Thinkers gather to act on world problems

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

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.

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.

3. Threats that represent a clear and present danger. Global warming is a future threat. We duck involuntarily if someone suddenly throws a rock at us. That kind of response to immediate threats has evolved to serve us well over millennia. But our ability to think about the future is still in its infancy (even though some of us do floss our teeth and take out retirement plans). "We haven't quite gotten the knack of treating the future like the present," Dr. Gilbert says.

4. Threats that are sudden. When the rate of change is slow enough, we don't see the changes, he says. Already, we have around us "an ecological nightmare our grandparents would have never tolerated," including polluted air and water, Gilbert says. But we've come to accept these conditions as "normal" because they happened over time.

"Global warming doesn't push any of our [panic] buttons," Gilbert concludes. "We're sleeping in a burning bed."

Cary Fowler's Global Crop Diversity Trust isn't waiting for a disaster before acting. His organization is working with the Norwegian government to build an underground seed bank in Svalbard, Norway, aimed at preserving the genetic diversity of plants that might become extinct. "This is not the time to start throwing away options," Fowler told the audience at Camden's Opera House. Not only are exotic plants whose genetic properties are little explored being preserved, but a wide variety of common plants as well. Rice alone has 120,000 varieties, he points out.

While the earth has seen climate swings in the past, the suddenness of human-induced global warming will present special problems to agriculture, Fowler says. Humans will either have to modify the environment to suit the crops, or modify the crops to suit the new environment, he says. Seed banks offer resources that can help develop new varieties that will better withstand changes such as more heat and drought.

One example: grass pea, or Lathyrus sativus, is a drought-resistant legume suitable for human consumption and livestock feed in Asia and East Africa. The problem: It contains traces of a neurotoxin. Researchers say that humans who consume it over long periods may become partially paralysed or develop other physical problems. By combining qualities from a wide variety of Lathyrus strains, scientists blend the best drought-resistant qualities with the lowest levels of neurotoxins to create a more useful plant.

How can we restore a healthy environment?

First, study nature in its pristine state to set a baseline for recovery, says Enric Sala, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of San Diego. Dr. Sala led a research trip to Kingman Reef in the Pacific Ocean to see what coral reefs looked like before they were influenced by humans.

Unlike the dying reefs in much of the world that are turning to slime and algae, Kingman is bursting with life. Dr. Sala found an ecosystem with its food chain intact, dominated by sharks and red snappers and not by little fish. These big predators represent about 85 percent of the reef's total biomass.

This is the standard that we must use to judge the health of the ocean, he says. At Kingman, "The entire food web is upside down" from the way we've been thinking about reefs.

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