A loss for Berkeley, and the planet

Alex Farrell dedicated his life to solving some of the hardest problems humanity faces on this planet. He will be sorely missed.

By Andrew Leonard

Published April 18, 2008 3:49PM (EDT)

The last e-mail I have from Alex Farrell, a professor at Berkeley specializing in energy, transportation and sustainability, is a short note dated March 23 letting me know that a new paper he co-authored summing up the latest information on bioenergy research had just been published. I took note, because over the past two years, I had come to respect Alex as a researcher dedicated to finding out the right answers to some of the most vexing questions we face on this planet. His work has been featured four times in this blog, and as I noted in January, my trust in him had only grown over the years as I saw him change his mind according to the revelations presented by new data.

Farrell, age 46, died earlier this week. An obituary prepared by U.C. Berkeley doesn't list the cause of death, but a co-author and friend wrote in a blog post that Farrell had taken his own life.

And it makes no sense. From the blog:

Alex was only in his mid-40s and high on a steep upward professional path with no inflection point in sight: a key player in California, nationally, and internationally on the most important issue of the current era, and a model of scholarship and commitment for public officials, students, and peers. His death is not only a frightening and painful experience for everyone he worked with but also bad news for ERG, Cal, California, the nation, and the planet.

I spend almost all my time among really smart people and I take it for granted that I can learn something from any of them. We're all pretty good at defending our positions. Arguing with Alex, however, was a higher-level experience, because while he would roll over for nothing without evidence and some good science, it was obvious that he would rather be forced to change his mind than to change yours. Working with Alex we could all feel ourselves getting better at what we did.

He was an Annapolis man whose career began as an officer in nuclear submarines, and his management style evidenced the best in the military tradition, by which I do not mean command-and-control hierarchical authority, I mean leadership and understanding that the duty of officers is to be sure their troops have what they need to figure out what would advance the mission, and to do it. I wish I could ask him for some guidance on what to do when the captain is shot off the bridge while action is underway; now we have to improvise.

I exchanged maybe a dozen e-mails with Alex and talked with him on the phone twice. I can't say I knew him well -- I never even met him in person. But I find myself quite distressed at this news, and not just because Alex was almost exactly my own age. There is the natural sadness one feels when anyone you know, however tangentially, dies too young. But there's a larger context too: As I've learned more about the complexities of energy and sustainability issues, I've been increasingly reassured that smart people like Alex were on the case, striving to carve out a path to a low-carbon future, aiming to solve probably the greatest challenge humanity faces -- how to stay alive and prosper without destroying our own planet. We desperately need every single one of these men and women, and we just lost a good one.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew LeonardFOLLOW koxinga21LIKE Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Energy Globalization How The World Works