The large, enclosed space outside the conference room where TEDx Sydney 2012 was taking place last month was filled with a buzzing crowd. Earnest groups deep in discussion, individuals lining up for coffee and food, others sitting on sofas and listening to speakers.
And along one side of the room, roped off and forcing a pedestrian detour, was a huge pile of brown dirt; brought in by tip truck and deposited, defiant and challenging to those who perhaps preferred their intellectual stimulus to come from something less prosaic.
But intellectual stimulus it was, brought there to confront those seeking a day of enlightenment listening to the ‘mind-field’ of ideas that explode through any TED event.
For the uninitiated, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design and it has grown from a one-off event in 1984 through an annual brain-fest in Silicon Valley to a worldwide phenomenon of conferences with the one aim of exploring ideas worth sharing.
Last month was Sydney’s third conference but before the capacity crowd packed the venue they paused by the pile and wondered what it all meant.
Australia Unlimited was a proud sponsor of TEDx Sydney: for lots more photos visit our Facebook page.
In fact, it was a message from Professor John Crawford from the University of Sydney, and of all the messages on a day which fairly crackled with ideas, his was the one which gave the greatest pause for thought.
Put starkly, Crawford believes that our farming practices are such that the world’s topsoil is set to vanish within the next century – with all the catastrophic consequences that would entail in a rapidly growing world population already desperate for food – unless changes are made.
While it is fair to say that his ideas are not yet mainstream, although they are gaining plenty of traction, Crawford’s background entitles him to plenty of consideration. With a Bachelor of Science in Physics and a PhD in Theoretical Astrophysics, Crawford currently holds the prestigious Judith and David Coffey Chair in Sustainable Agriculture at the university. Early research highlights include the demonstration that the standard Big Bang theory had observable inconsistencies and the discovery of clouds on Venus, but it is his recent work into the physical architecture of soil that is raising headlines and eyebrows throughout the world.
Crawford is interested in structures and systems and has discovered that the physical structure of soil is not random and that it appears the system has the capacity for self-organisation. Micro-organisms seem to be the ones doing the construction and it is their fate that is the concern.
Scientists, he says, have not been analysing the soil as an ecosystem. “To study food production without studying the soil ecosystem is like studying the fate of orangutans but not studying the loss of the rainforest and its effect on habitat.”
“Plant-breeding programs have never had a below-ground focus. We found that soil was not a static system but a highly dynamic system. People have got to start thinking of it as an ecosystem rather than as a structure to help plants stand up.
“The cause is the loss of carbon from the system,” Crawford says. “We’re not feeding the earth that is supposed to be feeding us, and the bottom line is that we have a massive problem coming.”
When asked whether he thought the problem was solvable, Crawford answers warily: “I think we can solve the problems, but whether we will solve them . . . it comes down to will and that is a more difficult question to answer.”
“We live in a democracy so we have to shape the political agenda as individuals.”
Democracy was also at the forefront of Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’s thoughts when he spoke at TEDx. Executive Director and Joint Managing Director of the giant Australian construction company Transfield Holdings, Belgiorno-Nettis is also the founder of the newDemocracy Foundation, an independent, non-partisan research organisation aiming to identify improvements to the democratic process.
He believes the adversarial system of party politics actively discourages collaboration and bipartisan solutions and proposes that a Senate be established comprised of randomly selected citizens who would serve for a period of two or three years and would have the right to pass or veto legislation. This, says Belgiorno-Nettis, would encourage the elected parties in the Lower House to be more collaborative. To those who question how a random group of citizens could possibly pass judgement on such weighty matters he points to juries, where 12 randomly drawn citizens pass judgement on matters of, at times, far greater import.
For Jeremy Heimans, new democracy is something different. The 34-year-old Australian is a self-described movement entrepreneur – which could be defined as using the internet to build social movements around pressing issues. Now based in America, Heimans is, in fact, changing the face of politics throughout the world. In 2005, together with fellow Australian David Madden, who he met while both were studying at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he founded GetUp!, the grassroots organisation which has quickly proved a major player on the Australian political scene.
Now he is the Chief Executive of Purpose.com, the US organisation which he co-founded and which is building global movements through the internet with not insubstantial aims such as the fight against cancer, the elimination of nuclear weapons and changing America’s food culture.
The recipient of the Ford Foundation’s 75th Anniversary Visionary Award in 2011 and named as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum at Davos the same year, Heimans spoke at the TEDx forum about the need to change the focus of action of climate change, largely by killing the concept of green.
Consumers, he says, have been so saturated by “green” – through the concept’s appropriation (and at times misappropriation) by companies and organisations seeking to use its feel-good message to sell goods and services – that “green is becoming meaningless to consumers”.
“Research shows that we need to kill the language and imagery of green in order to have any shot at transitional climate change,” Heimans says.
Heimans suggests that consumers need to be given other reasons to buy green products in order to bridge the gap between the 75 per cent of people who say they want to buy green and the tiny percentage who actually do.
Obstacles like price and convenience cause consumers to turn away from their preference for environmentally superior products but Heimans believes the solution lies in encouraging more “irrational consumerism” – which could involve harnessing the online power of communities by pulling value-based motivational levers.
He cites a US company, Solar Mosaic, which attempts to overcome the price resistance to solar power by having communities purchase solar panels that sit on community land and which become community assets belonging to everyone.
Heimans also suggests “building a bigger tent” for climate change activities by joining with other activist groups involved in ethical issues like fair trade. “We need to build a movement that organises people [around] their shared values, to get behind businesses at this intersection of mass participation,” Heimans says.
The purpose will be to build the climate change movement “but we just won’t talk about it”.
Tom Griffiths, Professor of History in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University (ANU), and Director of the Centre for Environmental History at ANU, certainly had no trouble in talking about climate change.
An expert in the history of Antarctica, Griffiths spoke at TEDx of the messages coming to the world from the depth of the polar ice caps.
“Embedded in ice are tiny air bubbles from hundreds of thousands of years ago,” Griffiths says. “When you drill into an ice cap that is kilometres thick, you can extract a core that it layered year by year, a precious archive of deep time. Ice cores are the holy scripts, the sacred scrolls of our age.”
From those cores, Griffiths says, we are able to ascertain the climate conditions of the past and see how changing weather has intertwined with changing social and geographic conditions and how the present-day levels of greenhouse gases are unprecedented during the past 420,000 years.
Over the last 1000 years temperature changes of up to 1 degree “have transformed and imperilled human society”, Griffiths says, adding that current human-caused climate change is expected to be of at least two degrees and up to four degrees on some estimates.
Adapting to environmental change interests Associate Professor Angela Moles, from the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New South Wales.
Speaking at TEDx, Moles posed the question of when do imported weeds, which Australia spends so much time and money trying to eradicate, become native?
The winner of the Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Outstanding Young Researcher in 2011, she related how in the past it was thought sensible for people to introduce different species into the Australian landscape. Thus noxious weeds like lantana, privet, bitou bush and Paterson’s curse began to run rampant through the country.
But, Moles says, this also set up an experiment with the characteristics of another – far more famous – unwitting experiment: the finches on the Galapagos Islands that formed much of the basis for Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
Australia has geographic isolation and Moles has shown that adaptation to local conditions has occurred, with 70 per cent of the plants they examined showing significant changes in things like height, leaf size and leaf shape. She is now halfway through establishing whether the third essential element – reproductive isolation – is present.
Reproductive isolation means that the species has changed so much that it either can’t or won’t reproduce with the original species and Moles is confident that her experiments will show that at least some of the weeds we despise as imported pests will have become uniquely Australian flora.
“Maybe then we might stop trying to exterminate them and try to protect them,” she suggests, provocatively.
If any more intellectual provocation was needed it was provided by the likes of Michelle Simmons, the Director of the Australian Research Council Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology and a Professor of Physics at the University of New South Wales, along with Professor Brian Schmidt from the Australian National University who was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics.
Simmons spoke of the world-leading research she and her team are doing into quantum computers while Schmidt talked about the accelerating expansion of the universe.
Architects Gerard Reinmuth and Anthony Burke spoke at the conference. They are heading the creative team for the Australian Pavilion at the prestigious Venice International Architecture Biennale, which runs for almost three months from 29 August this year.
Their exhibition, ‘Formations: New Practices in Australian Architecture’, is designed to challenge traditionally held beliefs about what architecture can be.
The pair put out an invitation to the entire profession in Australia asking for those who are working in unusual ways, like the architect who works with an environmental planner and a doctor, analysing and fixing Aboriginal houses.
“He’s affecting peoples’ lives,” Reinmuth says. “In a way he’s still an architect, but in a way something other than an architect – he’s using his architectural skills in a broader context.
What they have done in Venice is put together a show of six such people – but not with a peculiarly Australian slant.
“People were asking us to make it Australian. We just wanted to make it good, we didn’t just want to make it Australian,” Reinmuth says.
“It’s a magic box full of Australian innovation, a bit like TEDx today, full of innovative things done by Australians.
“The whole society we have here produces these amazing people, and they happen to be Australians.”
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