Earth Summit of 1992 McDonough summarizes as an agreement to  “destroy things a little less quickly.” Same goes for the universe of corporate sustainability measures now being employed.

Here is a blunt critique of the failures and foibles of the “sustainability” movement, a blending of ecological awareness with architectural design, and an irresistible evidence of expansive compassion propelling not a “less bad” industrial design but a “carbon positive” society turned human activity into a healing ceremony on a grand scale.

Listen here:

McDonough speaks of a transformed landscape that not only closes the pipes on emissions, but one that also generates food, habitat, and livelihood.

It works, he says, because it begins not with numbers but a question of values, of what is good and right. Questions of “less” and “more” are left subservient to the vision of a living earth.

“The question is really,” says the architect, the should-be technocrat my prejudices allege, “is how to love all children of all species for all time.”

“That,” he says, “is the design question.”

The visionary on the stage is asking many of the same questions I am, but he is then building the answer in physical space. It’s environmental and moral philosophy with skin on.

If Barry’s criticism of McKibben (questionable in its harshness) is founded on the segregation of the ecological, such is not the case here.

“This century –our century—must and can be the ecological century,” he says, “and then we will have a century worth passing on.”

Poetry from Hildegard of Bingen. Repeated references to the Divine. To Beauty. A demand to reach into the roots of eco-crisis—not to strangle them in a “climate war” coup, but for alchemical purposes, to turn poison into manna. It’s our only chance to not only pass through a century defined by numerous existential question marks but to pass one along in love for our children. For our children and all their relatives of feathers, scales, and fur.

I’m startled to find the language of the drum I would encounter just two hours later sitting on the lawn of the Texas State Capitol with a dozen like-minded water protectors. The drum and the prayer.

It came unexpectedly in an institutional space, reminding me that the vision of healing inhabits no one sector or response. For there are many. Many of us, many solutions. The challenge is to dream and thread those visions. To “insist, insist, insist,” McDonough’s words again, “insist on the right of humanity and nature to coexist.”

Standing Rock solidarity action
Arthur Monrial unfurling the banners at a Standing Rock solidarity action at the Texas State Capitol, Austin, Texas.