Five great green TED talks

The Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference announced its 2009 prizewinners Thursday, which gives me an excuse to link to five of my favorite environmentally themed TED talks.

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TED curator Chris Anderson speaks with William Kamkwamba, who at age 14 built a windmill to power his home in Malawi.

The Technology, Engineering Entertainment, and Design, or TED, conference announced its 2009 prizewinners Thursday. Of interest to greens is that one of the winners is oceanographer Sylvia Earle, the former chief scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the current explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. [Note: The original version got the name of the conference wrong.]

Ms. Earle, who for the past four decades has focused on deep ocean exploration, has been a tireless advocate for marine life. Our oceans are experiencing unprecedented strain from overfishing, industrial pollution, and acidification. TED's award  –  $100,000 and "One Wish to Change the World" that Earle can pitch to the movers and shakers who attend the group's annual conference in February – couldn't be more timely.I'm looking forward to watching Earle's speech online next year.

In the meantime, I'll link you to five of my favorite green TED talks. They are, in no particular order:

William McDonough on cradle-to-cradle design. "I think we have a design problem," says architect William McDonough at the beginning of his talk. He then makes the case that our current method of making and using things – extracting resources, often toxic ones, and then throwing them "away," is fundamentally misguided. In 2002, McDonough, along with German chemist Michael Braungart published the excellent Cradle to Cradle, which argues that we can and should strive for infinite recyclability – that is, everything we make should be designed with an eye toward ultimately using it as feedstock for future manufacturing or as biological nutrients. The book itself is an example of his design philosophy: it's not made from trees, but rather a polymer that can be easily made into new books or other useful things.

Alex Steffen sees a sustainable future. Whenever my mood blackens from contemplating environmental degradation, I visit the online eco-mag Worldchanging. Headed by Alex Steffen, Worldchanging speaks a language of sustainable abundance, not guilty austerity. In his TED talk, Steffen emphasized solutions: electricity-free refrigerators, straws that purify water, and flowers that change color in the presence of landmines.Steffen is noted for coining the term "bright green environmentalism," a philosophy that emphasizes technological innovation and well-designed communities. Even though this blog isn't named for this school of thought – I actually got the name from a quote by Henry David Thoreau – I don't mind if people think that it is.

James Howard Kunstler dissects suburbia. I like to think of author James Howard Kunstler as the anti-Steffen: Whenever I find myself getting a little too sanguine about how the latest eco-gizmo just might save our collective hide, I tune in Kunstler's grim vision of a post-peak-oil apocalypse. Both writers, however, tend to emphasize the value of walkable, mixed-use communities.

In this talk, Kunstler serves up a cranky yet devastating rant (expletive alert) about suburban sprawl, which he calls "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of humanity," and its tendency to create "places not worth caring about."After watching this video, step outside and survey your surroundings. No matter where you are, you will see things in a completely different light.

William Kamkwamba on building a windmill. Six years ago, William Kamkwamba, when he was all of 14 years old, read a book in his library about windmill building. He decided to give it a shot so he could power his home in his little village in Malawi. Using an old bicycle frame, a tractor fan blade, and blue gum trees, he constructed a 12-volt windmill. Now he's moving on to bigger projects, such as a larger windmill that will irrigate the crops in his village, and a radio transmitter that will broadcast popular music and HIV-prevention methods. He also has a blog.

Jill Sobule sings to Al Gore. "Everyone's out and merry/ Manhattan in January," sings Jill Sobule, who is perhaps best known for her 1995 single "I Kissed a Girl" (which, to my mind, is far less irritating than the currently popular song of the same name). Sobule sings ironically about some of the often-overlooked "positive" aspects of global warming: halter-tops in midwinter, year-round blooming flowers, and well-fed alligators in Central Park.

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