There is so much to say about the Aspen Ideas Festival, it’s hard to know where to begin. It was the best yet! Congratulations Kitty Boone and Walter Isaacson and to their wonderful staff. The format is always fascinating. The Organization of the event was based on “Smart Solutions for the World’s Toughest Challenges” such as the “Endangered American Dream, Planet on the Brink, Challenges to Democracy, Making Art Work, The Global Marketplace, Violence in America, The Beauty of Mathematics, Oceans ’15, The Mind, Will Technology Save Us?, Faith, Conflict and the Future of Religion.”
On Saturday I attended a session on Mortality from the “Spotlight on Health” segment. One of the guests was Dan Diaz whose wife Brittany Maynard was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 29. They moved from Colorado to Oregon in order for her to avoid the suffering that they knew was in store for her. He explained their experience through his tears. It certainly gave me hope for the legislation now pending in our California State legislature. Dan is working with many legislatures in the hopes of achieving a similar Oregon law-Death with Dignity Act, in other states.
Sunday marked the end of the Spotlight Health and I listened to Dr. Garth Graham, the President of the Aetna Foundation as well as a practicing doctor and medical professor. He told us the astounding news that your zip code was a greater predictor of your life expectancy than your genetic code. In Boston itself one zip code the life expectancy is 58 years of age and just a short distance away a different zip code gives you a life expectancy to age 90. The discussion revolved around the tremendous health inequity in America. Also in the same session we were introduced to Dr. Vivek Murthy who is our current surgeon general. He is working on programs to promote health equity, as well as to develop a culture of prevention in the United States. I was shocked to learn that there are 42 million people diagnosed as mentally ill in the United States.
During the spotlight on health session there were 3 films which aired prior to my arrival in Aspen. An 80 minute edited version of the Ken Burn’s documentary on the Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Emperor of all Maladies” which deals with cancer. The second film was “How to Dance in Ohio“, this film tells the story of high school students on the autistic spectrum preparing to go to the prom and what the preparation entails and how meaningful the experience can be. The third film was the “Armor of Light” which is a documentary about a conservative Reverend Robert Schenck who has fought the Right Wing movement over the gun issue and as he feels that a Pro Life position demands an anti-gun policy. Later in the week I saw the shocking and riveting documentary, “The Hunting Ground”, which chronicles the epidemic of college campus sexual assaults that are not properly handled by the college administrators. 70 colleges were mentioned and are under investigation as a result of the efforts of the women in the film.
The opening session of the actual Festival on Sunday evening gave us a run down on what was to come. We were welcomed by Walter Isaacson who heads the Aspen Institute and who spoke to us about the importance of curiosity and quoted Albert Einstein who said “I have no particular talents, I am only passionately curious.” David Bradley, the publisher of the “Atlantic Monthly”, who is one of the sponsors of the Conference typically opened the festival with a fabulous presentation and a wonderful sense of humor. He discussed romance and gave the amazing statistics that just under 50% of first American marriages end in divorce, 60% of second marriages and a whopping 80% of third marriages end in divorce in the United States, so I guess it pays to hang in the first time around.
I listened to Senator Mark Warren (VA) and Tom Fanning, President of Southern Utility, who were very optimistic about the United States’ ability to increase sustainable growth. Both of them spoke so passionately giving examples of their personal success. General David Petraeus and Ben Rhodes of the Obama Administration both discussed the Iran deal and agreed it was critically important to world security.
Some of the high points of the week for me was Michael Eisner’s (former Disney President and Chairman) interview of Cameron Carpenter. One of the world’s most famous and talented Organist, Cameron not only composes music but is building a digital Organ and started playing at age 4. He performed and communicated his love of the Organ to the entire audience. Pictured here:
Also 2 sessions involving the Marriage Equality Act, as well as Citizens United were presented by two of the United States most famous lawyers who opposed one another in the Citizen’s case and joined forces on the Marriage Equality Case. Their explanations and understanding of the law is so brilliant that I was mesmerized. Pictured here is a moment of humor while they are being interviewed by the Chief Editor of the “Atlantic Monthly”.
In a session on Violence in America, I was shocked to learn that since 1980, 620,000 people have been murdered in the United States. That is more than all of the wars in the 20th Century. It is clear that change is absolutely needed! A wonderful solution was offered by influential California lawyer Connie Rice. She was able to convince LAPD Police Chief, Charlie Beck, to assign 50 of his top officers to the public housing projects in Watts in order to secure the safety and security of the residents. Miracles have occurred there as a result of this special program with very well trained officers.
One of my favorite sessions was Arianna Huffington’s brilliant interview of Tony Marx who heads the New York Public Library system “Why Libraries Are the Original and Future Open Source Platform”. The New York Public Library system has 40 million visits. It is far and away the largest system in America. Their system of eBooks as well as the lending library of physical books is unsurpassed. It is one of the only completely free institutions in our society and provides access to the internet to a large segment of our community who would otherwise be left out. Tony mentioned an exciting new project at the library. They are examining all the items in their vault and bringing them out for public display. Two very exciting choices- one is the first letter which Christopher Columbus wrote to King Ferdinand when he told him he thought he had discovered something and Thomas Jefferson’s note of the Constitution where slavery was crossed out in his draft. These are documents I can’t wait to see!
When it comes to our climate I learned that all the ocean’s algae will disappear by the year 2100 and algae produces a large percentage of the oxygen we breathe. What an amazing week I’ve had and all surrounded by the incredible natural beauty of Aspen while meeting old and new friends. I can’t rave enough about this outstanding Conference! Don’t miss it next year!