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

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

Facebook Frenzy

As anybody actually watching me digitally will already know, I recently got more caught up with Facebook.  Clicked through a bunch of friend requests.  I still have over a hundred outstanding requests — for causes, games, you-name-it — but those I just have to ignore.  Here’s a note I drafted to try to explain why it took me so long to say yes to so many people … thanks for your understanding!

Dear Facebook friends,

With my deepest apologies for a group note, and for the slowness of a reply … I am happy to be connected. And let me explain my slowness in replying to your invitation.

I had dozens of outstanding friend requests.  Previously, when I started using Facebook, I had a policy of just having fairly close personal friends, family, and professional colleagues as “friends” on Facebook. I let requests from lots of wonderful folks that I had met more briefly, or knew through others but had not met personally, just pile up. I didn’t want to click “Ignore,” but I wasn’t sure how to respond either. Then, people I did know pretty well, or whom I had known long ago, also showed up and got stuck in that pile — high school friends, for example … and anyway, the whole thing just sort of got out of control.

So, I have a new policy of welcoming all these connections, and thinking differently about how I use Facebook, about what it’s for.

Thanks for reaching out!  I look forward to staying connected …

Alan

Climate Change Adaptation: from Big Taboo to Business Opportunity

Read my recent article on climate change adaptation generated a surprising amount of response. I will be focusing more and more on climate change adaptation issues in times ahead, both because I believe we all need to be paying more attention to it, and because my professional work with clients like the Nile Basin Initiative is requiring it.  Here is the link to the full article:  Link >>

What is the GDP, Anyway?

As the world spins deeper into economic recession (is anyone formally using the word “depression” yet?), it seems appropriate to take a look at the number by which we measure such things:  the  Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.  This mega-statistic is the indicator used by countries since WWII to measure their growth, and is by far the dominant measure of overall national progress. And yet, the creator of the GDP, Simon Kuznets, actually warned the United States Congress against using it to measure national progress.  In this video excerpt (of a lecture given in Australia in 2001), I recount the history of the GDP.  I also once wrote a song about the GDP — yes, a song, sung to the tune of a lively Latvian melody — but more about that later.

Food, Fuel and Fiber? The Challenge of Using the Earth to Grow Energy

This article was commissioned by the Japanese energy magazine “Global Edge,” and reprinted also at Worldchanging.com.

* * *

cornfieldIn May of 2008, while visiting Jakarta, I came across a newspaper story about a protest there.  Hundreds of people had gathered in front of the gates of a charitable NGO whose mission was to feed poor people. The NGO was simply unable to provide enough rice, tofu and other staples to meet the need.  The newspaper explained that the protest had been triggered by the global spike in food prices, which made some staple items unaffordable or — thanks to export freezes — unavailable. But poor, hungry people are not able to differentiate between the “invisible hands” of global markets, and the visible hands that are directly feeding them. The people had come to regard this NGO as something like an “official agency” for food distribution, so they took their unhappiness directly to its door. Continue reading