Thinking Outside the Box on the Oil Spill

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If there were ever a time and place for “so crazy it might just work” ideas, it’s the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. More than 50 days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, the finest minds in the offshore oil industry are still trying to figure out a way to plug the leak for good. Even as the joint BP/government brain trust in Houston struggles to kill the well, they’ve received over 40,000 ideas from outsiders, ranging from “possible but probably not” ideas, like using a nuclear explosion to collapse the well, to those that may solve another problem but not the spill, like shoving tween pop star Justin Beiber down the riser pipe. Things are so bad that BP is actually using oil-cleaning machines developed by Kevin Costner, which at the very least means that the actor apparently got something out of the experience of starring in Waterworld. That’s more than you can say for those who saw it.

But while it’s a little hard to believe that there are would-be MacGyvers and MacGrubers out there who’ve developed a secret solution to the oil spill in their garage, the more brains we can get on this the better. That’s why I’ll be traveling to Washington on June 28 to attend the TEDxOilSpill. (And yes, no spaces there—Silicon Valley tech stars aren’t bound by the laws of grammar.) TED is a California-based collection of smart and/or rich people that puts on an annual ideas conferences in Long Beach/Palm Springs and Oxford, where the best and the brightest from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design gather to give 18-minute talks on a subject of their choosing, later to be streamed on the Web. Lately the group has been branching out,  sponsoring independent offshoot conferences—TEDx, as they’re called—on specific subjects, held around the world. (Full disclosure: I attended a TED trip to the Galapagos Islands in April, led by the oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Fuller disclosure: it was awesome.)

Earle will be one of a number of speakers at the TEDxOilSpill event, where attendees will grapple with unconventional ways to end the leak and protect the Gulf coastline, while attacking the ultimate cause of the spill: the American addiction to oil. Lots of smart people, thinking outside the box. (I’ll be outside the box watching.) But TED is also launching an independent expedition to the Gulf of Mexico  that will include videographers, photographers and environmentalists, to get a more complete picture of the disaster. Given the fact that three-quarters of the world media seems to have converged on Louisiana over the past few weeks, it’s worth wondering what more they could add, but here’s what photographer and author Duncan Davidson, who will be on the trip, had to say on his blog:

What can we do in a week that others in the Gulf aren’t already doing? Fair question. Sure, some media has gotten out. But, by and large, the media has run into continued problems getting access. We’re convinced—whether it’s because of restrictions or other reasons best left to tin foil hat discussions—that things are greatly underreported. While a small team probably can’t tip the balance, we’re committed to expanding the coverage by as much as we can. Every little bit helps, right?

Finally, we’re going to the Gulf to be a witness. No crime this large against the environment, the economy of the Gulf states, the people who live there, and the life that inhabits the water, can have too many witnesses.

That much is definitely true.