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TEDGlobal: Jason Clay and a sustainable future through corporate collusion

(Clay’s talk is similar to the one he gave at the Aspen Institute last year, though that talk was more than an hour long and, obviously, was able to cover more territory than an 18 minute TED talk. Here are my notes on that longer talk, which Clay was kind enough to vet and correct…)

WWF’s Jason Clay starts his tale of doing more with less with a story about his own childhood, growing up very poor on a farm in Missouri. When a scholarship allowed him to get out and go to school, he studied agriculture and anthropology. This eventually led him to working in a refugee camp in Sudan – “If you get a PhD and decide not to teach, you don’t necessarily end up in a refugee camp – you could always drive a taxi in New York.”

Using the techniques he’d learned as an anthropologist, he conducted interviews on how many people were raped, how many were arrested and tells us he was able to calculate with unfortunate accuracy how many body bags they’d need.

This wasn’t his path, he tells us. And so he found himself at a Grateful Dead show, talking to Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s, who asked him, “What can I do to save the rainforest?” The answer Clay offered: “Use nuts from the rainforest to prove the forest is worth more as forest than as pasture.” The product, Rainforest Crunch, was an enormous success – $100 million in sales – but he tells us it failed. “Why? The people who were gathering Brazil nuts weren’t people cutting the forest. We needed to be working on beef, timber and soy.”

Returning to Sudan, Clay tells us he wondered why didn’t people realize famine was caused by politics, not weather. An Oromo friend answered his question: “You can’t wake a person who’s pretending to sleep.”

Human beings are currently using 1.3 planets worth of resources for consumption. Yes, population growth is important, but so is the size of ecological footprint. The average American consumes 43 times the average African. When we’ve reached a planet of 9 billion people, all of whom are likely to consume twice as many resources, we’re at a load much, much higher than what we can sustain globally. Yes, we need to bring up efficiency and productivity, but we need to bring consumption down.

Clay asks if consumers should have a choice about sustainable products… or should we mandate that all our products are sustainable? It takes 1.8 seconds for the average American to make an average consumer choice. That’s not long enough for a consumer to figure out whether frozen lamb from New Zealand is better for the environment than fresh from the UK, or even if organic potatoes have fewer toxic chemicals than conventional. (The answer to both those choices is non-trivial – and in both cases is, “it depends”.)

So sustainability has to be a pre-competitive issue. And, Clay tells us, we need collusion to address it. He and WWF have identified 30 key parts of the world where we need to protect biodiversity, and 15 major commodities that threaten biodiversity. Do we address this by changing the behavior of 6.9 billion consumers? It’s way too hard. 300-500 companies control 70% of these key commodities. And 100 companies control 25% of all this trade. And Clay argues that, if we chance their behavior, we can change 40-50% of production.

Now there are agreements with 40 of these companies, and negotiations underway with another 40. The plan is to use those 80 to twist arms of the remaining 20. One of the involved companies is Cargill, which not has plans to double palm oil production by planting only on degraded land. Mars has made a commitment to buy only sustainable seafood for its pet food. And they’re sequencing the cocoa genome and releasing it into the public domain so people can come up with better ways to grow the product sustainably, so Mars can always make chocolates.

The price of food as a share of household income keeps going down. But in part this is because consumers aren’t paying the true cost of food. If we bring in the externalities – particularly water – we’d see a massive shift in costs.

Clay closes by telling us, “Whatever was sustainable in a planet of six billion will not be in a planet of nine.”

TEDGlobal: Johan Rockstrm and resilience

Ecologist Johan Rockstrm begins by reminding us modern humans have just experienced “10,000 years of grace,” an interglacial period capable of supporting human development. He tells us we’re currently putting the planet into a “quadruple squeeze” through pressures of human growth and inequality (80% of climate impact from 20% of people), climate change (whether we end up at 350/450/550ppm of CO2), ecosystem loss (loss of 60% of species), and the problem of surprise – rapid tipping points.

Rockstrm tells us that may be at a point where humans are the main pressure on the planet. It’s not just CO2 that maps a hockey stick – methane, nitrous oxide, loss of species, ozone depletion all have a distinctive, rapidly rising curve. There was a massive acceleration on those curves in the 1950s. And it’s possible that we currently face the most challenging decade in human history, a decade where we have to “bend the curves”.

Natural systems have stable states and thresholds. Think of a ball rolling on a curved surface. One measure of resilience is the depth of the cup. But when the ball reaches a local maximum, it can quickly tip into another state (as he says this, he steps off the stage, lands on his feet after a few foot fall, and continues his talk without breaking stride.)

Systems can collapse very quickly. Coral reef systems can turn from thriving ecosystems to systems that have lost diversity very quickly. We may have just seen a possible threshhold in the arctic – we rapidly lost 30% of reflective ice cover. This is the largest red flag warning for humanity, he tells us.

Nine factors, and their interactions, serve as “planetary boundaries”: climate change, ozone depletion, aerosol loading, ocean acidification, freshwater use, chemical poluuion, land system change, rate of biodiversity loss, biogeochemical loading, and global nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. Rockstrm tells us that we’ve crossed the boundary on three of these factors – nitrogen flow, biodiversity loss, and climate change.

Is sustainable development utopia? No – we can fix this – there’s evidence we can. In Latin America, collapsed farmland was recovered through zero-till, mulch-based farming. The Great Barrier Reed, which was beginning to collapse, has now been revived due to a new governance strategy, and there’s a new focus on putting redundancies and diversity in the natural system. In Sweden, swamplands that were considered worthless flood zones are now being reincoporated into urban planning.

We face the largest transformative development since industrialization. But he argues that can manage it if we build resilient systems.

TEDGlobal: Sugata Mitra, beyond Hole in the Wall

Sugata Mitra tells us that there are places on Earth, in every country where, for various reasons, good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go. And those places, as it turns out, is often where trouble comes from.

In 1999, Mitra embedded a computer in a wall in a slum in New Dehli, connected it to high speed internet and left it there – the Hole in the Wall Experiment. He repeated this experiment in other parts of India and discovered that children learn what they want to do. We see a Rajastani village where children were recording music and playing it back for each other, only four hours from seeing the computer for the first time. His conclusion – children could learn to use computers by themselves.

An experiment in Hyderabad asked children who spoke English with a strong Telugu accent to use a voice recognition system on a computer. Two months later, their accents had changed and were closer to the neutral British accent of the speech synthesizer.

Mitra had a conversation with the late Arthur C. Clarke where Clarke said, “If a teacher can be replaced with a machine, he should be.” And Clarke told him that student interest is the most important thing in education.

As children begin to Google their homework, teachers in India are reporting that their English is improving… and they’re becoming surprisingly deeper thinkers. Mitra believes that this might be a shift from memorization to exploring information online.

How difficult a task can students take on. In Kalikuppam, a small village, Mitra decided to see if Tamil speaking children could learn about biotech in English on their own. After two months, the students sheepishly told him they’d learned nothing. He asked whether they’d learned nothing at all, and a twelve year old girl told him, “Apart from the fact that improper copying of genetic molecules could cause disease, we’ve learned nothing.”

Students took biotechnology exams and scored a 30, while they’d scored a 0 before… “an educational impossibility.” He asked one of the best students to teach the others and improve their schools. She asked how she could possibly teach them, and Mitra suggested “the grandmother method” – stand behind, admire, act fascinated and praise. After two months, the class score was up to 50.

Mitra is now conducting experiments in the UK, with students at Gateshead school. Students work in groups of four, using one computers, and can change between groups. One group started solving GSCE questions within 20 minutes – the least successful group took 45 minutes. They were using Google, Ask Jeeves and other sources. Teachers asked, “Is this deep learning?” Mitra sees evidence that test scores rise over time with groups like these, and believes that students have almost near photographic recall because children discuss what they’ve learned together.

He’s got a great new idea – the granny cloud. He’s recruited hundreds of British grandmothers who donate their time over online video connections and answer questions for children. In both India and the UK, he’s teaching children using groups, Google and the granny cloud.

Maybe the most amazing experiment comes from Turin, where Mitra went to a primary school and started writing questions on the white board in English for students who speak only Italian. Using Google translate, students were answering questions like “Who was Pythagoras and what did he do?” in a few minutes.

Mitra tells us that he future of education is self-organized learning environments. They let students learn together, use resources and people they can access online and explore on their own, and he plans on testing this going forward.

TEDGlobal: Sebastian Seung mapping the connectome

Sebastian Seung asks the room at TEDGlobal whether they are more than their genes. After all, genes seem like they have awesome power. They control our appearance and our vulnerability to diseases. But we think we’re more than our genes. He urges us to cheer “I am more than my genes”.

Okay, so what are we. He offers, “I am my connectome”.

We’ve only produced one connectome – that of the nematode C. elegans. It took twelve years to painstakingly map 7000 connections between a couple hundred neurons. The human connectome – a map of every connection between every neuron – contains more than a million times as much info as the human genome.

It’s possible that our memories are stored in the connectome, and possible that our personalit and intellect is as well. We don’t know if we are our connectomes because we don’t have the technology to test it.

How do you make a connectome? Take thin slices of a mouse brain, assemble them into a 3D models to see a neuronal structure and begin coloring them, so each neuron is a different color. You can start to see the intersection of two neurons – a synapse – where neurons can transfer neurotransmitters. Basically, this process is turning a stack of neurons into a giant coloring book.

Seung shows us a silly self-help book titled, “Guys are waffles, Girls are spaghetti.” Whether or not the thesis of the book – that men’s emotions are compartmentalized, while women’s are connected to all aspects of life – he tells us that “everyone’s brains are like spaghetti. Actually, finely branching capellini.” Everything touches everything else – not quite, but enough to make the problem of mapping the connectome deeply overwhelming.

The hope is that with microscopes and huge supercomputers, we can assemble and explore a vast human connectome. But this would be one of the greatest technological challenges of all time. For now, scientists are hoping just to find partial connectomes of tiny chunks of mouse brains.

The brain is constantly changing, Seung tells us. Synapses can be created and eliminated, and can grow larger and smaller. To a certain extent, they’re programmed by your genes. But neural activity can also cause connections to change – your experiences change your connectome. Each connectome is unique – it’s where nature meets nurture, how identical twins can end up very different people.

Neural activity is constantly changing – it’s like the water of a stream. The connections of the neural network are like the streambed, determining where it flows. But over timestreambed is changed, by the flow of the water, just as the structure of the brain could be changed by thought.

Seung offers a challenge to “prophets” who promise us immortality through cryonics, spending $100,000 to have your brain stored in liquid nitrogen. Should we laugh at these guys? “I don’t know,” he tells us, “let’s test scienticially.” Let’s get a frozen brain and try to obtain the connectome. If we cannot get it, we might resurrect the body, but we cannot ressurect the mind.

TEDGlobal: Stefano Mancuso and plant intelligence

Botanist Stefano Mancuso sees something moving from the biblical story of the ark. “Where are the plants?” There’s a deep bias in human history that tells us that plants aren’t living creatures.

We tend to say that the blue whale is the biggest living creature – it’s not. The great sequoia is far larger. Do we discriminate because plants don’t move? They do – watch the venus fly trap capture a snail. And this isn’t just a special case – plants move when they blossom, and they reposition and reorient to capture the sun, though you need to use time lapse to see this.

He shows us plants at play, immature sprouts learning how to track the sun. And he shows us plants sleeping, in less active states as they’re in darkness. He posits, “Perhaps we should study sleeping problems in plants, not just in animals.” The experimental and ethical issues, he suggests, are less serious. And we can think of plant reproduction – the movement of pollen via animals – as another form of movement.

It took a scientist no less than Darwin to get us to take seriously he power of movement in plants. He and a student wrote a 500 page monograph – “The Power of Movement in Plants”. Near the end, he makes reference to plant intelligence being “like the brain of the lower animals.”

We can see very interesting activity at the root apex, a very small region at the top of a root. We can track action potentials, signals that appear very similar to neurons in the brain.

A rye plant has roughly 11 million root apexes, and these are linked together by a structure that looks surprisingly similar to a network. He suggests we think of roots as being like the internet, linking together small computer machines. Why is there intelligence in the roots of plans? It allows them to seek opportunity and avoid danger.

So why don’t we have plant robots? It’s smart to emulate birds if we want to fly, but if we wanted to explore soil, plants are the masters.

Mancuso doesn’t mean this just as a provocation – he’s building robots that are controlled by
unicellular algae, leaves of plants, and roots. Wow.

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