5 Lessons From the Oil Spill, Courtesy of TED

A TED-affiliated conference in Washington, DC on Monday attracted a who's who of the environmental and scientific worlds to address the oil spill. In true TED fashion, talks were brief and ranged from scientific breakdowns of the chemistry of oil in water to the performance of a piece of postmodern music inspired by the disaster in the Gulf. Here are the five most interesting ideas to emerge from the conference:

1. Invest in our oceans.

According to Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the original underwater explorer Captain Jacques Cousteau, "we have under-invested in our oceans for decades," spending 1,000 times more on space exploration than ocean exploration. "If we don't really understand exactly what's going on at a baseline perspective," Cousteau asked, "How can we be expected to understand what happens when you dump millions of gallons of a toxic substance into the ocean?"

Sylvia Earle, today's legendary ocean explorer, sought to draw more attention to the unseen effects of the spill:

We think about restitution for the fishermen, we think about the hotel owners, we think about everyone else who lives in the region, and for good reason. But we need to think about giving back to the Gulf of Mexico itself. We are tied to the ocean, not just those who live along the edge.

2. Don't let BP hold all the cards.

Darron Collins of the World Wildlife Fund traveled to the Gulf as part of TED's Oil Spill Expedition, documenting the devastation the spill has caused. He was struck by the stranglehold BP had over clean-up operations, contracting boom-distributors not to speak to the press, cordoning off oiled beaches from the public, and limiting access to airspace over the Gulf. "I used to think, 'Oh, at least BP's pumping lots of money into this, they're gonna clean it up,'" Collins said. "But because the money's coming from the pockets of BP, it allows them ultimate control -- control of access, control of messaging, control of information."

Collins urges independent fundraising for restoration purposes. BP may be setting aside $20 billion to pay damages, but according to Collins, "all money's not created equal."  

3. Make the EPA more like the FDA.

Casey DeMoss Roberts of the Gulf Restoration Network pointed out that while the FDA uses the "precautionary principle," testing drugs before approving them for the market, the EPA "throws caution to the wind" and only tests chemicals when they're suspected to be harmful. Precautionary protocol would have precluded the anxious speculation surrounding BP's use of untested, toxic dispersants to break up the oil slick, a topic many of the TED speakers were worried about.  

4. Print warnings at the end of gas receipts, like on cigarette packs.

Lisa Margonelli, director of the energy policy initiative at the New America Foundation and a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com, suggested tagging gas receipts with a message from the National Sciences Foundation laying out the costs and dangers of our national addiction to oil. Margonelli thinks this stigma, along with a gradually increasing gas tax, would help jump start change to an American "system in which if you want to get and keep a job, it's more important to have a car that runs than a GED."  

5. Replace offshore oil rigs with offshore wind farms.

Andrew Sharpless, CEO of Oceana, touted ocean wind energy as a key part of achieving freedom from oil. Why isn't this a larger part of our current energy strategy? Sharpless points to the now notoriously biased Minerals Management Service's jurisdiction over approving offshore wind farms. Reform the MMS, he said, and ocean wind energy will have a brighter future.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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