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

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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 World Wildlife Fund, 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 WWF 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 WWF 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.

Too long environmentalists in developed nations have been content to wail and wring their hands, to point the finger at big bad corporations or corrupt politicians, blaming them for everything. We beg developing countries to preserve their forests and reject coal-fired power plants while simultaneously demanding iPhones, low gas prices, and cheap electricity. It’s hypocritical and it won’t work for climate change. However, I don’t think the answer is to stop marching, petitioning, or organizing. Just like cars, what we need is a hybrid approach to bring all stakeholders to the table. We need to be willing to listen as well as to lead.

Annie Leonard, creator of the Story of Stuff and other groundbreaking videos, delivered the final keynote speech at SXSW Eco this year. She echoed a lot of what Nordhaus was trying to get at, but instead of implying that compromise was our only option, she advocated something different.

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Image via Story of Change/Annie Leonard

We’ve spent the last 100 years exercising our consumer muscle, Leonard said. We’ve built this impulse up so much that now the word human and consumer are considered to be interchangeable! Ever heard of muscle memory? Well our consumer muscle knows just what to do when presented with bigger, better, faster (dare we say greener?) stuff…it’s BUY BUY BUY until the garage or credit card gives out.

This consumerist mentality is the driving force behind most of our environmental problems. But our consumer muscle isn’t the only one we have. We also have something called a “citizen” muscle. It’s the thing that motivated Americans to have victory gardens during WWII. It’s the thing that convinced 1 million of us to march behind Martin Luther King, Jr. despite the fact that public opinion supported segregation. It’s the thing that allowed environmentalists to pass the Clean Water Act in 1972, despite being vetoed by President Nixon.

Unfortunately, we’ve been so busy exercising our consumer muscle that our citizen muscle has become flabby and weak. We’ve forgotten how to use it. So the bullies have been picking on us. Corporations have stolen our government, smashed our electoral process, and created fat little tax subsidies that rob social services of valuable funding. Politicians, from both sides of the aisle, have given us a virtual wedgie, laughing as we squeal about GMOs and Wall Street crooks.

What environmentalists need to do, advised Leonard, isn’t to write yet another report about the rising oceans or compromise on issues like fracking. What we need to do is work out. We need to remember what it means to be a citizen, of this country and of the world. We can exercise our citizen muscles by getting involved in local government, talking about consumerism, and getting out the vote. Our future has been hijacked, but whining and complaining isn’t the answer. What we need to do is bust out a roundhouse punch and take it back.

Do you have ideas for how to exercise our citizen muscles? Share them in a comment!