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An expedition to the Gulf

By Darron Collins

BP operates controlled burns of the spilled oil as part of its cleanup attempt. Photo: Kris Krüg

Over the past week, I’ve been part of a media team tasked with providing the most recent sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings from our Gulf of Mexico. We’ve traveled from the Florida panhandle to the most isolated bayous of Louisiana, from sea level to 3,000 feet above sea level, and have spent nearly every hour of every day trying to stitch together some sense of reality that might provide a truthful and engaging context for the conference. We’ve shot stills and video, and have blogged and tweeted everything we’ve found in anticipation of next week’s gathering of oceanographers and environmental experts of various kinds: the TEDx Oil Spill conference.

The annual TED conference has attained something approaching legendary status as the premier “thinkers and doers” conference on the planet. More recently TED spawned the idea of affiliating its brand with independent, more spontaneous day-long conferences centered on a particular geography or issue – these are the TEDx Conferences.

A ship amid the slick. Photo: Kris Krüg

Following what could arguably be called the single most destructive environmental disaster this country has ever faced, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill – and because of the need for change that that disaster has underscored – it made perfect sense to design a TEDx conference around the spill. On Monday, June 28, in Washington, D.C., the TEDx Oil Spill conference unfolds with the specific goals of a) inspiring ideas and connections that will speed up the mitigation of the disaster in the Gulf and b) laying out a path for an America unfettered by a dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. The conference will take place in front of a live audience of 500 in the Ronald Reagan Building and will be simulcast in more than 68 TEDxOilSpill “meetups” across the globe.

Obviously, there aren’t enough hours in a week to tell the entire story the way it needs to be told. But even given this limitation, those of us on the expedition have gone pretty deep and wide, and have managed to avoid lingering on generalizations and images of oiled birds. That said, those oiled birds are gut wrenching, and photos of them need to be magnetized to the refrigerators of every household in the U.S. as a reminder that our individual energy footprints fall not only on something as global as climate change but also on something very local and very tangible like our own Gulf Coast.

Photographers Kris Krüg, James Duncan Davidson and Pinar Özger shot stills and video from foot, truck, plane and boat. I did a lot of writing and also managed to be temporarily detained on the beach at Grand Isle for “crossing the boom” from the nontoxic to the toxic section of sand.

We met loads of people along the way and brought their experiences to bear on the disaster. It’s important that we focus on their stories as much as or more than on the thoughts and words of President Obama, Thad Allen or Tony Hayward.

Oil is reaching the beach at Gulf Shores, Ala., 95 miles from the spill. Photo: Kris Krüg

We met Joseph, the double-amputee ex-shrimper who is now making his living bringing journalists and the likes of us through Louisiana’s Barataria Bay. We met his boss Dean Blanchard, who runs a shrimping company that would normally be pulling 400,000 pounds of shrimp through his shed a day; now he’s pulling zero. We met Ms. Sarah, owner of Sarah’s Diner, who spent the first weeks of the disaster catering to hundreds of workers a day when her diner’s set up for about a quarter of that volume. We met waitresses at the Waffle House in Gulf Shores, Ala., who are now filing claims with BP to recover lost tips as the tourist flow has dropped to a trickle. We met the team at Southern Sea Plane that battled BP for access to flight paths in and around “the source” – the site of the April 20 explosion and the ongoing efforts to try and stymie the flow of oil into the Gulf.

It was a wild, eye-opening ride for us all. The ecological, economic and cultural devastation in the Gulf is really, really hard to get your arms around. We hope this expedition blog and the site can help do just that. Read on. Tweet and retweet. Come to D.C. for the event or set up a meetup. Put that photo of an oiled brown pelican on your refrigerator.

Dr. Darron Collins is a cultural anthropologist and an expert in ethnobotany with the World Wildlife Fund. He has designed and implemented human-centered conservation programs for WWF in Latin America, Russia, China and Mongolia. His most recent endeavors involve using creative media to share WWF’s work with new, influential audiences and use storytelling to drive conservation on the ground.

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