Brave Thinker: Kevin Costner

brave-thinkers-kevin-costner-200.jpgThe November issue of The Atlantic is out, and I've got my first print piece in it. I profile Kevin Costner and his odd desire to spend $20 million scaling up an oil-water separation machine. One thing that struck me in talking to Costner was this intensely American idea that the answer to technology's problems is more technology.

His catch-phrase, which he's brought to Congress and said to me, is that we should move into the "21st century of oil-spill cleanups." Think about that. He just can't believe that we're still cleaning up spills in roughly the same ways that we were during the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which he witnessed first hand as a kid growing up in Ventura.

In any case, you should check out the whole package. It's filled with interesting characters from Elon Musk to David Cameron.

And here's the conclusion to my Costner piece:

And so, along with his scientist brother, Costner spent the 1990s plowing money into the concept, securing patents and relying on a team of researchers in Nevada to develop the device. When they were close, the Costners reached out to every major oil company, only to be rebuffed by industry players who told the actor we'd never have another spill like the Valdez.

Of course, we did. And Costner's machines finally got a look. In the aftermath of this year's spill, BP bought 32 of them to use in the gulf. Now the actor is working with Edison Chouest Offshore, in Louisiana, to build first-responder ships that could be deployed around the world to clean up future spills. "We could move into the 21st century of oil-spill cleanups with this technology," Costner told me. "Whenever you're challenged, there is an opportunity." But this is about more than a personal investment that's paying off. Costner's magic machine is making good on a particularly American idea: when one bold technology gives us a problem, another can help us solve it.