Naomi Klein: Addicted to risk


Naomi Klein is a Canadian author and social activist known for her political analyses and criticism of corporate globalization and of corporate capitalism


BP Oil spill in gulf of Mexico showed that despite our talk we can’t control nature – despite our best efforts we could not stop the oil from spilling once it started. At the same time, BP’s CEO convinced themselves that the Gulf of Mexico was big enough to absorb the pollution without problem. There was a clear lack of planning to prevent the issue – we have become far too willing to gamble without a plan B or exit strategy. The same culture exists in declaring war or the financial market – where people optimistically pile in and then seem unprepared when things go sour. This becomes expensive for the government, which inevitably bails them out.

At the moment, climate change is the biggest risk game we are playing. There is a lot of doubt about the models which show warming of 2-4 degrees: people asking “what if we act and they are wrong”. Naomi suggests we should instead be asking “what if the models are right”. Why should we wait for perfect certainty in the modelling – we should act if there is a compelling case that we are on track for massive damage to the environment and human health. Instead the arguments have been hijacked by economists who ask bizarre questions to protect economic growth: How late can we act to minimise damage and what is the most temperature change we can accept? In doing so we are accepting a massive risk, when in truth the modelling isn’t accurate enough to perfectly answer these questions.

Risk is accepted in today’s society – we often acknowledge that taking larger risks gives more money if it pays off. Tony Hayward: BP’s former CEO had a plaque on his desk “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail”. Such an attitude is good for attempting a personal achievement like a triathlon, but we should ask our business leaders to consider the possibility of failure and respond to it.

Humanity’s story is about it’s dominance over nature with technology, that we can “slap mother nature in the face”. At the same time, we have a view that the environment is limitless and it can take the damage easily. We have a master narrative that we can do no harm, and if we do then technology will save us. In response to climate change, there are often new technologies that are spruiked as the solution – for example geoengineering which sprays chemicals into the atmosphere to deflect more solar radiation and decrease temperature. These technologies are untested, but are leapt upon as a low effort solution.

We need a new narrative, with heroes being the people willing to take on risky ideas.

My Thoughts

I’ve read some good books on the psychology of operators on shift during the Gulf of Mexico drilling disaster (“Disastrous Decisions” by Andrew Hopkins). What was fascinating is noone thought of themselves as taking a risk. They made mistakes, but the overriding feature was a confirmation bias: that they twisted the alarms and feedback to conform to what they already believed should be happening. For example they suspected the cement job didn’t work, but only tested one failure mode – and when that was ok they carried on without further testing. Everything after that assumed the cement job was fine. They also put an overreliance on a blowout preventer (which pinches the pipe to stop flow) to fix their mistakes, despite knowing this had a high failure rate.

To me it is interesting hearing Naomi’s comments in this context: that people will carry on assuming everything is normal, and ignoring the alarms that say it is not. Once they have internalised what they are doing, it is no longer risky and people become complacent.

Unfortunately, her talk is more a series of examples rather than a solution. Some of these examples are counterproductive, I’ve not summarised a nonsensical rant in the middle against men.

So what is the solution? Is it enough to simply expose people to the risks they take? It is hard enough to convince people that driving a car is dangerous, not to mention the economic system itself.

Kamal Meattle: How to grow fresh air


Kamal Meattle is an Indian environmental activist and CEO of Paharpur Business centre & Software Technology Incubator Park based in New Delhi, India.


Kamal is allergic to Delhi’s polluted air. He discovered a combination of 3 indoor plants that can filter it, and give him all the fresh air he needs.

  • Areca Plant in the living room: converts CO2 to Oxygen during the day. You need 4 shoulder-high plants per person, and need to wipe the leaves daily in Delhi (maybe weekly elsewhere).
  • Mother-in-Law’s Tongue in the bedroom: converts CO2 to Oxygen during the night. You need 6 waist high plants per person.
  • Money Plant where necessary removed formaldehyde and other volatile chemicals from the air.

With these 3 plants, you can live indefinitely in a sealed room by rebreathing the air. Kamal had these plants installed in a 50,000 sq ft office building in Delhi. While in this building for 10 hrs, 42% of people’s blood oxygen increase by 1%. It is the healthiest building in New Delhi, and its occupants have

  • 52% less eye irritation
  • 34% lower incidence of respiratory issues
  • 24% fewer headaches
  • 9% less asthma

Human productivity also increased by 20%, and energy reduction by 15% (due to less air requirements). As more humans move to buildings and buildings are one of our largest energy sources, this recipe for fresh air could reduce that significantly.

My Thoughts

Good recipe if you live in a polluted city, and useful conclusion for all offices with large air-conditioning requirements.

Nicholas Stern: The state of the climate — and what we might do about it


Lord Nicholas Stern studies the economics of climate change. He is a co-author of the position paper presented to the UN’s 2014 Climate Summit, called “The New Climate Economy.”, and author of “The Stern Review” on behalf of the British government.


25 years ago, Everyone in Beijing travelled by bicycle. It was a safe and easy way to get around. Nowadays the roads are clogged by vehicles and the air too polluted to breathe. Over that time Beijing’s population has doubled and China’s reliance on fossil fuels has increased dramatically. China now burns half of the world’s coal, and now recognises that its energy use is unsustainable.

In the next few decades, environmental pressure will increase more due to structural economic changes:  70% of people will live in cities by 2050, energy use will increase by 40% over the next 20 years, and pressure will increase on water, land and forest resources. If this change is managed poorly, there are immense risks to our quality of life and our climate. If greenhouse gases continue to increase at the rates projected, we will see temperatures over the next century which the earth hasn’t seen in tens of millions of years.

The economic changes will happen regardless, but people need to make a decision to deal with climate change. In the area of cities, we need to

  • build new cities in a compact way – to reduce travel time
  • for existing cities, we need to work out how to move people around efficiently.

As an example of improving a city – in 1952 London’s smog killed 4,000 people and reduced vehicle visibility. By regulating coal, smog decreased quickly. A recent congestion charge gave quick results – decreasing car usage in the CBD.

In energy – over the last 25 yrs, energy use has increased by 50% and 80% of the energy produced now comes from fossil fuels. Energy consumption is expected to increase by 40% again over the next 20 years, and we need to make sure it is used efficiently and produced cleanly. California is an example where this has been done well – renewables will contribute 33% of energy consumption within a few years, and greenhouse emissions will reduce back to 1990 levels (economic output has doubled over this time). Similarly, India is being proactive – aiming to install solar electricity to 400 million homes which currently have no electricity. Good decisions are giving quick results around the world.

Regarding forests: they hold valuable species, keep water in the soil and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But forests are being destroyed – over the past decade we’ve lost forested land the size of Portugal. However, in Brazil the rate of deforestation has reduced 70% by working with communities and enforcing the law more effectively. Ethiopia is also setting ambitious goals – it aims to be a middle economic power in 15 years and to be carbon neutral. Ethiopia is committed to doing this, and Nicholas believes it is a plausible goal.

Across the world, we do understand how to make change effectively. Technology is also moving quickly – better insulation, batteries, electric cars, smart houses. However the world as a whole is not moving quickly – we are not cutting emissions as we should, the depth of understanding in climate change and commitment to change is not there. If changes are managed effectively, the next 100 years will be the best humanity has experienced. If not, the coming century will be humanity’s worst.

My Thoughts

The talk was a call to action. Unfortunately, I’m not sure who the call is for – there wasn’t really a clear action we can take afterwards. It ended with an admonishment of the current political leadership, rather than a focus for the viewers.

Nonetheless, an interesting list of targets. I am particularly curious to see Ethiopia and India’s progress to advance economically and environmentally at the same time. It seems developing countries must tread this line carefully nowadays – and although it is possible it has not been achieved in the past by other countries (US, Western Europe, China all leapt forward economically before significant environmental goals).

Jeff Speck: The walkable city


Jeff Speck is a city planner and urban designer who, through writing, lectures, and built work, advocates internationally for smart growth and sustainable design.


The worst idea Americans have ever had is urban sprawl, and it is being emulated in other countries. Through it the automobile, that was once a symbol of freedom, has become a gas-belching, time-wasting, life-threatening prosthetic device that people need just to live their daily lives. Jeff wants to make cities more walkable to free us from relying on cars, for 3 reasons

  1. Economic: in the 70s the average american spent 10% of their income on transport, now the spend 20%. Working families now spend more on transport than housing, since they travel further to find cheaper houses.
  2. Health: in the 70s 1 in 10 Americans were obese, now it is 1 in 3. The current generation is expected to live a shorter life than its predecessor. Jeff sees this as an urban design problem – by denying people chances to be active in their daily life. There are clear correlations between how walkable a region is and the obesity of its residents. Asthma rates are also up due to car exhaust. Car accidents are the single largest killer of healthy adults. We think of it as a natural event, but rates are far less in cities which have been designed to reduce car usage.
  3. Environmental: Cities reduce CO2 emissions per capita, with densely populated cities reducing emissions more. However cities can always reduce more.

Portland has instituted policies to differentiate it from other US cities. It has instituted a city boundary to limit sprawl, reduced the width of roads, and increased cycling infrastructure. As a result, Portland residents drive 4 miles and 11 minutes less per day – which is saving 3.5% of their income. It has also attracted young workers, because people want to be in that sort of city.

Jeff argues our houses are getting greener in the wrong way. We’re looking for greener gadgets and ideas to add to our houses, but the impact of energy saving bulbs is a fraction of the impact of living in a walkable city. People shouldn’t be afraid of selling the lifestyle of living in a more walkable city. The lifestyle of people living in cities is studied and these studies show that people are happier in cities with better sustainability. It isn’t an easy transition, but it can be done and is worth trying.

Winston Churchill said “Americans can be counted on to do the right thing, once they have exhausted the alternatives”.


Michel Laberge: How synchronized hammer strikes could generate nuclear fusion


Michel Laberge is founder and chief scientist of ‘General Fusion’.


Fossil fuels are currently our major energy source, since they are convenient and cost effective. Michel suggest nuclear power – it is energy dense, reliably produces power, and creates no CO2. Fission is currently the most common type of nuclear power, but fusion would be safer since the radioactive waste is very short term and there is no risk of meltdown. The fuel could be extracted from the ocean, and power us for billions of years.

Fusion is difficult to pull off – the 2 nucleii need to be thrown together so fast that they overcome their electrostatic repulsion, which can only be done at 150 million degrees. This heat is the limiting factor that makes fusion difficult. Some ways that have been proposed are

  • Magnetic fusion: charged plasma is suspended in a ring of magnets shaped like a donut, where it is heated to fusion temperatures.
  • Laser fusion: a ball of matter is compressed by lasers from all directions. As it compresses it heats quickly.

Plenty of people will dismiss fusion as purely theoretical, but fusion is progressing to become more and more practical. The research has been growing at a rate similar to Moore’s law – increasing by a factor of 10 each decade (ie: developing 10 times faster than the decade before it). The science needed to build a fusion reactor is now close, but political will is now slowing us down.

Fusion is criticised as being expensive – research costing about 1 billion dollars a year, but again Moore’s law was also expensive. The technology needed to get an internet-enabled smartphone cost 1,000 billion dollars. Subsidies to fossil fuel and renewable energy industries cost 650,000 billion per year. To solve the problem of fusion would be cheap and important by comparison.

Michel did not have the resources of the large labs, so needed a cheaper solution. He criticises laser and magnetic fusion as very large and expensive, and find it difficult to contain or use the fusion energy. The neutrons shoot at high speeds and high temperature and can damage the machines – it is as if containing and using the high energy neutrons was added as an afterthought rather than the goal.

Michel investigated Magnetised Target Fusion (MTF). In MTF, you fill a vat with liquid metal, then spin it to form a vortex in the middle. Pistons on the outside of the vat then compress the metal, where it gets hotter and begins fusing. It has advantages over laser and magnetic

  • the liquid metal absorbs the energy of fused neutrons, preventing damage to walls.
  • The liquid metal heats up, which can then be run through a heat exchanger and used to create energy.
  • Most of the energy comes from steam powered pistons, which is far cheaper than magnets or lasers.

Unfortunately MTF didn’t work: the plasma cools faster than the heat of compression, so it didn’t do anything. The improvement was to make the piston into an anvil and hammer. The pistons will accelerate and then smash into an anvil, to push all the energy into the liquid metal in one blow. This created some neutrons, which were enough for Michel to get $50 million and hire a larger team to develop the concept further. 14 hammers will be aligned around a small sphere, and the impacts need to be coordinated with precise electronics. If they fire 1 impact per second, it can produce about 100MW of electricity.

Fusion is coming – it has been done by large labs, and now smaller ones like Michel’s are showing it can be done.


Stephen Hawking: Questioning the universe

Speakers: Stephen Hawking – Physicist with University of Cambridge, known for the book “a brief history of time”.


Until 1920s, people thought universe was static and unchanging. We then discovered that distant galaxies were moving away from us, which suggested originally everything was extremely close before expanding, hinting at a big bang. We have made progress understanding Maxwell’s equation and general relativity to understand how the universe has evolved, but struggled to describe the initial state of the universe. Under certain conditions, general relativity allows time to behave as another dimension, removing the distinction between time and space and allowing the universe to spontaneously create itself from nothing. We can use probability to simulate a number of different initial states which agree with observations. In this way, we have solved the creation of the universe.

Looking at extraterrestrial life, we believe life appeared spontaneously on Earth so it should be able to appear elsewhere. Algae fossils imply that life appeared on Earth within half a billion years of it becoming possible, which is short in the earth’s history. This implies that life can form relatively easily, but on the flipside we have not seen any aliens. From searches such as SETI, we can imply that there are no civilisations of our level of development within a few hundred light years.

Looking at the future, if we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy we should ensure we survive and continue. But we are in a dangerous phase of history – our consumption of finite resources is increasing exponentially, as is our ability to change the world for good or evil. Our genetic code still carries selfish and aggressive instincts that may steer us astray. It will be difficult to deal with these problems to survive 100 years, not to mention thousands or millions. To ensure our survival beyond a hundred years we must expand into space. Stephen was later asked if he believes we are the only civilisation in the Milky Way at our intelligence level. He responds (after 7 minutes to compose the speech, edited out of the video) that he believes this is true, we would have found them otherwise. The other possibility is that our civilisation is in a late phase, and previous races of our technology level have not lasted long before destroying themselves.

Throughout his life, Hawking has tried to answer these 3 questions. He is grateful his disability has not prevented this, and it has given him more time to answer these questions.


Ray Anderson: The business logic of sustainability

Speaker: Ray Anderson

Length: 16:39


In 1973, Ray read from “The Ecology of Commerce” that business and industry is

  1. the major culprit of the decline of the biosphere, and
  2. the only institution large and powerful enough to fix the problem.

The environmental impact equation is Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. Ray’s focus as CEO of a carpet manufacturer was on the ‘Technology” side – his goal was to use technology to improve the environment, turning impact into Impact = Population x Affluence / Technology. Since embracing this goal, his greenhouse gas has dropped by 82%, while sales have risen by 2/3rds and profits doubled. His goal is still zero impact – mission zero, which is even better for business, as an important market differentiator.

His achievements so far have shown the following benefits, and mission zero is going to increase profits considerably by the same action

  • Decreased costs: $400million savings and zero waste – this alone has paid for the project, and products have continued to be produced at similar high quality
  • Design for sustainability has attracted high quality candidates and galvanised them around the shared goal for zero impact
  • Goodwill of the market: the drive for zero waste has given them much more sales than pure marketing.

If Ray’s carpet company- a petroleum intensive manufacturer, can achieve these goals and recognise the benefits, then any business can do the same. His idea is to further extend the Environmental Impact equation, decreasing affluence to be less reflective of pure wealth and more what is necessary to stay happy.

Biochemical degradation of plastics (phthalates)

Speaker: Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao

Length: 9:21

Rating 3 / 5


Plastic waste is everywhere, and a pair of high schoolers investigated bacteria that can degrade phthalates – a toxic component of plastic. They identified and isolated bacteria from a contaminated river that could already degrade phthalates, and found similar bacteria in landfill sites – showing bacterial are evolving to live off phthalates. They conclude we should investigate further bacteria to degrade solid waste


I think the big new point here is that bacteria exposed to phthalates have evolved to consume the toxic chemicals. The pair are obviously talented, and it will be interesting to see what future discoveries they uncover.