Sustainability videos

This week, for my Sustainable Energy class, I watched a few TED videos. Each video, gave me something to think about and reflect upon. The videos provided me with more point of views and different approaches to the same issue of energy and sustainable living.

In the following paragraphs, I provide a brief biography of the speaker and then go on to a description of what each speaker had to say, followed by a small paragraph on my views and comments on the same. The link for the TEDTalks are included and I would encourage one to go through them.

Michael Pollan: A plant’s-eye view



Michael Pollan is the author of ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ which was discussed in class. He is a professor of journalism at UC, Berkeley and has voiced his opinion on food and plant through various talks and presentations that he has given.

In this particular talk, Pollan encourages the listener to approach the world that we live in by looking from the Plant’s perspective. Pollan confesses that he is a devoted gardner and that it was during one of his gardening sessions that he came across this thought. While earlier, he envisaged himself as the ‘one calling the shots in the garden’, his thoughts lead him to question whether that really was the case. He then came to conclude that he was merely a tool used by the plants to disseminate their genes. He found this thought as striking and one that would rid the notion that ‘humans are sovereign subjects in nature’ and defeat their ‘self serving conceit’. He goes on to proclaim that agriculture, in itself, is not an invention or a technology, but a co-evolutionary development, by which plants have used biochemistry, to dominate over the so called intelligence of human species. Pollan backs his thoughts by referring to Darwin, who talked about species manipulations and how that encouraged growth and evolution.


Pollan states that human still believe that the world is divided into subjects and objects and culture and nature. That consciousness and intellect are everything and a species devoid of human consciousness is infact being dominated by mankind. Pollan believes that it is infact, biochemistry which is the plant’s consciousness, it’s way of communicating with other species and it’s counterpart for human intelligence. Pollan then goes on the talk about the ethanol production growth, which he mockingly refers to as an act, manipulated by corn.


Pollan refers to industrial agriculture as a Cartesian system, which according to him, negates natural processes. He talks about his visit to Joel Salatin’s farm in the Shenandoah region of Virginia. This farmer practices the science of  permaculture. His farms have 5 different types of species, namely, cows pigs turkeys rabbits turkeys, each performing ecological service for each other. The procedure being, that initially there is a field with grass growing on it. Joel then leads his cows to graze on the grass. The cows spend a lot of time grazing and defecating on the grass, ultimately to a point wherein the field becomes more or less barren. After waiting for three days, Joel then releases around 300 chicks  onto the cow paddy. The chicks feast on the 3 day old maggots(larvae) which are thriving on the cow paddy. The chicks, in turn are also spreading the manure out in the process, defecating onto the fields with their nitrogenous waste, which proves to be a manure for the field. In this way, the farmer, now has a field rich with manure wherein grass can regrow. In this way, the cycle continues and Joel manages to extract surprisingly high yield from his 100 acres by letting each species live out it’s desires, so to speak. Pollan now uses this example to illustrate his point further. That technology is not necessary for sustainability if we follow in on the concepts existing in nature. He opines that there are ways in which we can take food from the Earth and in doing so, heal the Earth. Pollan questions the tragic idea that nature loses for us to win with technology. He talks about an ideal world in which humans are able to realize this concept and take it to the point that we are able to generate sustainable lifestyles and maintain it in harmony with nature.


I thoroughly enjoyed this TedTalk. Pollan is fun, engaging and yet makes a point which is worthwhile. In all the discussions about sustainability and conservation, we put technology at loggerheads to nature. What perhaps needs to be explored is a system wherein we can understand nature enough to engage it within our activities and co-exist. This would be possible only if we end objectifying the world we live in and treat nature as an equal participant in the processes.


Juan Enriquez: Using Biology to Rethink Energy



Juan Enriquez is an author as well as the founding director of the life sciences project at Harvard Business School. In this talk, Juan talks about how it is crucial to rethink energy and its use from a biological standpoint.


Juan starts his talk by asking for the definition of Bioenergy. He goes on to say that bioenergy is not ethanol, as is commonly perceived, for according to him, it is gas, oil, coal and all forms of energy being used by us.


Juan then goes on to talk about the agriculture practices. He starts off with the advent of agriculture around 11000 years and talks about how that fueled the cycle of civilization based on farming and irrigation; propelling the invention of and the advent of machines and finally industrial revolution and information technology. He spends some time talking about Normal Borlaug and how he taught the world to grow grains and ushered in the green revolution. Citing China and India as examples, Juan states how these nations are now exporting grains rather than suffering from famines, as was the case pre agriculture revolution. Research on the agriculture revolution by Borlaug was done in Mexico. Juan laments that, Mexico remains largest the importer of grains, since it did not adopt the technology. He then points out the difference in discussing technology and adopting it, stating that action brings about change for the better.


Juan credits the increase in productivity as a result of understanding biology. He opines that one needs to understand biology to talk about energy. He states that oil comes from green trees and that oil and all other hydrocarbons are nothing but concentrated sunlight. He urges his viewers to accept that plants are nothing but solar panels.


Talking about the current energy consumption scenario, Juan states that 86% of the energy consumed come in from hydrocarbons and hence, indirectly, from plant sources. He states that understanding of this is key to bridging the present and the future and making more sustainable choices. As an example he talks about coal mining and how certain coal mines gas out poisonous gases while others do not. Juan opines that understanding which mine would gas, would lie in the biology surrounding the mine’s location and the fauna and flora around it. I found this to be an interesting idea.


Juan’s lecture covered basics of biology and talked about how energy is but bioenergy. I specifically liked two things about his talk. The first was his idea of viewing plants as basically solar panels, was an interesting and thought provoking idea, especially taking into account the efficiency levels indicated for normal green plants converting solar energy to carbohydrates. The second point was wherein he spoke about regulating oil prices for the next two decades. He opines that the fluctuations in oil prices by the OPEC are resulting in companies hesitant to take up research on alternate energy sources. His findings lead him to conclude that each time a company proposes a greener solution, oil prices drop down and oil is favored again and the new idea is shot out. Then, once oil is favored again the prices are raised. This kind of a monopoly by oil on supply and demand and costs, results in imbalance in society and restricts science and technologists working on alternatives. I agree with this notion and think that, if the Govt regulates the prices of oil at a fixed point, for a considerable period of time, alternatives can be accordingly explored.