Words&Music 3: Believing Cassandra at 20, Mobilizing global investors for the SDGs

Dear Friends,

A year and a half has gone by since I started working at Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The work is challenging, rewarding, all-engrossing. It has been an extraordinary honor to represent Sweden in international venues and lead my department of over 100 very skilled and experienced professionals. But that is not what drove me to finally write to you today (with apologies for the long break between letters).

It has been exactly 20 years since the publication of Believing Cassandra: How to be an optimist in a pessimist’s world.

First published in 1999, Believing Cassandra was quickly declared a “bestseller” on Amazon.com. This is the 2nd edition cover.

Commissioned by my friend and mentor, Donella Meadows, Believing Cassandra was my first book. it was also my first book to be referred as a “bestseller” (I’ve had two), because it was officially named so on Amazon for its category. The book has been published in at least two other languages, Russian and Japanese, and was still being used in college courses as recently as 2017. It has sold something like 35,000 copies over its lifetime, as a rough guess. That is not a big number — but it was a big number in the tiny world of sustainability books.

And the book – to my great surprise – still feels relevant. Updated in 2011 for the second edition, some of the data and examples now seem ancient, of course. But the book’s messages about the basic concepts of systems, sustainability, and the power of people to create transformative change are not exactly stale. In fact, their time appears to have (finally) come.

I reread some of the book on a rainy Saturday afternoon, just hours after my return from a work trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It made want to me reflect on the last twenty years — where we were in 1999 as a world, where we are now, farther along the sustainable development path, definitely not far enough — and also want to tell you about a very important breakthrough.

But first a word about my visit to Ethiopia. I am sure you noticed that Prime Minister Abiy was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This means a lot for the country internationally, but I am not sure it helped in the process of securing peace internally. Most people I talked to seemed oblivious to the prize and far more concerned with practical matters of peace, stability, and economic reform and development. There was also a recent wave of ethnic violence in Ethiopia, and a fair degree of nervousness, especially among the more educated people I spoke with. The violence was sparked by a single Facebook post by a single “activist” political leader, underscoring the double-edged power of social media both to unite and organize for change, and to divide and mobilize our lesser qualities as human beings.

Nonetheless, I am happy to report that there is also a rising wave of hope in Ethiopia for democracy, human rights, and resilience in the face of growing climate stress. According to a government minister I spoke with, in the past year or two, over 4 billion trees have been planted in that country of 110 million people (350 million trees were planted on a single day of national mobilization). During my visit I met children organized to secure better educational conditions, academics leading top-flight research programs, civil society workers learning to navigate the recently liberalized laws for civil organizing, and development professionals using systems analyses to create high-leverage interventions in the job market: Ethiopia needs to create new jobs for about 2 million young people every year.

It was thinking about countries like Ethiopia that led me, writing 20 hears ago, to highlight the differences between Growth and Development. It is important to me that Believing Cassandra, although inspired by the 1972 book Limits to Growth, is not anti-growth. My message has always been pro-growth for the poor who really need it, and pro-development – sustainable development – for the whole world. Ethiopia certainly needs growth in jobs, democracy, and access to education and resources. But Ethiopia, like all nations on Earth, without exception, also needs a more sustainable model of development than the one the world pursued during the previous century.

Fortunately, that is exactly what my agency Sida, and the whole of Swedish development cooperation, is committed to supporting. We fund only renewable energy. We emphasize gender quality. We keep a sharp focus on democracy, human rights, justice and transparency. We steadfastly support the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their implementation, which means aiming, long-term, for a world free from poverty, hunger, and unfairness, living within the capacity of the planet’s ecosystems. Of course that is an idealistic vision. But it is also the only vision worthy of aspiring to.

It is important to note that the world adopted 17 Sustainable DevelopmentGoals in 2015 – not sustainable growth goals. The increasing sense of climate crisis is forcing all of us to think hard about our consumption patterns (food, air travel, stuff in general), and the crisis of plastic in the ocean is forcing us to face hard facts about our unsustainable production systems. We cannot keep heading in this direction, globally. We obviously don’t need more growth of CO2 emissions or rainforest clearance. Nonetheless, we absolutely do need – just as I wrote in Believing Cassandra in 1999 – to accelerate development. Not slow down, but go faster. We need transformative change, and we need it as quickly as possible.

I still believe that the process of transforming our economies and making them more sustainable holds great promise for meeting the very real needs in our world, including the needs of still-poor nations like Ethiopia. Back in 1999 and 2000, writing in a magazine (remember magazines?) called Newsweek, I called this transformation the “New New Economy.” (The digital economy was referred to then as the “New Economy”.) It has taken longer than I and many others hoped, but I do see signs of a more sustainable economy finally starting to emerge at scale around the world, especially in the centrally important sector of renewable energy, but also in the critical sector of finance. More on this below.

But we still have so far to go. Part of why I joined Sida after so many years working independently and with my consulting network was the desire to be part of a bigger institution, a larger team, and help to make bigger, institutional changes. After a year and half, that certainly feels like the right choice. Because again, I see recent signs of hope, even breakthrough.

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to attend the launch of a new initiative, convened by the UN Secretary-General, called Global Investors for Sustainable Development. This new global alliance of 30 of the world’s largest finance and investment firms is modeled on a similar network managed by Sida in Sweden. There were 18 CEOs present at the launch of the GISD, from countries around the world. Together, they represented over 16 trillion dollars in capital. This gathering, framed around a new joint commitment to sustainable development, was a first of its kind, not just for the UN, but for the world.

We at Sida are supporting this new global initiative with both grant money and technical support. The CEOs of these 30 member firms have signed a joint statement committing them to step up their actions in support of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs – which means that the sustainability agenda that we have been struggling to bring to the forefront of decision-making for several decades has just gotten (theoretically) a huge financial boost. Just how huge remains to be seen. But even small gestures from companies like this are measured in the billions of US dollars (tens of billions of Swedish kronor).

At the launch event, these CEOs were (finally) saying things that sounded a lot like my optimistic calls for accerating economic transformation in Believing Cassandra 20 years ago. They see contributing to the shift to a sustainable global economy not just as a duty, but as an opportunity. You can imagine that I sat there listening with a wide range of feelings, from that mildly exasperated “finally” that I wrote in parentheses above (as in, “Why did it take so long?”) to great joy that so many top financial leaders, responding to the UN Secretary-General’s call to action, were publicly joining that “Army of Change Agents” that I also wrote about in my second book ten years later (see the last chapter of The Sustainability Transformation).

Maybe these two stories about the Global Investors UN initiative and my trip to Ethiopia, which were just two of the many things that happened to me in the past three weeks, explain why these newsletters are so infrequent. So, what about Words&Music? My old newsletter, WaveFront, went out to nearly 5,000 addresses. Words&Music goes out to just 180 (I had to purge my WaveFront mailing list because of European data and privacy protection laws – which I support).

Are you, my 180 subscribers, still interested in hearing from me, in this format? Please hit reply to drop me a line and let me know. While you are at it, please also let me know what you think of Believing Cassandra, twenty years later (if you have read it). Is the book still relevant today? Should I try to update it one more time, a 3rd edition?

Many thanks for reading this long letter! Social media was not even invented in 1999, when Believing Cassandra was published. I have learned to use it, to “keep it short” — but like Mark Twain, I still find it easier (and more satisfying) to write longer letters. Guess I will always be old-fashioned that way. Even as I continue to work, as optimistically as I can, for a very different future.

Warm regards,


This is the third installment of my personal newsletter, Words&Music. To receive Words&Music as an email, sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9

>>>>> From the desk of Alan AtKisson <<<<<