Monday, June 28, 2010


The much-anticipated TEDxOilSpill gathering on the human and environmental impact of the BP oil spill kicked off today in Washington, the 70th day of the Gulf oil crisis, with repeated urgings by speakers for stepped-up nationwide civic engagement around the expanding devastation.

"Most people don't understand the issues that led to this happening," organizer Nate Mook, 28, told the 600-plus people attending the grassroots-organized effort, along with the estimated 10,000 more people watching a livestream of it from their homes and from some 129 Meetup locations across the United States, Asia, Europe and Australia. "[The oil spill has] brought to the forefront a lot of things that have been on the sidelines for a long time -- such as the problems with our oceans, how important the marine eco-system is, where we are getting our energy and what we are putting at risk."

Mook and co-organizer Dave Troy, both DC tech entrepreneurs, told CNN over the weekend that they began organizing the event four weeks ago in hopes of helping people "fill the information void" about the devastation.

The conference kicked off, literally, from several thousand feet, with a show of aerial photographs taken by a team of photographers convened by Mook and Davis to spend a week in the Gulf region gathering new evidence of the spill's impact. [Earlier today, the team, called TEDxOilSpill Expedition, posted its full range of photos on Flicker.] Team leader James Duncan Davidson, TED's conference photographer, described mounting difficulties getting access to the worst areas affected. "Air space over the spill is controlled by BP," he said. "We could find only one pilot willing to take me out over the Gulf" -- and when he got there, Davidson added, the air "smelled like you've dumped oil, gas, propane and Windex all over your garage." Team members later told conferees to tell people who want to help to "go make art, go make media, raise money."

Other highlights so far include:

* Francis Beland, VP of Prize Development for the X PRIZE Foundation, announced the organization will launch, within the next two weeks, a "clean-up challenge"that will divvy up to $10 million in prize amoney among social entrepreneurs who come up with the best ideas for Gulf Coast recovery. Beland urged entrepreneurs with good ideas for clean-up -- as well as ideas about how to further structure the contest -- to email him directly, at

* Phillippe Cousteau, the grandson of the late ocean environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, said the spill's impact is being "enormously under-reported." He said "the cost to wildlife of the spill is very bad. We're only just beginning to get a full picture. ... The estimate now is that for every bird found, there are 10 birds not found." Cousteau, the founder and CEO of EarthEcho International, a nonprofit, added that governments around the world have "under-invested in oceans for decades. ...We don't really understand the ecosystems in the best of times, much less in times of crisis."

* Casey DeMoss Roberts, of the Gulf Restoration Network (, shared that when she was 17, she lost her father, an oil rig worker, to a typhoon. She said the country is becoming more desperate in its search for oil. "He should never have been out there [looking for oil] in the first place," she said. "How can we stop making human sacrifices for a tank of gas?" Roberts said the toll of the spill is also causing coastal wetlands to die at an alarming rate. "In the Gulf, we lose of football field of wetlands every 45 minutes" due to the spill, she said, as containment efforts continue to fail. She said the spill also is affecting long-held cultural traditions in the region: the Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, the oldest festival in Louisiana, is still scheduled for September 2-6, she said, but "I wonder what that will look like this year?" Roberts ended her talk blaming the federal government, not BP, for doing too little to find alternative energy sources so as to break the nation's dependence on oil. "We can't expect companies that make catastrophic mistakes to stop making them," Roberts said, her voice quavering. "It's time to force our government to think outside the barrel."

* Latosha Brown, a native of Mobile, AL, warned of the expanding impact of BP's use of toxic solvents to break up and disperse the oil in the Gulf. "I have yet to meet a fisherman who is supportive of oil dispersants," said Brown. She fears the fishing industry will be "all but wiped out" if the spill is not contained soon, and urged policymakers in the audience to help local residents diversify their economy, retrain workers and encourage entrepreneurs.

* Lisa Barry of, demonstrated the New Orleans-based nonprofit's crowdsourcing project to help citizens produce and collate their own aerial photographs of the spill and its ongoing impact. For more on this project, see Cause Global's June 5 report, Citizens Rising, on the initiative. "We're collecting images of places that no one ever bothers to photograph, and doing so over time to see the impact," Barry said. "It will help hold authorities responsible and create a public record so people won't forget."

The conference continues through today. Watch this space for updates.

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Photo: A roadside sign outside Grand Isle, LA/from TEDxOilSpill's Expedition Project]

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