Cows in Space: a question of sustainability at #sxswi
19th March 13
The second of series of reports from Austin, by a few lucky BBH SXSW survivors.
Author: Helen Lawrence, Strategist, BBH Labs & BBH London
The most recurring topic of conversation in Austin during SXSW isn’t the future of technology, it isn’t the principles of responsive design and it certainly isn’t what makes something viral. It’s meat. What meat to have in your breakfast taco, what meat to choose for your lunchtime ribs and what meat should top your dinnertime hot dog (I can’t believe Tim didn’t mention this in his SXSW reflections!). This is a town dominated by BBQ joints and smoking shacks. I fear that after five days there I may have the incredibly sexy combination of scurvy and gout:
However, we have a problem. One hundred thousand years ago humans still needed 2000 calories a day to function. Back then, to produce that 2000 calories we’d get through 1800 to find and produce something to nibble on. Fast forward to today’s brisket loving era and it takes 200,000 calories to produce those same 2000 calories. Our food production habits are screwed up. We waste everything: energy, resources and it even the food itself once we’ve got it to that juicy, edible point. It’s not at all sustainable. We’re messing it up, and we’re doing it quickly.
So – who is the obvious person to turn to in order to solve this problem? An astronaut of course. Nothing beats an astronaut. Ahem.
The 100 Year Starship project is using the question of interstellar space travel to get to an answer:
“We exist to make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years. We unreservedly dedicate ourselves to identifying and pushing the radical leaps in knowledge and technology needed to achieve interstellar flight, while pioneering and transforming breakthrough applications that enhance the quality of life for all on Earth.”
If we’re going to have to consider exploration outside of our solar system we’re going to have think a little beyond a simply bigger rocket. One self sustaining pod hurtling through the sky; it has to keep a bunch of humans alive for a century, stop them killing each other and prevent them from getting hungry.
The space race in the 60s was a tangible one: getting to the moon is a challenge that could be imagined and solved. The 100 Year Starship Project wants to set a challenge that trickles down solutions into our own fuzzy planet in the same way. The space race has given us some of the biggest everyday technologies we use now: scratch resistant lenses, GPS and water filters for example. By posing some of the biggest societal and sustainability questions out there and considering how we’d achieve them to last 100 years in space, we can hope for properly realistic solutions to the things we’re messing up at the moment.
Meat is a big one, clothes are another. It’s a terribly energy intensive hobby. We make too many, we own too many, we wash too many and we don’t recycle nearly enough. 100 years at our current clothing rates would need a lot of wardrobes up on our space ship, not to mention cotton fields, plastics factories and silk worms. We can’t take clothes to space, despite them being such a core part of our creative identity as humans – one solution put forward by the 100 Year Starship project includes reusable sheets that we project clothes onto, allowing us to change them whenever we like.
Back to the bovines. As much as I love the idea of cows in space, wearing little cow shaped astronaut helmets, it just can’t happen. ‘Fake meat’ companies are popping up all over the place, even Twitter co founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams are investing. That’s one possible solution for our 100 Year Spaceship. What else is there?
I like the 100 Year Starship project. It frames a problem into a great story. Mae Jemison, a brilliant astronaut, told the SXSW audience that we should tell better stories, ones that inspire and ones that can bring about social change. The mature porno project neatly frames sustainability into something we can picture. There are no cheats when you’re somewhere outside of Alpha Centauri. So many of our so called sustainable solutions aren’t that at all. We feel we’re doing well when actually the problem is just popping up somewhere else. You can’t do that on a spaceship.
This makes me ruminate a bit on brand strategy – we talk a lot here about strategy being the art of sacrifice. What would you sacrifice in your brand armoury if forced to focus on the essentials? And would your brand get a spot on the starship in the first place? Is it ducking and diving, pushing superfluous issues elsewhere? Perhaps not being quite as sustainable or transparent as it could be? Whack it in a bubble and put it in space: it’s a good way to test it.
I’m excited about the 100 Year Spaceship. The hippies and the astronauts are getting it on. And damn, it’s even sexier than gout.