On Being an American Troubadour at the Swedish Climate Change Conference
This is the third and last installment on my series of posts from the Climate Existence 2010 conference, organized by my friends and colleagues at Uppsala University’s Center for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS). To read the posts in order: 1. Bill McKibben 2. David Abrams
I am on the 5:23 morning bus, leaving the Sigtuna Foundation. It was astonishing to me how many people assumed I would be driving home last night — driving home in a car, from the climate conference! After hearing how essential it was that we change our habits! Of course I took public transport to get here, a comfortable two-hour ride, door-to-door. I could have taken the bus-train-subway-bus combo home late last night, but sleeping over made more sense.
The conference will continue through Wednesday, but my work and my family draw me home. It’s the Autumn Break, my kinds are home from school, and my wife has taken holiday.
I’ll reflect more on the conference, and on my performance last night, in a minute. But first I will continue down memory lane for a bit, for the last time I was here at the Sigtuna Foundation was also my first time (as an adult) in Sweden, and the occasion of my first “date” with my wife — a date that lasted ten days.
That event was a seminar on sustainable development hosted by the Swedish government. I came to speak, and I also helped find a few of the other speakers — friends from the Balaton Group. Kicki, my wife, was working for the government then. At that point, she and I had no idea, of course, that our international fling was going to turn into a life together; now, ten years later, I am awake early and out the door with a longing to get home, to see her and our children. It is somehow harder to be away for one night, here in Sweden, than to be away for a week in Africa or elsewhere.
Last night I did a formal, two-set musical performance for the first time in a few years. I’ve performed often enough informally, and am frequently asked to “do a few songs” in connection with a conference speaking engagement. But this was different: I was the official evening entertainment.
My guitar playing was rusty; my voice barely lasted through the two sets; I had trouble remembering my own lyrics on the newer songs; it was hardly a perfect performance.
Ah, but what a pleasure.
I did a mix of songs, old and new, funny and serious, a few of them still unrecorded. The audience was supportive and happy and forgiving of my mistakes. Some of them have attended my university lectures, where I’ve thrown in “Exponential Growth” or “System Zoo.” That helped with the sing-along bits, which were lively and fun.
Perhaps most meaningful for me was the chance to perform a new song, “Set the World Right Again,” and dedicate it to Bill McKibben, who was sitting right in front, and who was certainly one of that song’s inspirations. The lyric never says “global warming” or anything so bang-you-over-the-head-with-a-message; but it’s about that unshakable desire to “put the train on some new track / stop the tragedy before they start the last act.” Bill’s inspiring, potentially world-changing, already world-leading 350.org movement is so explicitly about that, about standing up for what’s scientifically necessary to restore climatic balance, regardless of how politically impossible it seems. I remember I was thinking about the 350 movement, and about climate change generally, when I wrote “Set the World Right Again”: “Like a fire that you can’t put out / A bad dream that you can’t stop thinkin’ about …”
Over dinner we shared reminiscences of Dana Meadows, an inspiration to both of us, a good friend, a brilliant writer and teacher, a kind soul (who also, as Bill noted, “did not suffer fools gladly”). Dana was, is, the “reason” for so many things in my life. She was a kind of friendship turbine, who drew things in and spun them out and gave things their momentum, sometimes without any real intention behind it. It was just in her nature. I met my wife, for example, because Dana turned down a speaking invitation (to a conference on Iceland, where Kicki and I first met) and sold them on hiring me instead. That one referral from Dana led to ten years of occasional consulting work with the Baltic 21 initiative, based here in Stockholm … not to mention the family toward which this early morning commuter train (I’ve switched from bus to train now) is carrying me.
I even wonder if I would still be writing songs and playing as much music as I do, were it not for the fact that Dana continuously encouraged me. My annual trips to the Balaton Group meeting and occasional visits to her home in New Hampshire always included (mostly informal, sometimes formal) evening performances of the kind I’ve just done. Most of the topical songs I did last night grew out of Balaton Group meetings — “Hormone Havoc,” for example, grew out of listening to Diane Dumanoski talk about her book with Theo Colburn “Our Stolen Future.” And Dana would regularly “commission” such songs from me, in addition to the ones that Balaton Group meetings inspired. “We need an indicator song,” she’d say, or “You need to write me a song with the word ‘Sustainability’ in it.” The Balaton Group was always my first, built-in audience for such songs. Dana, the Balaton Group, and then the audiences I spoke to, and occasionally sang to: a classic case of reinforcing positive feedback loops that kept me doing music, with Dana being the original lever in the system.
The dinner conversation last night included rich discussions with an Egyptian student of peace and conflict issues who had spent some years in southern Yemen (a very peaceful area where fundamentalist Islam has not been successful), an American academic specializing in how environmental themes are treated in fiction (he and Bill McKibben exchanged a rapid-fire review of virtually all the great American nature writers), and a French woman who purposely failed her entrance exam to a top French business school in order to have the chance to study what she wanted to (sustainable development), instead of what her parents expected of her. (Oddly, it’s the same French business school where I lectured last June.)
During the dinner I also learn a lot more about 350.org. Bill volunteers: he’s not paid anything, his staff is making the traditional low salaries of American NGOs, and funding is always an issue. This is a bit shocking given how successful they have been at creating global scale awareness of climate science. They’ve done everything so far — two years of global campaigning, mobilizing thousands of work parties all around the globe, drawing major media attention, the works — on two million dollars. “Don’t get me started on the funders,” says Bill.
Then it was time for the fire show outside, and for me to get back to my guitar and prepare for when the crowd milled back in expecting some more music. The second set was my “love song” set — someone had prodded me to do more of those — but I interpreted the concept of “love song” liberally, and included even the “Strangely Popular Lichen Song,” since it involves the “love” between a fungus and an algae. Partly, this was a survival tactic. Occasionally these days, I get cramps in my hands, and during the song “I Love, Therefore I Am” I suddenly found myself practically unable to move the fingers of my left hand. Scary, uncomfortable … and yet the show must go, so I went on, prying my grip loose and somehow finishing. A tune like “Lichen” is silly, perhaps not the best follow-up to a serious and philosophical song about the centrality of love to identity; but it is also much less demanding, and guaranteed to get the audience singing along, distracting them (and me) long enough for my hand to recover. Such are the tricks of the rusty, semi-pro troubadour.
For that is what I am these days, musically. I’m trying to prep myself for a trip back into the studio. There are two albums I want to make, one “comedy,” one “serious.” The comedy album I plan to call, “More Songs about Economic Theory and the End of the World,” or something like that. The working title for the “serious” one is “American Troubadour.” Sweden has a long troubadour tradition, and though I live a pretty Swedish life these days, and have even written a couple of Swedish-language songs, I still mostly write and perform in American English, using American metaphors, even when I’m writing about places like Entebbe or Istanbul. To get my music chops back (because if there’s one thing I learned from my performance last night, it’s that I don’t have all my chops back) I plan to do more performing, here and there, wherever, whenever. I’m calling it the “American Troubadour Tour.” Any money I make performing (optimism!) I’ll donate to charity.
And now the bus, the last of five vehicles I’ve ridden on this journey, is pulling in to my home stop. It’s back to my “day job” — consulting — after breakfast with my family. I’ve got a report to finish on the Green Transformation pillar of the new Egyptian Competitiveness Strategy, which is focused on renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and other very non-poetic but essential, life-or-death, real-world changes.
But I’m sure there’s a song in there, somewhere …