Alvin Duskin

A Sense of Purpose

Recorded: June 27, 2014

Businessman and Stanford alumnus, Alvin Duskin shares his wisdom about how to live life with heart, passion and fun. Living in San Francisco in the 1970s, Alvin decided to get involved in community issues and he enjoyed recognition and success for his political activism. He later went on to work at the Senate Energy Committee and became a pioneer in renewable energy and carbon capture.

Intent upon leaving the world a better place, Stanford alumnus, Alvin Duskin has made his mark on the 1960s fashion world, the San Francisco skyline, nuclear and wind power and the future of Alcatraz Island. With an early and avid interest in civic and local issues, Alvin was concerned about the development and character of a small city like San Francisco. So he launched a ballot measure to limit the height of buildings to 72 feet. On another occasion, he exposed a proposal for a massive development on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.  Alvin purchased a full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle so he could share the proposed development plan with San Franciscans’. Once the plan was exposed and scrutinized, it was roundly opposed and Alvin became a local hero.

Mr. Duskin continued to pursue new business concepts and in the late 1970s he had an idea to develop wind energy in some of the windiest parts of Northern California. Alvin worked for the Senate Energy Committee and there he learned a lot about energy. He drafted legislation to amend the windfall profits tax act that created the first tax break for wind and solar energy. Following the passage of that bill, Mr. Duskin worked with Huey Johnson, then the California Secretary of Resources, to develop wind turbines at Pacheco and Altamont Passes.  Alvin was responsible for implementing new wind turbines that were the first windmills to be constructed anywhere in the world. Alvin Duskin uses his creative energies in his newest business venture, Corigin LLC, implementing a form of carbon sequestration, the business of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, with the use of “bio char.”

Huey Johnson:    Alvin Duskin, welcome.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.

Alvin Duskin:    Too long, Huey.

Huey Johnson:    I remember, my first awareness came when you were constantly in newspapers opposing high rise development in San Francisco.

Alvin Duskin:    Yeah, that’s where it started, that’s the first thing I did locally.

Huey Johnson:    Your business era was clothing initially?

Alvin Duskin:    I got going in the garment business and then I still was, always had, one foot out the door because it didn’t seem significant to me to be in the garment business.  You know, then I started thinking about politically organizing and we started doing the high-rise initiative, Jerry [Mander] and I. Well first was the fight on Alcatraz, you know. The mayor had sold Alcatraz Island to Lamar Hunt [developer], and it was going to be a re-creation of a Victorian San Francisco on one side and a monument to the Apollo 8 on the other side and the boats were going to go back and forth from Fisherman’s Warf. It’s this incredibly stupid idea.  And Warren Hinckle [journalist, San Francisco Chronicle], who you must remember, he got the idea that we should oppose it.  And I ran into Warren and Jerry at lunch at Enrico’s one day and they said that they were going to put together a group of 50 people who were going to put up 100 dollars each to run an ad in the Examiner and the Chronicle.  In those days, you could do a half a page for 5,000 dollars, it’s not that anymore.  And I said, “That’s a great idea, I’ll put in 100 dollars.”  Then Jerry said to me, “You know, I’ll tell you something else, if you’d really like to be a celebrity in San Francisco and really become an instant hero, put up all the money yourself and sign the ad yourself.  And you know, we’ll rewrite it, we’ll work together and rewrite it so that it comes from an individual.”  And I said, “That’s absurd, I can’t, I mean – I can’t, 5,000 dollars.”  Anyway, I went back to my factory and I called Jerry a couple of hours later and said, “Yes, I’m going to do that.”  We ran this ad and it was a tremendous victory, you know, very, very quickly.  So that was very, that was exciting for me and that’s why I went on with the high-rise thing you know, and the peripheral canal fight, and eventually the nuclear thing.

Huey Johnson:    You’ve had a fascinating career and what are some lessons that could be helpful to others, particularly future generations?

Alvin Duskin:    Well, you know, when I was a young person and I always said my ambition, when I lived my life, is that when it’s done, the world will be a better place than it is now.  That’s – would be a sensible role for a man, a human.  And what we’ve seen Huey, as you know, is things seem to be worse now than we ever dreamt they would be.  We continue to see failures in the Environmental Movement, you know, like Dave Brower said, “Every environmental success is really a stay of execution.”  So it can be — you can get pretty discouraged and fed up with it, but I think you have to remember, is that unless people are involved in something that is — has some meaning to them, something more important than just their own lives and making some money and raising their children, God knows that’s worth doing.  But if that’s all there is, then I think there’s a real frustration that sets in.  You know, I’ve always seen people in any kind of political action, probably even the Tea Party, makes them feel like it’s worth being alive, that they’re doing something and they feel a part of the community, and its worth living, you know.  And unless we keep that whole process going of keeping people involved in it, what we see is increasingly in political power like wealth, going right up to the top and big gaps making– you know.  So in any democratic society, you’ve got to keep people – you’ve got to keep the Democratic process moving downwards, keep people involved doing something.  When you’re involved in stuff, when you’re involved in a mission–whether its going to make a difference in the long term or not—it’s important to be involved in a mission and have some sort of mission statement about your own life.  Otherwise, what are you going to do?

Huey Johnson:    Yeah.

Alvin Duskin:    Drink?

Huey Johnson:    That’s a wonderful thought.

Alvin Duskin:    Smoke dope?  It’s all boring.  It’s all boring anyway, so you might as well.  And this can be–and this can be fun, you know? It really can be fun.