Our climate is in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars

The opportunity for mining water from asteroids was just one of the topics discussed at SXSW Eco

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop  was the subject of a keynote speech at SXSW Eco

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop was the subject of a keynote speech at SXSW Eco

 

South By SouthWest (SXSW) is the poster child for successful conference expansion.

Starting with just music and film back in 1987, which takes place in Austin, Texas (and has also recently expanded to Las Vegas, Nevada) now includes interactive media, science, entrepreneurship, the environment, education and any other category that can justify itself fitting into the festival’s growing raison d’etre.

Taking place over three days this month – separately from the main two week event in March – SXSW Eco aims to create a space for “business leaders, investors, innovators and designers to drive economic, environmental and social change”.

With only a couple of thousand attendees, it is a far easier event to navigate than the comparable Interactive event earlier in the year. Despite being smaller, it still had a varied and interesting mix of talks, workshops and networking events appealing to those who wish to protect what’s left of our delicate environment, as well as those hoping to further capitalise on it.

The dichotomy of eco viewpoints was so pronounced in parts that it led some speakers to make snide comments about others in their talks.

After the president and chief engineer at Planetary Resources, Chris Lewicki, finished waxing lyrical on the opportunities for commercial exploitation in space – particularly mining water from asteroids – “biomimicry” guru Janine Benyus couldn’t help herself noting that people should be aiming to make this planet a more habitable place before focusing their attentions on asteroids or anything else.

Biomimicry trending

Biomimicry refers to a design approach that copies nature’s patterns and strategies to find sustainable solutions to human challenges; it was a common theme throughout the three days.

Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, commanded an audience at full capacity, leaving many disappointed fans outside.

The devoted crowd oohed and aahed at her every word as she provided numerous vomit-inducing soundbites for the cynically inclined. “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up,” was one. Her description of the “great chemical conversation” going on between trees and the network of fungi, flora and fauna dependent on them as the “wood wide web” was also greeted with applause and wonder from her loyal fan base.

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop was the subject of another keynote speech. For all intents and purposes, the Hyperloop is a monorail that will use vacuum tubes to one day send compartments with passengers travelling at speeds of up to 1,200km/h, transporting commuters between LA and San Francisco.

The chief executive of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Dirk Ahlborn, says, when up and running, it will be able to carry six times the number of people currently travelling by air from LA to San Francisco every day.

Meat-free meat

A charity promoting technologies that advance “meat-free meat products” also drew a huge crowd. New Harvest chief executive Isha Datar talked about advancements in meat and milk produced in cell culture and the post-animal bio-economy more generally.

After a number of slides designed to make any carnivore rethink things – featherless chickens, aerial-view satellite images of high-intensity cattle farms, etc – Datar explained how biotech has already synthesized various human dietary components in the past, rennet for cheese and insulin for diabetics being the most high-profile examples. So why not simply produce chicken breasts from chicken cells?

Burgers, eggs and cheese have been successfully made through cell culture technology, and Datar joked that, while they were still on a steep learning curve, their products tasted better than any vegan cheese on the market.

A conversation about encoding empathy into technology provided a different kind of food for thought. Each new tech company claims their product or service will change the world, so much so that it has become a running joke on the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley. But whose world does any new tech really change and can more empathy and goodness be encouraged in the tech space?

Change the world

George Roter from Engineers Without Borders Canada said his organisation did a survey of engineering students in Canada asking them why they wanted to go to engineering school. When participants were asked the question upon entering college for the first time, a majority (60 per cent) said to “to change the world”. The same students were asked the same question upon graduation, but by then the top answer had changed to, “I want to have a great career.”

Agricultural giant Monsanto made its first official appearance at the event with executive vice-president and chief technology officer Robert Fraley participating in a panel discussion entitled “Solving Food, Energy and Water . . . at the Same Time”. The elephant in the room was finally and painstakingly acknowledged at the end of the talk when an audience member asked how Monsanto could in good faith be part of any conversation about solutions to environmental challenges, given the various accusations relating to food safety and abuse of intellectual property that have been made against the food manufacturing company over the years.

Fraley came prepared. Knowing he couldn’t possibly answer the many charges likely to be made against him by an audience of eco-warriors, he provided USB sticks (shaped like corn sheaves) to everyone in the audience containing essay-length rebuttals to a number of “myths” about Monsanto. He even drew parallels between believing the “myths” surrounding Monsanto and denying climate change or believing vaccinations caused autism.

Systematic approach

Three other impressive panellists participating in the same talk outlined how a systematic approach was necessary to solve 21st-century energy, water and food challenges in tandem, although it was clear much of the audience was there to see what the Monsanto vice-president would have to say for himself. Particularly impressive was Michael Webber, associate professor of mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, Michael Webber. He provided realistic levels of optimism for the future in what was frequently be a fairly depressing event. As he put it, “Waste is what you have when you run out of imagination.”

It’s difficult not to feel pessimistic after three days of eco talks, particularly with so much emphasis on how royally screwed the environment is. Still there was occasional cause for optimism, such as the “paradigm shift” in energy marketing.

At a solo talk entitled “Renewables Aren’t Solving Oil Yet. What Can?”, David Livingston of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace discussed how various oil companies rebranded themselves as “energy” companies after the 1970s oil crisis, leading many to believe the 1980s would herald an alternative energy future. Instead, more and more oil has been produced, but at least now oil companies are better at advertising themselves.

He concluded with a slide showing a 1962 magazine advertisement for Humble Oil (later merging with Exxon in 1973). Under an image of a large Arctic glacier, the caption boasted: “Each day Humble Oil supplies enough energy to melt 7 million tonnes of glacier.”

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