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EarthX Turned Trammell S. Crow Into an Unlikely Environmentalist

How a conservative Republican became a leading light in the environmental movement.
By Peter Simek |
Billy Surface

It has been eight years since Trammell S. Crow adopted Dallas’ fledgling Earth Day celebration and turned it into an environmental expo that attracts to Fair Park every April hundreds of vendors, hundreds of thousands of visitors, dozens of politicians, and some of the most prominent environmentalists on the planet. The event grew so fast that its name could barely keep up, starting off as Earth Day Dallas before becoming Earth Day Texas and re-branding as the more global-minded EarthX.

In fact, the event has become so large it can be overwhelming to visit; and it casts its green net so wide, you encounter odd scenes like a luncheon I attended last year, in which Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick—both on the record as climate change deniers—addressed a room full of environmental scientists, clean tech entrepreneurs, and environmental activists, not to mention the oil and gas execs, local real estate characters, and other Texas types who came to hear their reps.

This brand of ideological diversity is by design. Crow’s approach toward the charged political environment that surrounds issues like climate change is pragmatic. He believes breaking through that divide is a function of education, exposure, and osmosis.

“About the environment, certainly in climate change, we’re in cognitive dissonance,” Crow says. “We can’t bear to face it, so we rationalize it away. I can’t tell you how many people in my life are climate [change] deniers. So we’ve soft-pedaled as part of our strategy.”

EarthX is one part festival, one part green convention, and one part environmental conference.

That soft-pedaling approach, Crow says, is about knowing what language to use when talking to people who are climate change skeptics. Rather than talking about global catastrophe, he has learned to emphasize the economic opportunities inherent in investing in clean and renewable technologies, in creating jobs around green companies, and in pushing leaders to think of Texas’ role as a leader in the energy sector to mean more than oil and gas. For example, Crow led Perry through last year’s expo and pointed out all of the laboratories conducting research in environmental science that are funded by the Department of Energy. Perry was impressed.

“He asked me if I could send to his office two or three environmental experts a month, because they didn’t know these issues,” Crow says.

Behind the scenes, EarthX’s founder has also transformed into a surprising power broker in the environmental movement. His father founded what was at one time the largest real estate company in the world, and Crow spent much of his early career in the family business. He is a Republican. Like many Texans, chunks of his youth were spent outdoors, particularly out on the family’s ranch in East Texas. But his love of nature didn’t translate into political activism until after a personal crisis in the mid-1990s. He shifted some of his philanthropic giving toward green-minded and socially liberal conservative groups, like Log Cabin Republicans and ConservAmerica. In 2006, Crow co-founded Texas Business for Clean Air, which organized to oppose plans to build 11 new coal-burning power plants in East Texas. They took the fight to the state Capitol and won.

Defeating the coal plants left Crow with a new perspective on the planet’s surmounting environmental challenges. Polluted air, water, streams, and oceans. Mass species extinction, deforestation, and carbon emissions. The warming atmos-phere and seas and everything those two phenomena mean for the future of the planet. These were all global challenges, but to effect change, they also needed local champions. For his next environmental effort, Crow turned his attention to revitalizing enthusiasm around the annual celebration of Earth Day as a way to draw attention both to the challenges the planet faces and the people and groups that were rising to meet them.

That’s more or less where I found Crow back in 2010, when we sat on pillows on the floor of his office in his sprawling, arboreous home compound along Turtle Creek. He explained his vision: he would open Earth Day to whoever wanted to exhibit, regardless of political ideologies or corporate affiliations, just as long as they brought something to the event that demonstrated how they were contributing to the sustainability of the planet. That made for an odd mash-up of groups. At the first event, an organization combating deforestation had a booth next to a corporation that cut down a lot of trees to make its product. But rather than complain, Crow says, the group came up to him after the event and raved about how they finally had an opportunity to speak directly with the company and build a rapport.

Since those modest beginnings, EarthX has grown into a world’s fair-style exposition. It is one part festival, with interactive events like tree climbing, scuba diving, and an automobile track where visitors can test-drive electric cars; one part green convention, with hundreds of representatives from organizations ranging from the Environmental Defense Fund to green home gardening companies to energy companies to community groups and more; and one part environmental conference, with a diverse (and sometimes controversial) array of speakers, everyone from nuclear power advocate Susan Eisenhower to renowned ocean scientist and explorer Sylvia Earle.

In addition to the expo, EarthX also launched an environmental film festival (EarthX Film) and the EarthX E-Capital Summit, allowing potential investors to interface with green-tech start-ups. It also hosts a student “hackathon,” in which area high school and university students spend 24 hours attempting to tackle pressing environmental challenges, and additional conferences focused on issues like solar energy, the ocean, and environmental law.

But EarthX has drawn some criticism from environmental activists who fear that the event offers an opportunity for politicians to “green-wash” their public persona, that is, make it look like they are in support of environmental issues regardless of their actions and policies. But Crow says focusing on the handful of high-profile politicians who attend EarthX overlooks the hundreds of environmental activists and experts the event draws together from every corner of the field.

“I feel very confident that we’re not green-washing, that we are not overly Republican,” he says. “We don’t try to make a moral judgment or compare [what a group presents at EarthX] with what they are doing that is bad. Part of it is just to bring them together. I mean, look at our politics. We all know what the problems are: paralysis, extremism, ideology. It all begins with communication.”

It is EarthX’s role as a facilitator between unlikely parties that has positioned Crow in a peculiar place within the environmental conversation. Over the last eight years, whether he is at a United Nations conference co-sponsored by EarthX or jetting to the Sundance Film Festival for the release of an environmental film he co-executive produced, Crow has become a kind of mediator between the environmentalist groups he advocates for and the conservative politicians who feel like they can trust the son of the famous Texas real estate developer.

“My name has recognition, but it is my father’s name,” Crow says. “Now, if I’m sought after, it is through this EarthX enterprise. It has taken a long time, but it is pretty amazing now—the people who contact us.”

Eight years doesn’t feel like a long time to accomplish everything Crow has with EarthX, but then, for Crow, time seems to move at a different pace. People who have worked with him talk about his unrelenting schedule, the long hours he keeps, and his high expectations for his staff. The intensity of the work environment is reflected in the fact that EarthX has gone through five CEOs in just eight years.

“None of them have done everything I told them to do,” Crow says with a chuckle.

Still, the success of EarthX seems to feed off Crow’s personal brand of kinetic energy and controlled chaos, shaping it into something freewheeling, improvisational, and open. Perhaps that is why it was so difficult to anticipate what Crow wanted EarthX to become when he first explained his idea eight years ago, because what sounded like an event—Earth Day—Crow understood as a vehicle for change.

“I think Texas’ influence on American politics is so great that if Texas went green, America would go green,” Crow says. “I’m an exceptionalist. And if America went green, then I think we would be in front of India and China and Europe, leading it.”

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