Letter from Tällberg: Let’s Talk about Transformation

“Let’s talk about transformation for a couple of minutes” says the moderator, John Kao (a San Francisco-based consultant who also plays a mean jazz piano). Apparently, that’s all the time they have.

Tallberg%20seminars.jpgAt the moment, three business leaders are on the stage, representing a major car company, a big bank, and a smaller, socially responsible bank. We’ve heard some good stories, and some good marketing messages of course, the highlight of which was the origin of the Carbon Principles: one big bank actually listened to Jim Hansen, and put a chokehold on new funding for coal-fired power plants in the United States.

But now we’re into the dialogue. Kao remembers, as a young medical student, seeing a patient smoking Lucky Strikes through the brand new tracheotomy hole in his throat. “So, we know that people have a capacity to deny the need to change, even when they know that what they are doing is going to kill them.” He wants to know, what will help us transform?

“You must have a vision,” says the car company.

“Integrate your different roles in society,” says the socially responsible banker. His message has focused on placing your personal investments in ways that reflect your values.

“See this as a different way to do business” says the other banker. He calls for more incentives from government.

But ah, now the three business leaders have left the stage, and Kao is treating us to the music of Jobim, and “the longing for something you might never even have seen.”

When you work on sustainability, climate change, world peace, and all of that, this is the kind of longing with which one has some experience.


I stroll up the hill with my friend Tariq Banuri. Tariq is the originator of a concept called “Earthland,” which is essentially a thought experiment. What if the entire Earth was actually one country? Would we think about it differently? What would be that country’s characteristics? I keep nagging him to finish the book draft I saw once upon a time; he tells me he had to start over from scratch. Having just gone through the same process, I can only sympathize.

We are on our way to a workshop on the topic of “Plan C,” a concept proposed by Tällberg founder Bo Ekman. Bo is desperately worried that the Copenhagen climate meeting in 2009 will not produce an agreement among nations that is remotely adequate, given the scale of the problem before us. He reckons that the best one can hope for there is a compromise, a lukewarm “Plan B” that is ineffectual. That is why, he says, we need “Plan C” — the perfect climate agreement, perfectly implemented. The session this afternoon is the beginning of a process to sketch that out, or at least sketch out a plan for sketching it out.

But when we get to the top of the hill and the hotel where the workshop is well under way, I’m not on the list. I forgot to sign up for any of these “design workshops” prior to the forum. And they are very strict. I cannot come in, say the people at the door. Tariq, who is on the list, kindly stays out a few minutes to complete our conversation.

Unexpectedly rich with time, I go sit down with my computer to think about “Plan C” on my own — but end up writing song lyrics, and reviewing the Indonesian translation of Chapter 1 of my book. Perhaps that’s Plan D?


By now you know that I tend to see the music as the highlight of these proceedings, so I’ll tell you about the end of the day first. A ten-piece klezmer band played their socks off to a surprisingly small-but-enthusiastic crowd of dancers, most of whom were participants in the Young Leaders program. Their gyrations and happy sweating to the irresistible rhythm went on till the-almost dark (which means well past midnight).

I spent my evening in the kind of informal conversation that is actually the most generative, honest, and productive in a context like this. Talking over dinner (and for once, I was mostly just listening) to scientists like Will Steffen and Diane Livermore, we reminded ourselves that the alarm regarding global trends like carbon dioxide emissions has been going on for a long time, since the late 60s and early 70s. But the nature of the alarm changed, especially at a few watershed moments, as actual data came in — some of it too strange to be believed. The ozone hole over Antarctica was dismissed as an aberration in the data for several years before it was understood. The ice cores revealing the potential for rapid climatic shifts were long thought to be contaminated.

Listening to these scientists, who have patiently studied the numbers and tried to report on their meaning over decades now, I remember that human knowledge about our predicament is both old and new. Yes, a few of our brightest minds have been tracking the problems for some time. But even they have been surprised, and often rather recently, about the scale, the urgency, the real risks involved. It’s no wonder that the world has not really responded yet; we’re mostly still waking up, sniffing the smoke, trying to get used to the idea that our house in on fire, while we rouse ourselves groggily from deep slumber.

There were speeches in the big tent tonight, several of them by friends or colleagues, such as Bianca Jagger (World Future Council) and Ruud Lubbers ( Earth Charter), but I am afraid I cannot report on them. You will have to watch them on the web. You see, my guitar was calling, and for once, I’ve been listening to that call very carefully, so I sat and played and looked at Lake Siljan, stretching wide across the western horizon, under troubled clouds and shafts of evening sunlight.

I ended the evening talking for the longest while with Manfred Max-Neef, a tower of a man from Chile who always introduces himself as “a musician and an economist,” together with his “niece,” a young Swedish professional woman who is participating in the Young Leader program and who has the good fortune of being mentored by Manfred. Manfred’s intellectual contributions to sustainability thinking are legendary, as is his oratory, which is often critical of neo-classical economic thinking. But tonight, among many other topics, I’m treated to the story of his presidential campaign in Chile over a decade ago.

Manfred had no money and no party, so he organized on the principle of the rhinoceros and the mosquitoes. “What do you when you are facing a rhino?” he said, referring to the big parties and their political machines. “First, you do not make the mistake of pretending to be a rhino. So what can stop a rhinoceros? A big cloud of mosquitoes.” His volunteers became the “mosquitoes,” swarming over the impressive bureaucratic and other obstacles that made an independent candidacy all but impossible. He got half a million votes, not a small number for Chile. And to this day he is stopped on the street by people who say, “I was a mosquito!”

Manfred was a popular candidate largely because he never lied. Sitting on a television sofa, asked by the interviewer whether he had ever smoked marijuana, he simply said “Yes.” The interviewer, nonplussed, said well, you must have been experimenting in your youth. “Oh no, it was quite recently.” The next day, the number of mosquitoes began increasing dramatically.

I head off to sleep to the buzz of Tällberg’s mosquitoes, dancing to klezmer music in the long twilight.

[Originally published on Worldchanging.com]

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