TEDxBoston Brings Artists and Scientists to MIT to Discuss Sustainability

Photo Courtesy of TedxBoston Instagram

By James Buckser
Boston University News Service 

Boston-area citizens gathered in Cambridge for TEDxBoston’s Planetary Stewardship event, discussing environmental issues and sustainability at MIT’s media lab Nov. 13.

“[TEDxBoston] is one of the first TEDx’s,” said Kiel Johnson, an artist exhibiting a piece at the event. “There are hundreds all over the world now. Boston, I think, was one of the first eight or 10 groups to kind of put something together, so I know they’re proud of the time that they have invested in this.”

Johnson’s piece sits in the center of the receiving area, a large model of the globe with attendees sticking their creations to the surface.

“In this project, if everybody does one small thing, we can make a bigger beautiful thing, and that is just like the Earth,” said Johnson, “That’s kind of what this is about. One little part, I keep telling people that, ‘just make one little flower and stick it on there and that’ll be helping.’”

Speakers at Sunday’s event included hosts of CEOs, artists and scientists, sharing their stories and perspectives on the environment.

One such speaker was Don Pettit, a veteran of the International Space Station and NASA’s oldest active astronaut. He is also a photographer.

“I specialize in photography at night,” said Pettit, “There’s a host of natural phenomena that are masked by daytime, only seen at night, and I like to illustrate what’s going on with Earth and Earth’s atmosphere from a nighttime perspective.”

Aside from his speaking engagements, Pettit has also had an opportunity to engage with new ideas at the conference.

“I’ve talked to several other photographers with some fantastic ideas for what I could do on my next mission,” said Pettit. “I’ve got a whole series of notes that I’ve taken about the role of CO2 and the role of methane in terms of greenhouse gasses, and what can be done to try to affect the rate of our emissions.”

Another speaker was Nikolas Goodich, who struggled with addiction in the past, and he discussed the way “the lessons of public art and recovery can help inspire real change in people’s toxic behaviors.” 

“It all comes down to human behavior,” said Goodich. “Our climate crisis emergency is man-made, and that man-made aspect is human behavior, engaging in polluting the planet in toxic behaviors.”

“We know we can change and we’ve known since the sixties, seventies, even earlier that we can change our behavior, but we haven’t,” Goodich said. “We’re starting to, and we want to and there are people out there who are working hard to get that into people’s minds, to educate people.”

YouTuber and geophysicist Chris MacAskill, who spoke about deforestation, says one positive behavior change could be to skip out on beef.

“It turns out that if you look at a chart of land use per 1000 calories generated that beef is the elephant in the room,” said MacAskill. “Here in the US we consume four times the global average per capita of beef, and so it’s driven a kind of gold rush in the Amazon rainforest.”

According to MacAskill, “80% of Amazon deforestation is driven by removing the forest to turn it into pasture land to grow cattle.” While that’s a massive figure, the average consumer can have an effect.

“Farmers want to grow beef because of our demand,” said MacAskill. “So it’s up to us to reduce the demand for beef, and we can do it in two ways. Pass on the hamburgers and get a chicken sandwich or come up with all these innovations that we’re trying to come up with to substitute for beef.”

Those substitutes, like plant-based or lab-grown beef only represent a “small part of the market,” however, leading MacAskill to one conclusion.

“Our only choice is to eat less beef,” said MacAskill. “Beef is the new coal.”

MacAskill maintains hope for the future, but not without urgency.

“I’m optimistic,” said MacAskill. “We could’ve acted three decades ago. It’s not too late, but we have to act fast.”

MacAskill’s call for action is in line with the conference’s goal to “spotlight actionable ideas for human activity to achieve a sustainable relationship with the planet’s natural systems.” Haynes Nichols, an artistic collaborator of Johnson’s, sees community engagement as important to this ideal.

“No one person or one group is going to be able to solve all that problems that we have in the world,” said Nichols. “And so getting people to come together, getting people to engage with each other and learn from each other, that’s absolutely a part of the solution to all these issues that is the theme of this event.”

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