All posts by Alan AtKisson

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

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.

Continue reading How I Got Lost at the United Nations

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.

DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE ICE SHEETS
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?

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

My Earth Day in Africa

I’m reading an article in Scientific American’s magazine “Earth 3.0” about some airlines testing new, greener jet fuels. But I’m here in Entebbe, Uganda airport, about to fly with very ordinary Jet A Kerosene on Kenya Airways to Nairobi. Surreally, an old Star Trek movie is on the television. Of course, I spent most of the day supporting a climate change strategy meeting for the Nile Basin Initiative. Whether or not this clears my “carbon conscience” about the emissions involved this is my Earth Day 2009 fate.

In previous years, I’ve often been an Earth Day keynote speaker somewhere. In 1994, for example, I gave the keynote for celebrations at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, USA — even though I wasn’t a big fan then of the Earth Day concept itself.

“I’m not very happy about the existence of Earth Day,” I told medium-sized crowd gathered in blustery outdoor venue. “The mere fact that we must dedicate a special day to raising our awareness about the health of our natural home is a warning signal of the highest order.”

Imagine, I wrote then, that we were so distanced from our own bodies — so prone to poisoning them, overstretching their capacities, wearing them down faster than they could regenerate etc. — that we decided to create a day called “Body Day,” to try to raise awareness about the fact that we have (or are) bodies. Wouldn’t that be a very bad sign?

Come to think of it, maybe we do need a Body Day.

“Soil and water, air and sunlight … these should be sources of continuous and universal joy, gratitude and celebration — not chronic grief and worry ritualized once a year,” I wrote in 1994.

My, how Earth Day has changed in fifteen years.

Now Google changes its famous logo to a naturescape on Earth Day. Now CNN changes it red logo to green for the day, and reports on how the Chinese are positioning themselves to storm the world with electric cars. Now the US Environmental Protection Agency — a by-product of the first Earth Day — is preparing to regulate carbon dioxide as a dangerous emission. Now I’m reading a whole new sustainability magazine published by Scientific American.

And I’m no longer exhorting university students to love the Earth on Earth Day. Instead, I’ve been quietly typing up notes on a planned series of studies, meetings, workshops etc. designed to help one of the poorest regions on the planet get ready to cope with being one of the first and most hard-hit victims of global warming.

Back in 1994, I wrote about how we should be “redesigning our economy … rebuilding our infrastructure … rededicating ourselves” to making wiser choices. I made a call not for revolution, but for “accelerated evolution.”

To what extent has that happened, over fifteen years of Earth Days? To what extent is it happening, can it happen? That’s a question I’m currently exploring.

On the TV here in the bar, the Star Trek gang is still fighting a bunch of ghoulish aliens.  And once a year, some of us still stop and nod a bit to this planetary body we call our home, in hopes that this will help us learn to live on it sustainably.

Plus ça change …

An Old Song Rises Up Again Now

In The ISIS Agreement, I write about the first time I used songs and songwriting in the context of giving a keynote speech. One of the songs from that time has come strongly into my mind these last days. Why?

Frankly, it’s not one of my best songs, as I would judge it now. The lyric is a bit melodramatic, the melody something like a cross between a hymn and a march, called “And We Rise.” I haven’t sung it in years, and it doesn’t appear on any of my CDs. It was my first attempt (at the request of Donella Meadows) to get the word “sustainability” into a song (actually, I only managed to get “sustain” into the lyric).

But when I agreed to substitute for Wangari Maathai as opening speaker for the 1992 International Conference of the Institute for Cultural Affairs, in Prague, I had to do something, I felt, to bring a feeling of inspiration into the room. That song was one of the results. The song was actually translated into Czech, and copies of the Czech and English text were included in the participant packets. At the end of my speech, all the delegates sang “And We Rise” with me … and they actually did rise.  (I joked later that it was my sneaky way to get a standing ovation.)

So why is the song coming back to mind, now? [read on to why out why and to see the text] …

Continue reading An Old Song Rises Up Again Now

Exponential Growth Rocks On

At the closing banquet of the EARCOS teachers conference (I had been the opening keynote speaker) in Kota Kinabalu, one of the bands called me up on the stage to do an improvisational, rock version of my song “Exponential Growth.” Linda Sills, Assoc. Dir. of EARCOS, captured the call-and-response moment on her phone camera …

"Let me hear you sing, Exponential Growth!"
"Let me hear you sing, Exponential Growth!"

The Asian Brown Cloud Up Close and Personal

On a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, 24 March 2009, I caught a direct visual impression of the Asian Brown Cloud — brown haze below, blue sky above. I immediately used the resulting images in the keynote speech I gave there, in two slides, as part of a section on the need for good indicators.  “Sometimes we can see what’s happening with our own eyes … and sometimes we can’t.”

Return to Pusat Pertolongan

“Pusat Pertolongan” means “Help Center” in Malay, and it was a drug addiction rehabilitation center in Malaysia. Founded by a former German Catholic priest who converted to Islam, it operated out of a former home for victims of leprosy or TB (I am not sure which) in the town of Batu Gajah, near the city of Ipoh.

And I lived and worked there from 1981-82, as a Henry Luce Scholar, on a one-year assignment.

atkisson_pusat_090401-11
Alan AtKisson beside entrance sign for Pusat Pertolongan, 1 Apr 2009

The program was modeled on the highly confrontational, behavioral, sometimes psychologically brutal self-help program at Daytop Village on Staten Island.  Mostly, therapists were ex-junkies themselves.  Somehow, even though I was just 21 years old, the farthest thing from an ex-junkie, and the only non-Malaysian in the place, the management decided I should be the Officer in Charge and Therapist to the senior residents in the program.

I was not very effective as a therapist to Malaysian junkies. So I kept requesting that I be demoted. Finally, in a foreshadowing of my future career, I found my place as staff trainer and organizational consultant.  (The story is summarized in my book The Sustainability Transformation.)

In April 2009, I found myself in Malaysia on other business, with an extra day or so before I could fly home.  So I went to Ipoh, hired a car and driver, and went out to Batu Gajah, looking for Pusat Pertolongan.  Thanks to the kindliness of the local residents, I found it.

Continue reading Return to Pusat Pertolongan