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.