Naomi Nesbitt struggles to establish herself as both a woman and a journalist, as she is pushed to cover a wide variety of stories for Manhattan Wildelife. These range from the mysterious discovery of foxes in Central Park, to the poisoning of a Chinese dissident painter at a Midtown gallery, to four successive murders in central Manhattan.
A Brand-New Way to Think
I couldn’t bring myself to do more than peek at Wen’s journal throughout the next week.
In some respects, it felt rather sacred. Its pages invited a prayerful state of mind that required at least a full morning free from ongoing deadline pressures. What I did see confirmed what Pearl had said—it was filled with thoughtful notes about politics, society, and art, but it wasn’t really about Wen’s personal life. Nor did it contain, from what I could tell, any mention of his encounters with “the goddess who reaches out.”
Early on Friday morning I took out Pearl’s paper with the two URLs and went onto YouTube to look at Wen’s installations at the Hutin Gallery.
For Games in Time, I was greeted with a three-minute segment that seemed at first like little more than a series of montages, much like those at Wen’s opening. The difference was that they were projected onto the gallery walls and the figures moved slightly in gentle and affirming ways—Tang Dynasty lady game players seated around a table, scholars studying their books, and ducks in a cluster studying each other. All this over the voices of children laughing and playing. It resembled a birthday celebration, with the faint images of party favors and confetti softly flavoring the background.
Gradually the light darkened, and the heads and faces of China’s current crop of political leaders replaced the heads on the ducks, the male scholars, and women game players. At first, this was both cute and charming. But then the party decorations exploded into stylized, red hammers and sickles, and everyone’s heads began to spin. The soundtrack switched to Leslie Gore singing, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to!”
I got the joke. It was about the Chinese Communist Party, and Xi Jinping in particular, demanding control of everything for himself, or else.
Soon the heads began to spin faster and faster, the place got darker, and eventually, the music faded into the sounds of water lapping and the rush of wind. At the same time, the landscape dissolved into a mountain scene evoking Tibet as described by Chinese brushstrokes.
Suddenly, all the faces turned into smiling Dalai Lamas! You got the sense of a lost spiritual presence on the one hand, and a possible future for China based on the best from its past, on the other hand.
I remembered that along with the Uyghurs and Hong Kong with the dark shadows it cast on Taiwan, Tibet had become one of Wen’s primary causes after he moved to the United States.
He was one among many who called Beijing’s oppression in China’s Himalayan territories “cultural genocide.”
Then I recalled something that Pearl told me about Wen’s attitude toward Xi Jinping just before the conversation turned to the spiritual: “Wen felt betrayed by China’s head of state. For a while, he idealized Xi, a man who loved the Chinese poet Tu Fu, and whose own sister died under the merciless reign of the Red Guards. He saw Xi almost as a brother. But when my husband watched him become more and more authoritarian and restrictive of free-thinking, he was angry. He called Xi a Legalist, which many people define as a Chinese term for Fascist. He became indignant over Xi’s edicts, at times even enraged.”
The second YouTube video, Recreation, which Elsa Toov told me was a stand-in for re-creation, showed all four gallery walls filled with people enjoying themselves at picnics, on the beach, or leaning over a bridge and looking at fish. There was very little Chinese art in this. It was like gazing at a mural for a travel agency, except that the figures moved in small, repetitive gestures.
Soon the words “Climatic Destabilization” floated across the landscape and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain blared out, like it was another scene from Disney’s Fantasia. Next the words “Control the Earth Before It Controls You” appeared—Frank Pace’s very slogan. The slogan flickered for only a second or two before hands began turning knobs in the clouds while blood red and yellow mixed in with the sky’s luminous blue and white. Within a minute, as the sky darkened further, a series of unpleasant scraping sounds erased Mussorgsky’s music. In the last few seconds, all the people froze into skeletal versions of the central figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
It wasn’t until later, after a few conversations with Alan Johnson, that I understood the full intended message. How interjecting sulfur into the atmosphere could change the entire earth into a tableau suggesting a futuristic version of The Scream, where grimacing faces confronted the loss of our natural order against a tainted sky.
Munch’s original title was The Scream of Nature. He wrote, “The sun was setting, and the clouds turned blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked.
This became The Scream.”
Elsa Toov later explained that many scholars had pointed to Krakatoa’s eruption in interpreting Munch’s comments since volcanic ash had cooled the planet and corrupted the colors of the sky. Others believed the source behind this impression was the presence of a nearby insane asylum. I could easily picture both scenarios working together in Munch’s painting.
But while reflecting on the power of Wen’s creation, any debates about Munch’s intentions quickly became mere footnotes. What only mattered was that you were brought into a world where all of nature was screaming, and you had to scream along with it. And given the egregious impacts of human industry and human indifference, you knew that nature was screaming for its very soul.
On Monday, May 11, I took my first cab ride with Alan Johnson.
Once again, I felt privileged.
Here he was, the second-in-command at our magazine, sitting right next to me on our way to hear Frank Pace.
Johnson was and still is something of a jock. He was a first-string fullback at Baylor College in Texas before getting his graduate degrees at the University of Colorado. He is Black, husky, and handsome. He was not only a titanic figure in shaping the direction of Manhattan Wildelife, but he also has an ongoing relationship with the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Moreover, he’d recently published a book, Our Planet, Our Cities, Our Species, to excellent reviews.
After a few minutes of silence, he turned to me and delivered what amounted to a short lecture on Frank Pace’s upcoming talk.
“Frank’s approach is all about control and what control requires. When you apply this mindset to our relationship with the earth and all its flora and fauna, you get a linear equation applied to a non-linear problem. For the first time in the history of our planet, a single species dramatically impacts the entire ecosystem. Intentionally or not, we have already re-engineered the earth. And now we’re trying to re-engineer it again. As we do this, we have two fundamental options: to shamelessly celebrate our dominance at yet greater cost to the natural order or to rediscover and revitalize that order and ourselves along with it. I hope that you join me in that latter category, and I trust you will soon agree that Mr. Pace falls into the former.”
I didn’t say a word, as no word needed to be said. Instead, I merely nodded and looked out the window at the swirling commotion of New York traffic.
A few minutes later we reached our destination, an elegant building that was once a hotel on lower Madison Avenue. The room for the keynote was cavernous. There must have been close to five hundred people in the audience, most of them men dressed in jeans and sports jackets. No one wore a suit, and only a handful wore ties.
“They’ve turned the sixth floor here into a miniaturized version of a Vegas auditorium. But the Vegas halls are twenty times as big. Even alternative energy has its industry conventions.
Several times a year I used to fly out to Vegas, all expenses paid. Although the conventions have become more and more digital so I don’t have to travel nearly as much. What you see here is a mix of formality and informality that I like to call ‘tech corporate.’ A mix of technologists, politicians, businessmen, and right-wing journalists, and people like you and me who were invited for the appearance of balance. They want to pretend that this is a serious conference on climate engineering, but every speaker has essentially the same ‘pro-business’ agenda. In other words, there’s no forum for debate. That’s why I plan to leave after Frank’s speech. He’s my only real interest. I can surmise the rest by just looking at the program.”
We were sitting at long tables spread across the hall to support notebooks and computers.
It was something like a classroom on steroids.
“Do you see that gentleman over there?” Alan indicated a young man with a caramel-colored tie, a big nose, and a jutting chin. “That’s Frank’s press rep. I call him the ‘apostle from hell.’ He tries to protect Frank from the likes of me by throwing a wet blanket over us, calling us leftists and socialists, or sometimes just liberals and Democrats.” Alan grinned again at the last word.
“Who is that?” I pointed to a much younger face belonging to a figure that didn’t fit in with the rest. And yet he was sitting right beside Frank Pace. He was wearing a long-sleeved black shirt instead of a suit, and the trimmed stubble around his chin left him looking unshaven.
Nevertheless, he was well-proportioned and not unattractive.
“That’s Ricky, Frank’s son. Frank finally took him in after his mother committed suicide.”
“Are you saying that Frank’s wife took her own life?” This might have warranted a virtual exclamation point in my article on Wen.
“Not his wife. She overdosed on sleeping pills seven years after Frank Pace had an affair with her when Ricky was still just a boy. I think she was a waitress. Of course, Frank doesn’t like to talk about it. Instead, he brags to the press about how Ricky went to Colgate and majored in English. As a matter of fact, he did quite well. Straight A’s, according to Frank, at least.”
I tried to marry this with what Arthur Strickland had said about Ricky working at the Beautiful Cigar Shop, and how that might be good for him because he’d had “a troubled life.”
But seeing him there minutes before his father was about to speak, he seemed less like a son than a shadow waiting to emerge into the light.
“Does he do anything now besides work at his father’s store?”
“So you know that Ricky’s something of a hired hand?”
“Arthur Strickland, the gallery owner, told me.”
“Well, aside from that, he lives in his father’s penthouse and writes screenplays. Or screenplay ideas. I don’t think he’s finished any of them yet. But he puts their summaries online.
I was curious one day, so I peeked. Oddly enough, the one I saw was really a parody of Frank’s climate engineering vision. Ricky created a world of vegetable beings who struck back at the human population for what they were doing to the planet.”
“That sounds pretty funny. Was it a comedy?”
“Not from what I saw. There was a strong element of violence. I think fantasy-suspense was more like the operative genre.”
At that moment the room darkened, and the stage exploded with a series of flashing blue and yellow lights. The speakers blared a jazzed-up version of the Neon Trees’ “Love in the 21st Century.” Soon the words “A BRAND-NEW WAY TO THINK” surfaced on the screen behind the stage as Frank Pace strode out to take the microphone with a swagger.
“Many of us are engineers in both our dreams and our lives. We explore. We solve problems. We invent. We are the makers. And we are reshaping the world.”
Pace moved stroboscopically like he was on steroids. The audience ate it up, applauding him at every possible moment while he strutted across the spotlight. For the moment, both Frank and the crowd seemed to be immune from all the negative speculation about the Central Park Murders. If anything, the recent media attention somehow enhanced the power of his presence on stage.
“Let’s look at the history of mankind—and womankind—” the crowd laughed, “in technology.”
The screen behind him showed an 18th-century quill pen, a telephone from the early 20th century, and a mobile computing device from the 21st.
“The speed at which technology is moving today is dwarfing all our progress from the past. Thanks to the cloud, new applications can be created at lightning speed. Thanks to mobility and the internet, entire populations are shopping, communicating, and living as they never were before. Thanks to advances in computing, we are privileged to enjoy an age of data, of information, that so far exceeds anything from just a few decades ago that any and all comparisons have become surreal.
“In parallel, the economic benefits have been enormous! We saw an eighteen-fold increase in the GDP between 1989 and 2019, and a doubling in individual productivity, thanks in large part to technology’s advances.
“And yet despite the recent pandemic, and in fact partly because of it, I believe that the next ten years will be the most innovative ever in technology. And I’m not alone. That’s what some of our leading industry analysts also predict. We’re about to rise inside a technology tornado unparalleled in history. So let’s make the most of it! Let’s open our arms and begin to
fly! All we need is a brand-new way to think!”
The room resounded with applause. A few people even stood up.
“Right-wing politicians,” Alan muttered under his breath. But there seemed to be too
many young people standing for them to be mostly politicians.
“Now let’s talk about the earth. Mother Earth.” More laughter. “We all want to care for our mothers, but as one thinker explained, ‘Only when we get sufficiently rich can we afford the relative luxury of caring about the environment.’ Or as a recent president of the United States put it, ‘Americans did not fight and win the wars of the twentieth century to make the world safe for green vegetables.’”
“Not so recent—it was George Bush, Senior,” Alan whispered in my ear. “Although it was actually Richard Darman, one of his staff, who came up with ‘safe for green vegetables.’
The ‘sufficiently rich’ quote is from Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish climate skeptic.”
“These statements may sound misguided to some of you, but I believe we can do both at once. We can care for Mother Earth while enjoying the natural forces of the marketplace and our accelerating windows of productivity. However, we can only do this if we take control!” The room applauded. “We can only do this if we don’t fall into the traps put forward by some climatologists in their science of denial. Denial of progress. Denial of innovation. Denial of the free market and the values of competition.
“The answer, my friends, is geoengineering. As early as 1998, Wood and Teller—that’s Edward Teller, the physicist who helped us win the Second World War—promoted spraying aerosol into the atmosphere as a ‘simple and cheap counter to global warming.’ A fleet of jets could do the job, and we’d be able to enjoy our free-market options for industrialized growth without limitation.
“Building on their wisdom, right now, I believe that the best answer to climatic destabilization is to lace our atmosphere with sulfur. People worry about getting permission. But there’s no law against doing what they and I propose. All we should ask for is our plan’s credibility. And the good news is our credibility is already here and waiting for your attention.
As far back as 2006, Nobel Prize winner, Paul Crutzen put a spotlight on the need to cool the climate by adding sunlight-reflecting sulfur aerosols in the atmosphere…”
While the rest of the presentation went on to detail Pace’s approach, I tried to connect the dots between Wen Tengfei and his digital installation, and what I was hearing on stage. The interplay between the two prophecies soon became so disturbing that I couldn’t wait to get out into the open air of Manhattan.
Alan also looked grim as he took notes.
After the applause and the inevitable Q&A with largely sycophantic questions from the audience, Alan and I left.
As we walked toward the carpeted front entrance, Alan turned to me with an expression of disgust.
“Frank Pace’s plan is not only an expression of megalomania, it’s also a simplistic idea despite all his fancy data points. Almost all serious climate scientists reject it, and for good
reason. The textures of our skies could well be lost to a perpetual whiteout, while our nights will likely become filtered and grim. Seeing the stars and moon as we can see them now would soon become a thing of the past. Moreover, aerosols won’t do anything to prevent the absorption of carbon dioxide by the oceans, which is producing rising levels of acidity, causing, among other things, the imminent destruction of coral reefs. These are just a few of the known implications, let alone all the unknowns that might face us. Worst of all, once we begin infusing sulfur into our atmosphere, we won’t be able to back out. The effects of aerosols are very temporary, and to start and then stop would pull a trigger that would accelerate global warming to a degree that today we can’t even begin to predict. In other words, we’d most likely be hooked for all eternity on the ill effects of sulfur while our atmosphere and our oceans would continue to degrade.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“I suppose I could have raised my hand and tried to start a debate, but it was the wrong venue, the wrong crowd. And frankly, I wasn’t in the mood to get shouted down.” Alan spoke with utter certainty. “The right venue is the review I’m planning to file later this afternoon in Manhattan Wildelife.”
As we hailed a cab, I remembered the skeletal, screaming faces in Wen’s installation. By then they seemed less like fantasy and more like a grim prediction