Hanging Out With Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, in town to promote his new film “Human Flow” is less like a global icon than a kid on the first day of vacation. He gleefully mugs for photos, takes selfies with – and of – his audiences, bears a perpetual crinkly smile and when asked “When are you happiest?” replies, “Now.”

Ai Weiwei 10.3.17

Ai Weiwei smiles for a fan

But the message of the internationally renowned artist is deadly serious. He wants the world to confront the fact that over 65 million human beings are displaced, most of them living in deplorable conditions in refugee camps and only a tiny fraction (about 3%) being relocated. “Human Flow” depicts refugees in 23 countries – in camps, on the move, struggling across deserts, through murky waters and occasional war zones. It documents a staggering amount of human suffering which its creator wants us to face as fellow human beings. “The world is shrinking,” he says; “people from different religions, different cultures are going to have to learn to live with each other.”

Ai appeared before a sold-old crowd at the Commonwealth Club recently, in conversation with Climate One founder and host Greg Dalton, who started off by asking what his guest felt Europe should do. “It’s not just a European problem,” Ai Weiwei responded, “it’s global – Iraq, Myanmar, elsewhere. Policies in the U.S. seeking to reduce immigrants, enforce a travel ban, move away people who have been here since childhood – there is a strong trend to violate human rights and traditional beliefs. We are all refugees.”

Ai & Greg Dalton 10.17

With Climate One’s Greg Dalton

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the year his father, the Chinese poet Ai Qing  was arrested and denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. He was one year old when the family was sent to a labor camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang. According to his Wikipedia page, they were later exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, where they lived for 16 years. In 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ai and his family returned to Beijing. At one point, during his lively conversation with Dalton at the Commonwealth Club, Ai said he used to be jealous of his father. “He got all those years, and all I got (referring to his imprisonment for “economic crimes” in 2011) was 81 days.” His 81 days were, however, no picnic. “If you argue with the government,” he said, “you never win. They become so powerful you can get suicidal.”Ai Weiwei 1-10.17

On the issues closer to the focus of Climate One, Ai spoke of how China “has made huge progress, and has become quite economically powerful. But the dark side are environmental problems: heavily polluted air and rivers. Besides that there is huge corruption. There are internal struggles inside the party; no trust, no real creativity because there’s no freedom of speech.” To Dalton’s remark that Ai had once tried to work within the system, Ai laughed. “I was very naïve.” Despite his history of battling the government Ai was given his passport in 2015 and now lives in Berlin.

“When they handed me my passport, the guy said, “We’ve known each other for so long . .  .”

Evolution & the Curious Child

 

darwin-2

It was a simple question about being distant kin to the monkeys. The kind of question, like “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do stars go in the morning?” that any curious third grader might ask. His teacher, however, was irate. “Ridiculous,” she said. “Don’t bother me with impertinent questions.”

This kind of a rebuke did not sit well with the grandson of Peter Klopfer.

Klopfer is a distinguished Duke University biology professor, author of more than 20 books and an expert in animal behavior and evoluntionary biology. His daughter Erika Honore, the questioner’s mother, is a retired veterinary scientist with multiple degrees and the author of A Concise Survey of Animal Behavior. She and her doctor husband know a thing or two about kinship with monkeys, and had – along with his grandfather – passed along enough anthropological truth to the third grader that his teacher’s rebuke had the opposite effect: now he wanted to know the story of evolution.

“Erika and I started looking for an age-appropriate book on evolution,” Klopfer says, “and it was nowhere to be found. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but we couldn’t find a good book for six-to-ten-year-olds anywhere. So we decided to write our own.

Thus evolved Darwin and the First Grandfather, a small, colorfully illustrated (by Gretchen Morrissey) book of how humankind began.darwin-1

Darwin’s narrator, asked the where-did-we-come-from question by her own 8-year-old replies that she’ll tell him two stories. She tells first the biblical creation story – which would presumably please the creators of Texas textbooks (and which many if not most Christians see for what it is: a story.) Then she launches into another story, a tale of a boy names Charles and the discoveries he makes as he follows his own curiosity. It is a delightfully readable account of  creation from one perspective and evolution from the perspective of scientific truth.

Scientific publishers who had brought out Klopfer’s scholarly books were less than enthusiastic about undertaking a children’s book. The firm that had published his earlier children’s book had subsequently gone out of business, and he lacked a good connection to children’s book publishers. One atheist publisher was delighted with the idea, but eventually said he could find no way to market such a thing. “So we just put it aside,” Klopfer says now, “and it sat in a file cabinet for years.”darwin-4

Happily for children everywhere, the father-daughter duo recently dug the manuscript out again and decided to self-publish. Klopfer’s neighbor, a textile design artist, agreed to do the illustrations, and Darwin and the First Grandfather was born.

That third grade questioner? He did learn the scientifically accurate story of evolution, which today’s third graders can learn with the help of his mother’s and grandfather’s book. Currently he is a graduate student in computer science at Yale University.

 

A Walk in the Park – for everyone

Urban park

For most of America’s urban poor, life is hardly a walk in the park. But the Trust for Public Land is out to change that. Every urban citizen, rich or poor, should be able to access a park, playground or natural area in a 10-minute walk, TPL maintains. It may seem just a dream in many cities, but their Parks for People program is making that dream come true.

San Francisco’s Boeddeker Park in the city’s Tenderloin district – one of the few remaining San Francisco communities not yet infiltrated by millionaires – illustrates the dream fulfillment. The Tenderloin is a 31-block area in the heart of the city, much of it now designated Historic Landmark and thus protected from the ubiquitous new luxury condominiums popping up elsewhere. The area recently got its own museum. Long a haven for immigrants and laborers, today it is home to many of the city’s poorest citizens, including large numbers of children who have never seen the surrounding ocean, mountains and bay that accentuate San Francisco’s extraordinary beauty.

A tiny green spot of just under one acre was designated a city park in 1985 and named for a beloved local pastor, Father Alfred E. Boeddeker. But drug dealers and unsavory characters quickly made it of little use to children. (This writer often walked by en route to one place or another, and habitually sped up when passing the park.)

Boeddeker Park opening

Boeddeker Park Opening

Enter the Trust for Public Land. With TPL working alongside concerned members of the Tenderloin community and a group of dedicated public and private donors, Boeddeker Park was transformed into a haven and refuge, alive with basketball-playing, gym-climbing children and now off-limits to bad guys.

At a recent TPL event for supporters (among whom this writer is happy to be counted,) several current projects of the organization were described. President and CEO Will Rogers spoke of progress made and plans underway. Vice President and Director of Land Protection Brenda Schick outlined some of the land conservation efforts that are leading to preservation of open spaces across the country. (Schick, an avid horsewoman, managed to get her equine friends into many of the stunning images of American countryside in her slide presentation.)

And Jennifer Isacoff, Parks for People Bay Area Program Director, talked of making it possible for every urban American – even those for whom life is not a walk in the park – to walk TO a park within 10 minutes. A reasonable goal:

Making life a little better, one park at a time.

 

Celebrating the Iran Nuclear Deal

nuclear cloudsThe mood was sheer celebration. “We’ve moved the boulder in the road,” said Joe Cirincione; “this model can be useful for other work.” Moving the boulder, a distinguished group of speakers repeatedly explained to the small, celebratory-mood audience, will lead to a safer world for our children and grandchildren, a world “where nuclear weapons are a thing of the past.” He was speaking of the Iran nuclear deal.

The Iran deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna on July 14 by the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, U.K., France, Germany and representatives of the E.U. – runs to approximately 159 pages, very few of which this right-brained writer has read. But I absolutely trust Joe Cirincione.

Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit that works to bring about a world in which our children and grandchildren might live without the threat of being blown to bits by a nuclear bomb. A really attractive idea. (Ploughshares Fund was founded in 1981 by Sally Lilienthal, a remarkable San Francisco woman this writer was privileged to know in the decade before her death in 2006.) It was at a small gathering of Ploughshares supporters that Cirincione and several others – who have not only read the entire 159 pages, but helped write them – explained the details, and the impact, of the Iran deal to us, our grandchildren, and the world.

Many of the details are beyond the technical comprehension of most lay citizens (and more than a few of the politicians whose knee-jerk opposition has little to do with the safety of our future.) They include things like requiring that Iran reduce its 20,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, to 6,104 over the next 10 years, giving up its most advanced centrifuges while using only their older model. Then there is the business of how far the country will be allowed to enrich uranium: no more than 3.67 percent, which will be okay for power plants but is far below the level needed for weapons. Iran also agreed to reduce its stockpile of uranium by 98 percent.dove of peace

These extraordinarily complex details were part of a conversation between Cirincione and Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, Arms Control Association at the event. Davenport was among the outside experts traveling to Geneva, Vienna and elsewhere to help work out the agreement – “and knows more about the Iran deal than anyone I know,” Cirincione remarked, and spoke of the long, often painful path toward its success. Davenport said she could usually tell right away how some negotiation went – discussions that often ran into the small hours of the morning – by the expression on someone’s face.

We should all be smiling today.

 

 

 

Dust to Dust — to save the planet

Tree

Why is this not a good idea? Wherever you stand on the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” business, doesn’t it make sense to quit burying tons of toxic materials in the ground along with our dust and ashes?

Recently an idea for better handling of our dust evolved into the Urban Death Project, a nonprofit that caught this writer’s eye with a Kickstarter campaign some months ago. The campaign having surpassed its designated goal, my “Future Tree” tee shirt is now on its way; and the good idea seems worth sharing.

Urban Death Project founder Katrina Spade is not the first to come up with an alternative to the seriously harmful burial practices of recent centuries – practices that dump unimaginable amounts of contaminating formaldehyde, non-biodegradable metal and concrete into the ground, as if the planet had limitless ground to contaminate.

Natural burial, or “green burial” has been around for at least as long as civilization. The writers of Genesis saw fit to include that “unto dust you shall return” line, and most people found ways to make that happen fairly effectively, with exceptions made for the pharaohs. But somehow, embalming and vaults and caskets crept in, and staving off decay became both profitable and popular. Jessica Mitford’s 1963 The American Way of Death exposed abuses of the funeral home industry – Mitford herself had an inexpensive but memorable ceremony in San Francisco this writer recalls with fondness, and her ashes were scattered at sea. Her wildly popular book, though targeting funeral homes, may also have helped kickstart the search for better alternatives to what had become traditional burial practices in the U.S.

CemeteryJerrigrace Lyons was among the natural burial movement’s pioneers, with the founding of Final Passages in 1995. Lyons sought to “reawaken a choice that our ancestors once held sacred.” Final Passages is “dedicated to the reclaiming of traditional funeral and burial practices,” including green burial. One 65-year-old whose will specifies a green burial puts the issue in plainer terms, declaring he wants “to be part of a tree, part of a flower, go back to being part of the earth.”

Urban Death Project takes green burial to a new level. A three-story cone will form the space into which bodies are gently laid to rest, following a cycles-of-nature ceremony for loved ones. Also within the cone are high-carbon materials which – with the help of “aerobic decomposition and microbial activity” – decompose everything fully into a rich compost

All of which makes perfectly good sense.

It is not easy, however, to give up long-held ideas about dealing with one’s remains after one has presumably gone on to a better place. Family burial plots, oak-shaded cemeteries, columbaria and the scattering of ashes in special places all have great attraction. This writer has long cherished the notion of her children and grandchildren having a couple of lovely parties while they toss her ashes into the Chesapeake and San Francisco bays. This despite knowing that cremation takes high amounts of energy and sends carbon dioxide, mercury vapors and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

EarthBut here is the irrefutable bottom line: the total land surface area of planet earth is 57,308,738 square miles, including 33% desert and 24% mountains to divvy up among more than 7 billion people – all of whom will eventually die.

Turning us into trees to shade the next 7 billion? The Urban Death Project could be onto something.

Bold Hope for the World’s Poor

Map_of_the_world_1998

A Solution to Poverty?

If governments can’t solve world poverty, and nonprofits can’t make serious dents in it… can the private sector be the answer? With the help of you and me and major investors?

Mal Warwick thinks so. Warwick, co-author, with Paul Polak, of The Business Solution to Poverty, spoke recently at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco about their conviction that the long-term solution to the ongoing tragedy of global poverty lies in coming up with answers that will pay off. Not just to suffering individuals, by helping lift them out of poverty, but to investors by turning a profit.

Warwick’s audience included a variety of interested individuals familiar with much of the work already being doing by nonprofits whose funders tend to seek reward through humanitarian success rather than financial return. But major infusions of capital, Warwick maintains, will be needed to continue building the ladders people everywhere will need to climb out of poverty’s depths, and that will require – business solutions.

As a shining example, Warwick cited the treadle pump. It is a human-powered device, inexpensive to manufacture and simple to use, which enables farmers to multiply the yield of their land and thus, in many cases, raise themselves and their families out of poverty. It works as a business solution on a number of levels. Factories needed to manufacture the pump were set up in villages, providing employment for people there, village shops distributed them, workers were employed to drill the wells and financial institutions made loans for purchases.

The problem, Warwick says, was with marketing – radio, TV, newspapers and traditional advertising methods weren’t available. The solution? Roaming troubadors and a Bollywood movie.

Among the facts Warwick brought to light were: One billion people lack access to electricity. One billion people lack access to safe water. One billion farms are without irrigation. The 20 million people lifted out of poverty between 1981 and 2006 by international aid programs, Warwick says, are only a drop in the bucket to the numbers who continue to suffer.

“It’s possible,” Warwick says, “to create brave new companies” with the lure of “reaching at least 100 million $2/day customers.” Some of those companies already at work include Australia’s SunWater which is developing a variety of safe-water solutions, several businesses working toward turning organic waste into affordable charcoal briquettes, and SpringHealth, which is addressing the problem of contaminated drinking water.

If governments and nonprofits can’t solve global poverty, can businesses? It might take all of the above – plus you and me, ordinary citizens.

Hello again, woolly mammoths!

woolly mammoth

Woolly mammoths roaming the countryside, heath hens back in the fields, passenger pigeons swooping around in great clouds? Believe. Believe, specifically, in de-extinction.

De-extinction is not to be confused with Jurassic Park. It’s also not just dreaming, when the dream starts with noted visionaries Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand. The two spoke recently at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, on the intriguing – and now very real – possibility of rescuing extinct species through genetic sequencing. Among the ethical questions they get most often, the two said is, “Aren’t you playing God?” And the answer is, no. “We are finding out the problem we caused, and un-causing it.”

God knew what He or She was doing all those millennia ago; but not all creatures were created equal. Some species have fallen victim to other species, ice ages and natural calamities, but the worst of the problems have come from – guess where – humankind. Thick formations of migrating passenger pigeons, once the most abundant bird in North America, were common up until the late nineteenth century. But their habitat and food were lost to deforestation, and finally they made too-easy targets for the shotguns that dropped them by the billions. Martha, the last known passenger pigeon (named in honor of First Lady Martha Washington) died on September 1, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo. Heath hens met a similar fate largely through their attraction for the dinner tables of humankind.

Phelan and Brand set out to un-cause these tragic losses to the planet through the Revive and Restore project, a part of their ambitious Long Now Foundation. Among Brand’s successful ventures are the Whole Earth Catalog, launched in 1968, organizations including The WELL, and books most recently including Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Phelan occasionally refers to herself, accurately, as “a serial entrepreneur.” The two married in 1983, and live on a tugboat in Sausalito CA.

Phelan and Brand devoted much of their Commonwealth Club presentation to an explanation – partly through sophisticated scientific/technological data and partly in down-to-earth lay language – of how the woolly mammoth might indeed be roaming the earth again in a matter of a few years. DNA, which reveals details about hair, fat cells and much else, has been recovered from frozen specimens of the long-extinct species and can now be sequenced with relative ease and speed. “The cost of sequencing is rapidly going down,” Phelan said. And scientific/technological expertise continues to go up. The final phase of woolly mammoth restoration will involve implanting a properly sequenced egg into the ancient animal’s closest living relative, the Asian elephant. And “we could get the woolly mammoth back in three years.”

For this writer, a hopelessly right-brained (myth or not) Art major, much of the scientific explanation defied easy understanding. But the possibility of taking a trip to the Arctic Circle to see these wondrous creatures actually walking the earth again?

Magical.