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Reflections on TEDxOilSpill

2010.06.29

As part of the global family of TEDx events, and through the magic of webstreaming, we’re fortunate to be able to hook into a number of amazing initiatives across the TEDx world. One of those, held on June 28th, was TEDxOilSpill in Washington, DC.

Focusing on the causes and impacts of the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, TEDxOilSpill went well beyond in terms of exploring the factors that lead us to undertake such risky and speculative ventures in ecologically sensitive places. Clearly, given the explicit complexities of deep water drilling, the primary lesson of the recent spill is not IF such events will occur, but WHEN. Indeed, as several speakers highlighted, the current spill is not necessarily the worst of the lot in recent memory, but it certainly is unfolding as one of the most notorious for its location and handling.

Our Opportunity: Learn from our mistakes

Amid all the ecological carnage and socio-economic chaos of the spill, the biggest unfolding tragedy is that we risk not learning from it. As was highlighted repeatedly throughout the day, we aren’t even really applying our learning from past spills like Exxon Valdez, or what we already know today about the potential impacts of some of the clean-up techniques being employed. As but one example, there is clear and alarming evidence that the dispersant chemicals being used are a source of longer-term ecological harm than is the oil itself.

X PRIZE Foundation announces an oil solution challengeAt the same time, the TEDxOilSpill event highlighted some of the initiatives that are helping both to sort out the current crisis, and to think more deeply about alternatives to the types of risky exploration and development that are occurring today. Many of these are driven by innovation from people just like you.

Interesting among these are the concept of employing crowdsourcing solutions for solving the crisis. One that was highlighted in the online chat was Stop The Gusher, which is a good example of using a social media collaboration platform to generate ideas from unconventional sources. Even the X PRIZE Foundation is now involved, with the June 28 announcement (at TEDxOilSpill, no less) that they’ll be setting up a multi-million dollar prize to give incentive to still more solution-building. Still, the biggest challenge may not be a lack of ideas — already, some sources say that BP and the U.S. government have received over 35,000 submissions of ideas, including through dedicated sites and challenges that both have set up — but the ways in which these ideas are filtered, evaluated, and tried out. Or not.

From the TEDxCalgary viewpoint, the TEDxOilSpill event did a great job in not just dwelling on the negatives of the actual event, but on trying to highlight speakers with ideas to break out of the vicious hydrocarbon cycle that we find ourselves in across the globe. From much-maligned tar sands in our own back yard, to risky offshore drilling in places where humans can’t even dwell, we’re out hunting fossil fuels the way we once scoured the oceans for whales to use as fashion accessories and heating oil. Ironically, fossil fuels saved the whales from extinction and helped build today’s world, but they also have the power to topple many of the gains they brought us unless we work to redefine our relationship with hydrocarbon-based energy sources. This is a critical dimension of the current crisis, and one which calls for us to think deeply about not just avoiding future accidents, but how to break the current cycle.

Browse the list of TEDxOilSpill speakers and watch for upcoming posts of their event videos: if you missed them the first time around, you’ll be glad you caught the re-runs.

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