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TEDxOilSpill: Notes on the Ickiness of Solving the Gulf Crisis by Seminar

5 years ago
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While the junk shot tried and failed to plug BP's oil gusher with golf balls and trash, an event called TEDxOilSpill will attempt to stanch the flow with flattery, gimmicks and piety.

A little background first: A "TEDx" is an independently run event sanctioned by TED Conferences LLC -- a nonprofit, founded in 1986, that enlists experts to "give the talk of their lives" in 18 minutes or less. TED talks are given to a live audience, and broadcast over the Web. They're very successful, and there is genius in the way the format renders wanton bloviation impossible (a fact appreciated by anyone who has ever attended a seminar anywhere on anything). TEDxOilSpill will apply the TED approach to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history on June 28.

This is where my ambivalence comes in. The experts will tackle such topics as mitigating the damage from the Gulf oil spill, handling the cleanup, brainstorming alternative energy sources and formulating better energy policies to keep such things from happening again. It can be argued that there's no shortage whatsoever of ideas to deal with the spill, but so far so good: Nothing wrong with a bunch of smart people getting together and solving the world's problems.

But here's where they lose me. (I mean, other than the line "attendees are as exceptional as the speakers" on the website, which is as obviously false as it is shamelessly obsequious.) This is the single most urgent issue facing America right now, and it's a massively complex one. So why, if you're going to pull together a conference on fixing it, do you use a gimmick that limits each speaker to 18 minutes? Doesn't this sort of undermine the point of TxOS (I'm sorry, but there's no good way to shorten the name)? What if someone has a game-changing idea, and they're still rolling at minute 18? Do you have the orchestra play them off the stage? Bring out the gong?

Secondly, this thing is still happening. Right this second. Yet we have to wait until the end of the month to hear how we're supposed to fix it? That just doesn't seem terribly helpful.

What's more, if you'd like to attend the conference in DC personally, it's actually pretty pricey. A "VIP seating" ticket costs $200. If you just want to go non-VIP, you can pay whatever you want. Just don't be a mooch: the event, you're told, costs $75 per person to organize, due to venue, food and drink costs. TxOS assures us that it's not making any money off of this, and it says the speakers are unpaid. But the fee raises the question of just how well thought out this whole idea actually is. If TxOS manages to get well-respected speakers to give their talks for free, couldn't it have asked attendees to brown bag it and saved a bunch on catering? Then instead of a fee, it could have made a donation to people spending their days picking up oil balls from beaches in Florida.

Lastly, and this relates to point two, if the conference's reason for being is to get ideas out there, why does there need to be a live audience/venue at all? Why not throw the thing together fast, shoot it in some borrowed studio space, and broadcast it online? That way, the overhead would be next to nothing, and the ideas still hit a wide audience, without the weeks-long delay for pulling the event together.

It gets weirder. In the run-up to TxOS, photographer James Duncan Davidson, is raising money to go to the Gulf to shoot the spill and do original reporting on the ground. Davidson feels the media has fallen down on the job ("sure, some media has gotten out," he writes, with more than a bit of strategic understatement). He and his crew will then bring back salient photos and reporting and show them at TxOS. Again, all good intentions, but if there's one thing there's no shortage of, it's photos of the disaster or reporters covering it. But that's a problem easily rationalized: "Finally," writes Davidson, "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."

Surely, at some point, someone has to wonder if the point of all this is to actually help, or just to feel good, or at least less helpless, in the face of this catastrophe. It's hard to imagine that taking the money you were going to spend on a ticket or your donation to a freelance reporting trip and giving it to the actual physical effort on the ground, wouldn't do more in terms of making a difference. One wonders whether all the effort spent on awareness-building -- long a lefty favorite -- could be better used elsewhere. Ideas are great, but sometimes talk is cheap.
Filed Under: Oil Spill, Surge Desk

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