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 http://www.350.org), 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]] globalobservatory.net


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.

Camping at Tällberg – Episode 4: Stop Talking, Start Planting

Women queuing for water in India. Photo from Ashok Khosla's presentation at the Tällberg Forum 2009

Women queuing for water in India. Photo from Ashok Khosla's presentation at the Tällberg Forum 2009

Morning again. Somehow folks crawled out of bed after dancing and drinking past midnight, and made their way to the big tent by 8:30 (it is full when I get there) to experience the climate change negotiations game run by Drew Jones and other colleagues.

First, Drew Jones — his voice almost wavers with emotion — reports the passage of the first-ever climate change legislation in the US, to the applause of this crowd. Then (I have skipped several steps here, including Anders Wijkman’s briefing on the not-so-inspiring status of the negotiations for the Copenhagen climate summit) we are divided up into groups. Our task will be the world’s task at Copenhagen: “to avoid the unmanageable, and to manage the unavoidable.”

At Drew’s request, half of us are standing: we’re China, India, Brazil, and other fast-growing countries. Christine Loh of Civic Exchange is the leader. Another twenty percent, led by Jaqueline McGlade of the European Environment Agency, are the developed world (that’s where I am, and we’re aloud to keep sitting, hence this text). Tom Cummings’ people — the poor states, the island states — are told to sit on the floor. They get blue blankets, which they lift over their heads at one point to signify the rising seas. One of them cries, “Viva la revolucion!” “We didn’t here that, did we?” says Jackie McGlade, speaking for the wealthy OECD nations.

Drew then leads us, with astonishing rapidity, through a round of “negotiations” that are immediately reflected to us by the climate learning model “C-Roads” on the big screen. You can try this yourself at http://www.climateinteractive.org.

Basically, as the model makes clear, what we’re doing now, and currently planning to do, as a world, on climate change, is woefully inadequate. (I guess we knew that.)

But then, if we cooperate as a world (all of us from the sitting/standing/half-drowned world) do pretty much everything possible — including reforestation, methane control and removal, taking better care of our soil, etc. etc. etc. — then Drew’s little orange line moves down, slowly, slowly, finally approaching 350 ppm — instead of the 900 ppm that would result from business-as-usual.

This laughing-serious cacophany of modeling-meets-group-theater is capped off by a classic talk from Amory Lovins. Typically, I cannot remember much of it now — it was so information rich (I’m grateful for web-based video as memory supplement) — but I remember his metaphor: when it comes to energy and efficiency, there is so much low-hanging fruit that it is raining down, filling up the space around our feet then spilling down into our boots, while new fruit falls down on our heads. He referenced “Winning the Oil Endgame” (www.oilendgame.com) and http://www.pacenow.org.

He also lifted up, as an example of new-fangled Integrative Design, his 1983 house, passive-solar-super-efficient, “which just harvested its 29th crop of bananas” despite being in the Rocky Mountains. Companies he works with regularly achieve “30-60% energy reduction with 2-3 year paybacks.” Then he extends his transformation-is-profitable message to ecological restoration, and tells us to see the Ted talk “Willie Smits Restores a Rainforest” (www.ted.com). “Now this [Borneo] forest is self-protecting, because the people are so much better off, culturally and economically.” And if anyone tries to disturb their forest, well, they will likely kill you; and since, in their history, they were “blow-dart wielding head-hunters, this is a credible threat.”

After Amory came a panel, led off by Bill McKibben, who launched 350.org here (and other places) last year, and has grown it to an amazing, creative, dynamic movement of mostly younger people who find hundreds, thousands of creative ways to bring the goal of 350 ppm to the attention of the media and decision-makers. Bill has evolved amazingly himself, over the year, as a speaker. He is on fire, and the crowd is with him — one expects that dozens more 350 demonstrations will result from this short talk.

Okay, now I’m hopping over some worthy things to talk about this young boy, maybe 9 or 10 years old, whose name I never got, whose accent suggested that English was not his first language (but it was as fluent as any other non-native speaker here). He was here launch a children’s campaign called, “Stop Talking, Start Planting.” They were celebrating — could this be right? — the “first millionth tree” of a 350 million tree campaign. Wow! The crowd was … well, wowed. He had cool pictures, too, of this kid putting his hand over the mouth of a range of well-known personalities here.

Stop talking, start planting.

There were other speakers after that, but I think — in deference to the foregoing — I’ll skip most of them (you can watch them on the web), and remark on what happened when Grace Akumu of Climate Action Network in Africa took the floor. She made the case for reparations to Africa for the damage it is suffering now, and will suffer in the future, because of climate change. “A problem that we did not create, but that we suffer the effects of.” She, too, gets the long, heart-felt applause of the crowd, and receives — symbolically — the climate change relay race baton from Jaqueline Glade of the European Environment Agency.

Hmm. Stop talking, start paying …


My main task at this conference is to hold together a workshop series on the Nile Basin, which Tällberg Foundation had invited me to frame and produce. Several of my direct clients are here, senior people from the Nile Basin Initiative, as well as other political and thought leaders from regional countries and other institutions. The group assembled is small, but influential: Kenya’s Minister of Water and Irrigation, Charity Ngilu, and Director of Water Services, John Rao Nyaoro (Kenya has been a strong force in recent ministerial negotiations, I’m told); NBI’s Head of Strategic Planning and Management, Canisius Kanangire; a former Egyptian diplomat, Magdy Hafny, now a water and ethics researcher; a former World Bank official on the Nile Team now working at an Stockholm International Water Institute, Jakob Granit; and others who are either already marginally involved in Nile work or interested in it because of their work on other water systems.

The conversations are something like a microcosm of the conversations that happen in Africa, in the actual meetings of key Nile actors, but geared toward explaining the dynamics to those present who don’t know much yet. (To be clear, I am also still learning about the Nile. It takes a lifetime, I’m told.) And the dynamics among the countries, and between the countries and the World Bank, are not uncomplicated.

But the conversation also reflects the claim that I and others made, in trying to bring this Nile story to Tällberg (where it could be echoed out to the world): there is amazing progress going on in this, one of Africa’s most challenged regions. This is a global-scale success story in the making. Cooperation is advancing very rapidly. The pre-conditions are in place for rapid sustainable development.

And … the situation in the Nile Basin is front line in the struggle against poverty, ecosystem stress, conflict risk, and a big driver there, climate change.

The Nile needs attention, the Nile needs support. In the race against time, I know of few international cooperation projects that have raced so well (see http://www.nilebasin.org, and see my earlier posts on the topic); and yet, the problems are racing fast as well. Minister Ngilu tells us, for example, that she recently visited an installation that used to be a water intake pipe from Lake Victoria (one of the Nile’s sources) for a region of Kenya. Now that pipe just dangles in the air, because the Lake’s water level has fallen 3 meters (10 feet) in recent years. Summing up our morning talks, the situation, she is saying now, is “fairly complex … but also very urgent.”

Less talk, she says, more action.


And now, we are in the Tent of Dreams, the “collegial sauna” as moderator Charles Handy calls it. It is so hot, the little chocolates they left for us on the table have melted completely and are liquified in their clear plastic wrappers.

And what happens in the Tent of Dreams? Ah, if I wrote that down, it would cease to be dreamlike, yes? Here’s an idea: imagine what *you* would like to see in a Tent of Dreams … spend some time with that thought … then, if you really want to know who spoke and what they said, watch the webcast.

I’ll be back again on this channel, but I’m taking a break now …

Less writing … more dreaming.

Camping at Tällberg – Episode 3: An Evening of Standing Ovations

TällbergForum2008-2Gro Harlem Brundtland is relating stories from her childhood — as a Norwegian refugee in Stockholm during World War II, leading her little brother safely across streets, and the unexpected apology she received from her father, when she was 12 or 13, because he had cut her off in a debate and declared her simply wrong.

It’s lovely to hear these stories from this living legend in the sustainability movement. She is making an argument for “principled pragmatism” — which she claims not to fully understand. This is Scandinavian modesty, as she is one of principled pragmatism’s most successful political exemplars.

She’s been Prime Minister of Norway twice, the second time during a banking crisis in 1986. Economists advised her then, she says, and wisely. Economists are in poor repute these days, but she notes that it was political leaders, lobbied by interest groups, that created the conditions that created the crisis.

Of course, she was also chairing then the Commission that bears her name at that time, more formally the World Commission on Environment and Development. That led to the famous definition of sustainable development, the Rio Summit, even the IPCC and Kyoto Protocol emerged from this original whirlwind of global analysis, based — this is an important point to her — on the findings of a vast fleet of scientists from 30 countries.

“Hardly anything that has happened since that report was published in 1987 has come as a surprise,” she tells us. She is a satisfied map-maker: “The report designed a way of thinking, which, as I see it, is still valid. Only by adhering to the principles of sustainable development will we survive on planet Earth.”

Brundtland’s experience as a member of the Palme Commission (on international security, and including representatives of the US, UK, and Soviet Union – not an easy group to bring together in the early 1980s) gave her the confidence to take on the WCED. “What brought the parties together were facts, and joint understanding of facts.” This built common ground, and this is the approach she has taken every since. Now she is working on the International Commission on Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation — trying to drastically reduce nuclear weapons in the world.

She reminds us of the SARS epidemic, which taught the world how to put aside differences and quickly cooperate to contain a global crisis. This is a note of hope: we know how to do this in general terms. Now she’s linked over to climate change, and I learn a new statistic: “9 out of 10 natural disasters are now related to climate change,” partly thanks to the increasing population of humans in cities in low-lying, climate vulnerable areas. So disaster preparedness, the containing of epidemics, and

She points us to Green Korea 2009: a national vision for the coming 60 years. They are dedicating 30% of a multi-billion dollar stimulus package to green measures, “the highest in the world.” She tells us to look at that, and to remember that energy efficiency is priority number one, in every sector.

Brundtland is off her notes now, and — more interestingly — talking about the lack of financing for sustainable development of all kinds. The old patterns and level of financing are “not in any way sufficient.” We need mechanisms that automatically tap 1, 2 or 3% of the whole carbon trading system. Because there, there’s going to be big money, and even 1% of that money is large. I don’t trust parliaments,” she says, to come up with this financing; the mechanism needs to be global, and automatic.

She wraps up her speech — which, like her career, somehow has blended homespun Scandinavian wisdom with high-flying global politics — with a believable summary on her attitude regarding humanity’s capacity to address these multiple challenges. “I certainly think we can, we must, and we will.” (Hint: This is a clue for those who are wondering what the actual agreement in my book The ISIS Agreement is all about.)

A slow but steady wave of standing occurs during the applause after after her speech.

Now, Nyamko Sabuni, Sweden’s Minister of Integration and Gender Equality, is beginning what proves to be a beautiful speech. “Don’t worry,” she says, “I’m not going to claim that gender equality will stop global warming.” She notes all the wonderful changes that have happened in health, technology, education and opportunity in the last hundred years. “None of that would have happened,” she says, “if there had not been high quality educational opportunities … for the world’s men.” A slow ripple of laughter starts in the crowd. “Imagine where we would be now if women had had the same opportunities.” Laughter and applause.

She is preparing us for a key message: that our capacity to meet the world’s challenges are slim if we do not ensure that women’s ability and energy is put the to task, by giving them the education and opportunity they deserve.

And her speech, I have to say, just gets better from there. (Watch it at http://www.tallbergfoundation.org, click on video on demand.) She quotes an 11-year-old Pakistani girl worried that the Taliban will drag her society back to the stone age, and Sabuni asks, why does an 11-year-old girl understand this, and not all those men?

Brundtland received a standing ovation because she speaks so wisely and directly, and she has earned the honor of service over time. Sabuni, unknown to this crowd before today, simply earns her standing ovation with the power of her rhetoric.

Finally, John Liu — who keynoted the same conference I did on Borneo a couple of months ago — gets the task of closing up, and he does this brilliantly with his video-assisted speech about the possibility for truly large-scale ecosystem restoration, with a Belgium-sized case study from China, the Loess Plateau, birthplace of the Han Chinese ethnic group (the world’s largest) and a place that as been completely devastated ecologically, for a thousand years. Now it’s green. He shows how this can be done in Africa and elsewhere, just by altering — radically, but sensibly — the way we do agriculture. (Check out his work at http://www.earthshope.org.)

Standing ovation again … this one fueled not by history, or powerful rhetoric, but by hope.


At the Tällberg Bar, I take a beer with my friend Audace Ndayizeye, from Burundi, a former Executive Director of the Nile Basin Initiative. The crowd is buzzing, dancing. My friend M. walked by: encouraged to break dance, he has split a seam in his pants. He comes back with new ones, and heads back to the dance floor. It’s that kind of night. A bit tired, I just watch, happily.

It’s fun to chat with all these wonderful folks, but I’m longing for my tent and sleeping bag. The sun is making another one of those blue-orange-brilliant light shows on the lake. And I’m working on a couple of new songs …

Camping at Tällberg – Episode 2: A Bad Problem Problem is Actually Much Worse

Siljan_2009_27JuneIt’s morning. I had a wonderful, quiet time by the Lake, sleeping, writing, playing guitar. (The photo was taken just after midnight, from my tentsite.)

But now I walk (late) into the big tent of the Tällberg Forum. Global reality hits me like a desert wind. “The problem that we already thought was bad is actually much worse.” “The causes become the consequences, and the consequences become the causes.” “I want to be optimistic, but the situation really is quite pessimistic.”

Johan Rockström is leading a panel discussion on climate change. V. Ramanathan of Scripps Instituteconfirms what I’ve been reading, and trying to tell people, for several years now: global warming is already much worse than we thought, because the heat inputs from the sun have been so reduced by particulates in the atmosphere, so-called “global dimming.” He had calculated that, given the heat-trapping effects of greenhouse gases, global temperatures should already have risen 2.5 degrees. Why haven’t they? All those particulates in the atmosphere are “like glitter on the blanket of greenhouse gases.” They reflect solar radiation back into space. Wash the air of those particulates, and temperatures would rise dramatically. (We saw this happen already in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Planes stopped flying, people stayed home, the skies cleared … and the overall temperature in North America rose by a one degree Celsius in only three days.)

That’s what “a bad problem is actually much worse” means.

Rockström has steered them over to thoughts on the deep interconnections, and of course, this makes the picture even bleaker, as we learn about the acidification of the oceans, nitrogen loading, etc. The panel also includes Sybil Seitzinger, director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program: she deconstructs the beautiful meal served for dinner last night, and its cost in terms of nitrogen, water, land degradation, and greenhouse gases. Also Youba Sokona, who heads the Observatory of the Sahara and the Sahel: his quote was the one about causes and consequences, as he sees climate stress causing migration causing land stress causing … etc. etc.

Ramanathan, it turns out, is the optimist in this group. “We don’t want to bring any more bad news and paralyze people. But world leaders have still not [grasped] the urgency of the situation,” says Ramanathan. He talks of his personal commitment to find solutions, e.g. about conversions from wood to biogas for cooking, and all its positive impacts on health, women, global warming, and poverty. He tells us this in response to Rockström’s reflection on the changing role of science: “Science is hesitating in communicating the latest findings,” says Johan, “because it’s so depressing.”

Johan puts a picture of Frodo, from the Lord of the Rings, up on the big screen. Science has been suffering, he says, from the “Frodo Syndrome.” The planet itself is the “one ring” that rules it all. But this knowledge of the planet’s is a tremendous weight for the scientists to carry, and like Frodo, they have often preferred to be invisible. They have to come out, be more visible, and speak for what is necessary if we are to avoid the cascading effects of system collapse.

The session ends with a short dialogue with an economist, Klas Eklund of a large Swedish Bank. Can there be a response to Seitzinger’s recently expressed dream, of a truly integrated global model, with social and physical science both collaborating to understand human/planet interactions and future scenarios more completely? Eklund things so, and says, “There should be a Rockström Report” (like the Stern report). “No, there should be an Eklund Report,” says Rockström, that reimagines contemporary economics in a way that moves us beyond the fascination with growth. No, we economists just want to think about economic factors, says Eklund, and incentives and such. “So, we work together,” says Rockström, and ends the show.


Outside, the day is fine, fine, fine. Siljan glimmers blue. I walk with Johan to our next destination, a “Reality Check” session on global water. We discuss the generally difficult economics around sustainability work in these days. The same topic is coming up over and over again: many of us are experiencing that we and our colleagues have never been in greater demand, never had more of a sense that our work was timely, influential, needed. The impact of the various models, studies, training programs, reports, etc. generated by sustainability researchers and practitioners is rising dramatically.

At the same time, the money to do this kind of work has been drying up in some regions, and rather suddenly. Ironically, mostly the regions in questions are the so-called “rich” world, not the “developing ” world. Government budget cut-backs. Companies delaying or canceling initiatives. Foundations reeling from the shrinkage of their endowments. I’ve talked to several colleagues whose institutions (private companies, non-profits, institutes, whatever) are going through painful lay-offs. I’ve even heard of leading global experts, truly key people in their fields, whose work is quite essential and extremely sought after now by top political people, are scrambling for a few thousand dollars just to keep going, their personal economies and business economies both heading for their own “tipping points.”

Researchers and consultants having trouble getting paid to do the work that right now desperately needs to get done is, compared to the global challenges we face and the suffering of people already affected by things like climate change and water scarcity, a veritable “drop in the bucket.” And yet … aren’t we in danger of missing, as a world, a key leverage point, a key moment of opportunity? Isn’t sustainability expertise the one thing we need more of in a financial crisis driven by unsustainable behavior?


Speaking of things drying up … the Minster for Water and Irrigation of Keyna, Charity Ngilu, has now opened this “Reality Check” session on the global water crisis. “Water stress” is defined as having less than 1500 cubic meters per person per year. Kenya has just over 600, and is expected to have only 225 by 2025. “Communities are fighting over water,” she tells us, and provides moving stories as well to illustrate that from her own country. (Water rationing is already a reality in Nairobi, for example.) And she’s worried about the rising risk of international conflict over water.

The fighting and the conflict will only increase, if we do not have the sort of super-green-blue revolution then described by Johan Rockström. I can’t possibly capture the flow of data here — the river of information is flowing too fast — but it is eye-opening. In brief, we have enough water to feed 8 billion by 2050, but only if we completely reorganize global water management. Rain water is central to agriculture (irrigation is really a small part of global water use), and agriculture is the lion’s share of water use globally. So we have to rethink how we manage the rain that comes to the land, capture more of it for growing our crops … just when climate change is disrupting rainfall. And in the world’s more vulnerable regions. To illustrate the difference between stable ground flow and storm flow — which is what climate change is creating more of — he describes chocolate milkshakes running down hillsides … and carrying the soil with them.

Magda Hafny, an expert in water use ethics from Egypt, then takes us to a different level: values, judgments. How we decide, regarding water use. These are ethical questions in addition to scientific and technical and economic ones, and Jakob Granit of the Stockholm International Water Institute (and formerly of the World Bank) re-emphasizes the same message. He also puts more of a management perspective on it. He expands further on the opportunities and challenges (e.g., Africa has only developed 7% of its hydropower resources, Sweden has developed 80%; but, the development is creating exponentially more “dead zones” in the coastal zones of the world, from nutrient run-off.


As I stare off into Siljan’s deep blue, the conversation, a bit lulled now, is moving into questions. There is an awful lot of beautiful water out there in that lake. The colors shimmering on it last night, in the midnight sun of midsummer, were unreal, dream-like.

I’m called out of my reverie by a question from a woman who lives in Nigeria. “How can we do something practical about this?” she says. “Where I live, fertilizer is like gold. People who have it, have power. I don’t know what to do.” Johan peps her up with talk of integrating urban sanitation systems with the production of organic fertilizer, as they do in Mexico City now (translation for my young children: we can use human poop and pee to help grow more food).

Soon we’ll move into a series of workshops on the Nile Basin as a global case study in managing a big, common resource. I’ll be writing less about that, because I have to manage the sessions. But I’ll keep the flow of words from Tällberg — this writing helps me process the vast flood of incoming information — coming as steady as I can.

Camping at Tällberg – Episode 1

TallbergPhoto_1_50Bo Ekman formally opens the 2009 Tällberg Forum in his traditional way — philosophically, and a bit theatrically. He asks us to just listen to the drip-drip-drip of a water drop, shown in video on the big screen. He reflects on the “the change of change” — we used to think of nature as the most stable and slow-changing of the core architectural elements of our planet. On the back of nature, we built what he calls “constitutions,” the legal systems, norms, and traditions. On top of that come things like infrastructure and technology and ultimately the fleeting fashions of our day. But now, he says, nature has moved up in this league. Nature is changing faster than things like infrastructure. It’s no longer stable, reliable. Glaciers on Greenland are moving more than three times faster than they were just ten years ago. (Bo’s been going to Greenland annually for 10 years.)

Bo sits on a stump positioned right in the middle of the stage. He invites us all to sit on stumps like this, positioned around the Tällberg, and just talk with nature, facilitate our intuition during these days of reflection on the impossible tasks of our time, the “fiascos’ as he calls them, the embarrassments of unfulfilled promises like the MDGs, collapse of our ecosystem, the obvious fiasco of the financial crash.

Then we hear from President Mori of Micronesia. His nation will be partially inundated by climate change, perhaps even in our lifetimes. He is moving in his humility and earnestness about the need for a dream. We must launch our dream here, he says. Then he reports on a dream launched by the five presidents or chief executives (two of them head US territories) of the nations in his vast Pacific region. I have to say, it does not strike me as dreamlike: they are pledged to conserve 30% of near-ocean resources, and 20% of land resources, by 2020. This is surely wonderful. But I wonder: if our dreams now consist of saving of small fractional pieces of small pieces of our planet’s natural systems …

There is music, “inter-punctuation,” and now Rwanda’s Foreign Minister is speaking. She pokes Bo Ekman verbally, because he has just invoked the memory of his visit to a Gorilla reserve in Rwanda (slide image behind him: baby gorilla, with the word “vision” under it) and even imitated their sounds very effectively (“I’m very good at gorillas,” he says). “I’ll send you a bill,” says the Foreign Minister, “for using our gorilla sounds without patent rights.”

Rwanda’s president Kagame was meant to be giving this address. When visiting clients in Entebbe, the Nile Basin Initiative, earlier this year, I and my colleague Audace Ndaizeye had thought, “Maybe we could get the Tällberg Forum to invite President Kagame to address the Forum. That would be good for the region, and good for NBI.” So I wrote an email suggesting this. I received a very prompt reply, informing me that Bo Ekman was in Rwanda at that moment and that President Kagame had been invited already and had accepted. Our thoughts had paralleled Tällberg’s, completely independently. The synchronicity was stunning.

But anyway, he is not here — I don’t know exactly why, but I do know that the Swedish government did not exactly roll out the red carpet.

The Foreign Minister is now telling the Rwanda story, which of course is an amazing tale of rebuilding — without forgetting — after the worst of human catastrophes. When traveling there myself recently, I was as struck as most people told me I would be by the cleanliness of Kigali, the capital city. The country is now one of the most stable and corruption free (maybe, the most) in the region.

After this opening session of this annual gathering of this sustainable development tribe, under the big tent in the little village of Tällberg in Sweden, I will go down to Lake Siljan. You see, I’m not staying in one of these lovely hotels this year, enjoying the lovely restaurant dinners, etc. I’m camping by the lake. Eating simply. Reducing my footprint, and increasing my sense of pleasure in being at this lovely place, and this special long-sun, bright-night time of year.

It’s not a “statement.” It’s just … what feels like the right thing to do. I like begin by this lake. The photo of me playing the guitar that is on top of this blog was taken at this lake, Siljan, last year. I intend to be doing a lot of exactly the same thing — working on new songs, by the lake — this year too.

Karaoke in Beijing is Part of My Job

Beijing's First Pyramid of Sustainable Development, at People's Education Press, 22 May 2009

Beijing's First Pyramid of Sustainable Development, at People's Education Press, 22 May 2009 (click to enlarge)

If you had seen me strolling with my colleagues into the cavernous Partyworld, a deluxe marble-and-chandeliers karaoke center in the center of Beijing, you would have been forgiven for not believing me if I told you that I was working.

When you are a visiting speaker/consultant/trainer in Asia, and the evening’s planned activities include karaoke, well, karaoke is part of the job.  These activities cement group bonds, and increase (one hopes) the chances that the time you have spent learning together will make a lasting and spreading impact.

Plus, through the karaoke session (which lasted something close to five hours), I learned a lot about China.  Sometimes the song texts were translated to me, and the music videos were explained — “this song is coming from the indigenous people in my home province” — and sometimes we just talked, loudly, while others sang. Sometimes I got commentaries:  “This song [a lovely woman in a black and white evening gown is crooning about Chairman Mao] was very popular in the 1980s,” I was told.  Or:  “This girl is from Taiwan [she is dancing in a school uniform, the ambiguous phrase “Taiwan Only” appears often in the video’s background] and very popular”.  Occasional English words and phrases like “One Night in Beijing” or “Cinderella” show up in the song texts; those parts I can sing no problem, and then I can pretty much infer, from those little samples and the imagery, what the rest of the song is about.

I brought my guitar to Partyworld, and when it was my turn to sing (it is eventually everybody’s turn), we turned off the sound system and I did a couple of my own songs, “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On” and “Balaton”. I’m actually not very good at karaoke, so by singing my own songs, I avoided butchering too many pop classics — with the exception of “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters, which, I confess, pushed my own 1970s nostalgia buttons.  Apparently, the Carpenters are very popular in China.

But I wasn’t to get off so easily.  My colleague from Sweden, Marie Neeser, recruited me to help when it was her turn to sing, so we played up our Swedish identities and did a couple of Abba numbers. We acquitted ourselves admirably, as the British would say … which is another way of saying we got through it without any major calamities.

Besides the karaoke, I am in China to teach workshops on the ISIS Method, Pyramid, Amoeba, and strategic change agentry to groups of education officials, researchers, and teachers. We did a one-day Pyramid at the People’s Education Press (China’s largest textbook publisher), and an Amoeba session at this eco-conference center on the outskirts of Beijing. Working through interpreters, I can’t follow everything that happens; but I can set the processes in motion, and watch them, and get snippets of translation.  Fortunately, the workshop processes appear to be working just as they usually do.

The physical Pyramid built here in Beijing was unique — no wooden sticks, they were “too expensive.”  Instead, they found colored plastic tubing, cut it in small pieces, and stapled these together to make the triangles!  This “new technology” worked just fine; perhaps this is the version that will spread now into China’s schools system.

If my writing today is less than scintillating, well, let’s just say that I am lucky to be able to write at all, after our celebratory dinner last night.  The rice wine was flowing, and as with karaoke, it was very often my turn to perform.  I am still recovering today from this “performance.”

I leave Beijing now for Shanghai, where I have not been since 1982.  I expect it will be a little different …

How I Got Lost at the United Nations

In twenty-one years of work on sustainability, I have never before attended a UN meeting. Even when the big sustainability conferences happened (Rio ’92, Johannesburg ’02), I stayed home, content to keep working on projects that were more specific, less global. In fact, even though I lived in New York for years, on two occasions, I have never before set foot in the United Nations Secretariat building. So it is no wonder that I wandered around the Secretariat offices for half an hour looking for a specific conference hall. I’ll explain the meeting I was here to attend in a minute. First, here is how I got lost, and found again, on my way to a briefing for ministers and delegates on current climate science.

UN Headquarters in NY (from Wikipedia)

UN Headquarters in NY (from Wikipedia)

The UN is — obviously — very diverse. People of every sort, languages of every inflection swirl around you here. But in all that diversity, it was rather difficult to find someone who could tell me where I was supposed to go. “Go to the sixth floor ECOSOC conference room,” I had been told, only to find out that there was no such thing. (It did, however, seem possible to get a Ukrainian tranlsator on that floor. I must have mis-heard the instructions.) So I wandered here and there, kind people pointing me to various erroneous destinations. One elevator operator, once I finally got pointed in the right direction (ECOSOC is on the 2nd floor) told me that this could not be right, as I was not allowed to get off on that floor. Only delegates were. So he let me off on the 3rd floor, I found the chamber, entered the upstairs balcony, and then walked down the aisle stairs to the main floor. (I stepped over a high security velvet rope to do this). And there, in the main chamber, Katherine Richardson was already into her presentation.

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Letter from Sweden: The State of the End of the World

The Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm is always a good place to spend a seminar morning on a beautiful Spring day, even when the topic is far from cheery. This is the day, called Valborg, when Swedes, in their several millions, gather around great bonfires to celebrate the coming of Spring. Male choruses sing songs of fertility and virility, the water of life (akvavit, schnaps) makes its inevitable appearance, and great piles of wood are converted into carbon dioxide and water and particulate matter, in a great whoosh of flame. Yes, this was the perfect day to receive an interdisciplinary update on global warming.

Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm

Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm

The 100th in a series of Stockholm Seminars featured a star cast of scientific minds, including Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton, a lead author of the IPCC Report; Johan Rockström and Carl Folke, who together lead the Stockholm Resilience Center; Johan Kleman, an expert on ice sheets and how they melt; and several others. The topic was climate, ecosystems, and development, and the many ways in which their fates are inseparable.

And, potentially, quite bleak. “There is no good news from science right now,” said Johan Rockström. A recent meeting of 2,400 scientists in Copenhagen had concluded that the worst scenarios of the IPCC Fourth Assessment report were being realized. The “Quadruple Squeeze” of human growth, climate change, ecosystem degradation and ever-more-likely “surprises” was making the photo of planet Earth on his presentation slide look wobbly indeed. He named four dilemmas, each with a numerical signature:

• The 20/80 dilemma, with the 20% of Earth’s population that is rich causing most of the damage that could prevent the 80% that is poor of achieving their material aspirations.

• The 550/450/350 dilemma, where the world seems committed to a 550 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide level even though 350 — or lower — is what may be necessary to preserve a stable climate.

• The 60%-loss dilemma, meaning, the sharp decay of the world’s ecosystems, precisely at the moment when we need strong ecosystems to buffer the shock of a changing/warming climate.

• And the 99/1 dilemma, meaning the increasing chance that unlikely things will happen — unpleasant surprises of various kinds, issuing out of the combined changes in social, economic, and ecological systems (think global food price shocks, times 10).

Phrases like “crisis,” “looming disaster,” and “worst-case scenario” are commonplace in the climate-and-ecosystems-and-development debate. Still, they take on a special weight when uttered in the room next to where the Nobel Prizes in science are decided. Not all was doom and gloom, as we shall see, but I could not help feeling a certain relief in knowing that later today, I would be drinking beer with friends in the crisp, clear, lengthening evenings of Sweden. I had the feeling I was going to need it.

One thing to cross off my list of global disasters to worry about is probably sea level rise. Not that it isn’t happening, or won’t happen — it is, and it will. By the end of the century, Johan Kleman told us, we’re looking at about an 85 centimeter (say 3 feet) rise from melting ice. That’s terrible news for Bangladesh, Alexandria, and New York City. But it’s not the worst news. Why?

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