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The new California Academy of Sciences, which opens to the public Sept. 27, combines creatively reimagined old standards such as the Morrison Planetarium and Steinhart Aquarium with a strong new focus on climate change and imminent threats to the planet's biodiversity.
"That's why I call it a natural future museum instead of a natural history museum," Greg Farrington, the academy's executive director, told journalists on Sept. 18 at the start of a press tour of the new facility.
The facility was built with roughly equal amounts of public and private money. Yet when visitors show up for the opening weekend's festivities, they'll be told they have Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to thank for the museum's opening, which includes free admission on the first day.
The central role that PG&E bought for $1.5 million has included lots of signage at the museum, prominent mention in academy press releases, subtle plugs to journalists by museum staffers, and a spot on the five-person panel of academy leaders that addressed the assembled media.
The private utility company's high-profile opportunity to be associated with science, progress, and environmental concern comes as PG&E is spending many millions of dollars to defeat Proposition H, the Clean Energy Act, and after decades of regularly lobbying against higher environmental standards for utilities.
"I think it's a perfect example of PG&E greenwashing its image and trying to associate itself with environmentally friendly policies," Aliza Wasserman of the activist group Green Guerillas Against Greenwashing told the Guardian. "PG&E is the very institution that can implement the technology we know we need to deal with this environmental crisis, and they haven't been doing so."
Ironically, while regular PG&E mailers decry local government's supposed untrustworthiness and warn against granting the city a "blank check" to issue revenue bonds to pursue public power projects, San Francisco taxpayers and government were the major sponsors of the museum's rebirth.
In addition to $120 million in revenue from SF-voter-approved general obligation bonds (paid back by all city taxpayers, unlike revenue bonds, which are repaid through an identified revenue source), the Academy of Sciences got $30 million in state and federal grants and receives $4.8 million from the city's General Fund each year.
"The hypocrisy," Wasserman said, "is striking."
From the cutting-edge living roof through the steamy simulated rainforest and down to the rippling walls of the basement aquarium area, this is a truly stunning facility that has earned its many accolades. Yet PG&E's involvement seems to undercut the academy's new focus on climate change, which pervades many of the exhibits.
"Altered State: Climate Change in California" is an exhibit that takes up much of the museum's main floor, including many eye-opening, interactive displays and poignantly featuring the bones of both an endangered blue whale and the extinct Tyrannosaurus rex to drive home the alarming call to action.
"In California, our climate, our way of life, and our economy will all be affected by climate change," Carol Tang, director of visitor interpretive programs, told journalists during the tour, adding, "The T. rex reminds us that mass extinctions have happened and we're in a mass extinction right now."
Yet as she discussed the academy's climate change research and advocacy role on the issue, she also noted the important involvement of Bay Area universities, Silicon Valley technology innovators, and PG&E, which contributed some clean technology gizmos to the exhibit.
Next, journalists were ushered into Morrison Planetarium for the debut of "Fragile Planet," an academy-produced show that lets viewers tour the cosmos and includes scary information about global warming and the need to aggressively address the problem by turning our expansive scientific inquiries inward toward saving the planet.
Afterward, journalists were offered a question-and-answer session with a panel of experts that included Farrington; the academy's chief of public programs, Chris Andrews; architect Kang Kiang; Peter Lassetter, a principal with Arup, which did engineering work on the building; and, incongruously, Hal LaFlash, the director of emerging clean technology policy at PG&E.
I asked about the academy's new focus on climate change and why the venerable institution had allowed PG&E to play such a central role. I got a nonresponsive answer from Farrington, who said, "PG&E sells power because we all want power" and "The most important wells in the future aren't going to be oil wells, but wells of the mind."
LaFlash insisted that PG&E is one of the greenest utility companies in the country, an early sponsor of the landmark climate change legislation Assembly Bill 32, and that the utility is currently working on wind and solar projects throughout California. I noted that PG&E is also currently building four new fossil-fuel-powered plants in California, but then decided to avoid turning the session into an argument about PG&E.
Wasserman pointed out that PG&E now gets less than 1 percent of its power from solar and 2 percent from wind, and that the company's involvement with AB 32 helped water down the bill and protect PG&E's heavy investment in nuclear power. She also noted that PG&E is failing to meet state mandates of 20 percent renewable power by 2010.
By contrast, the Clean Energy Act would mandate a more rapid switch to renewable energy sources, calling for 51 percent of the energy powering San Francisco to come from renewable sources by 2017 and 100 percent by 2040. PG&E is aggressively opposing the measure, focusing on its call for a study of public power.
Academy spokesperson Blair Shane sought to minimize PG&E's role when I asked her about how the institution seemed to be helping the utility greenwash its image, saying the company was simply playing a role in the opening festivities and not influencing content at the museum: "We feel really good that our content is being driven by the scientists."
Since its founding back in 1853, the California Academy of Sciences has been a respected research institution, a popular museum, and a political player in the community. With powerful friends, it resisted an effort in the 1990s to move the museum out of the park and successfully fought for a new parking garage and against creating more car-free spaces in the park.
The academy is a living, dynamic institution, much like the building's signature living roof and subject to the same kinds of hard choices in coming years about whether to emphasize scientific purity or pursue more pragmatic pathways.
After touring the museum, I did a telephone interview with Paul Kephart, CEO of Rana Creek, which designed the roof and wanted to simulate a local ecosystem of flora and fauna that went through natural life cycles, including periods of death and decay.
"Selling the idea to the academy and the board was one of the most challenging aspects of the project," Kephart said.
He explained that the idea is to maintain the roof using an irrigation system for the first couple years, until it establishes itself, then remove the irrigation and stop actively tending the space, letting nature take over, even if that means weeds.
"I think that's a good thing," he said. "The roof should be allowed the opportunity for nature to express itself and be less controlled and more adaptive to climate and environment.... I always saw the roof as an experimental design."
Yet it's also an integral part of the building's design and aesthetics, and the academy has not yet decided how much of the roof will be allowed to go natural and how much will be managed. Kephart said it has amazing research possibilities because "nature will have the most influence on how the roof will behave."
Similar choices were at play in other parts of the museum, such as the Steinhart Aquarium, which was designed by the New York City firm Thinc.
"The whole idea underlying the aquarium is, this is an institution that studies the natural world," Thinc president Tom Hennes told me at the academy. While the new aquarium is larger than its predecessor, a few of its more ambitious plans such as an open ocean exhibit and twice as many dive stations as the current five were scaled back.
"Any exhibit starts with a huge dream," Hennes said. "Then you whittle it down to size."