Optimism and the Oil Spill

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From TEDxOilSpill Expedition

I’m not by nature an optimistic person. If there’s a dark side of the moon, or anything else, I’ll usually find it, and my glasses only come half empty. Getting excited—not something you’ll witness me doing very often. Maybe it’s growing up a Philadelphia sports fan (the Eagles alone being enough to pummel the optimism out of any young heart), or too much Smiths at an impressionable age, or maybe I just suffer from a shortage of the right neurochemicals. But it means that if someone tells me things will get better, well—I doubt it.

And the environmental beat has not had salutary effect on my disposition. In one of the first pieces I ever wrote for TIME, a review of Peter Matthiessen’s haunting 2002 book on endangered cranes, Birds of Heaven, I quoted a line from the naturalist Louis Crisler on the inextricable link between “love [of the earth] and despair.” It’s easy to despair about the environmental—the existential threat of climate change, the steady erosion of wild places and wild things, the sense that day by day the world, our only world, lessens. That the best days have passed, and our best hope is to manage the decline.

Take that attitude, pump 150 million or so gallons of oil into it, and, well, you can se why I might not be walking around with a smile on my face. As I’ve written before, the Gulf oil spill is uniquely depressing—first, of course, for the damage it is doing to a vibrant coastal ecosystem, to the marshes and the seabirds and all that live in the depths, still unknown to us. And for the plight of the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, the fishermen and those who depend on them, the men and women still recovering from storm of the century before they were hit with something truly unprecedented. But most of all, because our best and brightest can’t seem to do anything about this spill. Because 70 days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 men, oil is still bleeding from a well 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. Because BP, the company most responsible for the disaster, is responsible for the response, blocking media access to the spill it created. Because oil has such a hold over us, and over the Gulf region especially, that even after the biggest environmental disaster in history, Gulf residents and politicians are calling for President Obama to lift his moratorium on new deepwater drilling—because there are no other jobs. Because in a hot and crowded world—to steal a phrase— we could see these disasters repeated again and again, as we scramble for the last drops of oil.

See, not optimistic. And I haven’t even gotten into the dysfunction U.S. Senate.

So that’s why I was so glad to get the chance to attend the TEDxOilSpill conference in Washington in Monday. It’s not that the scientists, technologists and activists who spoke at the meeting are unaware or in denial about how screwed up the oil spill is. Carrie DeMoss Roberts of the Gulf Restoration Network spoke about losing her father to the oil industry, and Phillipe Cousteau—yep, Jacques’s grandson—described his several trips to the Gulf, the hemispheric damage that would be done to the ecology of that already stressed region. They were clear-eyed about the challenge ahead. And there was righteous anger too—necessary, to me—in the words of Carl Safina, the president of the Blue Ocean Institute, who described the way that the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a failure of industry and regulation, and ultimately an unforgivable failure of our democracy.

But the people at the conference believed—really believed—that there were solutions to this spill, just as their could be solutions to every other environmental challenge facing us. Sometimes those solutions were small-scale and mobile—like the OilReporter smartphone app, which allows anyone to report on the spill, or Google’s work spreading real-time information during disasters. Sometimes those solutions were low-tech—like Ronald Atlas, a microbiologist at the University of Louisville, who works with bacteria that can eat oil. And sometimes those solutions were tech so high that it doesn’t quite exist yet—like the algal biofuel that Mike Mendez makes at Sapphire Energy, fuel that just might become replacement for the crude we drill from the ocean floor.

What united them all was a belief that progress on this most insoluble of problems was really possible, that enough smart people really could come together and address the challenges facing the country and all of us. And sometimes, for me at least, that optimism could seem a bit blinkered—do they really understand how much it will take to get us off oil? (Actually, Lisa Margonelli of the New America Foundation does, and her talk on the need to address oil consumption first, more than exploration, was a welcome dose of reality.) TED can succumb to technoutopianism too easily, the idea that all the world’s problems are just an app away from being fixed. It can grate against someone who doesn’t quite share that confidence in the world’s ingenuity. But after watching the sadness and frustration of the oil spill—still ongoing—I needed a little optimism.

And if that doesn’t work, well, there’s always Leroy Stick’s attitude. He’s the comedian behind the great fake Twitter stream @BPGlobalPR, and he had this to say from the TEDx stage: “It’s very easy as Americans to just get down. We’re used to bad news. We’re in two seemingly endless wars, our economy has collapsed, people are losing their homes, and the Gulf is being destroyed in front of our eyes.” There’s a TEDster I can get behind.