My talk at TED 2012 now available.



Although I’ve done a hundred or so public talks around the world in the last few years around my book The Great Disruption (see link on side bar), speaking at the opening session of the annual TED event is an experience and opportunity like no other. Another speaker backstage, feeling similarly hyped about the opportunity, described it to me as being like “the world series of public speaking”!

For me the pressure was really on because I was going into the lion’s den of “techno optimists” – those who believe that technology can solve everything. My message is a tough one for this audience – that sure technology will do wonderful things for us, but the reality is we are going to face some very difficult consequences of our overloading of planet earth and its too late now to stop those consequences. I argue strongly that humans are amazingly capable and will recover from this inevitable crisis and indeed in the end build a stronger and happier society.

My focus in life is to motivate and inspire people to act on the urgent challenges of climate and sustainability and it is a real honour to speak to the TED crowd. This passionate and engaged community has an amazing capacity to make a difference in the world with their creativity, influence, innovation and entrepreneurship, so I was delighted to make a contribution in the opening session.

32 thoughts on “My talk at TED 2012 now available.

  1. Ken


    Good stuff … your TED talk (haven’t read your book). Some folks really don’t believe it; others maybe do but are in denial. Some are true believers but even amongst them the majority, like me, is going about business as usual:

    Making believers out of those who are not, or who doubt/deny is one problem but there’s a problem for believers too and I think it may be a harder problem to solve.

    There are lots of “wise” old sayings: “you can’t fight city hall,” and the one about having the wisdom to accept what you cannot change that inform the apparent complacency among the believers. Those sayings and others like them may not actually be wise on the kind of scale you’re discussing, but there is certain logic to them in the individual context that must be addressed in some way.

    Leadership? Representative governance has many wonderful attributes that I think few would volunteer to set aside if they have it, but, by design, these governments don’t actually provider leadership. No, where this problem comes into focus they mostly throw up their hands and say it’s too big a problem to solve (it is not popular and popularity matters). I think leadership is going to be required, and I don’t think government is designed to provide it.

    I suspect it will have to come about via a grass-roots initiative (or more likely the coalescence of many) like none we’ve ever seen before. I’m glad you’ve thrown yourself into it. Thank you.

  2. The first part of the talk made my stomach cramp. It’s the stuff I’m telling people: impending collapse, resource wars, as the lights go out, literally.

    There one slight error at the start of the talk: The “eminent scientists of the Global Footprint Network” did NOT calculate that we would “need 1.5 earths to sustain this economy”.

    The GFN calculate that we use living, renewable resources to the equivalent of 1.5 earths. Then they calculated that our westernized countries use between 5 and 9 times more renewables than nature can regenerate. The US-Americans would have to reduce consumption of renewables ninefold! Citing the overall planetary mean value of 1.5 is utterly misleading.

    Moreover, non-renewables such as minerals, fossil fuels, fossil water, pollution, soil erosion, etc. are not included in the GFN account.

    The human society’s overshoot of the earth’s carrying capacity is far bigger than 1.5 times. It may be as big as 400 times. Humanity might only be sustainable with a world population of 500 million, at a standard of living (environmental resource use) similar to the times before the steam engine, i.e. before 1712, before modernity began.

    The last part of the talk is very questionable.

    Arguably we cannot save the world by technology. We do not have sufficient resources, neither the technology, nor sufficient time for an orderly transition.

    The earth cannot provide for nine billion people, living well within the limits of the earths’ carrying capacity, subconsciously assuming we continue enjoying modernity’s lifestyles.

    When we stop growing the economy, i.e. when we stop building ever more gadgets and roads and buildings, we will face massive bancruptcies and huge unemployment.

    How can we employ billions in the primary sector (agriculture) again?
    How can we achieve relocalisation, demechanisation, slowing down and the restructturing that is mandatory because of the end of the oil age?

    Paul Gilding end his talk with: “We’ve built a powerful foundation of science, knowledge and technology — more than enough to build a society where nine billion people can lead decent, meaningful and satisfying lives. The Earth can support that if we choose the right path.”

    That sounds very positive. But what is “meaningful, satisfying, decent”? At what level of resource use, on an earth that has been depleted of most renewable and non-renewable stuff?

    It might be on a level that is less than the stone age.

    Such talks follow the old selling principle of religions: first scare people, then promise salvation.

    Well, in this way change is not going to happen. But it sells books.

    Helmut at ecoglobe dot ch

  3. Well done, Paul.

    I will point my blog’s readers to this clip and push them (once again) to read your book.

    I think we need as much blunt, accurate talk about our situation as we can muster. Perhaps I’m the humanist version of a techno-optimist, but I remain convinced that if we all keep working hard on the communication part of this problem, we have at least a chance of laying the right groundwork to take action after things do hit the fan. And I agree completely with the point you made in TGD about how we’re obviously not open to making the needed changes or we would have done so already, simply because we’ve had so many examples in recent years of environmental impacts.

    As I’ve been saying on my blog for years, “the future will be a lot of things, but ‘dull’ ain’t on the list”.

  4. Thomas

    I wrote a long comment on your previous post, but the same point should be made here. Long-run economic growth is caused by technological progress, which allows us to produce more output (value) from the same inputs (labour, capital, energy, natural resources). There is no reason to believe that long-run growth will stop, because technology continues to advance.

    The German economy today is using considerably fewer resources than it did 20 years ago, including energy and raw materials, yet it is substantially larger and the standard of living is measurably higher. More broadly, Europe is the most energy efficient region on earth (energy use per unit of output), and energy efficiency continues to improve.

    Europe today is not good enough, and we must work harder. Nevertheless, if the US and especially China became as energy efficient as Europe, global energy consumption and CO2 emissions would be dramatically lower than they are. Controlling population and limiting energy/resource consumption are vital, and they do mean lower growth, but not the end of growth.

  5. Chris

    What a great talk Paul.
    I feel you ended on a sugar coated, positive note, as if to play to your audience- comprised of many bright and tech savvy people unwilling to accept this sort of vision. The ugly truth is we’ll need to accept its OK to not grow year in and year out. We’ll need to move away from this insane, unquestioning worship of technology. I think this is essential in order to face reality and move forward, but I’m not optimistic it can be done. We want to say that there is work to be done to fix our world, but we tend to avoid the idea that sacrifice will be needed. We’ll need to radically alter our lifestyles, and I doubt we’ll all still think of ourselves as “consumers” when we hit 9 billion…
    Your talk reminded me of David Suzuki’s work- his views on “zero growth” may seem radical to the Fast Company/Wired set, but it makes perfect sense to me.

    Thanks Paul!

  6. Thomas

    Looking further at the energy consumption figures, total primary energy consumption in Germany in 2010 was not only lower than in 1990, but actually lower than in 1972. In Denmark, energy consumption in 2010 was lower than in 1970. In the UK, it was lower than in 1969.

    The German and Danish economies have grown more than 100 per cent since 1972 and 1970, and the UK economy has grown more than 150 per cent since 1969. None of this economic growth over 40 years came from using more energy. Moreover, a lot of the energy used today comes from renewable sources, so non-renewable energy use is actually closer to the levels of the mid-1960s.

    Unfortunately, developments in most other countries have been far worse. In almost all of them, energy consumption has gone up substantially. In some cases, this has been primarily caused by excessive population growth. In others, population growth and development have been the cause. In still others, energy conservation simply has not been given enough attention. Nevertheless, the German, Danish and UK examples show that economic growth does not require higher energy/resource consumption.

    We may have to lower our standards of living in the short and medium runs to get energy consumption down to sustainable levels. In the long run, however, better technology will mean we can continue to produce more value with less energy, and that more of it can come from renewable sources. Eventually, a sustainable economy will reach today’s levels of output, and will continue to grow beyond them.

  7. Stuart Godfrey

    What a huge relief to hear your allusion to Churchill at the end! I’m a Tasmanian like you, and have been telling people we need a pacifist version of his “blood, tears, toil and sweat” speech — and we need a major politician to say it. That won’t happen today, but I think you’re giving us a chance that it will happen in time. Please look at our website, Can we meet sometime?

  8. PeterMc

    Paul, its good to hear wisdom when their is so much noise. None of it is that new really but to me the crucial issue is what stories will get told when the effects of limit hitting take hold. Those stories will determine whether we have a new dark ages or a new beginning as you suggest can happen. The problem is that only a few get to decide what stories the many get to hear. It looks like those few are hell bent on creating a new dark age where reason is obscured by magical thinking. How do we take on the media and get our voices back? Thats the first big question for me.

  9. Chris

    This was a great presentation, I’ve believed what you’re saying to be true for quite a long time, including our capacity to get through the coming problems provided we can shift gears. I’ve never heard of you before, but it’s heartening to know that there are other people who are sensitive to the general issue, and are not just in the “peak oil”, “climate change” or “random hippie” silos. Great stuff!

  10. Jeff A from Canada

    Paul, I just finished listening to your TED talk.

    You paint a pretty bleak, but obviously true picture of our world without change.

    I have been listening to a number of TED talks and We solve for X talks and it has become clear that the building blocks to turn our world into something sustainable for all and something where those who are currently less fortunate than we in the modern world, will be able to lead live as plentiful as ours are.

    There appear to be a few obstacles, based firmly in our human nature. Greed, and unwillingness to sacrifice seem to be the two greatest.

    The advanced societies on earth are very near ideas to which could fundamentally change our lives, but we need to first change the way we think. One talk i listened to was David Berry on efficient nutrition production, and he highlighted a change in our patterns that would be hard to give up, but could make all the difference; the association of the social aspects of food with gaining the nutrition we need to survive. I for one am willing to change this for myself, give me a slurry to drink down which will give me all of the nutrition I need for a day. I can still have the social aspects of a meal, just without having to consume large quantities of food, tiny portions, purely for taste would be all that it would need.

    I am wondering if you have any thought on ways to induce the willingness to change into our societies, as you said fear is a great motivator, but how about motivating people to change before its required, before we have caused so much damage that our planet is barely salvageable.

  11. Yillen

    I am so glad to watch you TED talk, and I was shocked by your impressive views. It is necessary for us to think about more about our plant, civelization, and sustainbility.

  12. Gisle

    This was a monumental speak Paul. I put you along side Sir Ken Robinson speak on how education kills creativity. And might as well kill some of the opertunity of change?

    I believe change will arise from the choices we make as individuals. That is why I am so curios on how people act according to the presented facts. Me and my wife did some pretty big choices when we left the big city for the countryside. Among the criteria was a more sustainable lifestyle. We would like to share our tour and perhaps learn from others. Our footprints of change are barley seen as small individual steps for a greater leap, but how cool would`t it be if one could share our stories on a website for people in transition towards a more sustainable lifestyle…..? What did you do? I can`t think of a better document for the future.


    It’s been many a year Paul. Love to catch up, if only on the phone. I’m on the mid north coast NSW.

  14. Nichol Brumme

    A beautifully gut-wrenching pep-talk! You found the right balance between fear and hope! Congratulations!

    And yes: it isn’t anymore about the science. Not even about the technology. We can do it. It is now about the question if we are brave enough to see the crisis, and act.

    If we cannot decide to act, together, technology can only help us all to more efficiently stand a little bit nearer to the abyss, with a bigger crowd.

  15. John Steinsvold

    An Alternative to Capitalism (if we are to save our environment and our resources)

    Several decades ago, Margaret Thatcher claimed: “There is no alternative”. She was referring to capitalism. Today, this negative attitude still persists.

    I would like to offer an alternative to capitalism for the American people to consider. Please click on the following link. It will take you to an essay titled: “Home of the Brave?” which was published by the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

    John Steinsvold

    “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
    ~ Albert Einstein

  16. Julie-Anne

    There are some valid points to your TED talk, and thank you for bringing it out to people. However, the real change, to put a stop to this damage, requires both a simple and radical solution.

    As long as human desire exists, and people feel entitled to have numerous versions of the same thing, there will always be insufficient resources to cater to these demands and ‘entitlements’. Who is going to tell them, you don’t need 10 shirts, 3 pairs of shoes, 2 houses, 3 cars in the family (one for each member)? While it is true that demand is what drives economic growth, but what is it that we actually do with the money?

    Our current economic system was created in the early days of humanity and has not changed since. The concept of currency, in this current period of society, is a dated concept, in my personal opinion. I can imagine a world of ‘economic’ growth without money, can you?

    At the same time, other developing, 3rd world countries all want to share in the riches and enjoy the status of first-world countries. Who is going to tell them, they’re not allowed to pig out just because there aren’t enough food on the table to feed everyone? Do you think they will care? Or will they say: that’s not my problem. It’s my turn now. You’ve had yours.

  17. Hi Paul!
    Gratitude to you for being a voice of reason in this preoccupied world!! I would love to see you connect with Foster Gamble who is also on the same track, with a model for moving in to the future… he has a movie about it also on the site!
    How can we all unite and massively contribute to the ease?~!! We have found that the water units we distribute from Dr Clayton Nolte also cleanse, enliven and structure our water so it can deal with a lot of the toxic overload in people’s bodies and consciousness that creates a lot of the non-reality they are caught up in!!
    Gratitude pouring for you…as we ease into the wonderful future of possibility!! xx
    Cath ( also ;-)

  18. Euan McLean

    Heard you speaking on (Australian) ABC RN radio 9Dec12 and reasonably agree with your argument (as outlined in your book The Great Disruption I presume)
    Now with your foresight I’m hoping you can point the way forward for our society to “devalue the assets we have in the ground to zero” as we cannot use them in our future!
    I’ll agree that a “common market” system is the best outcome to make changes but what “government” could control this sort of enterprise? Socialism / communism?
    Professor Niall Ferguson gave a credible account of the Ascent of money, which I agreed with, and the point I’m making is that “money really happened” when interest was paid that accumulated capital and that made things possible. So what’s next?

  19. Humanity has always been managed by nature and will bring about the changes that will be sustainable. I am not saying we should not discuss as you have started doing. Just that, the nature is too complicated for human mind to comprehend and our fear of the future is good, but not likely to make any difference to what-ever is in the making.

  20. Toby Clark


    most of what you have to say chimes with me through a career in science and environmental management from the sixties onwards (I am now 72 and lecture at Hull University).

    I am currently trying unsuccessfully to make the citizenry of Hull & Humberside aware that they face a New Orleans style disaster due to lack of investment in flood prevention measures. something about denial!

    You do not mention the potential role of nuclear fusion which seems at last to be an option around 2050 and could play a major role in energy management, also making possible direct CO2 sequestration by reversing the C + O2 = CO2 equation.

    Anyway, in the meantime, I have bought some candles.

    Toby BSc CFIOSH AIEMA Cert Ed & bar

  21. When I originally commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from
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