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I was a Chinese Internet addict: a tale of modern medicine



I was a Chinese Internet addict: a tale of modern medicine

I was a Chinese Internet addict: a tale of modern medicine
by McKenzie Funk
First published in
Harper's Magazine, March 2007

I had read online about the Chinese Internet-addiction clinic, but I didn't know if it would accept me until I was actually there. The clinic was run by Chinese doctors and soldiers in a two-story block of concrete on the heavily congested grounds of the Beijing Military Region Central Hospital. Its entrance was a sloped hallway lined with inspirational posters: images of winding highways, palm-fringed swimming pools, empty beaches lapped by tropical waves. Flora, a film student who'd agreed to be my translator, read the captions as we walked in. "Overprotection will make your children disabled," she whispered. "Courage has unbelievable power."

A squat woman with blackened front teeth and a lab coat was standing expectantly in the waiting room. She wore white running shoes with Velcro fasteners, and her hair was cut into a tight bob that faded into a mullet. She smiled warmly and introduced herself as Dr. Yao. I thanked her for seeing me. 

"How long do you go on the Internet each day?" she asked. I stared into space. "That would be, average, uh, eight to twelve hours," I said. "Sometimes less."

"What do you do on the Internet?"

"I read the news a lot. The New York Times online—every story. All of Google News, at least everything that's interesting. The Washington Post. Sometimes I send messages to friends and other people. Sometimes, when I have to buy an airline ticket…"

"Do you play Internet games?"

"No. I just talk to friends and read. But I've watched cartoons on cartoon sites, and I look at things I could buy online."

"Do you have anxiety when you can't get on the Internet?"

"I do wonder if I'm missing messages from friends—emails I really should be reading—and I wonder about the news. Maybe there's a story, American politics or something, and every hour I want to know what's changed. When I have the opportunity, I check those things, and it feels better."

"How old are you?"


I explained that my girlfriend, Jenny, was half Chinese, and let Dr. Yao assume that this had something to do with my being here. I said that Flora was a friend of Jenny's cousin and was helping me on behalf of the worried family. This was a lie.

A nurse in a pink cap walked by, then a soldier in camouflage fatigues. A girl of twelve or thirteen passed next, waving an exuberant good-bye to Dr. Yao while her father toted her suitcase. On the wall of the waiting room, I noticed, was an illustrated poster explaining the inner workings of computers: the Windows operating system, a Web browser set to Google, the interface of the popular Chinese chat program QQ.

"Do you have the ability to take yourself away from the Internet?" Dr. Yao asked. If I had to go to dinner with someone, I could go, I said. But I was often late.

She asked if I had other compulsive behaviors. I admitted that I sometimes read magazines all the way through from the front page to the back page, and that I felt compelled to watch movies, even bad movies, to the very end. She asked if "small things" got stuck in my head, if I often stayed up all night, and if I thought about the Internet while doing other activities. "It's not the Internet itself that I think about but the things inside it," I said.

I was led to a small room furnished with a pullout futon and a gray computer. The hallways were empty; the director and most of the patients, Dr. Yao explained, were at the set of Tell It Like It Is!, one of the oldest and most famous of China's talk shows. She seated Flora and me in front of the computer. Its desktop image was a field of blooming flowers with characters that read, "I really want my psychological health."

On the computer was a diagnostic test. Dr. Yao said there were ninety statements, and I was to rate their truth on a scale from A (not at all true) to E (very true). She helped me fill in my biographical details—level of education, date of birth, profession (I said I had none)—then left Flora and me in private. 

"You have headaches," the computer offered. I chose "B." "You get agitated." I chose "C." "When you have headaches, your head is filled with unnecessary thoughts and words." I pondered the necessity of my thoughts. "C" again. "You feel dizzy or faint," the computer continued. "You have less desire for the opposite sex. You have no desire for food. You check things again and again. You hear things others cannot. You feel that others control your mind. You can't control your temper. You blame your troubles on others. You blame yourself. You are forgetful. You feel lonely. You feel scared. You feel bored. You feel sick. You feel irritable. You cry easily. You worry about your appearance. You worry too much. You can't fall asleep. You have a hard time breathing. You feel your brain is empty. Your heart beats too quickly. You have chest pain. You are afraid of open spaces. You want to smash things. You think about death. You want to end your life. There is something blocking your throat."

I lied outright only a few times: claims of lethargy, lack of appetite, indifference to sex, and isolation from others. I managed a sort of exaggerated honesty, sticking at least to the contours of the truth. If a statement merited a "B," I might give it a "C." But an "A" was always an "A," an "E" always an "E." None of the ninety questions mentioned the Internet, and after an hour the test was done.

A new doctor, younger and much taller than Yao, with fine features on a narrow face, came in with a printout of the instantaneous results. I received decent marks for anxiety, depression, interpersonal communication, and hostility-nothing over what the doctor said was the threshold, 1.50. But my level of paranoia was worrisome: 2.00. Worse was my obsessive-compulsive rating, 2.20. "This is bad," the doctor said. Toward the bottom of the page was a number that seemed out of place: 60. I asked what it signified. She didn't hesitate: "That means you're an Internet addict."

That afternoon, I sat in Dr. Yao's office, looking at translations of Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, and Sigmund Freud as she asked about my successful father and mother and my history of small colleges and good grades. Two doctors, both men, strolled by carrying a pirated DVD of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which they started watching in the room where I'd taken the ninety-question test. I signed a release authorizing the treatment and paid Dr. Yao 2,100 yuan, enough for the first four of the twenty days I was asked to stay.

I retreated into my new room, #27, and listened to the clatter of feet in the hall: my fellow patients, back from their television appearance. At 9:00 P.M. there was a rap on the door. A nurse came in, handed me seven pills, and waited. One was a red gelcap, another a chalky white half-capsule. Four were small white tablets, and a fifth tablet was red. I put the pills in my mouth, hid them in my cheek, and pretended to cough. She kept staring, so I filled a paper cup with hot water from a thermos and drank. When I realized I'd accidentally grabbed two cups that were stuck together, I used my tongue to make a space between them and spit out the rapidly dissolving pills. I crumpled the cups and tossed them into the trash. The nurse didn't seem to notice. She flashed a proud smile and returned to the hall. I was left with the sinking feeling that I'd swallowed the chalky half-capsule and spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out if I felt dizzy, if something was wrong in my head.

It was a dark season for the Internet users of China. Just weeks before I checked in, during the holiday marking the fifty-sixth birthday of the People's Republic, one of their own was killed. Her screen name was "Snowly," and she'd been playing the online game World of Warcraft nonstop for days on end, preparing to join her guild of fighters against the black dragon Nefarian. She collapsed from exhaustion and died in real life before the virtual mission could succeed. Two dozen warriors held her virtual funeral a week later. They kneeled in the digital grass and bowed their heads as words of remembrance floated off toward a range of jagged virtual peaks.

In Shanghai, a court sentenced forty-one-year-old online gamer Qiu Chengwei to life in prison for the murder of a fellow player. It was a complicated case: Qiu had lent his cyber-weapon, a "dragon saber" that he'd won in Legend of Mir II, to a younger player named Zhu Caoyuan, who in turn had sold it for $870 and kept the money. Enraged, Qiu went to the police, but they couldn't help him; China had no laws protecting virtual property. So Qiu broke into Zhu's one-room apartment while he and his girlfriend slept, and Zhu barely had time to put his pants on before Qiu stabbed him in the heart with a real knife.

The number of Chinese Netizens (the preferred translation of the term wangmin, literally "network citizens") recently surpassed 130 million: the world's second-largest online population, after America's, and growing at 30 percent a year. Broadband is cheap, fast, everywhere; Internet cafes number in the tens of thousands; all-night passes cost as little as 5 yuan, or about 60 cents. At any given moment, more than 2 million Chinese are battling one another in virtual worlds, and at one record-breaking moment 22 million users logged on to the chat and social-networking portal QQ. Last year China's online gaming industry posted revenues of $670 million—up 45 percent from 2005, when Netizens spent more than $12 billion on Web access.

Chen Tianqiao, the thirty-two-year-old CEO of Shanda, distributor of Legend of Mir II and other multiplayer games, had recently become a billionaire--one of only ten in the country. Another billionaire was William Ding Lei, who founded Yahoo! injected a billion dollars in cash into the e-commerce site, and China Mobile announced that it had spent more than a billion dollars in two years to bring Internet and phone service to 25,862 rural villages.

Cracks appeared everywhere. Bloggers such as Sister Hibiscus, Rascal Swallow, and Stainless Steel Mouse were vaulted to awkward, inappropriate levels of celebrity. A server crashed after 50,000 people simultaneously tried to download twenty-five minutes of lovemaking sounds from online sex diarist Muzi Mei. A new kind of sweatshop appeared in cities up and down the coast: warehouses packed with young Chinese who played Mir II or World of Warcraft in twelve-hour shifts, winning virtual gold and weapons that rich foreign gamers would buy with real money. A song called "Mice Love Rice," which had been posted online by an unknown lounge singer and music teacher named Yang Chengang, became a national mantra: "I love you, loving you/As the mice love the rice."

Fueled by QQ, a culture of one-night stands infested urban centers. Girls logging on after midnight were barraged by instant messages. "ONS?" they asked. "ONS?" Meanwhile, role-playing Netizens began registering for wanghun (cyber-weddings) and raising digital children together. Hundreds of thousands of strangers engaged in the fantasy at sites such as Virtual Family, and real-life courts granted divorces to real-life spouses as the online bigamists were exposed. Some 30 percent of marital troubles in Guangzhou were said to be caused by virtual affairs and marriages.

In November 2005, a 22,500-person, thirty-city study by the China Youth Association for Network Development confirmed what everybody in China already knew: one out of every eight Chinese young people was an Internet addict. This was followed by the even darker news from the Chinese Academy of Sciences that 80 percent of college and university dropouts had failed due to Internet addiction. A respected Beijing judge, Shan Xiuyun, reported that 90 percent of the city's juvenile crime was Internet-related. In Hunan Province, Internet-related crimes were said to be increasing by 10 percent every year.

In Jiangxi Province, a computer-science major rendered penniless by his addiction killed a homeowner in a burglary gone awry. In Chongqing, a train crushed two middle-school students who'd fallen asleep on the tracks after forty-eight hours online. In Lanzhou, the story was told of a fourteen-year-old who killed his great-grandmother with a brick to the head, took 390 yuan from her body, and went to spend it at an Internet cafe.

Also in Shanghai, it was reported that a young man who'd played online games for six years would be stuck forever in a sitting position. His back was fused at a 90-degree angle; doctors said there was nothing they could do. In Tianjin, a thirteen-year-old played World of Warcraft for thirty-six hours in a row, then rode the elevator to the top of his twenty-four-story building and jumped. He left behind an 80,000-character diary about the virtual world and a suicide note saying he was off to meet the game's characters. His parents sued World of Warcraft's distributor for 100,000 yuan.

Perhaps more remarkable than China's crisis was the response: mass shutdowns of illegal Net cafes, regulations that now kept them 200 meters from any primary or high school, national addiction help lines and "safe surfing" programs, and a thirty-eight-episode anti-Internet addiction sitcom, The Story of Shan Dian Mao. The clinic was part of an all-out counterattack by a people who were certain they saw a danger that the West, in its more incremental steps to modernity, largely hadn't. It is normal for humans to become lost, to drop out of society, and perhaps just as normal for them to lose themselves but tell themselves they're fine. It is rarer, I thought, when we dare name the culprit.


The next morning, I awoke in the fetal position in my hospital bed, shivering underneath a Winnie-the-Pooh comforter. It was 6:40 A.M. My room was cold and dark, and I could barely make out the Pooh poetry on my matching beanbag pillow: "When the/twinkly stars/fill the pretty/night sky,/they all wave/good-bye/with a smile/and a sigh." Another patient, a mustachioed fifteen-year-old, was standing over me. "Time get up," he said. "Hurry, hurry." I stepped into the hallway, where eight bleary-eyed teenagers were lined up against the wall, standing rigid, as a young man in military camouflage examined them. I was the last in the lineup; they'd already been waiting ten minutes.

The soldier was known as Xiaohei, or "Little Black," a nickname that distinguished him from our other minder, the older but shorter "Big Black." His skin was dark, his uniform perfectly starched. Little Black was over six feet tall, lean and muscular, with spiky hair and a face oddly reminiscent of the action hero The Rock. He was the perfect role model.

Little Black led us through a wing where adult alcoholics were packed three to a room, wearing wifebeaters and tattoos while chain-smoking in bed with the television blaring. Once outside, we began to jog. We ran counterclockwise around an enormous new outpatient building, passing hedges trimmed in the shape of a small intestine and a crowd of old people practicing tai chi in a courtyard. One patriotic red banner after another stretched across the road: "We have no weekends so we can create a harmonious society," the first said. After the last banner—"Concentrate on work, speak the truth, try real things…and you'll achieve"—we raced each other for 200 yards to our workout zone, a basketball court. I came in fifth.

Our first exercise was a stretch that started with fists together and ended with one arm raised in a triumphant, Travolta-like pose. We repeated it eight times, first with the left arm up, then the right, counting in English for my benefit. We then approximated a circa-1996 raver's invisible-ball dance, in order to loosen our wrists. We did twenty pushups in unison. We spread our arms like wings, seemingly for balance, and did twenty squats. Off to the side, a minuscule seventeen-year-old patient worked on his own program. His name was Qin Xiangzong, and he was here in part because he had tried to stab a fellow cadet at his officers' academy. The boy soldier put his hands on his waist and kept his feet planted in one spot, then gyrated wildly as if swinging an imaginary hula hoop. He stared intently at the ground, unable to make eye contact with anyone, his face fixed in a demented grin.

Basketball, when it got going, was not a team sport. No one passed; everyone charged toward the goal alone. There were two air balls and six shots off the rim before any went in. My teammate Hu Yimao, a fifteen-year-old with spiky Rod Stewart hair, double-dribbled every time he got the ball. If he pulled down a defensive rebound, he threw up a shot immediately, never mind whose basket he was under. But the game was more unpracticed than unathletic, and the boys took it seriously. My team, aided by a slightly older patient named Su Xu—who dressed in black pants, a black shirt, and black, Japanimation-style cut-off gloves-and a tall, thin boy from Xian, He Cong, won 26 to 7. Our opponents dropped to the ground and did another twenty pushups.

I ate breakfast—bread and a watery rice sludge—alone in my room, and at 9:00 A.M. a beaming Dr. Yao came in to give me my medicine. I used the same double-cup trick. Ten minutes later, the door opened and a man wheeled in a cart. Atop the cart was a device the size and shape of an old dot-matrix printer but with wires connecting it to three jumper cable-like calipers and six small, color-coded suction cups. He had me lie down on the bed, lift up my shirt, and stretch my arms above my head. He swabbed an area abutting my right nipple with alcohol and affixed the red suction cup. The other five cups—purple, yellow, green, blue, and brown—were placed around my heart after further swabbing. He clamped the calipers around both wrists and my left ankle, and after that I wasn't allowed to move. He leaned over the machine. I had no idea what he was doing. I gritted my teeth and genuinely expected a jolt of electricity—I had heard that the doctors would send 30-volt shocks to pressure points on the most recalcitrant patients—but I never felt a thing.

Barely eight months old, the clinic was already famous—the subject of glowing coverage by CCTV, the China Daily, and the state-run Xinhua News Agency. Since it opened in March 2005 on the grounds of the military hospital, its all-army staff had helped hundreds of patients. It claimed a cure rate of 80 percent, a phenomenal degree of success that was attributed to the expertise of the clinic's founder, Tao Ran, who'd been treating various addictions for twenty years. The clinic was often full, and plans were under way to expand it from 20 beds to 150.

It was not cheap. At 410 yuan a day, about $50, a typical twenty-day stay was equivalent to the average city dweller's annual salary. Food was an extra 30 to 50 yuan a day if you ordered Chinese takeout rather than suffer hospital fare—which we all didand gym access was 15 yuan a day. Every patient left a 200-yuan deposit in case he decided to break something. But the steep price bought a comprehensive program: a cocktail of abstinence, forced basketball, weight lifting, daily sessions with a therapist, oral and intravenous drugs, and, for extreme cases, the aforementioned 30-volt electric charges.

The condition being treated at the clinic did not, according to Western medicine, officially exist. But it was not without advocates back home. The first paper on Internet addiction was presented in 1996soon after the birth of the Web itselfat the American Psychological Association's 104th annual meeting, in Toronto. Its author, Dr. Kimberly S. Young, proposed that the disorder be diagnosed using modified criteria for pathological gambling. Addicts were those who answered "yes" to five of eight questions:

 1. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet? 
2. Do you feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction? 
3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use? 
4. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use? 
5. Do you stay online longer than originally intended? 
6. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet? 
7. Have you lied to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet? 
8. Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood? 

Young, who runs the website and a practice in Pennsylvania, was bolstered in her controversial work by Connecticut psychologist David Greenfield and Harvard's Maressa Hecht Orzack, who run and, respectively. In his 1999 book, Virtual Addiction, Greenfield underscored the hidden danger of the Internet's "endless boundaries and unending opportunity." He described the satisfying sensation of a process without close, "the principle of incomplete Gestalts." The Internet was an echo chamber, Young believed. Like drugs or alcohol, it could magnify existing problems—"as the alcoholic's marriage gets worse, drinking increases to escape the nagging spouse, and as the spouse's nagging increases more, the alcoholic drinks more."

One of the most rigorous investigations into Net abuse was led by Dr. Nathan Shapira of the University of Florida and published in 2000 in the Journal of Affective Disorders. He tentatively classified it as an impulse-control disorder, like kleptomania or trichotillomania (the irresistible urge to pull out one's own hair): an increasing feeling of tension or arousal before logging on, nearly impossible to fight, followed by a pleasurable release.

But whether it was called Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), Pathological Internet Use (PIU), Impulsive-Compulsive Internet Usage Disorder (ICIUD), Maladaptive Internet Use, Excessive Internet Use, or Netomania, the condition was denied an entry in DSM-IV, the West's gold-standard manual of mental illnesses. The case for a new classification was muddy. By treating the vast Internet as a monolith-something to be addicted to rather than through—researchers ran into definitional hurdles. Was someone with an online-porn problem an Internet addict or just a pornography addict who indulged via the Web?

Skeptics argued that people lost themselves in socially acceptable diversions (books, television, jogging) all the time: The major difference, they claimed, was bias against the Web. And Shapira's research, consisting of face-to-face psychometric evaluations of twenty subjects, found that so-called addicts had a raft of other mental problems: More than half of the people in his study were determined to be manic-depressive; 60 percent had anxiety disorders. Fifteen of twenty had been treated with psychotropic medications; nineteen had a history of mental illness in the family. On average, each subject had five major psychiatric issues.

Before arriving in Beijing, I'd had my own theory about China's addicts. I hadn't been to Beijing in nine years. I'd pictured a peasant nation susceptible to the dazzle of technology, suddenly come from the fields and into the Internet cafes, and figured that the addicted Netizens were attracted to the Internet's novelty—taken in by newness itself. As a Westerner steeped in modernity, I was largely immune. By this logic, China's crisis was a Gods Must Be Crazy parable, with the Netizens playing the role of the Bushmen, the Internet the role of the Coke bottle. But the longer I spent in the clinic, the less this explanation made sense to me.


My companions were Netizens, but more precisely, I found, most were jiaozhu (kung fu masters)—people who played Internet games all night and slept all day. The best gamers among them were zhanshen: giant heroes in war. For them, the first hurdle here was simply to adjust to the 10:00 P.M. lights-out, when a doctor's hand would reach through their door and flick off the switch. New arrivals were often sedated with a clear IV fluid and left for twenty-four hours until their sleep cycles normalized.

The business of "calming the brain and correcting hormonal imbalances," as Dr. Yao put it, was done by a different IV fluid, a maple syrup-colored sedative of unknown provenance. I was the only patient who didn't receive the sedative daily, because upon check-in I'd pleaded with Dr. Yao to keep the needles out of me. I had an honest phobia. "Once I had a knee problem," I'd told her, "so they took a blood test and they stuck a needle in me and I watched all the blood drain into a bag."

The boys told me that the sacks of sedative took half an hour to drain—longer if one was better hydrated—and left them feeling lethargic, dizzy, and extremely thirsty. One showed me the eight needle holes clustered near the wrist on the top of his hand. My new friend Zhang Dong—the mustachioed boy who'd woken me up and spoke the most English of any of them—had eleven holes. It was like counting rings in a tree: he'd been at the clinic eleven days.

Dong told me I was lucky because I'd been assigned to his psychologist, Dr. Xu, the best the clinic had. "He has a Ph.D.," Dong said. "He will ask you lots of questions about private, very, very personal things." I replied that I was ready—but this was only partly true. I'd never seen a therapist before, and I've never been one for much introspection.

I soon learned that I was the only patient who used email, who didn't play online games, and who didn't have a chat account. But this was unremarkable: While I was in China, Guo Liang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published a study showing that only two thirds of Net users had email accounts, and only a third of them checked their email on a daily basis. Forty-two percent of Netizens did not use a search engine. Seventy-five percent had never made an online purchase.

Instead of replacing encyclopedias, newspapers, storefronts, travel agencies, and the U.S. Postal Service, Chinese people—both addicts and non-addicts—seemed to be replacing the television with a more interactive way to entertain themselves. This was not the business-oriented Web of the West. Guo's study explained that Chinese people overwhelmingly used the Internet to chat, play games, download music, and read about celebrities. The Web lives of the Netizens—whose QQ profiles featured not photos, as on MySpace, but personalized avatars wearing clothing and jewelry bought in a digital store—had very little in common with their real lives; they went online to escape.

The question of how Netizens became kung fu masters had lately taken a surprising turn: instead of looking at what they were escaping to, researchers dared ask what they were escaping from. The man asking the toughest questions was Professor Tao Hongkai, an historian who'd returned to China from the United States in 2002 in order to retire. In May 2004, he'd decided to invite high schooler Qu Qian, a top student turned addict whom he'd read about in his local newspaper, to his house for ad-hoc therapy. He'd cured her in a miraculous nine hours. Word got out. He began receiving phone calls day and night. Mothers sent letters, some written in their own blood, begging for help. Soon he was treating other teenagers, hundreds of them, for free; he packed thousand-seat lecture halls in seventy cities in twenty provinces in sixteen months. His method: actually talk with—not to—the child, and actually listen.

The professor's explanation of Chinese Internet addiction amounted to an indictment of Chinese society. He railed against the one-child policy and the xiao huangdi (little emperors) it had created: children whose every material need was met even as spiritual needs were ignored. Instead of having hopes of their own, spoiled teenagers carried those of six other people--their parents and two sets of grandparents. They were overprotected but underdeveloped, without discipline or a sense of meaning. "They have nothing to hold on to," he said. "They are empty inside."

He believed an even bigger problem lay with China's intensely test-based academics: a child's entire scholastic pathin some ways his or her lifecould depend on one exam, the gaokao, the sole criterion for college entrance. The pressure was crushing; peers became competitors; teachers became slave drivers. Students had time only for rote memorizationnot for singing or volleyball or after-school fun, otherwise defined.

Professor Tao noticed that Mir II and World of Warcraft were games not of gore but of wits and teambuilding and winnable battles. He ventured that they gave teenagers something society, and especially schools, did not: freedom. "If they want to fight, they can fight. If they want to curse, they can curse. If they want to marry, they can marry." Back in real life, he said, "every child is like a little donkey. The teacher grabs his two long ears and pulls and pulis. The parents get behind him and push and push." I thought about my life in America. A little push didn't sound so bad.


I had my psychotherapy sessions in the afternoons. Dr. Xu was soft-spoken but direct, and he had a habit of pausing dramatically before every question. When I gave an answer, he'd raise his eyebrows and say, "Hmmm," then scribble notes on his clipboard. I tried to be honest. Dr. Xu asked about my parentsdid I love them, did I respect them, did I live up to their hopes?and about problems with Jenny, which I said had contributed to my addiction. "Is there such a thing as true love?" he wondered. "Do you think true love must have two sides? Can you truly love someone who doesn't love you back?" I said it was possible. You could fall in love with someone's potential.

Dr. Xu discovered I'd been a philosophy major in college, and he asked me abruptly what the meaning of life was. I didn't know. It was something more important than being happy, I said. "If you had just seven days left to live, what would you do?" he asked. I threw out an awkward answer about going home to my parents in Oregon and writing letters of farewellnot because I was trying to keep in character but because I didn't want to think honestly about death and had no idea what I'd do. "Why don't you and your father talk about feelings?" he asked.

He had me draw a picture of a house, a picture of myself, and a picture of a tree. My house had a chimney and a window and a mailbox; my tree had pinecones like the evergreens in my parents' back yard. But it was ungrounded, I later noticedno base and no roots, just a trunk floating in space. Dr. Xu didn't believe me when I said I rarely remembered dreams after waking up, but it was true; I rarely do.

The boys always filled my room once he left. The grungy, ten- by twenty-foot space, with its three mismatched chairs, TCL brand television, ceiling hook for an IV drip, and yellow fake flowers, was becoming the clinic's social nexus. Dong, who one winter had protested being cut off from the Internet by hanging himself upside down from his parents' balcony, shivering violently with spittle dripping from his mouth, was my most frequent visitor. He told me he'd once stayed online for seven days in a row. A lanky, easygoing boy I called Sam (he reminded me of a friend's brother), whose online record was four days, often joined him.

The first time the pair came over, Dong immediately stared at the television as if something was amiss, then leaned over and turned it on for me. "Okay?" he asked. A boy with a blue-striped sweater and slicked-down hair that made him look like a drowned cat, Song Zhixuan, also appeared. He leaned against the doorjamb because he was too shy to enter, and a few others came all the way in. They took over the bed and chairs and began discussing the relative merits of. Beijing and Shanghai. "Beijing is bigger," Dong said. "Shanghai is," said Sam. "Beijing." "Shanghai." "Beijing." "Shanghai." "Beijing!" "Shanghai!" "Beijing!" "Shanghai!" I was the first foreigner any of the boys had met.

Another time, when we were alone, Dong told Flora and me about the Tell It Like It Is! television appearance with Director Tao. It had not gone well. With the boys at his side, Tao had been arguing against Shanda CEO Chen Tianqiao about Internet addiction. At one point, Tao invoked one school of Confucian philosophy: that human nature is essentially good. Something odd happened. The boy soldier, the would-be stabber, ran to the middle of the stage and began to argue against Tao, point by point.

"There's nothing unhealthy about playing Internet games!" he squeaked, standing as tall as he could in his cadet uniform. Due to his small size, he said, classmates in the real world had done violence to him for the last seven yearsthey'd tortured him, laughed at him. He spoke for ten minutes, telling the crowd that the only true philosophy was that of Xunzi, a Confucius disciple who came to believe that man was essentially evil: "One is born with feelings of envy and hate, and, by indulging these, one is led into banditry and theft." After the boy soldier was done, the Tell It Like It Is! host said he had an urge to hug him. He did so. Director Tao didn't get to finish, and the crowd had seemed to side with the Shanda CEO, who'd employed an argument some have made to keep Internet misuse out of DSM-IV: today's "addicted" Netizens were like the people transfixed by television in its early daysthis was nothing more than a honeymoon periodand their obsessions would subside.

Dong tapped his feet and crossed and recrossed his legs as he told us about the boy soldier's outburst. He rubbed his hands together and rolled his head back and forth, blinking constantly. "He is very extreme, very extreme," he said. "When he attacked his classmate with a knife, it took six soldiers to restrain him." I asked if he believed what the boy soldier said about human nature. "I agree with Director Tao," Dong said, "but sometimes people do evil things for no reasonlike in 1999, when America bombed our embassy in Belgrade for no reason."

He told us he had prepared a speech of his own for Tell It Like It Is! but never had a chance to share it. During the Qing dynasty, he said, there was a famous official named Lin Zexu who had stood up to British opium importers. Lin confiscated 20,000 chests of opium and destroyed them; he barred British ships from trading in the ports of Canton. He also sent a letter to Queen Victoria:


     We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li from China. Yet there are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians…By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience?

Lin's patriotic acts precipitated the disastrous first Opium War, in 1839, but earned him an honorable place in history. Now Chen Tianqiao and his company, who had profited greatly by importing Legend of Mir II from South Korea and were soon to bring an online Dungeons & Dragons from America, were the barbarians. "They are criminals," Dong had planned to say, "and Director Tao and his comrades are like Lin Zexu—the heroes of the nation."

As the days passed, I came to understand the essence of the doctors' fight. It was to make our actual lives more real than our virtual livesto show that it was most fulfilling to be engaged in a world, however imperfect, that had a physical existence. It was a constant struggle. One afternoon, Little Black and Big Black took us to the nearby Power-House Gym, five stories up an office tower of blue glass and polished marble, where Dong and I galloped side by side on walking machines at 13 kilometers an hour. The other boys played Ping-Pong. The soldiers themselves ignored us; they were immediately engrossed in the computers at the gym's four-PC Net cafe. After an hour, Little Black stood up and began rubbing his eyes and slapping himself in the face. We got ready to leave, but Big Black stayed glued to his computer. We walked back without him.

But we were learning the lesson even if they were forgetting it. We learned to face the challenge of standing like real soldiers, keeping our knees perfectly straight and our heads perfectly straight and our shoulders back and our hands flat at our sides. We felt the real pain of sets of thirty, then forty push-ups. We practiced folding our Pooh blankets in the military's "bean curd" stylethe ideal was a perfect, tofu-shaped blockuntil each of us mastered the art. We hung out in the hall sometimes, the wonderful Dr. Yao watching over us like a mother hen, laughing, asking us questions. We got used to conversation, used to caring about what others had to say, used to having others care about what we had to say.

We learned about consequences. The Rod Stewart wannabe and his thin friend from Xian sneaked off to a store during one morning's run and filled their pockets with 10-yuan packs of Beijing Cigarette Factory filter lights. Little Black patted them down, found the contraband, and made them do a hundred push-ups--then forced them to stand perfectly still for five minutes in the middle of the basketball court. The same day, Dong wandered into my room with a plastic soda bottle, shook it vigorously, and idly opened it. It exploded. He learned to mop.

"Everyone has psychological barriers," Dong declared after one of his injections. "For the people here, the barriers are just bigger." He sat in the blue chair that had become his usual perch. The shy boy in the blue-striped sweater, who'd finally gotten up the courage to come inside and discuss Internet games, sat on the bed. He smiled awkwardly and draped an arm over Sam in a show of camaraderie. Dong admitted that he'd sneaked through the clinic at night and tested every computernone of them had Web access. Do you know "Mice Love Rice"? he asked me. "Mice love cheese," I said. He and Sam played a version of "paddy cake": "One, two, three, four, we'll play Internet games no more."

The boys were half my age, but I began to feel like one of them. One morning, Dong got a text message from a friend at the prestigious Gansu Province high school he'd dropped out of. The friend was in the midst of an English test; I was a native speaker. We rushed out an essay for himthe topic was "rules of the library"and texted it back, experiencing the thrill of sticking it to the bigger world. We laughed like idiots. "My classmates study fifteen hours a day," Dong said. "School is corrupted," said Sam.

I wanted to go home, so after four days at the clinic, I set an alarm on my cell phone, and when it began ringing, I pretended to answer a call. I told Dr. Yao that it had been Jennythat she'd found a treatment center for me in Pennsylvania and booked me a flight departing the next morning. I could be closer to her but still receive help. Dr. Yao seemed sad for a moment, but she understood. "We will support whatever is good for you," she said. I began to feel guilty. Dr. Yao was a kind woman, and I'd stopped believing that her cure was so far out of proportion to China's crisis. When she tried to return the money I'd overpaida few hundred yuanI donated it to the clinic.

The boys were shocked at my departure. We posed for photos: me with Dong, me with the boy soldier, me with black-clad Xu, me with the shy boy in the blue sweater, me with Rod Stewart, me with Sam and bunny ears, me with Sam and no bunny ears. I went into the hall and took more photos with Little Black and Dr. Yao and the nurses. I met Director Tao for the first time, and he sat with me as his staff's cameras flashed. "You studied philosophy," he said. "Chairman Mao was our greatest philosopher, so I'll give you this." It was a gold Mao pin in a red box.

I was allowed a final meeting with Dr. Xu. "Did you have any dreams last night?" he asked. I actually remembered one: I'd dreamt that I'd lied to Dong and the others about my real age, and that I'd been caught; they'd realized that I wasn't one of them just as I'd begun to think that I was. Dr. Xu brought up Heidegger and Sartre, and I had to reveal how embarrassingly little I remembered from my college studies. He flipped through his notes, which had become so thick that they fell off the clipboard. He looked me in the eye. "You are looking for some advice, I think." I was. "Read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus." I still haven't. He asked me to do a story stem: he'd start the story, and I'd finish it. "Imagine that you're a small tiger walking alone in a tall forest," he said. For a moment, however fleeting, I truly did.

Radio interview:


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Opinion: Deciding Where Future Disasters Will Strike


Opinion: Deciding Where Future Disasters Will Strike

Opinion: Deciding Where Future Disasters Will Strike
By McKenzie Funk
First published in the New York Times Sunday Review, November 2012

We all have an intuitive sense of how water works: block it, and it flows elsewhere. When a storm surge hits a flood barrier, for instance, the water does not simply dissipate. It does the hydrological equivalent of a bounce, and it lands somewhere else.

The Dutch, after years of beating back the oceans, have a way of deciding what is worth saving with a dike or sea wall, and what is not. They simply run the numbers, and if something is worth less in terms of pure euros and cents, it is more acceptable to let it be flooded. This seems entirely reasonable. But as New York begins considering coastal defenses, it should also consider the uncomfortable truth that Wall Street is worth vastly more, in dollar terms, than certain low-lying neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens—and that to save Manhattan, planners may decide to flood some other part of the city.


I think I was the only journalist who witnessed the March 2009 unveiling of some of the first proposed sea-wall designs. “Against the Deluge: Storm Surge Barriers to Protect New York City” was a conference held at N.Y.U.’s Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, and it had the sad air of what was then an entirely lost cause. There was a single paying exhibitor—“Please visit our exhibitor,” implored the organizers—whose invention, FloodBreak, was an ingenious, self-deploying floodgate big enough to protect a garage but not at all big enough to protect Manhattan. When we lined up for the included dinner, which consisted of cold spaghetti, the man waved fliers at the passing engineers. But as I look back over my notes, I can see how prescient the conference was. A phrase I frequently scrawled is “Breezy Point.”

One speaker got a sustained ovation. He was an engineer from the Dutch company Arcadis, whose $6.5 billion design is one with which I suspect we will all soon be familiar. It is a modular wall spanning 6,000 feet across the weakest point in New York’s natural defenses, the Narrows, which separates Staten Island and Brooklyn. Its main feature is a giant swinging gate modeled on the one that protects Rotterdam, Europe’s most important port. Consisting of two steel arms, each more than twice as long as the Statue of Liberty is tall, Rotterdam’s gate is among the largest moving structures on earth. And New York’s barrier would stretch across an even larger reach of water—“an extra landmark” for the city, he said triumphantly. That’s when everyone began clapping.

The engineers in the room did not shy away from the hard truth that areas outside a Narrows barrier could see an estimated two feet of extra flooding. If a wave rebounding off the new landmark hits a wave barreling toward it, it could make for a bigger wave of the sort that neighborhoods like Arrochar and Midland Beach on Staten Island and Bath Beach and Gravesend in Brooklyn may want to start fretting about.

I attended the conference not just because I was interested in the fate of New York, my onetime home, but because I was recently back from parts of Bangladesh decimated by a cyclone. By now it is commonplace to point out that climate change is unfair, that it tends to leave the big “emitter countries” in good shape—think Russia or Canada or, until recently, America—while preying on the low-emitting, the poor, the weak, the African, the tropical. But more grossly unfair is the notion that, in lieu of serious carbon cuts, we will all simply adapt to climate change. Manhattan can and increasingly will. Rotterdam can and has. Dhaka or Chittagong or Breezy Point patently cannot. If a system of sea walls is built around New York, its estimated $10 billion price tag would be five times what rich countries have given in aid to help poorer countries prepare for a warmer world.

Whether climate change caused Sandy’s destruction is a question for scientists—and in many ways it’s a stupid question, akin to asking whether gravity is the reason an old house collapsed when it did. The global temperature can rise another 10 degrees, and the answer will always be: sorta. By deciding to adapt to climate change—a decision that has already been partly made, because significant warming is already baked into the system—we have decided to embrace a world of walls.

Some people, inevitably richer people, will be on the right side of these walls. Other people will not be—and that we might find it increasingly convenient to lose all sight of them is the change I fear the most. This is not an argument against saving New York from the next hurricane. It is, however, an argument for a response to this one that is much broader than the Narrows.


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Gitmo on the Radio


Gitmo on the Radio

First aired on Too Much Information and The Story, May and July 2011

A conversation with a man from Tajikistan who was detained in Pakistan, questioned, and eventually flown to Guantanamo. After two years, he was released—and he speaks with journalist McKenzie Funk about his time in prison.


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The Man Who Has Been to America: Four prisons. Three countries. Two years. One Guantanamo detainee's story.


The Man Who Has Been to America: Four prisons. Three countries. Two years. One Guantanamo detainee's story.

The Man Who Has Been to America: Four Prisons. Three countries. Two years. One Guantanamo detainee's story.
by McKenzie Funk
First published in 
Mother Jones, September 2006

In the enemy combatant's house, in the room where he eats and prays and sleeps, a single window casts its light on a single adornment: an enormous Soviet-era map of the world. It is the first thing I notice after I arrive unannounced one cold fall morning and am ushered into the warmth of the room. We sit on the floor below an elongated Africa, a tiny America, and a colossal, pink-shaded U.S.S.R. A brother with a prosthetic leg appears and lays out a brightly patterned sheet still covered with past meals' bread crumbs. Non ham non, nonreza ham non, the Tajik proverb goes: "Bread is bread, crumbs are also bread."

The enemy combatant serves the tea. He pours it before it's properly steeped, dumps the watery cups back into the pot, and repeats. If he's unhappy to see an American after Guantanamo, he doesn't show it. He smiles, and two wrinkles appear on his left cheek. I ask him his full name. Muhibullo Abdulkarim Umarov, he tells me. He says he is 24 years old. He asks, "You want to know the story of my capture, yes?"

The village of Alisurkhon, where Umarov was born and eventually returned, is a collection of mud-walled homes and apple orchards beneath the 14,000-foot peaks of Tajikistan's Pamir Mountains. Physically, it's closer to Afghanistan than to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, 12 hours and 150 miles of dusty, nauseatingly potholed road to the west. Along with post-communist detritus that litters the roadside—smokestacks, rusting tractors, half-finished cities of concrete and rebar—are occasional burned-out tanks, leftovers from the 1992-97 civil war that killed up to 150,000 Tajiks after the breakup of the U.S.S.R. The crumbling infrastructure disappears as you climb higher into the Pamirs; the frequency of gutted tanks increases. This valley along the Obihingou River was once home to the Islamist opposition, and nearly a decade after the peace accords, the ex-Soviets who control Dushanbe still believe they have enemies lurking here. It is a suspicious place to be from.

The valley has a wild-boar problem. The hogs are everywhere lately, trampling crops, tearing through fields of potatoes and wheat. Local hunters, increasingly orthodox since the fall of the Soviet Union and no longer interested in eating pork, have stopped controlling their numbers—and Russian hunters have stopped coming here altogether. Aid groups, wary of the valley's growing conservatism, have largely steered clear. When a friend and I visited on a mountaineering trip in the summer of 2003, villagers said we were the first Westerners they'd seen in 12 years.

I'm back in the Obihingou Valley a year and a half later when one of these villagers, a bearded farmer with a toothy grin and two missing fingers, tells me about Umarov. We're having fried potatoes and soup in the farmer's guest room, a converted shed with whitewashed walls and plastic bags for windows. "There's a man in the valley who has been to America," he mentions casually. I find this unlikely. "Really. He was in a prison. They made a mistake." He begins to chuckle—that America could make such a mistake amuses him. I ask where the prison was. "Koba...kaba?" It takes me a moment to realize he's trying to say "Cuba," and a few days to cancel trekking plans and find an ancient Uaz jeep to transport me down to Alisurkhon.

We sit cross-legged in Umarov's room, circled around the teapot, me staring at the wall and running a tape recorder, Umarov staring out the door. The brother with the prosthesis—Ahliddin —keeps shuffling in and out, and my friend Kubad (he asked that his name be changed for the purposes of this story), a Tajik mountain guide playing the role of translator, sits with us as well. Umarov looks mostly at Kubad when he answers questions, keeping his hands in his lap, speaking so softly that it sometimes seems he's whispering.

"As you know, 1994 was a year of continual war in Tajikistan," he begins, "and the planes came to bombard our village. I was 14. Ahliddin was 10." The boys were in the field outside their grandparents' home when one of the bombs fell, and day turned to night, so thick was the dust in the air. "My brother's right leg was amputated from the knee down," Umarov says.

In this same house, under the same Soviet map, he and his father readied a stretcher that would carry Ahliddin through the Pamirs to Afghanistan, where they would spend the winter in a camp along with thousands of other Tajik refugees. His youngest brother, Rahmiddin, then six, also came. Umarov does not know which pass they took. He only remembers the snow.


By springtime, Ahliddin had a new leg from the Red Cross, but the boys needed a new home. "The Taliban were not in Afghanistan at that time," Umarov says, "but the country was not peaceful either." Their father took them south to Pakistan, then returned to his wife and daughter in Alisurkhon. "We attended religious schools in Peshawar," Umarov says. "Our studies were paid for by wealthy Pakistanis and the government."

I ask what these schools taught about America, and he smiles knowingly. "Maybe there were schools with the primary goal of preparing fighters," he says, turning to face me, "but where I was, we never thought of these things. We were very young." He gestures to the wall. "I heard about America when I saw it on this map. But I didn't know anything about it."

He stayed for six years, moving through three schools. He learned Urdu, Pashto, and Arabic. He was a good student, and a good soccer player. In May 2001, soon after his graduation, the Tajik Embassy gave him a passport and documents for a trip home to newly stable Tajikistan. He returned proudly to Alisurkhon—the eldest son, diploma in hand—and helped his parents with the harvest, collecting apples and potatoes and walnuts. "But then America started bombing Afghanistan," he says, "and the whole world went crazy."


That fall, Umarov was dispatched by his parents back to Pakistan, to raise enough money to bring his brothers home. With direct flights nonexistent, and the land route via Afghanistan treacherous, he flew via Iran. Once in Pakistan he worked selling clothing, food, and pencils—whatever was in demand—in the Peshawar bazaar, and on May 13, 2002, he decided to visit Karachi in search of a steadier job. A Tajik friend, Abdughaffor, had a place for him to stay.

Abdughaffor lived in a room in the University of Karachi library, where he worked. Also staying there was another Tajik, Mazharuddin, whose name means "place for the miraculous appearance of the faith." All four walls in the library were filled with books, and on the floor were thin carpets. The three Tajiks slept on the carpets. They hung up their T-shirts. It was early in the morning of May 19 when Pakistani secret service agents came. The agents woke them up, took the T-shirts down, and used them to tie the men's hands and cover their eyes.

When his blindfold was removed, Umarov was in a jail cell, his friends at his side. "I was not afraid," he says. "I knew I'd done nothing wrong." The Pakistanis took them one at a time for interrogations, quizzing them in rapid-fire Pashto about their names, birthplaces, and histories—and about a bombing that had just occurred. "Somewhere in Karachi," Umarov says, "there was an attack. A bomb exploded."

It had been Pakistan's first suicide bombing: Eleven days earlier, a red Toyota Corolla had pulled alongside a minibus outside the Karachi Sheraton, its tires screeching. An explosion ripped the bus apart, shattered nearby windows, and left a smoking crater in the ground. Three passersby and 11 passengers—French engineers working for the Pakistani navy—were killed. At least 22 others were injured. Pakistani authorities immediately suspected outsiders; newspapers ran ads asking the public to report any suspicious foreign nationals. (The investigation would, in fact, lead to a homegrown mastermind, Sohail Akhtar, alias Mustafa, who was eventually arrested in April 2004.)


After 10 days of interrogations, Umarov was handcuffed, taken from his friends, and driven across the city. He thought he would be freed; the Pakistanis had said as much. But the drive ended at a building that looked like a luggage factory—a secret jail where leather briefcases were stacked high against the walls.

Two Americans were running the jail, both blond, one with long hair, one short. One was a "strong man," big and muscular; the other had an average build. Neither wore a military uniform. "The reason I knew they were Americans," Umarov says, "is that they told me so." Later, he would hear that America paid bounties for suspected terrorists, and he would wonder if he, too, had been purchased.

No longer was he questioned about the Karachi bombing. The Americans interrogated him about Al Qaeda. "They asked me what I knew about the terrorists," he says. "Did I know where they were?" They asked if his passport was fake, and if he'd seen or met Osama bin Laden. "Of course, I'd heard about him on the radio and TV," Umarov says. "But how would I, a student, know much about him if people who came from a powerful country like America did not know anything about him?" He pauses and looks at Kubad and me, inviting us to question his logic.

"I was not afraid," he repeats. "I am not a thief—not someone who should be afraid of them or anything. I told them what I knew." If he lied, the men said, they would send him to Cuba. Umarov remembers turning to the translator. "What is Cuba?" he asked.

When the questions were over, they locked him in a concrete room for 10 days. The room was three feet long and one and a half feet wide and insufferably hot. He wore iron handcuffs. It was impossible to stand up or move about. "All my thoughts were about how my life was going to end," he says. He worried about his brother Ahliddin, about an unpaid debt to his neighbors, and about the times in his life when he had made people angry or upset. "When I wanted to go to the toilet," he says, "I would knock on the door and three guards—one with the gun and two with the stick—took me there." Three times a day, he was given a bowl of rice, one chapati, and one glass of tea.

"I was angry at these men for putting me in that room without any reason," he says. "But if you read the history of Islam, you will know there are stories similar to mine—when people are taken or sentenced to death without any reason. It taught us to keep our emotions together." What confused him was that there seemed to be no purpose to his treatment; it was not a tactic to get him to talk. The blond Americans did not interrogate him again. He was returned, bleary-eyed and unwashed, to the Pakistani jail, where his friends were still being held. "From my appearance," he says, "they knew I had not been in a good place."


At 2 a.m. the next day, the Pakistanis handcuffed Umarov, Abdughaffor, and Mazharuddin and put black bags over their heads. There was a bus, where American soldiers took their photographs, and then an airplane, where they were tied together on the floor. They wore metal belts around their waists and chains over their shoulders. They could not move, Umarov tells us. They did not know where they were going.

When the plane landed, two soldiers lifted them and counted, in English, "One, two, three," and threw them into a truck. "As a sack of potatoes," Umarov says. He landed on the metal truck bed. His friends landed on top of him. "When we cried out," he says, "we were kicked."


Umarov breaks from the storytelling and stands up, and Kubad and I follow him outside into the blinding daylight. Walnuts are spread out on a canvas tarp, drying in the sun. He plucks a handful of tiny red apples from a tree, presents them to us, and disappears through a door. When he returns, he's carrying a stack of papers: documents, in English and in Russian, from the Red Cross and the U.S. Department of Defense.

"This individual has been determined to pose no threat to the United States Armed Forces or its interests in Afghanistan," one reads. "There are no charges from the United States pending [sic] this individual at this time." It goes on: "The United States government intends that this person be fully rejoined with his family."

These papers are now the only form of identification Umarov has, he says—a red flag that causes shakedowns at Tajik checkpoints and occasional arrests. The U.S., which offered no compensation upon his release, never returned his passport either. Attempts to get a new one have been blocked by a local official—part of the "KGB," as Tajiks still call it—who also blocked Ahliddin's passport application and demands periodic bribes from the now vulnerable family.

An airplane hangar, vast and bright with artificial lights, was Umarov's third prison: Bagram, Afghanistan. "Our cages were in a two-story building inside the bigger building," he tells us. "They had high fences and were surrounded by sharp wires." All the windows were covered. "The whole place," he says, "was blocked from daylight and man's sight."

Each cell held as many as 15 men; each man was issued blue prison dungarees, a wooden platform to serve as a bed, and two blankets. Umarov used one of the blankets as a mattress, the other to cover himself—though it wasn't enough. The nights were cold, and the guards would not let him put his head under the covers. Inmates wore shackles on their wrists as well as their ankles, even when sleeping, and each was assigned a number. Umarov's was 75. "Seventy-five," he whispers in halting English. "Seventy-five, come here."

Powerful lights flooded the cages 24 hours a day, and the guards made loud noises to keep the prisoners awake. They hit their billy clubs against the metal fences. They pounded on barrels. They threw cans and empty water bottles. "We lost count of days, let alone dawn and dusk," he says. "We never saw daylight. We were never outside." Groups of four guards worked eight-hour shifts; black tape covered the names on their uniforms. One American looked just like Rambo: no uniform, a scarf on his head, a cut on his hand. "I know him," Umarov says, smiling. "He was the guy who made the film about Afghanistan."

If the prisoners talked to each other, the soldiers forced them to stand and hold their shackles above their heads until the pain made them not want to talk again. If they talked again, Umarov says, the soldiers would take them upstairs and beat them. He was never beaten. But once he dared to talk to Abdughaffor and Mazharuddin, and the soldiers forced him to stand for hours, holding his shackles up while his arms shook. He did not talk again.

Umarov knew the other men in his cage as faces. He grew bored of looking at them. They were Arabs and Afghans and Pakistanis and men who spoke French and English. These, he assumed, must be the terrorists—the ones to be blamed for the world going crazy, the ones who should be punished. Sometimes, when a cellmate was taken upstairs, screams would ring out across the prison. "This did not happen every day," he says, "but it happened."

I ask for details, and he's reluctant to say more. "I did not see anything with my own eyes," he says, "and my friends and I did not experience this torture." He pauses. There were stories he later heard in Cuba, he says—stories that he believed—about "beatings with the wooden stick" and electrocutions. "American soldiers used electrical cables to shock them in their eyes, hands, and feet. Three men told me this. And some, mostly Arabs, were forced to remove their clothes in front of women. There were other things, too." He will not go on.

I wonder if I should put any faith in rumors passed from detainee to detainee to me, then realize I'm missing the point. Umarov's story is best understood as what happens when an everyman is imprisoned without trial, moving through a system built for the worst of the worst. It's not a story about the cruelest cases of torture—those that America may someday expose and bemoan and ban—but about something that may be scarier: what has become normal in the war on terror.


In two months at Bagram, Umarov says, he had only one interrogation—with an American woman who questioned him in Farsi and seemed confused as to why he was there. "We were alone in the room," he says. "She checked my documents and listened to my answers, then told me I wasn't guilty." Life became a haze. He would stand and sit and try to sleep in his cage, and every fifth day a soldier loosened his handcuffs and let him walk around the prison grounds. Every seventh day, he was brought to the showers, which often had female guards and shut off after two minutes, even if he was still covered in soap.

One day early in August, while Umarov and his friends were eating lunch, the soldiers came to take them to Cuba. They walked into their cell and started shouting, "Stand up, stand up!" and everybody did, leaving plastic containers of pasta and meat half-eaten.

"They handcuffed our hands with metal," he says, "and covered our eyes with something like sunglasses, only it was impossible to see through them. They covered our ears with something like headphones, only it was impossible to hear anything." His mouth and nose were covered with tape, then with what seemed like a surgical mask. They placed a dark hood over his head, and it became difficult to breathe. They tied his legs and feet with a chain and attached this chain to another chain around his waist. Finally they marched him onto an airplane and chained him to the floor. "After that," he says, "I do not remember anything."

"I was sleepwalking when we came to Guantanamo," he tells us. "I did not understand where I was." He was unloaded from the airplane, but he does not recall how. "When my consciousness appeared," he says, "I found myself in the sandy desert. And I thought I would be executed there, in the desert." His wrists, legs, and face were bleeding from the shackles and mask. Soldiers loosened the cuffs and straps, changed the tape on his mouth, and removed the thing that blocked his ears. They took him to the showers and gave him a clean uniform—this time in orange—and a new number. Then Prisoner 729 went for an immediate medical checkup and interrogation.

At first, he was interrogated every week. "There were new investigators every time," he says. "There was a new room every time. But the questions were always the same"—an endless repetition of the conversation about Pakistan and Tajikistan and his life in both. Occasionally, he became so angry that he wouldn't answer their questions, preferring to sit in silence. Other times, he challenged his interrogators: "Why was I taken here if I have not committed any crimes?"

They told him they were suspicious because he had traveled many places, many times, by many routes. He had been to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. "I answered that they could find many people like me," he says. "Why was it that it had to be me?" They said that the routes he'd taken were famous, and used mostly by terrorists; he might have seen the terrorists on the roads. They asked if he'd known any of his fellow passengers on his flight to Iran. "The people on the plane were mostly American journalists," he responded. "Why not arrest them?"

At Guantanamo, the showers lasted five minutes. At first he had three showers a week, then he had four, and soon he had showers almost daily. The frequency of showers went up and the frequency of interrogations went down. They began calling him in only once a month, then once every two months. Eventually, they stopped interrogating him altogether.

"The hygiene was good in Cuba," he admits, "and we were allowed to pray and fast." Each cell had a Koran and a real bed, and, through a mesh fence, Umarov could talk freely with his neighbors. (Like other detainees, Umarov believes that staring through the mesh has permanently affected his vision.) He did not wear handcuffs in his cell. Those were used only during biweekly exercise sessions, when the guards chained his hands to his feet and led him shuffling around a fenced yard. After his walks, they always returned him to a different cell, and to different neighbors. He ended up near Mazharuddin once. He met his formerly silent cellmates from Bagram and a principal from Pakistan and a farmer from Afghanistan and an English-speaking Kuwaiti who liked to talk to the soldiers.

"Some men were moved constantly," he says. "They would wake them up, put them in chains, and take them to a new cell or to an interrogation room." Prisoners were left shackled in a standing position until the investigators arrived. "They sometimes had to stand for 24 hours, moving only when they were brought to the toilet," he says. "How could anyone be normal after that?" Yet Umarov never heard Bagram-like yells at Guantanamo, and few of his neighbors told him they had been tortured. What they talked about was injustice. "We did not know why we were there or when we would leave," he says. "At Guantanamo, the torture wasn't physical—it was psychological."

Some prisoners went insane. Abdughaffor was one of them. He would throw himself against the door and scream. He tried to hang himself. He wouldn't eat. He became somebody Umarov did not know. Others took off their clothes and sat naked in their cells. "These people became like children," he says. "They did not understand their reality."

"During the first five or six months," Umarov says, "I believed they would find the terrorists among us, take them away, and let the rest of us go home." But his detention continued. He lost hope. "I started to believe that America was against Islam," he says.

He did not see the soldier write slurs in the prisoner's Koran, but he believes that it happened—an Arab told him about it. "People did not mind when translators or those who believed in God touched the holy book," he says, "but they were angry with the faithless and godless soldiers who wrote ugly words inside it. Kafirs—godless people—are not allowed to touch the Koran." Rumors of a desecration swept through the prison. The next day, 10 prisoners attempted suicide; by week's end, there were 23 "hanging or strangulation attempts," according to the U.S. Army's Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo.

Around Umarov, men tried to hang themselves using prison sheets, twisting there until soldiers came to cut them down. "I thought about it, too," he admits. "But from the Islamic point of view, suicide is a sin. We advised our neighbors not to do it." He witnessed one or two attempts a day. In response, the guards removed the sheets from the cells, turned off the water, and stripped every prisoner to a T-shirt and underpants.

Other prisoners, Umarov included, went on a hunger strike. Umarov joined this strike and two others, going days without food and water, not changing his clothes. "I wanted to either be sent back or die there," he says. The military eventually issued an apology over the loudspeakers. "They publicly apologized to us in different languages," he says. "It meant that we could stop." Soldiers came to haul them off to the camp hospital. In extreme cases, doctors came to the cells and stuck tubes into their arms.

"The American soldiers were like us in a way," he tells us. "They did whatever was ordered from the top—and they are not guilty for that." He watched as fellow prisoners told their stories to guards, and he watched as guards cried after hearing them. "We told them about Islam and how beautiful it is," he says. "Had they not been soldiers, I am sure they would have converted into one of us without questions."

Yet it is the soldiers whom Umarov blames for the worst of his days at Guantanamo. It was the first day of Ramadan, he recalls, when he decided to go above them and ask an investigator about his status. After his meeting with the investigator, the soldiers punished him for his insolence. They threw him into isolation for 10 days.

"I was taken to the dark room," he says. "The soldiers took all my clothes and left me there." The room was made of iron; it measured three feet by five feet. At night, frigid air was pumped through a hole in its ceiling, and its small window was covered by Plexiglas so the air couldn't leave. Two electric coils provided dim light, and during the day, they were turned up to heat the cell to a very high temperature. But night was worse. "Some prisoners wouldn't last the night and had to be taken to the doctor," he says. "They kept me there for 10 days—and for no reason."

He later spent another 15 days in isolation, but for that, he says, there was a reason. I ask him what it was. "I was standing in the cell block, leading a prayer for 48 people, and a female soldier came up and stood right next to me. I asked her to move, but she would not. She was doing psychological pressure. So I spit on her."


It is late in the evening now, after eight hours of interviews, and Umarov, Kubad, and I pause for dinner. Ahliddin brings in a meal of bread, boiled potatoes, and tomatoes. We eat with our hands.

I ask Umarov to demonstrate how he was chained during interrogations, and he rocks forward, crossing his ankles and tucking his arms underneath his knees. He does it automatically, almost unconsciously, then stares at me with a sickly smile. I press him for more information about the suicides, more about his time in the air-conditioned box. His smile fades.

"What I've already said should be enough for those who want to know about this prison," he says softly. "It was like being in a zoo, with people coming to stare and laugh at you." I keep pressing. His voice rises. "There is no point in telling more of these stories. Such a prison has never existed in the history of mankind. No one has ever written about such a prison. Why did they keep a man for two years with no reason? Why? They caught me and kept me as a prisoner of war. What war, may I ask? When was I involved? I was sleeping when they came and dragged me out of my bed. People who understand the laws will have already made up their minds about who is who."

Ahliddin tries to change the subject. "In Pakistan," he says, "I met a family that had lived in America. They'd worked as dog washers." He tries to say the words in En-glish: "dog wah sir." We keep eating, pondering the absurdity that, somewhere in the world, it could be a man's job to wash a dog. "That's what's wrong with America," Kubad announces. "When a dog is dirty, you think it's a problem. When a real problem comes, you don't know what to do."

In February 2004, Umarov played soccer again. He and dozens of others were moved to a new, lower-security prison camp within Guantanamo called Camp 4. The cells were bigger there and the food had taste, and they had meals together in a special room for eating. "We could walk and talk freely," he says. "If we didn't finish our food, we could keep it with us." He was reunited with Mazharuddin and Abdughaffor, who was now better. Better…though never again himself. No longer did they have to wear orange uniforms. This was an important thing. In Camp 4, the uniforms were white, almost like normal clothing. The prisoners were watched via closed-circuit cameras; they could spend six hours a day outside in the fresh air.

Umarov wasn't good at soccer anymore, but he was stronger than many of the others. Some had become too weak to run. "We were like two teams of old men," he says. "Worse than old men." They played every day.

In March, Umarov, Abdughaffor, Mazharuddin, and 13 others from Camp 4 were issued uniforms in yet another color: brown. They noticed a change in the way the soldiers treated them, and they started getting called in for interrogations again. Umarov had four in quick succession.

The last investigator he met was an old man, and he was brought to him free of chains. The investigator was tall, with gray hair and a belly, and he sat at a table that held candies, tea, and cans of Pepsi Cola. Umarov had never been offered Pepsi Cola during an interrogation before. He sat down at the table, and the investigator made a speech. "He told me that the main reason America had been fighting and bombing in Afghanistan was to get rid of terrorists and those who create chaos," Umarov says. "He said that in a war situation, there are always people who are affected who were not guilty. He felt sad that two years had been taken from my life, and that I'd been kept away from my family." Now Umarov would be freed.

The investigator advised Umarov to think of his future. If people approached him to fight against America, he should not join them. He should have a family and be a good father to his children. "He shared the story of his own life with me," Umarov says. "He was left without a father at a young age—that's why he was suggesting that I think about family." They spoke for nearly an hour. At the end, the investigator stood up and hugged him. Umarov imagined his mud room with the Soviet map, his parents, his orchard, his apples. He was not mad at this speech. He was happy.

At 2 a.m. on March 31, 2004, Muhibullo Abdulkarim Umarov, along with his two Tajik friends and a dozen others, walked without chains through a gauntlet of soldiers at the Guantanamo airfield. Journalists' flashes popped and cameras rolled as the procession of detainees passed, and two guards—a man and a woman—carefully helped Umarov board an airplane. Inside its belly, away from the journalists, they then handcuffed him and chained him down, and they covered his eyes with the same plastic glasses. They covered his ears with the headphones. They covered his mouth with tape. "But this time we were not chained to the floor," he says. "We were chained to the benches."

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Glaciers for Sale: a global warming get-rich-quick scheme


Glaciers for Sale: a global warming get-rich-quick scheme

Glaciers for Sale: a global warming get-rich-quick scheme
by McKenzie Funk
First published in 
Harper's Magazine, July 2013

The Canadian dentist behind what may or may not have been the world’s first global-warming Ponzi scheme either lives or does not live in Iceland. His name is Otto Spork, and when I first learned of him, in 2008, he had secured the water rights to a glacier north of Reykjavík and quit his dental practice to run the most successful hedge fund in Canada. His Toronto investment firm, Sextant Capital Management—the name was chosen to honor his paternal grandfather, Johan Marinus Spork, a Dutch sea captain—had recently been claiming 730 percent returns for its investors. Spork’s sales pitch was simple: the world was warming and parts of it were running dry, so Sextant bought water companies. Hundreds of Canadian and offshore investors were persuaded to buy in—and Spork earned millions of dollars in management fees as money poured into his funds. The arrangement succeeded magnificently until December 8, 2008, three days before Bernie Madoff was arrested, when the Ontario Securities Commission accused Spork of a massive fraud.

Water is the medium of climate change—the ice that melts, the seas that rise, the vapor that warms, the rain that falls torrentially or not at all. It is also an early indicator of how humanity may respond to climate change: by financializing it. In the year following the release of Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, at least fifteen water-focused mutual funds were created. The amount of money controlled by such funds ballooned from $1.2 billion in 2005 to $13 billion in 2007. Credit Suisse, UBS, and Goldman Sachs hired dedicated water analysts. A report from Goldman called water “the petroleum for the next century” and speculated excitedly about the impact of “major multi-year droughts” in Australia and the American West. “At the risk of being alarmist,” it read, “we see parallels with…Malthusian economics.”

In the summer of 2008, I was starting work on a book about climate change when a Spork tip came in from a sales executive at the trade publication Global Water Intelligence. “The transportation of potable water is becoming increasingly popular as a solution to cases of acute water shortage,” wrote the salesman as he tried to entice me with a $1,060 subscription. The tankers that had sailed that spring between Marseille and a drought-stricken Barcelona had eventually been outcompeted by rainfall, he admitted. But “one of our subscribers (and the sponsor of our most recent conference in London), iGlobalWater…has recently been heavily involved in such projects.” He claimed that iGlobalWater—unlike the handful of stillborn bulk-water schemes in decades past—had moved beyond the planning stage. The company was already shipping water from Iceland. I didn’t buy a subscription, but I was intrigued.

The website was registered to something called Spork Capital. The name Spork led to Sextant Capital. Sextant and iGlobalWater turned out to be on the same floor of the same office tower at the Royal Bank Plaza, Downtown Toronto’s most prestigious address. (It would later become clear that iGlobalWater’s global headquarters consisted of half of a long table inside Sextant.) I phoned and emailed both companies repeatedly. No one ever responded. A few months later, the securities-fraud charges were unveiled and I began to understand why Spork had stonewalled me. According to his lawyers, Spork had moved to Iceland. It was the beginning of a five-year chase.

The dentist ignored Canadian authorities too, skipping meetings with investigators and appearances before the Ontario Securities Commission. On May 18, 2011, with almost $100 million from Sextant investors still unrecovered, the Ontario Court of Justice found him guilty. Nearly all Sextant’s funds had been funneled into two Icelandic water businesses that Spork himself controlled through a web of shell companies in Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands, and the dentist and his family had paid and loaned themselves close to $50 million. What wasn’t clear was whether Sextant had been a kind of Ponzi scheme from the start—or had Spork really believed he could sell Icelandic water to a drought-stricken world?

I decided to fly to Iceland with my friend Damon Tabor, a fellow journalist who had shared my Spork interest from the beginning, to see if we could find him and discover the truth. It was a small country. We would bring cameras and voice recorders and GPS units and binoculars and walkie-talkies. Before we left, we consulted the financial journalist Sigrún Davíðsdóttir, one of the few Icelanders to report on Spork. She told us about the poet Einar Benediktsson, who at the beginning of the twentieth century had gathered a bunch of Swiss investors and tried to sell them the northern lights. “What I think of Spork?” she wrote in an email.

It pains me to say (because also I would most certainly like to see the water export pump money and jobs) that I think he is, what we say in Icelandic, a “Northern Lights-salesman.”

Spork’s glacier was on the Snæfellsnes, a peninsula a few hours north of Reykjavík that is dominated by Snæfellsjökull, a 4,744-foot volcano that stars in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. We set out for it one afternoon in a rented Chevy Spark, taking a tunnel under one fjord and skirting the next, then turning off onto a narrow road that climbed the flanks of the volcano. The grass was replaced by rock, and there were waterfalls and patches of snow. The road became gravel at a pass and then dropped to the shoreline, where we zipped past dark beaches with breakers rolling in. When we neared the fishing village of Rif, we saw a harbor and the massive, half-built shell of a factory: Spork’s water plant. In this spare landscape, the 100,000-square-foot plant was incongruous, a gleaming, hangarlike edifice of sheet metal on the tundra. Next to it, two short waterfalls emerged from two black pipes, dumping clear, cold glacier water into the harbor at a rate of 86,000 gallons an hour.

Iceland has more water per capita than any other country on earth: 142 million gallons of annual runoff for each of its 300,000 residents, roughly six times more than water-rich Canada, fifty times more than the United States, 250 times more than China, and 25,000 times more than the United Arab Emirates. Until the global financial crisis that locals call the kreppa—from a verb meaning “to clench”—Iceland also had more bubble per capita: there was no country more in the thrall of commercial banking and paper wealth. In 2008, three formerly high-flying banks had to be nationalized, the International Monetary Fund stepped in with a bailout, and the government collapsed. All this helped explain why no one in Iceland seemed worried about building an economy on water, not when the last one had been built on air.

In Rif, Damon and I met with Mayor Kristinn Jónasson, the man who in 2007 had granted Spork an exclusive ninety- five-year water lease. Locals called him the Major because in Icelandic j’s sound like y’s and they would overcorrect when translating to English. He was waiting in his office when we arrived. “Do you want water or something?” he asked. He popped into the next room, returning with two full glasses.

“I think the next war in the world is about water,” he said. “Because, you know, you need water if you want to live.” The Major is one of the longest- serving mayors in Iceland: he has run the 1,700-person, 260-square-mile Snæfellsbær municipality since 1998, when he was thirty-three. Water seekers had come to Rif from all over the world. “Companies from England, from Norway, from Denmark,” he said. “An Arab from Kuwait. An agent for a guy from China, or something like that. Most of them, they are thinking the same thing: using old oil ships. Old oil ships, they have just one hull”— considered unsafe and outlawed in the United States after the Exxon Valdez spill—“so they have nothing to do now.” If the Arctic melted enough, Iceland could become the next Singapore, and ships conveying bulk water could go to Asia over the top of the world. But there were no publicly announced water deals with China yet. Only rumors. “Before, people said, ‘We have a lot of Arabs who want to buy water,’ ” the Major told us. “Now, they’re not talking about Arabs. Now it is China.”

Many had come, but Spork was the first outsider to build anything tangible here. Under the terms of the lease, Ice- land Glacier Products—a sister corpora- tion to iGlobalWater—would give Snæfellsbær $50,000 a year plus twenty-three cents per thousand liters of exported water. Snæfellsbær also received a mil- lion shares of IGP, or about 1.4 percent of the company. The venture crashed before exports began, but Spork paid at least the first $50,000, and he paid most of the workers who built the multimillion-dollar plant and million- dollar pipelines. He had also erected a billboard near the plant:


In the middle of the billboard was a corporate seal that depicted what looked like an eagle with its wings raised above the word SPORK.

“Otto was always very nice with me,” the Major said. “I cannot be angry about what happened, because, you know, in Iceland, we had the kreppa— we lost so much money in the bankrupt.” Had Spork come a few years earlier, he might already be exporting their water. “I have heard about the court in Canada and everything about that,” the Major said, “but I believe in the good in every person.”

He had not seen Spork in months, but he told us where he lived. “Otto has a house, a big house,” he said. “It’s in a willage . . . how do you call it in English? A willage?”

A village, I said. “A willage near Reykjavík,” he said.


One guess as to how Spork the dentist was transformed in 2006 into Spork the hedge-fund manager is that he emulated a Canadian self-made billionaire named Eric Sprott. Spork knew Sprott: for almost thirty years, his sister Anne was Sprott’s deputy. While Otto filled cavities, she co-managed a Sprott hedge fund, investing in such commodities as molybdenum, a trace element crucial to the global desalination boom (each new reverse-osmosis plant requires as much as a million pounds of it). Anne helped the fund grow by 600 percent over the course of a decade and became supremely rich in the pro- cess. Sprott had later hired Spork’s eldest daughter, J’Aime, to work at Sprott Asset Management headquarters in Royal Bank Plaza. (Spork sometimes got Sprott’s mail.)

Sprott had made wildly successful bets on gold and silver; in 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that his company “oversaw more gold than Brazil held in its reserves.” He and a thirty-five- year-old protégé named Kevin Bambrough had authored “Investment Implications of an Abrupt Climate Change” in 2006—one of the first reports of its kind. “Harsher summers and intense winters are in the offing,” wrote Sprott and Bambrough,

“and they generally cause agriculture yields to drop sharply. Rising sea levels that intrude into coastal aquifers and lead to hotter summers also sap water resources. Mankind is staring starkly at the possibility of a severe crisis in water and food supply.”

Unlike Spork, Sprott never found the right way to invest in water. “Governments get involved and don’t allow companies to raise prices exorbitantly,” Bambrough explained to a reporter from the National Post in 2007. “It’s hard to make outsized returns.” Instead, Bambrough and Sprott began investing in farmland as the grain belt moved north. In 2009, they founded One Earth Farms, leasing cheap, underutilized lands in Canada’s prairie provinces from First Nations tribes. The company now controls more farmland than anyone else in the country.

I called Sprott to run my Spork origin story past him. “Yes, he might have tried to copy something that we did,” Sprott granted, “but you have to figure that out when you talk to him. I mean, lots of people invest in commodities. I have no idea why he moved into [my] building—I really don’t know. He goes from being a dentist to a hedge-fund manager. That’s quite a leap. I guess he was driven. I guess that’s the word to describe it.” Sprott assured me that Anne Spork, an apparent straight arrow with plenty of money of her own, had nothing to do with anything at Sextant. As for Otto, “he was kind of a fun-loving guy,” said Sprott. “He—he might’ve—well, he was a fun-loving guy. He was a fun-loving guy.”

Sprott had never talked to Spork about Sextant. But the plan to export Icelandic glacier water did not strike him as too outlandish. “There are all sorts of waters that we get all the time, and they’re all from some special goddamn place,” he said. “Iceland might make some sense.”

The willage the Major had mentioned, Mosfellsbær, could more aptly be described as a suburb: tidy rows of single-story, single-family homes—big for Iceland, average for the United States or Canada—set between a bay called Leirvogur to the north and Highway 1 from Reykjavík to the south. Alone at the end of a winding street was an ultramodern villa unlike any other home in the neighborhood, with slate paneling and mirrored-glass windows that reflected the snowfields of a distant ridge. The house bore the address listed for Spork in Iceland’s handy national phone book, and it was where Canadian authorities had tried (unsuccessfully, as usual) to serve him with papers. Spork had bought his lair, the rumor went, from a local couple who built it during the boom times. Spork’s Icelandic fixer had appeared at their doorstep and made them a generous offer, and they promptly moved out.

Damon and I sat a few hundred feet from the property in the Spark, surveying the area with my camera’s telephoto lens. There were no cars out front, no lights, no movement. Clusters of yellow flowers were sprouting in the gravel driveway, and the grass was getting long. A few doors down, a girl bounced on a trampoline. An old couple strolled past and gave us a funny look.

The Spark began to feel cramped, and we got up the nerve to go to the door. OTTO ROBERT SPORK, HELEN EKONOMIDIS SPORK, read a plaque above the mail slot. There was no answer when I knocked. We wandered around the perimeter of the house, peering through one of the few windows without blinds. On a dark granite countertop in the kitchen, across from an oven mitt shaped like a gingerbread man, was a glass bottle of water. Atop a white piano were five family photos, three of which featured the family poodle.

I had a file on the poodle. I had first noticed it in the archives of Canada’s Globe and Mail, in a photo accompanying a 2007 article with the headline “Fears Make Resources Sparkle.” The photo shows a gray-haired Spork sitting in front of three white Samsung computer monitors. The top button of his shirt is undone, and his jowly, bespectacled face is staring intently at the nearest screen. Behind him, next to some boxes, is the poodle, staring intently, and cutely, at the camera. Dogs were not allowed in the Royal Bank Plaza towers, but he brought the poodle to work anyway. Find the poodle, Damon and I joked, and we’ll find Spork.

We listened for yips at the door. There were none. Stymied, we returned to our cheap hotel in Reykjavík and looked up every website registered un- der the name Otto Spork. For ninety- nine dollars, I got a list of twenty domains—,,,,—but no physical address other than that of the house in Mosfellsbær. I called the number listed for Spork in the phone book. It rang and rang. I found some old press releases for Iceland Glacier Products and called the local and Canadian numbers listed there for Dino Ekonomidis, Spork’s brother-in-law. (A vice president at Sextant, Ekonomidis had also been charged with fraud, and he had also been dodging summonses from the OSC.) A male voice answered at the Canadian number. I asked for Dino. “Uh, he’s not here,” the voice said after a long pause. “Can I take a message?”

Sextant Capital Management, like Madoff Securities, was a family affair. Ekonomidis was second-in-command, charged with drumming up buyers for Sextant’s funds. Spork’s younger daughter, Natalie, until her unlikely promotion to president in May 2008 following her father’s departure for Iceland, was Sextant’s marketing assistant. Helen, Spork’s wife, had no title but was always around. The poodle was on the floor. Sextant also hired an amateur body- builder named Randy, unrelated to the family, to help with sales. The chief compliance officer, Robert Levack, who later settled with the OSC, attested that in its early days Sextant engaged in perfectly legitimate trades—mainly in the gold and molybdenum markets—five or six times a week. The firm’s turn toward Icelandic water—and, eventually, toward self-dealing and fraud—happened because Spork frequented a Toronto bar called Little Anthony’s that was popular among the financial set. There he met someone who worked at a company called Icelandia, which was planning to export water running off Iceland’s Snæfellsjökull volcano. Icelandia had an exclusive ninety-five-year water lease with Mayor Kristinn Jónasson and the municipality of Snæfellsbær: $50,000 a year, twenty-three cents per thousand liters.

“Spork was a dentist,” recalls Bob Heward, a former Icelandia director who now runs a website called “He didn’t know the first thing about water.” But Sprott’s climate report had just come out, and so had An Inconvenient Truth. Spork was interested.

Monetizing the melting Snæfell glacier had not been Heward’s idea. The pioneers were David Powley, an American veteran of San Pellegrino and Shasta Beverages, and Birgir Halldórsson, or Biggi, an Icelandic entrepreneur known for introducing prepackaged deli sandwiches to the country’s gas stations. The pair had signed a water con- tract with Snæfellsbær in the early 1990s, but back then they had planned only for bottling operations, not bulk shipments throughout a warming world—and in any case, their plans never got off the ground.

Icelandia was formed in 2005 by Biggi, Powley, Heward, and a former ExxonMobil logistics manager named Madeline Vinski, Heward’s girlfriend at the time—“a gathering of titans,” according to a press release. Its confidential business plan, shown to potential investors who included a British defense contractor and an American investment bank, envisioned three revenue streams. First would come “super- premium bottled water” branded with such slogans as “Drink the Glacier” and “Born of Ice.” Next would be “small bulk” sales, in which standard shipping containers would be filled by 20,000-liter plastic bladders. In time would come the third and most lucrative stream, “large bulk”: converted oil tankers as big as 130,000 tons. Because of the target clientele, Heward had a British law firm declare Icelandia sharia-compliant. In the optimistic projections of the business plan, each tankerload sold would net $1.5 million in profits, and Icelandia would run three tankers more than 300 days a year. Before a single drop was bottled, a U.S. valuation firm declared that Icelandia’s Snæfellsjökull deal was worth $432,144,520.

Heward was the first Icelandia director to meet with Spork—he remembers distractingly perfect teeth and a sizable gut—and he later introduced him to Biggi and Powley. In late 2006, in a swank restaurant in Zurich, Heward agreed to sell Spork and Sextant $500,000 worth of Icelandia stock. But the money—much needed to begin construction of pipes and a plant—never appeared. Instead, Spork double-crossed him. Heward claims—and leaked emails appear to confirm—that Spork, Biggi, and Powley successfully colluded to bankrupt Icelandia and drive out Heward and Vinski. By mid-2007, Spork, Biggi, and Powley appeared in Icelandia’s place, signing a strikingly similar water contract with the Major and producing a strikingly similar business plan. Eventually, multiple sources told me, Spork forced Biggi and Powley out too, offering them a payoff in the low millions of dollars—a fraction of what they believed the company was worth. (The pair would not talk to me, citing nondisclosure agreements. “Also, quite frankly, I get nauseated when I think about Spork,” Powley said.)

After the takeover, Sextant issued a triumphant press release:

“Sextant Capital Management Inc., led by founder Otto Spork, announces he has gained a position in a Luxembourg based private Water Company, which has the ability to deliver a hundred gigalitres per year of pure glacier drinking water anywhere in the world.”

The moneyed public was invited to get into global-water-crisis profiteering on the ground floor. “Invest in Pure Water with Sextant Capital,” read another release. “Otto Spork, President and founder of Sextant Capital, says: ‘Investing in Sextant Capital Funds today is like buying a 1982 Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux wine in 1985.’” Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux, it explained, was pretty much the best wine ever.

The number of weekly trades at Sextant soon dropped to approximately zero, but the OSC, like so many regulators in those heady times, was nowhere to be seen. Sextant’s funds, successful on paper and prescient in their play on drought, attracted such luminary investors as Baron Philippe Lambert, heir to a Belgian banking fortune, and Bill Linton, the CFO of the Canadian telecom giant Rogers. There is a photograph from this period in which Spork and his wife, Dino Ekonomidis, the Major, and other men in suits are standing on the gravel of the Snæfellsbær construction site. Spork is shaking hands with the man in the middle of the frame—Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a prominent voice on climate change and one of the few national leaders to survive the kreppa—and grinning at the camera with very white teeth.

On our next visit to Mosfellsbær, we parked the Spark on a side street and approached Spork’s house on foot. It was a beautiful Arctic June afternoon, the sun hanging immobile in the sky, and I was hopeful until the moment we rounded the corner: again an empty driveway, again a lifeless house. We went through his recycling bin. Along with an empty carton of tomato juice were two parking stubs dated December 24. Nothing else. I began taking note of what I hadn’t wanted to see before: the unplugged Christmas lights ringing the house, the snow boots near the door, the festive pine-cone near the entryway.

Back in the capital, I called Spork’s onetime fixer, a Rif native turned Reykjavík banker named Sverrir Hermann Pálmarsson, and asked him to meet me and Damon for coffee. A former employee of both Icelandia and IGP, Sver- rir now worked on foreclosures at Iceland’s Landsbanki, one of the three banks that had failed during the kreppa. The foreclosure division was booming. “When I started, we were two persons,” he said. “Now we have sixty.”

Sverrir did not know where Spork was, and he said he never wanted to see him again. But he believed that Spork was something more complex than a Ponzi schemer. “Otto could sell the northern lights, he was such a good salesman,” Sverrir said, “but I think he was trying to honestly establish this company. We worked long hours. He worked long hours with us. Maybe Otto was maybe five or six years too early, because I think the price of water is going up.” In fact, Sverrir himself was a consultant on a new water project involving Chinese buyers.

He had heard that the dentist was moving around a lot, that he still had his house and Porsche in Luxembourg.

“Is that his main residence?” I asked. “I don’t know. I think so,” Sverrir said. “We thought he was here,” Damon said.
“Too bad for you,” Sverrir said. Sverrir and another former Spork employee, Guðjón Engilbertsson, had started their own bulk-water venture in the Westman Islands, fifteen or so volcanic lumps off Iceland’s southern coast. Guðjón was friendlier than Sverrir. “I will give you a tour of the Westmans,” he said when I called. We bought ferry tickets.

After the hour-long crossing, Guðjón, who had white hair and blue eyes, picked us up in a new Toyota Land Cruiser. Before entering the water business, he said, he had worked in fisheries. In the surrounding ocean there lived a small, sardinelike fish, the capelin, whose value was far greater than Icelanders had initially understood. “When the first Japanese came,” Guðjón explained, “they saw all the roe flowing into the waste at the processing plant, and they scooped it up with their hands and ate it like there was no tomorrow!” The roe, known in Japanese as masago, is a staple in sushi restaurants. In addition to undertaking the water venture with Sverrir, Guðjón was again helping set up a fish plant, this one in northern Norway. It was a good time to be back in fish; as the ocean warmed, many species were moving north. “Mackerel is totally new,” he said. “It was never here before.”

Guðjón followed a winding road through a lava field covered in purple lupines. He parked at the edge of a precipice. “There is the Eyjafjallajökull glacier,” he said, pointing toward a volcano on the mainland, “and the pipe starts there and comes directly in here and into the city water system.” He traced its undersea route with his finger. It had been upgraded in 2009, he said. The water now came from a reservoir 600 feet up the volcano; gravity and pressure alone brought it to the Westmans—no pumps needed. Except during the two-week peak of the capelin-processing season, the islands had much more water than they could use.

Guðjón, like Sverrir, did not want to talk about the new project, but he talked freely about the past: He got into the water business after answering a help-wanted ad placed by Icelandia, which was seeking an operations manager for its planned bottling plant in Rif. Guðjón, with his fish-plant experience, was a shoo-in. Soon, he said, “Otto came in with a big chunk of money from his funds and things started to roll. We had plans for Suezmax tankers—130,000 tons.”

At some point after the takeover in Snæfellsbær, Spork began “looking around for more water to export,” and Guðjón realized the Westmans were perfect. “We have a water pipeline,” he said. “We have a great harbor. We could do it right away, just very simple and easy, just in containers.” He and Sverrir negotiated a water-rights contract with the local utility and entered into what they believed to be an equal partnership with Spork, incorporating a new small- bulk water-export company, Iceland Global Water, or IGW, in Luxembourg. The documents were in French. Guðjón and Sverrir could not read French. They later discovered they had been given shares of nonvoting Class B stock and had been tricked out of their company.

We drove down to the bay, to the water plant Guðjón had helped build for IGW. It was many times smaller than the facility in Rif—two stories, four garage doors—but it was more than an empty shell. Through a win- dow I saw a fire extinguisher on the wall, concrete floors, and what seemed to be industrial-grade plumbing. Though Guðjón drove us there, he was reluctant to be seen hanging around outside. It wasn’t his anymore—it was Spork’s.

Only one Sextant investor was willing to talk to me. Jeremy Charlesworth was CEO of Moonraker, a U.K.-based investment firm, and when I cold-called him in London one afternoon, he was delighted to know that there were other people still stuck on Spork. In 2007, he decided to bet his fund’s funds on water. He landed on Sextant, which was then sending out press releases with such titles as “Water Shock has Sextant Global Water Fund on Fire.” Spork seemed to ignore typical water investments—the utility stocks, the desalination companies, the makers of valves and gaskets—in favor of the thing itself. “Of the seven or eight funds we looked at, he was the only one who actually had water rights,” Charlesworth said. “The rest were plays on utilities”—political plays, really, because governments, not markets, set utility prices. “You can invest in gold shares,” he said, “or you can invest in gold.”

Before Moonraker bet millions on Sextant, it did its due diligence on Spork’s career as a dentist, which Spork once explained to Worth magazine by saying, “I got caught up in the competition and the prestige of getting into dentistry.” Charlesworth hired a private investigator who came back with a glowing report. “We were told that clients came from abroad just to have their dental work done by him,” he said. But the investigator either overlooked or downplayed an important fact: that Spork was censured by Ontario’s Royal College of Dental Surgeons, the OSC of teeth, at least three times. In 1984, after he charged “excessive or unreasonable” fees and repeatedly neglected to take X-rays, Spork had his license taken away for five months. In 1993, he was found guilty of allowing employees to work without a license and again of charging excessive fees. In 1998, he “recommended and/or provided an unnecessary dental service.”

The office Spork ran before launching his hedge-fund career occupied a small strip-mall storefront near a dry cleaner, a Subway, and a Sherwin-Williams in the rundown city of Brant- ford, Ontario, about an hour east of Toronto. In August 2005, a Romanian immigrant named Marius Beca bought the practice from Spork for $828,000 and paid Spork a $100,000 consulting fee. Beca was told it had 1,800 to 2,000 active clients; in fact, it had about 200. He was told that the practice usually acquired thirty to forty new patients a month; in fact, it usually acquired zero new patients a month. He was told that it had accounts receivable totaling about $40,000; in fact, it had debts to- taling $347,257.50. He was shown hundreds of patient records—but most turned out to belong to another dentist. The practice’s sterilizer and other equip- ment were sold to him broken, and he was saddled with Spork’s $1,334 phone bill. Spork or his wife also gained re- mote access to the office computer after the sale, whereupon they added a bunch of fake appointments to the calendar.

Beca sued Spork. In the case file at the Brantford courthouse I found a stack of a hundred returned letters that Beca had sent to nonexistent patients reminding them of nonexistent appointments. Beca’s lawyer, Peter Quinlan, told me that they had tried many times to serve Spork with court papers, without success. During one attempt, Spork’s lawyer acknowledged being Spork’s lawyer— but he denied being his lawyer in this particular matter. When Quinlan finally won a $600,000 default judgment, a new lawyer showed up to argue that Spork had never been served, and a judge ruled in Spork’s favor and threw the previous decision out.

As the OSC began investigating Sextant, Beca and Quinlan tried to secure an injunction to keep Spork’s assets from following him out of Canada. A judge denied them one for lack of prima facie evidence; it was one man’s word against another’s. “The guy skeedaddled on us,” Quinlan said, “and eventually Marius gave up chasing the shadow.”

In August 2008, on the verge of the global financial crisis, Spork sent his funds’ clients an upbeat newsletter: “Even though the broad markets are down and most commodities have been heading for a 50% retrenchment from their recent highs,” he wrote, “I am very happy to report to you, the Investors in our Sextant Funds, that you are in in- vested in ‘Water’. Congratulations!!!” The letter enumerated the reasons for water’s rise as a commodity—climate change, population growth, pollution, urbanization, China—and disparaged desalination as pumping out a product that tasted bad and a byproduct, brine, that was bad for the environment. “This month’s return for your Fund is, we believe, only the tip of the iceberg,” Spork continued. “Consider adding to your investment before the rest of the world discovers us.”

By the summer of 2008, at least one investor, Baron Lambert, began to think that Sextant’s numbers were too good to be true. The baron asked Dino Ekonomidis to explain how the funds could possibly be doing so well. He was ignored. He then asked for his $7 million investment back, plus any profits. He was again ignored, until late September, when Dino issued an official notice of redemption—only to then claim he lacked the authority to actu- ally release Baron Lambert’s money. Like Beca, Lambert filed an injunction in an unsuccessful attempt to get his money back before Spork disappeared.

Other investors were shown letters of intent from three of the thirstiest water utilities on the planet: the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the San Diego County Water Authority, and the Orange County Water District. “Whereas, IGP is the exclusive provider of the pure water derived from the Snow Mountain Glacier in Iceland and delivered in bulk,” read the LADWP letter, “and it makes these waters available globally in all packaging sizes; and whereas, Mr. Wally Know is a qualified business entity…” The letters looked official, but the LADWP commissioner’s real name was Wally Knox. They were forgeries.

In December 2008, Sextant issued a final public statement, with the title “Sextant Categorically Denies Any Wrong Doing and Will Vigorously Defend the Unproven Allegations to Protect Its Investors and Reputation.” The OSC uncovered the rest of the story: Investors learned that more than 90 percent of their money was tied up in two Spork-controlled companies, IGP and IGW—a breach of securities laws against self-dealing. Sextant’s returns were so high because Spork overstated the value of the underlying companies; IGP’s value jumped 984 percent before the pipelines were even in place. Regulators failed to notice. Companies hired to determine the market value of Sextant’s funds—Investment Administration Solutions, Spardata, and Hempstead—relied exclusively on numbers provided by Spork himself. BDO Dunwoody, the Canadian branch of one of the world’s biggest accounting firms, used something it called probability-weighted sensitivity analysis to establish what Sextant’s investment in IGP was worth—and magically came up with the same number Spork had provided, $23.3 million. The effect of juicing Sextant’s returns was that Spork’s own fees—the hedge-fund manager’s standard 2 percent of total holdings plus 20 percent of any gains annually—were juiced as well.

But perhaps Spork, rather than being a Madoff-style con man, had simply run short on cash for his water businesses. Eric Sprott thought so: “Maybe he said, ‘Well, shit, I’ll just say that the value is ten million dollars higher, and I’ll pump the two million dollars the fund owes me into the plant.” Investigators eventually showed that much of the money Spork was paid by Sextant was indeed reinvested in the water ventures. And according to the Major, construction in Rif continued well after the OSC filed charges and Sextant was put into receivership. This supported the argument that Spork, though willing to cut corners, was no Ponzi schemer.

The press releases also continued after the OSC investigation began— only now in the name of IGP.




As time passed, they seemed increasingly desperate—unedited, ungrammatical. Water, said an April 2010 release,

keeps cells hydrated and capable of fighting harmful disease-causing substances…IGP’s water is unchallenged in its Ancient Purity Unchanged the Crème de la Crème of Waters.

The tone had become pleading:

PLEASE contact us if your community is experiencing a water crisis. It cannot hurt to get a quote. The sooner the better, so fresh drinking water can be provided for your people as soon as possible.

There was a problem that neither Spork nor any of the other bulk-water schemers readily discussed: water is heavy. A gallon weighs 8.3 pounds, and whether by pump or pipeline or tanker, it is not easily moved. In Reykjavík I met a recent business school graduate who had written his thesis on small-bulk exports. “Everywhere in the world,” he told me, “it is cheaper to do desalination.”

The man who has thought more than almost anyone about how to convey freshwater across oceans of salt water is Terry Spragg, the inventor of the Spragg Bag. He got his start in bulk water in the early 1970s, after a friend mentioned that the RAND Corporation was studying the possibility of towing icebergs to California. Spragg talked his way into a job with Iceberg Transport International Ltd., a company founded by Prince Mohammed bin Faisal Al-Saud. In 1977, the prince flew a small iceberg to Iowa, where chunks of it floated in cocktails at the first international conference investigating their use as a water source. (Presentations included “A Laboratory and Field Study of Iceberg Deterioration,” and the succinctly titled “Calving.”) The next year, Spragg got the California State Legislature to endorse iceberg towing. But then he lost faith in the idea: icebergs melt too quickly. Why not tow a giant water-filled bag instead? He began envisioning enormous floating polyester bladders the shape and size of a nuclear submarine connected in fifty-bag trains and deposited one by one in water-bag depots worldwide. But after Spragg’s most successful prototype was towed across Puget Sound to Seattle in 1996, a tugboat ran into it. He had no insurance, and he has been trying to raise money for another test for the past seventeen years. Someone from Spork’s office called him once. He remembers only the name Spork, not the conversation, but it is likely that he told the caller what he told me: From Iceland seems like a very long way to drag a bag.

The swords-into-plowshares dream of enlisting single-hull oil tankers is no more realistic than a water bag. Old tankers may be inexpensive to buy, but they are very expensive to retrofit. The ships’ holds need to be cleaned, and their pipes, pumps, valves, and washers all need to be replaced. Most are so old that they have only a few years of service left. There is a reason water has yet to be shipped around the world like oil.

For nearly three years, Sextant and its Canadian assets were in receivership; a court order put a senior vice president at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Andrew Wilczynski, in charge. His task was to get as much money as possible back to Sextant’s investors, though the task was complicated by the fact that he billed at $650 an hour. PwC and its lawyers would eventually take a $1.7 million cut from Sextant ($1.85 million if you include the service tax), leaving little more than $200,000 to return to its 246 Canadian investors—less than a hundredth of what they put in. In the Cayman Islands, Sextant’s offshore funds were overseen by Kenneth Krys, called “the Controller” in court documents, who had just played a similar role unwinding Madoff’s largest offshore feeder funds. The amount Krys will return to Sextant’s investors has yet to be determined.

Spork had long ignored the receiver and the controller, once even standing them up at a meeting in his lawyer’s office in Reykjavík. But then there appeared what the court called the “prospective purchaser,” an entity that might buy IGP, its Snæfellsjökull water lease, its pipelines, and its factory: Moonraker, the fund run by Jeremy Charlesworth.

Wilczynski and Krys had their first phone call with Spork in September 2010, and in January 2011 they met him in the flesh in London. “It was a special moment,” Krys told me. “I’d almost wondered if he was real.” According to another of the meeting’s attendees, Spork seemed a man deflated; he was contemplating giving up his dream in Rif. Soon, Wilczynski and Krys were deflated, too. They learned that Moonraker had decided not to buy IGP. Instead, Charlesworth had persuaded the Major to void IGP’s lease, and Moonraker had just signed its own lease—exclusive for sixty-five years—to the water running off Snæfellsjökull. What Spork had taken from Biggi and Powley, and Biggi and Powley and Spork had taken from Heward and Vinski, had now been taken from Spork.

In July 2011, little more than a month after the OSC found Spork guilty and a few weeks after Damon and I returned from Iceland, Spork, Wilczynski, and Krys finalized their settlement. Their hand was forced; bad publicity from the OSC was eroding any value the water companies still had. From Spork, the receiver and controller got a check for $1 million—actually two checks, because the first one he sent was invalid—along with all his shares of IGP, which, stripped of its water lease, soon went bankrupt. Spork got to keep his heavily leveraged houses and his two Porsches—and all of IGW in the Westman Islands. A year later, the OSC decided on its sanctions against Spork: trading bans, fines, fees, and a clawback of Sextant bonuses. Spork owed the Canadian government $7.7 million. But from the safety of Iceland, or wherever he was, he directed his lawyer to appeal the penalty, and the likelihood that the OSC will ever collect from him is small. It appears even less likely that criminal charges against Spork will ever be filed.

I asked Krys, who had just wrapped up his work on Madoff when I called, whether Spork was an unusual case. “Down here,” he said, “he’s quite normal—normal for the jobs we get. People come up with a great dream, then they get into that dream.” That is, so into their dream that they try to realize it at any cost. The line between visionary and swindler is frightfully thin. In twenty years in the Caymans, Krys had seen true Ponzi schemes only half a dozen times. “Spork inflated fees—that was his rip-off,” he said. “But Madoff never invested his money. It just sat in his bank accounts.” Spork spent his money—nearly all of it—and he seemed to still be scheming. “I just don’t think he’s given up the I dream of selling Iceland’s water,” Krys said.

I had failed to get my man, but for a long time I couldn’t let go. I went down to Palm Beach to stare at Spork’s empty condo. I found Dino Ekonomidis’s house in a small town south of Toronto, but he shut the door in my face.

I called Jeremy Charlesworth in London, and he passed along a few Spork stories. “I heard the dog in Canada died,” he said, “so they got themselves another one.” Charlesworth emailed me photos of Moonraker’s new facility in Rif: a bottling plant at first, but bulk would come—that was the dream. He mentioned that Spork had showed up in Iceland just days after Damon and I left. Charlesworth had seen him with his own eyes. “It was in June,” he said. “I went to the coffee shop in Mosfellsbær on my way to Rif—they have great coffee—and there he was.” Charlesworth hadn’t known what to do, so he walked up and said hello. “Otto looked like he’d seen a ghost,” he said.

In the winter, Damon and I reunited to make a pseudonymous offer for the Web domain Spork ignored it. We left messages for him, his wife, and Dino Ekonomidis at various email addresses and numbers. They went unanswered. We attempted to reach almost a hundred Canadian former Spork associates and Sextant investors. Nearly all declined to talk. We finally decided to go through Spork’s lawyer, who would not speak on the record but promised to forward his client an email from us. The response came a few days later from Helen Spork, who had apparently copied Damon and me by mistake:




It was the first time I knew for sure that the Sporks knew about me, knew about Damon, knew we wanted to hear the real story from them—and didn’t care.

Eventually, I simply became like Canada and its regulators: Spork outlasted me. I couldn’t keep up the hunt.

Late one night, a few weeks after we received Helen Spork’s email, I decided to check in on one more time. For many years it had been dark, but now it was back. Spork was back. “Let it SNO!” proclaimed a banner, and little snowflakes cascaded down the screen. The site advertised Icelandic water for export straight from the legendary slopes of Eyjafjallajökull and invited visitors to stop by the Ice- land Global Water booth at the up- coming Food & Drink Expo in Birmingham, England. SNO bottled water was already being sold at the U.K. supermarket chain Tesco, the second-largest retailer in the world. IGW had a new slogan: “We challenge you to taste water for the first time.”

For now it’s just bottles—stage one of Spork’s plagiarized business plan—but and a newer companion site,, advertise bulk sales too: “Now you can have pure luxury, pristine glacier water delivered in bulk directly to [your] home estate, condo, hotel, villa, yacht or any location you choose.” According to recent press releases, SNO has a high oxygen content of 13.3 mg/L, a perfect pH level of 7.4, and a nitrate concentration of zero—“making it suitable even for infants.” SNO is supposedly coming to America in 2013. It may already be here.

It was too late for me to get to the Food & Drink Expo in time, but Charlesworth was there. Spork’s booth was adjacent to that of the baked-goods retailer Honeybuns. It was staffed by his new Icelandic fixer, a man named Pétur Júlíusson, and by two blonde models who handed out free samples. Southern England was experiencing a severe drought at the time—“I could get fined a thousand pounds for running my garden hose!” Charlesworth told me—and Thames Water, the utility serving Greater London, would soon put out a request for proposals for bulk-water imports. Spork’s booth was wildly popular. His blondes ran through their samples. Charlesworth stopped by three times. “His water,” he admitted, “was the best water at the show.”

Reporting supported by The Investigative Fund


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Arctic Landgrab: As rising temperatures melt the polar ice cap, five countries race to map their claims to a new energy frontier.


Arctic Landgrab: As rising temperatures melt the polar ice cap, five countries race to map their claims to a new energy frontier.

Arctic Landgrab
by McKenzie Funk
First published in 
National Geographic, May 2009

The office of Artur Chilingarov, the bearded polar explorer and anointed Hero of the Russian Federation, is at the end of a long hall in the Duma, Russia's parliament, where he is deputy speaker. Its entrance is guarded by a poster of a nuclear icebreaker, the Yamal, a 492-foot monster with rows of painted-on fangs, and inside is a knee-high wooden penguin and two chicks, a pair of carved walrus tusks, and eight miniature porcelain polar bears—an iconography of the Arctic and Antarctic. On a wall is a portrait of Vladimir Putin. Chilingarov sits in a leather chair in a dark suit with the Hero's gold star pinned to his breast, and next to him sits a four-foot-high globe, normal in every way but one. It has been spun off its axis, reoriented such that both Poles are visible: the Earth turned on its side.

It is winter in Moscow, three months after Chilingarov planted a Russian flag on the seafloor at the North Pole, an apparent landgrab that created a diplomatic row and a flurry of global headlines. Now he is campaigning for an election in which his party—Putin's party—will soon trounce its closest rival by a six-to-one margin. He is a busy man, and he skips the niceties when I sit down. "It took us seven days and seven nights to reach the North Pole," he says. "The ice was heavy. It was not a simple task." Near the Pole, Chilingarov's ships found an opening in the ice, and in went two submersibles, Mir I and Mir II. Chilingarov was in the first one. His goal, the true North Pole, was 14,000 feet below.

"It was dark, very dark," he says of the descent. "Of course it was risky. Of course we were scared." He and fellow parliamentarian Vladimir Gruzdev, a businessman who had paid half a million dollars for his berth, peered out the portholes. Mir II, which had one more paying adventurer, a Swedish businessman, and an Australian tour operator, Mike McDowell, followed. The descent was to take nearly three hours, the return to the surface that long again. Meanwhile, the ice pack would be drifting. If they could not find the opening, they would be stuck. "The depressing thing," Chilingarov tells me, "was knowing no one could come rescue us." Just after midday Mir I touched down on the flat, fine clay of the seabed. The sub scraped up samples of ocean floor, then moved to the Pole itself, where its robotic arm firmly planted a titanium Russian flag in the muck.

"Why did we place it? Well, anytime a country wins something, it installs its flag," he says. Many countries' flags are planted on the surface ice at the North Pole, he points out. At the South Pole there are flags. On top of Mount Everest there are flags. "The Americans even put one on the moon," Chilingarov says. He pulls out a photo of the titanium flag and robotic arm, dramatically signs it with a black marker, and hands it to me. "This is one of the world's greatest geographical achievements," he proclaims. "I'm proud the Russian flag is there." Then he stabs at the photo with his finger, pointing out empty space on the seabed. "Look here, and here, and here, and here," he says. "There is plenty of room for other nations' flags."

Chilingarov mentions that the expedition, widely believed to be an official act of the Kremlin, was privately funded; Putin, far from ordering him to the Pole, had initially cautioned that the dive was too dangerous. A patriot and a politician, well aware his feat made him a national hero, Chilingarov glosses over other little-known details: that the idea originated not with him but with three foreigners—McDowell and two Americans—in 1997, that he joined the team less than a year before the 2007 dive, that McDowell's company had previously been offering a Mir dive to the "real North Pole" to anyone with a spare $95,000, and that the seabed samples they gathered were redundant, of questionable utility to science.

The submersibles' return was harrowing—following Mir I up from the seabed, Mir II searched for an hour and a half before finding the ice opening—but the drama of the dive was soon drowned out by the supposed politics of it. More than 40 journalists were waiting aboard the surface vessels, and they quickly filed their reports: "Russia Claims the North Pole!" Chilingarov willingly stoked nationalist flames. "The Arctic," he said at a press conference, "has always been Russian."

The dive soon became something it had scarcely been: an act of expansionism, not exploration—of geopolitics rather than glorified tourism. Observers seemed ready to believe that the Arctic's future would be decided by flags and warships, belligerence and brinkmanship. Chilingarov's triumph was denounced by Canada, condemned by the Danes, snorted at by the U.S. State Department. Overnight, he became the bearded face of the bitter polar land rush. So one can be forgiven for thinking that this story—the real story of the race for the Arctic—is about Chilingarov. It is not.

This is a story about the changing Arctic, but not only in the ways we expect. The changes most important to its future may be those from millions of years in its past, from times between the Triassic and early Tertiary, when the major basins in the Arctic were just being formed. Pieces of the supercontinent Pangaea were drifting apart, and at times greenhouse gases warmed the world to far hotter than it is today. One might say that parts of the Arctic were, for a time, almost tropical—to some degree because temperatures were higher globally, but more so because parts of the Arctic have not always been in the Arctic: Some drifted north, over geologic time, from warmer latitudes. The creation of oil and gas deposits requires the right mix of organic material, heat, rock, pressure, and passage of time—and it may be hard to look at the Arctic today and imagine that it ever had enough organic life, enough heat. But for geologists, it is hard to imagine that it did not.

Now the floor of the Arctic Ocean appears to be rich in petroleum—home, according to some estimates, to nearly a quarter of the world's undiscovered supply. Sea ice is melting drastically, opening the sea to shipping and the seafloor to mineral exploration. And that seafloor is being eyed by the five countries bordering it—Canada, Denmark (which controls Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the U.S.—all hoping to claim a piece.

On a dreary Thursday exactly two weeks after Chilingarov's flag planting, the oceanographer leading the United States' Arctic effort sits in a Mexican restaurant in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in North America. It is a strange place to be eating chips and salsa, and it is a strange time to be Larry Mayer, a University of New Hampshire professor who is one of the world's few experts in what it takes to claim the ocean floor. Until recently, his task has been obscure; now, thanks to Chilingarov, journalists are calling daily, and foreign governments are watching. Assembled in the restaurant are 21 others—18 scientists, two guys from the State Department, and me—and tomorrow we begin a month-long survey of what may someday become the American Arctic. The Healy, the newest of the U.S. Coast Guard's three aging polar icebreakers, is just offshore, and we will be shuttled to it, three at a time, in a rented helicopter. Before we go, Mayer has a request, one that acknowledges how different things are this year: "No photos of American flags," he says. Everybody laughs. "No, I'm serious," he says. "If a picture gets out in the press, we've got big problems."

For all the talk of conflict in the Arctic, there is broad agreement among northern nations, Russia included, on how to claim a piece of it: You map it. Maps matter because the shape and geology of the seafloor matter, and the shape and geology of the seafloor matter thanks to an article in the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a playbook for partition that has been ratified by 156 countries. (Because of obstructionism by a few UN-wary senators, the U.S. is not yet among them, but it is acting as if it is.) Under the treaty, if a state wants to grow its maritime boundaries past the customary 200 nautical miles, it must prove that the ocean bottom is continental in origin—part of its same landmass, only underwater. Political questions can have scientific answers. So politicians have turned to scientists—oceanographers like Mayer for the seafloor's shape and seismic surveyors for its underlying geology—to build their case. Only Norway has a Law of the Sea submission under active review; the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Russia are still busy mapping.

Since 2003 Mayer's State Department–directed missions have been charting around the Chukchi Plateau, an undersea ridge that extends nearly 600 miles north of Barrow. His job, he says, is simply to discover what lies beneath the world's least explored ocean; politicians can squabble over what these discoveries mean. The oceanographer's cliché is that we know more about the surface of the moon than about the seafloor, and this is especially true in the Arctic. The first digital chart of the entire Arctic Ocean was released only in 2000, and coverage of the central ocean remains spotty, though it's constantly revised, partly with data from satellites at a thousandth of the resolution of onshore maps. To truly know the seabed's shape, scientists must measure the ocean's depth at various points. Until recently, this higher-resolution data, known as bathymetry, came only from Cold War-era submarine tracks—pencil lines across the polar expanse, often dangerously imprecise. For Mayer, the blanks in the charts are an obsession. If it is nationalism that drives him, rather than pure love of discovery, he hides it well.

For four days and 500 miles, in calm seas mostly free of ice, the Healy cruises north from Barrow to almost 80 degrees. The ship is 4,200 square feet and as stable as solid ground, pervaded by the low hum of its churning engines. I share a stateroom with 26-year-old Barrow native Jimmy Jones Olemaun, an Inupiat observer on board to make sure we do no harm to mammal life. He spends much of his time on the bridge scanning the sea with binoculars, or in the science party's lounge checking his MySpace account. Whenever I leave our room, he turns the thermostat down.

The main lab is near the tail of the ship, just below the waterline and below the empty helicopter hangar where Bronx-born Mayer schools younger scientists on the basketball court. Most researchers have eight-hour lab shifts, but Mayer's is from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.—and he always seems to be there by day too. He is a workaholic, famous for eating his meals standing up. The son of an air-conditioner technician, he was an A/V monitor during elementary school, got his scuba license in high school, and was a finalist to be a NASA astronaut after graduate school. He has spent five of the past 30 years at sea. Late at night he turns up his Celtic music and taps his loafers to it, and he excitedly flies through 3-D maps of the seafloor, Google Earth–style, in a computer program he helped create. Sometimes rather than return to his stateroom, he naps on the floor.

The hub of mapping activity, usually staffed by a junior scientist, is a jury-rigged wall of 11 screens—two laptops, eight PC monitors, and one closed-circuit TV—that show everything from wind speed to ocean salinity to sediment thickness. The most important monitor has jumpy green lines expanding, contracting, and shifting shape: pings, or sound waves, from the multibeam sonar embedded in the ship's hull. Mayer determines the contours of the seabed by how long it takes them to bounce back. The multibeam covers a 110-degree swath of ocean floor: some 60,000 pings an hour, as many as were available for the entire Arctic before Mayer's effort began. It is a paintbrush rather than a pencil. We watch the Chukchi Plateau rise beneath us on the monitors, the sonar overlaying the charts in real time, as if spraying on a strip of high-resolution data. Currently we are tracing the edge of the Chukchi Plateau, where continental shelf meets deep-ocean plain—the "foot of the slope," a key detail for Law of the Sea claims. In 2003 the multibeam helped Mayer map an unknown 10,000-foot underwater mountain, which he christened Healy Seamount.

While Mayer focuses on bathymetry, other Arctic countries are first gathering seismic data, using air guns or explosives to send out shock waves that penetrate the seabed and reveal its structure. Canada and Denmark have spent millions building a geologic case that the Lomonosov Ridge—the undersea mountain range that bisects the Arctic Ocean, Russia's declared stepladder to the North Pole in a 2001 claim—is in fact connected to their side of the Arctic. (Because America's claim will rely on features that appear not to extend past the 86th parallel, it has no real shot at the Pole. Nor does Norway.) A spring 2006 Canadian-Danish survey of the Lomonosov featured camps on the ice, 970-pound charges under it, and scientists traveling by helicopter to lay out tracks of seismic sensors. In a 2008 follow-up, Canada shipped in 33,000 pounds of explosives and 1,100 pounds of fuel from Montreal on an icebreaker, and then 30 people worked for 30 days in minus 30°F temperatures. In Russia, in a dingy office down a backstreet in St. Petersburg—quarters far less grand than Chilingarov's in the Duma—a geologist leading the country's little-noticed mapping effort showed me a photo of the seismic work on its side of the Lomonosov: men pushing a scary, golf-cart-size mesh sack of dynamite into an ice opening. He was nearly attacked by a mother polar bear and two cubs in the line of mapping duty.

Mayer has his own hurdles: Sonar works poorly in ice, and in a normal year the Healy must limp along at three or four knots to get any data at all. Unfortunately for the Arctic, but fortunately for the mission, this year is far from normal. The enduring mystery of our first week is the location of the ice cap. Our resident ice scientist, Pablo Clemente-Colón, a cigar-smoking Puerto Rican, keeps promising we are about to run into it, wielding satellite reports—official products with names such as AMSR-E, QuikSCAT, and RADARSAT—that show it just hours away. Instead we hit only stray patches of first-year ice—or nothing at all. The ice edge seems to retreat faster than we approach, moving too quickly for the satellites to keep up. We are chasing a ghost.


Already in the 1970s and 1980s, Siberia and Alaska had parallel petroleum booms, but these were mostly on land. Increasingly drillers are looking offshore—and increasingly a former fishing town in Norway, Hammerfest, is a symbol of what may come. When I visit Hammerfest, home to the world's newest and northernmost liquefied natural gas facility, Snøhvit, I expect to see the start of production—but it is a false start, one of many. The gas field is in the Barents Sea, 800 feet underwater, connected by 90 miles of pipes to an ultramodern plant. The plant, on a grassy island abutting the beautiful 9,400-person town, is northern Norway's largest ever industrial project. Viewed from the Hammerfest shopping mall, it is a tangle of smokestacks, lights, and tubes, backed by a fjord and a row of snowy peaks.

For now, StatoilHydro, the operator, will move gas up the pipes, process it, and export it by tanker—half of it to Cove Point, Maryland, half to Bilbao, Spain. But soon carbon dioxide, separated from the natural gas, will travel the other direction down the pipes: StatoilHydro will inject it into the seabed to combat global warming. Snøhvit promises to be one of the world's cleanest petroleum projects. During one test run, however, the winds blew ash from Snøhvit's flares—chimneys burning off excess gas—that turned cars and homes black. StatoilHydro brought in doctors to test for carcinogens and handed out reparations checks to angry residents.

It is a measure of petroleum wealth's appeal that I find only one local politician opposed to the plant: a 19-year-old from the revolutionary-socialist Red party. Snøhvit pays Hammerfest $22 million a year in property taxes. The town is awash in new projects: renovated schools, a bigger airport, a sports arena, a "full-digital," glass-walled cultural center. Strollers are everywhere in the snow-covered streets. It is easy to forget that Hammerfest was recently a dying town, shrinking in population, the most violent place in Norway. In his bay-front office, a local official named Snorre Sundquist is circumspect about Snøhvit. "People didn't like the soot," he says, "but they accepted it."

It is 2 p.m., the Arctic in winter, and it is becoming dark. I step out just in time to see Snøhvit fire up after months of soot-related repairs. A flame spouts hundreds of feet from the tallest chimney, dwarfing the mountains, bathing the town in orange light. From two miles away, I can hear it burn, I can feel the heat on my face.

Whether the future of the Arctic will look like Hammerfest—petroleum plants dotting the coast, an economy running on fossil fuels, and an ice sheet destroyed by them—depends on the world's capacity for irony, and perhaps more on how much oil there really is. In July 2008 the USGS published its "Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal." It estimated that 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil, or 90 billion barrels, and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas, or 1,670 trillion cubic feet, may be hiding here. But given the unexplored nature of the Arctic, the USGS report is by definition a desktop study: reliant on analogues and best-guess geologic assessments. It uses little of the recent, proprietary seismic work collected by oil companies, settling for older, publicly available data.

Other reports are less rosy, suggesting that the Arctic holds plentiful gas, but far less oil. And in any case, most of the petroleum appears to be near shore—not subject to continental shelf claims because it is within the 200 nautical miles nations already control. The race for the Arctic may be about oil, but it is about the oil that governments hope is there, not the oil they know is there.

The experts best equipped to assess the Arctic's prospects are the oil companies, and a few weeks after my Snøhvit visit, I witness their tacit vote of confidence: a bidding war for nearshore exploration blocks in the Chukchi Sea. The 488 blocks are auctioned off in the Anchorage, Alaska, public library over the protest of environmentalists who want a decision on the polar bear's endangered species status before a sell-off of its habitat. They go for a record $2.66 billion—43 times what the government expected.

There is a second misconception about the race for the Arctic: that it is necessarily a race between nations; if America is to win, Russia must lose. But the market for petroleum is globalized, and so is the hunt, and so are the corporations. The companies vying for projects in Alaska—Shell, StatoilHydro, Chevron, Gazprom, BP, ConocoPhillips—are the same companies vying for projects in Russia and Canada and Norway and Greenland, and their oil is sold on an international market. Where we draw the lines does matter—this will determine who sets the environmental rules and who gets the royalties—but it matters far less than the fact that the lines are being drawn at all. Unless the Arctic countries agree, unless there is legal certainty, companies will not purchase mineral leases, because it won't be clear who can sell them. And the Arctic will remain a wilderness.


It is Saturday, foggy and cold, two weeks into the Healy cruise, when we learn we have broken a record. "It's confirmed," ice scientist Clemente-Colón says, looking up from his computer. "It happened a few days ago." The ice cap has shrunk to its smallest extent in modern history. The ship is now at 77 degrees north, having looped south from a high point above 81 degrees, cutting in and out of the ice sheet, and is scanning the Chukchi Plateau. Clemente-Colón has found occasional pieces of multiyear ice big enough to support a tracking buoy—when out deploying his first one, he cheekily pulled out a tiny Puerto Rican flag—but here most of the ice is patchy, not a solid mass but a series of floes, like asteroid belts. The Healy crashes through. The sun appears, and sailors hit expired survival rations off the helideck with a golf club. They plan a barbecue. A curious feeling, that of being witnesses to a historic moment, washes over the science crew.

In the lab, data stream in unobstructed. We speed up to 10 knots, then 13, then 15. Up on the bridge, my roommate is keeping a tally of seals and polar bears. "Man, last year we were seeing 50 seals a week," Olemaun says. "Now we're lucky if we see one each day." He sees one: "Man, that poor seal." Then reconsiders: "Just imagine if I had my harpoon."

We get reports that the Northwest Passage—the long-sought shipping route across the top of North America, the elusive goal of explorers John Ross, William Edward Parry, John Frank­lin—is ice free for the second year in a row. We learn that the USGS has released a polar bear study: If the melt continues, the world's population—estimated at 22,000 bears—will shrink by two-thirds by 2050. I get an email from someone on one of Shell's seismic ships. His fleet is looking for oil somewhere to our south—he can't say where, but we just passed within 50 miles of each other.

By the time the Healy begins its return, on September 10, the ice cap is the shape of a kidney, just 800 miles across the middle. Olemaun compiles his tally: 17 polar bears, 10 bearded seals, 9 ringed seals, 12 seals of unidentified species, 2 walruses. We learn that walruses are appearing by the dozens on Barrow's beaches: The ice edge, their normal home, is too far away. Locals are distressed, and they are hunting them anyway.

It is a bad summer for ice. It is a bad summer for walruses and polar bears. But it is a good summer for mapping. Before we hit Barrow, the multibeam reveals scours on the seabed 1,300 to 1,600 feet down—likely scrape marks from an ancient ice sheet. Mayer flies around in his map program, giddy, spinning the image of the scours, hovering above them, skimming the seabed at top virtual speed, awestruck by the world he has revealed. The Healy will soon have mapped 6,200 linear miles of seabed in a month—three times what Mayer expected. A NOAA press release will announce the results: Our data suggest that the continental shelf extends more than a hundred miles farther north than previously believed. America is bigger than we thought. Whether it is richer remains to be seen.

The last bear we see is a surprise. It is 2 a.m. at nearly 81 degrees north, and we are in fully open ocean, dozens of miles from the ice pack. Clemente-Colón has decided to place his final buoy into the water—he wants to test if it can transmit when the ice is gone—and most of the crew is awake to watch. Out of the fog, a ten-foot-wide chunk of ice appears—a flash of white, visible for maybe 15 seconds. On it: a polar bear, drifting wherever the ocean wants to take it.

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The Zoich Olympics: Vladimir Putin's $50 billion prestige project in Sochi



The Zoich Olympics: Vladimir Putin's $50 billion prestige project in Sochi


The Zoich Olympics: Vladimir Putin's $50 billion prestige project in Sochi
by McKenzie Funk
First published in
Outside Magazine, December 2013

In 2010, the people of Russia were asked to design an Olympic mascot, and the people responded—creating 24,000 cartoon bears, tigers, saints, snowflakes, witches, and wolves in just three months, a forest of candidates, a seeming triumph of democracy. The upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics, in the southerly city of Sochi, had until then been Vladimir Putin’s pet project. The new Russia was to be showcased at the president’s favorite Russian ski area and coastal resort, with facilities in the Caucasus Mountains and along the Black Sea built from scratch by his most favored oligarchs.

“Sochi is a unique place,” Putin had told the International Olympic Committee in 2007, when his personal touch helped Russia beat out Austria and South Korea for the chance to host the Games. “On the seashore, you can enjoy a fine spring day—but up in the mountains, it’s winter.” Putin had flown to the IOC meeting in Guatemala just to deliver his country’s pitch. He’d spoken English, one of the few times he’s done so publicly. Now, to ignite similar Olympic passions in Russia, his government held a mascot contest. Common citizens would submit designs and vote for a winner. Whoever came up with the champ would receive two tickets to the Games.

Forty minutes after it was introduced online, a psychedelic blue frog with a ski pole in its mouth rose to the top of the ranks, and it stayed there until the contest was done. There are a few reasons why. One is that democracy, even carefully managed democracy, is messy. Another, as I witnessed over and over when I visited Sochi last February, is that Putin’s Olympics are Putin’s Russia in microcosm. The frog wore a tsarist crown on its head—a reference to “nationhood and spirituality,” explained its creator, the Moscow cartoonist Egor Zhgun, with faux solemnity. In its eyes, in place of pupils, were rotating Olympic rings: black, yellow, blue, red, and green. The frog was covered in fur—these being the Winter Olympics, after all—and it had no hands, which left many people wondering about the intended metaphor. (Zhgun says he simply neglected to draw them.) Its name was Zoich, a clever use of letters and numerals. To a Russian eye, the 2 in 2014 looks like a Z. The 4 looks like the letter Ч, which is pronounced ch. With a squint, or a bit too much vodka, “2014” reads “Zoich.”

In the YouTube video introducing Zoich’s candidacy, the frog is seen sipping a martini in a disco with the Cookie Monster, paratrooping into a city while attached to a string of balloons, kicking a rival candidate (a freshwater dolphin on skis) into a pit, and having a drink with one of the other subversive mascots, Pila, or “Saw”—a reference to the financial corruption, known as “sawing the budget,” that everyone expected to plague Olympic construction. The video was viewed 700,000 times. Love for Zoich spread to national newspapers and television. While no one knew quite what to make of the frog, its popularity felt dangerous. It was hard to see Zoich as anything but a protest candidate.

I met Zhgun in a Moscow café during a layover on my way to Sochi last winter, almost exactly a year before the Games would begin. Twenty-seven years old, tall and lanky, he was a soccer and hockey fan with no particular interest in the Olympics. “When I was drawing Zoich,” he told me, “I didn’t realize he would become a symbol of the opposition, but I was OK with that.” People started making bootleg Zoich T-shirts and ashtrays. Zhgun began dreaming up games to put on Zoich’s website. “One was like Jenga,” he said. “I wanted a game with the Olympic stadium made out of blocks of money. How much can you steal before it falls down?”

At the time of the contest, Putin, who had taken the lesser position of prime minister after reaching his presidential term limit, was quietly orchestrating a return to the top. The opposition—mostly urbanites like Zhgun—was beginning to mobilize. In a little over a year, there would be 100,000-person protests and counterprotests in Moscow, prompting bloody clashes with police. When Putin successfully reclaimed the presidency in 2012, with 64 percent of the vote, election observers noted that, despite allegations of ballot “irregularities,” fraud wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the government controlled who got to run in the first place. The real opposition wasn’t even on the ballot.

And so it went with Zoich. Just before Christmas 2010, a government-appointed jury of experts and celebrities narrowed the 24,000 mascot candidates to 11. The skiing dolphin made the short list. So did two bears, polar and brown. So did a snowboarding snow leopard that Zhgun derided as very badly drawn. Zoich was missing from the list. And after the frog was disqualified, the story got stranger. Zhgun admitted that he had entered the contest only because Russia’s Olympic Committee, hoping to drum up excitement, had paid him. “You can draw anything you want,” they said, “but you can’t tell anyone.” Even the protest candidate was just a piece of guerrilla marketing gone awry, crushed as soon as it began causing trouble.

The final round, a televised poll aired on Russia’s Channel One, attracted more than a million viewers—the highest number for a single broadcast since the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest. The polar bear had been far ahead with the public, but on the morning of the vote, Putin, who was visiting with schoolchildren in Sochi, was asked which mascot was his favorite. It happens that there’s a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) leopard-breeding program based inside a national park outside the city. There’s a leopard pen in the park that was built with Olympic money. Putin—who has been photographed flying heroically with storks and shooting tigers with tranquilizer darts—has twice shown up to personally welcome transplanted leopards, still groggy after flights bringing them from Turkmenistan and Iran. By now the leopard mascot had been professionally retouched and given a new name: Barsik. According to his official bio, Barsik is the epitome of an intrepid but solitary leader. He is “a rescuer and mountain-climber who lives in the uppermost branches of a huge tree, on the highest peak of the snowy mountains in the Caucasus. He is always prepared to help those in need.”

“The leopard is a strong, powerful, fast, and beautiful animal,” Putin told the kids. “Leopard species had been destroyed around here, but now they are being regenerated. If the Olympic project, at least in some way, should help the local environment, then it would be symbolic.” After voting ended that night, three official mascots were unveiled: a bunny, a polar bear, and the not-too-surprising winner, Barsik the snowboarding snow leopard.

THE WWF’S LEOPARD enclosure was hidden in the forest to our left as photographer Simon Roberts and I drove up into the Caucasus from Sochi International Airport, but we didn’t have time to stop. A year before the Olympics, Sochi’s newly built mountain facilities were hosting test events: skeleton and luge, skiercross and boardercross, halfpipe skiing and snowboarding. Teams from all over the world were converging on Russia’s only subtropical city, a resort town close to Turkey once known mostly for the sanatoriums where Soviet workers came to recharge. Opening ceremonies and half of the 2014 events—ice skating, hockey, curling, anything requiring a roofed stadium—would be held in what organizers call the Coastal Cluster, which sits beside the Black Sea about 20 miles south of the center of Sochi, an urban sprawl that’s home to nearly 400,000 people. The main 40,000-person stadium, called Fisht, features a translucent egg-shaped shell through which spectators will be able to see the snowy Caucasus. But to get to the slopes and the rest of the events—the Mountain Cluster—they will have to travel (as Simon and I did) an hour or more up the gorge of the Mzymta River, to the village of Krasnaya Polyana, a journey slightly shorter than that between Vancouver and Whistler during the 2010 Winter Olympics. The traffic was so bad when we neared Krasnaya Polyana that we turned onto a side street, and our rental car bounced on to the hotel through cavernous potholes of mud. We arrived just in time for the welcome party: dancing Cossack boys pounding on drums, girls spinning and shouting, and dozens of foreign snowboarders and freeskiers clapping and drinking.

By this time, the world was beginning to worry about Sochi’s proximity to Chechnya; about the pledge by the jihadist Caucasus Emirate to put a stop to the “satanic games”; about the exiled Circassian people, Sochi natives for whom 2014 was the 150th anniversary of a genocide; about Russia’s new laws restricting homosexuality; about Russia’s role in Syria; about graft and the Games’ record-breaking $51 billion price tag—greater by at least $8 billion than the cost of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, the last time an authoritarian country decided to build the Best Games Ever from scratch. Some even worried about who would win and lose. But in Krasnaya Polyana, all this seemed far away. Who would win if the Games came together and were deemed an international success was obvious: Putin. The people on the losing side were everyday Russians, who saw their mountains and coast and city turned into the biggest construction project in Europe— especially the everyday Russians who dared to try and stop it.

It was the middle of winter, but Krasnaya Polyana had no snow. Even in daylight, it had almost no color: a construction site in gray scale. The village’s clamor of jackhammers and dump trucks and worker transports began at dawn, and Simon and I stepped out to follow groups of Uzbek and Kyrgyz guest workers through the side streets. They walked to their job sites with their heads down, smoking, skirting puddles. Others were already scrambling through the half-built shells of buildings that seemed to fill the valley wall-to-wall. I saw sparks from distant welders’ torches and stopped in front of one complex to count its cranes: 13. “It’s like a gold-rush town,” Simon muttered. Banners hung from the sides of many buildings, depicting the ritzy slopeside condos and hotels that would be in place when the Games begin on February 7. February temperatures in Krasnaya Polyana average 34.7 degrees, but the buildings on the banners were covered in snowdrifts. Until the clouds pulled back and I caught a glimpse of the steep peaks above, this was the only winter in sight. I found a pair of rental skis in a tiny shop across from a workers’ canteen adorned with Coca-Cola signs.

A few days before we arrived, 
Putin decided to crack down on 
delays and overruns by making an 
example of one of Russia’s Olympic Committee officials, Akhmed Bilalov. At an unfinished ski jump a few hundred yards from where we stood, Putin had shamed him on national television, strongly hinting that he was corrupt. Twenty-four hours later, Bilalov was out of his post; a few months after that, he surfaced in a German hospital, where he was undergoing treatment for an inexplicable case of mercury poisoning.

The only part of the village that seemed close to completion—two rows of tall hotels and pedestrian walkways flanking the Mzymta River—was where Simon and I went to catch a gondola to the test events. If I ignored the fresh paint and endless construction mess as we approached the modern Doppelmayr gondola station, this could have been Colorado. The impression lasted until I saw Russian soldiers with automatic weapons—a nod to what lay due east of us: restive Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. The soldiers manned a metal detector. They made me scan my boots but not my skis or poles. There were also white-clad snipers hiding on the slopes, athletes said, but I was never able to spot one myself.

Some test events had been canceled for lack of snow, and disappointed competitors were already streaming to the airport. The same thing had happened the previous winter, when World Cup skiing came to Sochi for the first time. But this year there was a halfpipe, a slab of ice and snow formidable enough to have survived two weeks of rain, albeit in imperfect shape. Men’s snowboarding teams were competing as planned. To get to the halfpipe from the midway station, I had to boot-pack around a temporary fence, dodge rocks while going down a groomed run, and hop over a drainage pipe. A hundred-person crowd was assembled below, adjacent to the Olympic mogul field, which was mostly brown slush. I watched a Chinese snowboarder drop in, then a Norwegian. A competitor from the Bahamas was so proud after his last air that he pumped both arms triumphantly as he exited the pipe— and promptly caught an edge, crashing hard enough to knock his helmet off.

“Now the Italian style has arrived in Sochi!” the announcer boomed in English. An Italian boarder raced down, launched too far off the sidewall, and landed on the flat bottom of the pipe with a sickening thud.

I couldn’t understand why Putin loved to ski at Krasnaya Polyana, or why the Games would be held here, until I rode a higher lift to the top, at 7,612 feet. And then I understood very well. I popped through a cloud layer partway up, and an archipelago of peaks stretched to the horizon. Russia has many higher mountains, many mountains farther north, but here the Caucasus were equal in beauty to the Alps. The sharp, mostly treeless Aibga Ridge extended for miles to my right and left. The slopes tipped over and dropped relentlessly down. A downhiller or a sport-loving president-for-life could go fall-line for thousands and thousands of vertical feet, which I did, skiing untracked powder until it thickened into toothpaste and I dropped into the fog.

THE USUAL VICTIMS of the world’s mega-projects—unpaid or grossly underpaid migrant workers, residents forcibly evicted to make way for construction—were featured this year in a major Human Rights Watch report on Sochi alongside an unlikelier group: the 226 members of the local branch of the Russian Geographical Society. The report came out just before I visited, and the people of the RGS, accidental dissidents suddenly cast against the whole of the Russian state, became my guides to understanding what was happening to greater Sochi.

Founded in 1845, the RGS is Russia’s oldest scientific club, historically as respected and apolitical as the National Geographic Society is in the United States. During the Soviet era, branch offices were meeting places for scientists and explorers, launching points for expeditions inside the country and abroad. The club held its national meeting every five years in St. Petersburg, but otherwise each branch operated independently, setting its own agenda and raising its own funds. Though small in terms of population, Sochi was granted a branch in 1957 on the basis of the region’s extraordinary geographical variety. Local RGS members, some of the most active in all of Russia, kept it afloat by contributing dues, charging for lectures and school visits, and selling rock and plant collections as study kits to universities.

The Sochi RGS occupies the former home of a general who had been in charge of guarding Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, whose vacation dacha was hidden in thick forest just up the hill. It overlooks the gentle waves of the Black Sea and a set of train tracks carrying a rush of construction supplies in one direction, rubble in the other. The yellow house was stately and worn, and like many Russian properties, it appeared to have been suspended in amber since at least December 25, 1991, the day the Soviet Union dissolved. When Simon and I arrived from Krasnaya Polyana, however, members were building something new: a government-mandated decorative fence, which they had been ordered to install and pay for themselves. It cost nearly $14,000. The property bordered the main road between downtown Sochi and the Coastal Cluster. Everyone along the route was expected to do their part to help the city shine.


Inside, scientific secretary Maria Reneva, a soft-spoken, 40-year-old geologist and the branch’s day-to-day leader, and Yulia Naberezhnaya, a 37-year-old ecologist who wore hiking boots and a purple Gore-Tex jacket, described how they landed in Putin’s crosshairs. Maria’s husband, father, and mother were geologists, and her mother had preceded her as secretary. Maria joined the RGS in 1989 at age 16, just as the Soviet Union was breaking up. After the fall of communism, the Sochi RGS became legally independent, left to fend for itself. As other local scientific institutes collapsed along with the Soviet state, their archives found a home in the branch’s musty library, making it all the more important that the RGS stay alive. “We did everything to survive,” Maria said. “Environmental-impact assessments, geological work—everything.”

When Putin’s oligarchs began building an $8 billion combined highway and railway to the event sites in Krasnaya Polyana, aiming to cut Olympic travel time in half, the lead construction company ran into extensive limestone caves where it was planning to place a tunnel. Company officials sought out local speleologists and were directed to the RGS branch, which had Soviet-era cave studies in its library and the scientists who wrote them on its membership rolls. In this way, the branch got an early glimpse of what was about to happen to Sochi, and its members decided that they were against the road, against the Games, against all of it.

“We didn’t need to vote on whether we should oppose the Olympics,” Yulia said. “It was obvious to everyone that they were going to ruin everything.” The mountains would get more ski lifts, the river valleys highways, the caves tunnels, the beaches seawalls, and the wetlands stadiums.

Members of the RGS worked with local environmental groups to publicly voice concerns about the Olympics, but the hall they reserved was suddenly made unavailable, supposedly because of an accidental double booking. Another press conference, planned for the seashore adjacent to the new stadiums and disappearing wetland, was blocked by the government construction firm Olympstroy, which soon won a permanent injunction that effectively made certain public beaches private. To get the word out, members published articles in journals and on the club’s website, and they did as many media interviews as they could.

All of which attracted Moscow’s attention. In late 2009, the national leadership of the RGS called an extraordinary meeting: it had been decided that the organization needed a new charter. Under the proposal, branch offices would be stripped of their independent legal status. They would now get funding—and marching orders—from regional offices, which in turn would take orders from a new office of the executive director, based in Moscow. In effect, the RGS would be federalized—and the Sochi branch muzzled. In a separate vote, Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s minister of emergencies and a prominent member of Putin’s United Russia party, was elected the new president of the RGS. Until that day, he had not even been a member. Putin himself was given the surprise invitation to chair its board of trustees, which he accepted in a speech before the delegates.

“We are now the last branch that is not part of the new system,” Maria said. Any day now, a lawsuit would come from Moscow—they had been told it was imminent—and local officials were already making vague threats. “If we don’t join, we will have ‘problems,’ ” Maria said. Problems with their papers, problems with their taxes—whatever problems authorities wanted to find. Under the new charter, RGS branches could not own property, and the Sochi branch’s seaside house could be worth millions to the right oligarch. Just up the hill, glass-walled palaces were under construction along the road to Stalin’s dacha; they were rumored to belong to the local governor, another United Russia stalwart, who would use them to host guests during the Olympics. Maria and Yulia were trying to carry on as usual as they awaited the lawsuit. They told Simon and me that the branch’s monthly show-and-tell, which featured slide shows and expedition reports from regular members, would take place the coming Sunday. And if we wanted a reality tour of Olympic venues, they could give us one the day after tomorrow.

THAT SAME AFTERNOON, before Simon and I retreated to the faux luxury of our Sochi hotel, we went uphill to check out Stalin’s dacha, which you can arrange to tour. Built in 1937, its every detail was focused on keeping the dictator alive and healthy. The exterior was painted forest green, making the compound mostly invisible from above. The keyholes were airtight, so assassins couldn’t pump in poison gas. The couch in the movie room was stuffed with horsehair, which made it practically bulletproof. The steps on the staircase were precisely 13 centimeters apart, a height calibrated to Stalin’s gait, so that the brutal man who killed at least 20 million Russians wouldn’t trip and injure himself.

Every room had open windows and a balcony, a caretaker explained, “so that Stalin would get fresh air and the air would heal his lungs.” Few Russians were aware of Stalin’s poor health, she said, but it was the reason he came to Sochi in the first place. He had bad lungs and a bad back. His left arm was damaged in a childhood accident. When Stalin was born, one of his legs was an inch shorter than the other, so he wore special boots. “The second half of his life was torture,” said our guide, a wry woman who also worked as a bookkeeper. “But this is the place where sea air mixes with coniferous air. It is good for the lungs.” Stalin found his daily saltwater swims rejuvenating, too, and he decided that Sochi would be as much a boon for the average Soviet worker’s health as it was for his. The sanatoriums happened mainly because of him.

The woman walked us past Stalin’s bedroom. For $250 a night, you could sleep here and be served three meals a day in the dacha’s dining room. She showed us where the five-foot-four dictator posed for official photos— always shot by his personal photographer, who knew how to make him look tall and powerful, sometimes by asking him to sit on a pillow. In a corner room was his billiard table.

“Stalin’s friends were scared to beat him,” she said. “They always let him win. But one of the gardeners here, one year he lost—and the next year he won! After that, Stalin improved his living conditions.”

Stalin seemed to love Sochi as much as Putin does. “What would Stalin think about the Olympics coming to Sochi?” Simon asked.

“Stalin wouldn’t have let this event happen,” she said, “because it’s just ruining the city.”

VLADIMIR PUTIN also has a Sochi dacha— three, in fact, if rumors are to be believed. The rumors are backed up by property records, leaks from whistle-blowers, federal guards at the fence lines, and photos taken by activists and construction workers and posted online. Everyone in Sochi accepted them as settled truth. At least five people—scientists, translators, mountaineers—told me they had seen a secret presidential residence with their own eyes.

One of the dachas, a $350 million Italianate mansion known as Putin’s Palace, was on the Black Sea coast north of Sochi. Another was in the woods behind Krasnaya Polyana, close to the site for the 2014 downhill-skiing events. But the one I wanted to visit was more than 6,000 feet up the snowy flanks of the highest peak in the western Caucasus, 9,363-foot Mount Fisht, the namesake of the main Olympic stadium. The place was called Lunnaya Polyana, or Moonglade, and depending on whose map you believed, it was either inside or on the border of a protected Unesco World Heritage site—“one of the few large mountain areas of Europe that has not experienced significant human impacts,”Unesco pointed out when the western Caucasus were chosen for designation in 1999.

Once construction of a main lodge began in 2002, the site was officially listed as a weather station or a “scientific center” and given the name Biosphere. But then came ski lifts and helipads and Swiss-style architecture and multiple chalets and dozens of guest rooms and four new snowcats, and it became clear that Moonglade was something else: an elite private ski resort inside a onetime wilderness. There were no passable roads here; construction materials were brought by helicopter, presumably at enormous cost. Someone had nevertheless found room in the budget for flatscreen televisions, a moose head, a swimming pool, and at least two billiard tables.

After pictures of Moonglade appeared online, Putin’s press secretary said his experiences there were “exactly” like those of “ordinary tourists.” It was an odd statement, since ordinary tourists lack helicopters, and if they came to Mount Fisht at all it was during summer, when they could follow once popular Soviet trekking routes through fields of flowers and into the stunning high country.

Hikers had been some of the first to notice the strange construction at Moonglade. Some reported being chased off by guards who forced them to delete photos from their cameras. Images got out anyway, thanks in large part to the homegrown group Environment Watch on the North Caucasus, or EWNC, which began hiking to Moonglade for annual “inspections” in 2007. Photos and surreptitiously shot video appeared. In Moscow, opposition leaders added Moonglade to a list of increasingly lavish presidential perks that they cataloged in a 2012 report called “The Life of a Galley Slave.” The title was a reference to something Putin declared after his first turn as president: “All these eight years I toiled like a galley slave, from morning until evening, with every ounce of my strength.” According to the report, Moonglade was one of 20 palaces and country cottages that Putin had available for his personal use, along with four yachts, 15 helicopters, and 43 aircraft. The authors enlarged photos of Putin’s wrist taken during various public appearances and identified a watch collection worth roughly $657,000—more than six times his official annual salary.

I had arrived in Sochi with ski-touring gear, a map of Mount Fisht, and a half-baked plan to do a Moonglade inspection of my own—but the same rains that ruined various Olympic test events scuttled my chances. Jeep roads to the trailhead were impassably muddy, there wasn’t enough snow to move quickly on skis, and the mountain guides I called laughed at my plan, saying it would take me most of a week to hike up Mount Fisht and back. So I settled for an evening train trip northwest along the Black Sea to meet the founder of EWNC, Andrey Rudomakha, a legendary Caucasus activist who was perhaps the region’s most persistent thorn in Putin’s side. My train mates passed the time smoking, drinking tea, and talking loudly on their cell phones. But when sunset came and we passed empty pebble beaches lapped by dark waves, everyone stared out the windows and there was a moment of reverent silence.

AT THE STATION in Krasnodar, the regional capital, a group of college-age men met me with a cardboard sign that read STATE DEPARTMENT. One explained the joke: “Everyone thinks we’re funded by America.” Dissent in Russia was increasingly maligned as a foreign plot, and Putin had just signed a controversial law saying that any organization that receives money from abroad has to state clearly on paper and electronic documents that it is a “foreign agent.” My hosts and I piled into a junker Lada with a missing seat and raced to the small offices of Yabloko, or Apple, a green political party. Politics were Rudomakha’s latest experiment, an attempt— not yet very successful—to see if there was a way to fight for the Caucasus beyond picket lines and press releases.

Inside, young volunteers were devouring pizza while Rudomakha—in his youth a rock guitarist, Che Guevara admirer, and founder of a commune—typed quietly at a computer. His goatee and trademark pile of dark hair were now trimmed, almost respectable. He and I grabbed slices and sat down in the kitchen. The Olympics, Rudomakha told me, were an environmental disaster that he and the EWNC were protesting at every turn. Moonglade was just as “ecologically dangerous,” because the area had formerly been so pristine, but it was also where Rudomakha had achieved a major victory. A few years ago, authorities started to build a paved road to Moonglade through the heart of the wilderness, and the EWNC filed a lawsuit, sent activists to block machinery and loggers, and made an emergency appeal to Unesco. A public warning by Unesco that it might have to add the western Caucasus to its list of threatened World Heritage sites was enough to get the road canceled, even if the ski lodge remained, and even if a fight now loomed over a different road project, to access Moonglade from the other side. “There is no law in Russia,” Rudomakha said. “That’s why most of our fights are fights to lose. But this has Unesco. We may have a chance.”

Why did the oligarchs need a road at all, I wondered, when they had helicopters? “National security,” Rudomakha explained. According to yet another rumor, impossible to confirm, Putin once became stuck at the dacha when a winter storm grounded his chopper. He had to go back down the mountain on foot, like an ordinary tourist. That was unacceptable.

Rudomakha had hiked in to inspect Moonglade four times, and with each visit he saw more security. Most recently, he said, there was a fence and a watchtower. Rudomakha’s deputy, a clean-shaven man named Dima, pulled out a laptop to show me on Google Maps how to find Putin’s palace on the Black Sea, which also occupied public land and was surrounded by a tall fence. Dima told the story of a time when he and another well-known EWNC activist, the biologist Suren Gazaryan, made an inspection of the palace. Inside, they came across a surprised security guard and a man in camouflage, who told Dima he was an officer in the presidential guard.

“What is the Presidential Security Service doing here?” Dima asked.

“None of your business,” the man replied.

Officers from the FSB, the successor to the KGB, appeared, along with border guards, although any border is over a hundred miles away. Then came local police and men from a private security company. “They took all our cameras,” Dima said, “and suddenly there was no mobile-phone service. They broke into Suren’s car and took notebooks, laptops, phones, modems—everything electrical.”

The activists were taken to a police station to give a written explanation of what they were doing in the supposedly public forest. “I saved one memory card in a sock,” Dima said. “It was the only media that survived.” Gazaryan was later convicted for damage to a construction fence—someone had painted THIS IS OUR FOREST! on it—then charged with attempted murder because he had picked up a small rock and told a security guard to keep his distance. Facing years in prison, he fled Russia in November 2012 and is now in exile in Estonia.

“DO YOU HAVE just one daughter, Yulia?”
I asked her this on a rainy morning as we set out with Maria to do the RGS tour of Olympic sites. It was just small talk, but she wheeled around in the front seat of the car and stared fiercely at me. “How did you know that?” she demanded. She calmed down when I reminded her that I had seen the little girl at the RGS branch earlier in the week, but in an instant I understood the atmosphere of fear that now pervaded everything. Soon the news would trickle out that Russia had set up a surveillance system in Sochi that would monitor every tweet, e-mail, and phone call made by visitors during the Olympics.

Yulia, I learned, was also a longtime member of the EWNC; she had even lived on Rudomakha’s commune in the nineties. Rudomakha and Gazaryan, meanwhile, were RGS members as well as EWNC leaders. But it was important that I distinguish between the two groups, Maria said. The Sochi RGS’s opposition to the Games wasn’t in any way political; it had everything to do with what we were about to see.

Our destination was an important wetland for migrating birds—some 200 documented species, Yulia said, plus various rare plants. A decade ago, she and the RGS spent a year and a half leading a detailed survey of flora and fauna. She handed me an old brochure showing frogs, ferns, swans, and the snowy Caucasus reflected in the deep blue of a pristine pond. “This territory was going to be a preserve,” she said. “We had all the documents prepared. It was going to be protected by the Ramsar wetlands treaty. Then it was gone.”

We turned off the highway and followed a line of giant orange dump trucks into the Coastal Cluster. Fisht and other partly built Olympic stadiums were rising out of the mud, surrounded by gravel roads and a growing forest of high-rise housing for athletes, media, and spectators. The din of construction was audible even through the closed windows of the car. Maria groaned. Yulia peered out the window. “It’s hard to say in one word how this makes me feel,” she said. “I want to be a giant and take all the buildings and trucks and break them.” She made a snapping motion with her hands. “It is horrible to make such things with nature.”

“We say this area is like Oman,” Maria said. “It has become like a desert, with no trees.”

When we got to what remained of the wetland, Maria and Yulia said nothing. They didn’t need to. A series of barren ponds marked the intersection of two mud tracks plied by a steady rush of trucks. Their banks were littered with plastic bottles, construction debris, and piles of slash wood. A stray dog stood next to two portable toilets, and next to the toilets were two signs, one in Russian, one in English, that declared this apocalyptic scene the NATURAL ORNITHOLOGICAL PARK IMERETINSKAYA LOWLAND.

“On the whole territory of the Natural Park,” said the signs, “it is prohibited to perform actions leading to changing its historically formed natural landscape.” habitat for animal species—above all, endangered species—had to be preserved. Specifically, one could not hunt, damage breeding spots, harvest wild plants, pollute the water with raw sewage, or decrease the “ecological, aesthetical, and recreational qualities of the Natural Park.” The cynicism was almost brave.

From the wetland, we drove to a residential neighborhood overlooking the Coastal Cluster, stopping only for water and bread at a gas station. Yulia ate her portion in the rain in the parking lot. We were looking for a street called Bakinskaya that neither Maria nor Yulia had ever visited, but it wasn’t hard to recognize once we found it. An entire block of homes, most of them still occupied, were tilted at strange angles, as if Yulia’s angry giant had swung and missed the Olympic site and hit these houses instead. Just downhill, two apartment buildings looked like Sochi’s version of Pisa: they leaned drunkenly toward one another, propping each other up.

For two years, residents here had watched dump trucks arrive full at the top of the hill above them, then return empty. Up to 30,000 tons of Olympic debris, most of it from railroad construction, ended up in an illegal landfill. One day, after a rain, the hillside suddenly slipped, and all the homes’ foundations slipped along with it. Ten months before we visited, the government had finally agreed to resettle Bakinskaya’s residents. But ten months had passed, and the dump trucks kept dumping, and the people were still living in their slumping homes. A man Simon and I met on the street told us that he feared more landslides. Why not move? “I spent all my money on this house,” he said. He couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.

Our last stop—new to Maria but not to Yulia—was an activist encampment on the north bank of the kudepsta River, manned 24 hours a day by local residents and the occasional EWNC member. They had occupied the site for nine months, ever since a construction company put a temporary bridge here and prepared to drive heavy equipment over it. A 367-megawatt gas-fired electrical plant was to be built on the other side to power the 2014 Games. The activists, many of them pensioners in fraying sweaters who sat around a stove in a shelter made of tarps and scrap wood, feared that its noise and air pollution would alter the neighborhood forever.

They were holding a press conference today. A few minutes after we arrived, two leaders— one wearing a Yabloko jacket—began speaking to a crowd of perhaps 50 people who had gathered at the bridge. For 20 minutes they seemed formidable, ready to throw their bodies in front of the machinery again if it came rolling across the bridge. But after the local journalists left, the gathering became a discussion about strategy, and then the discussion became a bitter argument about tactics. As the rain poured down, the argument nearly came to blows. Maria led Simon and me to the car. “How can they ever win?” Simon mused. Democracy was laudable. Compared with Putinism, it was also frail.

ON MY LAST DAY in Sochi, I attended the Sunday show-and-tell at the RGS, and for a few hours no one even mentioned the Olympics. Three members, one after another, held court in the conference room, which was down the hall from the library and next door to a tiny museum filled with photos of glaciers and caves and with any geologist’s dream rock collection. Three dozen people, young and old, had packed in to see the presentations. First up was a guy who had taken a fairly standard tourist trip to the Crimean Peninsula and had the slide show to prove it. As older members lobbed questions—“What’s that called?” “Were cars allowed?”—the man sitting in front of me took frantic notes on a Hello Kitty notepad. Next was a video of a high-level trek through the Caucasus set to upbeat elevator music. Images of ibex and green alpine meadows flashed on the screen. The mountains above Krasnaya Polyana looked as stunning in summer as they did in winter.

The last presentation was totally unexpected: a gold-toothed member named Andrey had hitched exactly 19 rides and hopped an unknown number of freight trains and built one log raft and spent no more than 5,000 rubles (about $150) to travel to the top of Siberia and back the previous summer. The trip lasted 58 days. He was attacked by one seagull. “Now I will show you 259 photos,” he said. He quickly had the whole room laughing and clapping and singing along to songs he’d written on the road. I was seeing the spirit that foreigners are sometimes surprised to find in Russia but always do. It was the Russia Putin should be proud to showcase to the world in 2014.

I got an e-mail from Yulia a few days after I left: Loggers and bulldozers had been discovered cutting a new road to Moonglade, this time from the other side. She went there immediately with the EWNC and did an inspection, and she held on to her camera’s memory card; images are now all over the Internet. A little more than a month later, officers from the FSB and Russia’s Center for Combating Extremism burst into the EWNC’s main office in the nearby city of Maykop. They forced the activists to log in to their e-mail accounts, then spent 90 minutes reading through messages. They “recommended” that an upcoming EWNC report on the 2014 Olympics not be published, lest it “damage Russia.”

A few months later, Andrey Rudomakha was asked to meet with a supposed whistle-blower at a Krasnodar bus station. The man had said he was a “concerned citizen” named Alexei who had information on an illegal landfill. Instead he was from the Center for Combating Extremism, and he carried a letter from a prosecutor. Rudomakha was forced to read it out loud while the officer filmed him. Register the EWNC as a “foreign agent,” the letter said—or else.

In late April, heavy machinery and seven private security guards arrived at the north bank of the Kudepsta. Residents climbed onto parts of the bridge and jumped into the shallow river, briefly stopping their advance. Then as many as 70 police arrived and forcibly dragged them out. Three people were sent to the hospital. The machines reached the other side.

As for the Sochi RGS, the lawsuit from Moscow came in early March, as promised. But the next month, just as protesters were being pulled out of the Kudepsta River, something remarkable happened. “You may congratulate us,” the e-mail from Maria and Yulia read. “We won our case yesterday.” Moscow was signaling that the Sochi RGS would be allowed to exist. They were surprised. I was surprised. I was also reminded of something Maria had told me in Sochi. “Whatever happens to us,” she said, “they will wait until after the Olympics, when no one is paying attention anymore.”


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Firestarter: Before her 2005 arrest, Chelsea Gerlach took part in nine Earth Liberation Front actions, including the 1998 arson that destroyed Vail Mountain's Two Elk lodge. An exclusive interview from behind bars.


Firestarter: Before her 2005 arrest, Chelsea Gerlach took part in nine Earth Liberation Front actions, including the 1998 arson that destroyed Vail Mountain's Two Elk lodge. An exclusive interview from behind bars.

Firestarter: An exclusive interview with Chelsea Gerlach.
As told to McKenzie Funk
First published in 
Outside Magazine, September 2007

On our way from Oregon to Vail, we stopped at every major store in every major city in three states. We stopped at every RadioShack. There are only so many, and we could get only so many components at each one without raising suspicions. We bought everything in cash and in small quantities. An alarm clock and maybe a bottle of water from a Fred Meyer. A box of matches from an Albertsons. A spool of wire from a hardware store. We always wore baseball caps to shield our faces from overhead cameras, just in case.

We stopped at a motel in Utah to assemble the timers for the incendiary devices. It was a nightmare. Avalon had instructions, but he'd never built this kind before. These timers were digital, with longer delays than the ones he'd used—delays long enough for us to get down off the mountain and out of the area before the fires started. Half the clocks we bought didn't end up working with the design. We abandoned them altogether after we realized they wouldn't work in the cold.

Once we got to Vail, we tried to drive the fuel—some gas, some diesel—up the mountain one night, but there was too much snow, and my truck got stuck. We spent hours trying to dig it out. There were maybe 75 gallons of fuel in the back, it was starting to get light out, and there were hunters around. We stashed the fuel cans in the woods and got out of there. The fuel was still miles below our target, a string of buildings and ski lifts on a ridge at 11,000 feet; it would have to be hiked up the mountain. We drove a few hours away to meet some others who'd come out from Oregon to help. Now there were a half-dozen of us, but nothing was set. Most of the group just didn't believe it was possible, so they went back to Oregon. I wasn't really thinking that Avalon and I would end up doing it alone, but that's what happened.

I dropped Avalon where we'd hidden the fuel, and we set a meet time for a few days later—long enough for him to hike fuel can after fuel can several miles and hundreds of feet up the hill and hide them near each of the buildings. When I picked him up, he was exhausted. He rested for a few hours in the campsite I'd found way up a logging road, but there wasn't much time: The bulldozers were supposed to start rolling the next day. We finalized our plans, and I dropped him back at a trailhead in Vail. I returned to my camp and waited. The night of October 18 was cold, but I couldn't make a campfire—it might attract attention. I just stood in a forest of pines and firs and took everything in. I barely slept at all.

WE WEREN'T arsonists. Many of our actions didn't involve fires at all, and none of us fit the profile of a pyromaniac. I guess "eco-saboteur" works. To call us terrorists, as the federal government did, is stretching the bounds of credibility. I got involved at a time when a right-winger had just bombed the Oklahoma City federal building—killing 168 people—and anti-abortionists were murdering doctors. But the government characterized the ELF as a top domestic terrorism threat because we burned down unoccupied buildings in the middle of the night. It shows their priorities.

Now that it's all over, I don't mind talking about my own role in the actions, and I don't mind talking about what my codefendants have already said. But otherwise I don't want to say who did what or name names. Maybe that seems funny to people who have condemned me as a snitch. I understand the general principle that turning your friends in to the cops should be discouraged. I understand it in a more personal way than my critics, actually, since I'm doing nine years because my friends turned me in.

It was just that nearly everyone had already admitted guilt, committed suicide, or fled the country, and the idea of spending the rest of your life in prison isn't something you can fathom until you've faced it. I knew that if I refused to cooperate and became a martyr for these actions, I wouldn't have been able to be honest in my critique of what we did. I felt like it was important, for the movement, to speak the truth, and not just be a cheerleader. Other radicals need to learn from us. Simply dismissing us as snitches doesn't explain why we'd all abandoned these tactics years before we were arrested.


I DON'T LIKE the term hippie. It's too associated with dirty, drugged dropouts—which my parents definitely were not. They were back-to-the-landers from Philadelphia who came out west in 1975, bought eight acres of forest outside Sweet Home, Oregon, and built a house. I was born at home, fed nutritional yeast and sprouts, and not allowed much TV. No Happy Meals. My mom was a preschool teacher, then a biology undergrad, and my dad worked at an electronics company. After they divorced in 1980, I lived some of the time in the Eugene area. At Mom's house we got mailings from Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd—urgent, graphic accounts of whales being slaughtered. My dad got the Earth First! Journal, and when I kept borrowing it, he got me my own subscription.

When I was 15, I worked for the Northwest Youth Corps, maintaining Oregon's hiking trails. I saw miles and miles of clear-cuts. By the next summer, my dad had given me his old Subaru, which he had a shop paint forest green for me. I drove it to Cove/Mallard, in central Idaho—a huge timber sale inside one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48. That's where I met Avalon, an influential part of the Earth First! campaign. He was 28, and I was 16—the youngest person there.

Through Earth First! I was exposed to deep ecology, the philosophy that all species have inherent rights, that humans don't have dominion over the Earth. From there it isn't a big leap to see that the only ethical society is a sustainable one in harmony with its environment. A sustainable society cannot use fossil fuels to make disposable plastics or produce most of the things that constitute our economy. When I saw that political and economic systems themselves were the problem, working within these systems began to feel not only ineffectual but almost unethical.

It may seem unrealistic to say the problem is civilization itself. To me it's equally unrealistic to say that something like carbon credits are a solution. Running ethanol in SUVs won't change anything. At all. We don't live in a plastic bubble; everything is connected. Things will have to change whether we're ready or not. We're smart enough to learn that if you shit in your water supply, you eventually get sick. As a species, we need to evolve past our self-destructive patterns.

I hesitate to say this, because I don't want to sound like a terrorist. But in 1995, when I was at the Evergreen State College, up in Olympia, Washington, I read the Unabomber Manifesto, which had been published in The Washington Post. I didn't agree with what he did, but what he wrote made sense to me: that the Industrial Revolution had been a disaster, causing psychological suffering in the First World, physical suffering in the Third World, and great damage to the natural world. It was like someone put all this stuff I'd been thinking into words.

At Evergreen, I got involved with the local Earth First! group. We did a blockade of an old-growth-timber sale going ahead under the "salvage rider"—a 1995 congressional provision that exempted some sales from significant environmental regulation. After just a few hours, the blockade was broken up and the timber trucks were rolling. For me it was a turning point: If the people destroying the environment didn't have to follow the law, why should the people defending it?

I saw Avalon not long after that, and I told him I was becoming disillusioned with aboveground activism. He didn't say much to encourage me. I dropped out and soon joined an underground cell.


THE EARTH Liberation Front wasn't a group as such, and Avalon wasn't our leader. In general, we didn't know each other's names, phone numbers, or addresses. We used the ELF label as a way of telling people, "That wasn't just a random fire." Avalon recruited some of us, but we were anarchists—you couldn't tell us what to do. When people had particular skills, like deploying incendiary devices, their experience was respected. I was often the communiqué sender. I was good with words and computers—all the message-relaying and encryption we did weren't intuitive.

Targets were chosen by individuals. For example, someone would find a logging company, do some research, and then talk with whomever else they wanted involved. The first recon was usually a drive-by in a car, and the last involved walking the site at night, wearing all black and watching for neighbors, dogs, security guards, late workers, etc. We looked for spots to place the devices—overhangs, alcoves, anything that would reflect back the heat.

A big factor in selecting target=s was safety—our own and that of other people and nontargeted buildings. We never wanted to put anyone at risk. In Eugene in the late nineties, more than a couple of timber-company offices were saved by the proximity of neighboring homes. In contrast, the Childers Meat Company—a meat-distribution plant that we destroyed in 1999, on Mother's Day—stood away from any homes at the corner of an intersection. The incendiary device we developed involved an electrical current, matches, a road flare, and a bucket of fuel. The term firebomb is misleading. The fires started out with a very small flame that, over the course of ten minutes, got bigger and bigger. It went straight up. It never exploded. It was never a sudden, giant fireball.

We tried to be smart about imagining the ways we could be caught. We mapped out traffic cameras, ATMs, and gas-station cameras so we could drive around them. We cleaned the fingerprints off everything, even wristwatches, which I thought was overkill until I lost a watch climbing over a chain-link fence. We were very good at it. That's why the government didn't know who did these things until someone who was involved told them.


IT WAS OCTOBER 1998 when Avalon showed up at the cabin I shared with my partner, Stan, outside Eugene and asked if we wanted to take part in a really big action. It would be my first arson, and it would be Stan's first action of any kind. We said yes. We went on a walk in the meadow, because we never discussed anything indoors. A few days later, we followed Avalon east in my truck. We didn't know where we were going until we got to Colorado. He told us the target= was the Vail ski area.

I had read about Vail's plans to expand into an 885-acre wilderness where, 15 years prior, Colorado's last wild lynx had been spotted. Vail Resorts seemed like the worst of the worst: not only destroying critical habitat but also destroying local businesses and communities. All for corporate profit earned by building second homes. There had been a large public- outreach campaign, administrative appeals, and lawsuits, but it was still going to happen. If any company deserved to be target=ed, Vail did.

In the predawn hours of October 19, with everyone else but me gone back to Oregon and with no timers, Avalon set all the fires himself, by hand. He had to travel on foot, running from building to building on the mile-and-a-half-long ridge. As he lit the last ones, the flames from the first ones were lighting up the sky. There were some scary moments. A hunter was sleeping in a heated restroom in one of the buildings. Avalon opened the door, saw him there, and left it alone.

Down below, I had no way to be sure he'd be back on time. When I was returning from my campsite to pick him up, I heard over the scanner that the police and fire departments were looking for a blue pickup, which was exactly what I was driving. There was nothing to do but keep going. I had to meet Avalon down in town, at a popular trailhead.

I got there right on time. It was morning, it was light out, and day hikers were showing up. I stayed in my truck and shuffled through my things, pretending to be getting ready for a hike. Up on the trail, Avalon had exchanged his black clothing for the hiker's garb that he'd carried in a backpack, and whenever he heard voices coming, he stepped into the woods and hid.

I waited ten minutes, then 20. After a half-hour, as I was wondering if I should leave, Avalon appeared. He just walked up to the truck and got inside. He said two things: He was injured. And the action was successful. It wasn't the time to get details. I just drove.

The first thing we did was go to a library in Denver, and I looked up his injury: a strained Achilles tendon—he'd done too much running. It required ice, not surgery. We went to a second library. He could barely walk, so I entered alone and e-mailed the communiqué.

In the days that followed, I read the news, and it was funny to see speculation that was so completely off base: that at least a dozen people had been responsible, that it must have been an inside job, etc. People tend to think this stuff is much harder than it actually is. We did $12 million in damage—a big part of the $15,894,755.42 I'm supposed to pay in restitution. The expansion went forward—we didn't stop them—and insurance money paid to replace the buildings. But it didn't pay back the $13 million they lost in revenues. Call that the ELF tax.

And we were looking at a much larger canvas anyway, even if, as we later found out, we each had our own concept of what we were achieving. To some degree Avalon still believed in the political process. He thought we could shift the middle of the debate: By being so far at one extreme, we'd make the rest of the environmental movement appear more reasonable. That didn't really ring true to me from the beginning, and after the fallout from Vail—which turned out to be detrimental to local activism—it was even clearer. But even for Avalon, Vail wasn't really about Vail. It was about what we as a society are doing. It was about inspiring people, and that certainly did happen to some extent.

During the four years that I was most active with the ELF, there were parts of my life that were enjoyable. And there were parts that were not. Like being in a hotel room for days on end, everyone clad in painter's suits and face masks and hairnets and multiple layers of latex gloves, craned over tiny electronic devices and soldering irons. Nothing working out, and all of us sweating, frustrated, yelling at each other.

But then there was running around in the wilderness at night, and this incredible sense of being alive. You got to that point of just being totally in the moment. I felt connected to the natural world and really empowered in defending it. The emotion is hard to articulate—like we'd broken through the veil of what was possible. Like things didn't have to be the way they were. Some would call that idealism.


BY 2001, EVERYTHING was falling apart. People were getting more reckless just when I thought we needed to be more careful. There was reason to believe Jake was on the radar of investigators, but instead of keeping a distance, some of the others invited him along on another action. That spring's trial of Jeff "Free" Luers, an activist who had set fire to three SUVs at Eugene's Romania Chevrolet Truck Center the previous summer, was coming up, and pressure was building. One night in March, Avalon, Stan, and three others (but not Jake) went to Romania and burned another 35 SUVs—an attempt at solidarity.

Many of us who weren't involved in Romania thought it would result in a longer sentence for Free and increase the heat on the activist community. We were right on both counts. Free got 23 years, and, by a twist of fate, Jake ended up becoming a prime suspect in Romania, an action he hadn't done and knew nothing about. Coincidentally, the day after it happened, he was accused of having stolen his former housemate's truck. The cops found the timing of that suspicious—though it was actually unrelated—and he was served with a subpoena. He didn't talk then, but it was the beginning of his relationship with the feds.

Since 2000, we'd been holding meetings of what we called the Praxis Book Club—a forum to discuss techniques and share skills. There'd been one in Eugene, another in Tucson, another in Santa Cruz, another in Olympia. At the fifth and final Praxis meeting, in Sisters, Oregon, things came to a head. Romania had exposed fissures. We talked about them, about strategy in general, and suddenly it was clear that we all had very different ideas about what we were doing and why. In the radical movement there is a lot of reading and philosophizing about direct action, and we'd wanted to focus on actually doing it. We should have had that discussion much earlier. There didn't seem to be any reason to meet again. I decided it wasn't safe for me to stick around, and I left Eugene.

A few months later came September 11. I was in another hotel room, getting ready to do another recon. The TV in the next room was blaring: A plane had hit a building or something. So I turned on my own TV and watched all day. The newscasters kept talking about all the crazy security; everything was on high alert. Military jets kept flying back and forth overhead—the hotel was near an Air Force base. It was the wrong time to be creeping around in black in the middle of the night, and we called the recon off.

My aunt lives in Connecticut, and my grandmother was in Philadelphia, and that November my family and I went out for Thanksgiving. Before my flight back out of JFK, I took a few hours to visit Ground Zero. The World Trade Center and Pentagon had been the heart of an American empire responsible for a lot of violence around the world, so I wasn't shocked by the attack. But I wasn't hardened to it, either. It was a tragedy, and Ground Zero was a powerful place. I walked around sobbing.


AFTER LEAVING EUGENE in 2001, I spent six months hiding out in Canada. This time was like an extended retreat for me. In my years as an activist, I'd never taken any time for myself. The problems of the world were so urgent, I felt like it was self-indulgent to just relax and have fun. But it was a mistake not to have a balanced life. We'd sacrificed so much that our egos were enmeshed in our actions. We were so steeped in bitterness about the world that it spilled over into the group and broke us apart. Away from all that, I could see it more clearly, and I decided I wanted to do things differently.

My move away from my ELF cell was a gradual process, and it was hard. I was still underground. I'd started living with Darren, a Canadian activist who'd done time for animal releases, and he wasn't legally allowed in the country. We went to San Francisco, then Portland, both using fake identities. We couldn't talk to any of our new friends about our past. I had a pre-paid cell phone to call my family, and I was very careful about when and where I turned it on.

In Portland I started DJ'ing. The beat that defines house music is the same beat as a human heart; the connection to life and the Earth is intuitive. I often played music with a subversive, overtly political message. It was January of 2005 when I played a party in Eugene and Jake showed up, already wearing his FBI wire. I didn't want to be rude, but I didn't spend much time talking to him.

The following October, he showed up in line at a Portland coffee shop. I made small talk and bought him some food, since he'd always been broke, but I didn't tell him anything. In late November of 2005, a week before my arrest, I played one of my best sets ever, at a martial-arts studio in Eugene. The studio had been decorated in a jungle motif—big plants and overhead netting—and I played African-influenced rhythms until the whole place was jumping up and down.

Jake just happened to stop by. The government had arranged to have a Childers Meat Company truck parked right out front, hoping it would prompt me to reminisce about the action. It didn't work. I was focused on performing, and the agents got to listen to boom boom boom all night.


THE DAY I WAS ARRESTED, I'd driven to a coffee shop in northwest Portland and was stopped outside. Two cop cars blocked the intersection in front of me, and one came up from behind. There were at least two others. The agents approached my door, guns drawn, and yelled, "Put your hands on the steering wheel." They pulled me out, handcuffed me, and stuffed me in the back of an unmarked sedan.

At the FBI headquarters, they showed me a picture of the Bonneville Power Administration tower we'd downed. They said other people had been arrested and were talking, and that I should, too. I asked if I could have a cigarette. They let me go outside. I don't smoke very often, but I knew I was going to jail for a while, and I wanted to take advantage of my last bit of freedom. I watched some birds and tried to take in the trees, wind, grass, and sky. When I came back in, I went to the restroom and threw up.

I resisted cooperating for almost two months. I argued and argued with my court-appointed lawyer. I didn't think it was ethical to put someone else in jail so I could get out of jail. Just before Christmas, Avalon killed himself in his cell. I learned that other people were beginning to talk, one after another. Soon I knew of at least eight, six of whom would testify against me. I was facing a mandatory minimum of 35 years, and it reached a point where I felt my cooperation wouldn't put anyone in jail. So I talked.

Later, some of my codefendants got a deal in which they were allowed to cooperate without naming names. This wasn't possible for me. They had minor roles in one or two arsons in Oregon. I could have been indicted for nine major actions in five separate federal districts spanning the entire period of the conspiracy, so I had much greater culpability. Colorado investigators were determined to get me to say who else was involved in the Vail arson. They were convinced Avalon and I couldn't have done it alone, and they seemed disappointed when I told them the truth.

Jail is overwhelmingly beige. I rarely get to see anything natural or beautiful here, except, occasionally, small bits of sky. I have a daily routine. Sleep through 5:30 a.m. breakfast. Lunch at 10:30. Read the newspaper. Exercise for two or three hours. Yoga. Shower. Write letters. Eat dinner. Work on whatever requires concentration after lights-out. Meditate for an hour or two. Sleep.

I'd never been a particularly spiritual person, but meditation came to me as a way to be at peace with a seemingly untenable situation. I've started to feel more grounded—more intertwined with the spirit of life while alone in my concrete box than I did during much of my time in the free world. Activists need to incorporate this internal work into the movement. It's the basis of true compassion. Once you realize that there's really no "them"—no other—moral action is not sacrifice. It's just aligning yourself with what is good.


WERE WE WRONG? I don't know if I can answer that yet.

I don't regret doing what I felt was right. I don't regret trying to protect the environment. I had good intentions, and I don't regret that I dedicated so much of my life to this. I can't change the past, and I'm not sure I would. The actions were important for my personal evolution—and also for the evolution of the radical movement. I wouldn't be where I am without those experiences. I don't mean sitting in jail. I mean my mind-set.

Even now I can't say that destroying property is always wrong. Our main motive at Vail and in other actions was to inspire people, and we did that. But we were wrong to think more people would adopt our tactics. I can finally understand why they didn't. Activism is motivated fundamentally by compassion and a desire for peace. It's a big step to use force, and it should be.

It's an act of violence to close your heart to anyone, even for a moment. We were certainly guilty of that. We didn't really consider how our actions would impact individuals. We felt the pain of the Earth, and that was what we focused on. A few lost jobs didn't even measure on the scale of the extinction of species. But it doesn't matter what the scale is. You're hurting someone, and you have to grapple with the consequences of that.

True compassion has to apply to everyone: lynx and skiers. I apologized to my victims in court, and I meant it. I couldn't have done that two years ago. The primary responsibility we have as activists and as human beings is to ensure that whatever action we take is based on love. In my involvement with the ELF, we didn't do that, and in that sense we failed.

In martial arts there's a concept that you're not fighting against another person but taking a stand against violence itself. You use only the minimum amount of force necessary to stop an attack. I'm in jail. I'm not going to be doing any more direct action, and I'm not saying anyone else should. But what would a truly moral direct action look like? Maybe it would mean taking in the pain of your victims—opening your heart to them, being wholly present with them—and at the same time truly taking in the pain they're causing to the natural world. Meditating on it. Fully contemplating it. And then, at the end of that process, perhaps deciding that the most compassionate thing in the world is to light their buildings on fire.


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China, Ecotopia: Western architects try to turn China green.


China, Ecotopia: Western architects try to turn China green.

China, Ecotopia: Western architects try to turn China green.
By McKenzie Funk
First published in
Popular Science, July 2007

ZHAO QINGHAO, the first resident of China's first eco-village, is a 58-year-old polio victim whose left leg is twisted at a 60-degree angle below the knee. He walks with a cane fashioned out of PVC tubing and smokes a pipe and the occasional enormous, self-rolled cigarette. His wife, Yi Shiqin, who is 50, is mentally disabled and has a speech impediment. Their family is one of the poorest in a poor community, and their new eco-home has not helped. They have no heat and no water. They have a gas meter but no gas. They have no neighbors on their deserted street, no room to grow corn in their tiny garden, no place in their yard for the cashmere goats that once provided a third of their income. As temperatures dropped last winter, the bio-gasification plant intended to power the village still wasn't working. When snow piled up waist-deep outside their door, they locked themselves in their bedroom because the rest of the house was too cold. Zhao took a pickax and hacked a hole into the wall to create a makeshift fireplace, where they burned wood from the local forest.

China's eco-revolution wasn't meant to go this way, and Zhao and Yi hadn't meant to be eco-pioneers. But their old house, a stone structure Zhao had lived in since the 1960s, was gutted by an electrical fire in May 2006. The local government gave their $2,600 in restitution money to the developer of the eco-village. The couple had little choice. Along with their former neighbors, whose house had also burned, they became the sole residents of Huangbaiyu New Village—model inhabitants of a model community that was supposed to prove that China could grow up green. Five days after Zhao and Yi moved in, a convoy of black sedans pulled into Huangbaiyu: a delegation of officials and journalists from Beijing, here to witness the village's progress.

The plans for Huangbaiyu—one of the half-dozen eco-cities, megalopolises and capitals of pollution I visited this spring to gauge whether China can engineer itself out of environmental catastrophe—were drawn by none other than William McDonough, the celebrated former "Green Dean" of the University of Virginia's architecture school and godfather of America's sustainable-design movement. In 1996 McDonough was the first, and so far only, individual to win the White House award for green design; the title of his 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle, which refers to an environmentally harmless cycle of manufacture and reuse, has become a sustainability buzz term. Huangbaiyu, in far northeastern China, was the first development project by the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, a nonprofit McDonough started with Deng Nan, the daughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. McDonough's drawings depicted a beautiful teardrop of a village filling a forested valley. Its homes were to feature solar panels, eco-bricks made of hay and clay, and southern exposure to maximize sunlight. The project would pay for itself as families from old Huangbaiyu, a village of 1,370, decided to trade in their former homes. The old dwellings would revert to fields, and Huangbaiyu's farmable area would grow (how this would ever make sense economically was never made clear). Like Dongtan, the much larger eco-city now taking form on the margins of Shanghai and another stop on my tour, Huangbaiyu was the subject of glowing press coverage. The local entrepreneur selected to build the new homes, Dai Xiaolong, who is also the village chief, took out nearly $1 million in loans to pay for construction. Convinced that Huangbaiyu would be famous around the world, the first of a wave of green cities across China, he also took out thousands of trademarks—Huangbaiyu Windows, Huangbaiyu Motors, Huangbaiyu Refrigerators--and waited to cash in.

I set out for Huangbaiyu on a sunny spring day along with my friend and translator Flora. We took a taxi from the regional capital, Shenyang, and followed a newly built expressway to a newly paved road. The new village's 42 homes, with yellow walls and red roofs, were laid out in a grid, like a piece of half-built American suburbia here in the Chinese countryside. Very little of Dai's interpretation of McDonough's plans was obviously "eco." Shannon May, an anthropologist from the University of California at Berkeley who spent 18 months living in Huangbaiyu, told me that Dai—who had little experience as a builder, let alone a green builder--had neither the expertise nor the support to fulfill McDonough's vision. "It was like the Chia Pet model of development," she said. "Just add water." Because Dai was short on funds, only one house had a solar panel. A dozen workers mixed cement near what was to be the revamped bio-gasification plant, which had a hopeful coat of green paint. Two more workers, here to water a few meager strips of grass, were sitting on metal buckets, drunk at 11 in the morning. One sprang up and kissed me on the cheek. "Americans, you hug them, you kiss them, they don't care!" he exclaimed. It would have been nicer had he shaved.

We toured old Huangbaiyu, a beautiful collection of stone homes where ducks waddled down the main street and villagers plowed fields with pairs of horses, and after lunch we headed the few hundred yards back to the new village, where Zhao and Yi soon arrived home from the faraway plot where they had been planting corn. Their hands were stained red from pesticides. "Come into my home," Zhao said. "Come, come." He showed us the fireplace he'd cut into the wall, and his freshly tilled vegetable patch, where he was planting beans and cucumbers in a space a fifth the size of his old garden. "This project is a waste of money," he said. "These houses are suitable for factory workers, not country people." He handed us a couple cans of Snow beer and cracked one open for himself. "Chinese people think this beer is only half as good, because in our minds, foreign beer tastes best," Zhao said. "But I think this is pretty good beer."

THE FIRST THING to understand is that China's problem is our own. For every Chinese peasant who moves to the city—400 million are expected to do so in the next two decades, the greatest urban migration in history—the world loses someone who lives off the land and gains someone who lives on the grid. This year, for the first time ever, the planet has more urbanites than rural residents, a shift attributable in large part to China and its dozens of million-person cities you've never heard of. City dwellers in the developing world use at least three times as much energy as those in the country. The richer they get—the richer China gets—the more they use. China's economic boom, a 10 percent increase in GDP every year, is twice that of America's at the height of the dot-com era and shows no signs of relenting. Half of the world's new buildings go up in China. The country has constructed the equivalent of the U.S. highway system in a decade. It adds the electricity use of Norway, 102 gigawatts, to its power grid every year and builds the equivalent of three coal-fired electricity plants every week (not one, as is usually reported). Last year, it produced 2.3 billion metric tons of coal, 40 percent of the world's total and more than the U.S., Russia and India combined.

There is no dirtier form of energy than coal, and there is no dirtier coal than China's. Few of the country's plants have sulfur scrubbers, making China the world's largest emitter of sulfur dioxide, which causes the acid rain that falls on a third of Chinese territory. Last year, the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) recalculated the country's GDP to account for environmental costs—and reported a 3 percent reduction (others estimate 8 to 15 percent). That same year, 4,700 people were killed in coal-mining accidents.

In February, South Korea suffered two weeks of toxic dust storms that meteorologists blamed on China. In April 2006, a similar cloud of pollution was spotted floating over the Pacific toward North America [see "Endangered Orbits," page 64]. U.S. soil is filled with Chinese particulates; roughly 50 percent of our mercury comes from foreign, mostly Chinese, coal plants. But while China's smog becomes our problem and its petroleum companies buy up Africa's oil fields and its livestock eat up the soy that deforests the Amazon, what the world really fears is China's coal-powered greenhouse emissions.

China was responsible for 8 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions in 1980. By 2004, it was responsible for 18 percent. In April the International Energy Agency's chief economist declared that China would surpass the U.S. as the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases—not in 2009 or 2010, as previously thought, but this year. It may already have happened.

Also in April, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA would have to do more to regulate auto emissions, President Bush used China to excuse his inaction: "Unless there is an accord with China, China will produce greenhouse gases that will offset anything we do," he argued. Meanwhile, China's official response to a report released in February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has since recommended that urgent action be taken to prevent catastrophic climate change, was that developed countries' responsibility for global warming "cannot be shirked." As a developing country, China should not be expected to wholly sacrifice its growth, said spokeswoman Jiang Yu. "It must be pointed out that climate change has been caused by the long-term historic emissions of developed countries and their high per-capita emissions."

The simple fact is that if the world's emissions are not reduced, global warming will flood Florida as surely as it melts China's Himalayas. Our fates are intertwined, and ever more so as China becomes the world's factory. Every minute of every day in 2005, American consumers bought $463,200 worth of Chinese goods--a number that has undoubtedly risen as the trade deficit has jumped from a monthly average of $16.8 billion in 2005 to more than $19 billion today. Chinese firms are blamed for deforesting tropical Southeast Asia, but 70 percent of the wood imported goes into furniture bound for Europe and North America. Energy-intensive heavy industry such as steel production is migrating from the developed world to China's eastern coast. A 2005 study by Bin Shui and Robert Harris of Colorado's National Center for Atmospheric Research determined that from 1997 to 2003, China-U.S. trade increased global CO2 emissions by 720 million metric tons. Some 7 to 14 percent of China's emissions resulted from exports to American customers; had the goods been produced here, our national CO2 emissions would be up to 6 percent higher, and the U.S. would still be the top greenhouse emitter in the world. Simply put, this is our pollution too--we've just outsourced it to China.

It seems only right, then, that the world's great planners and architects and environmentalists are landing in droves in Beijing and Shanghai, hoping to help China engineer itself out of a crisis, to prevent it from repeating the West's mistakes. The more the world realizes that its environmental future is tied to China's, the more experts will come. The question, ultimately, is whether all their grand efforts will make any difference at all.

ON A FRIDAY a week before my trip to Huangbaiyu, 200 of the planet's top green architects, engineers and urban planners were packed into a hall at Shanghai's Tongji University, listening, rapt, to a talk by Peter Head of the global design firm Arup. The subject was the eco-city of Dongtan, an Arup-led project 25 miles away on the Yangtze River's Chongming Island, the Shanghai municipality's last patch of undeveloped land. "Dongtan is a specific project for a specific place…But the world is reacting to it," he said. "It's a vision for how we can transform cities into something better."

A soft-spoken man in his early 60s with a gray mustache and a penchant for occasional Britishisms such as "jiggery-pokery," Head was something of a star in this crowd. The leader of Arup's 100-person Dongtan team, he is an engineer and bridge-builder who has spent eight years on London's Sustainable Development Commission. He had a hand in imposing on London drivers the PS8 ($16) congestion fee that has made the city notably quieter and freer of traffic (New York is considering a similar system), and now he is creating what many hope will be the world's first true eco-city. One PowerPoint slide showed him in the company of British prime minister Tony Blair and Chinese president Hu Jintao, signing the 2005 agreement to build Dongtan, a project that, unlike little Huangbaiyu, is being pushed by the highest levels of the Chinese government.

Head described Dongtan as not just a city but an ecosystem. Planning was an exercise in integrated thinking--"integrated urbanism," as Arup's literature calls it. Transportation was considered at the same time as health care, because in the big picture, one affects the other: The more walking and the less air pollution, the healthier the people, and the lower the health-care costs. Similarly, if internal-combustion engines are banned, Dongtan's office buildings will save on air-conditioning: Workers won't mind opening windows to cool down their offices if traffic noise is absent and the air is clean. Head's planning team includes economists, water engineers, graphic designers, property consultants, "cultural specialists" and a philosopher—an approach far more multidisciplinary than the one that birthed Huangbaiyu. He showed a slide of his Chinese team's "barrel principle" of city development: an image of a wooden barrel that holds only as much water as its shortest rib allows.

The first 2.5 square miles of the 33-square-mile Dongtan site to be developed—which will house the first 80,000 of its eventual 500,000 inhabitants—will sit at the edge of a bird refuge for the endangered black-faced spoonbill. This starter section of the city, made up of three separate villages, will be bisected by waterways and walking and biking paths, bounded by public-transport loops and green space. Water taxis will ply its canals, and the only vehicles allowed inside city limits will run on electricity or hydrogen—zero noise and zero emissions. No residence will be farther than three minutes by foot from a park, seven minutes from public transportation, and eight minutes from a village center. Street lamps will be solar-powered, wastewater will be treated and recycled, and buildings will use two thirds less energy than conventional structures. Dongtan will run on 100 percent renewable energy, much of which will come from a plant powered by rice husks, an unwanted by-product that could arrive by barge from up the Yangtze. With notable exceptions—including hyper-efficient, LED-lit "plant factories" where organic crops will be stacked on five layers of trays—Dongtan's innovation is its holistic perspective, not its individual technological breakthroughs. Its ecological footprint, the amount of land it takes to sustain one of its citizens, is just 6.4 acres per person. (In London and Shanghai, by comparison, it takes around 14.5 acres. In Houston it's nearly 30 acres.) By 2010, when a 15-mile bridge-and-tunnel complex over and under the Yangtze—the longest in the world—is completed and the World Expo is held in Shanghai (which in these parts gets mentioned far more often than Beijing's 2008 Olympics), Dongtan will be ready for its first residents. How? "Building happens five times as fast here," Head explained. "Everything goes at a factor of five in China."

The next morning, on a smoggy, dreary day, I joined 100 or so of the green architects and engineers—participants in the biennial Holcim Forum on Sustainable Construction—on a tour of Dongtan and Chongming, all of which, the government says, will be responsibly developed as an "eco-island." We took buses to a Yangtze ferry to more buses, shuttling past a few incongruous, smoke-spitting factories to reach the Chongming exhibition center. Inside were local dignitaries and a scale model of the island and its master plan. For 10 minutes, a robotic voice droned on in perfect English about the green future of Chongming. Outside the Dongtan site, which takes up just the island's southern tip, there would be forest parks and lakes and a new "oriental Geneva" conference center. Everything seemed master-planned down to the placement of the sailboats, and as the Chinese officials dodged every specific question asked, I found myself increasingly skeptical that the island's development would be anywhere near as green as promised. The crowd seemed to feel the same way. "Is it realistic?" asked a German architect standing near me of his Brazilian friend. "It's total crap--propaganda," the other replied.

The buses next took us to a patch of supposedly sustainable McMansions, and the multinational crowd of architects scoffed at the American-size, single-family homes. Clearly built for the elite, they had giant living rooms, garages, balconies, and sculpted yards with rock gardens and bamboo-shaded walkways. "This one will be perfect for 30 or 40 migrant workers," whispered a Swiss planner. "There are no stores in the bottom floors, no places to eat," griped a Spaniard. "They'll have to drive everywhere."

We caravanned to an organic farm with no organic farmers and then to the Dongtan wetland, where not a single bird was in sight. With the bridge soon to connect mostly undeveloped Chongming to downtown Shanghai (travel time will be shortened to 40 minutes from the current three hours on boat and bus), construction was everywhere—villas, apartment blocks, bridges, roads--and very little of it seemed particularly green. The perspective was sobering. The first phase of Dongtan, which will be completed over the next decade, will take up one eighth of a 33-square-mile site that is itself only 1/14 of the 470-square-mile island, which is itself only one fifth the area of the Shanghai municipality, which is itself only a tiny piece of massive China: 18.7 million people and 2,448 square miles in a country of 1.3 billion people and 3.7 million square miles. As sustainable and hopeful and unassailably brilliant as Dongtan may aspire to be, a showcase eco-city can do little on its own to save China from itself.

I MADE A SECOND Dongtan visit the next day with a translator named Sissi, a friend of a friend of a friend who wore high-heeled, knee-high leather boots as we tromped through the mud. Sissi is 21 and owns three cellphones (she can never remember to recharge them in time, so she just swaps them out). She works as a party and music promoter when not studying, and she loves hip-hop and Beijing punk rock. Recently, she told me, some exchange students at her university taught her how to do the "booty shake." She wore a jacket with a blue faux-fur collar, and her gray sweater read "Abercrombie" (but not "Fitch"). Her mother had been "reeducated" here on Chongming Island along with other Shanghai intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, forced to work the fields for four years. Her father's office, the customs building on the historic Bund waterfront, was taken over by families who hung their laundry in its stately halls. But Sissi's family had emerged in a good position in the new, money-driven Shanghai. To walk with her through Dongtan's fields was to see the Chongming gold rush—properties already selling for an inflated $45 a square foot will climb to $70 or more when the bridge is complete—through the eyes of the elite, Westernizing Shanghainese.

Sissi and I talked first with three women planting watermelon seeds in a muddy field. They were in their 50s and 60s and were bending over in the sun, using a foot-long stick to measure out the distance between seeds. Last year their own land, allotted to them by the government, was taken away to be developed, part of the green master plan for Chongming. They now receive 440 yuan (about $57) a month in restitution—not enough, they said. To supplement it, they work here for a local boss on 40 acres of land that itself may soon be reclaimed by the government, making just over 50 cents an hour in 8- to 10-hour days.

In the nearby town of Niupeng, Sissi and I saw where many of the displaced Chongming farmers are being housed: row after row of identical gray, four-story, 12- to 24-unit apartment blocks. One complex had at least 40 of these buildings, and alongside it was a neighborhood of razed homes, traditional dwellings similar to Old Huangbaiyu's that were being cleared to make way for more high-density housing. Red banners with yellow characters—"Cooperate with the Government's Work"—hung one after another over Niupeng's main street, on either side of which were piles of rubble. One lot was a graveyard of wooden doors collected from the destroyed houses. About 20 of the neighborhood's homes were holdouts, still standing as their owners waited for a better payout from the authorities.

Before we returned to the skyscrapers of downtown Shanghai, we stopped where the new bridge and its six-lane highway will make landfall. Already all 216 of the structure's deepwater piers were in place, stretching out of sight across the Yangtze, an endless line of enormous cement stumps. Workers in yellow helmets and orange life jackets, mostly migrants from the south, swarmed the site. They told us that they worked in one of three eight-hour shifts per day; construction went on nonstop, seven days a week. Those who worked and slept on the middle section of the bridge, out in the center of the brown river, took turns each night toting the crew's cellphones to and from land, where they could get text messages from wives and families. The scale of the project—the size of the human tide that will swallow Chongming whole—was hard to miss, and Sissi didn't. "I have to bring my mother back here so we can invest in some properties," she said.

THE WORLD'S MOST polluted city is a funny place to find hope for China's ecological future, but that's where I found it. Linfen, an ancient Chinese capital in the middle of what is now the country's richest coal province, Shanxi, was number one on China's list of most polluted cities in 2004, 2005 and 2006. It topped the global roster put out in 2006 by the Blacksmith Institute, an environmental NGO, beating out such toxic notables as Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Dzerzhinsk, Russia (site of a Cold War-era chemical- weapons plant). Linfen became infamous overnight, a mandatory stop for newspaper correspondents. "It's an apocalyptic vision of clanking factories, spewing smokestacks, burning flames, suffocating fumes, slag heaps, constant haze and relentless dust," wrote Geoffrey York in Canada's Globe and Mail in February. By reputation, Linfen is the only place in China where you can walk down the hall of your hotel and actually see the air. Flora and I arrived carrying special Japanese face masks and wardrobes in which the only pieces of white clothing were my tube socks.

What we hadn't prepared for was the possibility that Linfen would be sunny and pleasant, freshened by a spring breeze rushing through a basin that often traps in air pollution. Shanxi Province has 270 billion tons of proven coal reserves, and coal is everywhere--piled in back alleys, sold in burnable cubes from the back of mopeds, used to pop the popcorn sold by street-side vendors. Coal-fired power plants and aluminum and steel smelters surround the city. Part of the improvement was the season; the worst pollution is in winter, when homes burn coal for warmth and the air is dead calm. But every resident we talked to said it wasn't just the weather, that Linfen was actually becoming cleaner. We visited the local SEPA office to find out why. The windowsills were covered with dust, the walls stained gray from soot, but in the building's entryway was an LCD screen displaying the air-pollution index—today was a passable two on a scale of five. Yang Zhaofeng, the bureau's deputy director, was summoned, and we sat with him and a crowd of underlings in a room ringed with leather chairs. Yang's explanation of Linfen's rebirth was simple: "After we found out we were number one in pollution, we did all we could to take off the dunce cap."

Linfen's descent into coal-fired hell happened at a staggering pace. It began with the economic boom of the late 1990s and sped up after 2002, when domestic energy demand spiked, coal prices jumped, and the reins on private mine owners were loosened. At its low point, in 2004, Linfen had only 15 days out of 365 with an acceptable level of air pollution (two or above on the index). But now, Yang said, the cleanup was equally dramatic. The first step was to block coal trucks at the city's boundaries; suddenly there was much less coal dust. Next came heating: In 2006 alone, Linfen added enough gas-fired central heating to reach more than half of the city's 4.1 million people, and it knocked down 197 large coal-fired boilers and more than 600 smaller, family-size boilers. Now 85 percent of the city uses natural gas rather than coal for their heating. Perhaps most significant is the crackdown on dirty factories at the fringes of Linfen. SEPA forced 100 of the smaller, less efficient, often illegal ones to close last year, and this year it has given notice to nearly 150 more. The city's larger factories face new environmental standards, and the government is helping them to install sulfur scrubbers. With those that don't follow its directives, SEPA plays hardball—freezing their bank accounts, cutting off their electricity, and blocking all transportation to and from the facility. Flora and I heard rumors that, if needed, SEPA sometimes takes a final step: It sends in an explosives team and simply blows up the offending businesses. The result? In 2006, Linfen had 202 days above level two on the pollution index. By May of this year, it already had 87—22 days ahead of last year's pace. Recently the city of Urumqi, in far western China, overtook Linfen to become first on the country's list of most polluted cities. "When you come back next year, Linfen will be even cleaner," Yang promised.

On our final morning in Linfen, a government handler who had attached himself to us after the SEPA meeting--a man I knew by his English moniker, Sunshine--picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the city's top attraction, the Yao Temple. Linfen, known as Pingyang in ancient times, is considered one of China's first capitals, and its first ruler more than 4,000 years ago was Emperor Yao. We were in a black sedan with leather seats, the symbol of power in new China. "I am from the municipal government," the driver barked at the guards when we reached the temple, and we drove up and walked right through the door once reserved for the emperor. We saw some gongs and a well that apparently still had potable water, and then a monk fleeced me for $25 by blessing the largest stick of incense he could find, handing it to me, and asking me to pay for it as Sunshine nodded encouragingly. The day was sunny and the sky blue, and when the monk lit the eight-foot-long stick of incense for me, its smoke was the worst air pollution I'd experienced in Linfen.

Newly blessed, we walked next door to Yao Miao Square, a gaudy tourist trap and monument to the coal money that had built it. Completed in 2005, just in time to host the 2005 Miss Universal Bikini contest, the square's centerpiece was a 170-foot-tall gate (we were repeatedly told it was slightly taller than the Arc de Triomphe) that was filled with replicas representing the entirety of Chinese history: busts of Confucius, bronze miniatures of the Great Wall, statues of the heroes who invented gunpowder, paper and the compass. We rode an elevator to the roof and looked out over Linfen's forest of smokestacks, very few of which were spewing any smoke.

Flora and I descended, said goodbye to Sunshine, and hailed a taxi that would take us on an unsupervised tour of the industrial suburb of He Xi. There the buildings were stained brown-gray and the road was covered in layers of coal dust, but, as SEPA had claimed, the majority of the factories were shuttered. On the side of the road we met two workers who had just lost their jobs at a steel factory. They had earned $25 a week breaking down chunks of coal residue into smaller chunks, but a month ago the government shut the factory--and them--down. It was not an uplifting encounter, but in the context of China's massive pollution problem, the brute efficiency with which the city's economy had been turned upside down offered grounds for a sort of hope. Linfen, once the shortest plank in the Chinese barrel, was far better proof than Dongtan or Huangbaiyu that China's top-down, authoritarian development model—an unyielding machine greatly more efficient than that of a messy democracy—could apply to ecological as well as economic progress. In the center of the former most polluted city in the world, it was evident that if China wills it, it has the power to impose environmentalism by fiat, to green the entire country at five times the speed the West ever could. All the rest of the world has to do is wait.


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