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 . .  .”

Big, fat (unfortunate) U.S. secret

You mean, in spite of everything we’ve heard, Obama actually DID GOOD? Amazing.

That’s what Michael Grunwald says in his book The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. He has meticulous, exhaustive data to back up his contention that the stimulus worked, a whole lot was accomplished, but nobody got the word out… and if he’s a voice crying in the wilderness about it at least his book is on the New York Times bestseller list (and in a recent, interesting editorial.)

Grunwald was at the Commonwealth Club a few nights ago, on a panel moderated by Climate One founder Greg Dalton and also including Managing Partner Nancy Pfund of DBL Investors. (Grunwald, in addition to his book-writing adventures, is Senior National Correspondent for Time Magazine.) The panel, titled the Green New Deal, was all about modernizing the electricity grid, cleaning up nuclear waste, improving energy efficiency here and there and saving clean tech jobs… just a few of the things Grunwald says we can thank the $800 billion stimulus bill for having accomplished.

Calling the stimulus “one of the most important and least understood pieces of legislation in the history of the country,” Grunwald says the bill that almost everyone loved to hate  actually “helped prevent a depression while jump-starting the president’s agenda for lasting change. As ambitious and far-reaching as FDR’s New Deal, the Recovery Act is a down payment on the nation’s economic and environmental future, the purest distillation of change in the Obama era.”

Who knew?

Screenshot of Recovery.gov, which went live af...

The power of stories

Do stories really hold the key to the future?

For a storyteller, this is heady stuff. For Jonah Sachs, author of the newly released Winning the Story Wars, it’s serious stuff. The book’s subtitle is Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future and Sachs appeared recently as part of a Commonwealth Club panel, to explain why this is true. The panel was specifically considering environmental stories, part of the Club’s ongoing Climate One program. (The time series below, based on satellite data, shows the annual Arctic sea ice minimum since 1979. More about the Arctic below…)

This time series, based on satellite data, sho...

The panel, moderated by Climate One Founder/Director Greg Dalton, also featured documentary film maker and University of CA, Berkeley journalism professor Jon Else, and Stanford University research associate Carrie Armel

As a power-of-stories example, Sachs cited those of presidential candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush a few years ago. Kerry’s story (you can read a little more about it in Story Wars) managed to come across with a focus on Kerry as a good guy plus some unfortunately dry-sounding proposed programs. Bush and the Republicans managed to project a loftier story about saving the world. Whether you think the world was saved – or endangered – by the Bush presidency, we know whose story won. Sachs quotes James Carville, in Story Wars, as saying the Republicans had a narrative, the Democrats a litany. Litanies don’t seem destined to rule the future.

Moving into the evening’s topic, Sachs spoke about the long and difficult struggle of scientist James Hansen, who spent decades developing data – an impressive list of irrefutable facts – on climate change. Beginning in the early 1980s, Hansen published and promoted his data, certain that people would hear the facts and understand the need for change. Instead, there was mass denial. Hansen has since moved from scientific data to activism – and to the telling of stories in every public arena he can use.

Panel moderator Dalton brought up the story (image) of the polar bear on disappearing ice floes that came to represent climate change. Because not many Americans connect with polar bears; like litanies, the story was easy to ignore.

Is the globe warming? Will switching back to Republican policies save the world? This might be a good time to start telling stories that illuminate truth.

Wyoming: a state of (independent) mind

Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal spoke last night, in a conversation with Climate One founder Greg Dalton, about the future of energy sources and transmission in the U.S.  The event, at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, was titled “The King of Coal” — which Freudenthal arguably is. Use of “clean coal” plus natural gas and renewables such as wind power should all be incorporated into energy policies, he said. And as for regulations, “skip the big mega-statement; pick out a clean energy standard and go do it.”

Freudenthal, who heads a state in which more than half the people (himself not among them) do not believe global warming is real, maintains that once financial benefits of energy efficiency are understood and promoted individuals and corporations will move in this direction. But for now, “solar is not the low-hanging fruit; (green jobs) are mostly wind, and components are made overseas.”

In response to Dalton’s comment about California’s state-wide building codes, Freudenthal said that in Wyoming, “it ain’t gonna happen. The only thing the people of Wyoming resist more than Cheyenne telling them what to do,” he said, “is Washington telling them what to do.”

The wide-ranging talk was filmed for re-broadcast and will be available in podcast.