Introducing The Oil Cleanup X Challenge

07/29/2010 01:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today's announcement of the newest X PRIZE Foundation competition comes at a time when Americans are dismayed and frustrated by the messy, uncoordinated clean up operations in the Gulf. Every day, it seems, we witness the needless destruction of nature and of people's livelihoods, without any confidence that the harm caused by this careless accident can be successfully addressed.

I am announcing the Wendy Schmidt Oil Spill Cleanup X CHALLENGE today because it is the most constructive response I can have to the psychic anguish--in addition to the personal losses-- so many people have experienced as the Gulf Oil Spill crisis has gone on.

Initially, I watched the news, day after day. until I could no longer tolerate contemplating the idea that here was a natural disaster--no, a disaster in nature--that was not of natural origin. Unlike other destructive forces I had witnessed in my lifetime--earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, floods, tornadoes--this storm--this oil storm-- was man made, and had the characteristic that it was possibly not stoppable. We don't have a narrative for destruction without end, where no Superman comes to bend steel, and no scientists find a magic code with only seconds to detonation.

When I think about it, I realize we are looking at an old operating system: last century's energy infrastructure coupled with an inadequate and out-of-date understanding of the human relationship with natural resources. We need Version 2.0. The sooner the better.

The fossil fuel industry has done a great deal in the last 100 years to raise living standards throughout the world, supplying undreamed of goods and services, transportation and advances in technology. However, it has left in its wake a devastating legacy of neglect that suggests nature doesn't really matter very much in our economic calculations, except to those pesky environmentalists.

I say oil spilling uncontrollably in the Gulf, or in China, Nigeria or elsewhere, is only one example of the risk humans present to ourselves when we systematically threaten the natural world we depend upon for our own survival.

We're doing this every day, as we destroy mountaintops, forests, rivers, and streams; as we introduce toxic chemicals and garbage into our lands and oceans at an alarming rate; as we extract natural gas using a method that sometimes leaks this "clean, natural" gas into precious underground fresh water supplies. In parts of Pennsylvania and several mid-western states, you can light your tap water on fire. What's wrong with this picture?

And so we find ourselves responsible. Now that the BP spill has been capped, at least for the moment, it is time to take a collective deep breath and assess what the current situation suggests for the future. With nearly 4,000 active drilling platforms in the Gulf alone, it's not a question of "if " there is another spill, but "when." Looking around the United States, and then across the world, we see tens of thousands of offshore oil drilling operations, the vast majority of which are not regulated as well as those off our shores. With that and thousands of oil tankers crisscrossing the seas, the oil spill problem will continue to be a very common one, and we need to come up with better ways to respond quickly and to minimize the harm we are causing.

It doesn't matter what your political views may be: Who among us would not teach our children to clean up the mess they make in someone else's house?

When we spill crude oil into the oceans, especially without cleaning it up immediately, we aren't just temporarily disrupting ecosystems and habitats of species. Those are abstractions. We are actually destroying families under the water and along the shores for decades: interrupting webs of complex relationships we're only beginning to understand. We fit into this matrix of interdependent living systems, but not with the footprint we have now, which
is disproportionately large for the actual biomass we represent.

I've spent my adult life in Silicon Valley and have watched the extraordinary evolution of communications technology--from computers that were the size of buildings becoming the little device I carry around in the palm of my hand. These advances came out of a system of venture capital investment, supporting generation after generation of product development--- driving competition, innovation, job creation, and constantly reframing the very notion of what is possible. Not many people 50 years ago could foresee how communications technology would come to change the way we do almost everything, or that a portable wireless device could support the search for almost anything you'd like to know in any language.

The X PRIZE Foundation designs its competitions along this venture model: that through competition, new ideas and approaches that do not advance due to lack to funding, can have a chance to develop, be tested, and make their way into the public imagination and eventually, the marketplace.

So instead of a conversation about who is to blame for oil spills, let's have a conversation about solutions, because we all share the blame for living so contentedly in a petroleum based economy--driving the demand for oil, instead of driving the demand for newer, better, cleaner energy resources and advancing a more responsible relationship with the natural world that sustains our species.