Revolution, people protest against government, man fighting for rights, silhouettes of hands up in the sky, threat of warAn opinion article in one of the world’s leading science journals, Nature, argues that there is a growing a tendency among some science researchers to question whether democracy is well-suited to achieving sustainable development — and warns that such thinking is very misguided.

Sociologist Nico Stehr, who directs the European Center for Sustainability Research, focuses attention on climate change and the perceived “inconvenience” of having to work through democratically elected politicians to get climate-related policies enacted. “Academics increasingly point to democracy as a reason for failure,” writes Stehr, before offering numerous examples. Often the quotes are from world-famous and highly-placed scientists. He also describes the reasons they give: short-term thinking, presumed scientific illiteracy, and basic human psychology, among others.

He warns that such thinking leads toward fuzzy images of technocratic governance, and that these have already been discredited by history. “Nations that have followed the path of ‘authoritarian modernization’,” notes Stehr, citing examples, “cannot claim to have a record of environmental accomplishments.” The leaning of some towards technocratic governance also reflects an overly optimistic assessment of centralized social and economic planning.

Stehr brings counter-examples to the table in favor of democracy as the only viable system of governance for tackling large, complex, environmental problems — the ozone hole and Montreal Protocol being the most obvious. “Democracies learn from mistakes,” he concludes, while “autocracies lack flexibility.” He concedes that “humanity’s capacity to plan ahead is limited,” but argues that democratic governance processes are better able to cope with the messy and complicated interactions of physical, social, and economic processes.

Stehr rounds off his review with a ringing defense of democratic governance:

“There is but one political system that is able to rationally and legitimately cope with the divergent political interests affected by climate change and that is democracy. Only a democratic system can sensitively attend to the conflicts within and among nations and communities, decide between different policies, and generally advance the aspirations of different segments of the population. The ultimate and urgent challenge is that of enhancing democracy, for example by reducing social inequality.”

To do otherwise, e.g. let authoritarian powers decide, or blindly follow the instructions of scientists, is “dangerous,” says Stehr.

17Goals_Logo_smallerLet me tell you about our new website and social media channel:  17Goals.

I am feeling very optimistic these days. The world, as I write this, is about to enter a new era. The largest gathering of global leaders in history is assembling at UN headquarters in New York to launch this era. Until today, we called the coming era the “Post-2015” period. Now we can call it by its new, formal name: the era of the 2030 Agenda, and the Sustainable Development Goals — the SDGs.

To celebrate the arrival of these history-making words, I took some action. I gathered (virtually) a number of friends, and together we hatched an idea. That idea went public yesterday.

17Goals is an initiative, a project, a campaign, a program (take your pick, and yes, eventually it will be an app) whose purpose is to make it easier for anyone, anywhere to engage with the SDGs. To learn about them in more depth — from a whole-systems perspective. To share information about them, with their classes or colleagues or communities. And to take action, using a wide variety of tools and resources that we are making available via the website.

17Goals is live now … but it is a newborn, and it has a lot of growing and developing still ahead. Already, you can use the site to take a tour through SDGs and sample over 30 selected websites and tools — the ones we think can really inform you, and really help you make a difference.

In the future, I imagine 17Goals being the gateway to an ample but very selective (“curated” is the word people use these days) library of tools, handbooks, videos, etc. that are all excellent ways to learn about sustainable development — and do sustainable development — in a more integrated way. You will be able to search it easily, find what you need (e.g., by combining various goals), and put it to work.

Much of the current messaging around the “Global Goals” attempts to simplify them, sometimes to as few as “three key messages”, or “one overarching goal.” That’s useful for communicating, but my personal belief and experience is that many people want to engage with the complex reality of our world. And they — as well as their students and colleagues and friends — can handle that complexity. They don’t need it always boiled down and simplified.

That’s why 17Goals has its name: it puts the emphasis on the 17. These goals were arrived at through an incredibly intensive and delicate process of international negotiation (hats off to the UN for facilitating that!). And they are all inter-connected.

This new initiative — which is a not-for-profit venture hosted (to start) by my firm but with the named support of many other partners — is going to be a very active and exciting place to be, virtually, for the coming months. We’ll be building it, fast. We’ll be sharing what we find, and what we are building, in real time.

It’s also going to be a fun place to be physically … in just a couple of weeks, at the Gribskov Culture Hall in Denmark (about an hour north of Copenhagen). Partnered with our new friends at Transition World, led by Bente Milton, we have attached the launch of this initiative to a fabulous conference with young people and adults on Accelerating Change — so it has now become, also, the “launch event” for 17Goals. I’ll be keynoting that conference, and then over 500 students will spend much of the day doing 20 or of our “Pyramid” workshops — linked to the SDGs. (You can find out more about Pyramid here.)

Now, the following might sound a bit “over-the-top” … but I’m personally putting my whole “bag of tricks” on the line for this event, because I think the SDGs deserve our all. In addition to the keynote, I’ll be debuting a new song that I’ve written about the 17 SDGs — and I think you’ll be a little surprised by it, once we release it publicly. (If you want to hear it early, you have to come to Denmark.)

And then in the evening, I will be performing my one-man show: “Sustainability is for Everyone: the Musical!

Actually, the Accelerating Change event is a lot bigger than anything I have to offer, as it also brings in big names in Denmark’s cultural/entertainment world, and some serious psychological depth as well, thanks to the very thoughtful people with whom I have the good fortune to share the stage. Plus, all that youth energy and brilliance from the students!

But to sum this up: from now on, it’s all about “Accelerating Change”. Scaling up. The SDGs are here, now. This global vision of a sustainable world — specified in 17 goals and 169 targets, signed by nearly every head of state on Planet Earth — is “official.”

As someone who’s been in the business of promoting sustainability for over 27 years, this time that we’re living through is just amazing — the realization of a lifelong dream. The dream of sustainable development truly becoming “global”, “mainstream”, and “normal” … while still retaining its essential qualities of being a big “stretch goal.” A vision, around which all of need to unite, in order to make it real.

That’s the motivation for creating 17Goals. I know: it is just one of many initiatives to engage with the SDGs. And that’s great: in fact, that’s the point. We need many initiatives. But I am going to work with our wonderful partners to make 17Goals … well, one of the coolest places to do it.

See you there!

Top-ten-songsRecently I reviewed a combination of iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, and live-performance-request data, crunched the numbers through a secret algorithm, and came up with a “Top Ten” list. These are the songs that seem to be the “most popular” (at the moment) of those on the six albums I currently have in public release. The exact order may vary, depending on what’s currently happening on social media etc. Album links take you to iTunes website — because I actually earn money there, you can preview all the songs, and from there you can get to the iTunes app. But you can also search and find these songs on any major streaming service.


  1. Set the World Right Again (from American Troubadour)

A hard-driving, “surprisingly hopeful” (as one listener put it) folk-rock song, with a hint of Japanese influence, that was selected as “Climate Song of the Week” by the UNFCCC in August 2015 as part of the run-up to the Paris climate summit. Torbjörn Fall plays a killer guitar solo in the middle. Got a big boost from multiple Twitter feeds. (For the background story to this song, click here.)

  1. Exponential Growth (from Believing Cassandra)

The iTunes most-popular song on this album — released in 1999 as a “musical companion” to the book of the same name — is also one that I have used widely in presentations around the world. Anybody who hears it never forgets the chorus (people tell me). It’s better when you see it live.

  1. Nothin’ At All (from Testing the Rope)

This is the most popular song from my debut album — according to iTunes, at least. It’s a relationship break-up song, and as bleak as they come. (“Take off, and I’ll just stay here / I’ve got more than enough, with nothin’ at all.”) But I still enjoy performing it.

  1. The Strangely Popular Lichen Song (from Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On)

The highest-selling song from my comedy album is true to its name: even I find it strange that the “Lichen Song” became so (relatively) popular. I guess it’s because it is used as a teaching aid, to explain the symbiotic biology of the lichen, with the chorus built around the old line, “Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae took a LICHEN to each other.”

  1. The Parachuting Cats (from Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On)

An oft-requested ditty in live situations, and also the second most popular song on this comedy album (says iTunes). The Parachuting Cats tells the supposedly (and mostly) true story of the WHO’s attempt to eradicate malaria on Borneo in the 1950’s, using DDT, with systemically disastrous results. It also closes my TEDx talk. (For the real scientific story, revealed in glorious academic detail, click here.)

  1. God Speaks (from Falcon, Storm, or Song)

This song has sold more the most copies on iTunes of any other song from this exceedingly simple guitar-and-voice demo-album, which sets 12 poems from Rilke’s “Book of Hours” – as translated into English by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows – to music. The album is also the musical score to a one-man musical play about Rilke’s life and letters. While Rilke’s poetry is written in a religious voice, I think he is writing about life in general. The song could easily be called “Life Speaks.”

  1. What Kind of World (from Believing Cassandra)

An upbeat, inspirational pop song, which got some airplay on the American TV show “Good Morning America” (in 2011 and 2012) and was also used by friends in Indonesia as the soundtrack to their slideshow on visioning. Surprisingly (to me) it was also the second most-sold song on the “Believing Cassandra” album. Thanks to the TV airplay, I even made a little money on it.

  1. Dead Planet Blues (from Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On)

My first envirosong, written way back in 1990, and still a frequent request at live performances … even though its core message is over 25 years old. The problem that the song mostly addresses — through the imagined voice of a deity, drinking in some cosmic bar for deities, complaining sarcastically about those “little life-forms that became self-aware” — is now mostly solved: we rescued the planet from the ozone hole. But hey, with a few lyrical tweaks, it’s a new song, focused on global warming … and it’s current once again.

  1. Balaton (from Testing the Rope)

“The ancient engines turn their gears / The sound of fire swiftly nears …”  This song of lament, memory, and hope does not show up in any of my sales data. But it makes the list, because among the people for whom it was written — the members of the Balaton Group, a network of sustainability researchers and practitioners — it has become a traditional “must-sing” at every annual meeting. I also translated this song into French for a similar meeting of sustainability thinkers and doers; it worked en français, too.

  1. System Zoo (from Believing Cassandra)

While this song is not so popular in digital sales, an old live performance from 2001 (filmed in Australia) is far and away my most-watched-video on YouTube. Over 10,000 people have viewed it. I think people who are trying to explain systems thinking to other people like this song.

   Also 10 (This was a tie). The GDP Song (from Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On)

This one makes the list because of the frequency with which it has been requested at live performances: people seem to enjoy singing along, in “Latvian”, to an upbeat folk tune about terrible happenings that perversely drive up our primary measure of economic growth. I stole the melody from a Latvian drinking song. Thanks, Latvia! I’ll send you some money someday.

Honorable Mention:

Maxie (the Manatee) (from American Troubadour)

Based on the true story of the wild manatee that befriended my family when I was a child. This song sits on the top of the “Bestsellers” ranking for the American Troubadour album — at least, when iTunes sorts it that way. I can’t say I’ve seen that popularity reflected in the actual sales figures, but some people love that song. I certainly loved that manatee. In fact, I love manatees generally, and they truly are in trouble. Ergo, the “honourable mention.”

50songs50stories_book_coverSince this week the UNFCCC is featuring “Set the World Right Again” as its “Climate Song of the Week,” here is the story behind the song. This is the second excerpt from my book-in-progress, “50 Songs, 50 Stories.” – Alan

Some songs start as a vague idea, some as a line of specific words. Some songs grow out of an experience you want to capture. And some just emerge out of your guitar. You start fooling around on your instrument, and you discover something you like. One musical phrase suggests another, which leads to something else, and all those “somethings” link up together (with a little work) to become the skeleton of a song. Then the skeleton needs some flesh, in the form of a melody, which usually “sings itself” out of the chords when you start experimenting with a little free humming. Last but not least (in this version of how things can go, the process always varies) comes the text, the script that this new song — with its specific energy and feeling, its special atmosphere and intention — is meant to deliver to listeners, every time they hear it.

That’s how the process went with “Set the World Right Again.” I went through three different sets of lyrics before I finally understood what this song wanted to be about.

The first version was a love song — frankly, a pathetic lyric that did not stand up to the power of the music, so I tore it up and started from scratch. My second attempt was no better, and I began to despair of ever finding the song’s true voice. But I loved the way this music made my body swing, so I kept trying.

Or rather, I stopped trying. I relaxed, and listened.

I asked myself: what do I hear? This song is obviously about urgency. What is most urgent thing in my life? That’s easy: my work. What is my work about? What is sustainable development about?

That year, 2009, was the year of the great climate change summit in Copenhagen, “CoP-15.”  (“CoP” stands for “Conference of the Parties,” and refers to those nations who had signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change back in 1992. It was their 15th meeting.) I would be attending that conference in my role as a consultant to the United Nations, and presenting a paper on an ambitious new plan for scaling up renewable energy, around the world. Climate change, the “fire that you can’t put out,” was very much on my mind — and in my heart.

In professional situations like UN conferences, one does not talk much about emotions. One might express a feeling of “irritation” that negotiations are going so slowly, or even admit that the lack of progress is “disappointing” — but one does not have much room to express depression, grief, or fury at those who are trying to sow confusion and discord (as some try actively to do). There is precious little room for despair at the thought of the bleak future that a failure to reach agreement might seriously entail.

Nor, it turns out, is there much room to express serious hope, either. Expressing one’s longing for success, one’s faith in the future, in deeply emotional terms is almost as taboo as weeping at the prospect that future generations may never see a polar bear, may become refugees when their land is drowned, may struggle to grow enough food in a globally warmed world.

Taboo or not, emotion is always in the room — even a room the size of Copenhagen’s Bella Centre, where CoP-15 gathered so many thousands of officials, experts, and activists. Indeed, if one was really paying attention, one could read a certain over-arching emotional tone in that giant conference center, a feeling that seemed to color everything that was said and nearly every interaction, even in such a huge and diverse coming-together of people from so many different countries and cultures. At CoP-15, I would have called that feeling “desperate hope”: choosing optimism, and making great effort, despite seemingly impossible odds.

And that, I finally realized, was what this song is about.


Set the World Right Again

Words and Music © 2009 by Alan AtKisson


Like a fire that you can’t put out

A bad dream that you can’t stop thinking about

An experiment you shouldn’t have run

This world is a child with a gun


You want to put the train on some new track

End the tragedy before they start the last act

Get the help of every woman and man

Stop the madness any way you can

            And set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again


Your objective is to turn the tide

In a game of risk and danger – and you have to choose sides

It’s a game you have no choice but to play

And you wonder if there’s any way

            To set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again


            There are voices that say that it’s already too late

            There are voices that drown out each other in debate

            There are voices that claim that there’s no place to start

            But the only voice to listen to

            Is the voice in your heart


In the end it all comes down to love

What you care enough about to be the champion of

And believe no matter how hard it seems

That it’s possible to live this dream

            And set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again


            Set the world right again …


You can find “Set the World Right Again” on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, and most streaming services.

UNFCCC_Screenshot2Press Release, 12 August 2015

The UNFCCC is featuring Alan AtKisson and his song “Set the World Right Again” on its Newsroom website this week. Click here to go to the UNFCCC website. The article includes the background to the song, the lyrics, and a link to the YouTube version for free listening.

“Set the World Right Again” is a high-energy, folk-rock call to action, with a touch of Japanese influence, from AtKisson’s 2014 album “American Troubadour”. The last verse sums up the song’s message:

In the end it all comes down to love
What you care enough to be the champion of
And believe, no matter how hard it seems,
That it’s possible to live this dream
And set the world right again …

The UNFCCC article also describes AtKisson’s work to promote action on climate and sustainability. AtKisson is a senior advisor to UN agencies, companies, and governments, but he also brings music into his inspirational speeches and seminars.

AtKisson lives in Stockholm and is a dual citizen of Sweden and the USA. The album “American Troubadour” features top Swedish musicians, and “Set the World Right Again” is now being prepared for wider global release as a single.

UNFCCC is the UN body managing climate change negotiations and the upcoming Paris climate summit. Featuring “Set the World Right Again” is part of UNFCCC’s effort to reach out beyond policy circles and engage a broader public. Its Newsroom has invited songwriters to “be part of the global movement in support of a meaningful new universal climate change agreement to be concluded in Paris in December.”

For more information about Alan AtKisson’s music, as well as his books, consulting work, and the “one-man musical show” about sustainability that he performs at universities and other venues, visit his personal website,

Set the World Right Again and the album American Troubadour (as well as all of Alan AtKisson’s albums) are available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, and most streaming services around the world.

50songs50stories_book_coverFirst in a series of entries that will eventually be gathered into a book with the working title, “50 Songs, 50 Stories”.

This entry tells the story of “Goin’ to the Top” — originally written for Aaron Neville, at the request of a New Orleans’ business leader. But the road to that song went via Sydney, Australia, with many twists and turns along the way …  – Alan

I became a musician in no small part because I was awarded a scholarship to attend Tulane University in New Orleans. The scholarship was not in music — I was a science and math nerd — but I had sung in a couple of bands in high school and performed in the school talent show with an Elton John medley on piano. I grew up singing in my mother’s church choir. I loved music. So one of the first things I did on arrival at Tulane University was to audition for the university’s jazz and pop music ensemble, the “Tulanians.”

This band of a dozen singers and a dozen instrumentalists was (fortunately) far more than a glee club. Under the direction of the late Leland Bennett, who also directed one of New Orleans’ best professional show bands (“Jubilation”), it was an excellent training ground in both musicianship and showmanship. We learned a challenging, ultra-modern repertoire. We learned to sing and dance and hold a large crowd. The Tulanians were serious business, and experience gained there nurtured the careers of numerous future professionals who went on to careers in New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.

I spent less than two years with the Tulanians, but it was a formative time. I sang a few of the big solo numbers in our shows (if you want to hear a funny story about “Serpentine Fire” sometime, just ask me). Leland invited me to sub for his lead male singer in Jubilation as well, and that first paycheck turned me into a “professional”. The Tulanians went on tour, and sang in Washington, DC and at Disney World, Florida. It was at a Tulanians show that I first debuted as a guitarist and singer-songwriter, with my friend and roommate Mark Beatty. (Mark had composed a lovely little guitar lick, and needed lyrics, so I wrote some words. Our joint composition became my, and our, first publicly performed song, “Dancer.”)

Thanks to Leland Bennet and the Tulanians, and the wonderful culture of New Orleans, I gained the confidence to call myself a musician.

Twenty years and several careers later, I was invited back to Tulane to give a lecture at a conference on environmental law. My former philosophy professor, Michael Zimmerman, was now a good friend. He in turn had an old friend named Pres Kabacoff, a business leader in New Orleans. Pres, who was a bit left-leaning in his politics, had recruited his old friend (and competitor in the real estate sector) Quentin Dastugue to co-chair a new economic development initiative under the aegis of a regional business group. And that group invited me to give them a presentation.

So I found myself talking to a group of 30 business leaders about what a regional program of sustainability indicators could do for them: how it could help them knit that fractious region together and contribute to a common vision for the ten counties (or “parishes”) around New Orleans. I finished and sat down. Then the chairman said, “That was a very good presentation, Mr. AtKisson, but I am a little disappointed, because we heard that you also sing.”

This remark came as a shock. I had assumed that the last thing that a group of button-down New Orleans business leaders would want from me was a song — but here it was, a put-you-on-the-spot request that could not be refused. So I duly stood back up and delivered an á capella version of my song “The Parachuting Cats.” (You can see a version of this at the end of my TEDx talk on YouTube.) The song brought smiles and warm applause — and it helped me win a large contract for my consulting firm.

About a year into our regional project, Quentin Dastugue — a somewhat larger-than-life business figure also known for his very conservative politics — took me to lunch. This lunch was of the two-martini variety. The second martini made it hard to say no when Quentin presented me with another musical request: he believed that our regional initiative, which was called “Top 10 by 2010,” was in need of a theme song. You, he said, are just the man to write it.

I was hesitant, but Quentin upped the ante. He could probably get Aaron Neville — the undisputed king of New Orleans’ jazz-rock — to sing the song.

How could I not say yes?

A few months later, with the final celebration of our initiative just weeks away, I was still struggling to compose an appropriate theme song. “Top 10 by 2010” was an enormously ambitious initiative. The regional goal was to move up into the top 10 of the Forbes Magazine list of “Best Places to Live and Work in the United States” within ten years. At the time, New Orleans was down around number 200.

On a jet-laggy morning in Sydney, Australia, I woke before sunrise and walked to the Sydney Opera House, seeking inspiration. I thought about my friends and clients back in New Orleans. In our interviews and surveys, we had learned that one of the missing ingredients in the region was not just a clear future vision, but even the capacity to imagine a better future. Many people seemed to lack the willingness to imagine positive change. “Life in our region has always been this way,” they would say. “Why should we believe things will ever change?”

The New Orleans region, in those years before Hurricane Katrina came and destroyed so much of that great city, was already in need of serious encouragement.

I pulled out my notebook, sitting there by the Opera House, looking out over waters half a planet away from New Orleans, and the lyrics to “Goin’ to the Top” — built around the image of flying swiftly up a mountain — flowed easily out of my pen. Later, so did the music: all I had to do was imagine Aaron Neville’s beautiful tenor-falsetto, and all the wonderful nuances he would bring to those words.

But as the time approached for the Big Event — a one-day forum, followed by an evening dance party, celebrating the success of the first stages of Top 10 by 2010 — it became clear that Aaron Neville was not going to be available to sing “Goin’ to the Top.” It became equally clear, from both Pres and Quention, that I was expected to step into that gap, and perform the song myself. So I quickly wrote a chord sheet, and worked quickly with the band that had been hired for the event to teach them the song. Their lead guitarist was watching my fingers like a hawk as I played it on my acoustic guitar; the rhythm section quickly figured out the simple pop-song structure. The performance itself was rough … but it worked.

Then a dozen years passed.

Prior to being recorded in 2013 for my album American Troubadour, “Goin’ to the Top” was only performed that one time, and it was not sung by Aaron Neville, but by me, the “singing sustainability consultant,” stepping back on stage in the Crescent City of New Orleans for the first time since I had left that extraordinary musical training ground, twenty years earlier.

These days, I dedicate “Goin’ to the Top” to the people who have been working, for many years now, to rebuild New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina disaster … and also to the people working for sustainability everywhere who need to hold on to the vision that we will, in fact, “be there.”

Listen to this song on iTunes:

(Also available on Spotify, YouTube and other streaming sites.)


Goin’ to the Top

Words and music © 2001 by Alan AtKisson

The sky is bright
Streaks of light
And we know this isn’t any ordinary night
You know it’s true
‘Cause me and you
And everybody here can see
     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got know that we’re goin’
     Nothing can stand in your way
     When you make your own road
     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got to feel that it’s comin’
     I believe it’s our time to stand
     In the promised land
Don’t look down
We’re off the ground
And we’re never ever going to stop or turn around
Gaining speed
Guess we’ll need
To get ready for a very fast climb

     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got know that we’re going
     Nothing can stand in your way
     When you make your own road
     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got to know that we’ll be there
     I believe it’s our time to stand
     In the promised land

We used to think we’d never be here
We used to think we’d couldn’t fly
But now we know that we belong here
And all we had to do was try
Can you see
What I see
We’re coming closer to a new reality
So take my hand
‘Cause when we land
We’ll be standin’ on the top of the world
     Goin’ to the top …

FriedrichshafenHarbor - 1

The harbor at Friedrichshafen, home of the Outdoor trade fair

Last week I had the honor of speaking to about a hundred CEOs and other top managers in the industry called “Outdoor” — that is, makers of clothing and equipment to go camping, climbing, hiking, mountaineering, or whatever strikes your fancy.

Now, you might think that companies in that branch already “get” sustainability, and indeed, many of them do. One of the world’s most iconic “sustainable brands,” Patagonia, is an Outdoor company. The organization that invited me to speak, European Outdoor Group, even has a sustainability and CSR manager ready to advise corporate members on knotty problems related to chemistry, sustainable production, worker wellbeing, and all the rest of this demanding agenda. (Her name is Pamela Ravasio, and she really knows her stuff.)

I’m particularly proud of our own clients (obviously) in that industry, the Fenix Outdoor group, which owns Fjällräven and other popular brands. We (AtKisson Group) partnered with our friends at the Sustainable Fashion Academy a few years ago to help Fenix advance its CSR work, which resulted in a wonderfully clear internal guidance document called The Fenix Way. In that document, you will also find the first formal adoption of my firm’s Sustainability Compass as a corporate platform for CSR work. (It helps that one of Fenix’s divisions, Brunton, makes compasses.)

There are other sterling leaders in this industry group, too. But to my mind — and I shared this view with the CEOs — the Outdoor industry could, and should, be doing a lot more.

Before I tell you what I think they should do, and why, consider these facts: the amount of time young people spend outdoors is plummeting (while screen-time rises). And the average age of people who hike and camp is going up. From a strictly business perspective, people in the Outdoor industry are looking at a seriously worrying future scenario: fewer and fewer new customers, and an aging, shrinking customer base. (The industry is not just standing idly by and watching this happen. Check out their social media campaign, Be Active Outdoor.)

sustainabilitycompass-design-600x600Now, “Nature” is just one-fourth of the sustainability challenge (on our Compass, it’s North). But it is a decidedly critical part. Without a healthy, functioning natural world, the human world would probably call it quits. Unless we moved out into space, as in the terrifying children’s movie Wall-E.

But unless people spend time in Nature, they will never really know it.

Which means they will not be motivated to take care of it.

Enter the Outdoor industry. From a pure business perspective, their job appears to be selling tents, boots, shirts, and climbing gear.

But from a strategic perspective, they have a different job: to get people to fall in love with the natural world.

Meanwhile, the health of that self-same natural world is currently under serious threat from climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and poverty (desperately poor people have more important things on their mind than the integrity of national parks and species habitat). Not to mention the specter of increasing neglect driven by the above-named social, technological, and demographic trends (national park managers are also worried about these and related issues).

End result, if not much is done: less and less “natural world” for people to fall in love with.

Which, ergo, drops people in the Outdoor business smack dab into the heart of the sustainability business. (No sustainability = no business.)

So what should these companies do? My recommendations are simple, and they are all designed to create business benefits in addition to sustainability advances. In the Outdoor industry, these two things truly go hand in hand.

1. Set higher goals. One of the modern founders of sustainable business practice, Ray Anderson, talked about “climbing Mount Sustainability” — and going all the way to the top. He envisioned creating a completely sustainable company, one that gives back to nature, and to people, more than it takes out. A few Outdoor companies are also aiming to do that. (I was particularly impressed with the German company Vaude, whose CEO told me that their sustainability ambitions are currently hitting the boundaries of the technically possible.) But actually, they all should be climbing Mount Sustainability. The whole Outdoor sector could be a sustainability pioneer and leader, not just a few star companies. (Think about the impact that an industry-wide commitment to sustainability could make!)

2. Get more involved. Many Outdoor companies have relationships with an NGO or two, and many Outdoor leaders support conservation efforts. But there is so much more they could do! Consider the Mountain Partnership, a global effort to promote sustainable development in all the world’s poor and mountainous regions. Many of those regions play host to the hikers and climbers who patronize Outdoor companies. The Outdoor sector could more clearly engage with and support that and other similar efforts, e.g. by matching up companies with relevant and specific outdoor travel goals — and not just mountains. This would be especially timely, considering how the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are going to be calling on these companies, and everyone else, to really raise the bar on partnership and engagement.

3. Be more communicative. Finally, the Outdoor industry needs to get a whole lot better at telling its story. Many of the companies in that sector are small, which means they do not experience the same demands for transparency that big companies in apparel or sports often face. But unless they get a whole lot louder, and more compelling, they are not going to break the spell of iPads and smartphones and attract new, young climbers and campers. Setting high sustainability goals, and talking about what they are doing to reach those goals, can add some “oomph”, while synergizing beautifully with “normal” marketing messages — and helping these companies differentiate and stick out.

“Want to save the planet? So do we. But first, try climbing it.” (Happy to sell that idea, contact me if you want to buy it. Proceeds go to conservation efforts.)

These three actions, pursued intelligently, would not be new “costs” for these companies; they would be extremely wise investments in the future. They would help push sustainability forward, while also helping these companies tackle a business problem (a potentially shrinking market) that will only get more and more challenging. In this vision, raising the Outdoor sector’s bar on sustainability, and communicating loudly about it, would result in more people getting involved with the natural world, visiting it, advocating and acting for its health, while the companies themselves grew … and still reduced their environmental impact while improving their social impact. (Hey, if Unilever can aim for that, selling soap and deodorant, surely Outdoor companies can do the same selling sleeping bags and climbing boots.)

The day after my speech, I wandered into the giant Outdoor trade fair that was just getting under way, in Friedrichshafen, Germany. The sight of all those beautiful tents, backpacks, and fancy boots was inspiring. So were the not-infrequent information tablets explaining the “sustainable”, “recycled” and other qualities of some of the products.

But I look forward to a future fair, where virtually every product is similarly badged, and competes for buyers who demand not just the best — but also the most sustainable.

Remember the SDGs? The new global goals for sustainable development, being negotiated at the UN, right now, for the whole world to adopt this September?

Maybe you are not following the negotiations on the SDGs as closely as I am (I have to follow it closely, it is part of my current consulting assignment with the UN). So I thought I’d update you. And also pass on an opportunity to make your voice (and other people’s voices) heard.

At the end of this post is a set of links to a survey being conducted to get civil society voices into the mix on how the SDGs are to be governed, coordinated, implemented etc. The survey is in multiple (UN) languages.

Yesterday, I was watching the live webcast from the UN, and I listened to the Co-Facilitators of the SDG negotiating process — the ambassadors of Ireland and Kenya — summarize the last two days of negotiating. This week, the discussions are focused on the review and follow up process for the SDGs. That is, how nations will report back to the UN, and to each other.

Now, this is a lot more interesting that it sounds at first glance. For one thing, “follow-up and review” means Indicators: how to track and report on progress. (Anybody reading this knows I’m a big fan of sustainability indicators, having worked with them for 25 years … and Indicators are a core part of our VISIS Method.)

For another, this week’s dialogue is about accountability: just how committed is the world (that is, the community of nations) to the SDGs? The Co-Facilitators of the negotiations highlighted that this week, the nations are debating whether to talk about this process using the phrase “monitoring and accountability,” or the lighter-sounding “review and follow-up.” In diplomacy, language is almost everything. Use of the first phrase means, in simple terms, that the world will take the SDGs much more seriously.

But … there are a lot of complex positions, conceptual debates, and geopolitical nuances also hidden in that one example of what is currently being discussed. I won’t bore you with the details, because I barely understand it all myself. But one thing I do know: this process will end up determining a number of things about how we talk about, and do, sustainable development … for many years to come.

So, if you want to weigh in, here are the links to the surveys, in English, Spanish, French and Russian. And even if you do not have a clue what the “HLPF” is (the “High-Level Political Forum,” where the countries will meet, under the UN’s auspices, to assess SDG progress once a year, and every four years it will be the Heads of State), then going through the survey will be a kind of learning experience.

Here comes the text from the umbrella initiative “SD2015” with the survey links, followed by a link to the live negotiations.



Civil society is a critical actor in sustainable development governance.
Now is the time to convey your organisation’s views and recommendations.

Fill out the survey and participate in the consultation around stakeholder engagement in the
High Level Political Forum (HLPF)

Participate today:

English version:…

Español versión:…

Français version:…

Pусский версия:…

This online survey is a part of a wider consultation on the HLPF that SD2015 is carrying out until June 2015. The purpose is to make use of this crucial opportunity for members of Major Groups and other Stakeholders to shape engagement in the HLPF. Findings will be shared in a report in June-July 2015.

(Reference Quote:)
“Stakeholders active in areas related to sustainable development will autonomously establish and maintain effective coordination mechanisms for participation in the high-level political forum”
— General Assembly Resolution on the organization aspects of the HLPF

And if you want to follow the action this week, live, it’s here:

In training courses, workshops, and in books — including a forthcoming new book with my friend and business partner Axel Klimek — I teach people working on sustainability how to clarify and improve their “theory of change”: their mental model of how they are driving change toward sustainability, in their specific context.

At the level of individual change agents, such a theory is already a complex thing. You have to know the characteristics of the system you are working in (the company, community, university, etc.). You have to know the dynamics of what is happening in that system, as well as something about the underlying system structures. You have to have surveyed the possibilities for innovation and change in that system, and last — but far from least — you really need to know its people: who will help you, who will oppose you, who is not likely to care, and who can simply stop the process (or accelerate it) with the snap of a finger.

And of course, it helps to know a little about sustainability, too.

Increasingly, and fortunately, many people do know. I’ve had the good luck in my career to work as a strategic consultant and executive trainer in dozens of wildly different contexts, from global corporations in the OECD countries, to tiny NGOs in Africa and Asia, from ministries in developing countries, to the halls of the UN, and a lot more. It’s a little dizzying when I think back on it. But it also gives me a great source of hope, because I know — first hand, from direct observation and experience — that knowledge and commitment to the sustainable development vision is growing and growing, all around the world.

During a recent moment of quiet reflection about all this, with a cup of warm tea in my hand, and the Spring sun pouring down on the greenery outside my house, I suddenly found myself with a question.

What is the world’s theory of change?

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that your client is the world — that is, human civilization on planet Earth. The world knows that its present course of development is not sustainable. It knows that not all of its parts are equally aware or enlightened: indeed some parts do not believe there is any problem, and some still engage in organized brutality and terrorize other parts. But there nonetheless exists a growing core of people who understand the world’s dilemma and who are trying to help the world to change course.

Where would you look to understand and analyze that world’s theory of change? Well, logically, you might start with the United Nations. The processes going on there, right now, suggest the following theory of change: We will work as nation states. We will set voluntary goals together. Then we will set up a number of voluntary processes to finance and resource that change, and to monitor progress. These processes will encourage each nation to change its policies, which will change behavior, so that we achieve sustainability. Losses of people and ecosystems along the way are probably inevitable but will be minimized.

But if you keep looking carefully, you quickly see that not everyone subscribes to that theory. The large business and financial organizations have another one: We will continue to grow our power as a parallel governance process that controls most of the resource and monetary flows. Without risking profits, we will engineer changes in investment, manufacturing and marketing so that sustainability eventually emerges, while those core monetary flows remain undisturbed. The technology advances and market dynamics will carry us past the risk of catastrophe. Losses of people and ecosystems along the way, maybe big ones, are inevitable; but the world will adapt, and that is an acceptable trade-off for increasing our overall material quality of life.

Civil society — meaning, everyone outside of government and business that is trying to make change — approaches its theory of change very differently. We will awaken the awareness and passion of the people. We will generate ideas, enthusiasm, and occasional large gatherings. Ideas and awareness will spread and enlighten the people, and they will do various things, in their various contexts, to implement small changes, all of which will add up to big change. Losses of people and ecosystems along the way are unacceptable and are to be avoided at all costs.

Probably we could construct a few more of these, from the perspective of more specialized sub-groupings of our world — all the people working with cities and communities, say, or in education. But the main point here is already apparent: the world does not have a clear, and certainly not a unified, theory of change. It has a few different theories that are rather vague, at least in terms of how they will lead to a sustainable world. Nor does the world have any serious method for testing its assumptions, and determining whether the various theories of change it is now pursuing are actually effective.

Of course, change is happening. I see this with my own eyes, every day. So, something is working. In each of the three domains quickly sketched above — government and the UN, global business, and civil society — one can point to evidence that these theories are producing results. The UN’s “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) are credited with accelerating progress on reducing poverty between 2000 and 2015, and it is hoped the SDGs will do the same from 2016 to 2030. Business has somehow self-evolved a range of mechanisms that are producing new, “greener” products and even efforts to create better quality of life for workers; and some companies appear to be profiting from that process. Civil society (let’s add science in there, too, because they have similar theories of change) can point to both of these and say that they were the source of the ideas that governments and businesses have started to implement.

And yet, from the perspective of a consultant thinking about a client, this world’s process of change still seems terribly haphazard. If the data are right — and they certainly seem to be, given the melting ice sheets, the disappearing species, the streams of refugees escaping war-torn areas where conflict is partly fueled by resource scarcity — the situation calls for much more than this. Splintered, haphazard change strategies are not enough. Or … could it be that they are enough? Or at least the best we can hope for?

In connection with a book that I have been working on — the third book in my “Optimist Trilogy”, which includes Believing Cassandra and The Sustainability Transformation — I will be using this blog to explore this question of the world’s “theory of change.” Words like “transformation” have now entered the global vocabulary, at a mainstream level (UN, World Economic Forum, etc.), to describe what is necessary to save us from climate change and ecosystem decline on the one hand, while continuing to develop our economies and end poverty and injustice on the other.

There are many of us now, probably millions, actively and even professionally working on this Big Problem (and opportunity) we call sustainability.

How do we think this enormous global change is going to happen?

Stage-JumpingFirst and most truthful answer: because it’s fun.

Now, here’s the longer and more nuanced answer.

Years ago, in the early 1990s, I discovered that music was a great way to deal with the emotions that come up around overwhelmingly huge global problems. Key people in my life — most notably Donella Meadows, lead author of The Limits to Growth, and a dear friend as well as mentor — heard my first songs on sustainability issues, and immediately asked for more.

I should explain that this tendency to write songs did not come out of nowhere. I spent my 20s in New York, playing music professionally and doing other fun things, before going back to the kind of work for which I had been trained at university, and finding my home in the field we now call sustainable development. See my book Believing Cassandra for the whole story.

So, encouraged by the positive response I was getting, from Donella and many other people, I wrote more songs … and people kept asking for more. And suddenly I was no longer an “ex-musician” doing sustainability. I was a sustainability expert who also did music.

And I started making albums. Not all of the songs that I wrote had sustainability themes, but a lot of them did. I started mixing a few of those songs into my speeches and workshops. Apparently that worked, because people kept asking me to do more of that. They even paid me for it.

This went on for about 20 years.

Now, even back in the 1990s, I was already starting to play with the idea of a “musical” — a show about sustainability, Broadway style, with a mixture of songs that were funny and serious. I emphasize that I was just playing.

But after Donella Meadows died, in 2001, I decided to try to do that show for real, to honor her memory and her countless encouragements. But to be honest, writing a whole musical play was beyond me. And I was busy with other things, like settling into a new home country (Sweden), growing a business, and raising a family.

Still, I kept doing music, and people kept asking for more.

I have a habit of incubating ideas like this for a long time, but not letting go of them. Finally, in 2014 the thought occurred to me: why not make this a one-man show? Take the best bits from my introductory lectures on sustainability, combine personal stories about events and people who had inspired me, pick out the “greatest hits” from my collection of sustainability-related songs, weave it together into a quasi-theatrical narrative … and just do it.

Now, my hat goes off to Mike Quinn, director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at Mt. Royal University in Calgary, Canada. Mike had invited me to Calgary, to do their annual sustainability lecture in the spring of 2014. I proposed using that opportunity to debut my “one-man musical”, and linking it to the surprisingly popular little book I had recently published, Sustainability is for Everyone. Mike quickly agreed. (Frankly, without Mike’s bravery, this whole thing might never have happened.)

The debut performance went well — at least, according to the review in the student newspaper! So I did it again, at a conference in Hungary in the fall. Good reaction there, too!

So now, as I write this, it’s Spring 2015. I just turned 55. And I’ve decided that … well, performing this musical is really fun. I get to act, speak, play guitar, sing, get the audience involved … and they have fun, too.

I also believe, very strongly, that sustainability — this quest to help our world change course, avoid the worst ravages of environmental destruction and climate change, while assuring that everyone has as good a life as possible — needs the arts and culture just as much as it needs advances in science, technology, economics, and policy. We need to mobilize every gram or ounce of creativity at our disposal, if we are going to tackle and solve complex problems. If I can help shake loose a little more creativity from people, by taking a risk myself and being a little creative … well, I’ll try anything. Within reason.

Of course, I’m still consulting, writing books, and working with the UN and companies and leaders of all stripes, as a strategic advisor. That’s also fun! I’ll also continue giving straightforward lectures and keynotes, with or without music. I truly believe in helping to advance sustainability with every tool and capacity I have, and in encouraging others to do the same.

But hey, if you need an hour or so of someone standing up in front of your group, being provocative, informative, reflective, inspirational (hopefully!), and funny, while showing pictures, telling stories, singing a bunch of songs, and even getting the crowd singing … then I’m your man.

— Alan AtKisson

For information on booking Alan for a performance of “Sustainability: The Musical!”, please write to him using the Contact form on this website. If you missed the main page with the promotional video “trailer,” click on: The Musical!


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