It’s usually around the third drink that it happens. You’re in a bar, talking about a problem you’re having – whether it’s with your garage door-opener or the stubbornness of the human mind – when suddenly, you’re interrupted by your companion who breathlessly blurts out: “Oh, ooh! I saw this amazing thing in a TED talk that might help…”

TED stands for Technology Entertainment and Design and is a series of engaging, rostrum-style talks held all over the world and broadcast for free – several talks a day. As one who frequently spends her lunch hour with TED (and who has been guilty of the bar-room conversation, above), I’ve compiled some compelling talks on environmental themes. From the navigational wonders of the African dung beetle to the misconceptions that cause mothers to put their children at risk of disease and death, these TED talks will hopefully educate, energize and entertain you in good measure.

Bill Gates – Innovating to Zero

A well-known computer scientist, businessman and philanthropist, Bill Gates knows a little something about innovation and its power to change the world but he’s gobsmacked at how little the world’s nations are investing in climate change innovation. In this 2010 talk, he explains why reducing the cost of energy is vital, and why he would choose to support it over any other aid for the poor.

Jeremy Jackson – How We Wrecked the Ocean

TED calls this a “bracing” 2010 talk but that description doesn’t come close. Like the host of a kind of Earth’s Most Wanted, Jackson calls out the environmental villains that are putting at risk nothing less than life on earth (and as he points out, “the dignity of the human race”). Coal power gets its mugshot, as does agricultural nutrient runoff; but he leaves most of his vitriol for unsustainable fishing practices, like bottom-trawling.

“You can see the rows in the bottom, the way you can see the rows in a field that has just been plowed to plant corn. What that was, was a forest of sponges and coral, which is a critical habitat for the development of fish. What it is now is mud, and the area of the ocean floor that has been transformed from forest to level mud, to parking lot, is equivalent to the entire area of all the forests that have ever been cut down on all of the earth in the history of humanity. We’ve managed to do that in the last 100 to 150 years.”


Majora Carter – Greening the Ghetto

“Why would someone leave their home to go for a brisk walk in a toxic neighborhood?” asks environmental activist Majora Carter in this emotional 2006 talk. Carter is on the front lines of the fight for a better neighborhood in the South Bronx, once an industrial wasteland and now on its way to becoming a waterfront precinct with affordable housing, sustainable transport and green-collar jobs for the locals. Among the pithy nuggets of wisdom in this talk is this: “Unfortunately, race and class are extremely reliable indicators as to where one might find the good stuff, like parks and trees, and where one might find the bad stuff, like power plants and waste facilities.”
If you want to get involved with Sustainable South Bronx, here’s how.

Marcus Byrne – The Dance of the Dung Beetle

Just seconds into this fascinating and hilarious 2012 talk is an African savanna “snatch and grab”, where one dung beetle mugs another of its prized boulder of excrement. That sets the tone as we explore the strange and wonderful world of these remarkable creatures. Through a series of experiments, we find out that dung beetles have an impeccable sense of direction, even using celestial cues invisible to the human eye; and that they have ingenious (and adorable) methods of regulating temperature in the desert. Dr Byrne’s enthusiasm is infectious – check it out.

Jane McGonigal – Gaming Can Make a Better World

Gamers, collectively, have spent 5.93 million years solving the virtual problems of Azeroth in World of Warcraft. This 2010 TED talk asks: What if we could channel that energy, insight and collective genius into solving the world’s problems instead? Sciengage readers will remember us talking up games for environmental good about a year ago and McGonigal, an effervescent game designer, has developed some of her own. She says we need to stop using games to escape and instead use gamers to develop an “epic win” for earth.

“There’s no unemployment in World of Warcraft. There is no sitting around wringing your hands, there’s always something specific and important to be done. And there are also tons of collaborators. Everywhere you go, hundreds of thousands of people ready to work with you to achieve your epic mission.”

Sendhil Mullainathan – Solving Social Problems with a Nudge

We have the smarts and the technology to solve a tricky set of social problems – so why haven’t we fixed them yet? The roadblock is what behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan calls the “last mile problem” – human nature. Using examples from healthcare and environmental science, he argues in this 2009 talk for a scientific method for convincing people to do the right thing for their own good.

Pam Warhurst – How We Can Eat Our Landscapes

It took about 30 seconds into this 2012 talk before this food activist made it on to my “which three people living or dead would you invite to dinner” list. Warhurst leads a fiery, inspiring, smashingly simple initiative to turn public, private and commercial land into food gardens in her small town in the north of England. Through collective action (and frankly, some pretty awe-inspiring marketing), the town has greened its public spaces, created scores of new jobs and fundamentally changed the way its citizens interact with food and food industries.

What’s your favorite environmental TED talk? Please comment and share it with other readers!

Lyndal Cairns is a Californian journalist, marketer and nonprofit nerd. She writes the environmental science blog for Sciengage and is a lunchtime TED talk tragic.