All posts by Alan AtKisson

Writer, songwriter, public servant, dedicated to advancing sustainable development, based in Stockholm

Can a Glass of Orange Juice in Sweden be “Climate Smart”?

Sometimes you just wince.

I’m complicit, of course. I bought the juice. I like the juice.

And of course, I routinely wonder at the general sustainability of shipping orange juice (and a lot of other stuff) around the planet, using fossil fuels. It doesn’t seem quite right. There are a lot of things that “don’t seem quite right” that I just don’t do, since I  worry about climate change. But I do buy orange juice. It somehow falls into the category of small things, essential things, that are somehow (there’s that word again) okay — like wine from Australia, or the occasional tomato in winter.

And yet I couldn’t help but wince when, during our morning routine, I read the back of the package of “Eco-Juice” concentrate:

“Jo® Juice is as climate-smart you can get. No water is transported unnecessarily and the little package [a Tetrapak 0.2 liter box] gets reused as cardboard. A Jo plus fresh water gives you a liter of tasty ecological [organic] orange juice.”

Somehow, this just doesn’t seem right.

First of all, it would depress me to believe that a box of orange juice concentrate is the most climate-smart solution for a breakfast drink here in Sweden. We do have lots of berries here in Sweden, most of them growing wild, which is exceedingly “ecological”.  We also have many other local sources of Vitamin C, such as rosehips.  (A thick brew of “rosehip soup” used to be more popular here. My wife likes to drink it sometimes; my children won’t touch the stuff. They like orange juice.)

Second, “no water is transported unnecessarily” dodges the point that it is mostly water that is being transported. And that little word “unnecessarily” suggests that transporting some water, in the form of orange juice, is in fact necessary. Desperately necessarily. More necessary than not dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Somehow.

Third, the reuse of the package is hardly smart; it’s just standard. It would be stupid *not* to reuse the package, but it should not qualify as smart to downcycle a box of orange juice into cardboard. Smart would be a package that cycles around endlessly in continuous use, takes itself back to the factory between refillings, and, oh, I don’t know, absorbs CO2 out of the atmosphere while keeping your windows clean. Somehow.

Then there is the ecological/organic bit. Well, I’m a big fan of the ancient, pre-pesticide, naturally-fertilized farming techniques we call “ecological.” But these oranges were grown in Brazil. I’m glad for the Brazilian orchard workers and surrounding ecosystems that their exposure to bad stuff was minimized. But once again, these oranges had to travel a long way to get to the middle of the Scandinavian peninsula. Quite a few things were done to the climate along the way, involving ships and trucks and packaging plants, and few of these things should qualify as “smart.”

I am getting increasingly worried about the way we eco-label products. Maybe consumer items like this could be labeled, “Relatively less climate-stupid.” There are a lot of products that do deserve to be called “relatively less stupid,” or even “much less stupid,” where the designers and growers and companies involved have taken serious steps to reduce environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions.

But there are not so many products like this that are really smart. Not yet.

Maybe I’ll check out those rosehips again.

Launching “The Life Thief”

Today I took a dive into the Twitterverse — the “Twitter Universe,” the new online parallel reality of 140-character phrases with their followers, @s, cross-links to Facebook, and a vast number of other particles with strange names and functions that I barely understand. Or actually, don’t really understand. The Twitterverse reminds of the science book I’m reading now (“The Origins of the Future,” by John Gribbin, a great explanation of the big questions that scientists, and especially physicists and astronomers, are wrestling with), with its strange quarks and baryons and up and down spins, entangled over vast distances …

What I did was, I launched a Twitter novel. You can follow the novel here:

And read the Preface, and the general explanation of this project (how the novel will build up over time — built of Twitter particles, its growth driven by the engagement of readers in a symbiotic relationship), and read the complete chapters as they get finished, here:

What’s it about? A thief, of course. And life.

More than that, I won’t say:  you have to read the (and here come some inevitable quotation marks) “book”.

Recommended: “A Voyage Long and Strange”

As an American living permanently in another country (and having taken dual citizenship here in Sweden), the United States of America looks increasingly strange and wondrous as the years go by.  My neighbors talk of a Swedish envy of Americans:  “We all want to be Americans, don’t we?” said my daughter’s playmate’s papa the other day.  On closer questioning, it was clear he was referring to a certain image of Americans — enterprising, self-reliant, sociable — that some people here see as a contrast to Swedish group-think, caution, and social reserve.  I doubt that my attempt to give him a more nuanced picture (New Englanders can make Swedes look gabby, not everyone starts companies, massive regional differences, great cultural diversity, etc. etc.) did much to dent his beloved American archetypes.

Of course, the features he was admiring are all part of the “wondrous” qualities of my country of birth.  In my own life, I certainly took advantage of the “you can do anything if you believe in yourself” philosophy that America beams around the world.  Like many Americans, I moved several times, reinventing my career and my private life in relation to new people, new geography, new dreams.  And if there is one thing I miss most about the country (aside from family and close friends), it is the wondrous nature on which that culture of inventiveness has drawn, over the centuries, for both inspiration and resources.  (Of course nature in Sweden has its own wondrous charms; I am quite happy here.)

But the strangeness of America is usually very well hidden behind the wonder, and the myths that underpin that wonder — such as the myth that America was settled by folks like the Pilgrims, dour, hard-working, willing to sacrifice, feasting with the Indians in thanksgiving for the bounty of the land — are so deep-rooted that I keep getting surprised by how much effort it takes to stop believing them myself.  Example:  just last year, at Thanksgiving, I told my kids the story of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims, turkey, etc.  But the word “Pilgrim,” it turns out, is a 19th century invention; the actual “Pilgrims” certainly did not call themselves that.  There’s no telling what they ate, but turkey is not recorded; succotash (a stew of whatever-meat-you-have, plus corn) is more likely. Nor were these first New Enganders terribly representative of the Europeans who flung themselves upon the Eastern shore of this new (to them) continent, dying by the thousands, but so numerous and persistent that they finally built up into that wave of Manifest Destiny that carried settlement all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

For a wondrously enlightening and entertaining review of what actually happened between 1492, when Columbus got famously lost and stumbled into the islands we now call the Bahamas, and the early 1600s, when a steady stream of boats began dislodging English settlers into the plague-cleared areas north of Cape Cod, I highly recommend Tony Horwitz’s 2008 bestseller, “A Voyage Long and Strange.”  Horwitz stopped by Plymouth Rock one day, and realized that even he — a history major, a Pulitzer Prize-winning history author — had no idea what the real story was. So he spent three years following the trail of conquistadors, captured Indians, lazy minor nobles, and the whole amazing cast of characters that makes up the true history of the early European settlement of America.

I was reading up on this history in preparation for a new book, about the future.  It turns out that if you want to understand where dreams of the future come from — especially the American dream — you have to know a fair amount about the past. Which I don’t.  So I’m devouring history books lately, as though they were the latest news.  Which, for me, they are.

Of all the books I’ve devoured in the last year, “A Voyage Long and Strange” was far and away the closest thing to a page-turner. If you are American, or just interested in this country and its wondrous power to mesmerize, inspire, infuriate, and otherwise stimulate this world of ours, please read it.  (Then, if you get more serious, read the notes for the excellent summaries of scholarly references and sources.)  It will at least help you, as it helped me, understand something of the strange and wondrous compulsion that drove people to bet their lives — and the lives of countless indigenous peoples — on peopling a brand new continent.

Eco-House, Normal House

AtKisson House from the front - workers install the final piece, grating to a French balcony

A Little Weblog Essay about Our New House, and its Various Environmental and Sustainable Features and Benefits

This week my family moves into a new house that we have just finished building — or rather, that the builders have just finished building, financed by the proceeds on the sale of our previous apartment (we sold it a year and a half ago, just before the financial crisis, and have been renting a little place since then).  We have the additional help of a loan from our local bank, to whom we will be paying interest for years and years to come.  But at the moment, looking at the now-complete physical realization of a dream, this financial commitment seems more than worth it.

The house is our design (drawn by my wife, Kristina AtKisson), from floor to roof, and we’ve tried think “eco” and “sustainable” every step of the way.  At the same time, we wanted to build a “normal” house.  This has always been our ambition:  to demonstrate how normal it is to be sustainable.

So, from the outside, there is nothing about this house that says “green.”  You can’t tell by looking at it.

What’s so green and sustainable about this house?  Here comes the virtual tour …

A Good Piece of Land

We start with the lot itself. We chose a southwest-facing slope, which means we will get the benefit sunlight for much of the year.  This will bring needed heat and light in spring and fall, reducing our energy costs.  (Nobody in Sweden gets much sun in the winter.)  You can bet we’ll be growing some vegetables, probably in terraced plots.  And right behind our house, on the top of the hill, is preserved natural land.  Our backyard is berries, trees, a small pond, and the little forts built by day-care and school kids who come there to play.

Efficiency in Overall Form

Then there is the shape of the house:  cubic, with a peaked roof, which is close to spherical as you can get (a sphere being the best shape from an energy-and-thermodynamics perspective).

Sunlight Streaming Through the Windows

On sun-facing side, there are lots of highly-efficient triple-glazed doors and windows to let in that sunlight when it’s around, and hold in the heat when it’s not.  Those windows are also “bio-clean” glass, which means we’re using a tiny bit of bio-mimicry in that product, as the structure of the glass will naturally shed a lot of the dirt that would otherwise accumulate.

Good Wood

The house is made of wood, and the wood itself comes — to the highest degree we could specify — from Swedish forests managed under Forestry Stewardship Council’s sustainability standards.  Most of the framing etc. is FSC certified; other bits, like the floor, are from vendors who use FSC lumber, but have not bothered to get formal certification (which costs them money).  About three-quarters of Sweden’s commercial forests are managed in this way.

The ComfortZone heat exchanger, next to the downstairs shower

Heat from … Heat

To heat the water for showers, laundry, and the heating pipes that run through the cement under the wood floors, we have a heat exchanger that pulls the warmth out of the air and wastewater and re-circulates that warmth into the house (and adds new heat as necessary from electricity). When we showed the specs on this unit to our builder, he was amazed:  it has the same efficiency as a groundwater-based heat exchange system, which extracts heat from deep wells.  We’ll occasionally add more heat to the air with an efficient, enclosed, wood-burning fireplace as well (also eco-labeled); and that heat will also get re-circulated through this system.

Not “Passive,” but “Active” — with Almost the Same Efficiency

We decided not to go for the increasingly popular “passive house” design, which means your home heating needs (though not your hot water) are covered by body heat and waste heat from the lights and machines in your house.  For one thing, we don’t have so many lights or machines on usually; and the ones we have are highly efficient.  We didn’t want to be dependent on these secondary heat sources.

But we do aim to achieve the same energy consumption levels of a passive house, by keeping the thermostats lower and generally thinking a lot about energy consumption.  And our walls are extra thick, extra tight, and extra insulated.  (Source of the insulation material:  recycled glass.)  The walls are not quite as thick as for a passive house, but that was a trade-off we made in order to increase the light coming in through the windows.  (I confess:  quite a number of decisions were made with aesthetics and comfort in mind first, and environmental performance second.)

Somewhere, a Windmill is Making our Electrons … but Someday the Sun Will Too

As our source of electricity, we purchase certified wind energy off the grid.  We do this through a major supplier, rather than smaller, alternative wind cooperative (there are a number of these in Sweden), in order to add our voice to the “normal” market demand signal:  “Make more renewable energy, please!”

But we’re thinking ahead, and we had the builders prepare the house for future installation of solar photovoltaic panels.  The hookups are all ready; we just decided to build the house first, and take our time with studying the solar energy options and watching how the technology develops.  (I’ve heard some really exciting things about new solar cells.)

Eco-labeled kitchen, and eco-labeled fireplace

A Green Kitchen

Actually, it’s white, and stainless steel … but all the cabinets, counter, the faucet etc. are officially eco-labeled (“environmentally marked” as we say in Swedish).  So are the windows and the front door and anything else that we could find with an eco-labeled option available.

And All the Best, Efficient, Ultra-Normal Equipment

We installed the usual (for our part of the world) washer, dryer, refrigerator, dishwasher and stove — and they all have the highest energy ratings available on the Swedish market.  The fridge has a futuristic looking “Save Energy” reminder built right into the door. The dryer we’ll use only when line-drying doesn’t work, and the dishwasher … well, I’m the lazy one in the family who wanted a dishwasher in the first place, and produced research data showing that the total energy consumption and environmental impact per dish was lower than with hand-washing.

Don’t Forget the Sweaters and Socks and …

Really, we like wearing sweaters inside in the winter.  It’s cozy.  It’s good for you.  And T-shirt-temperatures inside a house just feel weird when there is eighty centimeters of snow outside your window. There are lots of other little tricks to reducing energy demand, and we try to use all of them, like not draining all the bath water out right away, but waiting until it gives off all its heat first.  (The heat exchanger grabs even more heat from the room-temperature water before it departs the premises, re-circulating even more heat back into the house.)

So, What’s *Not* So Eco About this House?

Well, building a house is hardly an energy efficient, environmentally friendly affair. Trees get cut down.  Rock gets blown up and rubble gets moved around with heavy machinery. Delivery trucks come, garbage trucks go, and workers come and go in their large, petroleum-driven vehicles.

And there’s plenty of stuff in our house that is not exactly on the approved list among hard-core greens.  Take the aluminum roof:  it’s durable, it looks great, but we don’t know where the aluminum came from — and we do know that wherever it came from, it had a huge environmental impact.  (Industry people tell us the aluminum in the roof is from recycled sources, but we haven’t verified that yet.)  Some folks would also scoff at the foam in the rear support wall, a petroleum product; bit it also happens to be a great insulator, and it’s keeping that carbon dioxide bound up for as long as the house stands.

Neighbors to us who built even greener used organic insulation; but we chose the ordinary mineral variety, scared off by one friend’s bad experience with rotting insulation, and pleased to learn that the source of the insulation fibers was recycled glass.  “Organic” doesn’t always mean “sustainable.”

Of course the cement for the foundation has its big carbon emissions price.  But really, the biggest climate criminal in our house-building story is not the house.

It’s the car.

I’ve written about our car before:  an 85% ethanol-driven Ford Flexifuel.  We made so many extra trips in that car during the building process — because we lived farther away from school temporarily, and because we had so many extra errands to run — that I suspect a serious analysis would show our increased car use to be one of the largest sources of increased carbon emissions, even compared to other parts of the building process.  After we have moved in, and the house shifts into “use” phase (see below), the car is sure to be our biggest source of environmental impact, because the impact of the house itself — driven on renewable energy — will be pretty close to zero.

That’s why my wife wants to just get rid of the car.  Again, I’m the resistant one, arguing (okay, I’m stretching it) that we at least need to able to respond to emergencies, get to the fairly-distant hospital quickly, etc.  Maybe I just like knowing that I can go grocery shopping at 8:30 at night, when the buses are few and far between.

But we’re seriously looking at abandoning the car once we move back into our neighborhood and settle back into our regular routines of bus, bike, and walking transport.  Or (this is more realistic, given my confessed laziness), getting a plug-in electric hybrid once they come on the market.  In any case, we want our car-related carbon emissions, already reduced thanks to our Swedish-Brazilian ethanol, to go down drastically.

Because It’s the Use Phase that Really Counts

In life cycle analysis of consumer products, it’s very often the use phase — the many years of actual living in a house, wearing a garment, driving a car — that has by far the largest environmental impact.  We’re going to estimate our climate impact for the actual building process, and take steps to “neutralize” it as best we can.  But we’ll focus mostly on living in ways that reduce our climatic and environmental impact in the long run — not just with regard to the house, but also with what we buy, and what daily choices we make.

The distance to my office, for example, is going to be dramatically reduced … to about 15 meters.  We’ve built a small free-standing cottage in back of the lot, by the forest, that I’ll use as my main office and studio.  Wind energy will drive my computers and internet link (though not the internet itself, of course), and I’ll be running more and more of my trainings and meetings via the web, from there.

In Conclusion …

We’re not trying to be eco-saints; we’re trying to be eco-normal, in a suburban Swedish context.  The whole point of building this house was to be able to live closer to the natural world (I love having a forest right out the back door), and closer to our sustainability values.  It was a big investment, but we also think the overall running costs in financial terms will be the same, or lower, compared to where we were living before.

And of course, the quality of life will be higher.  Our daughters are excited to have their own rooms for the first time.  And I’m looking forward to waking up every day in my wife’s truly lovely architectural design, looking out at a giant old oak and a mature (tasty) apple tree, in a community of good friends and neighbors.

Both Kristina and I are well aware, maybe even achingly aware, that what is super-efficient “eco-normal” for us — a small-to-medium sized house by modern Swedish standards, in a normal Stockholm suburban area — is still super-luxury compared to most of the world.  So this house, the dream that took over two years to convert into a reality, will be our “home base” for our continued work to try to help make that world greener, fairer … and hopefully, more sustainable.

The Earthquake in Copenhagen: Reflections on CoP-15 and its Aftermath

After attending CoP-15 (as a UN Observer, on temporary assignment to the Division for Sustainable Development, though of course I write entirely in my individual capacity), talking to numerous delegates and observers and NGO activists during the event, and reading over a hundred articles on the process and the outcome, I have come to an unsurprising conclusion.

The world will never be the same.

But it’s the way that the world will never be the same that interests me, for the events of the past two weeks in Copenhagen signal not just a change in global climate politics, but a change in global politics, period.  The primary outcome of these negotiations is not just the Copenhagen Accord, the relative merits and demerits of which will now be debated endlessly in the months and years ahead. The second, and likely more important, outcome is the global realization that the balance of things on this planet has shifted irrevocably.  Copenhagen marks a phase shift in the way the world sees, understands, and governs itself.

Much has already been written (and much more will be written) about how the result of the negotiations boiled down to a dialogue between China and the United States, though this was something that longtime observers had already been saying was the case, months before CoP-15.  The constellation of the instantly-famous eleventh-hour meeting between Wen, Zuma, Lula, and Singh (the heads of state for China, South Africa, Brazil and India respectively), into which Obama barged uninvited to make the final deal, also communicates something all by itself. The absence of any European country from the conversation that ultimately mattered most ­– not to mention the absence of Russia, Japan, and all the other countries — was, to say the least, widely noticed.  It is the height of understatement to note that in the end, no one can accuse the European nations, among them the world’s former colonial powers, of imposing their will on the conference’s outcome.

While those closing, dramatic moments in Copenhagen were definitive and emblematic, the process leading up to them was already quite revealing. Many complaints have been heard  (and will be heard) about the CoP-15 process, the delays, the procedural wrangling. Strangely, I found it all a sign of progress — at least, from the standpoint of equity and democracy in global governance.  The CoP-15 process reminded of nothing so much as the U.S. Senate, where all U.S. states have equal representation, regardless of their size, population, or wealth, and every Senator has an equal capacity to disrupt or smooth the proceedings with filibusters or smart behind-the-scenes deal-making.  This makes for challenges when trying to take tough decisions, but it is, in purely political terms, highly democratic.  (The UNFCCC goes one better and operates by consensus, meaning that every nation’s “vote” is equally powerful, at least in theory.)

My colleague and friend (also my client for the UN assignment mentioned above) Tariq Banuri made an interesting observation during one of the final side events, which was also the last in a series of panel discussions and debates on the general topic of geo-engineering.  The subtopic of this last panel was the governance of geo-engineering — not only the doing of it, but even the research about it.  Who decides, and how?  What governance structures exist to steer research (much less action) on whether we can, or should, try to meddle directly with the amount of solar radiation coming into the Earth, or the amount of heat that is trapped here?  Speaking for himself, and not for his Division or the UN, Tariq noted that the world already has a governance structure, with a parliament where global laws are debated (the UN General Assembly and related other bodies, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), but no executive branch.  It’s as though Jefferson had won the arguments over federalism during the founding debates on the US Constitution, and all executive power had been devolved to the states, said Tariq.  This is how the UN functions.  Its “global parliament” can pass “laws,” but the execution (or even acknowledgment) of these “laws” is left to the individual countries, acting in their individual executive capacities.

We saw this on perfect display at CoP-15 in the negotiations between China and the US on the issue of reporting and transparency.  “Sovereignty” was the stated reason for China’s deep reluctance to agree to independent monitoring and verification of its emissions.  In other words, to offer a free interpretation, China was saying, “we have our own executive branch, and we resist these world federalist attempts to strengthen centralized global governance with extra-national control mechanisms.”

We saw this anti-federalist, sovereignty-asserting behavior also on display in the overall dialogue among the countries.  Old categories like “developed” and “developing” and “emerging market” appeared less and less relevant with each passing day.  Sudan, the Maldives, France, Indonesia … it would be impossible to say which of these was most “powerful” during CoP-15.  They participated as true equals, with President Nasheed of the Maldives probably clocking more media time, for example, than President Sarkozy of France, whose media savvy is legendary.

Of course, the categories of “developed” and “developing” remain essential when talking about the flow of climate funds, issues of equity, vulnerability, adaptation, etc.  But I am talking here about the democratic process of the world.  Just as a blustery Senator from a relatively poor Southern state in the US can become a pivotal figure in the US national political dialogue, the CoP-15 process established once and for all that when it comes to a global negotiation and deliberation process, even the smallest or economically most marginal nation can find a powerful and influential voice.

The US Senate is a better model for understanding post-Copenhagen geopolitics than, for example, the European Union, because despite the obvious dissimilarities between countries formerly classed as “West European” and “East European,” these continental halves are still more similar than different.  The countries of Europe share a common, interlinked history (religious, cultural, economic, political) going back millennia.  At the global level, however, real commonality of history is a new phenomenon, and plays out against a backdrop of much greater diversity.  This is a situation more like that in the United States (though, of course, even more extreme); and therefore the dynamics are more like those on display, historically, in the U.S. Senate.

That increasing global democracy should go hand-in-hand with reshuffling of power concentration into the “G2” (US and China) or “G2+3” (add India, Brazil, and South Africa) — constellations that were seen as decisive in Copenhagen — is not a contradiction. Both phenomena can co-exist, and geo-engineering provides a sobering example.  On the one hand, the great powers will ultimately be forced into more extensive governance decisions regarding whether, and how, to examine the last-ditch planet-hacking options we call geo-engineering.  In the meantime, however, several commentators have recently pointed out that some geo-engineering interventions are so cheap and easy, any single country of moderate size could decide to undertake them — the ultimate in “democratic empowerment” in the context of global environmental governance.  As with nuclear weapons proliferation, even the theoretical possibility of unilateral geo-engineering means that no country with the capacity to do it can be ignored, any more than the world can ignore North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Dynamics like this mean that global governance on issues of climate will never be fully reducible to a conversation among the largest and most economically powerful states.  Therefore an inclusive global engagement of all actors in this drama is a not optional, but mandatory.

Another unexpected outcome of Copenhagen concerns the enhanced role of the press when it comes to understanding what is happening in this increasingly complex globalized democracy. Many today talk about the decline of official news agencies, and the rise of blogging or even Twitter as signs of a new, dispersed information economy. Copenhagen crushes this myth, for during CoP-15 everyone, everywhere, probably including the delegation members themselves, was dependent on the news — professionally gathered, well-written, carefully edited, and broadcast as soon as possible in widely accessible form.  There was no other serious way to know what was going on.  Only the global news agencies and largest press organs had both the access and the capacity that allowed them to stitch together a reasonable picture, and present it in relatively coherent narrative.  (An official translator told me that, even with direct access and participation in the discussions as they were occurring, it was impossible to understand exactly what was going on.)  Those inside the Bella Center were getting their information from the latest AP or BBC or other posting, as much as they were from watching the closed circuit television cameras or whispering in the halls.  The bloggers of this world may be important for airing underreported facts or building the body of global opinion.  But the press is, more than ever, the entire world’s Fourth Estate, and therefore indispensable.

As for the Copenhagen Accord itself, I believe the world is being a bit quick in jumping to judgments, both positive and negative.  Only time will tell whether the agreement was truly the best that was possible under very difficult circumstances, and therefore a major step forward, and therefore something that we can and will build on in the near and mid-term future … or whether it was an unmitigated (pardon the pun) disaster, as many already claim.  The Accord’s major flaws have already been acknowledged by several of its chief last-minute architects, President Obama noticeably among them (and Chinese Premier Wen noticeably not). The most troubling among these flaws, from the perspective of science, may be the obvious delay that will likely result from this Accord in terms of when the world will peak in its emissions and begin finally to head down, instead of continuing to head up.  Every year of delay in “bending the emissions curve” means that the slope of the curve on the other side of that peak must be steeper.  This is a mathematical way of saying that the longer we wait to start reducing, the faster we must reduce, once we start.

If, that is, we wish to keep the global temperature from rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial normal during the remaining ninety years of this century.

That, dear friends and readers, is a very big “if,” because it is attached to a very difficult and not-fully-shared “wish.”  To want to save human civilization and natural ecosystems as we have come to know them, we must believe that these things actually are in danger.  Even if we do believe they are in danger, we must care enough — as a big, complex, democratic, geopolitically fractious, yet somehow unified world — to take the mammoth actions required to save them.  We must be willing and able, as a world, to take coordinated action of a kind never before seen on this planet.

It is the scale of this “must” that ultimately gives me hope after Copenhagen, and causes me to hold back both harsh judgment and optimistic praise.  That, and the rather open-ended quality of that word “We,” which cannot be reduced to national leaders, national governments, or the United Nations.  This “We must” is the most challenging thing the human species has ever attempted, and it is not going away.  This “We must” involves everyone, everywhere; and it will be with us for a lifetime. Of course the negotiations over the first-ever comprehensive, legally binding global treaty to transform the world’s management of energy, forests, and climate-related development patterns were dramatic, confusing, problematic, and disappointing for many; it would be something like a miracle had they not been.

The Earthquake in Copenhagen truly marked the end of one historical era, and the beginning of a new one.  It is an era of more democratic global governance (at least in the sense of how power, actual and perceived, is dispersed among nations).  An era of continuous struggle to understand what is happening to our planet, and continuous effort to share that understanding.  An era of nations being forced to collaborate, more and more closely, and over several decades, on planetary management.  In the hindsight of future history (especially environmental history), CoP-15 will likely loom large indeed as an inflection point, a time when everything changed — or rather, was finally seen by all as changed.

As in all earthquakes, some structures were probably destroyed during this event. But as in all earthquakes, these were mostly the older, more rickety structures — mental models and international patterns that have outlived their usefulness.

And as in all earthquakes, there will be a time of mourning losses, regretting the “we-should-have-knowns,” and blaming those who, after the fact, are seen as not having prepared adequately for the inevitable. But soon, very soon, the rebuilding will begin.

And for that rebuilding to succeed, all of us will need to pitch in and help.  Indeed, pitching in is not really an option.

It’s a “We must.”

Whatever Works: Of Green New Deals, Marshall Plans, and Energy Revolutions in Copenhagen at CoP-15

A few months ago I received a telephone call from Tariq Banuri, head of the UN’s Division for Sustainable Development.  At the time, I was wandering around the building site where my wife and I are constructing an eco- and climate-friendly house, outside of Stockholm.  “Can you talk now?” said Tariq.  I sat myself down amid the FSC-certified lumber.  “Sure, of course.”

Fast forward.

Today, I find myself on the floor of the Bella Center outside Copenhagen.  I am literally on the floor, sitting and waiting for my letter of accreditation to arrive, physically, from the Under-Secretary-General in New York.  I have a UN badge now, having recently finished work with Tariq and his colleagues on a new strategy paper promoting much-larger-scale investments in renewable energy, as soon as possible, as a way of bringing the price down much more quickly, spreading wind- and solar-power to the developing countries, displacing a lot of fossil-fuel plants that would otherwise be built while bringing green energy — and expanded green energy markets — to the world, rich and poor.

It’s an “accelerate sustainability” strategy, the embodiment, in practical terms, of the “Hope Graph” that I use in my presentations, and in my book The ISIS Agreement. What can we do to speed up in the race against time, and beat the contestant called “Collapse,” who appears to have a couple-of-decades head start?  Here’s one thing:  push down the price of renewables, fast, with a global feed-in policy and funding initiative.  (See  This version is called a “Global Green New Deal for Climate, Energy, and Development.” It could be called a dozen other things.  More on that below.

As I sit waiting on the floor, swirling above and past me is the in-flow to CoP-15, the great climate summit in Copenhagen. A few familiar faces go by, and I get up off the floor to greet Christopher Flavin of Worldwatch Institute; he’s speaking “about 20 times” at various events in the dense orbits of this gargantuan proceeding.  Across the room, Hunter Lovins is talking her way in, somehow. People of every conceivable nationality shuffle, one step at a time, toward the accreditation desks. I continue to sit, and catch up on email via the free wi-fi.

Outside, lines are lengthening.  Tonight I will learn that thousands of people with NGO status waited up to seven hours in the cold before just giving up.  And it will get worse from here, because the UN is forced to reduce the number of spots available to observers in the coming days, as the heads of state start to arrive.

I go back to the UN staff desk.  Magically, my entrance badge appears.  Electronic word has preceded the physical letter (which does arrive the next day). And in I go.


Inside, “cavernous” does not begin to describe it.  Multi-cavernous.  The only real metaphor I can come up with is a giant shopping mall, with throngs of people walking up and down the central hallways.  But instead of shopping for stuff, they are shopping for and selling ideas, opinions, agendas, concerns, hopes, analyses, reports, drafts …  A sea of booths offers a flood of documents (some electronic, stuffed in their gigabytes onto give-away pin drives).  Hundreds of computers serve the press in their own media center, while dozens of cafes keep the cappuccino and sandwiches flowing. Occasionally some activists walk by dressed as trees or polar bears, but most people are in business attire, rushing somewhere, or sitting in clusters, or sitting with the laptops and phones.

You quickly become color-sensitized.  Pink badge:  the “Parties”, that is, members of the country delegations.  Blue badge:  UN staff (I have one of those).  Yellow badge, Non-Governmental Observers, the activists, academics, etc.  The truly important have a second badge; that second badge, which is definitely beyond my level in this pecking order, will become more and more important as the final days raise the ante on what’s happening.

My job here is simple:  circulate, meet people, talk, listen, pass copies of our paper.  Of course, since 10,000 other people are here to do the same sort of thing,that makes for an interesting dynamic.  But the reception is good:  Tariq Banuri, as head of the Division for Sustainable Development, is well known to the people in this milieu, so just mentioning his name as I hand over the paper smooths the first contact.

Since the actual negotiations are generally closed, even to blue-badge types like me, it’s all about networking here, and going to “side events,” i.e., panel presentations on relevant topics.  There are hundreds of options.  I visit a few of these, mostly to connect with the speakers afterwards and pass them this paper.  (There is not a lot of news at these events. But what is enlightening is to watch how fast the new things are picked up and repeated — like the ClimateInteractive scoreboard on the climate deal.) And of course, I run into a number of friends and colleagues — sustainability indicator expert Art Dahl, formerly of UNEP, and here with a religious delegation (he is Baha’i); Joe Alcamo, now Chief Scientist at UNEP; Johan Rockström of SEI, recently named “Swede of the Year” by Fokus magazine for his work on climate; and more.

And I make new friends (in the professional sense), especially at a dinner hosted by the Global Energy Assessment, which is chaired by Thomas B. Johansson.  It is a pleasure to meet folks, for example, whose data I’ve been using in the recent paper (Nakicenovic of IIASA) or who are working on topics I care about (Dulce Benke, working on bioenergy indicators for the UN Foundation).  While the phrase “Global Energy Assessment” may not sound super-exciting at first encounter, this is an exciting project, because it will map the pathway from today’s non-sustainable, climate-destroying energy system to a much better one.  Johansson, Bob Correll and others are asking our input on the project; but it turns out that they have quite good answers to most of the critical questions we toss at them — on topics like valuing the impact of energy access in developing countries, or accelerating feed-in tariffs and other working policy mechanisms.


And so I come to the title of this post, because it needs some explaining.  I’ll hope over lots of colorful details, including how I bumped into (literally) Al Gore and thus passed him a paper, or other chance encounters … and finally cut to the chase.

The paper we’ve released is called “A Global Green New Deal on Climate, Energy, and Development.”  It could have been called a number of other things, and they’ve all been on the list at one point or another:  Green Energy Revolution, Big Push on Renewables, Renewables Accelerator, Marshall Plan on Renewables, etc.

Why Global Green New Deal?  With its American references to Roosevelt, etc.?  Very simple:  this is language that the UN has already adopted, with approvals all the way up.  It’s consistent.  You’ll find other UN documents with “Global Green New Deal” badged on them.

But we could be talking Marshall Plans or Green Energy Revolutions, or anything that speaks of large-scale, global commitment, multi-faceted, fast transformation in the energy sector.

To repeat:  fast transformation, globally, in the energy sector.

I don’t care what you call it, so long as it happens.

“Changer pour Durer”: Change to Endure

“The French think differently,” said nearly every one of us who was not actually French. Of course, we said this to each other in French, so perhaps we were thinking differently too.

Patrick Viveret presenting at Cerisy-la-Salle, Sep 2009
Patrick Viveret presenting at Cerisy-la-Salle, Sep 2009

Last week (19-24 Sept 2009) I attended an inter-disciplinary colloquium at a castle in Normandy called Cerisy-la-Salle. The central massive stone structure (see photo at the end of this article), constructed in the 1600s to defend a Protestant family’s farm against the local Catholics, is complemented by newer buildings converted to bedrooms, work areas, and exhibition space. Since the 1920s, it has been host to series of cultural meetings and discussions — a series that is now decades old. The list of those who have been there is impressively long, and includes names like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, André Gide …

At Cerisy, for one week, 30-50 people live on the castle grounds and basically talk all day. This summer, the week-long “colloques” have apparently covered everything from the poetry of Rilke to the way science fiction affects the present day, to weightier social themes. Our colloquium, organized by researchers Nils Ferrand of the French institute Cenagref and Diana Mangalagiu of Reims Business School and Oxford University, was called “Changer pour Durer.” The word “durer” is the closest equivalent to “sustain” in French. Sustainable development, for example, is “développement durable,” which sounds like durable development in English. Which is pretty much what it sounds like in French, too.  “Durer” also carries the meaning “endure”, but without the same level of slightly negative overtones. “To last” might be another cut at it. With all these inexact searching for translations, there appear to be good reasons that French researchers — like Swedish ones — sometimes just use the English word “sustainability”. Perhaps the word durable leaves a less-than-satisfying feeling in the mind.

For to be satisfied in the mind, much as a good meal satisfies the palate, appeared to me a very French and lovely thing. Everyone takes a year of philosophy at the high school level in France, and philosophy is (by comparison to virtually any other Western country) astonishingly popular here. There is a popular philosophy magazine. There are hundreds of “Café Philo” meetings around the country, something like an open mike night for thinking, in local brasseries and coffee shops. Philosophers are almost nowhere in sight at most sustainable development seminars I attend; here, they were a major presence. It helped create the feeling that we were approaching familiar topics from an entirely different angle.

Of course, inter-disciplinary dialogue among philosophers and scientists and practitioners and computer model-builders etc. is not an everyday occurrence anywhere, not even in France, and in this way the dialogue at Cerisy on change and sustainability felt rather unique. Ideas that were not new to me still somehow felt new, because they were being expressed in French, and because they were being challenged and questioned by people in disciplines (like philosophy) that are usually not represented in the other meetings I attend — not even the very multi-disciplinary ones like the Balaton Group.

And there was a kind of clear and interesting tension, intellectually speaking, between the philosophers and the model-builders. The former essentially questioned the very premise of doing the latter — that is, building simplified models of the world using equations and computers. The model-builders seemed to think it was because the philosophers just did not understand what they were doing (“it’s as though they don’t *want* to understand” grumbled one scientist). The philosophers seemed to think the model-builders were remarkably and even naively uncritical of the potential impact of simplifying the world in this way, and then actually using the results to guide action in the world. It was not a tension that anyone tried to resolve; the French tradition emphasizes debate, not consensus. Good food and wine in the evening were the closest anyone came to a consensus.

Then there was the art/science debate, which was less tense, and more filled with something like envy or desire. Rosa Casado, a Spanish performance artist, presented some of her work and some carefully sought-out thoughts about her approach to it. (“I don’t usually talk about my work, I usually just do it.”) The scientific model-builders admitted, in the “debate” which followed, that they were increasingly wondering if they were doing science or art these days — for example, when they worked on-site in Sénégal with local farmers and a very participatory process. There was a great deal of intuition and empathetic feeling that had to go into making such a project successful; did this make it less “scientific,” and more “artistic”? “I have to confess I just don’t know anymore,” admitted one researcher.

Another polarity was around age, for this mostly middle-aged-to-elderly (at 49 I was at a sort of median) group of French-speaking thinkers was greatly enriched by the presence of a group of very engaged students or younger researchers. Why, these younger folks wondered in the evenings, are all these older folks speaking about the future so pessimistically? This, I heard from others, was very disconcerting to them since, after all, it was *their* future the older folks were talking about.

For me, personally, the whole experience was enormously enriching. It was the first time I’d presented my work in French (a scary trial for me, probably a chore for the listeners, but a challenge in which I took enormous joy for some reason). The interest in things like the ISIS Method among these new colleagues was gratifying. But it was also the first time I was attending such a seminar, since I don’t know when, without having any organizational responsibilities. I could just sit, and listen, and learn, and think, and occasionally ask a question. What luxury. Oh, and one evening I was invited to play the guitar and perform my songs; it turns out that French-speaking professionals working on sustainability also like to hear English songs with titles like “Exponential Growth” and “Dead Planet Blues.” I brought out some new songs too, like “Damn the Discount Rate” and “Set the World Right Again,” both of which had never been heard outside of a Balaton Group meeting. And with help, I managed a translation of my song “Balaton” into French as well.

In addition to the general learning and some improved French capacity, I came back with two new songs in the works (both in French), a huge new professional project clearly framing itself in my mind, a great deal of inspiration for my next book-writing project … and most importantly, some new friends and colleagues.

I note that I have reported at length here on Cerisy, but have not even written a word yet about the annual Balaton Group meeting in Hungary a few weeks ago — which was also a terrific high point, the best meeting experience we’ve had in a few years perhaps. Many important things happened there. But at Balaton I have, as I note, organizational responsibilities. I have (and happily share now) the role of President, so my experiences and reflections are necessarily group-oriented ones to a large degree. At Cerisy, I could indulge myself, individually, as a mere participant-learner-listener-writer-singer. It was a like holiday for mind, with excellent company in a wonderful, stimulating environment. I felt “changed” in ways that will help me to “endure” as well — for we must endure if we are to keep making change. To the organizers of Changer pour Durer, Nils Ferrand and Diana Mangalagiu, I publicly extend my warmest gratitude.


[Photo: Coffee break at Changer pour Durer, Cerisy-la-Salle, France, Sept 2009]


A Year Without Coffee

FirstCoffeeAug2009I am sitting in my favorite cafe in Stockholm’s south side, laptop out, sipping on a strong cafe latté … for the first time in a year.
It tastes wonderful.

To those of you who love coffee, I can almost recommend taking a year-long fast, just to rediscover how wonderful this drink truly is.
But I jump ahead of myself. If this stuff is so wonderful, why in the world did I quit?

Confessions of a Coffee Addict

As recently as ten years ago, I rarely drank coffee. When I did, it was one cup, once in a while. Moving to Sweden in 2001 changed that. Soon I was contributing to the national statistics (Sweden ranks a global second in coffee consumption per capita, after Finland) with 4-7 cups a day.

Having babies and the constant sleep deprivation helped drive that big jump, as did the long Swedish winters. Cultural factors also played a part: Swedes drink coffee in an almost ritualistic way, often even taking two cups after dinner. Or at least, that’s how it is in my circle of family and friends here in Stockholm! (I extrapolate from this all too often.)
In my old neighborhood, I became known for always walking around the common areas and playground with a coffee thermos-cup in hand. Often I took one onto the bus with me. I ordered large coffees at the cafe, and if the refills weren’t free, I bought them. I used coffee to wake up in the morning, to get going in mid-day, to combat jet lag, to fend off that sad feeling that sometimes comes over one in February … and I soon realized I was thoroughly addicted to the stuff.

I know a little bit about addiction, having once been a counselor to heroin addicts. Coffee is a rather mild thing by comparison, but my need was no less real to me. And scary, in a way: how could I live without coffee?

Accidental Cold Turkey

One year and one day ago, we arrived home from our annual vacation trip to Gotland, where my coffee consumption — fueled by the leisure of being on parental leave for two months — had seemingly soared to new heights. I felt awash with coffee, and so, when we discovered there was no coffee in the house on our return, I did not feel compelled to rush out to the store and rectify the Problem. Let’s see if I can go a day without coffee, I thought. Let’s see how that feels.

It felt terrible. I am a person who never gets headaches. Ever — except when eating very cold foods too quickly, or after bumping my head. But I get none of that throbbing awfulness that most people take medication for, from time to time.

I had a headache. I felt a bit sleepy, even a little too-easily irritated. But on the other hand, I was still on holiday. I was just hanging out with my kids, and I made of a point of not being irritable with them. I ignored the headache.

The next day, it was still there. This I took as a real indicator that my addiction was quite real, and physical. So I resolved to go another day. And another. I wanted to see what would happen, how I would feel.

After about three days, the headache disappeared. After a week, the feeling of “need” disappeared. I got used to feeling a bit different: “Much calmer,” I’d tell people, when they asked about the difference. “But a little stupider.”

The latter was the most puzzling to me. Did coffee really make me feel smarter? Or just mentally faster? How would not having coffee in my system affect my work? My social life? My budget? (Cafe lattés are expensive!)

Thus was born my one-year experiment. I decided, in this sort of accidental evolutionary way, to take a year off from coffee. By then, it should be thoroughly out of my system — not just physically, but also emotionally, and socially. I would get used to saying “No, thanks,” and taking tea or something else instead. I would find out what life without coffee was really like, the whole year round (even in darkest winter).

And then, a year later, I would drink it again, just to see what the difference was.

That’s what I’m doing right now.

Oh, My, What a Difference

My whole face is a bit tingly. My mind is certainly tingly. I feel much more focused and determined and analytical. (It would have been good to have these feelings when the economic crisis started playing havoc with my company’s finances and marketing plan!)

Or … do I really feel these things? Is it the coffee? Or is the fact that I’m on my first day of work after our annual summer vacation, my mind rested and almost longing to work, with a lot of things to focus on and get done?

The physical tingling is definitely real: that’s coffee. My eyes dart around, following thoughts that skitter around the mind like hares … I don’t really remember having that feeling in the last year. Nor did I miss it! I enjoyed the calmer, slower rhythm of thought that I began to associate with being coffee-free. (I was never fully caffeine free. I drank tea once or twice a day, and even the occasionally caffeinated soft drink. But this was nothing like the caffeine shock that a double espresso seems to provide.)

Hmmm … now, it seems, I have a new “weapon” in my mental arsenal. As long as I don’t rebuild that addictive behavior pattern — and it is my firm intention not to, and to only drink coffee a few times a week — I can “use” it to speed up my thoughts and give myself, at least in subjective/illusory terms, a feeling of being more productive, sharp, and focused.

But there’s something else I notice, a kind of “mental cost” to this sped-up feeling … and that’s the speed itself. It’s as though the thoughts are moving *too* fast, more quickly than I can reflect on them. I can think, but I can’t think so easily about what I’m thinking. It’s a kind of “Just Do It,” or rather “Just think it” mentality. There seems less room for that questioning moment when I ask myself, “Am I on the right track?” For the train has already sped down the track it was on …

I’m sure the reader will guess that I am exaggerating my perceptions a bit here; but I am seriously searching my mental experience for differences, and I am certainly finding them. In this way, the experiment seems already to be a success. The question now is, can I moderate this usage, really test the difference in practice? Will anyone notice the difference? Will I?

The Fringe Benefits to One’s Conscience of a Year Without Coffee

As the foregoing attests, my experiment in coffee freedom was not a grand Act of Will, and there was no attempt in it to Make a Statement either. But as a fringe benefit, I did discover that my will power was strong enough to break, decisively, a genuine addiction. (We’ll see if it remains so, now that I’ve tasted the forbidden fruit again!) There is something comforting and even confidence building about that.

There are also the fringe benefits for the planet to consider — for surely giving up coffee generates some. The stuff is grown in plantations which, if not managed to preserve songbird biodiversity and protect peoples, are part of the juggernaut that is replacing nature with human production and consumption processes, and often impoverishing local folks in the process.

Then there are the preparation, packaging, and shipping processes, with their carbon footprints and their polluting emissions and such. For a year, at least, I did not contribute to these.

My family’s economy also benefited, since the tea I drank (often herbal) was cheaper, and I drank far less of it. This also reduced my personal energy consumption, since I boiled a lot less water.

And finally, the longer my experiment went on, the more I also saw the benefit of sacrifice. Yes, sacrifice — a word that is not popular in our consumerist, post-religious (even for the religious), modern societies. Modern people are not expected to “sacrifice” anything. Even dieters are expected to enjoy low-fat chocolate. And in my field, sustainable development, the strategic talk usually revolves around how to get people or companies to switch to sustainable solutions without ever invoking the idea that some things must, in the end, be given up.

One way I kept my own motivation going, in this tiny personal combat with a fairly mild case of addiction, was to think this thought: if I can’t give up something as small as coffee-drinking, for just a year, how can I expect anyone else to give up anything larger? Like, switching out their large, fossil-fuel burning vehicle for something smaller and more electrical? That extra spontaneous charter vacation to Thailand? Fresh strawberries in February, shipped in from half a world away?

But I don’t want to turn this experiment into an exercise in personal righteousness, because it wasn’t that. Giving up coffee for a year was easier than giving up a whole lot of other things that, if I were radically dedicated to fundamentalist simple living for global equity and sustainability, I would probably feel duty-bound to deny myself.

And now, the last third of that first, fabulous cup of coffee, modestly ennobled and greatly enhanced by a year of abstinence, beckons. I don’t know when I will drink my next cup of coffee — maybe tomorrow, maybe not.

But I do intend to savor this one, to the very last drop.

Camping at Tällberg – Epilogue

View from my campsite, with a neighboring duck
View from my campsite, with a neighboring duck
Note: This is the final installment in a six-part series. You might want to read them in sequence.

My tent is back in the closet. The great circus tent used for the Tällberg Forum’s plenary sessions is undoubtedly on its way back home to Italy. The Tällberg Companion — the little book with schedules, participant bios, and general wisdom about how to survive the five-day, change-the-world marathon meeting that is the Tällberg Forum — is up on the shelf, next to the Companions of previous years. I notice that it is half the size of the others, a little resource efficiency case study in its own right. (It is also a growing trend to have business cards that are half the usual size.)

Now that it’s all over, what do I actually think about my experience this year? Many of the people who work with the Tällberg Foundation are, or are in the process of becoming, my friends. This puts an obvious damper on criticism, and biases one toward expressions of (truly well-deserved) gratitude and admiration for the amazing show they put on. They work extremely hard, all year, in cramped offices, to pull off this annual miracle of big thinking, heartfelt community building, and truly soaring artistry.

At least ten of the conversations I had were truly important ones, in which agreements were struck, friendships were deepened, or doors were opened to something new. You can undoubtedly tell from my log — “log” is such a better word than “blog”, don’t you agree? as though we were all ship’s captains sailing the internet — which elements of the Forum’s content struck me as most valuable (e.g., Drew Jones & Co.’s climate game), or which speakers I responded to most (e.g., Nyamko Sabuni).

But what could have made Tällberg more satisfying this year? Because I am always left wanting a little bit, or even a lot, more. Nor am I alone in this; I heard a number of variations on this comment from participants and presenters alike. This is not a criticism of the organizers; I think they created a wonderful conference, rich with content, well-structured, well-presented, a very good mirror of the state of the sustainability movement today. They deserve accolades and laurel wreaths.

Nor, of course, is it a critisicm of the participants. Nearly everyone I met was already working very hard to “address the challenges,” doing whatever it was they do, from creating social enterprises in war-torn countries, to trying to help their company address the realities of the 21st century in a socially responsible way. Some people added to their already-overstretched workloads while in Tällberg, creating new initiatives on climate change or principled philanthropy. Truly, the amount of energy and dedication in evidence, from the 40-year veterans of sustainability work, to the 20- and 30-somethings just emerged from Masters programs and seeking their place of greatest impact, was a joy and a comfort to behold. The “Army of Sustainability” that I write about in The ISIS Agreement has been growing and solidifying quickly in recent years, and Tällberg is one of those spots on the planet where you get a chance to see that, in the flesh.

And yet … this year’s Tällberg Forum left me feeling a bit down, for some reason. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; as my friend Joanna Macy has been teaching for decades, sometimes we have to into the despair of our situation, the feelings of grief and sorrow that are evoked, to find the new energy we need to rise to a great challenge.

First there were the hard facts from science — disappearing fish, acidic oceans, images of drought, the climate challenge, this increasingly clear view of the “long march” humanity must now make, from here to sustainability. Something like this: if all goes *well*, then we and our immediate descendants will be struggling to stop global warming, restore ecoystems, adapt to climate change, and save people from crushing poverty, for the next ninety years.

No one can credibly pretend any more, as some of our movement’s rhetoric tends to convey (at least implicitly), that some magic basket of techno-fixes, stimulus packages, and lifted chins on TV is going to create a revolutionary rescue for planet Earth and its human civilization in the “next ten years.” This is “cathedral-building,” as many have called it, the kind work that takes generations, and where those who started it only live to see the foundations in place, a couple of walls raised. But they end their lives knowing that the project itself is so deeply embedded in the hearts and politics of the people, that what they started is sure to be completed, and will one day stun the world.

Such thoughts were often the talk of Tällberg, both from the stage and around the margins. But I am not sure, still, whether even we have really grasped the urgency of the situation. Here, I use the word “we” carefully (it is usually used very uncarefully in these contexts to mean “the whole of humanity” or maybe just “humanity’s decision-makers) to mean we, the community of people who devote their professional time to sustainability issues and global futures. My own little experiments with camping and low-impact eating during this gathering are hardly more than symbolic, in terms of change; and in fact they were driven more by the pleasures of being in a tent by the lake, and saving a great deal of money, more than by that nagging sense (and nearly all of us in this business have this sense) of ethical duty to the planet and its people. And yet, even my little experiment in lighter conference-going was a piece of exotica in this crowd. We talk, all of us, of the great need for change, and we dedicate our lives to making it happen. But to what extent are we, really, willing to do more than symbolism to reduce the accumulation of destructive demands and behaviors that have (to cite just one statistic) reduced the population of glass eels in the Atlantic marine system to less than one percent of their previous levels, in just one generation’s time? (Source: Silent Sea, Isabella Lövin) We are willing to work extremely hard, clearly. We communicate intensively. We strategize and search for leverage points and buy organic foods. But are we willing to live differently? To create societies and economies that run differently? To manage our wealth (for most of us at Tällberg were wealthy, relative to the whole of the world) differently? Are willing to give anything up, in return for the knowledge that the cathedral of sustainability will be built?

I will be sitting with such thoughts all summer, as I press forward with work on a new book (that last in the three-book series that started with Believing Cassandra and The ISIS Agreement), having to do with how we humans think about the future. I was trolling for help with that book at Tällberg, and got some; I’ll be “blogging for help” as well in the times ahead.

Meanwhile, I have one small complaint worth sharing. I was sorry my friends from the Nile Basin — our workshop attendance was smallish to small — did not get more of the attention I thought they deserved. Their inter-governmental process is both enormous and inspirational, but it was barely noticed in the Tällberg talk-show context (though they did get some Swedish TV and radio time). This relative inattention was a real-world example of that climate game we played, described in an earlier Episode in this series, where the poorer nations — who suffer directly and decisively, right now, the deadliest impacts of global warming — were given very little voice and visibility, while the rest of the climate-change world talked ppm and models and abstract targets. Our workshop conversations on the Nile were high level and meaningful, so I hope my colleagues’ trip from East Africa to central Sweden proves materially useful to them in some way. But I am afraid most people are returning from Tällberg still not knowing much about the reality of sustainable development issues and challenges in this crucial region, the cradle of modern humanity.

And I also have one great hope. There did seem to be some genuine energy gathered around mobilizing the Tällberg community even further, in directions it has been mobilized previously — to push for (and here I come talking ppm as well) 350 as the necessary global target that our best scientific understanding says that we need (see, and this new effort to “take the Tällberg tent to Copenhagen” and push all the harder, with all the voices that can be mobilized, for the best possible agreement there.

Not that I think one should pin great hopes on Copenhagen; but I pin great hopes on more and more committed mobilization, in every sector, to address every issue we have before us. This truly is a great rescue operation — people, species, ecosystems — and I hold out hope, relentlessly, that it can be done, because I have seen parts of it done, in my own lifetime. I grew up in the “save the whales!” era; today, compared to that time, and despite the many threats and losses, many whale species are in fact recovering. I grew up in a world where the best experts expected populations to swell to 12 billion or more, of whom a quarter or more would be likely to starve. We already have reduced population growth rates enormously, and avoided much foreseen famine with technological, policy, and economic innovations (some of which have created their own problems, but that is life). We have already capped CFCs and begun to heal the ozone layer. There are many few nuclear weapons in the world than there were a generation ago (still too many, but there is still serious progress there). These things happened, and are happening, because people at all levels of the world’s power hierarchy became seriously engaged and dedicated years of their lives to make them happen.

I saw a lot of that energy at Tällberg, from the youngest to the oldest, from heads of state to school children, and seeing this steadily growing upsurge of human energy and intelligence and love on display is the chief gift of that time.

Camping at Tällberg – Episode 5: Cold Water Cooking

TallbergPhoto_6John Elkington is leading a very lively discussion on aid and entrepreneurism. “Does aid work?” says a young Kenyan entrepreneur, whose name I missed (he is a late addition to the program). His answer is a clear no, backing up, strengthening, a point made by Iqbal Quadir. Quadir asked Sweden directly — because the Deputy Director of Sweden’s aid agency is also on the stage — to stop giving aid to governments. This, he says, creates a big headwind that slows down people like him (he created the Grameen Phone enterprise, which has transformed the telecom industry in Bangladesh). “Please stop sending aid to poor governments,” he says bluntly.

The conversation has been heating up, just like the tent. Aid is controversial. Iqbal thinks aid to NGOs and entrepreneurs is good, but aid to governments is bad. The young Kenyan from the Youth Employment Summit things aid is bad, period. Anders Wijkman stands to report that he visited Mali with Sweden’s aid minister, and discovered that while decision-making power is devolved all the way to village level, the money isn’t … because the central government does not trust them to manage the money. Aid money is just sitting in the capital, not going where it is meant to go. José Maria Figueres Olsen, former president of Costa Rica, calls for “mer estado y mer mercado — more states that work efficiently to provide regulatory frameworks, *and* more entrepreneurs in the market.” Mia Horn af Ranzien of Swedish SIDA defends her government’s policy as encouraging exactly that. (She and Iqbal are going to have to talk afterwards, says Elkington.)

There is a switch on the stage, and now we learn of a new initiative, born here at Tällberg: the Global Observatory. They intend to observe the Copenhagen climate process, that is, establish a very ambitious network of experts and ambassadors, mobilize public opinion, and hold the negotiators feet to the fire to achieve a stronger agreement.

They make a call for input to the Tällberg tent (which I repeat for them here):

Please suggest 3 Experts (e.g., people like Amory Lovins)
• 3 Ambassadors (well-known or charismatic figures, especially young people)
• 3 Funders (this means people and institutions with money)
• Other resources (what else would help?)
• Your personal contribution (what can you do?)
• “… to reach the agreement humanity requires”
Do you have input? Write them: support [[at]]


Our closing session of the workshop series on the Nile Basin is not well-attended, unfortunately. I’m guessing people are tired: they danced until 2, then some of them got up to participate in a multi-traditional sunrise ceremony at 6 am. (I played guitar by the lake until late, and preferred to sleep.)

But we press forward and look at maps of river flows in the Nile, pictures of drought and flood impacts, prepared by Audace Ndayizeye. Canisius Kanangire briefs us on the actions now being taken by NBI to raise awareness on climate change (levels of awareness are low in East Africa, despite the fact that climate change is already impacting the region, at times severely); encourage integration of climate change impacts in planning processes; and train people to be “change agents” and advocates in the region. Jakob Granit also reminds us that in the Nile Equatorial Lakes region, serious analysis has already happened looking at all the possible sources of power, the impact of rainfall changes, etc.

The Ambassador from Kenya is asking very good questions, and the answers help fill out the picture. What is the role of dams vis a vis other forms of development? Shouldn’t we also build capacity of many kinds? The conversation ranges widely across energy sources, development needs … “Is there any country that has achieved development because of solar energy?” says one participant. “No. I don’t have any example. The clean power generation is mainly hydro.” In other words, dams are inevitable in this region you want to bring electricity (a key to development – a key to education, entrepreneurship, and many other things) to the people, while mitigating carbon emissions.

What is the role of NGOs in all this? To make sure good stakeholder engagement happens, and good environmental impact statements are done. But at least this little group — which includes NGO, government, and inter-governmental folks — seems to agree with worries that environmental NGOs (mostly from outside teh region) are blocking dam building. To them, all dams are just bad. They don’t understand the impacts of their blockage. The lack of power leads to social unrest, and *more* negative impacts on the local ecosystems than a carefully developed dam might do. (Not mentioned here, but mentioned often in other venues, is the inherent injustice involved when northern NGOs — who live in wealthy societies, many of them running on hydropower — object to African countries developing the same resources.)

We learn more about these challenges, from Grace Akuna, of Climate Network Africa, and here’s a sample: Climate change will put, by 2020, between 75 and 250 million people people at risk because of changes in rainfall. And 2050, up to 600 million people will be “severely affected by water stress.” Egypt will have reduced power production from hydropower, even though populations and energy demand will rise. Grace recently flew over Mount Kilimanjaro, and the pilot flew in such a sharp curve that she could look straight down on the ice cap. “It is so small,” she said. Energy brownouts are occurring already from reduced flows through hydropower dams; turbines can’t turn. Sometimes, this lack of access to electricity puts people out of business; people lose their jobs; and this in turn can affect a huge number of people in a family where all are dependent on that one person’s job. (Think 10-20 people depending on each person with a job.)

“Not a very bright future for the citizens of the Nile Basin, but those are the facts on the ground.” And further, “not much happening with regard to climate change adaptation,” at least on the ground (though the Nile Basin Initiative how has a climate change strategy in development). Indeed, the Nile River is “the most susceptible river in the world” regarding the impact of climate change, according to a recent study. The impacts on agriculture, energy production, people’s well-being, and natural systems will be enormous.

Of course, there will be some benefits from climate change, due to rainfall increases — though these will be more stochastic, more storms, less steady. And Grace has come now to the political part, “most important”: the serious need for increase in adaptation funds. All countries of the Nile Basin are pushing that significantly. All Nile ministers of environment are also seeking compensation for climate change. She also recommends that NBI reach out to the more progressive voices in civil society, to strengthen the common voice calling for more attention and support to the people of this world likely to suffer most as the warming, changing, and collapsing picks up speed.

Hear, hear.


Food sack at Tällberg
Food sack at Tällberg
Before I wrap up this series and report on the final session, I thought I’d give you a sense of how I lived here at Tällberg. Here is my tent (see photo above), and my little stool and bag of food (this photo). I brought food with me; shopping for food was part of my “Camping at Tällberg” experience. I went through a large supermarket not far from my home, looking for meals that I could eat that were ecological (organic, so no nitrogen fertilizers), and that would not require either cooking or refrigeration (further reducing energy consumption).

Out of that experience, I’ve just coined the term, “cold water cooking.” In fact, after my weekend here, I’m thinking about putting together a small book with that title, and experimenting further to develop recipes for such a book. Actually, “cold water” is not really right, but I did avoid any form of cooking stove this weekend. Nor, of course, did I invent the idea of preparing food without having to boil water; our ape-ancestors did that. But if the phrase “cold water cooking” becomes some sort of trendy eco-thing to do, like biking and composting, just remember you heard it hear first.

Here are some of the recipes I “discovered”:

* Muesli tastes great with just cold water. Actually, I knew this already — I used to eat muesli with water twenty-five years ago, when I was going through a non-dairy (and generally new-agey) phase. But try it: you actually taste the oats and fruit much better. Make sure you use plenty of water, enough so that you get water with each spoonful too, and not just damp muesli.

* You can make a nice peanut sauce by taking peanut butter and stirring in cold water. This I poured on some organic (pre-cooked) black beans. This was so good, I ate two helpings.

* You can make couscous with just warm water, from (for example) the warm water tap in a campground. You don’t need to boil it. Just mix the dry couscous and the warm water and wait; it fluffs up nicely. I ate this with white beans in chili and lime. Tasted great.

* For lunch, I prepared some peanut butter sandwiches with Swedish crispbread, and instead of jam or butter (which would require refrigeration) I just laid some dried apricots on top. Mm.

I confess that I also ate a piece of ginger cake from a workshop coffee break, and I ate the bag lunch and one evening’s salmon dinner that was part of the opening festivities. And I drank a couple of cold local beers.

Otherwise, it was “cold water cooking,” and my little tent by the lake.

And in many years of attending conferences partly for a living, I can say that I’ve never had a better, more satisfying living experience.


“The tsunami is on the way. … We may have to do the impossible, and the unforgiveable, to address the unavoidable.”

This is Ged Davis of the Global Energy Assessment at IIASA, talking about geo-engineering. We are back in the tent, now dubbed the “sweat lodge” because of the truly sweltering heat. We have heard an otherworldly chorale from a Swedish singing group (and I have not written, as I should, about the magnificent music and poetry that are always part of Tällberg), and the panel that opened this Forum (I missed that) are proving wrap-up comments.

Ged: “The most critical question is, who do you love? Yourself? Your partner and yourself? Your family? Do you have a passion for the planet? When you find out who you love, you will know what you are willing to do. That’s the starting point.”

Chistine Loh is talking about “changing the DNA of humanity,” moving from chrysalis to butterfly, and also reporting candidly about what’s she’s heard as she has flitted, butterfly-like, through various sessions here. People are very active here, she says, networking, running organizations, etc. Some people of less than satisfied, either with their role in society or with Tällberg itself (for not giving them the answer regarding how they can have a stronger role in society to make change). “People seem to use the word system a lot.” But, says Christine, we have not yet found a way of *systematizing* the spread of solutions and case studies, like the one John Liu shared with us from the Loess Plateau in China.

“How can we take each other’s learning, and systematize it, for scaling up an scaling down?”

Jan Eliasson, who is talking about Governance, calls Tällberg a “festival of ideas,” but notes that “the real craps about good ideas is that they often degenerate into hard work.” He invokes the old saw about the British officer who,, after the briefing, said “I am still confused, but on a higher level.” He speaks eloquently (as is usual for him, a former top UN diplomat who is also very genuine and unpretentious) about the real issues we are up against, and emphasizes organized crime, as one of the most urgent problem on the planet, undermining the pillars of our societies. He then warns against despair, and quotes two UN Secretaries-General:

“No peace without development, no development without peace … and no lasting peace or sustainable development without human rights.” — Kofi Annan

“Never look down to test the ground to take your next step. Only he who keeps his eye fixed on the far horizon will find the right road.” – Dag Hamarskjöld

Jacqueline McGlade then encourages us to discover the “hidden planet” — the natural systems all around us, even under the pavement in our cities. She tells two stories: one about the Thisted community, at the far end of Denmark, which was dying. Fifteen years later, every household has a wind turbine. They make biogas. Even the fish processing plants are powered by renewable / reused materials. They export to the German grid. The extra money has revitalized the whole town — schools, libraries. Also, the schools (yes, the schools) run the public transit system, as a vast school project. The initial innovation? Giving every household a license for a wind turbine. That kicked off a revolution in the town and brought it back to sustainable life.

The second story I miss, but it ends with the beautiful image of African fisherman co-existing with the dolphins in their ecosystem.

Then she cuts a mobius strip in half. What does it produce? “A heart — the heart of the planet.” But the paper breaks. “I hope it’s not a broken heart,” says Tom Cummings.

José Maria Figueres-Olsen opens his remarks with a nearly quivering voice. He attended the sunrise ceremonies. He has been through many battles, he said. But at that sunrise ceremony, he realized just how thoroughly exhausted he was. He cites a statistic: all the fishing lines of our fishing fleets would circle the Earth lines 550 times.
But still, he felt it was time “to go into battle,” with a clear goal: 350 at Copenhagen. He has come to a conclusion regarding climate change: “We are going to adapt, we are going to mitigate, and we are going to suffer.” There is no way out, he says, but we can change the mix.

He enjoins us to practice “cathedral thinking” (this is work that will take generations) “with a sense of urgency” (it must be done now). In Spanish and English he tells us that there is no greater satisfaction than doing our duty. “It is time to do our duty.”


And it is time for me to wrap up this record of my time at the Tällberg Forum, while Sweden’s minister of energy reflects on the political road to Copenhagen, and the steps necessary to “remain within the planetary boundaries.” That phrase, “planetary boundaries,” is going to be *the* phrase in the coming months. September will see the publication of the new multi-author paper on the topic I mentioned earlier. Here is one government leader already using it.

Planetary boundaries, personal boundaries. I go home now, to prepare for a month of vacation with family. The tent will find other uses.

We had a round of final discussion, on the question of “What you found, and what you are taking back with you?” I found, or rather re-found, that living simply at these conference gatherings gives me much more pleasure and satisfaction. I may not always be able to camp as I travel around; but I can surely make it a practice to take the principle of simpler living with me, wherever I go (more than I even already do).

What I’m taking back with me?

The growth of the crowd here at Tällberg, the many people here that I do *not* know, this gives me hope. I’ve been working at this “sustainability” thing for 21 years now. And there are so many, many more people now doing the same. That, I will gladly take home … as well as the friendships I’ve made or reconfirmed. That, and the harmonies of a guitar by a lake in the midnight sun.