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Climate Change is the New Small Pox

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Eradicating Small Pox:

Larry Brilliant was on the small team of doctors tasked by the UN to eradicate small pox. He was a long haired hippie hanging out with Wavy Gravy and Ram Das when his Guru in India told him he was the man for the job. He pestered the local WHO office for long enough to be given a clerk job (we was an MD at the time) and the adventure began. Over the next ten years, Larry and 150,000 volunteers went door to door all through India to identify and isolate every single case of Small Pox. Once found, they’d set up a safety ring around the infected person and then proceeded to vaccinate people around the area.

It was an insurmountable task but they did it. An unbroken chain of disease transmission (10,000 years) was finally broken with a young girl named Rahima Banu. Larry was the youngest of a team of doctors who were part of this. Most of them went on to become the heads of health departments or deans of medical schools. Larry took a break and jumped into creating the SEVA foundation – dedicated to curing blindness.

He was the head of Google philanthropy and is now on the board of the Skoll foundation- dedicated to stopping major global threats. On top of that list is Climate Change. It’ll take public will and strong sentiment to come together over this.

Larry is the kind of guy the world needs more of. Are you ready to do your part? Jump in!

Interview Summary:

  • He got to sit with Martin Luther King and marched with him- was arrested with him
  • Was on Alcatraz when native Americans took it over
  • Took a caravan of hippies and went to India- left a Pink Floyd concert in London and drive through Iran and Afghanistan
  • Met his wife met on those buses and are still married 47 years later
  • In 1974 there were 200k cases of small pox
  • 1973 – His Guru told him he should leave the ashram and go eradicate small pox
  • Eventually he was put in charge of the whole Small Pox program at the age of 28
  • The people he worked with became the heads of the CDC, commissioner of health in India, and deans of top medical schools
  • They tasked the leadership to DA Henderson from the US- he acted like a football coach
  • In the first few years, the strategy was not to vaccinate everybody
  • They had to find every case
  • India suppressed the disease and nobody reported it
  • 150000 search workers knocked on doors looking for cases of small pox
  • Rahima Banu- last known case of small pox
  • Formed the SEVA foundation to try to tackle blindness
  • He took Ram Dass, Steve Jobs, Wavy Gravy, The Grateful Dead with some reputable doctors to make this happen
  • Since 1979 they’ve given sight back to over 4 million blind people
  • Became VP of Google philanthropy
  • Founded Skoll global threats fund- works on trying to stop global threats

#Quote by @larrybrilliant via @Pedramshojai

Interview Notes From The Show:

Pedram:

Hey, welcome back. I am hanging out with a fascinating individual today, one of the most interesting histories I’ve read in a while and I hang out with some pretty cool people. Larry Brilliant is a medical doctor, and he is a lot more. He has done his tour, traveled the world, took an Eastern spiritual journey, hung out with the likes of pretty much everybody, and has been tasked, probably from above, with really getting involved in some of the big diseases that have plagued humanity. When such said task showed up, he drew his sword and he charged. This is a fascinating individual, an articulate and awesome man, and I’m really happy to be hanging out with you here. Larry, pleasure, pleasure to have you here.

Larry:

Thank you for welcoming me. I appreciate the kind words. They’re a bit exaggerated, but I appreciate them.

Pedram:

I don’t know if I exaggerated a single thing here, man. You’ve been doing it, and you’re humble, so good for you. Good for you. You started as a medical doctor, and you started studying with Indian guru, and suddenly you found yourself on the front lines of global health. Can we get into some of that history because it’s fascinating how you ended up here.

Larry:

Yeah. I don’t think one goes right from scratch to an [inaudible 00:01:53], at least I didn’t. I took a secure path. When I was in college at the University of Michigan, Martin Luther King came. I had the privilege of sitting with him on a day that not a lot of people showed up at his talk. Everybody who sat with him was changed by meeting him and understanding what his vision was. I marched with him, I was arrested with him, I became a radical doctor. I came out to San Francisco to do my internship around the time that the Native Americans took over Alcatraz. John Trudell, who was one of the leaders, and his wife, Lou, wanted to have a baby on Indian-liberated land, and that sounded cool to me. No doctor was out there and there was no water and no electricity, so I went out and lived on Alcatraz with Native Americans first, and I delivered this baby.

Then after the baby was born and I came back in a Coast Guard boat, it seemed like every television camera on earth was pointed at me as I got off pier 42 or something like that. They all wanted to know what the Indians wanted. I had never met an Indian until three weeks before then. I wound up being asked by Warner Brothers if I wanted to play a doctor in what turned out to be a terrible rock ‘n’ roll rocked doc movie they were making called Medicine Ball Caravan.

On my first day as a doctor on this caravan for this movie, I met an impossible person named Wavy Gravy. My first job was to give him the smallpox vaccination because we were going to go to India and come back. I’d never met anybody like Wavy Gravy before. He’s been my best friend for 40 years. We took a caravan of hippies and we went to India, and that’s how we got to India. It was two psychedelic painted buses going from a Pink Floyd concert in London all the way through Afghanistan and Iran into India. It wasn’t exactly, you got on an airplane and went there.

Pedram:

You had an overland voyage back in the good old days to India in hippy buses.

Larry:

That was the usual career path for medical students in my day.

Pedram:

That’s how I ended up here. Wow. It’s funny, when I was India I met a number of ex-pats who took that journey and stayed. It was just fascinating to see there was this era that was before my time of people who really went there to find spirituality. Some found it and came back, some found it, came back, and did good with it, and some just stayed. A guy who was married to an Indian wife and had family, it was amazing to see these hybrid families from the 60’s that were still alive and well in that culture.

Larry:

Yeah, it was pretty cool. My wife and I lived on the buses together, and we’re still married 47 years later, which improbable. Wavy and his wife [inaudible 00:05:09] are still married almost 50 years, which means that between the two of us couples, we’ve been married 200 years. You don’t think of that as hippies living on a bus when everybody’s sleeping with everybody, or when you’re living in a monastery where nobody’s sleeping with anybody.

Pedram:

You found the perfect happy medium, actually.

Larry:

We did.

Pedram:

Yeah, great. You end up in India. You have medical training which makes you a useful hippy, to say the least. You have a lot of skills that can be used, and you show up in India which is kind of a shit show. Everyone’s sick. There’s leprosy everywhere. There’s smallpox, there’s so much going on. Then what happens? What does the young doctor in you see and what does it spark?

Larry:

There wasn’t leprosy everywhere to be fair. There was leprosy clustered in a few places. There were 200,000 cases of small pox. 1974 is one example. I got started when, in 1973, my guru, who we’d been living with, Neem Karoli Baba, out of the blue one day, he said that I should leave the ashram. We were really happy there. It was in [inaudible 00:06:25]. If you look at a map of India, and China, and Tipet, and Nepal, and you put your finger where Nepal and India and Tibet come together, that’s where our ashram was. It’s in the Kumoan Hills. It’s just wonderful.

I wouldn’t have left voluntarily, but out of the blue he said to me that smallpox is a terrible disease. Of course I had never seen a case of smallpox. He said it was going to be eradicated. I didn’t know what that word really meant. It was incensed with [inaudible 00:06:59], which literally translates from pull out form the roots. He said that I was going to play a role in that, and that he was sending me to go work for the United Nations, which is not all that easy to do, seeing as how I had hair own to the middle of my back and a beard down to me knees. He kicked me out of the ashram and made me to go to the WHO office in New Delhi. They of course kicked me out of WHO. I was an improbable figure to walk in the doors of the diplomatic office. Then he kept on sending me back five, ten, fifteen times, until I think maybe they just gave up and created a position low enough to hire me. I started off as a clerk.

Pedram:

Wow, wow. All the while knowing that you have been tasked, somehow, from above or at least from a guru to have a part in this smallpox play in the eradication, in the uprooting of this disease.

Larry:

The conversation would usually go something like this. I’d meet an American doctor who was a Calvinist or a Methodist, and he’d say, “What are you doing here?” I’d say, “Oh, my guru who lives in the Himalayas said that smallpox is going to be eradicated and that I’m supposed to come work for WHO,” and I’d say, “What are you doing?” He’d say, “I’m the head of the smallpox program in Geneva. We don’t have a program yet because the Indian government hasn’t permitted us to, but it’s okay if you hang around for a while.” I hung around for ten years. Over the course of those years, they would send me out when a Russian doctor didn’t show up. One day I was sent out to work in a district, then when another Czech doctor didn’t show up, they gave me a state to run, and eventually I was left in charge of the whole program, which was, if you think about leaving a 28 year old who’s never seen smallpox in charge of the whole program, it was a little scary for me and probably scarier for them.

Pedram:

That was the state of the world, though, too, right? You have so many people with ailments that we just can’t get to fat enough. If you’re in the right position at the right time, you’re plugging up that hole, so you’ve got to grow into it.

Larry:

These were amazing people, Pedram. D.A. Henderson, who died two weeks ago at 87, who was the global head of the smallpox program, the dean of Johns Hopkins later on, really a redwood tree falling in the forest. He’s the first of great men to die from the smallpox world. Bill Foege, who became the head of CDC and then the head of the Carter Center and advisor to Bill Gates, these were my mentors. Nicole Grasse, a French doctor who had been running the Pasture Institutes. MID Sharma, an amazing Indian man who became the commissioner of health of the government of India. [inaudible 00:10:05], a Japanese doctor, all of them were rewarded the top awards from their own country in the end. The presidential medal of freedom, the French Legion of Honor, the [inaudible 00:10:15], the Japan prize. I was so lucky that this is the group of people who I was tossed in with as the rookie, or just the kid, to learn from.

Pedram:

It kind of reminds me, it’s like when those guys were sitting in Philadelphia signing a Declaration of Independence, did they think 200 years later that they would be the face of the $20 bill? Was it that? Was it just a bunch of people jumping in, trying to make good things happen and then later on all the recognition came?

#Quote by @larrybrilliant via @Pedramshojai

Larry:

Absolutely. I was 15 years younger than any of them, 20, 25 years younger than most of them. There’s something about the first disease to ever be eradicated that called forth entrepreneurs, courageous pilgrims, leaders, it was magical. If you’d walked into the room, none of them would have said, “I’m in charge.” You wouldn’t have known who was in charge. It was such an egalitarian, respectful environment.

I want to say one thing because we live in a moment in time when there’s such racial divisiveness and acrimony and vitriol, harsh speech. There were Russians and Americans and Indians, if you walked into a room of our meetings, you’d see faces that were every color of the rainbow, every religion. 25 different countries in one room at one time, and we worked together as brothers and sisters. The Russians and the Americans particularly, bearing, in the middle of the cold war, their nuclear hatchets and fighting together for the same cause instead of at each other’s throats. We need more of that, and we need to remember that you can’t do that without a functional United Nations or World Health Organization, or global infrastructure. That can’t be done by any one strong man or strong woman or strong crounty.

Pedram:

That’s a very good plug for that global infrastructure. There’s so many people that hate on the UN and say the haven’t done anything right. You stand here in testament to the fact that they organized this party, and they were able to help orchestrate the eradication of a very nasty disease. How did that play out, just so I can get background a little bit. How many years did it take, what does it feel like to eradicate a disease? When do you know that it’s done?

Larry:

Great questions. Let’s start off with we know that smallpox was 3,000 years old. We suspect it was 10,000 years old. Pharaoh Ramses V had facial scars from smallpox. We suspect it was older than that. It was probably the most murderous disease in history. In the 20th century alone, which is only 17 years ago, in the 20th century, smallpox killed half a billion people. That’s not a word-o; that’s 500 million people. That’s more than all the wars, all the genocide, all the [inaudible 00:13:34]. Smallpox killed two dozen kings and queens and emperors. It’s a reminder that no matter how rich you are, now matter how privileged the enclave you live in, you will not survive ahead of your neighbors if there is a virus for which there is no anti-viral and no vaccine.

As we’ve had new pandemics emerging, it reminds us we’re all in it together. Smallpox has an existential, metaphysical component to it in my mind because the eradication of it and the elimination of one form of suffering is something noteworthy in human history. I would say that the beginning of that phase of the smallpox [inaudible 00:14:15] was when a Russian professor of Vladimir [inaudible 00:14:19] came to the UN and the WHO general assembly and proposed that the world try to eradicate smallpox. It was the fourth disease considered to be eradicated. We failed at yellow fever, failed at malaria, failed at yaws. He said, “Let’s try it again.”

The U.S. was a little reluctant, but we finally got on board and they decided to task the leadership to an American because they thought it would fail, and they thought that would be interesting. They got D.A. Henderson. He was like a football coach. He was born in Ohio, and he looked like a football coach, and he treated all of us like star athletes. He trusted us. Whatever we did, he would back us up. The number of time I screwed up is legendary. Every time he would back me up. Nicole Graffe, the same. We had this environment that he really let you do the best job you could, and if you failed, he said it was his fault because he didn’t train you well enough.

Pedram:

Pretty good leadership.

Larry:

The first few years were very difficult because the strategy, which was really created by Bill Faege, the strategy was not to vaccinate everybody, which is what intuitively you think, “Let’s vaccinate everybody.” If you got an outbreak of smallpox in Newark, New Jersey, it does not help to vaccinate people in Tokyo. You have to vaccinate where the disease is. That means you have to find every case. You know India. India suppressed every case of smallpox. Smallpox was, in some corners considered the visitation of a goddess, [inaudible 00:16:04], the cooling mother. People didn’t report smallpox, and why bother to report it? There was no medicine that would help, there was no way to ease the suffering. People doubted the vaccine was effective. Of course, it was very effective.

He decided that the most moral thing to do was to vaccinate people who were living near a case of smallpox. We embarked upon the largest search campaign in history. We visited every house in India, every month for 20 months. We made 2 billion house calls trying to find every case. When I say “we,” I mean 150,000 search workers that came from the government of India, the states of India, WHO, the countries that had participated, and every time we knocked on the door, we showed a picture of child that had smallpox and we said, “Is there any case like this here?” We would find them. We would offer rewards. We would bring elephants and I occasionally would bring an airplane and drop leaflets, get myself into trouble, but we found every case. We put a ring of immunity around every single case.

It took us several years, and then even after the last case, who was a little girl named Rahima Banu in [inaudible 00:17:20] in the bay of Bengal, on [inaudible 00:17:26] island, even after her case, we still kept vaccinating and searching for an extra 24 months to be sure we hadn’t missed anything.

I want to say one thing about this little girl. When she coughed and the viruses that she had in her fell on the dirt of the Island of Bola in Bangladesh, they were cooked by the sun and they died. There was no susceptible person left who was vaccinated for the virus to go. When that happened, the chain of transmission, unbroken chain of transmission going back to Pharaoh Ramses V, was broken. This kind of smallpox, the killer smallpox, [inaudible 00:18:07], became extinct.

Pedram:

Wow.

Larry:

I read about that in my book. When that happened, I was there, or I was there shortly thereafter. A couple of weeks after that. You immediately knew that something magical had happened at that place. This one horrible way for children to die would never happen again. Parents would never worry that their child would be killed by this terrible disease again. You knew that something had happened that was historic, mystical, scientifically amazing. That’s what I think about when I think you asked what does it feel like to be part of an eradication program. I feel like how I felt when I sat in front of this little girl, awed at what had just happened.

Pedram:

Was your guru still alive at this moment?

Larry:

No, he died only several months after he sent me to work for the smallpox program. In those few months, every weekend, I would work in New Delhi, and then on the weekend I would go up to [inaudible 00:19:18], go to the ashram, and he would say, “How is it? How’s the smallpox program going? Are you done yet?”

Pedram:

What’s taking so long?

#Quote by @larrybrilliant via @Pedramshojai

Larry:

Yeah, what’s taking so long? I would get depressed because I had seen so many children dying and he would have me read a [inaudible 00:19:35] or something from the Ramayana, or the Dhammapada, or the Bible, and then I would come back the next week and I would recite what I had read, and he would help me walk through the meaning of non attachment, of not putting my name up there in lights, of not being attached to name and fame. At the same time, he would say, “By the way, you know smallpox really occurs mostly in the springtime, and you have to be very careful about the holy cities because people will come to the holy cities on pilgrimage, but they’re really bringing smallpox so be careful.”

Pedram:

Wow, so he knew a thing or two. He was very dialed in.

Larry:

He was really dialed in. In fact, there’s never been two words better spoken about Neem Karoli Baba than he was dialed in.

Pedram:

Then what happens to a young Larry Brilliant when this moment happens? You have this catharsis of, “Holy cow, we did it.” You just kind of took orders and went off. This became your life, and now what? You’ve hatched this egg. Now where do you go? Did you get lost, or did you find new found direction?

Larry:

That is the big question, and that’s the question that I get asked by people who haven’t had a guru. In a way, we’re in the same boat. It was so much easier for me when I had someone I respected so much. I didn’t know who he was. I don’t know that he was avatar or [inaudible 00:21:12], these are big words. Whatever he was, it was enough for me. When he said that God would help lift one form of suffering from the shoulders of humanity, of course I was incredulous and skeptical.

Then when it happened, I was smitten. I wanted to do it again. I wanted to do it again. If you get a little endorphin hit or a little dopamine hit every time Facebook sends you a notice that somebody’s called, how would it be if your guru called? I wanted that dopamine again. I wanted to climb another mountain, and a lot of us did. A lot of people who worked in smallpox after we’d gone back to our institutions and rejoiced and then got tired and did whatever we did and got bored. We wanted that again.

A group of us came together and we formed the Seva Foundation, and we decided that we would try to tackle blindness. This was a slightly different group. The group that worked at WHO were all professors of epidemiology. They all had PhDs. The people that I started Seva with, we wanted to have that dopamine hit, that high, we wanted that available to people who didn’t have PhDs or wouldn’t have qualified to be a professor of epidemiology. Nicole Grasse, who had been my boss in the smallpox program, she said that we were starting the hippy Red Cross. She was a very improbable candidate to start the hippy Red Cross.

I opened up a roladex that included Ramdas and the people who had lived at my ashram, Steve Jobs who had lived at my ashram, and Wavy Gravy, and my friends from the hog farm, and the Grateful Dead of course. Then all of the smallpox epidemiologists and CDC doctors, WHO doctors, and ophthalmologists. Seva was a very unusual NGO, non governmental organization and foundation, at a time when there weren’t too many. We weren’t exactly the hippy Red Cross, but we certainly weren’t exactly the [inaudible 00:23:23] either.

Pedram:

How did it go? What happened? Trying to recreate a win is a tough one, right? The Buddhists would say, “That happened yesterday, so don’t go after the same experience.” How did that roll out? Was it disappointing? Was it amazing?

Larry:

Hericlitis said that the river you dip your cup into today is different than the river you dipped your cup into yesterday. That was even more true, I think. I’ll let you be the judge. Since Seva was stared in 1979, our programs and projects and partners have given back sight to more than 4 million blind people. Almost all of that has been for free. We just did a film called, “Open your eyes,” which is on HBO right now, in fact, about a couple, two of the blind people who were given back their sight in Nepal. 4 million’s a big number.

We wouldn’t have been able to do that without one incredible man, Dr. G. Venkataswamy. A long name, we call him Dr. V, who was at our first board meeting. One of the founders to say that he started the Aravind Eye Hospital in Tamil Nadu. They’ve done half to two thirds of all those surgeries, and they do them three quarters for free. It’s an amazing institution. It is now the largest and the finest eye hospital in the world, but when Seva was started they had only thirteen beds. Seva and Aravind became … It started off that Seva was the foundation, Aravind was the hospital, but our families came together. The families at Aravind became close to me. Karoli Baba, the name Karoli Baba, and smallpox families, they became pretty much the same big familiy.

It’s due to Aravind and to the love that they had for their guru, the mother and [inaudible 00:25:21] from Pondicherry, actually Aravind is a name which means dawn in [inaudible 00:25:30], but it also is an [inaudible 00:25:31]. Our two communities have come together. I think that getting rid of smallpox as well as getting rid of blindness has a virtual competent, certainly blindness, because vision has this double entendre when you’re talking about physical and spiritual vision. It certainly has always felt like that working on the blindness program.

You can judge if it’s been successful. I think Seva has raised over $300 million that have been given to blindness organizations. I think we had about 15 or 20 Grateful Dead concerts to raise money. Whether it was Bonnie Raitt, or Jackson Brown, or David Crosby and Graham Nash, Steve Roy, you name it. Joan Baez, everybody’s done concerts to help us raise money. That wouldn’t have happened if we’d all been professors of epidemiology. We had Wavy Gravy to … Our clown prince.

#Quote by @larrybrilliant via @Pedramshojai

Pedram:

You have had an incredible hanging out with some people.

Larry:

Is it over?

Pedram:

Yep. That’s it. From here on end it’s boring. You’re going to play golf.

Larry:

I do play golf.

Pedram:

Excellent. See? It’s still not over.

Larry:

I’m not good enough to make golf boring.

Pedram:

Yeah, no kidding. I usually wait for the drink cart. You’ve met all these amazing people along the way. It’s not like you’ve stopped. You’re still doing all kinds of stuff. What are you up to? What do you do with your days now?

Larry:

I spent the last 18 months finishing this book. The publishers gave it the name, “Sometimes Brilliant.” If you open it up to the second page, it says, “Other times, not so,” or, “Sometimes not so,” which I think is a better description. The idea of it was to cover ten years, from the moment that I met Martin Luther King to the end of smallpox. Meeting Wavy, meeting Ramda, meeting Neem Karoli Baba, and studying with the Karmapa, who, after [inaudible 00:27:54] died, adopted us spiritually. This Tibetan [inaudible 00:28:00], this amazing wonderful man, he went [inaudible 00:28:02] and studied with him, spent a lot of time with him, a succession of gurus and wise people that I have been blessed to meet.

That’s what the book covers. My life, of course, continued on. I wound up at Google as vice president and head of Google philanthropy, Google.org, and then I moved to work with Jeff Skoll and the Skoll Foundation, and we started something called Skoll Global Threats Fund, which I’m currently chairman of. I retired as CEO. We work on pandemics and climate change, water, middle east, nuclear weapons. Google tries to take everything to scale. At Global Threats, we try to stop Global Threats. We don’t try to take them to scale.

Pedram:

What’s that like? Is that exhilarating? Is it depressing? You’re dealing with some big stuff, but you’ve dealt with big stuff before. What’s the mindset going in, saying, “Let’s fix the middle east?”

Larry:

There’s depressing on an ontological or pistomological, big picture level, but there’s nothing more depressing than going into a town, [inaudible 00:29:24] which I did in the smallpox program, and go to the railway stacked like hordes of wood, and children dying right on the railway tracks, and rumors of vultures and birds of prey pecking at their bodies. I once walked into several weeks of a [inaudible 00:29:47] painting, or Dante’s Inferno, and that’s when your faith in God gets challenged. Me, my case and my faith, my guru and my mission and my life, that’s the most … Working on the big picture is easier in some ways if you have a loss in your family, a child dies, or if you lose a parent.

You asked is it more challenging. Those are in some ways, more challenging. In some ways, working in a big foundation and helping to deal with these big problems, you get some degree of emotional distance. Maybe that’s not true for climate change because it’s such a catastrophic change in the world. It’s invisible, it’s odorless, it’s tasteless.. when you know that it’s real and you have idiots who run for president who say it’s not real, that’s a different kind of frustration. You can see what will happen to our children and our grandchildren if we don’t fix it now.

A pandemic, when a pandemic happens, and even stopping a pandemic now that we’ve had a little boutique taste of Ebola and Zika, it’s easy to make people aware that a pandemic can bring humanity to its knees. It’s very hard to persuade them that climate can bring humanity to its knees, but it is bringing our world to its knees. It’s doubly frustrating. Even though I may have seen thousands of children die of smallpox, climate change can be much worse if we leave it unabated. Because it takes a long time to happen, because it’s not in your face every day, it’s easy to pretend that it’s not happening, but it is happening.

Pedram:

When you were dealing with smallpox, you guys looked at the epidemiology, looked at the vectors of transmission, you isolated where the bug was and basically made it so that it wouldn’t transmit and get to further people, and then you vaccinated all around it. Whatever you did, you had a plan. You executed on that plan, and it worked. Do you guys at the Skoll foundation, do you guys actually have a plan that you’re rolling out for climate change that’s as clear and articulate, or is that part of the challenge with this because there’s so many variables. Like China, get them to cooperate. How does that play out?

Larry:

You’re right on. I think we have a pretty good plan for pandemics. I think that we’ve put together a team and worked on plans to build collateral organizations in the event that WHO is unable to do everything that’s necessary to prevent or curtail a pandemic. It’s an alphabet soup of organizations. [inaudible 00:32:51], I can name a lot of others. Those name will put you to sleep, but these are really good organizations. The UN and all of the post second world war, Bretton Woods like organizations have grown long [inaudible 00:33:08]. They were fit for purpose after we all saw the horor, the genocide, and the camps in the second world war. We were willing to give up a little sovereignty and give up a little money and come together.

Absent a catastrophic event like that, the world has been subject to many centrifugal forces, not centripetal forces that bring you together. Those agencies, which depend upon the money and the good will of 200 nations, they’re struggling right now. As China arises, Russia has its own ideas. India is reaching a level that it hasn’t had before. America is going through our transitions, whatever those may be.

These non-governmental organizations, these NGOs, foundations, one in particular, [inaudible 00:33:59], is comprised of 27 countries, four UN agencies and four big foundations, and then lots of other things like CDC and USA Idea and things like that. I think we have a plan for pandemics, as difficult as pandemics are. Zika is really a game changer. We could have an entire conversation about what it means that a mosquito carries a packet of genetic material that can go and affect person to person. It’s actually transmitted and cause birth defects, what that means epidemiologically or what does it mean to our hearts.

I’m more confident that we have a handle on pandemics than I am on climate change because there’s so many lies. Pandemics doesn’t have an organized lobby in opposition denying it’s existence.

Pedram:

The Zika lobby said it didn’t happen.

Larry:

There’s not Zika lobby that’s there saying, “I want more mosquitoes. Let them bite more pregnant women.” That doesn’t happen. In climate change, you have exactly that ridiculous situation where the coal industry and the fossil fuel industry, [inaudible 00:35:14] Brothers, people who benefit from the current fossil fuel regime, are able to produce lies. Jeff Skoll is the producer of a movie called Merchants of Doubt, which is a film about scientists who were paid to deny cigarettes were linked to cancer. Now these same scientists have been paid to deny that fossil fuels are linked to climate change. I don’t mean the same kind of scientists, I mean the same human beings.

#Quote by @larrybrilliant via @Pedramshojai

Pedram:

The same guys.

Larry:

Again.

Pedram:

Wow. They have their [inaudible 00:35:53] squad.

Larry:

These are tough things to think about. I encourage people to watch Merchants of Doubt. It gives you some insight into that world. There are some courageous Republicans, like Bob Ingals, and not very many, I have to admit, who are trying to fight for ways to deal with climate change. Climate change, by its nature, is the most complex of the multi-generational, multi-national, multi-factorial problems that we face.

Pedram:

You’ve obviously got a lot of gas left in the tank. You’ve got vitality. You are full of energy and you’re super sharp. Do you have a direction where you’re like, “This is where I want to go next,” or are you waiting for revelation, or do you got a plan?

Larry:

First, I think you should talk to my children before you have so much confidence in all those nice adjectives that you just used. Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I remain convinced that humanity, when united, can deal with all the problems that we face. You can’t sit in front of [inaudible 00:37:16] and witness the end of transmission of a disease like smallpox and not emerge from it an optimist. I’m an optimist. I think we can fix climate change. We can abate its effects. I think we can stop pandemics in our lifetime, or maybe the lifetime of the youngest person watching this podcast. I think that we can deal with water and its myriad issues of scarcity and flood. I think that we can deal with regional conflagrations like the middle east that explode with the potential for nuclear war. There’s a long list of new technological weaponry that began with nuclear weapons but certainly include cyber and biological weapons, and to some extent, the cyber weapons and the biological weapons are more pernicious. We have less agreement on how pernicious they are.

These are not to minimize any of these threats or make light of them, or the economic threats, or the threat of economic disparity, or income inequality, or racial tension, or any of the problems that we are beset with as a byproduct of modernity and globalization and selfishness and greed, but we could solve all those. We don’t need money, we don’t need technology. We only need one thing, and that’s will. We had a public will to eradicate smallpox. It was so awful on its face. Watching children die from it was so horrible everyone felt so personally vulnerable to losing someone, or, even if you were thinking in great global terms you had a historical perspective of how evil this disease was, we were able to put aside our differences and come together, and we did all public will. From that came the money and the people, and that’s what’s missing. We need the public will to cure the problems that we have.

I say that pandemics are not inevitable. Outbreaks are inevitable. Pandemics are optional, but human beings have to exercise their option to put their resources in to stop it. That’s true for almost all of these global threats. They’re not inevitable. It’s optional if we want to succumb to them. We don’t have to succumb to them if we have the public will to combat them and if we understand that we are all in this together. Don’t let people lie to you and divide you and pretend that it’s one group versus another. Use the example of smallpox. We are all in this together. If we believe that, if we understand that, and if we have the will, there’s no problem that’s facing humanity that we cannot overcome.

Pedram:

I love that. There’s the notion of the splintered attention of humanity. Whether you’re watching CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox, or one of these things, people are all kind of in their own camps with the type of flavor of information they get, or they’re just watching the Kardashians that are dumbing down. How can we keep our attention on what’s important and not get overwhelmed, which is what I get a lot from the sentiment on the internet. There’s so much doom and gloom that I’d rather just play Mindcraft. That doesn’t seem to serve humanity. How can people snap out of that?

Larry:

It’s difficult. These are what, in law, are called attractive nuisances. They’re very attractive. All of us are beguiled by technology, and all of us can be beguiled by it. It is pretty amazing. Having been at Google for quite a while, there is certainly a part of me which loves technology. If you watch Steve Jobs when he was pitching an iPhone, you were inside of that iPhone by the time he finished, and then it was inside of you. None of these are necessarily bad things, but we have to put them to the use of solving the biggest problems in the world. I’m not an advocate of discarding technology. I actually have a faith that technology, which I could draw up a list of all the bad things about modernity and technology, and all the good things, I think the good things have an edge on the bad ones, as long as we have the intentionality to use them for making the word a better place.

Gandhi was once asked this question, how do we know that what we’re doing is good, or how do we judge innovation or a society, and he said, “You need a magic amulet to be able to judge whether something is good or not. [inaudible 00:42:25], so I will give you a [inaudible 00:42:27], an amulet. Here it is. Before you judge anybody, before you judge a gnat, before you judge what you’re going to do, consider if what you’re going to do will benefit the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most disenfranchised person you’ve ever met. A homeless person, perhaps. Somebody of a different color, living in a different place. Consider if the act that you are about to do will benefit that person. If it will, the amulet will protect you. The act of doing good to the least amongst us will protect you from making a mistake.”

We don’t remember that. Society doesn’t remember. Individuals don’t remember that before you consider what you do, think about what you learned in Sunday School or what your parents taught you, or what you have some vestigial memory from someone you met who had a light in their eyes and a sparkle in their smile, and ask what they would’ve done and how you could judge how you’re going to spend your time, what career you’re going to take. When I came back from the eradication of smallpox, I was a professor at the University of Michigan, and then Harvard. Makes me smile just to think about. It was ten years that kids would say, “I’m not going to go into law, I’m not going to go into business. I want to go into public health. Oh my gosh, they eradicated smallpox.” We need more things like that. We need victories over other of these great problems so that the next generation kids can say, “I want to do that.”

Pedram:

I love that. A generation of kids wanted to become astronauts because we did that. A generation wanted to become doctors because of the work you and your colleagues did, amongst many others. Larry, we’re out of time. That makes me sad because I frickin love this. You are so fun. I am big fan of your work. I think that everyone listening to this needs to get out and read this book right now. It’s called, “Sometimes Brilliant,” by Larry Brilliant. I think that you are an inspiration. It’s because you stepped in and did it. We can all do that. To be a role model means to just step in and do the work, and you did it, and you continue to do it, and you’ve inspired me. I can’t wait to get through your book. I skimmed it, but now I’m going to read it cover to cover because it’s reflective of this magical journey that you took, and I think that every single one of us has a journey like that in us. We just have to get out of our own way.

The book can be found I’m assuming everywhere books are sold?

Larry:

Yep.

Pedram:

Excellent.

Larry:

I’ve been told that, too.

Pedram:

Excellent. Larry, this has been an honor and a privilege. I’m glad to have had you on the show, and I thank you for your time.

Larry:

Pedram, I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but I’ve never been called frickin fun. With your permission, I’m going to tell my children that I am frickin fun even if it doesn’t feel like it to them.

Pedram:

All right, permission granted. Go get ’em.

Larry:

Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. Good luck to Well.org, and to all the things that you’re doing. This is a wonderful venue. I really appreciate being invited on.

Pedram:

Yeah, thank you.

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