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The San Francisco Chronicle

Scientist Shearer Brings Odd Bedfellows Together To Save The Earth

Joe Garofoli

Introducing a CEO to an environmentalist at the post-Burning Man street festival in San Francisco is the perfect illustration of how David Shearer - epidemiologist, eco-filmmaker, hybrid car consultant, green public art advocate and grown-up hippie kid - brings together folks who would never otherwise meet.1224 05

To him, art, new media and, yes, he says, love need to play a prominent role in working to reduce climate change. While his real job is as chief scientist at California Environmental Associates, a San Francisco consulting firm, Shearer has become a sort of eco-fixer, a guy with his hands in all sorts of projects intended to reduce global warming.

About a year ago, the 57-year-old San Francisco resident was talking to longtime Burner Tom Price when he spotted Matt Cheney, chief executive officer of a San Francisco company that invests in renewable energy. Shearer introduced Price to Cheney, who had ambled into the gathering wearing a polo shirt. Though their lifestyles were dissimilar, within months, the Burner and the CEO were collaborating.

The fruits of their partnership were unveiled this month, when Cheney's MMA Renewable Ventures, Burning Man and Sierra Pacific Power announced a new 90-kilowatt solar power plant that will save the Nevada school district of Gerlach $20,000 a year in energy costs.

Shearer was the man behind the scenes of the project, and it's a role he's obviously warmed to. His approach doesn't rely on graphs or charts or dire studies warning that the planet is dying. Instead, he tells the story through both artistic, new media and entrepreneurial projects. He talks about "messaging" cultural change by making environmental choices hip, like how he helped market Toyota's hybrid Prius car.

He thinks every artist should have their own scientist - as a collaborator.

"Science can be so obscure and ephemeral and, dare I say, complex, that it is hard for folks to get what's going on," Shearer said.

"But I'd like to message the fact that art and science can go hand-in-hand in describing some of the big problems we face on the planet and mirroring and showing solution packages around those problems."

The key to Shearer's success is his ability to bridge social and professional circles. He is as comfortable working with sculptors on a solar-powered public art project in North Beach as he is talking to venture capitalists about "activating the capital markets" in the name of global warming.

Several years ago, he advised the Toyota team on how to reach out to the U.S. environmental community in marketing its ground-breaking Prius car; currently, he is co-producing an online series of short films designed to show how climate change links six families around the globe. He's an adviser for an ongoing experiment with plug-in hybrid cars at Google's foundation, and is on the board of Climate Clean, an Oregon carbon offset company that works with Hollywood studios to green their productions.

He is a Buddhist with a Financial District office. Tall and lean, with intense eyes, his ideas flow in bunches, so many that he totes around lined notebooks to record his epiphanies before they evaporate. His latest involves writing pocket-size "100-word dictionaries" "based on an acknowledgment that if you had 100 words in any field, you could have an intelligent conversation," he said. His first topics: "Climate Change," "China," "Web 2.0/New Media" "Investment/Capital Markets" and "Emotional Intelligence" - because "men don't know how to talk to their girlfriends/wives about affairs of the heart."

"He is curious and passionate, but he is not didactic," said Price, who is executive director of Black Rock Solar, a new company that aims to connect underserved communities with renewable energy.

"David is what I call a manifester," Cheney said. "He takes ideas, latches onto them, then puts all the pieces together to make them a reality."

"He understands the complex science, but he's able to translate it into art that people can relate to," said April Bucksbaum, executive director of the Baum Foundation and co-producer of Shearer's climate change film series. The Baum Foundation is funding each of the $30,000 films, and she is pitching them to two networks in February. "His gift is being able to communicate these ideas through a number of visual mediums."

"He speaks the universal language," said Brian Goggin, an artist who co-created "Language of the Birds," a solar-powered North Beach public sculpture commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission. The groundbreaking is scheduled for February. Shearer advised Goggin and co-creator Dorka Keehn on the energy component. "He's so warm and intimate that he breaks down boundaries between people," Goggin said.

Shearer thinks of himself as "a science ambassador."

He was born in Portland, Ore., one of three sons. One brother is a retired logger and the other is a recreational therapist in a hospital. His father ran a plaster and lath company, and his mother was a housewife. David was "the hippie kid" who butted heads with his conservative parents.

As a teenager, he said, he "heard the siren song of the Haight-Ashbury." Which song was that? "That change is afoot," he said. "And certainly it was a love thing, too. I've always gravitated toward brotherhood, fraternity and cooperation."

He never made it to San Francisco. Instead, for the next 20 years, he careened in and out of college and through Mexico, got married and had two sons, and eventually earned a doctorate in epidemiology.

His doctoral degree gave him the intellectual chops to explain the science of climate change, yet friends say his open mind is what allows him to hear new ideas. It is his spiritual side, colleagues say, that really sets him apart from your garden-variety academic.

Like when he talks about exploring a multidimensional world that we cannot see or hear.

"I joke with my friends that I'd like to demonstrate as a scientist that love is a real energy. That love can run a light bulb," the now-divorced Shearer said while sitting in his Financial District office. "And they say to me, 'David, how are you going to do that?' And I say, 'I don't really know, you guys, but as a scientist I need to be open to new ideas, and maybe it resides in one of these other dimensions.'

"Lately, as I talk about climate change, I lay out the picture - this is where we are, this is what the solution packages are - but really what it gets down to is cooperation, conversation and, dare I say, love. It gets down to having dialogues across countries, across societies."

Sometimes those dialogues don't go easily.

Two years ago, he was part of an effort called "Cooling Man," designed to help those attending the annual Burning Man festival calculate and ultimately reduce their carbon footprint at the Nevada site. That effort became the subject of intense debate this past year, when Burners created a large pavilion dedicated to renewable energy ideas and - for the first time at the non-branded, anti-corporate event - invited private companies to share their wares and ideas.

"People said we were selling out," Shearer said, "that we were losing the vision of Burning Man.

"I think what I would say to them (critics) is that I respect your do-it-in-your-garage, create technology from the ground up ethos. You should do that. And in the meantime, I'm going to talk to Goldman Sachs and activate the capital markets because we need scale now. Scale is the issue," Shearer said.

"Too many of us in the progressive environmental community have equated capital with evil," said Price, who no longer feels that way.

Shearer persevered because he knew the value of tapping into the Burning Man tribe: "They're a very compelling, smart population who tend to be on the vanguard of society in terms of bringing new ideas to their lives. It was an opportunity to use the Burning Man platform to message about these big themes."

It's a lesson Shearer learned from his work on the team that helped launch the hybrid Toyota Prius in the United States.

"Yes, he has scientific expertise, but he's always pragmatic. He understands that there are trade-offs that need to happen if you want to accomplish something," said Bill Reinert, national manager in Toyota's advanced technology group.

Advocates for climate change solutions shouldn't be averse to adding a little sizzle to their science. "If you expect people to jump ship, they're not going to jump into water. You have to give them a cooler ship to jump into," Shearer said. "A faster, sleeker, trippier boat. And that's one of the reasons the Prius did well here.

"While we need to be very sanguine about what the problems are on the planet, we need to create exciting, realistic, solution packages that capture the imagination," he said. "It's just too dire without creating some excitement."

E-mail Joe Garofoli at

2007 The San Francisco Chronicle

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