Benjamin Grant: Envisioning the Pandemic and the Planet


Rob talks to Benjamin Grant, the founder of Overview, a company that utilizes satellite and aerial photography to study the impact of humanity on the planet and how the planet affects humanity. They discuss the ways that the pandemic is affecting Earth as a whole—from CO2 emissions to water quality—and how humanity can work together as a global commons.

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

My guest today is Benjamin Grant, the founder of Overview. A media company that utilizes satellite photography and aerial photography to study the impact of humanity on the planet and how the planet affects humanity. Ben, thanks for joining me today.

Benjamin Grant:

Thanks so much, Rob. It’s great to be speaking with you again.

Rob Johnson:

Well, we’re here on the 1st of May basically on lockdown. I guess your satellite photography can still proceed. It’s a marvel of technical productivity, and it isn’t contagious. But as I look at it, you’ve done some tremendous work as relates to climate, the relationship between nature and mankind. How are you seeing the challenge and where is your work going right now? Are you changing course, is the pandemic bringing anything to light that changes what your focal points will be in the near future?

Benjamin Grant:

Yeah, it’s a great question. We are certainly in interesting times, and I think our project and our company has something pretty special to offer people right now. A lot of us are stuck inside, being unable to travel to get outside to go about our usual daily activities. And if we’re able to offer people a glimpse of something far away, a glimpse of a world they can’t physically go to, I think that can be inspiring and offer something people different from their normal day to day vision and perhaps of just seeing the walls of their apartment or their house.

But I also think we have the ability to give people a perspective of what’s going on, on a massive scale. Some of the stories we’ve featured in recent weeks have shown the diminished boat activity in the canals of Venice or the oil tankers lining up along the coast of California with nowhere to dump their supply. Abandoned city streets, you name it. It’s interesting to see how the world is changing. We obviously can’t see everything on a micro level, but looking at the macro level, we are starting to see changes. And we’ll continue to look and find those stories and share them with our audience as much as we possibly can.

Rob Johnson:

In your dedication to your book Overview, which is subtitled A New Perspective of Earth. You think your parents and you thank them for teaching you the importance of keeping things in perspective. How does what you might call rising to the level of satellite looking down on the earth, it’s almost like you see the forest, not the trees. But from that vantage point, how did it change your perspective when you started seeing things in that larger holistic way?

Benjamin Grant:

Yeah. Well interestingly enough, my parents my entire life have told me to keep things in perspective, when things are difficult. When you’re going through something challenging, they always use those words exactly.

I started this project when I learned about this idea known as the overview effect, which is a phrase coined by writer Frank White during the 1980s based on these stories and anecdotes from astronauts who had spent a lot of time in outer space, who had the opportunity to see the entirety of the earth. In this vantage point, that word you used exactly. This new perspective fundamentally changed the way they thought about being a human, changed the way they thought about their responsibility to protect and cherish the earth. They saw our place in this grand cosmos, this infinite void of space.

And when I learned about this idea of the overview effect, I was inspired to try to bring that feeling back to as many people as possible back here on earth who haven’t yet had the opportunity to go to outer space or be an astronaut.

I think it truly can be a profound experience to think beyond yourself, to think about the larger picture. And being able to use this technology from the satellites to inspire that view, inspire that feeling, has been kind of this goal and purpose that I’ve been questing after since the project started in 2013.

Rob Johnson:

I remember when we met, in listening to you talking over a meal, I kept hearing two songs in my head. The first was the David Bowie Ground Control to Major Tom. And the second was Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells a Story.

Benjamin Grant:

Absolutely. And I think, yeah go ahead. Sorry.

Rob Johnson:

I was going to say, what’s the soundtrack that rolls through your mind that, how would I say underscores or gives thematic focus to your work?

Benjamin Grant:

Well, it’s not a song that comes to mind right away, but there is the Epic monologue by Carl Sagan. When he captured and released the pale blue dot photograph from the Voyager spacecraft as it was leaving our solar system. Turned around and he made it possible for us to see this mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam as he said. It’s absolutely worth a listen, but kind of thinking everyone you’ve ever known and loved, everything we’ve ever done all happened here. And those words often echo in my mind when I think about the project. It truly does force you to zoom, zoom, zoom, way, way out, and think about kind of how perhaps meaningless some of the things that we do, but for how we prescribe so much meaning to some of them. And again, that goes back to that dedication about the importance of keeping things in perspective. Certainly we are all dealing with unusual times and we are forced to reckon with thinking about things in the larger picture, thinking about existential threats beyond ourselves, beyond our species. So perhaps, those words ring more true now than ever before. Certainly something to reflect on and think about.

Rob Johnson:

Looking at this world, I guess when we met, we talked a little bit about climate change. What kind of things do you see, not just in a static picture, but you probably see the picture of places and regions in a dynamic sense over time and you see an evolution of the earth. What’s going on from that vantage point?

Benjamin Grant:

Yeah. I think the picture of climate change or our visual associations with it, some of them are from satellite imagery, right? There are classic examples of deforestation, of ice melting. But what I think was missing from that visual narrative was the more everyday common occurrences and creations of civilization that we don’t typically associate with the climate problem. And I’m not necessarily pointing out and saying all of these things are bad. But when we think about the construction of cities or the production of energy, or our transportation systems and networks. All of these things that we’ve created, all of these activities that we take on. Perhaps a lot less right now during the pandemic, but all of these normal occurrences do in some way contribute to the climate crisis. Because oftentimes most of them, almost all of them result in the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

So I think what I started doing by posting one of these pictures each day on the project was to paint a more complete picture about what human impact looks like. Not all bad, not all good. Everything in between. And I think that that’s essential for people to realize that all of us play some part in creating this world and in creating the environment.

Rob Johnson:

And you said you post things frequently. Is this on an Instagram account? The Daily Overview?

Benjamin Grant:

That is indeed the one. So that’s where the project really started in the beginning. I realized I had access to high resolution satellite images, and I started posting one picture every day. At the time I was working at a consulting firm and realized that I had the ability to do this, and really thought there was a powerful idea to share here after learning about the overview effect. I didn’t think it would lead to a book or where all of the places the project has gone now. But the simple daily dose of perspective is what I was saying in the beginning. A reminder of the larger picture of seeing something new about learning about new places, and creations, and technologies. And figured that one daily post would be a great way to start it. And it’s been going pretty much every day since 2013.

Rob Johnson:

Wow. That’s a nice long run.

Benjamin Grant:

Yeah. Joke with my friends now that if I ever start a new project, I may not include the word daily in it because it leaves quite the commitment for as long as the project goes on.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. 365 episodes, it’s a lot for a year. Geez. How do I say, does this lead to other dimensions of your career? Do you do things like Keynote or PowerPoint presentations that underscore or illustrate certain things related to social concerns, migration, climate changes in the sea? I’m just throwing things out there.

Benjamin Grant:

Absolutely. I think we have access to imagery from all over the world through partnerships with various satellite companies and aerial photography companies. So whatever we have access to, we can tell the stories that we think are most relevant. So the ones you just mentioned, absolutely.

I just completed a new book that will be out in October of 2020 that focuses on the element of time and adding the element of time to the satellite and aerial, and overview perspective. So we’re able to look at not only places in time, but changes in time. So this imagery has been available for the past two, three decades in a lot of locations. And we’re able to focus on specific places and see and monitor how they’ve changed. And that’s where I think we really have the power to tell truly mind expanding thoughtful stories, and people can see what’s happened in the world and what’s happened in specific places because of human activity. And then also how the climate is responding to all of that activity.

Rob Johnson:

Do you find scientists that are related to climate or the sea or anything? Do they seek out your, how do you say, to learn from the visions that you present?

Benjamin Grant:

Yeah, I think there’s a huge opportunity. We’ve worked with a few researchers and hope to work with many, many more. Where perhaps they have a very detailed number heavy scientific research paper and adding some visuals to specific areas that they’re focusing on, specific areas that have been destroyed. There’s huge potential there to use the visual to pull people in to the work that they’re doing.

I often think scientists, we’re not necessarily trained in storytelling. Perhaps they were not thinking the world has become as visual as it has become. And we have something to offer them there where we can truly bring those stories to life and find something that can pull people in to the incredible points that they’re making.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I might have to feed that Rod Stewart song to the scientific community. I guess every picture tells a story, don’t it?

Benjamin Grant:

Yeah. And that makes me think too that this project has really come alive in an increasingly visual world. Right? I think when the project started, Instagram maybe had 200 million active users and is now probably upwards of one and a half, 2 billion. So there is a huge audience of people to find and reach out to, and share these stories with. And I think people are getting a lot of their information, even news from these social platforms. So we’ve grown as that platform has grown, and think we really offer something that’s a bit different from the normal media that people consume there, which has a lot of personal information or even celebrity information. You name it, you can find anything there. But to have something that’s a bit more educational and scientific I think is refreshing. And people often kind of see it as something a bit different than what they normally find.

Rob Johnson:

Well, drawing a little bit on my history working in the financial and hedge fund industry. I have a handful of friends in that world who have used visual pattern recognition to observe the world and to what you might call see things before the news. And there’s a company you’re probably will acquainted with Palantir. I’ve known the people that were involved in investing or the foundation there.

I remember hearing a story one time when there was a great deal of social turmoil in Baltimore, how all kinds of people understood it and understood the ramifications for the various businesses. We’re talking about stock market speculation, related to social unrest in Baltimore. They saw it two weeks before the media started to represent it in newspapers and on television.

Benjamin Grant:

Yeah. Yeah. There are some brilliant minds who are using the same imagery that we share from this artistic perspective or awareness, environmental perspective for economic reasons. One of the classic examples is counting cars outside of shopping malls to get a gauge of what holiday sales might be. There’s been some interesting examples during the pandemic showing rental car parking lots that are more full than ever before and give people a sense that nobody is using those vehicles. Agriculture companies who are able to potentially monitor and predict crop yields based on the coloration coming off of certain fields. It’s truly an interesting frontier. And I’ve been exposed just to some of those projects because I’m using the same data. But I think there’s an interesting world out there that if more people can tap into this incredible technology and tap into this data, who knows what people will do with it?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. And I would imagine all kinds of things like law enforcement and surveillance create that tension that in America we often debate between how you say early detection and protection, say of the collective versus the intrusion upon the individual. A lot of these moral dilemmas are how say intensified by technology.

Benjamin Grant:

Certainly. Yeah. It is fascinating that perhaps this thing that would be an intrusion on our privacy is also something that is able to uncover illegal activity like illegal deforestation or mining. Or purposeful slash and burn in the Amazon. These are some of the stories of 2019. So with some of that good also comes the bad as well. And it’s certainly interesting to contemplate what the technology can be used for and if it should be used for all of these.

Rob Johnson:

I mean you probably can do things like predict turnout in primary elections. If you bring the satellites down onto the volume of cars on the highway or the lines at the voting booths, there may be a way in which how would I say, you augment the Gallup Polls and the University of Michigan surveys in predicting election outcomes.

Benjamin Grant:

Absolutely. If there was a way I could use the satellite to get people to turn out more, I would do it. Be it’d be above my pay grade.

Rob Johnson:

You need a [inaudible 00:17:36] that gives us how I say a kick in the butt if we tried not to go out. But that’s a different technology. So let’s talk about, you had mentioned you’ve got a forthcoming book. Which my call what, like a dynamic sequence around a particular environment?

Benjamin Grant:

Correct. So yeah, using either two images or a sequence of images to show the same place exactly the same amount of area, and then indicating the amount of time that has lapsed between those pictures. So the name of the book is time-lapse.

I think when I started the project in 2013, I was blown away by this perspective and being able to see just something in a brand new way, right? That’s what the astronauts experience with the overview effect is this feeling of awe and seeing something on a grand scale, and being able to understand something all at once. But I’ve witnessed the planet change quite a bit, even in the five, six years that I’ve been doing this. Examples of events where we have imagery from the beginning of the project in 2014 until 2020 has drastically changed.

And then extrapolating on that idea, incredible organizations like NASA or ESA, the European Space Agency has been doing this for many, many years. And you can see the expansion of a city like Shanghai which in the late 1980s was surrounded by croplands entirely. And now is just a one massive block of concrete and cityscape. There are dozens of examples like that. But I think you’re able to get a new understanding of what civilization has become, where it’s going. It will be fascinating to see the changes that come from this pandemic. Perhaps there’s another book for the future there.

But through these stories, I want to tell a more complete picture of what’s going on right now. Right? We have this incredible civilization with the cities, and transportation networks, and consumption on a massive scale like never before. But that’s taken place with massive utilization of Earth’s natural resources, which is the second section of the book. So land, water, raw materials has made the civilization that we know all the things that we have possible. But because of the grand scale and the amount of the civilization that we’ve created in the utilization of raw materials, we’re seeing a reaction from the climate. And we’re starting to see early signs, the canary in the coal mine of what’s happening. And we show a few examples of that change, which has happened just in recent years.

So I think above all, this work is moving in a direction of painting a hopefully easier to understand a picture and perhaps even a tool for someone to think about climate in a new way, to think about civilization in a new way. And hopefully to think about how we can build a better future looking at past mistakes and also future opportunities and projects that will be constructed in the years to come.

Rob Johnson:

But in the large, the evidence that you’re calling forth from these pictures. I see what Naomi Oreskes called the merchants of doubt, that climate change is a hoax. It’s a left wing conspiracy or whatever. But the evidence you see, does it reinforce the sense of urgency that IPCC and others suggest is necessary to transform the planet, or sustain the planet?

Benjamin Grant:

Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

Okay.

Benjamin Grant:

Yeah. I think-

Rob Johnson:

What kind of things do you see? No, I say what kind of things do you see? What gives you that conviction that those people are on the right track?

Benjamin Grant:

I think one of the major themes that I just came to absorb in the creation of this most recent book is the importance of water in this story. All life came from water. None of this would be possible without it. But water I think will be the protagonist of the climate story. Whether or not it means certain areas have far too much of it with unprecedented rains and floods, or far too little of it with droughts that have not been seen in centuries in certain places.

And ultimately, I think climate is kind of an exacerbating factor of all other situations. I think what happened in Syria is a particularly interesting example where people debate whether or not the crisis there was started because of a drought. But it certainly amplified existing problems when farmers moved from the surrounding areas around cities into cities causing additional unrest, and it kind of kicked off this civil war. And I think that is something that we could potentially see a lot more of in the years to come, of the climate that we think is potentially very stable. Or we’ve built cities around water lines that we think are potentially stable. No longer act that way. Or storms that we think will happen a certain amount of times per year happen more, and they’re more powerful.

And our minds, and our systems, and our societies are not necessarily built with this unpredictability in mind. As we can see right now with this pandemic, we are not necessarily ready or always thinking in advance of unexpected moments and things in crises.

Benjamin Grant:

So I think that there’s a lot we can learn from what’s going on right now, perhaps about certain issues that we will face in the future with climate. I don’t think the shutdown will be drastic enough that emissions problems will go away and things will calm down for the future forever. Certainly not. But there are so many lessons that I’ve kind of absorbed hopefully from writing this most recent book. And I think this one about water is certainly an important one. And certainly that we need to prepare for these things that the scientists tell us are coming. Just like they told us this with the pandemic. So I think looking towards the future is essential, and listening to the science.

Rob Johnson:

I think that, how would I say? That evidence, that testimony that you can give is very important in how I say, helping tip the balance. I’m trying to imagine how to make say your next book Timelapse more what you might call penetrate the school systems and other things. I see young people perhaps inspired by my friend Naomi Klein or Greta Thunberg, or what have you, joining this climate strikes and so forth. Can you imagine if every fifth grade class went through your next book, what that would do to the dinner table conversations with their parents and the conviction of the next generation? Now obviously they are not the people writing checks at political fundraisers or anything of the sort, or even voting yet. But I think the anxiety that is necessary to really bring us to the place where we embrace this, some call it like a Green New Deal. In other words, a massive transformation project that in the small doesn’t make commercial sense, but upon which our survival may depend. And I think you can be a messenger to that deep kind of penetrating sort of insight.

And young people, I’ve quoted him in several of the podcasts, the late William Greider who’s a dear friend of mine. He set up a website in 2009, I believe. And the first post on the website said something to the effect of, “I put my faith in young people because they have fresh eyes. Because they see. And they see without being poisoned or being affected by the notion of what is feasible. They only see what is necessary. And what they do is they lead us to change what is feasible.”

I’m kind of haunted right now because I’m remembering a poem. I had board members, Drummond Pike and John Paul, both of whom are in Northern California. John runs the Othering & Belonging Institute at Berkeley. Drummond Pike was the founder of the Tides Foundation.

And we were having dinner after our board meeting, and they know my children from when we’re out in Bolinas socially. So my children joined us for dinner, but we had this rather haunting conversation. And my daughter was very observant but very quiet. She went upstairs. And she went to bed. And the next morning I drove her to school. She didn’t say much. And after her second period, which was a study hall, I got a photograph, a text photograph from her of a poem she’d written. And I’ll share it with you right now.

What is Everything, by Sarah. Sarah, that’s my daughter, a 10 year old. What is everything? Is it all essence, or is it all answers? Is there more? Why am I all covered up? Never seeing past, present, or future? Is it all an illusion? Why is it all collapsing, destroyed, all those lives not knowing? Will we ever know?

Well, when I thought about your book and I thought about her, your forthcoming book will we ever know, I feel like that’s the bugle call for what you have to offer. How can I help you? How can we inspire a distribution on large scale of your book to schools and young people throughout the country, and throughout the world for that matter?

Benjamin Grant:

Well, thank you. Thank you for sharing that. I think that’s incredibly powerful. And certainly whatever conversation you had the night before provoked many large scale thoughts for her. And hopefully that resonates with everyone. It certainly resonated with me.

I think the younger generation is thinking about this problem very different from my generation, from your generation. Because they are becoming increasingly aware that these are the problems that they are going to inherit. They are reading these reports about what is predicted with certain temperature rise and what will come of that. And that does not sound like a world that anyone would want to live in. So it’s perhaps more prescient and more desperate for them and anyone else. And rightfully so. I also think that generation is one that is growing up with a world of smartphones and the internet and super visual stimulation everywhere. So perhaps this book will resonate with them more than anyone else. And they’ve had access to things like Google Earth and satellite technology for their whole lives. So it’s something that they understand right away. Where it’s something perhaps, not something that I grew up with and didn’t have access to until the early 2000s.

So it would be fantastic to use this book as an educational tool. Right? I think one of the things that I hope happens not just for children, but for anyone who reads this book is that it’s a form of self-learning is one way that someone phrased it to me once. Where the images kind of pull you in and mesmerize you so much that you’re so curious to know what you’re seeing in the image, that you need to read the text that accompanies it and absorb it. And you have something that sticks in your mind as a visual to remind you about, that tidbit of information to remind you about how the planet is changing. That’s how I hope it starts as an awareness tool. Where I really hope the project goes in the future is that we’re able to activate the audience and the community that we’ve built. We have now more than 900,000 followers on our Instagram account alone. To be able to rally those people behind certain causes that we think are incredibly important to move the planet in the right direction would be a dream. And I think hopefully with this book, more of that will happen.

And one final thought that was inspired by your daughter’s poem is I think to move the planet in the right direction, to do things like the Green New Deal would require a lot of discomfort or a lot of behavioral change that is not necessarily something that we would want to do or seek out. But perhaps in some weird paradoxical way, what we’re experiencing right now with the pandemic, with the coronavirus is that a lot of these behaviors that we’re exhibiting are moving things in the right direction. Of course, I don’t want to discount the horrible suffering that people are facing on an economic level, on a personal level, on a health level. But the fact that we are traveling less and flying less is introducing people in India to clear skies for the first time in a while. They’re able to see the Himalayas from Delhi. People in Venice are seeing clear water in the canals of the city. Smog in Los Angeles is going down.

So I recognize that things will get back to normal ‘normal’ at some point and people will be moving again. But perhaps in some way people will be addicted to that clean world, right? Addicted to that clean air, and will seek out ways to make that the new normal while also maintaining the structures and systems of civilization that we’ve built up and that we often require to keep the economy going and to keep our businesses going. But in some way, perhaps we’ve been introduced to a new world, a new potential through these troubling times when everything has been just slowing down.

Rob Johnson:

Well I look at, how would I say, all of these technological possibilities. I just kind of carry around something that try to keep in my perspective in balance. I have kind of an adage, I say to myself. That there’s good and evil potential in everything. It sort of depends what you’re going to do with it. And I think that your ability to cry out to mankind and show it what it is doing is a great force for good.

And I’m reminded how you and I met. We all assembled in Coronado. And I’ll tell a little aside. My parents conceived me in Coronado at the Hotel del Coronado. Because my dad was stationed in the Navy in Hong Kong, and a man named Captain Robbins was the captain of the ship. My dad was the physician on, and Captain Robbins was being promoted to admiral. So my dad came home and met with my mom in Coronado where that ceremony took place. And as I turned out to be a boy, my dad said, “Well, I want to name him Robbins.” And my mother, who’s from Scotland said, “No, not Robbins. Robert like Robert Burns.” And my dad laughed and he said, apparently laughed. I wasn’t there, but that’s what he says. He said he laughed and he said, “Okay, but then it’s got to be Robert, Robbie, but never Bob.” And they made the agreement and they named me.

So years later, I was talking to a group of people related to INET. And somebody said to me in a Q&A, “Could I call you Bob?” And I said, “No, you can’t.” Everybody thought I was being kind of a jerk. Well, what happened was I told them this story and I said, “My parents are deceased. And the reason you can’t call me Bob is I don’t want you to be hit by a lightning bolt if I say yes, and you were standing next to me.” So everybody laughed.

And afterwards, somebody came up to me and said that they had known Admiral Robins. And another guy said, “Did you know Robert?” And I said, “No, I didn’t.” He said, “Well, he does this distinguished visitor program vis-a-vis the Navy. I’m going to have him call you.” And he called me the next day and I said, “Well, would you like to visit?” And my father is deceased. He was cremated and he asked to have five urns. When you talk about the importance of water, it brings tears to my eyes. Because my dad who’s an Aquarius, was an all American swimmer, a champion racing sailor, very, very nautical. And he had this tremendous reverence for the four years that he spent in the Navy around the time at the end of the Korean War. So I jumped at the chance as soon as Robert called me and said, “You’re on for July 10th and 11th.” And I thought holy moly, that was in 2019.

I show up on deck with my urn of his ashes and everything else. And they said they would make a chance for me to do something to honor him. And they told me I could, I could photograph honoring him. And you were the guy that photographed me. And we were talking and we went through all of that, and we developed a friendship. And I remember just all of us, there was a really wonderful group. But you and I kind of would pull aside and we were just in awe coming back to good and evil, landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the grabs on a tail hook is a powerful experience. And taking off from a standing start when you’re off the deck in two and a half seconds is a powerful experience in. Standing with you at night, watching them land and take off is a powerful experience. And watching 4,200 people living in the community that have nine chaplain and have to organize all this and be led is a powerful experience. And I’ll let you go on.

But I sat there and I said to myself the power of this technology is so fierce that it can dominate and destroy. Or used as a deterrent, it can protect. And these people who were so dedicated and skillful obviously were intent on doing good for each other as well as for protecting the nation. But I was always this kind of guy kind of grew up in the Vietnam era that said I feel like the military industrial complex is like an overgrown gorilla. But there was something really beautiful. I know because we’ve talked before, but wasn’t that a beautiful experience?

Benjamin Grant:

Absolutely. And the word you used, awe certainly came up a lot when we were on deck there. It was so thought provoking and it was great to have you there with me on the deck through these moments to be able to sound some of these thoughts out. Right? I think you have a feeling of appreciation and the technology, and the sophistication of the fighter jets and the coordination of all the crew. And the whole structure, everything that goes into it is almost overwhelming the entire time, especially as someone who’s never experienced anything like that before. And then in the back of your mind as well too, you remember perhaps the true purpose of why this thing exists which is either as a deterrent or as a war machine.

So there’s that kind of conflict there where you, you see it as one thing, but you know it’s something else. And perhaps to bring this back to my work just for a second, but there’s that contemplation that I think comes when you’re showing something that is not necessarily good, but it’s perhaps beautiful at the same time. And I think some of the images from the project do just that. But it certainly was a once in a lifetime experience. And I think for all of us on the trip, it was a bonding opportunity unlike any other, just because we were all exposed to something so incredible and beautiful, and absolutely crazy. For those 24 hours.

Rob Johnson:

And what was also stunning to me was what you might call the social psychology of that culture. Going into the rooms where people are monitoring the world or on alert with electronic equipment in case there’s an incoming threat and so forth. And I’m looking. And it’s men, and it’s women, and it’s people of color, and it’s Caucasians, and it’s people from all different walks of life. And there’s only one thing I found in common for all of the people that I spoke with kind of on the sidebars and in the dental office. And they took me, because my dad was a doctor to the medical facility. There was one thing in common. They all felt they were being nurtured, and they all felt they were gaining competence, and they were grateful. They were in a place where, sitting at meals. It was fantastically interesting to me where white men in their thirties are serving us and we’re sitting with young black women who are big time intelligence monitoring people. And they’re enthusiastically explaining things, and they act like they feel equal inside. I don’t mean inside themselves, I mean inside their community.

It was almost like, I don’t want to be too romantic about this, but it was almost like there was no room for racial otherness because they were all on the same team. I just found so many dimensions of it startling and beautiful. And daunting because of the power of what the whole apparatus and system represents and the threat to humankind that it could be deployed to execute.

Benjamin Grant:

Yeah. And I don’t know all of the details of the situation. But I think the story that was popularized during the pandemic of the Theodore Roosevelt whose leader, who was the commanding officer who was concerned for his sailors who were in such close quarters with coronavirus on board when they were guys going towards Guam. I think our experience there helped me realize how that might come to be, how it truly was a family on board, how they were all looking out for each other at all times. And as you and I saw, how they are in such close quarters and how dangerous that could be in a situation like this. But the respect that that crew had for the leader, and we were lucky enough to meet the commanding officer of our ship. It made a bit more sense, and I was grateful to have that perspective as I was reading that news about the Theodore Roosevelt.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I remember he was a graduate of Duke University, and a very thoughtful and mature man. We talked to him in our gatherings. I saw him a couple of times up on the bridge where he was presiding monitoring things. There was some very powerful sense of sophistication and depth of caring that all kinds of people emitted in conversation with me. The only criticism I had is I thought that there, how would you call it if you were in an urban city? Their ladders were too steep to pass the zoning requirement. And I saw a couple people fall down the metal ladders and stuff. But it was just a really powerful awakening. I kind of went home and dreamed that we could have public purpose and organizations that embodied that kind of healthy social psychology and training, but may be devoted to different purposes like climate change rather than war making. Obviously protecting us from war is part of what they do. So they’re not necessarily always war-making, they’re deterring war-making.

I actually for the first time understood my father’s enthusiasm about his time in the Navy. He was born in 1928. He goes through the World War II, America, what do they call the greatest generation kind of energy. And he has the service. And then of course I’m on the other side, which is just a little too young to get drafted in Vietnam, but a bunch of my older friends got drafted and some of them really got wrecked or died. So I could see the demoralization of Vietnam in my formative experience. It occluded my vision of what my father revered. But that experience, how would I say, give me a little bit of insight back into his reverence. So how would I say? I want to thank Robert CKoons who introduced each of us to that project and me to you and yeah.

I want to also say something to you. In the book that you gave me, you wrote a hand script at the beginning. And it said, “It’s nice to meet you out at sea and to continue the conversation back on land. I hope our paths continue to cross on future adventures. In the meantime, may this book offer you an endless source of inspiration discovery. And most of all perspective.” Ben, you have succeeded.

Benjamin Grant:

Thank you so much Rob. It’s really an honor to talk with you again. And those words echo true right now as well too. I hope that we’re able to meet in person again once all the craziness dies down from the pandemic. And I hope that you and your family stay well too through all of this times.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. You and your significant other, I know you all live down near Half Moon Bay in California?

Benjamin Grant:

Yeah. That’s where we’re staying. So-

Rob Johnson:

When they unlock it, we’ll get together there or up in Bolinas or something of that nature. So I’m sure one way or another, you and I will stay in touch. And obviously there will be further future episodes and when your book is released. And Timelapse, I’d like to bring you back onto this and share another episode with another exploration. Hopefully after the pandemic, but just how we say, deepen our curiosity in other dimensions next time.

Benjamin Grant:

Absolutely. Can’t wait, it’d be an honor.

Rob Johnson:

Great. Thank you. All right. Bye bye.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guest

BENJAMIN GRANT is a visual artist who uses satellite imagery to create thought-provoking photographs of our planet. He calls his pieces “Overviews,” referencing the “Overview Effect,” a term used to describe a sensation reported by astronauts who have viewed Earth as a whole from space.

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