Camping at Tällberg – Episode 3: An Evening of Standing Ovations

TällbergForum2008-2Gro Harlem Brundtland is relating stories from her childhood — as a Norwegian refugee in Stockholm during World War II, leading her little brother safely across streets, and the unexpected apology she received from her father, when she was 12 or 13, because he had cut her off in a debate and declared her simply wrong.

It’s lovely to hear these stories from this living legend in the sustainability movement. She is making an argument for “principled pragmatism” — which she claims not to fully understand. This is Scandinavian modesty, as she is one of principled pragmatism’s most successful political exemplars.

She’s been Prime Minister of Norway twice, the second time during a banking crisis in 1986. Economists advised her then, she says, and wisely. Economists are in poor repute these days, but she notes that it was political leaders, lobbied by interest groups, that created the conditions that created the crisis.

Of course, she was also chairing then the Commission that bears her name at that time, more formally the World Commission on Environment and Development. That led to the famous definition of sustainable development, the Rio Summit, even the IPCC and Kyoto Protocol emerged from this original whirlwind of global analysis, based — this is an important point to her — on the findings of a vast fleet of scientists from 30 countries.

“Hardly anything that has happened since that report was published in 1987 has come as a surprise,” she tells us. She is a satisfied map-maker: “The report designed a way of thinking, which, as I see it, is still valid. Only by adhering to the principles of sustainable development will we survive on planet Earth.”

Brundtland’s experience as a member of the Palme Commission (on international security, and including representatives of the US, UK, and Soviet Union – not an easy group to bring together in the early 1980s) gave her the confidence to take on the WCED. “What brought the parties together were facts, and joint understanding of facts.” This built common ground, and this is the approach she has taken every since. Now she is working on the International Commission on Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation — trying to drastically reduce nuclear weapons in the world.

She reminds us of the SARS epidemic, which taught the world how to put aside differences and quickly cooperate to contain a global crisis. This is a note of hope: we know how to do this in general terms. Now she’s linked over to climate change, and I learn a new statistic: “9 out of 10 natural disasters are now related to climate change,” partly thanks to the increasing population of humans in cities in low-lying, climate vulnerable areas. So disaster preparedness, the containing of epidemics, and

She points us to Green Korea 2009: a national vision for the coming 60 years. They are dedicating 30% of a multi-billion dollar stimulus package to green measures, “the highest in the world.” She tells us to look at that, and to remember that energy efficiency is priority number one, in every sector.

Brundtland is off her notes now, and — more interestingly — talking about the lack of financing for sustainable development of all kinds. The old patterns and level of financing are “not in any way sufficient.” We need mechanisms that automatically tap 1, 2 or 3% of the whole carbon trading system. Because there, there’s going to be big money, and even 1% of that money is large. I don’t trust parliaments,” she says, to come up with this financing; the mechanism needs to be global, and automatic.

She wraps up her speech — which, like her career, somehow has blended homespun Scandinavian wisdom with high-flying global politics — with a believable summary on her attitude regarding humanity’s capacity to address these multiple challenges. “I certainly think we can, we must, and we will.” (Hint: This is a clue for those who are wondering what the actual agreement in my book The ISIS Agreement is all about.)

A slow but steady wave of standing occurs during the applause after after her speech.

Now, Nyamko Sabuni, Sweden’s Minister of Integration and Gender Equality, is beginning what proves to be a beautiful speech. “Don’t worry,” she says, “I’m not going to claim that gender equality will stop global warming.” She notes all the wonderful changes that have happened in health, technology, education and opportunity in the last hundred years. “None of that would have happened,” she says, “if there had not been high quality educational opportunities … for the world’s men.” A slow ripple of laughter starts in the crowd. “Imagine where we would be now if women had had the same opportunities.” Laughter and applause.

She is preparing us for a key message: that our capacity to meet the world’s challenges are slim if we do not ensure that women’s ability and energy is put the to task, by giving them the education and opportunity they deserve.

And her speech, I have to say, just gets better from there. (Watch it at, click on video on demand.) She quotes an 11-year-old Pakistani girl worried that the Taliban will drag her society back to the stone age, and Sabuni asks, why does an 11-year-old girl understand this, and not all those men?

Brundtland received a standing ovation because she speaks so wisely and directly, and she has earned the honor of service over time. Sabuni, unknown to this crowd before today, simply earns her standing ovation with the power of her rhetoric.

Finally, John Liu — who keynoted the same conference I did on Borneo a couple of months ago — gets the task of closing up, and he does this brilliantly with his video-assisted speech about the possibility for truly large-scale ecosystem restoration, with a Belgium-sized case study from China, the Loess Plateau, birthplace of the Han Chinese ethnic group (the world’s largest) and a place that as been completely devastated ecologically, for a thousand years. Now it’s green. He shows how this can be done in Africa and elsewhere, just by altering — radically, but sensibly — the way we do agriculture. (Check out his work at

Standing ovation again … this one fueled not by history, or powerful rhetoric, but by hope.


At the Tällberg Bar, I take a beer with my friend Audace Ndayizeye, from Burundi, a former Executive Director of the Nile Basin Initiative. The crowd is buzzing, dancing. My friend M. walked by: encouraged to break dance, he has split a seam in his pants. He comes back with new ones, and heads back to the dance floor. It’s that kind of night. A bit tired, I just watch, happily.

It’s fun to chat with all these wonderful folks, but I’m longing for my tent and sleeping bag. The sun is making another one of those blue-orange-brilliant light shows on the lake. And I’m working on a couple of new songs …

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