Sahotra Sarkar

Sustainability reaches beyond the natural world, according to UT integrative biology and philosophy professor Sahotra Sarkar and UNT philosophy professor John Callicott, who defined sustainability and discussed methods of achieving it Monday night.

Sustainability relates more to lifestyle, with regards to the global economy and civilization, and how the world will be for future generations, Callicott and Sarkar said.

“Our economy and our global civilization, which is now very much integrated, is in many ways over-connected and very fragile, and I think, at serious risk,” Callicott said. “So what I think is important for the sustainablity of the global civilization and its associated economy is that we have to model the human economy and model it on the cyclical economy of nature.”

However, developing infrastructure in countries such as India and China can take higher priority than sustainability, Sarkar said. 

“You have a group of people who are living at the bottom of their society, and they are living in abject poverty,” Sarkar said. “You want development as fast as possible because you want every one of those children, who are say, under two or three, to get proper nutrition, to get proper education, to get to the circumstance where they can actually enjoy a type of life that at least approximates the least fortunate of us who are living in this society.”

Because sustainability has become a vague notion that functions to “greenwash” initiatives, Sarkar and Callicott said interdisciplinary actions are necessary to better define and advance sustainability, especially regarding population growth.

“What really influences fertility, irrespective of affluence, is women’s opportunity and control over their reproductive lives,” Callicott said. “It’s a great confluence of democratic values with the population issue. It seems to have positive ethical and social components and an environmental benefit.”

Environmental problems often have social aspects and can be dealt with through social action, Sarkar said. 

“It does not mean that the natural world does not constrain us or we can violate the basic laws of science,” Sarkar said. “[People] need to have full lives without having to drive 80 miles to get there.”

Abhay Divakaruni, a Plan II and business honors freshman who describes himself as a big proponent of sustainability, said parts of the lecture, which was hosted by the School of Undergraduate Studies, made him reconsider some of his daily routine.

“So instead of maybe making the big shift from eating meat to being vegetarian, I might think of maybe instead moderately doing things,” Divakaruni said. “Maybe being like a weekday vegetarian or something like that.”

Chagas disease, a tropical parasite commonly found in Latin America, may be more prevalent in Texas than previously thought, according to research done by Sahotra Sarkar, professor of integrative biology and philosophy. The disease can cause general ill feeling such as fever and abdominal pain, and over many years, the symptoms can worsen to include heart and digestive problems.

The protozoa that causes the disease, Trypanosoma cruzi, is commonly carried by triatomine bugs that must bite an organism to transmit the protozoa. The protozoa has been found in dogs, although there have been no reported human transmissions in North America, Sarkar said.

This may be because people have not reported the disease, and it may be prevalent in larger numbers than we are aware of, according to the results of Sarkar’s ongoing five-year study to collect triatomine bugs in the wild.

“Fifty-percent of triatomine bugs we’ve found have tested positive for the protozoa,” Sarkar said. “I doubt there’s any significant danger to Austin, though. It’s a highly urban, managed environment. What we’re seeing is likely to appear in a more rural area.”

Infection has been seen in lab animals from Bastrop at the University of Texas-MD Anderson Cancer Center, suggesting its presence in the wild, Sarkar said.

“One of the most surprising events we’ve seen is that, in the last three months, three monkeys at the Anderson center have contracted the disease,” said Sarkar.

University Health Services currently has no diagnosed cases of chagas disease in the University of Texas student body, said UHS senior program coordinator Sherry Bell.

One reason may be that chagas is not a disease officially reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services, such as many sexually transmitted diseases or tuberculosis, said Christine Mann, assistant press officer of the Department of State Health Services.

“Chagas disease is not a reportable condition in Texas, so we do not have any formal statistics on the number of people diagnosed with the disease or how common it may be in the state,” Mann said.

Some triatomine insects have been found in northern Austin however, but chagas is currently not a disease that will experience an outbreak or severe damage, said Sarkar.

“There’s absolutely no reason to panic,” Sarkar said. “I doubt that the insects would come to campus. If anyone is familiar with these bugs though, we would like them to bring them by our [J.T.] Patterson Laboratories.”