Live from Iceland: Joan Davis on “Food for Life”

Joan Davis lecturing by Skype to Balaton Group Meeting on Iceland, 17 Sept 2010

Here on Iceland, the Balaton Group Meeting is entering its third day. With models of Food Futures still spinning in our heads from yesterday, we are now listening to Joan Davis. Personal reasons kept her home in Switzerland this year, but this meeting’s theme touches her “heart-question” as we say in Swedish:  organic agriculture.

Joan is harshly critical of the Green Revolution, and particularly the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program to spread nitrogen throughout Africa (“coast to coast,” she says), in partnership with Monsanto.  But she quickly leaves her critique behind to talk about what she loves.  She tells us of higher yields from organic (35-75% higher in arid regions), no use of chemical fertilizers (including nitrogen, which reduced the greenhouse impact still more).  CO2 gets removed from the atmosphere in the humus formation, she tells us, and require less water. Somewhere between 2 and 12 gigatons of carbon could be sequestered.

Now she is on to water (her expertise, Joan is an aquatic chemist) as well as the economic (less cost of pollution, negative health impacts etc.) and social benefits — including reductions in suicide rates among Indian farmers, whose rates of suicide have skyrocketed in recent years caused, most believe, by the increasing hardship they face in trying to make a living in highly industrialized, gene-modified agricultural system. She notes that “honest pricing” of fertilizers and pesticides — internalizing the externalities of these add-ons, as she just enumerated (in more detail than I can capture here) — has been successfully fought by the big corporate players in the agro-industrial system.

Specifics?  Mixed crops:  “Even just planting two crops at the same time can increase yields by 30-40%,” she tells us, among other things. There are good news stories of organic ag’s success around the world, and she tells us three of these:  one from Benin (using mukana as a cover crop, tripling maize yields); Kenya (double-dug beds, composting, manures freed households from hunger by raising yields up to 75%, reducing the number of households having to purchase vegetables from 85% down to 11%); and the makabane approach in Maputo, Mozambique.

Joan introduces Sekem, an Egyptian “organic conglomerate” that does everything from growing organic cotton to selling medicinal award, and which I visited in Egypt last month (I’ll write on this later).  Sekem’s founder, Ibrahim Abouleish, won the Right Livelihood Award for his practice of “the economics of love.” And I’ve seen it in person:  it’s real, it works, both commercially as well as socially and economically.

“The majority of people don’t buy and eat food to support life,” says Joan.  They buy it for other reasons — including status.  Even in developing countries, ways of eating are being copied from richer countries, especially the eating of meat.  Before she dives into that, she wants to say something on food labeling:  it has been the meat industry in Switzerland, just now, that played a role in preventing food labeling on cancer risk, carbon loading etc.  “It may be that people would not want to eat meat anymore,” if they read the labels. Breast cancer goes up by a factor of 8.5 for meat eaters (and people who begin to embrace meat eating) compared to vegetarians. But the GDP would suffer, producers think, if food labels notified people of these things.

But let’s get back to how people choose their food, says Joan. Take highly processed food, such as canned food. Plastics linings in those cans include endocrine disruptors (as does the plastic in bottled water). “It is our criteria [for purchasing food] and daily decisions that influence food production and processing, influencing much around the world,” says Joan.

There are many economic and social factors to be considered, but let’s take the personal level, even if they sound simplistic.  Let us consider our food decisions, and advocate food for life, instead of food that contributes to disease, devastation, and even death, human and environmental.

“But what can I do?” say many people.

“We’ve been successful in almost destroying the planet,” says Joan. “That proves we can transform it positively, too.”  Daily decisions are an essential piece of it, with positive criteria.

“Food for life sums it up,” she says. We have to choose it. “Now, where do we get that access to other people in our society, at all levels?”  She wishes us success in figuring our strategies for promoting this more positive set of critiera for choice.

Applause … and our moderator, Kevin Noone, notes that everything worked well technically, and “this is the best Skype presentation I’ve seen technically, and the content was pretty darn good too.” Joan smiles and bows on the big screen.

And here come the questions …

Food Futures: Sirens, Warning Lights, and All That

So I’m sitting on a rather large lump of volcanic rock in the North Atlantic ocean – Iceland – at the annual meeting of the Balaton Group.  We’ve already had several days of (truly) mind-boggling presentations on topics related both to the global financial system, and the global food system, and more on that later. But now I’m “live-blogging” one of the presentations:  Tom Fiddaman, walking us through the original “World3” global model, to show us how it modeled food. It’s amazingly rich. It covers land yield and conversion and fertility and regeneration, as well as food production and the social/industrial/economic processes attached to that. That’s already worth digging into, because it captures (in gross aggregate) a lot of the more detailed analyses we’ve been listening to.

But Tom has already moved on to mini-model-sketches and cartoons addressing the economics.  “How will I ever fit into that little car?” says an obese man. And a sign blinks:  “Rising Food Prices!”

This is what we’re all starting to expect after looking at the data and the dynamics for the past couple of days — *much* higher prices, at least over time, with spikes and valleys and unstable dynamics, partly driven (just one factor!) by the growing competition between food and biofuels.

This topic of food touches all of us. Literally. Food goes in the mouth and through the body. Even while sitting here, a sheet is being passed around by the restaurant:  “Veggie? or Beef?”  Is it okay to eat beef on Iceland, if the cows are eating grass?  Hmm, still dubious, given the belching of methane and the other environmental impacts.  But sheep?  Well, okay: a previous speaker however, has shown that even the cows will be necessary in order to capture the phosphorous in the system.

The feedbacks are complicated. The *system* is complicated. Tom reflects that solutions for a sustainable food system has economic (price), monetary (new currencies), social (getting people to like new things), paradigmatic (seeing different values), and many other dimensions.

I’m inspired:  there is so much to learn here, and it is so very important. Food is life. Food what we use the planet to create (big hunks of the planet, anyway). Food is something so intimately connected to social sustainability (avoiding famine, riots, war), to ecological sustainability (not paving all the ecosystems for pasture or soybeans), to economic sustainability (livability for farmers and farm workers around the world, which seems to be declining in terms of their wages etc.).

Watch this space:  there will be more on this topic.  And you can follow my Twitter feed, as well as friends like @GillianMMehers (and her blog,, Co-President with me in the Balaton Group.

International Buy-a-Qur’an Day

I bought a copy of the Qur’an today.  It seemed the best way to register my support to all my Muslim friends in the face of the media circus around this low-minded Florida “pastor,” whose behavior is so antithetical from the Christianity I learned as a child (a child in Florida, as it happens).  Buying a Qur’an also seemed a good way to mark the anniversary of 9/11, in the face of the ugly protests against an Islamic Culture Center in Manhattan. Buying a Qur’an was also a way of reminding myself of the importance of these days for many of my new friends and clients in Egypt, here at the close of Ramadan.

In fact, I thought of all these things only after crossing the box on the book club order form.  I had decided to order the Qur’an mostly because I thought it was time to read it again, considering where my work has taken me lately; and the translated edition on offer (Folio) was spectacularly beautiful.

I’m not a religious man, and I live in one of the world’s most secular nations, Sweden.  But this is not the first time I’ve bought a copy of the Qur’an.  At university I took a course in the Religions of Asia, and read the Qur’an (“Koran” then), the Pali Canon, the Bhagavad Gita, and many other sacred texts. They moved me, they stirred me, and they still do today. Where else can you read about what human beings have been striving after, for thousands of years? The Qur’an is a particularly stunning text, even in English translation; one takes it for granted, based on the evidence of centuries, that its Arabic is transformative in its poetry and power.

So I’ll say no more about the “pastor,” who does not merit the title; and I dearly wish the world’s media had simply ignored him. Instead, I’ll look forward to the delivery of this beautiful book, the sacred  text of a religion whose name means “peace.” I’ll look forward to reading it, and seeing it beside my editions of the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and other holy texts that have been so inspirational to me over the years.

Today was my “International Buy-a-Qur’an Day.”

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]