SXSW Eco: Why Environmentalists Need Bigger Muscles

EarthTechling was an official media supporter of SXSW Eco 2012. See more coverage of the event here.

sxsw-eco-2012-new-environmentalists

Image via SXSW Eco

Despite what you may think, SXSW Eco isn’t only about new technologies or cool companies. If you looked hard enough, you could actually find speakers and panel discussions that focused on the bigger picture: Who we are as a society, where we’re headed, and what we need to do to make sure that place is inhabitable.

“The New Environmentalists”, was a panel discussion that included Bill McKibben of 350.org, Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, and Larry Schweiger of the National Wildlife Federation, and was moderated by Bryan Walsh of TIME Magazine. The panel started off by celebrating how far the environmentalist movement has come since its first major groundswell over 40 years ago.

At the same time, the panelists acknowledged, today’s environmentalists face complicated challenges, like climate change and the search for new energy. We also have a much different political atmosphere. “Our movement must change along with these challenges, Schweiger explained, “we have a very short opportunity to act, and act now.”

This sense of crisis is nothing new. In fact, one could say that environmentalists thrive on this type of fatalism. The ticking clock is what gives us license to nag our friends and complain about lethargic politicians, right? According to the panelists, smothering people with shocking facts isn’t enough to motivate change anymore. The next generation of environmental activists must be willing to incorporate new tactics for a changing world.

The tactics that McKibben and Schweiger employ are obvious, and more in tune with what we think of as traditional environmentalism, but with 21st century twists. Both 350.org and NWF have taken to the internet, using social tools to recruit and organize sympathizers on a scale that was only dreamed of 40 years ago. 350.org advocates taking to the streets in peaceful protest, and is probably best known for organizing the massive Washington D.C. sit-ins that thrust the Keystone XL pipeline into the public consciousness. The NWF has decades of wildlife advocacy under its belt, and with climate change as the number one threat to wildlife habitats, uses its large base as a force for supporting conservation policies. But is it unrealistic to think that we can petition and march our way to the clean, peaceful world that most environmentalists imagine?

Nordhaus thinks so. His 2007 book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, was called “the most important thing to happen to environmentalism since Silent Spring” by Wired.”Our view is that contemporary environmentalism is incapable of of dealing with new great ecological crises that face us,” he said during the panel. “Basically, the tree-hugging stuff isn’t going to cut it in a world of 7 billion people who all want to be rich like Americans.” What we should ask ourselves instead, advises Nordhaus, is how are we going to preserve some part of our natural heritage, keep the climate in a safe range, on a planet with 10 billion people consuming a growing amount of energy, resources and calories?

It’s unrealistic, Nordhaus said, to expect Brazil to leave the Amazon undeveloped, or to assume other countries will reject gas and coal. What he seemed to advocate was an ideological compromise where environmentalists acknowledge that the world’s quest for liberty and happiness will inevitably follow the Western path of industrial revolution. This viewpoint wasn’t very popular with the audience, but there is some truth in it.

Keep Reading…

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog