Quitting a bad habit

Quitting a bad habit: Revelations from Obama’s tar sands decision

If you smoke cigarettes, you may have reached a desperate point where you’ve picked up a half-smoked butt from an ashtray and lit up.  Sure, it’s dirty, takes a lot of work for a relatively small reward, and is more than a little disgusting.  But it serves the purpose:  feeding a tenacious addiction.

It’s a provocative analogy to conjure as we consider President Obama’s recent announcement to postpone a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.  That 1,700-mile project, which most observers had thought was a done deal, would have transported Canadian tar sand sludge to refineries in Texas and Louisiana.  This week, Obama said he was going to review the health and environmental effects of the decision, and there are even hints that he will also consider the alarming climate-change impacts of industrial tar sands production.

Is this environmental progress we can believe in?

Maybe.  Maybe the president has been studying his personal playbook to make this bold call.  Obama, we know, has struggled with a nicotine addiction, and has been rumored to sneak off into the Rose Garden to light up.  That said, he knows that Sasha and Malia don’t want their daddy to get lung cancer, and vowed to stop.  Apparently, he succeeded; we were told after the recent Presidential health-check that Obama was “tobacco-free.”  Would it be too much to think he’s turning the page on self-destructive fuel habits as well?

Here’s a quick paragraph for those who haven’t kept up with the “unconventional fuels” debate.  Because oil is getting harder to come by and more expensive to get, many oil companies are turning to ever more far-fetched carbon-based alternatives for transportation fuel:  oil shale, coal-to-liquids, and tar sands are three of them.  Tar sands are basically proto-hydrocarbons – a mixture of sand, clay and bitumen that can be mined by the megaton, cooked into a goopy sludge that can be transported long distances in pipelines and eventually processed into something that you can put in a car or a plane to make it run.  Tar sands require more energy to find and refine than conventional oil, produce more water and air pollution, and have a carbon footprint that is so big that some climate scientists have warned that continued tar sands production would doom the planet.  In a recent piece I wrote for National Wildlife magazine, I look at how animals are acting as unwitting sentinels for humans – and are already dying in flocks because of the Alberta tar sands juggernaut.

That’s because up in Canada, there are a lot of these tar sands – which are the functional equivalent of a trove of cigarette butts.  In essence, oil companies are basically scraping the pavement for vast quantities of these butts, picking out the vestigial tobacco, liquefying it, shipping it in pipelines to a distant manufacturing plant, reprocessing the tobacco into cigarettes, repackaging it, and bringing these reformulated butts to market.  In order to do that, they’ve proposed building a giant pipeline that carves a path all the way across the country, from Montana to Louisiana, to carry these cigarette dregs.

Wouldn’t it be easier to stop smoking?

Could that be the message from Obama’s decision?  It’s far too early to tell, but we can all breathe one clean, collective sigh of relief that this truly bad idea of a pipeline will not be built during this president’s first term.  Whether you opposed the pipeline because of its climate change impacts, its vast pollution, its wrong-headed approach to our energy future, or just because it’s killing a lot of migrating birds, a sane future for this planet should not include tar sands production.

Because the sad truth is, whether you buy your Camels by the carton or scrounge them from train station platforms, if you smoke, you still stand a good chance of getting cancer.

 

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RIP Javan Rhino (3 million B.C. – 2011)

RIP:  Javan rhino (30 million B.C. – 2011)

Photo courtesy of Rhino Resource Centre via Wikimedia Commons

I sent the sad link to my kids:  “The last Javan rhino in Vietnam has gone.”  This stark quote came from the World Wildlife Fund Vietnam country director, Tran Thi Minh Hien, as he announced the permanent loss of another species from the face of the earth.

Normally, the discovery of yet another extinction in this great age of extinctions might not have struck me so hard.  But in 2001, I traveled with my then 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter to the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam, in search of this famed, lesser one-horned rhinocerous (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus).  Vietnam was one stop on what I had dubbed a “before it’s gone tour” – a five-month, around the world journey that became the fodder for my book Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids, and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth. One part of the trip was to show my kids some of the planet’s ecological wonders before development, climate change, and human activities changed them forever.

Sadly, extinction was one of those forever things I worried about.

Waiting for motorcycle taxis to the park. Photo by Tory Capron

At that point, there was evidence that this alarmingly endangered animal still existed, in the newly-minted Nam Cat Tien National Park.  (Another sub-species of Javan Rhino is still clinging on in Indonesia.)  So we took a bus from Ho Chi Minh City, then motorcycle taxis to the park, for a sobering exploration of international species protection that I detailed in a chapter I called, “Johnny Walker Conservation.”  Though we donned leech socks and trudged through the jungle, we did not see any rhinos.  At that point, there may have been fewer than a half dozen Vietnamese rhinos alive in the world.

The Javan rhino’s story of rapidly declining numbers held familiar themes to other species’ disappearance:  habitat loss, human encroachment, poaching.  But this subspecies had its own unique challenges.  During the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call the “American War”), the U.S. bombarded Vietnam with Agent Orange, which defoliated huge tracts of forest that the rhino and other forest animals called home.  Not only did 58,000 U.S. soldiers, more than a million Vietnamese soldiers and up to two million Vietnamese civilians die, but much of Vietnam’s wildlife was presumed to have been wiped out.  In the post war reconstruction, human population pressures and the desperate need for economic development put strains on any land capable of raising food or creating income.  Much of the remaining forest was cut for timber or cleared for cashew plantations.

That’s why the discovery, in the late 1980s, of a remnant population of rare Javan rhinos struck such a nationalist chord in Vietnam.  The war was still a stinging wound, but the country was rebuilding.  So finding these armor-plated survivors was cause for celebration – and protection.  The national park was created, international conservation groups helped set up poaching patrols and scientific monitoring, and the government of Vietnam put some resources into the program as well.

Not enough, apparently.  With the species stressed and compressed into more marginal habitat, the pressures of poaching did the rest.  Like so many wild animals on the Asian continent, the rhino was prized for the alleged medicinal properties of its body parts.  In the kind of wanton violence that humans have perpetrated on animals (and each other, for that matter), rhinos died for their horns, tigers perished for their bones, elephants massacred for their ivory.  In the case of the Javan rhino in Vietnam, the entire subspecies simply disappeared.

Forever.

You can see a short, sad movie here

As a metaphysical poet and lover of metaphor, the 17th century English sage John Donne might well have extended his message to include the rhino in this elegy:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

Maybe we should amend that to “earthkind.”  And we are all diminished, because we lost a fellow traveler recently.  Rhino, rest in peace.

 

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When is a national park not a national park?

Thirteen new national parks – and no way to see them?

Lac Bleu, or Blue Lake, in southern Gabon

In 2002, the west African country of Gabon made international headlines with one of the boldest moves in conservation history:  then-President Omar Bongo Ondimba announced the creation of 13 national parks, comprising more than a tenth of the country’s territory.

In a recent trip to Gabon, I learned that nearly a decade later, Bongo’s bold move remains largely an unfulfilled promise.  In an article and short photo essay, I chronicled the efforts of a local environmental group to bring that promise closer to reality.  I came to understand why the dream of Gabon’s national park system remains an aspiration that, hopefully, might yet capture the imagination of Gabon’s current politicians – and the rest of the world.

Here’s one way to understand the scale of Omar Bongo’s vision:  Gabon is about the size of Colorado, which has four national parks (Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison) totaling about 575 square miles, or half a percent of the state’s land mass.  If we expanded Colorado’s national parks by about 20 times, that would be close to what Gabon’s late president had envisioned for his country.

Instead of elk, moose, mountain lions, bear, deer and antelope that grace Colorado’s wildscapes, Gabon’s wildlife heritage includes its famous surfing hippopotamuses, herds of forest elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, gazelle and some of the world’s largest remaining tracts of equatorial rainforest.

Gabon’s conservation efforts made international headlines in 2002, thanks largely to the efforts of Michael Fay, a Wildlife Conservation Society scientist who famously traversed much of Gabon’s tropical wildlands on foot, and whose efforts were documented several times in National Geographic and elsewhere (including surviving an elephant goring).  One of Fay’s WCS colleagues, Lee White, went on to be named as current head of Gabon’s national park system.

All good so far.  Stand by for the update.  First, a little background on Gabon, and why I went there:

In September, I was invited to give journalism workshops in the capital city of Libreville, courtesy of the U.S. State Department and Gabon’s Conseil National de la Communication.  I had been a Knight International Press Fellow for four months in Algeria in 2006, living in Algiers and working (in French) with journalists from both Francophone and Arabophone newspapers.  I returned twice to conduct investigative journalism training sessions, observing the dance between a newly “democratic” regime and a newly “free” press.

In Gabon, as in Algeria, freedom of the press is still a fledgling concept; for four decades of Gabon’s post-independence history (it was a French colony until 1960, and its first president, Léon M’ba, served from 1961 until his death in 1967), it was ruled in what could kindly be called an autocratic way by the aforementioned President Omar Bongo Ondimba.  Most of the media was state-run or state-controlled, and freedom of expression – if it meant expressing opposing views to the prevailing power – was met with wrathful displeasure.

In theory, some of that changed after the president’s death in 2009, and his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, came to power in a disputed election.  Nonetheless, the international community accepted the results, and le fils Bongo was soon being heralded as a reformer and a leader in the African continent’s new, post-post colonial politics.  Press freedoms opened a crack, although without a tradition of a free press, some of the resulting journalism seemed to resemble the undisciplined acts of teenagers who had been given the car keys and a bottle of whiskey, without ever having a driving lesson.  Hence, there was a perceived opening to invite a U.S. journalist to talk about the rights – and responsibilities – of a free press.

I learned during my brief time there that President Ali Bongo, by most accounts, has indeed streamlined the government, vowed to fight corruption, and notably articulated a vision of Gabon’s future based on three economic pillars:  service Gabon, industrial Gabon, and Gabon Vert, or green Gabon.  He still has many detractors and doubters, but has initiated some environmental initiatives, including a ban on the export of raw logs.

Now we’re back to the national parks.

Before going to Gabon, I tried to arrange a reporting trip at the conclusion of my teaching responsibilities, and thought it would be interesting to visit Loango National Park, often described as the “crown jewel” of Gabon’s parks and home to the legendary “surfing hippos.”  What, I wondered, did Loango and other parks look like, nearly a decade after the fanfare of their creation?

Well, basically, I couldn’t get there from here.  Or even from there.  The major tourism companies had started to operate in the park weren’t operational.  Flights that had once ferried tourists from the capital to a nearby airport had stopped flying.  Although it would have been possible, given a little more time than I had, to get to Loango, the fact that it wasn’t obvious or easy made me wonder just what had been done in the years since Gabon had been embraced as the darling of international conservation.

Not much, as it turns out.  For a hundred reasons, it is easier to proclaim the creation of a park system than it is to actually create one.  Lack of infrastructure is high on the list, even though Gabon is one of Africa’s top ten oil producing countries and has a relatively tiny population of about 1.5 million.

One of those hundred reasons is the lack of a culture of formal, national conservation organizations – and a lack of any culture of environmental philanthropy.  While in Libreville, I had heard about a small, regional environmental group called Muyissy Environnment, operating near three proposed national parks about 300 miles from Libreville in the south of the country.  Please click on the link above to read about their efforts.

 

 

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Australian gay murder investigation

The subject line from the email jumped off my screen:  “Scott Johnson Murder CONFESSOR!”  While on holiday with my son in January, the last thing I expected was a confession to a murder I had investigated in Sydney four years previously….

So begins “Close to the Edge,” an article I wrote that just appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine, about one of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve ever been involved in.  At he behest of the brother of a man whose body was found at the bottom of a cliff in a Sydney suburb in 1988, I delved into a hidden world of gay hate crimes that swept through Australia in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The police ruled Scott Johnson’s death a suicide at the time, but new evidence suggests that his death was more likely an unsolved murder that fit a pattern of homophobic violence that was ignored — and possibly even abetted — by police indifference.  PDF

In February 2013, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired “On the Precipice,” a documentary on its “Australian Story” series. Coincidentally, the day after the show aired, the New South Wales Police announced the formation of “Strike Force Macnamir” to investigate Scott Johnson’s death. The Unsolved Homicide Unite of the police are completing their investigation as I write this at the end of April, 2014. Stand by for updates.

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Megafires!

This month’s cover of Audubon magazine features a cover story I wrote about the increasing prevalence of huge, uncontrollable fires around the world — the unintended consequence of bad management, raging human growth, and climate change. Read more here

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A Visit to Conspiristan: Obama, Osama, Krakauer, Kroft — and Mortenson

Sydney, Australia May 9 – I know it’s not customary to dateline blogs, but I’m in Oz and I’m going to write about perspective, so it seems fitting.  Here in an antipodal suburb of the global village, I’ve just watched Steve Kroft interview President Obama on my laptop, and let’s give 60 Minutes their due:  they pulled off a journalistic coup, and Obama made plenty of news with his remarks.

(As an aside, it looks really good from Down Under to have a U.S. president say, “We don’t spike the football” instead of gloating “Mission Accomplished” after breaking the wrong country on purpose.  What do the good football coaches say?  “Act like you’ve been in the end zone before.”)

I said I’d write about perspective, so here goes.  Once, when I was on Larry King Live discussing the murder of a six-year-old named JonBenet Ramsey, Larry was about to take a commercial break and said, “Tomorrow!  On the show!  Yasir Arafat!”  When the cameras were off, I muttered something about feeling a little sheepish being on the show when there were so many bigger stories going on in the world.  Larry brushed me off, and in a few seconds we were talking about the Grand Jury’s refusal to indict the child beauty queen’s parents for murder.   The show went on.

I’m not saying that 60 Minutes, and the rest of the news industry, shouldn’t cover all sorts of stories, including improprieties of do-gooder organizations.  We should and we do.  But when I first commented on the 60 Minutes piece on Greg Mortenson and the Montana-based Central Asia Institute (CAI), I said that the piece lacked “basic elements of fairness, balance, perspective, insight and context.”  In light of recent events, the statement stands, and then some.

The interview with Obama makes a pretty good counterpoint, as far as relevance, importance, and perspective go.  Besides getting a glimmer of a backstage pass to the situation room during a defining moment in history, we also learn that the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is fraught, difficult, and challenging.  Obama takes pains to remind the American people that Pakistan has been, since 9/11, the “chief ally in the fight against Al Qaeda” and that “good relations with Pakistan are still vital to U.S. interests.”  That’s going to remain true, even if some elements of the Pakistan military or intelligence services knew where Osama was hiding for five years.  Maybe the nice things the president said about our good friends in Islamabad were 50 percent bullshit or more. But the truth is that even people who couldn’t find Pakistan on a map after you spotted them the right continent should now understand that Pakistan is maddeningly, incessantly important.

And oh, isn’t that where Greg Mortenson has been working for the past 16 years or so, building literal schools and metaphorical bridges?  In a country so distrustful of the United States that the president decided not to release photos of a very dead Osama bin Laden because there are plenty of people who wouldn’t believe the photos were authentic, anyway?

(Then again, there are still plenty of people in this country who don’t believe that Obama’s long-form birth certificate is real, either.  Maybe we could put them all together with the climate change deniers on a Pacific Island nation about to be inundated with rising sea levels, and call the place:  “Conspiristan.”)

Back to Bozeman and the CAI, rather than Abbottabad and the CIA.  Since my first post, I’ve heard both privately and publicly (please do read the comments on my earlier posts; the include some very intelligent discourse) from people who have admired Greg in action, but suspect he has sometimes bent a 501(c)3 reporting rule or two to get things done.  I’ve heard from one of the pilots who flew Greg around in one of his “private jets,” saying that Greg often goes where commercial flights don’t, and certainly not on the grueling speaking schedule he keeps.  We now know from a CAI update that some of the allegations about financial impropriety were likely because 60 Minutes and Krakauer cherry-picked some records, and the allegation that Greg used CAI as “an ATM machine” might have been a great quote but might not have a damned thing to do with Mortenson being personally enriched by having the PIN number.

As the details of Greg’s questionable bookkeeping and exaggeration or lying become clearer (he still has some ‘splaining to do), I ask again about the contextual importance of the allegations and “revelations” about Mortenson.  Some of these clarifications will still make some people uncomfortable, while others will shrug them off.   For instance, Jon Krakauer makes a big deal that Mortenson had never been to the Himalayas before his ill-fated K2 climb, and I know for a fact that he had been in Nepal climbing at least one 20,000-foot peak, because I’ve talked to somebody who was there with him.  The truth may yet be – and I’m guessing it will – that Mortenson never climbed any of the big peaks that the book claims he did.  And I sure want to know why he fabricated that fact if he didn’t.

I’m not denying there are still some big, fat questions out there:  did Mortenson donate six figures to CAI, and are they on his tax returns and CAI’s donor lists?  Is there a multi-million dollar endowment ready for the right moment to build schools and pay teachers from Fayzabad to Mingora?  Can Mortenson agree to assemble a Board of Directors that supplies real oversight?  (In most non-profits, the executive director serves at the pleasure of the board, not the other way around.)

But in the big picture (and that’s what I’m talking about from across the international dateline), I still don’t get why Mortenson’s antics warranted the kind of howitzers that 60 Minutes and Krakauer launched.

Here’s why:  Osama’s dead.  My guess is that we need Mortenson and people like them more than ever.  Clay feet and all.

 

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What’s the “Big Problem?”

In 1986, my ex-wife and I crossed the Khunjerab Pass into northern Pakistan’s Hunza Valley from China.  On a recommendation from a traveler, we hired a guide to lead us on a three-day trek to the village of Shimshal.  The guide, we soon learned, only seemed to know two words of English:  “Problem?” and “no problem.”  The first day, we met some men from Shimshal on the trail.  Soon, everybody was yelling and gesturing wildly.  I asked our guide, “Problem?”  He responded with a third word of English:  “Big problem.”

The big problem was that our guide hailed from Chapursan, the next valley over, and the Shimshal men insisted we hire a local porter.  After some negotiations, they put one of our packs on a teenage boy from Shimshal, and we had a new expedition member.

I dredge this story up in the context of the Mortenson/Krakauer/60 Minutes flap for a few reasons.  The most important is to back everybody down from this Red/Blue, black/white version of events:  things are not simply “problems,” or “no problems.”  Mortenson is neither a saint nor a charlatan; Krakauer is not either a jilted crank or a crusading do-gooder.  There are nuances, debatable “facts” and conflicting motivations in almost every situation, messy and at times seemingly irreconcilable.  This is no exception.

I appreciate the many comments I’ve received on the last post, and let me take on a few issues that popped up.  First, I’m not Mortenson’s friend or apologist.  As I made it clear in my post, I met him 14 years ago, thought he was a bit odd and very interesting, and like his idea of building schools for girls in an otherwise forgotten corner of the world. Because of the response to my post, I have spent the last couple days talking with old Himalaya hands, people who know Mortenson, and others work in the development field. I find some of the allegations against him to be deeply troubling, and I already wrote that he’s probably ill-suited to run an organization that’s become as big as the Central Asia Institute (CAI).

But it’s not a simple story, if you ask me.  Jon Krakauer has a well-deserved reputation as a dogged reporter, but he, of all people, should know that different people have different versions of the same event.  There are some who still bitterly dispute the veracity of his account of events on Everest that he chronicled, first in Outside magazine, and then in Into Thin Air.

The allegations against Mortenson seem to break down into three parts:  first is that “Dr. Greg” is a mythomaniac, who has embellished, exaggerated and downright lied in order to promote and enrich himself.  The second is that he committed a series of financial improprieties, again with the goal or result of enriching himself.  The third is that he ran a shoddy operation that wasn’t very efficient.

It’s been hard for me to find anybody who is deeply troubled about the “compression” of events in Mortenson’s CAI creation myth in Three Cups of Tea.  While writing my own memoir, Monkey Dancing, I received this fabulous advice from my editor:  “Chronology is not structure.”  I don’t want to shock anybody, but most narrative non-fiction wrestles with this conundrum.

That said, put me in the camp of those who want to know more about the Taliban abduction story and other questions that Krakauer raises.  But we already know that one character in that kidnapping saga, as Krakauer footnotes in his “Three Cups of Deceit,” has a cousin who seems to be an all-purpose bad guy and who had concocted a scheme to kidnap Mortenson.  Then Krakauer tells us the importance of clan in that part of the world.  So who’s telling the whole truth?  Krakauer quotes another source, Ghulam Parvi (whom I met in 1998), who testifies against Mortenson.  Then Krakauer quotes Parvi as admitting “that willingly or unwillingly I have spent the wealth of CAI at my own.”  He’s what lawyers – and journalists – might call an “impeachable source.”  And, as I learned in my first trip to Hunza 25 years ago with the porter imbroglio — and the State Department and Pentagon are still learning — Pakistan is a complicated place.

As for the financial mismanagement allegations, from the way I read the available information, CAI spent $1.7 million for Mortenson to travel around promoting CAI and his book, and CAI received $20 million in donations.   That’s a pretty good return on investment if you ask me.  We’ll leave it to the lawyers, accountants and the IRS to figure out how legal that all is.

But the crux of the allegations, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t about whether Mortenson is a terrible accountant:  it’s whether he personally ripped off CAI funds to fly on private jets and vacation in Telluride – or worse.  If Mortenson’s got a Caymen Islands bank account with millions of CAI contributions in it, he can go to jail.  But I’m guessing that Mortenson has not been stealing pennies from schoolchildren to fly around on private jets because he likes the free drinks.  Mortenson may have a number of strange and obstinate qualities, but from those who know him, venality doesn’t appear to be one of them.  As Krakauer wrote, quoting former CAI board member Jennifer Wilson, sometimes Mortenson couldn’t even be bothered to reel in donations:   “I would talk to people who expressed interest in making a sizable contribution,” Wilson said, “but when they tried to contact Greg he wouldn’t get back to them.”

Which leads to the mismanagement question, and the “ghost schools,” and finding ways to evaluate how effective Mortenson’s essential mission has been:  to build schools in places where there are none, and especially to promote the education of young girls.  My question is, “compared to what?”  Madonna’s recent $15 million debacle in Malawi trying to build girls schools there?  USAID’s efforts in Afghanistan?  Other NGOs operating in Baltistan?  I went to southern Sudan last year to document UN humanitarian relief efforts, and can tell you that efficiency is not at the top of the list of the programs’ best qualities.  And nobody, not even Krakauer, is suggesting that Mortenson has run a phantom operation:  there are many schools that are up, running, and educating kids in villages where he has worked.  CAI still owes its donors an accounting of how many are functioning, and how many have failed.

Mortenson, when he recovers from his surgery, has a lot of ‘splaining to do.

But so does Krakauer.  “Why?” I’d like him to answer, and “why now?”

The fundamental point I made in my first post remains:  educating girls and young women in Central Asia (and elsewhere) is an important and commendable goal – and Mortenson has succeeded in doing just that.  As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn made abundantly clear in their bestseller Half the Sky, girls’ education is a fundamental building block to improve almost every other social indicator, from infant mortality to life expectancy.

Ignoring the importance of what Mortenson has inarguably been doing for the past 18 years – building schools and improving many girls’ lives — would constitute a truly “big problem.”

 

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60 Minutes expose on Three Cups of Tea is weak – and wrong.

I believe in the importance of journalism to ferret out charlatans, expose financial fraud, and hold people and institutions accountable.  That said, it’s hard to believe why 60 Minutes decided that Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute qualified on any of those fronts – much less why Jon Krakauer joined in this recent barrage.

Let’s get my full disclosure out right away:  I have no dog and no yak in this fight, except to express my outrage at a high-profile hatchet job of a man I met once 14 years ago in the now-fabled Pakistani village of Korphe, site of Mortenson’s first school.  I don’t know Steve Kroft, except that he interviewed me once for a 60 Minutes segment on the Earth Liberation Front, a subject of my first book.  It was a pleasant experience.  I have never met Krakauer, although we once exchanged phone messages and have some mutual friends and acquaintances.

I met Greg Mortenson in Pakistan in 1998, years before he hit national headlines.  I was on an assignment from Blue magazine to write a profile of Brent Bishop, Mortenson’s brother-in-law, who lead a trash cleanup near K2 and tried to begin a porter training program in Baltistan.  Bishop introduced me to his brother-in-law in Islamabad, and we all traveled by bus up the Indus River Valley to Skardu and ultimately by jeep and foot to Korphe.  We stayed in the simple house of the village headman – the late Haji Ali – and felt the stark, cold, subsistence edge of a high mountain village only accessible on foot.  The school’s first teacher helped me carry my gear on our hike up to Concordia, a wide spot on a glacier on the way to K2.

Mortenson was one of the more interesting people I had met in a lifetime of traveling and writing about interesting people.  He was humble, dressed in a dirty shalwar kameez, and seemed about as guileless as anybody I had ever met, with an almost monkish disregard for consumerism or popular culture.  He was a bit naïve, it seemed to me, but was obviously pleased with the bridge over the Braldu River that he had helped build, as well as the school in Korphe.  Haji Ali and the other Baltis treated him with great affection and respect.  He returned the gestures in word and deed.

I spoke a lot with Mortenson about his new Central Asia Institute, and his idea to build more schools to provide opportunities for young girls to get an education.  He told me the now-disputed story about his first visit to Korphe after his failed summit attempt on K2 – and his inspiration to build a school there.  When we returned to the relative metropolis of Skardu, I sat in on meetings he held with local mullahs, and visited a vocational school for young women that Mortenson said he had helped to get off the ground.  His comments about drinking a lot of tea can be easily verified.

I returned from that trip and – no disrespect for Brent and his clean-up work – said to myself, “Greg is the real story here.”  To my everlasting regret, I never wrote that story.

On the strength of my impressions from that visit alone, I find myself ready to defend Mortenson against what I believe is a seriously deficient 60 Minutes segment, lacking in basic elements of fairness, balance, perspective, insight and context.  I was taught in journalism school that if you’re going to take somebody out with a story, do it in a way that you could look that person in the eye in the grocery market the next day.  I doubt Steve Kroft – or Jon Krakauer – could do that.  Both of them apparently tried to contact Mortenson only at the last minute, which is something that journalists will do when they are after a pro-forma denial, rather than an interview to ascertain truth or even get another side of the story.  From Mortenson’s accounts, both on the CAI website and in his interview with Outside online, it’s clear that the fog of development work may be no less confusing than the fog of war.

I cannot go through the chapter and verse that Krakauer did in his online assassination of Mortenson, and I am certain that he has alienated people and kept bad books.  From a few conversations I’ve had today with people who have known Mortenson for years, I have no reason to doubt that Mortenson can be difficult, unconventional, poorly organized, and chronically late to appointments.  He is probably ill-suited to run a $20-million-dollar a year non-profit, and seems stubborn enough to ignore good advice from people who otherwise appreciate his work and message.  Despite the inference that since he sometimes travels by private jet he must be profligate, there is no evidence I’m aware of that Mortenson lives lavishly.  He doesn’t comb his hair much, either, as I recall.

But here’s the crux for me.  As somebody who has worked in a Muslim country (I was a Knight International Press Fellow working in Algeria in 2006), I know that Americans need a lot of bridge building in the Islamic world.  Mortenson has gone where few others have gone, and has put in incredible time and energy to raise awareness, seed schools, and give girls opportunities for education that would not be theirs otherwise.  I have no doubt he has done orders of magnitude more good than harm.  The same cannot be said for a lot of NGOs doing development work around the world, much less our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And, I’m afraid, it cannot be said of the pieces that 60 Minutes and Krakauer have just spewed out.

 

 

 

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