Dr. Larry Brilliant and Metta Spencer had a phone conversation on December 28, 2017 about the interplay between soul work and social activism. After years as a hippie doctor and then a seeker in an ashram in India, Dr. Brilliant became a leader in the campaign that eradicated smallpox. More recently he has led the Skoll Global Threats Fund in its work to reduce five global threats.
METTA SPENCER: After reading your autobiography, Sometimes Brilliant, I wanted to talk with you. It really resonated. I’m 86 and, like you, I spent a lot of time doing work on myself back in the sixties and seventies. So today I want to discuss two quite different topics. Mainly I want to explore the pragmatic aspect of running an organization like the Skoll Global Threats Fund. But the other topic is your own “soul work,” so to speak. I was struck by how your personal search for meaning has been integrated with activism. You seem to have merged your inner and outer work, which I can’t do. I can only do one or the other. For many years my quests were introspective—into spirituality and therapy—but then, like a toggle-switch, I flipped over into activism—trying to repair the world. I don’t know whether we have time to explore both topics.
LARRY BRILLIANT: You say that you can’t do both. You mean you can’t do both at the same time? Because you are doing both, sequentially.
METTA: Right. I can either think in pragmatic terms—get the job done—or I can look at the larger picture without—well, I don’t like to say “without attachment,” but you know what I mean.
Let me give an example from today. I’ve been active in various peace organizations for many years, but now I am stepping down from leadership roles. I find it’s not going very well with one of the most important groups. Either I have to try to fix the problem or take the advice of a friend of mine who wrote me this morning to say, “You need more sleep. Just let our organization go. Think of it as a species. All species die and If our peace group dies, that is just the way the universe is.”
I was horrified because I think it’s my duty to do my best to keep the work going. The non-attachment that he advocated is shocking to me. I wrote back to him telling him to pull up his socks and get back to work himself.
LARRY: (Laughs) I understand. Let me ask you: When you are doing both inner work and outer work sequentially, is the choice of what you do in the outer work informed by the inner work?
METTA: Not much. For about 45 years I did mostly inner work and since then it’s been mostly outer work. I’m a terrible meditator, and I don’t have much patience for anything that interferes with getting the job done in very material terms.
Oh look! You’ve already become my guru and we’ve only known each other five minutes! (We laugh.)
LARRY: You’ve happened upon an area that is core to everything I do because of my guru. I was seeking a Sanskrit name like all the other girls and boys who came to him, I wanted to get a name, a mantra, I wanted his career guidance and to be pointed in a direction and told what to do. But he didn’t tell me to meditate; he didn’t give me a name initially. He told me to be a doctor (because I was already a doctor) but just to change it like fifteen degrees. Instead of treating patients, to treat communities. And conveniently, there was already a branch of public health—epidemiology—that I didn’t know about. He kind of tweaked the arc of my life. He said, “Do this thing—help eradicate smallpox—because your yoga, your dharma, your practice is working in the world to try to make it better. And the kicker came, just as you said right now, the kicker was, “You must do it without attachment.”
Of course, that’s a very perilous word. Does it mean “not being attached to the results”?—which is the way it’s translated very often. You know: Go and do your work. Build your house; don’t be attached to whether it’s in a flood plain or whether it gets hit by lightning or whether the nails worked. Or build a peace organization like yours and don’t be attached to whether it exists.
Or does it mean attachment in the sense of enlightened self-interest? “Don’t be attached to you who are doing it; don’t claim the success.”
The word “attachment” means both of those things in English. It means don’t be attached to the results and don’t be attached to your gain, however subtle or nuanced it might be. It means both, but I can’t go into a village where children are dying of smallpox and not be attached to saving their lives and stopping smallpox. I can’t do that. I can certainly be willing to give up claimed credit—most recently because I don’t deserve any. But by the way, that’s just a better way to be. Maybe that points the way for you to go back in to doing it without a drum and a fife and a bugle.
METTA: My task at the moment, because I am old, is to give my work away. But people don’t particularly want it.
LARRY: Well, you can give your work away but when you give away your advice—as in “giving advice”—it’s like love. It doesn’t really go away. You give love and there’s more of it. You give advice and when it’s taken, both the giver and the receiver benefit.
METTA: Hmm. Well, yes. Thank you. And let’s decide what we want to talk about because I kind of stumbled into this area, which is the larger question. I think I read that this Skoll Global Threats Fund is closing. I want to know about your part in it.
LARRY: Sure. When we got your message it said you heard about us through Jeff’s sister.
METTA: Yes. She’s a friend of mine.
LARRY: A wonderful person. Jeff’s whole family is wonderful. He is consolidating his non-profit work. He had many non-profit organizations that included the Skoll Foundation, the Skoll Fund. Global Threats was another. In the end he had to go to maybe a half-dozen different board meetings four times a year. If you multiply six times four you have an undoable number of meetings.
Global Threats was established to be a five- or seven-year organization. He gave us $100 million to try to go after five of the biggest threats all at once. We’re now almost nine years old and we still have some money left over. We’re not ending Jeff Skoll’s interest in Global Threats; we’re spinning off one “threat” and merging the rest back into the Skoll Foundation. I retired as the CEO of the Skoll Global Threats Fund nearly three years ago and now I’m like you—I serve on boards. I have served as the chairman of the board after resigning as CEO. As of the first of January we will have transitioned so that four global threats—nuclear war, the Middle East, the Climate War, water—will all be re-absorbed into the foundation, which will be doing some of this “threatology” work. And pandemics alone will be launched as a new entity. I’ll be the chairman of that work, which is called “Ending Pandemics.” It’ll be one of the largest Skoll grantees and Jeff won’t have to go to all those board meetings.
I love that guy. We need the Jeff Skolls of the world, and others such as the Marc Benioffs and the Laurene Powell Jobs of the world—people who have been lucky in business and are giving it all back. This is a funny moment in history. We have a loathsome administration in Washington and then we have some incredibly kind and generous people in the private sector. Not all of them are, but enough of them to make me feel hope and optimism.
METTA: Right. I have never met Jeff Skoll but I was impressed when I discovered what he was doing by producing films. It was at the end of a project that I was working on—to see how culture can be influenced by story-telling. I was thinking particularly of serial television dramas like The West Wing, or in my case, Northern Exposure.
LARRY: That show was amazing. Very formative for me too.
METTA: Northern Exposure inspired me to write a book about the value of broadcasting stories illustrating good solutions to political issues. I spent a lot of time in Russia—in fact, I wrote a book called The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, based on 28 years of interviews. One of my conversations was with Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of Yabloko, the only party there I can imagine voting for. He mentioned the difficulties of Russian political culture—that they can’t imagine good solutions to political problems. I said, “It would be great to have a TV show like The West Wing set in the Kremlin with a good Russian president and his staff addressing the events that were live at that moment in the country and showing what a wise president would do.”
Yavlinsky said, “If you can make such a show, I’ll quit the party and spend the rest of my life working on it. It would be the most valuable thing to do!” (We laugh.)
LARRY: Metta, maybe you know my friends Michael and Dulce Murphy. He’s the founder of Esalen, the retreat centre. He and his wife Dulce have been going to Russia working on peace for over 40 years. And I’m trying to remember the name of this wonderful television personality in Russia.
METTA: There’s a guy named Posner.
LARRY: Yes it is! It is Posner! Exactly! (We laugh.)
METTA: As if there were only one wonderful television personality in all of Russia!
LARRY: I met him at these John Denver events near Aspen. He speaks perfect English because he grew up the son of diplomats in New York, but he disengaged from everything US for twenty or thirty years.
METTA: I was interested in John Denver when I was an est person. Were you ever an est person?
LARRY: Ah! No, but I know a lot of the people who were. I know Werner [Erhard]. He was fond of the Karmapa, who was one of my teachers. I was on the board of the Karmapa monastery, which is called Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, with Werner. He had a profound effect on people—good and bad.
METTA: Good and bad are present in every human heart. Sometimes, instead of blending together as usual and making a middling personality, they remain distinct, contradictory parts of the self. I think Werner was one such person.
LARRY: Yeah, now that I’m older and can look back on that experience, I think of the hundreds of thousands of people that he helped awaken to something more than their day-to-day life. The things that he did that appalled me still appall me. I meet people every single day who say to me something like, “I would have gone on being a doctor or carpenter or lawyer or whatever, but then I took est and my interests changed forever.” Or “I’m a better person,” or “I had to look at this.” ?He certainly had an impact. Still does, I’m told. He’s quite alive.
METTA: I’m one of those people who feel grateful to him. The peak epiphany of my life was at 4:00 AM in a Manhattan hotel room after hearing one of his talks when finally the pieces came together for me. I used to have terrible depressions. In one moment I saw how I had been mistaken and knew that I wouldn’t ever be depressed again. That’s not to say that life isn’t tough sometimes but I saw what I had misunderstood before. It came from that one preceding day with him in a room with 5,000 people. Anyway, why are we talking about him?
LARRY: Because we’re trying to talk about how we balance doing well and being good. Not being well and doing good, but doing important work in the world and trying to be good.
There have been a number of experiments in the West after that moment when the East and the West were able to get together. These two halves of the human experience had been separated by thousands of miles and months of travel. Different languages. The British put a mask on India and the Chinese put a different mask on the West. One was demonic; the other was economic. But now you’ve got things out in the open. It’s possible to live in both worlds, walk on two legs.
I’ve had some of the funniest experiences. I was once invited to speak at the Pentagon on “Asymmetrical Threats to American National Security.” Of course, if you ask me about threats to American national security, I say that our failure to bring up the public health system in the rest of the world allows circumstances in which novel viruses jump from animals to humans and become pandemic. This is a perfect example of how self-interest requires altruism and philanthropy. We need to improve the public health services in Liberia and Sierra Leone or we’ll get Ebola. We need to improve public health services in Indonesia or Thailand or else we’ll get swine flu or highly pathogenic avian influenza.
To me, working in that world, it’s a metaphor, an allegory. We can only help ourselves if we understand we’re all in it together. Of course, insofar as you do something for the least amongst us, you do it for God, and so for me it’s easy to bring these two things together. I see my work on pandemics in a spiritual context.
METTA: That came through in your book.
LARRY: If we’re interested in making America great again, the best way is by making the rest of the world great. As a Canadian — you are Canadian, right?
METTA: Dual. US and Canadian.
LARRY: Let me speak to the Canadian part. When I was in Asia, traveling with a bunch of hippies in a bus, some of my friends on that bus were American, some Canadian, some Swiss. When the Swiss kids got sick the Swiss embassy just flew somebody out from Geneva or Zurich to take care of them. When Canadians got sick, the embassies took care of them with money and tickets home. When the Americans got sick, they were on their own.
My Canadian friends are so proud of being Canadian—especially with Trudeau—and we Americans are so ashamed of Trump. (We laugh.)
METTA: That’s true. And that reminds me of Russia. I had to watch my manners there to avoid sounding like an American or a Canadian gloating. They tend to be sensitive because we are so proud of having democracy and freedom and “you poor schlumps don’t.” I tried to avoid that, but nowadays, as an American, I too feel embarrassed. I understand what it’s like from their point of view—being ashamed of having a country that doesn’t work very well. It would be terrible to have to choose between Putin and Trump. I might even choose Putin.
LARRY: The reason I mentioned that story about the Pentagon is that I went there with an imposter syndrome—asking, “Why am I here?” — and thinking that I would be lecturing them on what the real threats are to democracy: that we have to have more love and more generosity. But when I got there, one of the assistant secretaries of defence said, “Do you know why we brought you here?”
“I said, ‘No, but I was wondering.’”
He said, “Because you lived in an ashram in the Himalayas with Neem Karoli Baba, of course.”
METTA: What! (We laugh.) What did he want from you?
LARRY: He wanted to talk about living in an ashram with Neem Karoli Baba. He said, “You think that I’m just a soldier? Don’t you understand that I’ve got a soul and a heart and a yearning for truth?” I had seen them from my sixties perspective, when my generation made the worst mistake of all. We conflated the war in Vietnam, which we hated, with the warriors—who were just like us, except they weren’t lucky enough to get a deferment or move to Canada or, in my case, be a doctor.
METTA: Well, I have to say, I never before heard of the Pentagon inviting anyone in for a spiritual exhortation.
LARRY: I don’t think he expected my lecture in the Pentagon auditorium to be a spiritual exhortation, although I began it by saying, “Thank you for inviting me back to the Pentagon. This is my second visit.” I looked out into the auditorium, blinded by the lights on the brass on so many generals. I said, “The first time, I came with 200,000 screaming anti-war young people and you wouldn’t let us in.” I waited one second—that most difficult second when you’ve said something and you wonder. And then one general stood up and started applauding and they all stood up too. This was cool!
METTA: Really! Well, they tell me that the Pentagon is the place to go to find out about global warming. Unlike the Trump administration, they have been looking for years at the national security effects of global warming.
LARRY: They have to. I have been told that forty percent of the overseas budget of the Pentagon is spent moving fossil fuels from one place to another. And they have to defend land which is beachfront property.
METTA: Say that again. Forty percent?
LARRY: Forty percent of the overseas budget of the Pentagon is spent on moving oil (which is very heavy) from point A to point B. Even in the Afghanistan War when we were relying on Pakistan to allow free passage to our convoys, what was in those convoys? Oil and gas to move the soldiers. Yes, there’s food but food doesn’t weigh as much. Yes, there’s arms, but there aren’t that many arms. So one of the biggest logistical challenges in the forward deployments of any army is oil and gasoline.
And look at the land that they’re protecting. The Syrian War began as a drought and as food shortages and that festered into anti-government organizations. Look at Darfur. It was a drought when the lake dried up and the fight began over water.
Look right now at one of the biggest threats in the world. Yes, Korea is a huge threat. The relationship between US and Iran is a threat. The relationship between Israel and Palestine is a huge threat. But I would argue that one of the biggest threats is the melting Himalayas. The water from the Himalayas is fought over by three nuclear-armed countries: Pakistan, India, and China. Climate change is of course a threat to world security which the Pentagon well understands, even if the politicians do not.
METTA: And climate change is partly caused by weapons, which emit greenhouse gas. The Kyoto Accords exempted the armed forces from having to report on military emissions. Under the Paris agreement, there is no automatic exemption for military CO%(=subscript)2, but nor are there any provisions covering military compliance one way or another. Each State still decides whether to cut its military emissions. I’m very interested in Paul Hawken’s book, Drawdown.%
LARRY: Paul’s a good guy.
METTA: I’m trying to promote his work here in Toronto. An interviewer asked him whether he had omitted anything from his list of 100 ways to limit climate change. He said: Yes, war prevention. He couldn’t get the numbers to calculate how much effect military equipment and weapons have on global warming but he says it has to be one of the big sources.
Of course that’s true. Even in peacetime, just maintaining an army, flying the planes, running those tanks, and moving soldiers around emits CO%(=subscript)2.%
LARRY: It’s huge. And readying ourselves for the possibility of war has an adverse effect on our psyche and makes us behave in short term ways.
METTA: And makes war more likely. The Romans had the expression, “If you would have peace, prepare for war.” That’s not true. If you prepare for war you’re much more likely to get war. One of our Canadian researchers, Alan Newcombe, proved that was the case.
LARRY: I would say: If you would avoid war, prepare for peace. Because until you can envision what peace looks like—the prosperity of peace, the love of peace, the kindness of peace— if you don’t believe that you can have that, it’s much easier to go to war. Particularly my friends in Israel. They’ve forgotten what peace could look like and they’re more apt to defend themselves against yesterday’s war than to think about tomorrow’s peace.
METTA: True. Let me go back to what I can learn from your experience. My current project will bring together experts and NGOs from six different global threats: war and weapons (especially nuclear); global warming; famine; pandemics; massive radiation exposure from, say, a reactor explosion; and cyber attacks. I diagram them as six circles with arrows showing the effect each one has on other ones. It’s a real snarly ball of tangles because everything affects almost everything else. You can’t solve one of these problems without paying attention to one or more of the others.
LARRY: That’s right. Your friends at University of Toronto Business School published a paper titled “wicked problems.”
METTA: We’re dealing with a system. And indeed there are some other things that need to be handled in order to handle the system. For example, if nations reduce their armies by, say, eighty percent, it will reduce global warming and several other negative things.
But people will say, we need security. How can we be secure without an army? And we’ll say, the UN will come and protect you if any country attacks. And they’ll say, “Have you taken a look at the UN lately? It’s controlled by five states with vetoes.”
So we’ll have to democratize the UN and give it the means to defend a population that’s under threat. It will need a financing system. To win over political support to it globally, we may need to reduce inequality and make the corporate world more accountable. Several major political innovations may be required in order to reduce the six big existential threats to humankind. That’s a tall order. (We laugh.)
So when I discovered the Skoll Global Threats Fund I wanted to talk with you, because you’re doing five things at once, and we’re attempting six things at once of which three are the same—nuclear, pandemics, and climate change. How did you approach this? Were you addressing primarily experts and people in positions of power, or were you also attempting to stimulate public engagement among NGOs and ordinary citizens?
LARRY: I’ll tell you how the threats came to be chosen and then what our job descriptions were. Jeff had done work on social entrepreneurship. Sometimes I’d laugh and tell him that he’d made it safe for mothers and fathers to tell their kids to be a lawyer, a doctor, or a social entrepreneur. The world is now safe for a person who starts an organization devoted to ending female genital mutilation or stopping slavery or getting toilets cleaned up in India or stopping overfishing.
Then Jeff came to visit me in India. We spent a lot of time traveling. I took him to my ashram. We saw children drinking water out of a stream and 100 yards upstream some other child was defecating in it. I showed him where smallpox had been eradicated.
When he came back he said: “Despite all the work that I’m doing, trying to tell the great stories and work on social entrepreneurship, there are five things that could happen that could bring humanity to its knees and ruin all the good work that everybody’s trying to do.” That led to his naming pandemics, global warming, water, nuclear (and now we should add other weapons, including cyber and weapons of mass destruction), and regional disputes like between Israel and Palestine. So that’s how they were articulated.
Like your “Science for Peace,” we asked what can be learned from data and from science. They all had very different solutions. Pandemics in a way is the easiest. There’s no organized lobby saying, “We want more pandemics!” (We laugh.)
METTA: But there are probably some people in a lab somewhere inventing microbes to be used as weapons.
LARRY: That’s true and I can tell you that Russia was probably the most evil in that way. I had a conversation with President Gorbachev in San Francisco in 2007 about how Soviets had worked to create a super-smallpox weapon made of half smallpox and half Ebola, to be used against America. It was a very detailed conversation, but there were no fans of pandemics the way there are fans of fossil fuel, demanding more drilling and more oil.
It’s possible to deny climate change and still be a leader in some bizarre way. We see that in the White House now. But you can’t really deny that microbes cause pandemics—though the vaccine denial movement may have a good beginning there.
There is an industry that benefits from making nuclear weapons, but it’s not going to be as effective in blinding people to the dangers of nuclear weapons as the cigarette industry was, for example.
We started off using a science-based approach. Our experts and leaders were scientists. We didn’t do much mass organizing; we were a small foundation. Our $100 million, which is a lot of money, was spread over five or seven years and divided by five threats, so it’s a modest amount of money per year per threat. We tried to find things that would make demonstrable change as open source examples for others to follow.
Our biggest success was in bringing philanthropies together. We brought together funders of anti-nuclear proliferation, funders of climate change activism, and funders of stopping pandemics. And even in the water world, we’ve had a bit of luck too. That wasn’t the case ten years ago. Foundations notoriously were cats, not dogs. They didn’t want to be part of a pack. That’s changed now and I think we played a small role in that.
We also funded some breakthrough experiments in early detection of disease. And ways to combat falsehoods about climate change. And new ways to look at supply chains. And detecting the use of nuclear weapons. Those are our big victories.
I don’t have many regrets but I do have one. We see now that one election can undo all the good that was done, not just by us, but by everybody working in each of these five fields. The world is more dangerous and more unfair because of one election, than what had been achieved by all the good work done before. We’re certainly at greater peril of a pandemic now because there’s almost nobody in the White House who prioritizes ending pandemics. We’re certainly at greater peril from climate change because of the open advocacy of coal and the false propaganda of “clean coal,” which is an oxymoron. We’re certainly at more peril when it comes to issues of global cooperation among countries, whether it’s stopping nuclear proliferation or stopping cyber war.
After the Second World War, when the world saw the skeletons coming out of Auschwitz; when the world looked at the firebombing of Dresden and saw the horror of advanced weaponry; when the world looked at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and saw the effect of nuclear weapons, we walked up to the edge and looked over the precipice. We said, no! We don’t want to ever go there again!
Something happened in the end days of the Second World War. Individuals and countries agreed: we’ll give up a little of our sovereignty and we’ll create institutions that will be centripetal forces, bringing us together. The United Nations. The Security Council. The World Health Organization. The World Bank. FAO. UNESCO. UNICEF. We’ll encourage inter-disciplinary work to bring us together.
There was a great flowering, a period of fifty to seventy years, during which we learned about each other. The East learned about the West, the West learned about the East. We created alliances, trading organizations like NAFTA. Military organizations like SEATO and NATO. These centripetal forces brought us together.
Now we are in an era of centrifugal forces. This fiction of nationalism is really provincialism at its worst. We’re choosing teams, camps, communities, tribes! The tribalism is tearing us apart and the big problems—the six that you work on, the five that we work on—cannot be solved by any kind of nationalism. You cannot solve any global problems by making stronger nations. You can’t protect nations from global problems because we are all so tied together.
The world has changed. There’s no safe place to go. If there were a pandemic, my friends, who think they can go to New Zealand or Aspen, would probably be carrying the virus with them. It’s a fiction to think that nationalism can help you avoid the problems of globalism. We need to work on it together. That’s what I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time thinking about.
It took Trump’s election to make me realize how perilous was the abandonment of the vision that “we are all in this together.” Remember the time of Esperanto as a world language? We wanted to share each other’s history, even the great experiment of the European Union. Even the Soviet Union experimented with different political structures. Now there’s no experimentation. It’s the bully, the strong nation that rules.
So it’s a time of re-grouping and re-thinking. Now we need all that inner work that you and I did and do, and the work that my generation tried to figure out, because these insights will inevitably lead to new political organizations.
METTA: What a wonderful message! Thank you.
Larry Brilliant is a physician, epidemiologist, technologist, and author, and currently heads the Skoll Foundation’s work on pandemics.
Metta Spencer is a retired sociologist and the editor of Peace.