Sunday, September 16, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 10 - The Future of Enegy

For the last talk in my Top 10 sustainability related TED Talks list, we have Amory Lovins with "A 40-Year Plan for Energy."  Lovins is the chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a consultant, a physicist, and widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on the subject of energy and how we use it.

In this 27 minute talk (unusually long for TED) he lays out in plain English how we can fundamentally change the way we use and generate energy.  The recipe is really quite simple: efficiency first so we are using much less, and then the transition to renewables is much easier.

As Lovins says in this talk, "our energy future is not fate, but choice."  Here (and in many presentations like this one) he lays out a clear and simple road map for how to make the right choices.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 9 - a Salient Conversation About Geo-Engineering

Second to last in my personal list of the top 10 TED Talks on Sustainability, we have David Keith, with what is probably the most salient conversation I have seen on the web on the issue of geoengineering (which should really be called macro-climate engineering, but I don't get to pick the words). For those of you new to the conversation, the basic principle of geoengineering is that we could counter the effects of climate change by doing something drastic to the atmosphere, like pumping a lot of sulfur dioxide into the higher levels. SO2 in the stratosphere would reflect light, very much not at all like a bunch of "tiny mirrors," reducing the amount of energy getting into the lower levels of the atmosphere and having a net cooling effect.

Most of the media on geoengineering falls into one of two camps. The first is people in favor of doing it radically and preemptively instead of solving emissions problems (like the Freakonomics guys, who lost all of my respect when they did) and call everyone who disagrees with them wimps and idiots who either can't face or don't grasp the facts.  The second is people who think that any and all geoengineering is basically Jurassic Park, half-assed scientists messing with things they don't understand that are going to get us all eaten by dinosaurs.

The truth, as always, is a whole mess of gray.  Keith, however, lays out some very logical analysis of what it is, how to evaluate if it is a good idea, and raises some very good points e.g. whether or not it is a good idea, shouldn't we at least have an international treaty that says no one country can do it unilaterally?

The fact is that geoengineering is an idea, and ideas don't go away.  So we have to deal with it, like it or not.  And what Keith is arguing for here, essentially, is having a grown up conversation about the idea of messing with things that we don't really, fully understand.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 8 - Just the Facts on Climate Change

Coming into the home stretch on our Top 10 TED Talks for the Sustainability minded, we have James Hansen describing very clearly what is going on with our climate -- Spoiler Alert, it is changing in ways that are not good.

This talk is really, really informative, and Hansen is one of the top researches in his field.  That being said, make sure you have had plenty of coffee, because it is just a little dry.

This one speaks for itself, I think.  The case is pretty clear.  The timing was serendipitous for him too, because he sounds like an oracle when he talks about droughts in the bread basket.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Top 10 Ted Talks - 7 - Food That is Good for People & Planet

Number 7 in our list of sustainability related TED Talks, we have Mark Bittman (food writer for NYTimes, author of How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian) brings us a very enlightening talk on diet.  Specifically, the contemporary western diet and why is bad for the health of both people and the environment.

Bittman approaches the subject of food with love and wit, and makes plain some complex issues of how we arrived at the food system that we have and how we should change our diets to improve both our own health and the environmental impacts of our food systems.

Courtney and I have turned to How to Cook Everything Vegetarian for inspiration in our kitchen for years, and personally came to many of the same conclusions that Mr. Bittman recommends in this talk, but he does such a great job here of summarizing the issues and arriving at the correct conclusions.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 6 - Getting Real About Renewable Energy

Number 6 in my Top 10 Sustainability related TED Talks, we have a serious and sobering look at what it would actually mean to produce all of our energy from renewable sources by THeoretical Physicist and generally brilliant person David MacKay (asside from physics, he has a Ph.D in Computation and Neural Systems).

MacKay uses some very rough and simple calculations in this presentation to show that there are some very serious constraints to renewable energy technology available today, and even assuming that we can improve the technology significantly some of those constraints will never go away.  For example: potential energy per unit area is drastically lower for renewables than nuclear, or coal.

I enjoy MacKay's candid, hard nosed look at what the options really are, and the practical return to what is really important: understanding how we use energy and trying to use less.  Only then are renewable energy sources even viable as a replacement for fossil fuels.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 5 - Nature's Price Tag

 At the halfway point in our Top 10 Sustainability related TED Talks, we have one of my personal favorites (because this is an issue I think about a lot), a discussion of the economic value of natural systems by one of the preeminent thinkers on the subject, Pavan Sukhdev.

Sukhdev is a leader in the field of environmental economics and one of the most influential thinkers tackling the issues of building a sustainable future without dismantling the 21st century economy.  In this video he shares some of his research on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Project.  I am among those who believe that this is some of the most important work in the world to be done today.

Some people are very uncomfortable with the idea of putting an economic value on nature, believing that this will reduce nature in our view or that it is an extension of the 18th century notion of man's dominance over nature.  I feel that it is of the utmost importance to account for the value of nature in every system of thought, because when economists think about nature in their models, they need a language to think about its value.  The spiritual, aesthetic, and psychological value of nature must be accounted for in other systems of thought, for they cannot fit in the economists model.  If nature is valued in all systems in all languages, then we can all agree about conservation, even if we don't agree about the why.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks 4 - The Dirtiest Oil in the World

Top 10 TED Talks Number 4 (again, in no particular order): Garth Lenz tells us about the dirtiest oil in the world - the Alberta Tar Sands. Lenz begins by extolling the beauty and value of the ecosystems that are being carelessly turned over to get at the oil rich sand fields underneath, to give context to what is happening.

The Tar Sands of Canada are a very difficult subject, because while they produce the dirtiest, highest carbon fuel in the world, they are also the economic salvation of the Alberta Province, and currently one of the primary economic engines of the Canadian economy as a whole.  Before these Tar Sands were being exploited, Canada was one of the most progressive countries in the nation when it came to environmental issues, today it is one of the least.

Lenz is passionate and articulate, and his story is both personal and global - a difficult balance that he handles deftly.  This video is also rather timely, as the issue of the Keystone pipeline is once again up for grabs in the next election.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 3 - Learning the Limits

Limits are frequently the theme of Sustainability conversations, and my third Top 10 TED Talk is precisely about the limits of environmental stability.  Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, discusses his work identifying exactly what the environmental limits are, and where we are in relation to those limits.  Rockstrom lead a group of researches in developing 9 "planetary life support systems" that are being stressed by human activity, and the limits of how much we can stress them before they collapse.  The good news is, we've only crossed three of those limits!  I think you can infer the bad news.

Rockstrom is both informative and persuasive, and uses some theatrical tropes and props to help get his points across.  It is a very effective description of what exactly is meant by existing within the limits of a healthy planet.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 2 - Eating an Entire Earth

Next on my "no particular order" list of Top 10 TED Talks, Jonathan Foley describes how much land we use for food productions and shows us that we are practically eating an entire earth already.  Foley does an excellent job of describing how agriculture impacts the Earth while keeping in perspective that it is a necessary part of human existence.

I like how Foley focuses in at the end on the solutions that are needed without loosing site of the scale and scope of the problems.  As he says in the talk, Agriculture has been the most powerful force for change in the world since the last ice age, and rivals climate change in importance.

Bon Appetit!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 1 - How Inequity Harms Us All

There are scores of brilliant, inspiring TED (that is Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks on almost any subject you can imagine.  There are probably dozens on sustainability and related issues.  I have used several TED talks as tools in lectures and classes to illustrate points, because many of them are done by brilliant people who have devoted their lives to one particular area of study, and I (as a generalist) could never put together such a perfect, concise presentation on the issue.

So I have decided to share my favorites with you, in no particular order.  The first is a video that really cemented in my mind what it means to talk about equity.  Social and Economic Equity are always listed as some of the primary elements of sustainability, but are often nebulously defined.  They also tend to be stated as desired outcomes a priori, unable to be justified or measured against the real world.

In this 16 minute talk, Richard Wilkinson distills some of his research into a very clear and succinct argument for greater equity as a goal in our societies.  Wilkinson studies issues of equity as they relate to health, crime, and even much more difficult to pin down measures such as "social cohesion" as the Professor Emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham in England.

One of my favorite parts is when he contrasts Japan and Sweden, and shows how two completely different systems and approaches in two wildly different cultures end in strikingly similar results.

I think this video is particularly poignant in the United States right now, since our demographics have been trending toward less and less equity for decades.  The 99% movement may not have any cohesive leadership, mission or plan, but they have felt in an emotional and unscientific way what Wilkinson has come to through years of study: the gross inequality of our current system is bad for everyone.