The latest United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes it clear that we are running out of time. So, you would think that those attending the SXSW Eco conference last month, a gathering of ecologically and socially minded businesses, would be singing off on the same page about climate initiatives, business citizenship, and doing good in the world. But while they shared the same concerns, it was clear that many of them see the path to a better future very differently.
I interviewed dozens of attendees and spoke at the conference myself, and I heard at least four significantly different approaches to tackling climate change. They were based on divergent beliefs about how we make change possible. Most attendees shared the idea that humans’ “extractive” mindset and way of living has to stop; we can no longer take from the earth at a rate beyond its ability to replenish. Nor can we continue to contribute to inequity across races and regions by means of tax and regulatory devices. None of us were arguing to keep those. But from there, we diverged, and there was much debate—heated debate—during the conference.
Path one: Technology will save us.
Technology evangelists filled the tradeshow and panels, and their collective message was, “We can innovate our way out of this.”
Adam Mott, sustainability vice president at The North Face—a clothing company known for pushing technology boundaries for more sustainable sourcing, production, and product design—described how the company now dyes garment thread instead of finished sheets of fabric. This process conserves dye and allows it to permeate better, thereby upping the level of color fastness and extending the life of each garment, which means that ultimately less goes into the landfill. The North Face’s dyes are also biodegradable and sustainably sourced, and the company is introducing many more innovations this fall.
So technology can make a difference. But is it enough?
Path two: Changes in consumer behavior are imperative.
This path is about consumer education and confrontation. Most folks in this arena feel that technology is moving rapidly and companies are changing, but that consumers are not affected—or changing their habits—at sufficient depth. And no matter what businesses intend, they are limited by their customers’ choices.
The most compelling new take on this approach is Conservation International’s new campaign, based on the idea that people need nature to thrive. Created by the creative genius behind Apple's “1984” and “Think Different” campaigns, Lee Clow, the no-holds-barred social media campaign is designed to get people’s attention and make it personal.
Senior Scientist M. Sanjavan explains, “Nature’s speaking, and Starbucks is listening by going to 100 percent sustainably sourced coffee. Nature’s speaking, and Wal-Mart is listening by going with certified sustainable fish. Individuals are not listening. We have to change that.”
To get people listening, the campaign has enlisted a star-studded cast, including Julia Roberts as the voice of Mother Earth and Harrison Ford as Ocean. Each of the ads is so sternly reprimanding that when I first saw them, I felt like a disrespectful child who would be punished for refusing to listen to my elders. It got my attention, and I took it personally.
For business to bring about big behavior change, customers will have to become more aware and embracing of the message to consume less. Conservation International is piloting a direct, no-excuses approach to help them along, but it is enough? Will this approach work or will there be a backlash?
Path three: Humans have a reciprocal role to play.
The third path I saw was in the alternative lifestyle area—think low-tech permaculture farming—and companies like Google are joining in.
Google partners with local farms on a commercial community-supported agriculture (CSA) program; it pre-buys a year’s supply of vegetables and grains—ingredients for meals that it prepares for employees—and offers a take-home shopping plan.
This path is based on the idea that humans are part of nature, not separate from it, and that they have a role to play in restoring and sustaining the earth’s vitality. In her book Tending the Wild, author M. Kat Anderson describes the ways in which Native American culture actively stewarded and supported the natural world, and suggests that by committing time and effort to these practices, we can better understand how life works and what our own purpose is. In contrast to the idea of nature as a punishing entity, our relationship with the earth can be reciprocal.
This path envisions the “middle way” that Native Americans discovered between exploitation and hands-off preservation. It makes a commitment to dwelling in concert with nature, using resources as a way to give back to the earth and make life better for all beings.
Path four: Caring is the basis of change.
Another path, barely represented at the conference, is about reawakening human awareness and developing deep caring for living systems.
Regenesis Group, a community and economic-development consultancy, aims to teach people how to do this. Founding Partner Pamela Mang says, “Helping people connect with the story of their place evokes caring. When they experience caring, it is possible for them to take on the roles necessary to make Earth and communities healthy.” The foundation of this work is to help people become aware of the uniqueness and “aliveness” of the places they inhabit, and then to connect them with accessible regenerative projects.
This path acknowledges that technology alone cannot solve problems, and that fear can wake us up but can’t guide us to the necessary change. It suggests that connecting with and caring about the world around us is necessary to truly transform human behavior and reveal the regenerative roles we have to play.
On reflection, it became clear to me that these paths are not conflicting. In fact, to successfully drive real, large-scale environmental change, we need them all.