Cara Mertes, the director of the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program, called it the first “flash forum” she’d ever attended. Truth is, last night’s TEDxVolcano gathering was the first such instant event that any of us had ever attended—a little over two hours of short talks, film clips and music that had been pulled together (crowdsourced) spontaneously by blogger Nathaniel Whittemore and several other cause-wired souls for the hundreds of Skoll World Forum attendees stranded in London.
Some of the 12 speakers presenting at the TED-style event—held at The Hub (a co-location work space in King’s Cross in central London)—spoke eloquently about the nature and importance of serendipity. Entrepreneur Gary Bolles called this “a moment in time that can be essential for all of us to reconsider how to upgrade the impact we have on the world or how we can spread the influence of what we do in our lifetimes. Perhaps it is an opportunity for all of us to do more.”
But not all speakers urged a gentle embrace of the circumstances that had brought them (yours truly, included) together again. Larry Brilliant, the American physician and director of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, said there is a strong relationship between the volcanic eruption in Iceland and climate change—“not the kind you think” but a relationship caused, instead, by the fact that “we don’t know (much) about a lot of very important things” including science.
“...Right now, the single most important thing the world faces is climate change,” he said. “It is the exacerbater of issues of war, water, population growth, pandemics and policy.” Despite this, he said, “science is under attack from a new generation of Luddites, of climate deniers ... while the science about volcanoes is uncertain, one this is certain: we need more—not less - science. We need more and better scientists and we need to fund science better to create an entirely new cadre of scientists and new staff to help us address and tackle the problems of the 21st century.” Thanks to the rapid evolution of information technology, he added, humans—for the first time—can see environmental problems earlier, though “we still don’t always know if what we’re finding is going to be a smaller or a bigger problem” down the road.
Brilliant suggested that “maybe there’s a reason we all are here together tonight. We are going to witness, over the next few days, the interplay between science and policy as every King and President calls the Prime Minister (UK) complaining that their son or daughter is stuck in London; we’re going to see an interplay of all of those things antecedent to the great global threats that we face. We are going to learn, if we haven’t started to already, that we are all in this together. There is no rich, no poor in this. We’re all grounded, equally.”
Brilliant concluded his remarks with the admonition that “everything we will learn from science is going to help us. Science is the set of headlights by which we steer this ship. We need to fight for science because we are going to need every tool we can muster to deal with the problems we are going to face in the future.”
Among other highlights of TEDxVolcano:
- Matthew Bishop of The Economist said Goldman Sachs’ problems and the failings of Wall Street serve as reminders of the complexity of today’s world. “The world has changed; a whole paradigm proved to be faulty and the practitioners of it couldn’t see that the world had changed,” he said. “The lesson here, the challenge to this moment, is to think: ‘What changes are there that we are missing because we are just carrying on as normal?’” Bishop also asked what could be done to improve the quality of public debate over the tough and complex issues facing the world. “There is a moment now in our history that says if we rise up and think big enough, we can come up with a much more intelligent public discussion,” he said. “We are really going to need it, and if we don’t have it, we’re all in big trouble.”
- Travel news correspondent Peter Greenberg, on his way to Heathrow to do a stand-up report for CBS on the continued cancellations of flights, predicted the volcano would have greater impact on the economy than did 9/11. “People cannot fly but cargo cannot fly, either,” he said. “Today, in Kenya, 400 tons of flowers are rotting and have to be thrown away. For every day we are not flying and air cargo is not flying, documents are still not being delivered, medicines are not being delivered, human organs for transplant are not being delivered ... the economic impact is going to be huge.”
- Cara Mertes of Sundance spoke about the leveling effect of nature. “I thought I was clever enough to figure out a way home but none of us were clever enough because we’re all here,” she said. “Money doesn’t matter, either. You can have a private jet but that just means you might die alone. So now I realize I’m in an alternate reality. To understand it is to see patterns in things, so I started thinking about what the pattern was here—and here’s what I think: the Earth is talking back. And I think the Earth is saying, ‘You people are not listening.’ What it is actually saying is that we have a really big problem on our hands with the current levels of human disruption. We are getting a sneak preview of what would happen with climate collapse. It’s a peaceful sneak preview. Nobody died to tell us what we have to go through, right? But what will happen when serious cataclysmic events start happening across the planet?” Then, recalling a speech by environmentalist Paul Hawken earlier this week at the Skoll Forum, Mertes said: “We don’t live in an historical moment but in a civilization moment. This is a generation that has to decide if we’re even going to have a civilization.”
- Jeff Skoll, founder and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, and Sally Osberg, the director of it, both read poems they wrote on the trip down from Oxford. Osberg’s riffed on Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice; Skoll’s had a lighter feel to it, ending with the declaration: “Damn the volcano; let’s have a ball.”
- A performance by singer Susheela Raman
- A showing of the short video, Pixels, by Patrick Jean
Watch this site for further coverage, as long as I’m still in London.