SXSW Eco Returns

Panelists take a variety of approaches to environmentalism

Isha Datar is Tuesday's keynote speaker.
Isha Datar is Tuesday's keynote speaker.

Sustainability is synonymous with endurance. In its fifth year, the SXSW Eco Conference offers a collaborative forum for sorting out the tricky crossroads of ecology and economy, biology and technology, policy and activism. From cellular agriculture to reproductive rights, the conversations on how to save the (big, big) world are really getting good.

Isha Datar, CEO of New Harvest, will give Tuesday's keynote, Food of the Future: The Post-Animal Bioeconomy. "Cellular agriculture is what we think is the next level of agriculture, the next bioeconomy, where we produce agriculture from cell cultures rather than whole animals or more traditional animal husbandry. It extends past animals to plant-based products as well," Datar explained via phone. New Har­vest is looking at "advances in medical sciences to see how we could apply them to produce food. So, how we produce insulin is how we are trying to produce new kinds of food through genetic-engineered meat. Or the way we engineer grafts for burn victims is similar technology to what you'd see to grow meat or leather." This isn't quite yet an available university major, but they're raising awareness and trying to establish an interested scientific community and "an ecosystem of researchers."

"It is a bridge. Vegetarian­ism is definitely important and that's the easier way to solve some of our problems, but that message has been around for so long and we haven't seen a big uptake. We need to try a whole bunch of different things. This is a way to try to solve some of the issues of changing diets and make it easier for people to essentially do the right thing," Datar explains. "We don't know if this is the solution. That's why we're funding research to figure out if it is."

Perhaps one of the most effective strategies to combat climate change is opening dialogue about the link between reproductive rights and environmental protection. Cat Lazaroff, managing program director of Resource Media and their Women at the Center program, is part of a Wednesday (Oct. 7) panel addressing these issues, Sex and Sustainability: Youth Reproductive Rights. She told the Chronicle that "the bottom line is that it's a ripple effect – when women are empowered to make decisions about their reproductive destinies it creates immediate positive impact on the women themselves, on the children that they choose to have – in terms of access to education, health care, opportunities for jobs, and making a better life for themselves because they're choosing the timing and spacing of their children. It also benefits communities because it helps to reduce the pressures on families to feed more children than they really can.

"The environment versus reproductive health are seen as unconnected issues," Lazaroff said. She believes "that's maintained by our education system, and through the funding systems for this kind of work." However, she continued, "When I talk to youth, they get it. Sustainability is not simply, 'Are we recycling? Are we conserving energy and reducing waste?' It's more than that; it's about making sure we have healthy lifestyles, about making sure that we are thinking not only about our own generation but the next, and because access to reproductive health has so many benefits in so many areas that contribute to sustainability, to me it's a really obvious place to invest our time and resources."

Other conference highlights include Mobilizing U.S. Latinos to #ActOnClimate with Adrianna Quintero, senior attorney from Natural Resources Defense Council, and Javier Sierra, bilingual media strategist of the Sierra Club; and #BlackLivesMatter in Advancing Energy Democracy with Alicia Garza, Donele Wilkins of Green Door Init­i­a­tive, and Jacqueline Patterson, NAACP director of environmental and climate justice. Levi Strauss Foundation Executive Director Daniel Lee will host a fireside chat titled Why Helping Workers Is Good for Business, and another panel, Elevating Worker Voice in Supply Chains, will continue on that topic.

SXSW Eco runs from Monday, Oct. 5 through Wednesday, Oct. 7, at the Austin Convention Center. For more information, and to purchase a badge, visit

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