In my job as a journalist and analyst covering the clean-tech industry, I get to attend events that span a wide range of cultures, from the button-down Renewable Energy Finance Forum-Wall Street to the organic vegan lefty-ness of the Green Festival and everything in between. But I've never experienced one event that brought all these cultures together like the recently concluded -- and quite awesome -- SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this month.
In just its second year, SXSW Eco is a spinoff of Austin's legendary SXSW music/film/digital media extravaganza that draws a mind-boggling 300,000 people to south-central Texas for 10 days every March. Its Eco baby had a mere 2,000 attendees, which of course is huge for an enviro/sustainability conference. And what a time it was.
I was invited there to deliver a TED Talk-like, 15-minute "Straight to the Point" presentation about my new book, Clean Tech Nation: How the U.S. Can Lead in the New Global Economy. It is co-authored with Ron Pernick, and we recently excerpted the book on The Huffington Post. (My only disappointment was not sharing my book-signing time slot with the great Bill McKibben as originally scheduled, as he had to fly out early to continue his yeoman's work on behalf of 350.org and the planet). McKibben was among the many diverse, high-profile speakers who brought celebrity cachet to SXSW Eco, along with The Story of Stuff author Annie Leonard, former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, Rodale Institute CEO Maria Rodale, oceans advocate Philippe Cousteau, and composer/multimedia artist Paul Miller, better known as DJ Spooky -- who's also the Metropolitan Museum's first artist-in-residence.
Many of the keynote speeches were excellent, but what set this event apart was the inspirational buzz from this mash-up of entrepreneurs, environmental advocates, students, venture capitalists, artists, current and former politicos, designers, authors, urban planners, organic farmers -- you get the idea. "I've never seen so much energy," said one leading clean-tech venture capitalist that I know. "I just came from a big clean-tech conference that was pretty good, but this is amazing. We need more inspirational events like this."
Not to mention that one of the sponsors was my favorite micro-brewery, Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, Calif.
Among the many people I met who inspired me over three memorable days and nights were:
-- Howard Koenig, a Silicon Valley veteran exec now heading ZETA Communities, a startup building zero-energy housing and schools in the Bay Area and Louisiana
-- Antony Turner, whose London-based Carbon Visuals produces dramatic graphics and videos that put a face (a very ugly one) on invisible greenhouse gases
-- Rachel Barge, partner at Greenstart, a San Francisco-based "startup accelerator" helping clean-tech entrepreneurs in early stages
-- Peter Byck, director of the acclaimed documentary film Carbon Nation, featuring interviews that range from West Texas farmers (with wind turbines on their land) to Sir Richard Branson.
-- Edgar Farrera, a LEED AP architect now heading sustainability initiatives at Circuit of the Americas outside of Austin -- the U.S.'s first dedicated
FormulaOne racetrack. (For a city that seems to host big events seemingly every week, the Grand Prix race there Nov. 16-18 has a huge buzz; the Fan Fest is headlined by Aerosmith)
-- Max Webster, a 2012 Yale graduate whose startup Communificiency operates crowdfunded energy efficiency retrofits; its first project is for Caseus, a "cheese bistro" in New Haven.
-- Timur Gareev, a 24-year-old chess Grandmaster from Uzbekistan. Gareev earned that hallowed title at age 16 -- the youngest ever from Asia at the time -- and came to the U.S. for college as a chess recruit (yes, you read that right) at the University of Texas at Brownsville. What was he doing at an eco conference? "I like to learn about new things," Gareev said. I was honored that part of that learning was sitting down with Clean Tech Nation for a good 20 minutes during my book-signing session.
I could go on, but you get the idea -- an amazing diversity of inspiring folks. Writing about clean energy and the environment these days can get pretty damn depressing, with a major investment squeeze underway and everyone from Mitt Romney to David Brooks trashing the clean-tech industry in the national media. Like my venture-capital friend, I wish there were more events like SXSW Eco. Politics and economics can look dire, but the abundance of human, creative energy that's committed to clean tech and sustainability -- across a wide swath of ages, genders, cultures, and career paths -- is always the best cure for cynicism.