Big Visions, Grand Challenges and Nagging Controversies: Navigating into the Anthropocene

On 3 Nov 2013, I gave the opening keynote address to the combined annual conferences of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crops Science Society of America (CSSA), and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) — over 3,000 researchers and experts from the US and around the world in attendance, and about 1,500 in the room when I did the keynote. The overarching theme of the conference this year was “Water, Food, Energy & Innovation for a Sustainable World.” I was thrilled and honored by this invitation.

The title of my 45-minute, extremely rapid-paced presentation was “Big Visions, Grand Challenges and Nagging Controversies: Navigating into the Anthropocene.” There is no way to recreate this presentation as a blog post, but below, for reference, I provide links to some of the key sources I used or recommended, out of the vast sea of available information on these topics.

My thanks to the leadership of the ASA for this wonderful opportunity to address such an important gathering.

Introduction: The context

Recommended video and website introducing the Anthropocene concept:

Source of the data and graphs on the “Great Acceleration”:  IGBP Website

“Planetary Boundaries” reference, “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity” (Rockström et al.), Nature, 2009:  Link to Nature

“Origin of the Planetary Boundaries Study” is written up in “From Sustainability Science to Real-World Action:  A Short History of the Balaton Group,” The Solutions Journal, Sep 2012,

“Things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster.” – Tom Atlee, often quoted, first published at

Grand Visions

Information on the New Caledonian Crow, which has the capacity to fashion tools (and ergo has a “vision” of a future that it intends to create):

For information on the Sustainability Compass as a framework, see my book The Sustainability Transformation or previous academic articles, such as this one:  A free overview of the compass, and links to other resources, are available at this website:

A summary of my essay on “A Fresh Start for Sustainable Development” is available here, on my blog, and from that site you can also link to the original publication in the journal Development.

The UN Secretary-General’s Zero Hunger Challenge (which I summarized very briefly):

The IFPRI Food Policy Report 2012:

FAO State of Food and Agriculture 2012 and 2013:

The Challenge of Systems Thinking

You can find a very short introduction to systems thinking in my book Believing Cassandra, but I strongly recommend Donella Meadows fantastic little book, Thinking in Systems.

The German Government runs a good resource website on the “nexus” concept here:

The Aral Sea story referenced the original Science article from 2006 on the unexpectedly fast recovery of the North Aral Sea, here:

A good summary news story was published in 2012 in the UK daily, the Telegraph.

The Challenge of Managing Knowledge

My global review and analysis paper for the United Nations, on “Knowledge, Capacity Building, and Networks for Sustainable Development” (2012), was published by the UNOSD.

Other recommended books and papers cited in the keynote:

Too Big to Know, by David Weinberger (2012)

William C. Clark et al., “Boundary work for sustainable development: Natural resource management at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)”, PNAS, 2011:

The Challenge of Working Together

This section of the talk draws heavily on my own work. See especially:

The Sustainability Transformation (2010), for an introduction to the ISIS method and underlying archetypal model.

The ISIS Accelerator Tools, published and available for licensing by AtKisson Group here:

The global Pyramid 2030 volunteer initiative, with free workshop materials and other resources, is here:  (Please join this initiative!)

The “Amoeba” model of innovation and cultural change is described first in Believing Cassandra (1999, 2010) and extended in The Sustainability Transformation (2010). The basic concepts are all there. The professional tool “Amoeba” is part of the ISIS Accelerator.

Nagging Controversies

In this section of the keynote, I provided my biased, subjective opinions on a variety of controversial topics. But I also referenced key source documents that help to inform my view, or that seem useful to others for informing their views — regardless of whether one agrees with them or not. Here is a list of those topics and sources.

“Can’t we feed the world already?”  See: Jean Ziegler (former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food), “Betting on Famine,” 2013
“Are we reaching the limit of food production increases?” See: Piero Conforti (Ed.), “Looking Ahead in World Food and Agriculture: Perspectives to 2050,” published by the FAO – Division of Agriculture Development Economics, 2011

“Are GMO’s dangerous?” See the special section in Nature on this topic, 1 May 2013

“Should water be privatized?”  (Too many sources to list, just google the topic!)

“Is global warming cooling off?” See: Yu Kosaka & Shang-Ping Xie, “Recent global-warming hiatus tied to equatorial Pacific surface cooling,” Nature, 501, 403–407 (19 September 2013)

“Is fracking good for the country?” See: Michael Kumhof and Dirk Muir, “Oil and the World Economy: Some Possible Futures,” IMF Working Paper, Oct 2012.  (Note:  Carbon is still carbon, it still heats up the planet, wherever it comes from.)

“Do biofuels kill?” See Conforti, op cit.

“Is geoengineering crazy?” See: Kelsi Bracmort and Richard K. Lattanzio, “Geoengineering: Governance and Technology Policy,” Congressional Research Service, 2 Jan 2013

“Will technology save us?” See, as one example,

“Is ‘sustainability’ dead?” Not on your life. See my forthcoming mini-book, “Sustainability is for Everyone,” preview here:


My song “System Zoo” appears on the music album companion to the 1999 edition of Believing Cassandra (not yet re-released in digital format, you can get it second hand) or you can see an old video clip of me performing the song here:

Note: The term “System Zoo” actually refers to a collection of archetypal system models or patterns that show up in system dynamics modeling. The term was invented by Hartmut Bossel (I rather rudely borrowed the term and changed its meaning in my song). Basic info on the “real” system zoo is here:

The “Hope Graph” first appeared (and is explained) in AtKisson, The Sustainability Transformation, 2010.

One thought on “Big Visions, Grand Challenges and Nagging Controversies: Navigating into the Anthropocene

  1. I was there – great informative and fun presentation! Thanks for putting up the references – I already started one of the books you recommended.

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