A Perfect World VII: Encore

A Perfect World VII

Author Encore: Debra Trione

Debra Trione began work on " A Perfect World " in 1997 after serving on the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. During the 1980s she worked at Harvard University Press and as an editor at Harvard Medical School.

Astrobiology Magazine Question (Q): How did so many successful people in their professions approach the challenge of what many might fear more than public speaking: free-hand drawing? Did any of the interviewed leaders refuse to take up the paint set?

Debra Trione Answers (A): This assignment was scary and difficult for all the public figures I interviewed, and I give them a lot of credit for actually taking the plunge and going through with it. There were a few people who could describe their perfect world with great insight and candor, but who refused to pick up a paint brush.

Veteran broadcaster Sam Donaldson, Jack Valenti, (President and CEO of the Motion Picture Association), and Carol Bellamy, (CEO and Chairman of UNICEF) were in that group.

The book’s publisher decided not to include those interviews in this book (to my chagrin), since I didn’t have a picture to accompany the interview text.

Q: The cover art was a drawing by Nobel Laureate Robert Richardson, who is colorblind. He drew the image of Earth from space in vibrant blue. s When you choose Richardson’s painting for the cover of a book on the future and visionaries, was this a case akin to Beethoven’s talent, as only better because it was from a deaf musician?

A: I think Richardson did a fabulous job of painting the earth from space, despite his color-blindness.

Robert C. Richardson is Floyd R. Newman Professor of Physics, director of the Laboratory of Atomic and Solid STate Physics, and vice provost for Research at Cornell University. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics (along with David Lee and Douglas Osheroff) in 1996, for research on liquid 3He. "I’m a very poor freehand graphic artist, and I’m also color-blind, so those are a lot more colors that I wanted to consider.When I’m painting here is the planet Earth, and I’m going to show an ocean and an atmosphere. The important thing is that the atmosphere is livable, the oceans are clean, and life on Earth is thriving. That’s the first thing that occurred to me–the image of the Earth from space." -Robert C. Richardson, Nobel Laureate (1996)
Credit: Richardson, © Trione, Andrews McMeel Publishing

And his painting makes a very attractive cover. When I said "Paint a picture of your ideal world," people interpreted that assignment in a wide variety of ways.

Richardson’s painting, which is so familiar and so recognizable as the Earth, seems to say: This is a perfect world–now let’s protect it.

Q: One can count almost 20% as scientists. Many might regard science as not in the realm of ‘powerful’ people like your title mentions, and particularly Neil Tyson regards not feeling too powerful in the face of the size of the universe as an important prescription for the future. Probably only Jimmy Carter’s presidential vitae (as a nuclear engineer) ever makes casual mention of any scientific training. Any contrasts in how much the utopias might depend on science breakthroughs, and would be arbitrated outside science?

A: A very thoughtful question.

Obviously, scientific breakthroughs can make an enormous differences in terms of increasing the carrying capacity of the earth, and improving the quality of life.

But just as important are the economic/distribution issues and regulatory/political issues that control how technology is disseminated and used.

Knowledge and understanding can be very powerful things, and in fact, no one can be very powerful without them. But the way technology is used is often controlled by forces far outside the realm of science.

Q: Was there a moment personally where someone kind of gave you a frightening picture or answer? And one of something unbounded on the other side?

A: I interviewed Bernadine Healy, then president and CEO of the American Red Cross, less than a month before 9/11.

When I asked her to describe two or three things she hoped would be true about the world in 50 or 60 years, she said something like: I just hope the world is here in 50 years, which I found alarming.

Then she qualified that to say that she believed that terrorists would attack us here in America in the near future.

That startled me at the time, but in hindsight it was a mild statement, compared to what actually happened.

Q: Since you started the project in 1997 to 2001, could you see any changing tides in progress based on either the words or pictures?

A: Most of the interviews were done before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And yet, even back then, many of these national leaders identified radical religion as a powerfully negative force in the world. A few leaders–Bernadine Healy, Dan Goldin, and Norman Augustine for instance– identified terrorism as a rising threat. They seemed to know it was coming.

Daniel Goldin served as chief administrator of NASA for nine years, beginning in 1992. : "I don’t know that it relates to what I said, but I do know what I want to draw. I would say the last time I did this was maybe in kindergarten or first grade. There’s the final frontier! There’s the ocean, there’s the land (The brown represents the land). And at the center of our own planet, there’s the hot core. Now here’s a rocket with a nice rocket trail. These are supposed to be the suns, and I put lots of planets around them. Now these are very happy planets, because they don’t have any responsibility. I want to show that there are loads of other worlds out there, dead worlds and live worlds. As people left Europe to come to a new world, as they left Polynesia to populate the Pacific, there was opportunity. I’d like to know that there’s opportunity out there, too. And I’d like future children to be able to take that trip and open the frontier to create opportunities. And then we continue the expansion. That is my philosophy of life." -Dan Goldin, former NASA Administrator
Credit: Goldin, © Trione, Andrews McMeel Publishing, [ copyright 2002, reprinted with picture by permission]

I interviewed John J. Phelan Jr., the recently retired chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, in his apartment just a mile from the trade center site, only 9 days after the attack. And not surprisingly, his top priority was homeland security.

But actually, I was surprised by his ability–given the circumstances–to focus on other important matters as well. I give him a lot of credit for being able to use New York City as his template for a perfect world, and to paint such a happy, civilized picture of the city.

Q: Running through many of the comments is the fear of overpopulation, but Richard Klausner remarks that ‘there is really no such thing as a world without disease; it’s just not biologically possible’. So any running interpretations from the collection that seems to resolve these paradoxes of what might promise dramatic life extension with a kind of measure for quality of life too?

A: The population issue is rife with paradoxes. When I heard from Richard Klausner that he was concerned about overpopulation I asked him to square that with his determination to eradicate disease, since prolonging life will only exacerbate the population problem.

That’s when he came up with the statement you’ve mentioned above about there being no such thing as a world without disease. (By the way, Richard Klausner is now the Executive Director for Global Health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, since 2002)

I also asked many of the leaders what they would do if they were offered an extra 50 years of life.

Much to my surprise about half of them said they absolutely wouldn’t take it, that our lives are long enough already. The other half said yes they would take it, but only if they could be healthy and active during those extra 50 years. Otherwise not.

Q: Overpopulation-of all the issues that a nation governed by local politics can solve- that one seems to rank pretty low in most public surveys compared to, say, education or health care. Since you served on the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, any thoughts about why the influential and powerful see that one so clearly, but can’t marshall a constituency to do anything about it?

A: Not all leaders agree about this issue, of course. Leaders who are knowledgeable about biology and ecosystem science almost universally see overpopulation as an imminent threat.

But anyone focused on economic trends will tend to advocate growth in all its form, including growth in population. (This is particularly true since many economic indicators, like the GDP, do not figure in the long-term loss of carrying capacity or ecosystem damage that is exacerbated by overpopulation.)

It is also very hard for rich Americans who consume such a disproportional percentage of the world’s resources per-capita to condemn poorer nations for having too many children.

Also, of course, the ever-present issue of abortion, with all its religious implications, hangs like a cloud over every discussion of population.

Q: The tapestry of words and pictures in A Perfect World, seems to span a huge spectrum: in paraphrase, "No More War", from Norman Schwarzkopf, to Arun Gandhi’s "anger is a very good emotion to drive us." And from a chorus of utopias, to Jim Wallis: "I don’t believe in utopias", presumably because of Desmund Tutu’s warnings not to be a ‘prisoner of hope’. In pulling together their words, how did you find their worldview contrasted to the drawings? Would the art critic in you find them, on the most part, more innocent and unguarded than the verbal predictions?

A: Yes indeed. The main point of the perfect-world project was to get the national leaders I interviewed to express their goals and ideals in an unusually candid, unguarded way. I was looking for something fresh and spontaneous, something that hadn’t been filtered through their PR department.

Neil De Grasse Tyson is Frederick P. Rose Director, Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History (since 1996); Visiting Research Scientist, Department of Astrophysics, Princeton University (since 1994). "I have a simple image in my head. I was born and raised in New York City, so I’m a city person. But the universe calls. My first time in the Hayden Planetarium I was nine years old, and along the periphery was the Manhattan skyline and Central Park in front. I will not stand in denial of civilization, or technology, but I will also not deny myself the simple pleasure of looking up. That’s what binds us to all humans. To me there’s something peaceful about this image. It’s the juxtaposition of nature, civilization, and the universe. It’s my life!" -Neil de Grasse Tyson, Director Hayden Planetarium
Credit: Tyson, © Trione, Andrews McMeel Publishing, [ copyright 2002, reprinted with picture by permission]

One way to do that, I thought, was to ask them to express those goals in a new and unexpected medium.

Since the leaders I interviewed were all fairly inexperienced with the medium of paint, the images they made of their goals and ideals had to be very simple. When they talked about a perfect world, they could pontificate on a myriad of issues, but when they picked up a paint brush they had to be succinct.

Out of the full range of qualities, attributes and priorities that they might associate with a perfect world, they had to determine which one was most essential. And what was the most direct way to express that?

The painting assignment, which I sprung on them with little or no warning, turned out to be a big challenge to all of these leaders, and every one of them sat for a long period of profound silence before he or she picked up a paint brush.

Psychologists have told us for decades that the mental images we associate with our goals and ideals motivate us in powerful, sub-conscious ways. If mental images are powerful motivators, then the mental images held by powerful people ought to be matters of public concern.

I wanted the paintings I collected from these influential newsmakers to reveal something new about the ideals and aspirations that were driving the very people who in turn are driving this nation of ours.

I wanted to see the ‘visions’ of our leaders expressed by them for the first time ever in real visual terms.

Q: What guided how you selected the diverse leaders to interview?

A: I wanted to interview a diverse sampling of very accomplished leaders from both genders, from several races, many professions, and with diverse political and social perspectives. I also tried to interview individuals whose public agendas were at odds, such as Patricia Ireland and Gary Bauer.

Q: Among those interviewed, who would have been the youngest and oldest? Any differences notable in how they viewed the fifty year horizon of your theme?

A: One might have expected that the older they were the more pessimistic they would be, but that turned out not to be true.

There were optimists and pessimists, both young and old. Harold Bloom (in his late 70s) and Deb Callahan (in her late 20s) were pessimists, while Dudley Herschbach (mid-70s), Alice Rivlin (late-70s), and Candace Gingrich (early-30s) were optimists.

Q: Who was one person you would have most liked to include, but for whatever reasons, couldn’t?

A: I guess I would have liked to get an interview with George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld, or Condi Rice, but the truth is that I probably would not have been able to elicit much soul-searching, candor or spontaneity from the famously guarded leaders of this administration.

Author Profile: Debra Trione began work on "A Perfect World" in 1997 after serving on the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. During the 1980s she worked at Harvard University Press and as an editor at Harvard Medical School.

Related Web Pages

A Perfect World I: Tyson
A Perfect World II: Richardson
A Perfect World III: Goldin
A Perfect World IV: Venter
A Perfect World V: Hendricks
A Perfect World VI: Fuller
A Perfect World : Booksite
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