Part Two: What To Do About Our Planetary Pickle? The Answer(s) Could Be Blowing in the Texas Wind!

05/09/2017 10:09 pm ET Updated May 10, 2017
Captain Paul Watson and Friends
Rutherford and Laura Turner Seydel, Jessica and Matthew Upchurch

Until I attended America’s largest Earth Day Expo and its parallel EARTHxFilm Festival in Dallas two weeks ago, I had no idea that Texas was America’s top wind power state. Oil state? Of course. Full of gas? Guess so. But wind, who knew? I’m from California--the San Francisco Bay Area to be exact—living in a green bubble, though even we are not nearly as eco-savvy as we could be and people might presume.

Let’s face it, when it comes to protecting our eco-sphere, the place we all call home that makes all life possible—or not--there’s a lot for each of us to learn and not a lot of time to come up to speed. That sentiment—a desire to learn and share what can be learned about our rapidly changing environment and climate--is what inspired founder Trammell S. Crow.

When I think of Texas I think of a few things, all of them supersized: BIG petroleum companies that sometimes cause BIG oil spills, BIG beef producers, and BIG cities like Houston and Dallas with world class shopping. With those stereotypical and simplistic views, I was overdue for a second visit, and excited to be covering what is now billed as the BIGGEST Earth Day gathering in the world. My first trip to Dallas was a decade ago when asked to speak at the Texas Women’s Conference on climate change. I recall being stunned to learn that then Governor Rick Perry rejected the evidence of human-caused climate change. . Those were the early days of climate denial and the concept that an elected official running a state as significant as Texas could ignore scientific consensus was too strange for me to comprehend. While I still don’t get or respect what I call “deny-o-saurs” we now know, all too well, what dark forces are fueling it.

This year, especially in the wake of Mr. Trump’s Cabinet picks for the EPA and Energy Department—not to mention his State Department choice, Exxon’s own Rex Tillerson--I was in need of an infusion of inspiration. I was curious about whether the event would look, feel and sound like so many of the West Coast hosted environmental gatherings I’ve covered during twenty years on the green beat.

The answer was both “yes” and “no.”

Since first hearing about the man with a BIG vision behind the six-year old event, I was eager to meet Crow. I was curious, as I always am when interviewing green visionaries, to learn what motivated him--an heir to a real estate development fortune and patron of the Arts--to spend his greenbacks spreading the green gospel around Dallas and beyond. I’ve since learned that Crow’s grand vision is BIGGER than his home city, BIGGER than even the State of Texas, AND the U.S. It’s only when one considers how quickly Earth Day Dallas has grown into Earth Day Texas and--as of last week—expanded to its new name, EARTHx--with a now national, and even international, focus--that one has to take Crow seriously when he says “If we can turn Texas, we can turn the country and, if we turn the country, we can turn the world.”

From the beginning, Crow’s strategy has been to build a big tent and put out a big welcome mat. EARTHx 2017 brought together not only environmental activists and NGO’s but also a diverse group of business leaders and politicians--many of them Republicans. The big names present included Bill Shireman, founder of Future 500 and an early contact of Crow’s who helped inspire the event, representatives as diverse as Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, a climate champion from Rhode Island, to the opposite end of the political spectrum, Energy Department head, Rick Perry, and the EPA’s Scott Pruitt. They all spoke on the same day, at separate venues, as did retired General Wesley Clark, an impressive and thoughtful presence. Talk about a change in climate!

“It’s about different parties getting in a room that don’t necessarily agree with each other,” according to Michael Cain, President of EARTHxFilm, “No one is excused from the table.”

Crow brought Cain, a Sundance award-winning filmmaker and co-founder of the Dallas International Film Festival, on board a year ago to launch an eco-themed film track to complement the rest of EARTHx. Topics this year ranging from climate change to conservation, plasticity, oceans, clean power solutions, GMOs, farming and extinction, comprised this year’s line-up of 23 full length feature films and 33 shorts. There were also filmmaking workshops and Virtual Reality exhibits.

If the theme of “something for everyone” is coming into view, that was in fact the focus. Cain set out to curate films that “connect to the head and heart” on a range of topics that mirror the trans-partisan programming track.

I was able to squeeze in two new movies, each of them equally impactful and well produced. The first was Plastic Ocean, which like Chasing Coral—one I had seen at Sundance in January but was also screened in Dallas--left an impression that haunts me still.

If images of fistfuls of plastic debris being removed from the carcasses of shore birds and fish don’t turn your stomach, you’re not paying attention. Especially, when one considers that plastic does not break down in the atmosphere or the ocean, and marine creatures are increasingly mistaking plastic bits for food as more debris reaches the ocean from streams and runoff. The sight of intact plastic beverage bottles bobbing on the ocean floor for perhaps eternity made me feel physically nauseous. That’s the potential of media done well and a perfect, if upsetting; example of what Cain calls “the power of film to change the world.” It’s a mixed blessing “to know” because plastic is so pervasive. But only when enough people are aware can things change.

The second film I previewed was Happenings, a mostly optimistic documentation of the exploding clean power sector from Jamie Redford--son of Robert--who matches his father when it comes to concern about our environment, but without the Hollywood trappings. The filmmaker takes us on a multi-state voyage as he seeks out examples of energy solutions in the works, from Apple’s clean powered data centers in the desert, to Marin County’s Green Energy option for residents and businesses. At one point in the film the younger Redford’s adolescent daughter is less than thrilled about new solar panels going up on the family’s Marin rooftop. When Jamie asks Lena (Redford) why she’s not more excited, she answers—with typical pre-teen snark—because it’s only one house.” What about everyone else?”

Hers is a good question and again fundamental to the challenges of educating and engaging the masses, to go beyond the margins in America’s greener pockets. The message resurfaces in one of the film’s final scenes when, returning from their green energy road trip, Jamie—at the wheel—appears despondent as they drive along the freeway. When Lena asks her Dad why he was so glum, he answered with the essence of her earlier comment—“Despite the few great examples we saw, what about everyone else?” She attempts to comfort her forlorn father but who among us who care--often caring too much while way too many others appear oblivious--cannot relate? The key to success—if we are to leave our children a healthy environment—is to amplify and scale the solutions, commensurate with the scope of the challenges.

This gets us back to Trammell Crow’s mission: to not let what happens in Dallas stay in Dallas. Instead, attendees are urged to interact with the material, whether it’s seeing a powerful film, hearing a provocative talk, or participating in a “hackathon” that featured 1,200 high school and college students attempting to address real-world environmental challenges in short order. There was also an E-Capital Summit, matching investors with start-up eco-preneurs, and more than 1,700 booths of all kinds. Indeed, there was something for everyone.

One of the highlights for me was the food, which was, decidedly, NOT your typical green event fare. At a fundraiser for forest preservation at a venue on the Fair Park site Saturday evening, “chicken fried lobster” was served and because it was so tasty--and there were a few empty seats at our table--I got seconds, and that’s a first.

Usually at climate and sustainability conferences the fare is much more “P.C.” – vegetarian or maybe organic chicken or “sustainably farmed” salmon is served…certainly not steak and lobster, but no complaints! On the one hand, I can appreciate the argument that such gatherings should serve as a model for sustainable living. On the other hand, the raw vegetable salad and quinoa served at lunch the day before, was a bit on the skimpy side--until I realized that it was just the appetizer when a plate of Texas beef was plopped down in front of a surprised me. I had just finished my delicious vegan lemon dessert because the baby vegetable slices had not quite filled me up. A few bites of the beef were enough but I must confess, it did taste good.

There were two other culinary signs that I was not in San Francisco anymore: 1) there was seemingly no coffee to be found anywhere on the 227-acre fairground sight, unheard of where I come from; and 2) in the media and volunteer center instead of the usual organic fruit and cheese platters, there were bags of BBQ Fritos and chocolate chip “health” bars. There was also a refrigerator filled with chilled soda. Desperate for a caffeine fix I helped myself to what was the first Coca-Cola I’ve had in years.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I am not. I truly loved the contrast and cognitive dissonance that Crow has created, intentionally or not. For too long I have lamented that when I go to an environmental event–- whether a conference or a film screening-- it’s the “usual suspects,” people I know to be active in the climate or sustainability communities. Where is everyone else? Even in my own supposedly progressive Marin County, I often ask myself, “where are the soccer moms, or people from my gym?” Many who comprise what I refer to as “the mainstream” were among the reported crowd of 114,000 this year. For someone who laments the slow spread of environmentalism from the margins to Main Street, it’s encouraging to know—with numbers so supersized—that surely hundreds of attendees who came, learned, watched and discussed what they experienced—will go on to become tomorrow’s “solutionaries.” For a builder like Crow it must be satisfying to know that he is laying a foundation for the next generation of leaders.

My overview of the mega-event would not be complete if I failed to mention the glitz factor, or what I call “Greenerati.” Although neither Leonardo DiCaprio nor Mark Ruffalo have yet made their way to Dallas for the biggest Earth Day Expo in the land, it’s just a matter of time before they do. This year actress Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) accepted an award with Michael Green of the Center for Environmental Health and Laura Turner Seydel (Ted’s daughter, also a committed environmentalist) and her husband Rutherford, walked the Green Carpet.--pictured above with Jessica and Matthew Upchurch. Additionally, there were a handful of eco-luminaries including Sylvia Earle, affectionately known by fans as “Her Deepness,” Captain Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, and filmmaker Jeff Orlowski of Chasing Ice and soon to be released Chasing Coral fame. Louis Psihoyos, who directed pivotal films, including The Cove and Racing Extinction, also drew a crowd.

In the end, I loved spending my twentieth Earth Day since starting out on the green beat, in Texas. Where else can you find someone at the top who is so worth “crowing” about? And chicken fried lobster? As long as there is an ocean for such delicacies I’m down for that (though at the rate we’re warming our oceans, shellfish may someday be a thing of the past). I’m not pretending this type of food is sustainable, or exemplary, but it IS authentic Texan fare. In a world filled with fake news and alternative facts, I have a new appreciation for things that are real. I can also hold in high regard a strategic desire to appeal to all shades of green, PC or not, Texas style.

In Trammell S. Crow’s own words “they come here as empty sponges and they leave saturated. At least until next year when they come back for more.”

I hope to return as well, along with a few California grown suggestions of my own.

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