The Sound and The Fury. And the Redemption?

April 26, 2015 § 7 Comments

A scientist’s chamber orchestra project for nature and humanity, a photographer’s beautifully haunting industrial documentary, an architect designer’s alluring vision of future human habitat, and my (humble) reflections.

Fashionably late for Earth Day.


Saturday morning at WholeFoods.  I sit down at a table outside the check-out counters to start writing this article, while my parents go into the aisles for the week’s grocery.  Earlier in the car, they were discussing an added task for this weekend – which other shops to go to next, to get what present for which relative or friend, since my father is going back to China for a month, my hometown being one of his stops.  The task is a rather difficult one these days, as China has every kind of stuff sold in America, then some; but gifts remain a must to bring along with a visit, as good social grace and relationship gestures.  Pushing a green shopping trolley, they continue their discussions.

 I, on the other hand, am preoccupied with my article for Earth Day.  WholeFoods seems like an appropriate venue to kick off the writing while waiting for my parents to go through their chores.  But before I type the first word, that feel-right ambiance also cast a shadow of doubt.  Have I, a California-living, healthy-eating, WholeFoods-shopping “liberal progressive” become too out of touch with reality and too self-righteous?

“Nonsense!”.  The doubt is dispelled as soon as it emerged, with a flashback to my junior year in university in Beijing, when I was invited to a luxury apartment of a woman married to a wealthy Hong Kong businessman.  She was auditing classes at my school to improve her English, and somehow picked me to be her student friend and tutor.  I still remember her name, her charm, her expensive clothes, and my sudden abhorrence to see her wasting water by mindlessly letting the faucet run when making me a Western-style lunch.  When she defended herself “but we pay the water bills”, I rebutted with a stern lecture.  This was before I knew the word “eco-friendly”. This was when I lived on instant noodles.  My outburst was simply out of common-sense instinct.

Apparently after living in the U.S. for 20+ years, I almost got caught up in the peculiarities of American politics.  Out of touch with reality on this is not the ‘Bay Area liberal bubble’, but  the powerful, well-organized “cult of ignorance” in this country.  Think of the world at large, and I would not have asked myself that question.  Or think of China, where there is no “liberal vs. conservative” bickering on this, because pollution and depletion of natural resources are now in your face, so much so they could drive public revolt.  If there is any equalizer between the rich and the poor, the government and the governed, it is the polluted air and polluted water everyone more or less shares.  I do not need to feel self-conscious about Earth Day observance!

The world might not need another Earth Day article.  I have no special power to convert the denialists, and the “choir” does not need my preach.

What is motivating me to write, is stories of people using art and science together to preserve the Planet.  Ever a sucker for beauty, I cannot help expressing my appreciation of their unique arts, and honoring their creators for the beauty embedded in their work, as much as for their cause.

The thoughts triggered by my father’s trip also suddenly makes everything a lot more personal.

So on I go, reoriented from a brief confusion between my Chinese and Californian selves, and determined.

The Crossroads Project

Dr. Robert Davies and collaborators

photo credit: Andrew McAllister | 2015

photo credit: Andrew McAllister | 2015

 A program like this:

Laura Kaminsky: String Quartet “Rising Tide” commissioned by the Fry Street Quartet (2012)

Franz Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in B-flat major “Sunrise” Op. 76 (1796-97) first movement

Leoš Janáček:  String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata” (1923) last movement

 would be familiar style and string of words to any classical music lover.

 But superimpose on it titles like this:

“H2O”, “Bios”, “Forage”, “Societas”, “Re-imagine” and “The Machine”

 One’s brain maybe a bit challenged..

 Then visualize it on a background like this:


Blue Lapidary Water © Rebecca Allan 2012, acrylic on canvas. 40 x 60 inches Collection of Anne-Marie Bazzani

If you cannot imagine what kind of a thing that might be, watch this featurette.

It is the Crossroads Project, a multi-layered performance weaving together chamber orchestra music and speech, accompanied with a visual journey through paintings and photographs, to explore “impacts of society’s unsustainable systems, Earth’s rapidly changing climate, and humanity’s opportunity for a new direction”.

The Crossroads Project is the brainchild of Dr. Robert Davies,  a quantum optics physicist and a rocket engineer (ex-NASA).  A side-intrigue during his research in Oxford University led him to communicating climate science, and now he’s applying behavioral science to that endeavor.  One does not get more “science” than that.

Yet Davies identifies himself as an artist, and he speaks poetically.

 I grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  My fascination with science, I think, was born of the landscape around me — mountains, caves, and canyons; Badlands and dinosaur bones; granite spires and vast midnight skies, untouched by human light.  It was a childhood of timeless days hiking Lookout Mountain and Spearfish Canyon, skiing mountain peaks near my home, gazing skyward through grandfather’s telescope, watching in awe the fearsome power of high plains thunderstorms, and poring over the World Book Encyclopedia that occupied two sacred shelves in the living room bookcase. As my mother’s son, it was also a childhood filled with theater, literature and music. Newton blended seamlessly with Shakespeare, Einstein with Seneca, Darwin with Vonnegut. It seemed perfectly natural to me that these two great human pursuits of science and art somehow completed one another — that they needed one another. In fact, I’m not sure I even distinguished between them at the time;  I just knew that I needed all of it to really connect with any of it.

It would come as no surprise then, that he would think of music when he realized that after five years’ of climate science lectures, he was reaching people only intellectually, not viscerally.  They all get the logic, but continue to behave the same.  He recruited musicians and artists to join him – nationally-recognized composer Laura Kaminsky,  Fry street Quartet at Utah State University, fine artist Rebecca Allan, landscape photographer Garth Lenz – and blends in comfortably with them.  Together, they are experimenting with sounding out Mother Earth musically, and moving people to behave “as if they believe”. 

I have not experienced their performance in person.  For the strength of their music merit, I direct you to read critic Harry Rolnick, who wrote a review of the performance for Concerto Net.

What I can say, is that my air- and cyber- experience of the project sent me to a meditative space where music comes from nature’s own instruments.  The sounds remind me what a miracle it is that we are all here, and how precious life is.

It also sent me back to a distant “place” in memory where I haven’t visited in years, revealing what had seeded my water policing instinct.

Throne at “Hetu’ala City”, Nurhachi Capital, outside Fushun

Throne at “Hetu’ala City”, Nurhachi Capital, outside Fushun

One of the most industrial cities in China with a population of 2 million, where I grew up cannot be more different from Black Hills of South Dakota.  As a hometown, Fushun is a complicated place.  It has high mountains (Chang Bai Mountain Range) with thick woods (40% forest coverage), and six rivers running through.  It has a long and complex history, with the rise and fall of Manchurian-ruled Qing Dynasty, and Russian and Japanese occupations in between.  My school trips and family excursions included nearby forest parks and the largest man-made reservoir in the Northeastern Region; historical sites such as the Yongling Tomb, now a UNESCO Global Heritage site, and Flat Top Mountain Memorial for victims of the Japanese massacre;  and outlying counties such as Xinbin, where we’d sample wild vegetables, wild pheasants and Manchurian customs.

However, the majority of my first seventeen years on earth was spent in Fushun’s urban center, where my family and I lived; and the core of my memories of the city, as well as what dominates Fushun’s reputation, is its heavy industries.  Besides its natural and cultural resources,  Fushun is especially “rich” in- and under- the ground, with coal, oil shale, iron, copper, magnesium, gold, silver, nickel, platinum, isinglass, marble, titanium, and marl resources.  This became both her blessing and her curse.  First highly industrialized for 30 years under the Japanese control, Fushun then became a heavy industrial base of national importance for New China.  She was proudly known as the nation’s “Coal Capital”, but has a lot more industries than just coal – petroleum, chemical, metallurgy machinery, construction materials, aluminum-reduction, automobiles, steel, cement, and rubber.  Everything.

One can easily imagine what gradually followed that Soviet-style industrial and economic glory, decades later.  My hometown became one of the most polluted cities in China.

My parents, both school teachers on a ¥46RMB monthly salary, had a razor sharp focus on education for my sister and I, so that we could one day leave Fushun for a better future.  In order to get us into the city’s best school, they moved us into a 3-storey apartment building converted from an old hotel – the only place they could find in that school district.  By “apartment”, it was really just a room, 24 square meters for the four of us.  Each floor had 15 of these rooms, occupied by 15 families, who shared 2 large communal kitchens with armies of cockroaches, and 3 squat toilets always clogged or flooded.  Going to the “restroom” was a heroic and traumatic daily endeavor for about seven years.  My parents were the only “intellectuals” in the building.  All of our neighbors were factory workers.  My exposure to factories and a demographic heavily represented by factory workers also came from my father’s work covering the City’s industrial sectors for Fushun Daily, after he left teaching to become a journalist.

Despite the vast difference of my upbringing with that of Dr. Davies, his pursuits resonate with me in more ways than one.   Precisely because the skies above me were violently touched by human industrialization,  I would look for twinkling stars to live under as soon as I could afford that choice.  His articulation about art and science strikes a full chord in me, a non-artist non-scientist.  Having observed wealth of all sizes and luxury of all stripes, I have concluded that art and science are the ultimate luxury, both also making the most fundamental differentiation between Man and all other species.

I do not know whether Crossroads Project is successfully changing behaviors, but I do know it has proven one thing – that we are all connected.  In its “tapestry” of life systems and musical notes, they have picked up one thread which is me, woven with yarn from Manchuria.

I am an environmentalist not because I now live in a woodsy canyon and shop at WholeFoods, but because I came from the Coal Capital and tasted poverty.

Industrial Scars

J. Henry Fair

For the second winter break during business school, I went home to visit my parents, still living in Fushun at the time but in a real apartment now, with two bedrooms, a real kitchen and a bathroom where they could shower at home.  By this time, China was on its way to unprecedented economic boom, but the workers of Fushun had started to suffer massive de-facto unemployment, as reform meant inevitable closures of many poorly-run state-owned enterprises. One evening just before sun down, I noticed this sight outside the window and picked up my camera.

Fushun, February 20th, 1997

Fushun, February 20th, 1997

To me this picture encapsulates the industrial-aspect of my hometown memory.

In my mind it also typified all industrial landscapes – grey, and bleak.

That’s why I was stunned and momentarily confused, when I first came across an art series titled “Industrial Scars”.

Waste pond near brown coal fired electricity generating station

You would think you were looking at abstract paintings.  With their deeply saturated colors, intriguing patterns, and textures surely those of brush strokes, on first glance they seem to be provoking viewers’ speculation of what expressionist emotions the artist is conveying.

As soon as you know what these images are, the artist’s intention becomes crystal clear, and you are the one left to process your emotions.  The colors, shapes and textures are not artistic imaginations, but photographic documents of industrial processes and the havoc they wreaked on mountains, rivers and oceans, shot from the air.   The titles of the photographs are straightforward descriptors unembellished with subjective adjectives.  The image above is “Coal Ash – Waste pond near brown coal fired electricity generating station.”

© J. Henry Fair

© J. Henry Fair

Unlike my amateur little picture of the chimneys, these images are strikingly beautiful to look at.  But the information about them makes you sick to the stomach. The vivid colors of this one, are created by “red mud” bauxite waste from aluminium production containing significant amounts of heavy metal contamination, in Darrow, Louisiana.

Photography is soundless, but each one of these images is screaming of silent fury.

Photographer by trade, J. Henry Fair, the artist who created the series, comes from a different background than Dr. Davis, but interestingly what they both share are not only the same mission, but also many common ingredients along their paths, just in opposite configuration and different sequences.  Fair’s successful commercial photography practice is specially strong in portraiture, boasting an especially stellar list of musicians, artists and cultural icons as clients: John Adams, Joshua Bell, Sharon Isbin, Lang Lang, Yo-yo Ma… 

At the same time, Fair has been an ardent environmental activist, and a wildlife conservationist focused on wolves.   His “portraits” of the Earth’s scarring are grounded in science.  He used to consult scientists to identify and understand what he was seeing, but after years of photographing and researching he has become an expert himself, familiar with many of the processes and patterns.

The colors and shapes in the photographs can be explained with scientific precision.

© J. Henry Fair
“When bauxite (raw aluminum ore) is processed into aluminum oxide, or alumina, it’s first bathed in a solution of sodium hydroxide (lye) at very high temperatures. Aluminum compounds in the bauxite dissolve while other compounds remain behind: iron oxides, sand, clay, some titanium oxides and even radioactive materials, such as uranium or thorium. That resulting red slurry (pictured above) has a lethal pH that can easily destroy plant and animal life, inflict chemical burns and even damage airways if the fumes are inhaled“. By Jerry James Stone for the Atlantic. Photo © J. Henry Fair.

His book, “The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis (2011)”, contains 80 color images from Industrial Scars, accompanied by scientific data.

With a few exceptions such as the well-known BP spill, Fair does not finger-point the perpetrating polluters, even though many are secretive about their operations and would do everything possible to keep his camera eye away.  We all play a part in this destruction, he says.  It is our consumption that keeps them in business.

I agree.  As much of a minimalist as I see myself, I probably have consumed nearly every kind of stuff that contributes to these colorful toxins and the dirty air my fellow Fushunians breathe.

William McDonough

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance

While I quietly reflected about art, science and the Planet, a massive public rally was taking place on the other side of the continent, on Washington Monument Grounds in the nation’s capital.  It was the Global Citizen 2015 Earth Day event.  There were music and sound there too, a much louder kind –  a succession of star-studded rock bands, performed to a crowd of 200,000, rocking to “protect the Planet and end poverty”.  The event was not only epic in scale, but also high in profile, featuring global financial, political, cultural and environmental leaders.

Speaking among the dignitaries was William McDonough, an acclaimed green architect and a leading figure in the Circular Economy framework.  He spoke of Cradle to Cradle® and the Circular Economy as leadership opportunities toward a new future.

Cradle to Cradle – a new way of making things altogether.  McDonough represents a cadre of thought and practice leaders envisioning a new world,  a harbinger of a future that is “positive and hopeful in all aspects”, made possible by smart design.  The destructive and carcinogenic nature of Industrial Revolution in the mid 19th century, dominating humanity and the Planet for the next 150 years, was due to lack of design, he argues.    While we have only about 20 years to fix the problem, we can still make it.  His hopeful message goes beyond “sustainability”, which only goes as far as “less bad” .  It is possible to “Design for Abundance”, he promises.  While natural resources are finite, human creativity is endlessly resourceful.  Like in nature, where there is no waste, an industrial economy can also, by design or intention, be restorative.  Materials can flow in two streams: biological nutrients, designed to re-enter the biosphere safely; and technical nutrients, which are designed to circulate at high quality without entering the biosphere.

McDonough is not just a radical thinker. He has been carrying out his vision with real projects around the world for 30 years, through his architecture firm William McDonough + Partners. With German chemist Dr. Michael Braungart, now a long-time partner, he also co-founded McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) for ecological design, assessment and optimization of materials and processes. The sustainable design architecture practice, way ahead of its times when it started, struggled for business in its early days, but now boasts clients from corporations such as Google, GE and Nike, to business and commercial park in the Netherlands, to entire municipalities in China.

NASA Sustainability Base  at Moffett Field, California

NASA Sustainability Base at Moffett Field, California

NASA Sustainability Base

©William McDonough + Partners

Method's Pullman plant. © William McDonough + Partners

Method’s Pullman plant. © William McDonough + Partners

Next Tuesday, April 28th will be the grand opening of a new manufacturing facility of Method, a cleaning products company, designed by WM+P.  Located in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago’s south side, the new plant is the first LEED Platinum Certified manufacturing facility in the sector, featuring, among other things, McDonough’s signature green roof, renewable energy, materials selected to “Cradle to Cradle” protocols, on a site selected for history, community and public transit.  The new facility also aims to bring in 100 manufacturing jobs to Chicago.

At their best, these projects are artful creations built with rigorous science and the latest technology, circulating clean air, water, soil, and power, at the same time elegantly enjoyable and delightful to humans.  His structures are delivering measurable results in energy saved, habitats restored and toxins eliminated.  He is also a master at “wow”ing audiences around the world with his alluring visualizations of future human habitats in two seconds, projected on giant screens.

Concept for Liuzhou, China. © William McDonough + Partners

Concept for Liuzhou, China. © William McDonough + Partners

Writing this section feels like turning an artsy indie film into a Hollywood blockbuster with compulsory happy ending.

©Christine Rousselle

©Christine Rousselle

Will Industrial Revolution really redeem itself in its 2nd Act?  I don’t know for sure.  Human virtues and ingenuity are often hijacked by human greed and stupidity.  They are all in our nature.  Money and politics can be both enabling and disabling.  Every ounce of real progress can be met with an ounce of resistance, and mixed with another ounce of “green-washing” marketing exploitation.  Cultural variances make perfect designs on paper difficult to implement in real life, requiring a whole new level of research and adaptation, or indigenous participation.   And even when we know what we ought to do, behavior change is a sticky matter.  The heaps of trash left behind by the Global Citizen Earth Day extravaganza show we still have a way to go towards “no waste economy” or appropriate behavior, even among believers.

 Still,  I do think that we have no choice but to be hopeful, as the sense of crisis and sense of hope are both needed for survival.   And “continuous improvement” has always been a part of the message McDonough espouses.  We still have a few years left to improve.

*          *          *

By now, my article in honor of environmental art projects has grown much longer with my own stories, taking a whole week to write, missing Earth Day all together.   My father has landed in China.   In a month he will come back with updates and gossips, while his clothes and luggage will be banished to air out for a few days, having been steeped with the smell of soot.  I wish we could have packed some blue sky and clean air for our relatives – that would have been the best present.   But maybe one day, a Method-like plant will come to Fushun in a bow, bringing Fushun workers with new job opportunities without sacrificing their lungs or giving them cancers.  There may even be music in the air, and colorful photos on the wall reminding them that the scars on their city have become a thing of the past.

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§ 7 Responses to The Sound and The Fury. And the Redemption?

  • Jon Castor says:

    Davies’ life growing up in South Dakota sounds magical. A well done (by you) contrast to your life growing up in Fushun. Despite these differences you both have arrived at the same place, a great appreciation of the importance of environmental protection.

    • BeiBei Song says:

      Thank you Jon! Writing this also made me appreciate my parents more, who went through so much for us and gave us a happy childhood in spite of the poor conditions we lived in.

  • Steven Bolstad says:

    I enjoyed reading your essay very much. You are a lovely writer.
    The picture of your mother and father in my mind is perfect.
    Your conclusions to the dilemmas we face are spot on.

  • Charles Hsu says:

    I have been fond of saying “Appreciation of beauty is all that makes us different from the insects. Without it, we would just be large, unusually voracious termites.” I pursued science as a career, and only later realized that what appealed to me in the first place was the beautiful pictures in science books. Your point that art and science are closely related is right on.

  • jiivanit says:

    Reblogged this on Jeevaraj S and commented:

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