You might’ve heard of EarthX. But if not, it’s the world’s largest environmental experience event (by far). Last year, the event brought together a whopping 170,000 attendees — including politicians, business leaders, and lawyers from both sides of the aisle — to discuss some of sustainability’s biggest challenges and most promising solutions for three days in Dallas.
Over the years, EarthX has become one of the most revered events in sustainability. It was founded in 2011 by Trammell S. Crow, a former business executive and — perhaps a surprise to those who might believe all conservatives are climate deniers — a Republican.
With the Covid-19 pandemic making its mark on the events industry, EarthX wasn’t able to host its event in-person this year; so instead, the company partnered with National Geographic to keep sharing films, speeches, and conversations about the environment even while we’re all stuck in quarantine.
To learn more about the event’s rise to prominence, I was able to get on the phone with Crow himself. During our conversation, we also chatted about partisanship, which is perhaps the biggest barrier to passing forward-looking climate policy today.
“It wasn’t that long ago [when] politicians in Washington DC worked with each other, played golf with each other. The wives played bridge together,” Crow told me.
He’s cautiously optimistic that we can go back to those old times of bipartisanship, when Democrats and Republicans worked together to push environmental policy. And he wants EarthX to play a role.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
EMILY DAO: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a green conservative?
TRAMMELL S. CROW: Working on environmental causes with conservatives and business. The main problem is the perception of the increased costs of going green. And I shouldn’t say just perception. It is the costs. And how reluctant business people are to do that. But the real problem lies with the consumer. Consumers are only willing to pay, let’s say 3%. They’re only willing to pay 3% more for a green product, and if it’s 5% more, they’ll go buy the old product. So that’s on us. Now with the climate debate, for however many years it’s been now, it has become so divisive and polarized. They don’t even want to hear, talk about the environment.
Then, back to the green Republican, usually, the large donors to the NGOs and environmental foundations tend to just give lots of millions to one big foundation. And they expect them to divvy it up without realizing that, 99% I think, of funds distributed by most of those foundations go to left causes. Not far-left causes, but definitely left causes.
So we’re working with Republican donors, contributing donors to study their donation and give to moderate groups and right of center groups in Washington. There’s the clear path foundation, R Street Institute, that’s working with climate and the Republican party. This is important work. In fact, it’s work that not nearly enough people get involved in. So we think it needs to be emphasized and Dallas is a good place to operate.
So, this idea of a “green conservative” might come as a shock to some people, specifically those on the left. What do you say to that?
Well, you know, I got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder because it’s not that rare. Here’s the story. Before the sixties, there wasn’t even the term environmental, but all through America, there was significant conservation. Sustainable farming. That’s a conservative approach. It’s healthier for your food, but that’s good for the climate. It reduces carbon in the air. It was on the land and it was kind of the people doing it themselves…farmers, ranchers, national parks system, and so forth. That was a very strong thing.
We want to embrace the conservation movement. That’s the farmer and the rancher. Even a rancher who doesn’t practice good enough, sustainable ranching typically still takes care of his land. So we bring those conservative types.
Since you started becoming interested in the environment around the 70s or 80s, how have times changed in this ecosystem?
It’s obvious that the awareness of climate has grown consistently for the last 20 years. But in the last couple of years, it just became an issue that so many more people were aware of. And the polls show a considerable majority of the American public believe that man-made climate is something that should be addressed.
But then with politics, people just want to be reelected. They don’t go towards solutions so much. That’s one of the biggest problems. We need to vote in primaries. And in my opinion, what a good Democrat needs to do is if they think that the candidate they prefer is going to win, they should go to the Republican primary and vote for the best guy too, because that’s where the problems are happening on the far right.
A wonderful Congressman in South Carolina voted for some solar power measures in DC, and in the next primary, he was knocked out in his home state because they said he was going liberal. So the smartest vote to make is in the primary.
So did this rise in the polls inspire you to start EarthX?
I just realized Earth Day was five months away. Earth Day is actually the second most recognized secular holiday in the world after New Year’s. We just thought the best thing was to put the NGOs right up there in front to the general public and get as many people as possible. By nature, it’s an educational thing, because the environmental groups show what they’re doing. And being in Texas, it was second nature to have a business involved. If we wanted people to learn about what they can do at home, having the city of Dallas there as the exhibitor was necessary, cause I could talk about how you recycle, what the rules are.
What did that inaugaral event look like?
We went at it with a vigor and we had about 200 exhibitors on the street and 40,000 people. We were by far the largest and most substantive earth day in America. That hasn’t changed. And we’ve increased to by 700,000 exhibitors. This year, we were hoping to have 200,000 attendees, a dozen conferences, 11 banquets, an eCapital summit for investment where investors and startups meet.
This is also the biggest film environmental event going on and it’s all here in Dallas, where the learning curve is very steep because the awareness and appreciation is not so great. So we think that just by having 450 or 500 speakers, that is an action item, a result in itself because we’re really changing people here over the years we’ve realized that these conferences need to go somewhere. So that’s what we’re doing now online.
What motivated EarthX to have ‘diametric opposites’ attend its event?
The very first year we had the kernel, the seeds of those main constituencies. And the day after the show, one of the NGOs came to me and said, “Trammell. That was a corporation located right next to our booth.” I started apologizing, “Oh, that won’t happen again. And I said, no, no, no. We always wanted to meet them and we did. And we’re gonna work together.” So that’s what gave us the inspiration to introduce these diametric opposites. It’ll break down the barriers, but who knows where it could lead and they’re funding each other. The corporations are funding these groups now.
So this is the first year that things went virtual for EarthX. How did this event play out — and how did National Geographic, as a partner, play a role this time around?
First of all, 700 exhibitors and some of them are now friends to see each other after a while. And the synergy between the exhibitors networking, they collaborate together. The public, it’s just remarkable. I’ll have a middle age regular old conservative business guy come up to me and say that he’d never been. And he’s changed his way of thinking now. And that synergy, it’s remarkable.
National Geographic has been really enthusiastic. They were going to come in with the equivalent of 50 booths with screens and documentaries and films and wonderful graphics all over the place that’s going to translate so easily online. They’re heavily interested in education, which is what we do. And they’re all over the world. It’ll bring more “unconverted” people because National Geographic is something everybody loves. I’m just really eager to see where it goes with them because I know it’ll be an ongoing thing.
What were your favorite highlights from EarthX’s virtual festival?
Well, the Island conference had one president, two prime ministers and a premiere and nine UN ambassadors. It was so cool to hear someone from the Caribbean and then, five minutes later, hearing someone from the Indian Ocean, and talk about their microcosms and how their perspectives are so utterly different from ours. Some of these Island people have come and met energy efficiency corporations that they’ve contracted with and are doing work with, so they don’t have to haul new diesel fuel onto an Island every day.
Then, on the 50th anniversary, that was my favorite one day of speakers. We had the daughter of the man who’s really the Father of Earth Day, Tia Nelson, come on.
During EarthX, Democrats and Republicans come on stage together. What do these conversations looks like?
Our audiences are all mixed. Typically, what happens when those two politicians get on stage, it’s more like the old days. It wasn’t that long ago. Politicians in Washington DC worked with each other, played golf with each other. The wives played bridge together. They know each other.
What do you think is the importance of making this a more collective, bipartisan issue rather that’s specific to parties?
It’s not necessarily pretty, because two of the main words of this problem are apathy and ignorance. But with a heightened awareness of climate, there is a little more caring. And what we’ve seen with COVID-19 are all those wonderful satellite images of the Earth, and how they look when the cars and airplanes and factories slow down and how quickly there’s a solution.
So I think not just climate, but so many environmental matters, people feel like they as one person can’t make a difference. So why bother turning off your faucet when you’re brushing your teeth because it’s just that much water. Who cares? But when they see what’s happening now with COVID-19, my hope is they’ll see that they can have faster results by coming together.
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