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This week’s best questions, ideas and debates from TED Conversations

Posted by: Aja Bogdanoff

TED-Conversation-generic-imageTED Conversations is a unique space where any member of this community can get feedback on an idea, pose an interesting question, or start a fascinating debate with fellow TEDizens from around the globe. This week, dozens of new conversations were started — on topics ranging from the importance of letter-writing to the existence of infinity.  Here, a sampling of the highlights from this week:

First, kicking off a new semester with Jessica Green’s Biodiversity class, a question from University of Oregon student Noel Laporte: What form of renewable energy has or will have the lowest impact on biodiversity?  Noel asks:

Climate change, air pollution, rising sea levels and species extinction can all be attributed to the increasing usage of non-renewable energy in the world today. Non-renewable energy reserves are diminishing and finite with an ever-increasing demand from countries around the world. Coal, natural gas and oil all have detrimental effects on the environment. These effects are both local and global, harming species throughout the world. As we consider different renewable forms of energy, can we rank their potential impacts on biodiversity?

Chelsea Grochowski responds:

Concentrating solar thermal plants could fulfill a significant chunk of our more immediate energy demands while other technologies progress. Most people associate solar with photovoltaic solar cells, but PV technology isn’t quite there yet and it’s incredibly expensive. Solar thermal systems on the other hand are much less expensive, more efficient, and because of their heat storage capabilities, are able to operate when there is no daylight.

Land and water are required for CSP systems and both of these can impact biodiversity, however, unlike PV cells, hazardous and rare materials aren’t required for their manufacture. CSPs can be built in areas of lower diversity such as abandoned mining lands and transportation and transmission corridors…

The carbon footprint for the entire life cycle of solar technologies, including manufacture, materials transport, maintenance, etc., is also far less when compared with that of natural gas and coal.

While Ben Story adds:

I think that nuclear power is a very viable option for minimizing the effect of energy production on biodiversity worldwide. In comparison, to standard sources of energy, nuclear energy produce, “…wastes (that) comprise less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes.” (Source)

A recent study into the effect of renewable energy has revealed that nuclear power comes in third behind wind and hydroelectric power; in terms of its effect on climate change. Climate change being one of the most significant impacts on biodiversity. Although nuclear power does produce significant physical waste, it does not pose any threats to bird populations (as do wind turbines) nor does it threaten local fish and aquatic wildlife (as do dams producing hydroelectric power). In terms of threat to ecosystems worldwide I believe nuclear power to be the ultimate choice if our goal is to conserve global biodiversity.

I think that physical waste is the biggest threat to biological diversity and by reducing waste we can seriously diminish the human effect on ecosystems across the globe. Although, nuclear power instills fear in many people, it is actually one of the safest forms of energy; if safety regulations worldwide are sufficiently increased we can avoid incidents such as those experienced in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

And Joseph Middaugh responds:

Now that the ‘war’ on renewables is over the two I am intrigued with the most are solar and magnetic. Solar due to the fact that technology is rapidly improving and getting stronger as apparent with the developers at Goal Zero. The other is not always thought of as alternative energy, however, after riding a magnetic train at 160mph and not one gas emission or vibration while running. Check out what Magna Drive in Seattle is doing to reduce our needs for oil consumption by using magnets in couplings in manufacturing plants.

This conversation has ended, but be sure to check out the rest of the 168 comments here!

Next, a thought-provoking topic on drug-resistant bacteria, started by Anna Crist, titled: Purell now, Bacteri-ell later?  Anna writes:

The hygiene hypothesis, the idea that “too much cleanliness prevents the development of a well-balanced immune response”(Sironi and Clerici, 2010), has received a lot of support and also criticism. It has recently been challenged by the hypothesis of “early immune challenge”, which states that a lack of appropriate immune stimulation during early childhood might account for the increased development of allergies in industrialized countries (Kramer et al, 2013). This proposal places less emphasis on excessive hygienic practices and focuses more on the insufficient exposure to specific environmental microbes, particularly those from non-urban environments, as the reason behind the rise of atopic disease. While different, both hypotheses point to the beneficial health affects of some microbes.

What do you think is the reason for increased allergy levels in industrialized countries? Do you think that a concoction of the “right” microbial species in the form of a lotion, drink, or inhalant (aka “Bacteri-ell”) could be a future replacement for natural exposure to beneficial microbes? Instead of using hand sanitizers like Purell, do you see a future where people from some regions of the world are unsanitizing their hands with “Bacteri-ell”?

Julia Goldberg responds:

According to the National Institute of Health it was found that from 1988-1994 more than 50% of Americans from ages 6-59 were sensitive to at least one allergen. However, a similar study done in 1980 found rates 2-5 times lower. The reason for this large increase in allergens is thought to be the more sterile lifestyles we now live. By disinfecting everything around us, we are severely limiting the amount of bacteria we are exposed to.

Being exposed to different bacteria at a young age is very similar to receiving a vaccination. A vaccination works by stimulating an individual’s immune system in order to develop an immunity to a pathogen. Our bodies immune systems are formed by being exposed to seemingly harmless substances around us, such as pollen, animals, foods, etc. When we do not receive these “vaccinations” of harmless substances at a young age, it can result in allergies later in life when they are finally encountered.

Exposure to certain germs and allergens at a young age are important in the development of our immune systems. Without these exposures our bodies will be unable to fight off everyday substances later in life.

And Walter Holt adds:

Studies have shown that not just humans, but all mammals have microbes on their skin in the order of trillions, with thousands of different species. Also, studies have shown that when we have a more biologically diverse set of microbes, then we have a better immune response to many different pathogens and antigens. But I doubt that our bodies would be ready for an onslaught of microbes in gel form.

We do need more helpful microbes on our skin, and in our gut, but disrupting the biodiversity by adding selected microbes we think are most important could upset our body’s ecosystem. It could become, in a sense, like an invasive species problem on our skin.

Check out this Nature article on allergies and microbes. There’s some good background on the subject here.

While Carly Otis clarifies:

Many people in this conversation have pointed out that it would be a better idea to encourage people to stray away from the use of antibiotics, rather than introduce themselves to microorganisms more frequently. While this is probably a good idea, the focus of the question is whether or not it is possible to develop immunity to microorganisms if you weren’t exposed to them at a young age. We don’t know enough about microbes at this point to be able to determine whether applying a culture of bacteria to ourselves would result in positive or negative outcomes, however the idea is a step in the right direction.  Once we have determined which microbes have definitively positive influences on humans, it would be a good idea to allow ourselves to be exposed to them regularly. It may be hard to keep the organisms alive in a way that mimics Purell, because nutrients may become limited quickly. In what other ways could we expose ourselves to these organisms, without having to worry that the culture will die?

With 169 comments, there’s more to read, or check out the rest of the fascinating discussions on TED Conversations!