What it Means to be a Sustainability Change Agent

I was lying on my back in the snow, staring up through the branches of the big old oak tree in front of our house, when it hit me. That’s where I’d ended up after going down hill on my buttocks (on purpose, riding tea-saucers with my youngest daughter). It felt lovely just to lie there, looking up, knowing that beyond that beautiful mixture of blue sky and white cloud was endless deep space — and that I was one of seven billion little points of consciousness living inside this tiny, protective bubble of earth, water, and air.

We humans are born with the ability to know something about our planetary situation. But not all of us have the opportunity to learn about it. And not all of us who have the opportunity to learn about it actually manage to do so. Some actively don’t want to know.

Those of us who do know are quite the minority — though at least we are a growing minority. The knowledge that we are a self-aware form of life, living on a small planet, circling a normal star in a normal galaxy, protected from the dangers of the cosmos and supported in our evolution by the most intricate web of natural systems, may be the most revolutionary thought in all of human history.

Among that relatively small-but-growing minority, there are also those who feel driven to actively seek out more and more information. The more they understand, the more they want to know — and the more astonished and amazed they get. And usually worried as well.

Many of the really interested ones turn into scientists. Many of the really worried turn into activists. (Actually, that works both ways of course — some of the scientists are the most worried of them all.) And then there are those who have a strong desire to dive directly into the actual machinery of human civilization, somewhere, anywhere, and start fixing the things that are obviously broken, and that are leading us step-by-step in the worst of directions.

Those are the people I think of when I think of the phrase “sustainability change agent.”

Sustainability change agents live with two sets of complementary feelings — a burning desire to known and understand what’s actually happening in this extraordinary planetary pageant we call “Life on Earth,” and an equally strong compulsion to do something to safeguard that pageant from catastrophic, avoidable dangers. Because the more one learns about how the atmosphere actually works, how the energy coming from the sun warms us to just the right temperature thanks to the special balance of gases in that atmosphere, how human agriculture and energy systems and financial markets and all the rest of it are dangerously out of alignment with the laws of physics and biology that govern not just the atmosphere, but also the planet’s water systems, soils, nutrient flows, fish regeneration rates, and so much more …

Well, the more one knows, the more one wants to do.

That’s the thought that hit me, lying there in the snow, looking up through the spidery tendrils of the oak-tree branches, thinking about the vastness of space beyond that blue-white wonder we call the sky. How could I have chosen any other profession? I so love learning about this planet, how it works, how unique and beautiful it is compared to everything else we can see (so far) in the universe. Books on the astonishing evolution and intricacy of nature, and books on the remarkable diversity and drive of human culture, are equally treasured in my library. Both nature and human civilization are worth striving to protect. They are both “family,” you might say, with all the special duties and obligations and pleasures that family life brings with it.

Of course, understanding the extent of the dangers and disruptions that we and other living things (our family) now face — dangers created by human actions, though mostly created unconsciously — is not pleasant. I imagine it feels something like being a doctor, specializing in the care of diseases caused by smoking, or environmental pollution, or other preventable, catastrophic dangers. Knowledge of the risks we face, understanding of the scale of the challenges we must overcome, can be felt as a burden.

As far as I know, there is only one “cure” for that feeling of burden that knowledge of our planetary situation can bring, and that’s action. Doing whatever one can to make a difference. Believing, and increasingly knowing, that many, many other people are doing the same kinds of things, for the same kinds of reasons, in a process of rapid change and innovation we call “transformation.” And trusting that although the hour is late and the challenges many, there are now so many shoulders pushing on that wheel of transformation that it will soon begin rolling faster and faster, until it is almost rolling of its own accord.

That, for me, is what means to be a sustainability change agent.

“And the winning song is …”

Aren’t you curious to know which of my songs is the most popular? That is, the most purchased in its digital format, on iTunes, Amazon.com, etc.? You won’t believe it. I certainly didn’t believe it.

Let me back up.

It would be easy to scribble pages and pages of philosophical rumination on the importance of music — in general, and to me personally. But let me be a little crass and commercial here. Not only is writing and singing songs an emotional outlet or me; it’s a business.

Admittedly, it’s not exactly a big business. I can total up my actual cash earnings for 2010 in three digits. My musical income probably doesn’t even cover the family budget for dairy products.

So you can understand why I didn’t even bother to check the annual sales figures on iTunes etc. until the close of 2010. The relatively small amount of money wasn’t surprising — but the sales figures on individual songs was very surprising. (Getting more curious? Read on …)

You see, what music actually does, among other things, is differentiate me from other consultant/speaker types. I can think of several paid events I did last year where the thing that got me the “gig” — that is, the thing that helped me stand out against the growing sea of sustainability authors and experts and speakers — was being able to throw in a song or two as part of my presentation. I don’t do this automatically, because obviously, there are many professional situations where singing a song is exceedingly inappropriate. But I am often surprised myself when a client requests (or sometimes just sort of hints!) that they’d also like me to sing a bit, even in very formal situations.

So music does help me earn my living as a sustainability consultant, even if in a somewhat indirect way.

Which is what led me to expect that the top song for the year would be one of my sustainability-themed songs — like “Dead Planet Blues” (humorous, on the album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On”) or “Balaton” (serious, on the album “Testing the Rope”), both of which are mentioned in my books, complete with lyrics.

I was so wrong.

My top-selling song for all of 2010 was …

“The Strangely Popular Lichen Song” (see lyrics and link at the end of this post)

Yes, the Lichen Song earned me more money last year than the Parachuting Cats, the Extinction Blues, or Homone Havoc … and a lot more than any of my serious and soulful tunes about life, love, and the meaning of it all.

Which means it truly earned its name:  the “Lichen Song” is “Strangely Popular,” and always has been, since I first wrote it after attending a naturalist training course in 1991. The teacher had taught us a one-liner to help us remember that a lichen was the symbiotic union of two very different kinds of living thing:  “Freddie Fungus and Alice Algae took a lichen to each other,” he said. I repeated this one-liner to a friend, who said, “That sounds like it could be a song.” “Oh, no,” I said — for I immediately heard the melody in my head, and the song began virtually to write itself.

So there you have it — the union of a fungus and an algae became a song that went mini-viral in 2010. Maybe I’ll use the proceeds to buy a few mushrooms for the family …

The Strangely Popular Lichen Song

Music and lyrics © 1991 by Alan AtKisson – from the album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On,” Rain City Records, 1999

Available on iTunes:  Click here

Once there was a fungus — Freddy was his name

Said “There’s no love for me among us, all us fungi look the same.”

So he took himself a courtin’ down to where the green things grow

Met some algae name of Alice, and she set his heart aglow


Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae took a LICHEN to each other

They grew so very close that now you cain’t tell one from t’other

Now those lichens lead a simple life, they never are alone —

Alice does the cookin’, and Freddy builds the home

Freddy said “Oh Alice, you’ve made my life complete,”

But Alice said, “Now Freddy, there’s something else we need.

Got to have some lichen children — little ones like you and me,”

So they broke themselves in pieces, and that’s how lichens came to be


So if you’re a lonesome fungus, and you’re hungry too besides,

Better hook up with somebody who can photosynthesize

And if you love each other, as all good couples do,

And take vows of symbiosis, you can be a lichen too!


Revisiting the Big Push: A Strategy for Scaling Up Renewable Energy

While the Cancún climate talks were under way, I published several different versions of the following short essay, which first appeared as a blog post in “Triple Crisis,” then as a comment in Eurovoice newspaper’s “Comment:Visions,” and finally is slated for publication in the academic journal Solutions. Here is the Comment:Visions version:

In late 2009, the United Nations quietly published a strategy paper describing what may be the most powerful single intervention in the global endgame on carbon. (I led the writing of this paper as a consultant to the United Nations Division of Sustainable Development, but the ideas largely came from other people, inside and outside the UN system.) Called the “Big Push,” the strategy builds around three key elements:

(1) Establishing feed-in tariff mechanisms globally (that is, guaranteed-purchase price supports for renewable energy)

(2) Investing heavily in renewable energy in the developing world through those mechanisms, and

(3) Providing an array of technical and policy support services to speed adoption and implementation.

Pursuing such a strategy would help the world decarbonize much more quickly, because it would accelerate the drop in price for renewables dramatically, using the enormous scales of the market for energy in developing countries — who urgently need clean, affordable energy services most. The logic here also builds on historical examples, such as the rapid drop in computer chip prices that was engineered by the U.S. government through its purchasing policy in the 1960s.

Economic modeling demonstrated that a “Big Push” strategy, while it looked expensive relative to the levels of aid and investment on offer in the global negotiating process, paid enormous dividends. Per capita incomes would rise much faster than a business-as-usual scenrio — in every region of the world. The poorest developing countries would experience a massive uplift in incomes, and even the already wealthy countries would get wealthier. The “Big Push” of initial subsidies would result in renewable energy becoming the default investment option (without any subsidy) in just 10-20 years, at a price affordable to all.

So why is this idea not on the table now?

First, the dollar figures probably look scary. Renewable energy will eventually become fully competitive with fossil fuels anyway; it’s just not happening fast enough. To make it happen “fast enough” requires placing orders for about a thousand extra gigawatts of solar energy (over what the market would generate on its own), and 100-200 extra GW of wind energy, as soon as possible, at an investment cost of USD 1 to 1.5 trillion, spread over ten years or so.

That sounds like a lot of money. But it equates to about 10 years of what was already pledged at Copenhagen ($100 billion annually), and only two years of U.S. defense spending. And the paybacks, once again, are enormous: improved incomes, better quality of life, and reduced climate risk, all around the world.

And it would happen about as fast as one could possibly imagine, in real political, economic, and technical terms. The “Big Push” would help renewable, carbon-free energy get over the hump of initial investment costs, after which the market would kick into overdrive, as it did for computer chips.

What about the risks? Deutsche Bank, working with the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change, has already through the details of the investment scheme that would be necessary, including the insurance and risk management, in their “GET FiT” program (“Global Energy Transfer Feed-in Tariffs for Developing Countries”), published in April of 2010.

What about the capacity issues in these countries? There the Big Push strategy looks to the successful example of the Green Revolution, with its army of technical experts, extension workers, trainers, and support mechanisms of other kinds, which helped whole countries retool their agricultural systems with amazing speed.

And finally, what about the politics? How hard is to roll out a feed-in tariff program globally? The answer is, it’s already happening. Country by country, feed-in tariff mechanisms are already law (well over 50 countries already have it), or in the process of becoming law, in countries as diverse as Kenya, Egypt, Serbia, and Byelorussia.

The economics works. The technology is there. The political mechanisms are already moving into place. What’s lacking, then? Only a shared vision that we really can pull together, and push hard on a big problem.

There are obviously many things we need to do to create a carbon-neutral society. But for accelerating the process, I see no better candidate than the Big Push.

Link to Comment:Visions

Click here

Download original UN paper:

Click here

Climate and Health: Side Issue, or the Bottom Line?

Aedes Albopictus

Aedes Albopictus, the "Asian Tiger Mosquito," courtesy of Wikipedia

The fall has been so full of climate change-related seminars that I earlier forgot to write up this one:  a day on The Health Impacts of Climate Change at Stockholm’s prestigious Karolinska Institute (Oct 11, 2011).  (Here I must reveal that my wife works at the Institute, Sweden’s leading medical training and research center, as its sustainability coordinator.)

All climate seminars start with a review of the science, and this one had the benefit of local expert Henning Rodhe, who divided the topic in two:  things we “know for sure,” and things that are merely “likely.” The physics of the greenhouse effect is in the “for sure” column — and that puts a minimum temperature rise of 0.5 to 1.0 degrees C., the melting of sea ice, and a sea level rise of at least 200 cm in the “for sure” column as well.

What’s merely “likely,” for example, is that shade, or “negative forcing,” of the aerosol particles we have put into the atmosphere are roughly balanced by the warming effect, or “positive forcing,” of CO2 itself. Take away the aerosols, up goes the temperature still more.

And “likely” is accompanied by another, bigger word, “uncertainty,” which translate to things like 1-6 extra degrees of warming by 2100, or up to a meter of sea level rise. Because the largest uncertainty, noted Rodhe, relates to what we humans are actually going to do about all this in the coming years.

The health-related star of the show was Tony McMichael of Australia, an IPCC author and a very thoughtful epidemiologist whose remarks ranged over a much broader terrain than just “health” — though human health is, in McMichael’s terms, the “anthropocentric bottom line” when it comes to thinking about all global ecosystem impacts …

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Wailing on the Road to Cancún

“It’s so bleak, it’s very depressing. But we are activists. When things are bleak, we don’t give up. We get busy.”

So said Meena Raman of the Malaysia-based activist group Third World Network at a small seminar on climate change held in Stockholm this week.  For me, it was an excellent opportunity to get updated on “The Road to Cancun” — the current state of climate negotiations, leading up to the next big UN conference on the matter next month in Mexico.

Per Holmgren explaining how global warming + global dimming = serious global problem

Last year, I was “in the game” in a small way (see “Reflections on CoP-15 and its Aftermath“). This year, I am just a distant spectator. Frankly, I have not felt very motivated to follow the action. While my assessment of last year’s CoP-15 was a bit more positive than most people’s, I have to confess that my mood has also turned gloomier when it comes to climate change. The recent power switch in the US congress — which effectively ties down the Obama administration, a critical actor in this drama — didn’t help. The climate news gets worse, while the resolve to take action at the highest levels has become, if anything, weaker and weaker.

My mood was hardly improved by listening to Per Holmgren’s quick summary of current climate science. Per is a well-known TV meteorologist in Sweden who just stepped off his TV platform to work on climate issues full time. He confirmed what we have already known, for years and years:  it’s bad, getting worse — likely to get a lot worse. “Are people understanding the situation better?” I asked. Yes, especially younger people, said Per. I meet 12 and 13-year-olds who discuss peak oil and all the rest of it. What about geo-engineering? I’m afraid we’ll have no choice but to do some of that, said Per, at the least “lighter” varieties, like carbon capture and storage.

After that gloomy review of the physical situation, Niclas Hälström then mind-mapped the crowd through the political situation, from Kyoto to today. It was no less complex, and no less gloomy. Niclas’s diagrams showed swirling tendrils of connections … the Bali Action Plan … REDD … Annex 2 Countries … the Copenhagen Accord … this is the vocabulary one must learn to follow climate negotiations as a spectator sport. Even when you understand the concepts, it’s still confusing. (I am reminded of watching cricket as an American university student studying in the UK. No matter how hard my friends tried to explain what was going on, I never really understood, and still don’t.)

After Meena Raman’s talk (I’ll report on her talk in a minute, I’m building up to the high point of the afternoon), an official from the Swedish government provided a “balanced” perspective — meaning that he sometimes spoke positively, sometimes gloomily. Sweden is “more than meeting” its Kyoto targets; but the EU targets, not to mention the world’s, are another matter. His talk was informative, but amounted to reading a press release from PowerPoint slides. I had to leave in the middle to pick up my kids from school, and I had the feeling that I would not miss very much in the way of news. (I will refrain from commentary at this time on Swedish climate policy per se.)

Which brings me to Meena Raman …

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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

Performance set-up in the lounge of the Sigtuna Foundation

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.

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David Abrams: Breathing ourselves aware on planet “EAIRTH”

David Abrams lecturing at Climae Existence 2010

David Abrams explains why Earth should be called "EAIRTH"

This is the second in my series of posts from the conference “Climate Existence 2010.” The series began with a post on Bill McKibben’s opening keynote. This one covers the afternoon keynote and the workshop I went to, which awakened some memories …

“We don’t live on the Earth.  We live in the Earth.  Or rather in the EAIRTH.

This is David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous or more recently Becoming Animal. He is explaining why he is proposing a slight change in the name of our planet.  The addition of that “I” puts the word “AIR” in the middle of the word “EARTH.”  It calls our attention to something that is both invisible and essential.

Because the air is invisible, says David, we tend to treat it as nonexistent. That’s why we can treat it like an open sewer, as McKibben called it this morning. But for indigenous people, that very invisibility is part of what makes the air so sacred to them.  “It’s a kind of a secret,” says Abram (who is also a sleight-of-hand magician, who likes secrets).  “Secret. Sacred. Same word.”

“The air is the unseen medium of exchange,” says David. We speak when breathing out, not breathing in, and our sounds are carried on the air to each other. For oral-history people’s, the air is “a thicket of meaning,” full of stories and spirits.

He introduces us to the word Ních’i — Navajo (Dineh) for “holy wind.” This was translated as “spirit” by the early anthropologists, “but they missed that this inner wind was entirely continuous with the wind out there,” with the air.  David traces the origins of various words related to air, and consciousness, and they intertwine beautifully:  “atmosphere,” for example, from “atma” and “atmos” in ancient Sanskrit, meaning … air, and soul.

He is drawing (I find this on the internet, searching on the phrases I hear from him in real time) on an article he published in 2009, “The Air Aware,” published in Orion magazine. David’s words are carefully chosen, he is a “writerly” writer.  It is an inspired reading.  But he occasionally breaks out of the box of his own text (and literally steps out from behind the podium) to speak, rather than read, and to breathe, and to make his case for taking the reality of the air-in-which-we-live-and-breathe more seriously, more passionately.  (“Passion,” from Latin, replacing an Old English word that combined “suffering” with “endurance.”)

The last time I saw David Abram, fifteen years ago …

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Bill McKibben on Climate Change: The Depressing Bad News, and the Amazing Power of People to Create Good News

Bill McKibben takes question on climate change in Sigtuna, Sweden

I’m attending a conference in Sweden called Climate Existence.  I’m here not as a speaker, for once; I’m here as a musician, scheduled to perform this evening. I’ll blog some of the highlights over the course of the day. Here is what was happening just as I walked in (late) to the event, in Sigtuna, Sweden:  Bill McKibben’s lecture, blogged in its entirety.

I walk in to the Climate Existence conference just as Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org) is warming up … and talking about how quickly the planet is warming up.  Nineteen countries set new temperature records this past summer in the Northern Hemisphere.  Pakistan set the all-time temperature record for all of Asia.  Russia’s heat wave alone reduced

The atmosphere is 4-5% “wetter” (more humid) than it was just a few decades ago. All that wet air translates to a lot more rain.  This creates much greater risk of torrential downpours and flooding events.

Up by the Khyber Pass, which usually gets 1 meter of rain per year, about 4 meters fell in the space of a week.  Stream flow gauges recorded stream flow more than 50% greater than the previous peak in 1929 … before the gauges themselves were washed away.  The result was the drowning of Pakistan in geopolitically destabilizing floods, watched in horror around the world.

That’s the result of just 1 degree average warming.  We are locked in to getting another degree.  And if we are not able to stop burning fossil fuel far more quickly than we’re planning now, we’re going to get 4-5 degrees.

“The bottom line is, we do not want to find out what 4-5 degrees looks like.  There’s no reason to think we can sustain our civilization under those conditions,” says McKibben, for reasons ranging from sea level rise to depressed food production — 40-50% less grain production, for example.

McKibben’s Conclusions, his interpretation of the “Scientific Bottom Line”:

“(1) We need a very, very quick transition off fossil fuel.

(2) Even if we do that, we’ll have to change a lot of other things to adapt to those changes we’ve already locked in.

(3) If we cannot make that transition off fossil fuel, then the temperature will likely rise enough that effective adaptation becomes impossible.”

“That puts in place a set of parameters that have to especially with speed.”

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Saving Life-As-We-Know-It

Click image to read The Guardian

Nature-lovers (which should include all of us on planet Earth, but strangely does not) breathed a sigh of relief today as we read the news from Nagoya, Japan.  After two weeks of negotiations, the nearly 200 nations assembled in Nagoya, Japan, decided set aside more of the Earth’s surface as natural preserve. The decision hardly guarantees safe passage for the world’s threatened species through the perilous 21st century; their safe-zones have been limited to 17% of the planet’s land area, and 10% of its seas. Presumably, this means that humanity has essentially decided to use 83% of all land and 90% of the sea for agro-industrial purposes.  All that human use will continue to have rather enormous impacts both on the systems on which those nature preserves depend — stable climate, balanced nutrient cycles, non-acidic seas, etc. — as well as on life inside the preserves themselves. Persistent toxins and renegade human-hacked DNA do not stop at signs that say, “Nature Preserve.”

Still, it is a real victory, since the starting point had been 1% of the sea and 10% of the land preserved all things non-human. Hope is in the air, as the world careens toward another round of climate talks in Mexico. If agreement was possible on biological diversity (including agreements on how to share the Earth’s genetic heritage), perhaps something positive is possible now.

This decision was not a foregone conclusion. The Copenhagen Climate Summit had taught the world that even when heads of state come together after years of preparation, ultra-loud scientific alarm bells, and very high economic stakes on the table (all those factors were present in Nagoya as well, though with many fewer heads of state), they can still effectively decide not to save the planet — at least not just yet.

Of course, much of the implementation of the agreement will depend on voluntary action. Nations will have to actually do what they have now agreed to do.  A host of economic actors ranging  from large corporations who harvest logs to individual fishermen hunting down the last glass eels will all have to play by the newly agreed rules. Pessimists — and when we are talking about biodiversity, it is very hard not to be one — will find ample reason to continue worrying that we are doomed to continue witnessing the greatest species die-off since the end of the dinosaurs.

But the die-hard optimists — and when talking about saving life on Earth as we know, it is hard not to choose the path of vision and hard work we call optimism — will see this glass as 17% full instead of 83% empty.  The world chose, by consensus, to dramatically raise the bar on what was an acceptable minimum set-aside for all the creatures and plants on Earth who are not us, or agriculturally managed to feed us. We can be grateful for that, and hopeful that it is a positive (albeit modest) indicator of increasing human wisdom in our new role as planetary managers.

Why J.M. Coetzee may be the greatest living writer in the English language

If you were a novelist committed to writing great novels, in the literary sense, and you won the Nobel Prize, what would do?

Coetzee, who won the prize in 2003, keeps writing great novels.

I picked up his most recent, Summertime (2009), in an airport bookstore, and started reading it while waiting in line to board my flight from Stockholm to Riga.

I finished it the next evening. I did not read it compulsively every spare minute; no, I treated myself to it, to hunks of perfectly polished prose, twenty or thirty pages at a time, over the course of about thirty-six hours.

Summertime is a Coetzee novel about a novelist named “Coetzee.” How close is this novel about him-“self” to his real life? Not so close, at least on the surface, but that doesn’t matter. The novel is not really about Coetzee.

It’s about you.

That is, it is a novel about the reader, whatever reader is holding the book. For what Coetzee’s novels do is turn the book into a mirror.

By focusing his novels so relentless, even mercilessly on himself, Coetzee encourages — no, forces — the reader to consider his or her own life with the same unflinching gaze. It is like looking at a self-portrait by Rembrandt or Van Gogh; after a while, you stop seeing the painter, and notice that the painter is staring at you. You become self-conscious, in both senses of that interesting English phrase: self-aware, and a little uncomfortable.

Which is strangely comforting. To watch a great, Nobel-prize winning novelist turn all his powers of portraiture onto himself in such a way that he succeeds in tearing down the pedestal and conveying his own (or at least his alter-ego’s) flawed humanity, without sacrificing the mastery of his craft in any way, is inspiring. Mastery, Coetzee’s novels seem to say, should not require the perfection of the self. In some cases, perhaps in all, mastery includes, perhaps even requires, full acceptance of one’s partialness, woundedness, and occasional ridiculousness.

If you are worried that Summertime is some kind of autobiographical monologue, forget it. Part of the brilliance of the book is that Coetzee himself — that is, the character “Coetzee” — is practically absent from it, even while being its central character. The text is presented as though it were a collection of notes and interview transcripts. The notes are taken from “Coetzee’s” (fictional, even if they are real) journals, from a period in the 1970s when “he” was living with his father in South Africa. The interviews have been conducted by “Coetzee’s” biographer, an Englishman identified only as Mr. Vincent.

“Coetzee” himself is dead.

Most of the stories in Summertime are not about “Coetzee”, but about the women and men who knew him well during this period. In describing him to the dead-great-author’s biographer, they are unanimous in their harsh verdict: the man was scarcely a man. He was wooden. Far from gifted. Remote. Odd. Sometimes (here is the word again) ridiculous. This remoteness leaves a kind of vacuum in the text, which they fill with stories of their own lives. Thus, Summertime becomes a character study, in a triple sense: it is a study of these characters (including “Coetzee”); it is the study of “character” and how and why our character gets formed the way it does, influenced by geography and history and family; and it is the study of character in the literary sense — that is, the process of creating character. Literary characters are, by definition, non-existent. By turning himself, the great novelist J.M. Coetzee, into a non-existent and personally remote character named “John Coetzee,” we not only have the opportunity to watch the artist at work, the way we see the brushes in Rembrandt’s self-painted hands. We are forced to ask: and how would I paint myself?

On the surface, Summertime is almost an historical novel, on the smallest possible scale: five people’s lives, set against the sere background of South Africa in the 1970s and the equally dry, bookish writer with whom they were intimate on various levels. Through them, we see deeply into the ambiguous good-heartedness of White South Africans in the heyday of modern Apartheid. What astonishes is what’s missing: even for those to whom the morality of their culture is at least deeply questionable, the Blacks and Coloureds are practically invisible. The “Coetzee” on whom Mr. Vincent asks them to focus their attention certainly tries to be visible, both as character and as a human actor in their drama, with his stubborn determination to break the taboo on Whites doing their own manual labor, and his ridiculous (the word again) attempts to make erotica out of Schubert. But he tries a bit too hard, and comes up short.

Summertime, the novel, does not try too hard or come up short. Every sentence has the quality of being chiseled out of a willing piece of rock, rock just aching to be turned into sculpture. And yet the resulting sculpture manages to be not just alive, but fleshy, while still remaining rock and something that will persist in its identity and increase in its perceived value for tens or hundreds of years. Writing in the shadow of his own acknowledged greatness, scribbling on the back side of a Nobel medal, J.M. Coetzee continues to show us what great literature can do: enlighten.