One minute at TED: Valuing what matters. As inspired by polar explorer Paul Nicklen, a leopard seal, and David Brooks

paul_nickle March 6, 2011

A talk by Aimee Christensen on March 4, 2011. At TED 2011, TED curator Chris Anderson offered attendees the chance to share on the final day a one-minute response to any of the TED talks we heard this week. I was so inspired by the connectedness to nature I felt when polar photographer Paul Nicklen took us to his icy worlds, and by David Brooks gathering the pieces together to outline a new humanism – higher values it appears we’re reaching toward, that I crystallized some thinking I’ve been doing around how do we truly shift from a destructive (environmental and inequality) path globally, to one that is restorative. I was very fortunate to hear from Chris early Friday that I’d have the chance to share my one minute later that morning. The following are my remarks, with a bit more detail than I was able to get to in the minute. Join the TED community at:


Thank you. I was deeply inspired by the connectedness to nature I felt when Paul Nicklen took us to his polar worlds, and by David Brooks gathering the pieces together to outline a new humanism.

How do we ensure a future for the amazing creatures at the poles and elsewhere, animals and plants, to continue to be here with us, teach us the solutions we’ve heard of here – to bring us penguins of course [see footnote] – and to inspire us with their brilliance, and to underpin our way of life? And how do we translate our new humanism into action, how do we create that reality?

The answers are the same for both:

We need to change urgently at scale what we value in our economic and governance system and in our lives.

As my sister informed me this morning, Native Americans would leave berries on the bush for the animals, for the next human to come there. What would our world look like if we did this? What would our lives look like if we did this? How do we leave berries on the bush – at scale?

In our system we must change what we account for, what we measure, what we value. Our current system reflected by our GDP accounts and our corporate balance sheets, value money – right now; money does not equal well-being, equal happiness. We are driving mass amounts of capital reflecting that priority: money now. We try to adjust for this, to create a soft-landing for capitalism, with laws for environment, for worker treatment, etc. But it’s not doing it well-enough fast enough, and it’s only a partial solution.

We have to shift our systems in government and in business to:
•    End short term-ism – invest for the long-term;
•    Internalize externalities;
•    Value nature; and
•    Use qualitative metrics, not just quantitative metrics for well-being.

How do we do this? It sounds incredibly ambitious, but it is absolutely necessary. Thankfully some of the smartest minds have been working on these and we can build upon their learnings:
•    For ending short-termism, investing for the long term – we want long-term well-being, not just well-being this quarter. We can learn from Generation Investment who is incentivizing its team to invest for the long-term.
•    Internalizing externalities – to incentivize prevention of creation of negative externalities like pollution by putting the costs on those who pollute – paying for carbon, for the health impacts, we did this with the old Superfund law where oil and chemical companies paid a tax that went to pay for clean up of oil and chemical pollution sites;
•    Valuing nature – this incredible nature that provides us our food, fuel, air, water, safety from storms, and solutions like what silk can do for medicine. We can learn from a project in Ecuador where water users down-stream pay farmers upstream to plant trees and change farming practices. We also did this at scale in New York, spending $1B to restore the watershed, instead of building a $7B water treatment plant in NYC; and finally
•    Using qualitative metrics, not just quantitative metrics for well-being – quality of growth, not just quantity. Here we can learn from Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness indicators.

We can make this real by working with early adopters in business and government, but this will take time and we can start now to change our lives, to reconnect with and reflect our own values in everything:

To consider what we eat, what we buy, how we live – caulk is cheap (saves huge money, makes homes comfortable), how we learn – we need the Kahn Academy curriculum for environment – for kids, nature, for older students, science, technology, clean technology job training. It’s every little thing. Awareness.

What are our berries to leave on the bush, so that our children and grand children can swim with a leopard seal and turn down penguins for breakfast?

We have seen here at TED the big problems, we’ve been inspired to take them on, we’ve been introduced to the potential solutions. And the world has conquered some of the biggest challenges in our recent past. We can do this.

It’s urgent for nature, it’s urgent for us. Let’s go. Thank you.

[Footnote: Paul Nicklen showed us photos and video of his four days swimming in Antarctica with a very large leopard seal. Leopard seals are rumored to be unpredictably violent, having grown up in the Arctic, Paul doubted this and sought to explore this. His encounter started with curiosity by the seal, and then she started bringing him live penguins to eat. When he didn’t eat them, she brought him dead ones. And when Paul thought he’d exhausted her in frustration, on the final day she opened her mouth aggressively in his direction, it turned out there was another leopard seal behind him, she was sending it away. Incredible. As soon as that TED talk is posted, I will note it here and on Twitter – @aimeerc. You can see a teaser of it here: And you can learn more about TED and become part of the TED community at:]

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