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Thinkers gather to act on world problems

Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine, aims to harness synergy to tackle issues.

By / October 22, 2007

Jacob Turcottte

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Camden, Maine

Pop!Tech, the annual gathering of thinkers and doers in Camden, Maine, that ended on Saturday, has been asking such questions as "What does it means to be a human being at the beginning of the 21st century?" says its curator and host, Andrew Zolli.

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But more and more, the conference, now in its 11th year, isn't just posing big questions: It's trying to jump-start big solutions to big problems.

The "Pop!Tech Accelerator," just announced, aims to bring together innovators that meet at the conference to take on big challenges. Its first effort is called Project Masiluleke (it means "to reach out" or "rejuvenate oneself" in Zulu). The project combines the work of iTEACH, a program in South Africa that aims to educate poor people about HIV/AIDS and help them find and take advantage of medical treatment, with an interactive computer program developed by researchers at the University of Connecticut. The program, which helps patients understand and manage their own medical treatment, is part of CHIP (the Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention) at the university.

Pop!Tech has long talked the talk on environmental issues, and in recent years it's begun to walk the walk, too. To compensate for the carbon emissions created by this year's conference (including energy needs on site and travel by its hundreds of participants), Pop!Tech bought carbon-offset credits equal to twice the carbon the meeting created. Thus it claims to be not just "carbon neutral," but "carbon negative."

Anyone, whether at the conference or not, can participate in its carbon-offset plan too. The offsets program offers a quick and simple "carbon footprint" calculator to help individuals determine the amount of carbon emissions they are producing. Then they volunteer to financially support one of three projects: a solar-powered irrigation program in Benin, West Africa; a wildlife corridor and reforestation effort in Nicaragua; or a biomass energy project in Brazil.

"We vetted very, very carefully" in choosing the projects, Mr. Zolli told the conference. "All of the [carbon] credits are legitimate." To put a face on the efforts, a leader from each project addressed the gathering.

A vexing issue for environmentalists has been why the public isn't more up in arms about global warming, given what they see as strong scientific evidence. Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, told Pop!Tech that climate change represents a type of threat that humans have trouble coping with. Humans have evolved to respond to four kinds of threats, he says:

1. Threats that have a face. A threat from a person (Hitler, Saddam Hussein), rather than impersonal weather events, elicits a strong response. The anthrax-in-the-mail scare several years ago won attention because a person or persons was perceived to be behind it. Illnesses like influenza or malaria, which have no human face, represent a much greater threat but receive much less attention.

2. Threats that offend us. Global warming doesn't violate our hard-wired moral sensibilities: It's not indecent, impious, disgusting, or nauseating. If this were about "flag burning," "gay sex," or "killing puppies," we'd be in the streets protesting, he says.