A platform for world-changing ideas or a “recipe for civilisational disaster”? TED, the popular conference series that shares “ideas worth spreading”, divides opinion – but the woman behind a recent independently-organised TEDx event firmly believes it is a force for good.
Maryam Pasha from the Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN) recently led the TEDxEastEnd event at Oval Space in London’s Bethnal Green.
Under the theme ‘Society Beyond Borders’, 450 people listened to compelling talks on sexism, free trade, activism, anonymity, environmentalism and more. Each section was filmed by Be Inspired Films, and can be watched back on the TEDxEastEnd website.
Pasha spoke with Blue & Green Tomorrow about the event – and about why she believes TED is a valuable tool in furthering knowledge and providing inspiration to many.
Where did the idea for TEDxEastEnd come from initially?
In 2011, I got to go to a live stream in London of the first TED conference on women. They were streaming it in from Washington DC. The organisers said people could apply for their own licenses to hold events like this, with live speakers, videos and so on. I thought it was really interesting.
I did some research on it and realised that you can get a license from TED to run these independently-organised TEDx events. I thought there were lots of topics that I think haven’t been explored or I haven’t seen explored in a TED format that I would really like to. And that’s how it started.
The theme for TEDxEastEnd was ‘Society Beyond Borders’. How did you decide on that?
I do a lot of work in human rights, specifically around immigration. So it’s very much in my consciousness every day. In more and more of my work, I started to see how interconnected everything was. I was starting to see examples of how we are living, increasingly, in a society beyond borders.
There are also these real contradictions where at the same time there is this great freedom of movement of money, ideas, creativity and collaboration, yet there are some really archaic concepts of physical borders or borders in different fields like in academia or visas. There is real tension.
The list of speakers at TEDxEastEnd was really interesting – did you have any favourites?
I’m not going to tell you! But I can say there were some speakers that really resonated. That’s the thing that’s amazing about TED. For me, the whole point is you should either love or hate what the speaker was saying. That’s where I’ve done my job, because then you’ve started discussion and created a point of conversation.
There were some speakers who I think really touched on a point that really captured people’s imagination. Laura Bates was one of them, because people were either unaware of the magnitude of the problem or the problem at all. I think Leandro Herrero, in praise of borders, was another favourite. He was talking about how we need to keep our borders. I like the fact he was challenging the joyous utopia of a borderless society. Martin Wright was another speaker that people have been telling me they really enjoyed. He talked about new environmentalism, and I think he brought a new perspective to people which was really great. And I think a lot of people enjoyed hearing Brooke Magnant speak about anonymity.
TED has had its critics, with some people saying its ideas are unrealistic. One commentator recently described its model as “a recipe for civilisational disaster”. What are your thoughts?
I think that any platform that encourages criticism of itself is really good. That article [by Benjamin Bratton in the Guardian] was actually a transcript of a talk given at a TEDx event. For me, I find that very encouraging because I think the whole point is dialogue.
There are two sides to this. In some ways, you’re crowdsourcing TEDx events – that’s what it is. TED has given out its brand and is letting us run with it. You’re going to get varying quality across that, but as well some really great ideas that maybe wouldn’t come to the surface otherwise. It’s brave of TED to take a brand with a really positive reputation and allow us to play with it but I think it’s been really successful.
On the other hand, the thing that I always caution people about is to think that if you come to a TED or a TEDx event, you’re all of a sudden an expert on these topics. They’re just points of conversation. They’re just small ideas worth sharing and the beginning of further exploration. To think that by watching a video on giant squids you’re all of a sudden a marine biologist… I don’t think anyone ever does that, but the criticism of TED is that people fear that will happen. It’s about being a little bit more realistic and acknowledging that most people who are watching these videos are not going to all of a sudden see this as the end point of their exploration.
What do you get out of TED?
Sometimes you lose inspiration, especially when things in a particular field are really bad and negative, and you’re constantly coming up against the worst that we have to offer. Being able to watch these videos that let you see the world or your work differently or give you inspiration and a new perspective is really valuable. It’s not that the content of the video changes your life; it gives you the space to think about things differently. That has been really important.
Are there plans for a TEDxEastEnd in 2015?
Yes, definitely. I already have most of my team harassing me to start planning already which is fantastic. We’re really excited. I think there are a lot of questions we have to answer still, like whether we’ll keep the theme or try something else. There is so much still to say. We want to source more local East End ideas and bring them into TEDxEastEnd. We want to engage more with the local universities. A lot have their own TEDx events but many in east London don’t, so we’d really like to engage with them. I want people to take ownership of it.
What’s the grand vision?
We want to build a stronger TEDx community – that’s something I think you’ll really improve TEDx events in London. We’ve started to and it’s been really wonderful. I know the woman who ran TEDxNewham really well, also TEDxBrixton and some of the smaller events. One of my goals is to really build that network, because in other countries the TEDx community is really strong, and I think we’d like to do that more in London.
Maryam Pasha works for the Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN) and co-ordinated TEDxEastEnd. To view all the talks from the independently-organised event, see here.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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