Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Speaker voices urgency and optimism at annual Wege Lecture

Dr. Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist, technology entrepreneur, philanthropist and medical doctor, addressed responses to such global threats as climate change, epidemics, water scarcity and nuclear proliferation Wednesday in the 10th Annual Wege Lecture on Sustainability.

  Dr. Larry Brilliant delivers the 10th Annual Wege Lecture on Sustainability. (Photo by Eric Bronson, U-M Photo Services)

Brilliant, a U-M alumnus who also is president and chief executive officer of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, delivered the lecture titled "Sustainable Humanity" in Rackham Auditorium.

"Is sustainable humanity possible?" Brilliant asked. “Increased population, consumption and consuming the wrong things are putting sustainability at risk.”

He suggested a movement centered on environmentalism, global health and stewardship of the natural world is under way, and he compared this current movement to the activism of the 1960s. The major difference between then and now is that threats like climate change are existential threats to humanity, he said.

“"We are in the midst of another movement, a silent movement,” he said. “There is a global conspiracy of the good and the great."

Brilliant traced his own career, from sitting on the Hill Auditorium stage with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as an undergraduate in the 1960s to his current role addressing pressing issues of global sustainability. Along the way, he was a doctor to The Grateful Dead, spent years in an ashram in India, worked on a World Health Organization team to eradicate smallpox, started the Seva Foundation to restore sight and prevent blindness, and was executive director of, the tech company's philanthropic arm.


His anecdotes served to illustrate the power of a small group of people to make a change as well as emphasize the difference between 1960s and 2000s activism. He cited the role of media and communication in activism and change, and said, “We need the engine of economic growth but we’ve lost the sense that we’re all in it together.”

Brilliant, who earned a Master of Public Health from U-M in 1977 as well as a medical degree from Wayne State University, also has been a professor of international policy and epidemiology at U-M. He chairs the National Bio-Surveillance Advisory Subcommittee and is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Advisory Council on Catastrophic Risks. He has written two books and dozens of scientific articles on infectious diseases, blindness and international health policy.

The lecture was co-sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Systems, School of Natural Resources and Environment, School of Public Health, and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

The Wege Lecture Series was founded in 2001 in honor of Peter M. Wege, the retired vice chairman of Steelcase Inc. in Grand Rapids. Speakers address sustainability challenges, with a focus on improving the systems for meeting human needs in developed and developing countries.