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June 29, 2010

Tears and Laughter at TEDxOilSpill

After watching and reading news reports and blog posts about the Gulf oil spill for more than two months, I was wondering if anything new could be said about the catastrophe.

As I found out at yesterday’s TEDxOilSpill conference, the answer is a resounding yes. Scientists, entrepreneurs, anthropologists, activists, musicians and writers came together to vent, and to try and wrap their heads around how this could have happened, and to bat around solutions, immediate and long-term.

Over and over, I heard riffs on a theme: this is an unprecedented disaster, and we are still in the thick of it. We don’t know how bad it will get, or what the long-term effects will be. And now is our moment to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless fired off a list of ten myths about the oil spill and offshore drilling, and Oceana campaign director Jackie Savitz told the crowd that “it is time to tell the pusher (Big Oil) that we’re going clean.”

It was an intellectually and emotionally exhausting day – several presenters were brought to tears during their presentations.

Among the distraught was Casey Demoss Roberts from the Gulf Restoration Network, who spoke about her personal and painful connection to the oil industry. When she was 17, her father, a petroleum engineer, moved the family to Bangkok, Thailand. During his stint on a rig, a typhoon developed, and he perished along with 90 others.

“I’m not alone,” she said. “Many families have been torn apart by the inherently dangerous work of extraction and mining…How can we stop making human sacrifices for a tank of gas?”

Marine conservationist and author Carl Safina also choked up when he told this story: On his train ride to DC, he met a fisherman. During a recent trip out on the Gulf a bottlenose dolphin appeared next to his boat, spluttering oil out of its blowhole. In all his years of fishing, he had never seen a dolphin get so close to his boat. It seemed, the fisherman said, to be asking for help.

Safina’s tone turned angry when he spoke about the inadequate response to the spill, such as the use of booms. “It’s a comedy of horrors,” he said.

“As an ornithologist, I can tell you that birds fly. Booming a bird colony doesn’t do the job. “

But there was also laughter, which was certainly welcome. Leroy Stick, the pseudonymous clown behind the @BPGlobalPR Twitter account, made an entertaining (and incognito) appearance.

“I’m here today because I started a Twitter account,” he said. “I acknowledge that that’s ridiculous.”

But jokes aside, Stick had a sincere message to convey.

“The one thing you can take away is that it’s a small idea from a small dude. If you think the status quo is unacceptable, don’t accept it. Start something.”