Best site on the web never fails to inspire

Posted by Laura Grant on July 1, 2007
Posted in Green News

Nicke tailings by Edward Burtynsky

Photograph of nickel tailings by Edward Burtynksy

Sometimes I feel very isolated living on the southern tip of Africa. It takes a while for information to filter down this far south. Although now there’s the TED website. It’s manna from heaven for people like me who have limited access to the new ideas that are shaping the world.

It was TED that first introduced me to Al Gore and his climate crisis slide show – I probably would never have thought of forking out cash to see an American politician giving a PowerPoint presentation if I hadn’t first had a taste of how witty and engaging the man is on the TED website. It also brought Malcolm Gladwell, he of the tipping point fame, to my laptop, and the man who explained human happiness and Jane Goodall and EO Wilson and countless others who I would never normally have had access to. I now know what they look like, I’ve seen them speak with passion about the subjects closest to their hearts. And nothing is more inspiring than passion. They are all within reach, downloaded on my desktop, so I can watch them speak again, whenever I need some inspiration.


If you’ve never heard of TED before, it stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It’s a conference that’s been held once a year in Monterey, California, since 1990. On its website it describes itself as committed “to seek out the most interesting people on earth and let them communicate what they are passionate about, untainted by corporate influence”. Well, I’m certainly not going to argue with that claim.

What’s more, the presentations have been made available for free on the internet, under a Creative Commons licence, as audio and video podcasts because “TED is devoted to giving millions of knowledge-seekers around the globe direct access to the world’s greatest thinkers and teachers.” It’s worth getting broadband for. I have found nothing else like it on the internet.

There are two reasons why I’m particularly excited about TED at the moment. The first is that the 2007 TEDGlobal conference was held at the beginning of last month in Arusha, Tanzania. You see, the TED community thinks Africa is on the verge of an important tipping point. They believe a new Africa is beckoning. One that isn’t reliant on development aid. One that’s brimming with “ingenious solutions” to its problems. Where “businesses are being launched that are capable of transforming the lives of millions” and where “new communication technologies are allowing ideas and information to spread”. I looked at the list of speakers, most of whom, not surprisingly, I’ve never heard of. But suffice it to say that I am waiting in anticipation to download some of those presentations. They aren’t available on the website yet. I have no doubt they will be eye-opening.

One particular participant who has received much blogger attention was a young man, named William Kamkwamba, from rural Malawi, who managed to build a windmill which generates electricity for his family home from what looks like wood and bits of an old bicycle. He never got the chance to finish high school because his family couldn’t afford the fees, but he apparently gained the know-how to build his renewable energy source from two books. He was invited to speak at the TED conference in Arusha, where he also was introduced to the internet for the first time in his life. This is the kind of story that makes me love this continent.

The second reason I’m writing about TED is because today I watched a presentation by a photographer called Edward Burtynsky that simply blew my mind. His photographs are of landscapes, and they’e very beautiful, but also utterly shocking because they show what industrialisation is doing to the natural environment. The most profound photographs are the ones he took in China; the scale of the industrial development under way in that country is hard to comprehend. But having seen Burtynsky’s pictures, I now understand how it is that that country has managed to overtake the US as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter. He says he wants his pictures to stimulate a global conversation about sustainable development. I cannot imagine how anything could be more eloquent on the subject. If these images don’t convince people of the need to think twice about the merits of fast-paced economic development, then I don’t know what will.

An award-winning documentary, Maufactured Landscapes, has been made about Burtynsky.

Get Edward Burtynsky’s TED presentation from the TED website
To see more of his photographs and get more information about the documentary Manufactured Landscapes go to Burtynsky’s website

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