TEDxOilSpill: Observing a Disaster

philippe cousteau tedxoilspill photo

Philippe Cousteau takes the stage at the TEDxOilSpill conference in Washington, DC. Image credit: David DeFranza

Every year, the TED—Technology, Education, Design—conference convenes with the intention of showcasing "ideas worth spreading." However, a once-annual conference of diverse speakers, organizers have realized, is not always enough. Sometimes, an issue or event arises that simply demands discussion—that requires the world's greatest minds and most passionate activists to work together.

Certainly, the oil spill in the Gulf is one of these events—and the TEDxOilSpill conference in Washington, DC, is their response.

oil spill ship cleanup photo

Image credit: kk+/Flickr

The first part of this four act event confronted the uncomfortable role of the observer, those that push forward—and, indeed, are held back—to witness, document, and report the true extent of such a disaster.

SLIDESHOW: Gulf Oil Spill: Amazing and Devastating Photos
Philippe Cousteau, having just returned from an extensive tour of the Gulf region—one that included a dive into the heart of the spill—took the stage first. "We have under-invested in our oceans for decades," he told the audience before adding, "we don't really understand what is going on from a baseline perspective."

Duncan Davidson and Darron Asher Collins gave a report from their week-long TEDxOilSpill Expedition in the Gulf. Collins began by saying that what we know about the Gulf, compared to other regions of the world, is huge but what is mind-boggling, he added in reiteration of Cousteau, is what we don't know.

Time after time, he explained, from expert after scientist after lifelong fisherman, his seemingly simple questions were answered with a discouraging "I don't know."

What we do know, he said, is that dispersant, a toxin that is known to bioaccumulate, has been released in massive quantities along with the oil. Casey Demoss Roberts of the Gulf Restoration Project, explained that "the 'throw caution to the wind' principal has allowed thousands of gallons of toxic dispersant to be released into the gulf."

Photos showed lots of boom, lots of tangled useless boom, and lots of oil on the wrong sides of the boom, but the dilemma in the Gulf, it quickly became clear, began long before the Deepwater Horizon platform erupted into flames.

oil canals Louisiana photo

Image credit: kk+/Flickr

"Louisiana's wetlands," Louisiana Poet Karry St. Pe said, "are the fastest disappearing land mass on earth." The coast of Louisiana, more than one speaker pointed out, loses a football-field-sized chunk of land every 45 minutes.

The culprits are many and include sea level rise and subsidence, but a key driver are the oil canals. These trenches, which criss-cross the Gulf Coast landscape, are the cause of the entire region's erosion but they are also the visible remains of the tethers that bind the economy and culture of the Gulf to the oil industry.

Oil companies...all companies...that have done the things they've done, have done so under permits. Federal permits.

"When I was seventeen years old, I lost the most important person to me," Roberts confessed with a quavering voice as she told the story of her father's death upon an oil exploration ship, "but I am not alone."

Indeed, the region that celebrates an annual "Shrimp and Petroleum" festival has become completely intertwined with an infrastructure that puts their lives and livelihoods in constant peril. And they are not alone.

Complicit in this is every consumer of petroleum. "Oil is everywhere," Collins explained, "it's out of control and we, as humanity, have let it get out of control."

It will take a complete redevelopment of the economy to remove the oil industry from the culture of the Gulf but, these observers told the audience, to curb the senseless, risky, behavior that endangers people around the world, we need better monitoring and stronger regulation.

"Knowing if there was ever water on Mars is not critical to our survival," Philippe Cousteau said, "Healthy oceans are."

Get Complete Coverage of the Gulf Oil Spill From TreeHugger and Planet Green
Philippe Cousteau's Dispatches From the Gulf

TEDxOilSpill: Observing a Disaster
Every year, the TED—Technology, Education, Design—conference convenes with the intention of showcasing "ideas worth spreading."