Lifes Worth Knowing

Meet Ted: Redefining Natural Resources

In Interesting, Jon, Nature, Science, Ted Talk on February 20, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Meet Ted is a weekly post dedicated to discovering and sharing the best of the TED Talks. TED is a multidisciplinary series of conferences designed to bring together inspired thinkers and innovative minds. The talks are posted for free online at www.ted.com.

Since my last Meet Ted post about mushrooms and the amazing potential for practical application and symbiosis, I have been dominated by the idea of harmony and the potential for people to learn from and work within, not against, the rest of natural world. Much of the Western mindset is rooted in a belief that man is somehow separate from the natural world and even has dominion over nature. Our social values and problem solving techniques reflect this belief structure, and as a result we find ourselves approaching the environment as a commodity at our disposal, even an inconvenience, rather than a delicate life-giving and sustaining system of which we are an important piece. If mushrooms are capable of naturally producing more effective insecticides than we can chemically create, what else are we trying to do or learn that nature can already do better? What potential benefit can we gain from working with and learning from the natural world?

For starters, consider this talk by Joshua Klein. As always, these posts will be greatly enhanced by actually watching the videos.

For those who skipped watching the video, here is a brief summary. Feeding off a challenge made a cocktail party, Joshua Klein set out to learn about crows and find an alternative method of dealing with the “pest problem” they create. Simply put, he learned that crows are really intelligent, thrive in cities and are highly adaptable. He proceeds to show examples of crows learning to use cars to crack nuts that they could not otherwise eat, a crow spontaneously creating a hook out of a piece of wire in order to snag a meal and ultimately crows using his invention – a crow vending machine. Using Skinnerian reinforcement and behavior modification techniques, Mr. Klein taught a group of crows to find loose change on the ground, pick it up and put it into a machine that then dispenses food.

Aside from the ingenious creation of a passive income stream, the real value of this talk is its implication and potential. What if the biology and psychology department of every university worked together to train the crows of their local community to pick up empty cans, bottles, plastic bags or any kind of trash? Could crows be trained to guard our homes against intrusion or raise alarms when violence breaks out in an alley? Klein challenges us to think alternatively about what we consider to be pests, how we interact with them, and what potential benefit they might offer our society.

Taking it a step further is former industrial engineer Bart Weetjens. Just as Klein suggested would be possible, Weetjens has taken a pest species and molded its unique physical capabilities into an extremely useful skillset. Weetjens’ animals of choice are rats, and the rats’ skills are detecting landmines and tuberculosis.

Similar to the strategy used to teach the crows, Weetjens uses a simple reward system to modify the behavior of the rats. Once a basic behavioral response is achieved and reinforced, the animal is moved to more complex applications of the original task. The end results thus far have been incredible for the Hero Rat program. The program is lowering the cost of landmine removal and tuberculosis case detection while providing jobs and self determination for impoverished communities. In closing his talk, Mr. Weetjens offered this exhortation, “Keep on challenging your perception about the resources surrouding you, whether they are environmental, techonological, animal or human; and respectfully harmonize with them in order to foster a sustainable world.”

If the projects by Klein and Weetjens are snapshots of what is possible, then the following video is a panoramic, feature length film of what we could achieve by investing in a little bio-mimicry. Janine Benyus gave the following talk in 2005, and aside from her excessive use (in my opinion) of the word “foreplay” it is worth every minute.


Of the three I chose to include in this post, Benyus’ talk is by far the broadest and most far-reaching. Concepts like self-assembling structures, self-cleaning buildings, communicative cars, net fertility farming and biodegradable plastic made from CO2 are so incredibly stimulating and exciting that I can’t help but wonder why we aren’t putting all of our time and effort into developing these technologies. I don’t want to turn this into a political rant, but just think about where our tax dollars go and what could be achieved if this kind of scientific research and development were funded appropriately (or at all).

Perhaps the most important idea set forth by Janine Benyus is the observation that “Life creates conditions condusive to life.” If we could learn to judge our ideas of progress and development according to that simple standard, we would be taking a giant step in the right direction.

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