One can be forgiven the narcissistic act of googling oneself when one is on vacation. Curiosity arises. There is ample free time. It has been a long while since I checked my Google search results, and checking such things is a necessary act of personal hygiene in the digital age. If people ask the Internet about me, what are they currently being told?
So I type “alan atkisson” into my phone’s browser to see what comes up.
Two surprises: (1) Google now serves up, as the first thing you see, a formatted profile of the person whose name you have searched for, if they have any kind of public presence. Google tells you who they are and what they do, before serving you the usual list of search results. (2) I have such a Google profile. And it isn’t “Sustainability expert” (my job for 30 years) or “Swedish international development official” (my current job).
It’s “Musical artist.”
It is difficult to know what to make of this result. I might have expected “Author”: my books have sold tens of thousands of copies, far more than my albums. In fact, for most of my life, I have thought of myself principally as a writer who happened to work as an organizational leader and advisor.
But Google says different.
On what basis has it made this surprising determination of my primary professional identity?
Definitely not income. Since 1988 (the year I started working in sustainability) my total revenues earned purely from music probably don’t add up to a single annual salary — in any profession.
Perhaps this surprising internet search result is a reflection of our global culture’s fascination with pop music and musical artistry generally. Google’s AI prioritized my lifetime of mostly-on-the-side activity as a singer, songwriter and guitarist because that’s what the world values most: musical entertainment.
Consider this fact: based on the number of Google “hits” you get when you search on their names, Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran are nearly ten times more important than Antonio Guterres and Greta Thunberg. (I hope you know who the latter two are.)
Following this logic, with my six studio albums, a UN-recognized climate-change single (“Set the World Right Again”) and a very UN-y music video that is approaching 50,000 views (“We Love the SDGs”), I qualify as a “Musical artist.” So that is what gets prioritized by Google, despite the fact that sustainable development has been my professional focus for decades.
Not even being in the “International Sustainability Hall of Fame” is enough to bring that identity to the forefront in Google’s data-driven eyes, because sustainability is just nowhere near as important as music. (A search on “sustainability” gets nearly a billion Google hits, but “music” gets ten times that many.)
Of course, it could be that this is a message — something I should listen to the way people once listened to the Oracle of Delphi. Maybe the AI algorithms, in their all-knowing wisdom, have stared into the currents of the world and deduced something fundamental about me that I have failed to recognize in myself.
It is true (and I have written about this in my books) that I would never have been invited to certain key sustainability conferences and meetings early in my career were it not for the fact that I also played guitar. Later, even large companies and government agencies, for whom I worked as a senior advisor on economic or scientific issues, would occasionally insist that I also perform a song or two as part of my engagement with them. Often the inclusion of a musical interlude was a condition for getting certain speaking or consulting gigs. (On a few occasions, however, I also had to reassure a worried executive or government official that I was not going to sing unless explicitly asked to.)
Given all these reflections, I have decided to take Google’s message to heart and to consider it an honor – instead of a puzzlement – that the world’s greatest web search algorithm considers me to be, first and foremost, a Musical artist.
To be clear, I will not be changing jobs. Working at Sida, serving as Assistant Director-General of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is a true joy. Every day, I have the honor of leading a large department and contributing to the overall management of one of the world’s leading development organizations, working to finance and facilitate sustainable development. It’s an amazing “day job”.
But thanks to Google and its AI-powered oracle, I might start playing my guitar, and singing my songs, just a little more often.
This morning I pulled out my old Martin D-2832 — a mass-produced model from the early 1980s, my first “serious” guitar — and got just as much joy from running my fingers over the grooved and smooth metal of its strings as the first time I played it, sitting on an amp at the Sam Ash music store in midtown Manhattan. Compared to the forgettable beginner-guitar I was using at the time, the Martin was a revelation. Once I held it, and heard it, I had to have it. Four hundred twenty-five dollars was a lot of money then, especially to me — a month’s wages. Measured in pleasure, it is the best investment I ever made.
Martins are not easy to play, but they reward the diligent. At first, I could barely make a decent-sounding chord. My hands had to strengthen, my dexterity had to become more precise. But I learned. I have strummed and finger-picked that instrument for 27 years now, recorded several albums with it, written the vast majority of my songs on it. To the extent that I can call myself a guitarist, it is thanks to that guitar, and I was known in my early days occasionally to sleep with it (when I snoozed off with the instrument still in my hands, late of an evening).
The loyalty has paid off: even if I practically ignore it for months, my first-love guitar now reminds me how to find the chord, the pattern, the tone, just by picking it up again. It re-teaches me the songs I learned, or wrote, decades ago. It encourages repetition, which is the basic secret of becoming a musician (or most anything), by hinting at a nuance of tone or emphasis that I missed the first time around, which stimulates a longing to try again. And it brings enormous satisfaction when the nuance is found.
My guitar reminds me of places, because many of my strongest memories were cemented into my mind by the addition of a song, written or performed at the behest of a specific site. “Midsummer Island” was composed on Utö in the Swedish archipelago. “The Last Dice” assembled itself in Istanbul. “Goin’ to the Top” came out on a quay next the Sydney Opera House. In each case, I did not say to myself, “This would be a good place to write a song.” It was more like this: a song emerged in my mind and said, “This would be a good place to write me.”
My Martin was always my principal travel guitar, so it has been with me in dozens of countries. The accumulation of distance traversed shows in its many small cracks and dents, which mirror similar features that seem to have accumulated on my own face. These days I rarely travel with the guitar, because airlines have made that harder and harder, and because my work travel now (as a Swedish government official) never includes a musical performance, in the way that my work trips routinely used to.
But that is not a sad fact. That history of extensive travel is now a part of the guitar itself, part of its personality, part of what I automatically think about when I pull it out of the soft zippered bag that has always protected it just enough, but not too much.
I have other guitars, of course — a fine bright Taylor that I use principally for recording now, a relatively new classical that outclasses me and delights with its watery tone, and my old electric, an ESP strat, hand-built from parts by the legendary Mark Dann of Greenwich Village (a talented bass player who was a mainstay of the “Speakeasy” and “Fast Folk” singer-songwriter crowd).
I love all my instruments, of course. But not equally.
Approaching 60 years of age, I wonder now at the future of me and my guitars. Will they outlast me, or me them? If I live to my 80s, will I have as much pleasure in the composition or repetition of a song as I did sitting on a Greyhound bus in 1980s, crossing some piece of the US while lightly plucking the metal strings, creating whispers of sound so as not to wake the sleepers around me, finding the right progression or hammer-stroke to illustrate the ache in the middle of a moment of beauty?
There is a certain ding, a concave depression in the shape of a fingernail, on the lower face of my Martin that was acquired on that specific journey. The bus trip, the song, the moment when a loose buckle on my backpack smacked the soft wood of the Martin — I remember it all well.
This is the second installment of my personal newsletter, Words&Music. To receive this in your inbox, sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9
Global poverty. Climate change. Political uncertainty. Swedish development aid. Financial markets. The United Nations and the World Bank. The challenge of learning to lead a complex department, in a complex public agency, in complex times.
These are a few of the things that have been on my mind the past six months. Certainly I intended to write to you more often. I also believed, perhaps naively, that I would continue working on my current book, digitally scribbling away at poetry, prepping for an eventual return to the recording studio.
Instead, I have been completely engrossed in my job.
And this has been very rewarding: I am lucky to be leading a department full of smart, committed, and friendly people, as well as sitting on an overall management team that can be similarly described. I’ve also had the honor of representing Sida at the annual meetings of the World Bank and UN General Assembly. I’ve had literally hundreds of meetings during this time, received thousands of emails, signed dozens of decision documents.
There has been a lot to learn, and there remains a lot to be learned. It’s never-ending, of course. But finally, this weekend, I found myself thinking of you — the people who signed up for my newsletter, up to half a year ago.
So much has happened during that half-year. The most profound change, from my personal point of view, has been the change in my own perspective. Immersion in the governmental and inter-governmental machinery of sustainable development, including the interfaces between governments and companies and non-profits and academic institutions, is quite different from advising those entities as an external consultant (which was my principal profession over the past 25 years).
For one thing, as a decision-maker, I now depend on the advice and the work of others. It quickly becomes impossible to set oneself into the details of every issue (as a consultant I always dug into the details). I must trust my colleagues. They present the results of their analyses, describe the logic they have used to arrive at a proposed course of action. If it makes sense to me, I approve it, cheer them on, or carry it forward for discussion at the leadership level. If I am not fully convinced, or if I see areas that I believe can or must be improved in some way, we look together at the relevant details of those aspects that seem problematic, till we arrive at a good conclusion. (And I’m not always right, of course.)
On the other hand, if I have an idea for a course of action, it makes no sense for me to simply “just do it”. There is a vast library of relevant knowledge and experience, a great team, sitting all around me. I don’t have to do anything of scale on my own; in fact, it’s part of my job not to do things on my own, but to mobilize, inspire, support others to do that work (and much other work besides, including everything that we are already tasked with doing, by the Swedish government or by our agency’s Director-General).
And sometimes it turns out that “my idea” has actually been incubated elsewhere, by others, somewhere inside my agency, for some time: then my job becomes one of supporting my colleagues and helping that idea find its way to a bigger life.
I have a new-found appreciation for people like Wallace Stevens, already one of my favorite poets of the 20th Century, who managed to write his poems and essays while also working as a top executive in a large insurance company. If he could do it, I say to myself, eventually so can I.
This is by no means a complaint. I assume you have been reading between the lines of the letter and understanding how much I love this job. I am keenly aware that responsibility is a privilege. So I have been giving that responsibility my all.
But after a half-year, I am finally re-discovering life outside my job. (Not my family life — they have always been at the center of my little corner of the universe.) There are poems to write, songs to sing, a few books I want to continue developing.
And there is you — the much-appreciated people who indicated, by signing up for this newsletter, that you were interested in what I am thinking and writing and/or singing. I hope you are following me on social media (if you like social media — Twitter is my principal channel). You will get a mix there of work-related and personal views on the world.
But I will be back to you soon with news about the other stuff: my longer-term project to write a book on developing the human capacity to imagine our future (in more constructive ways than we do currently), and shorter-term projects to bring nearly-completed work out into the public sphere.
Thanks again for your continued interest … and just for fun, here’s one of my old songs that might be of interest, because it seems (to me) more and more timely with each passing year: “Trying to be Happy in a Crazy World“. The link is to a free YouTube version. You can also listen to it on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon etc. Lyrics are pasted in below. (Don’t miss the little twist in the lyric on the very last refrain.)
Open up the paper — turn on the news —
Get a double dose of the daily blues
And the man in the mirror, he’s struggling free
Like he’s swimming up from the bottom of the sea, he’s …
Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Sometimes history seems like a practical joke
That ends with a planet going up in smoke
We’re slippin’ and slidin’ — it’s a banana peel dance
Are we just the victims of global circumstance? Are we …
Trying to be happy in a crazy world …
Well it’s hard to keep your hope when there’s such trouble in the world
The thorns among the roses, the swine who eat the pearls
And it seems so very hard to love just one human being
When it happens, the joy makes the angels sing
Maybe life’s a riddle — or maybe it’s school
Maybe we’re a family of hopeless fools
Maybe we’re just tired of livin’ on a little blue ball
We’re playin’ dangerous games that make no sense at all — Maybe we’re
Trying to be crazy in a happy world
Trying to be crazy in a happy world
Trying to be crazy in a happy world
In May 2018, I assumed a new professional position, working as Director of the Department of Partnership & Innovation at Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.
Becoming a public official in Sweden caused a number of other changes in my life, including (of course) the closure of my consulting business, as well as handing off or stepping down from many projects that I had pursued for years. I was fortunate to have a network of wonderful colleagues, formerly called the “AtKisson Group,” to whom I could pass on certain initiatives and products — the tools I created, for example, are now managed by the Sustainability Accelerator Network. To get the story of this transition in full, see the final edition of my company newsletter, WaveFront, which is published here: http://AtKisson.com/the-last-wavefront/
But while I have stopped being a consultant, I continue to be a writer and a musician, and I continue to work in the field of sustainable development. Here on my personal website, I will continue to post information about my books, articles, poems, songs, music, and whatever else I come up with. And I will continue to blog and post on Twitter and other social media.
To keep interested readers up to date, I have also (re-)launched a new (old) email newsletter, called “Words&Music”. There are certain overlaps between the newsletter and this website, but they are not identical. My blog includes public statements and is focused largely on professional matters. Words&Music is a private, personal letter, sent irregularly, about unpredictable topics. It’s free of course, but you have to actively sign up if you want to receive it.
When you sign up, you will receive the first Welcome email. It will tell you about the inspiration for Words&Music (via my mentor Donella Meadows and her “Dear Folks” letters). And it will lead you to — among other things — the under-construction website for my 1997 long poem, Chronosphere.
This short post was originally published on the now-defunct website Worldchanging.com, in 2007. The story of Chydenius serves as a good reminder of the importance of maintaining a free press and the right of public access to government information — principles that seem increasingly under attack around the world. The text has been slightly updated.
In 2016, the Finland-based Anders Chydenius Foundation celebrated the 250th anniversary of the world’s first Freedom of Information Act. Sweden and Finland were one big empire in those days, and the Swedish-Finnish law — passed in 1766, two hundred years before a similar law was passed by the U.S. Congress and ensuring open access to all government papers and other kinds of information under a “principle of public access” — was largely the product of one man’s visionary ethical ideas.
Anders Cydenius was the Finnish political thinker and clergyman who proposed the “Law on Freedom of Information” as part of a set of political reforms that worked their way through the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) of its day. Chydenius also wrote passionately about equality, free trade, universal human rights, liberal capitalism, and especially the rights of the poor. He is one of the most influential thinkers in the early development of the politics, economics, and values base for what has become known as the “Nordic Model.”
According to the short Wikipedia article about him, Chydenius “was also a scientist and skilled eye-surgeon, the maker of several inventions, a pioneer of vaccination in Finland and the founder of an orchestra.”
But apart from such short encyclopedia notices, it would be hard for an English-speaker to learn much about Chydenius. A modern biography by Finnish historian Pentti Virrankoski (Anders Chydenius: Democratic politician of the Enlightenment, 1986) appears not to be translated into English. Two books on Chydenius’s contributions to an open society and freedom of information have been published recently, by the relatively new Anders Chydenius Foundation; and these books (in Finnish and Swedish) include very short English summaries. But as one of the contributors notes, “there is no summary English account [of Chydenius work] directed toward an international public.”
I stumbled upon Chydenius while researching economic history. His work The National Gain (1765) preceded Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (widely considered the founding treatise of modern economics) by eleven years. Chydenius’ earlier work covered much of the same territory — including a description of the process that Smith would later call “the invisible hand.”
Even in this super-connected age, news sometimes travels slow. While you probably never heard of him, Chydenius was an inspiring, world-changing figure. His ideas about openness and freedom have had a big impact on your life — and they continue to do so, especially every time you read the news.
This was originally published in 2015 on my personal Facebook page just before I launched my North Star column on GreenBiz. If anything, the situation I attempted to describe three years ago in this popular-audience piece (written while on a trans-Atlantic flight) has continued to intensify, so I am republishing it again now.
Dear Future Generations:
I’m sure it’s obvious to you — you can see things better than we can, in hindsight — but I want to report to you that we are living through a time of dramatic change. Historic change. The kind of moment where everything seems to be balanced on a knife edge, and it could tip either way.
I am writing to you from Stockholm, Sweden. I’ll start with what is happening here, then I’ll paint you a global picture. Because it’s all connected.
Not long ago, this was a quiet little corner of Europe, a place where everything “worked.” There was essentially no poverty. No homeless people. There was a shared belief in something we called “solidarity.”
We don’t use that word much any more. In a few short years, we now have beggars on every street corner. There are people here who have fled from poverty or war, only to wind up living in tents, or sports halls, or outside on the street. Many thousands more war refugees, after traveling thousands of miles, are knocking on our door — so many that our government just decided to close that door. This is a pattern being repeated in many other countries, too. (Though one country, Canada, just decided to open their previously closed door. Good for them.)
Meanwhile, our “Western” part of the world is reeling from a series of small but extremely violent, deadly, and scary attacks — we call it “terrorism” — whose purpose is to strike fear into people’s hearts, ratchet up tensions, and provoke us into global war. The strategy is almost working. Our extreme right wing political groups are gaining strength, countries are rattling swords, and demagogues reminiscent of the 1930s are rising up amongst us. (Unfortunately, these populist rage-baiters have access to technologies far more powerful than the microphones used by Hitler and Mussolini.)
Meanwhile, it’s warm this winter — again. According to global data, this year is the warmest our modern, industrial civilization has ever measured. And we (as you well know) are the ones warming things up. That’s not all we’re doing to the planet, either. Huge alarm bells are ringing for Nature, everywhere. Some of us are trying to wrestle down our overall “footprint” on this Earth. But so far, humanity’s “foot” keeps pressing down harder and heavier, pinning us to the mat.
We’re also struggling to leave a bit of wildness for you to enjoy, but it’s extremely hard work. All it takes is a small number of uncaring or greedy or needy or ignorant people to destroy wild Nature — by setting fire to Sumatra, say, or poaching African elephants. I’d like to be able to say about these people, “They know not what they do.” But in fact, they know exactly what they are doing. And there are global markets ready to absorb the “profits” of their illegal activities. They are extremely clever about getting past our increasingly desperate defenses, too. It’s starting to seem obvious why the mammoth, the dodo, and the passenger pigeon are no longer with us: it only takes one of us to kill the last of anything.
That sounds like a pretty bleak picture, and it is. A dismal thought crosses my mind at least once a day: we could all too easily tumble into an abyss of war, political dystopia, and ecological catastrophe.
But that’s the bad news, one side of the knife edge. The other side — the good news — is, well, surprisingly good.
Despite dangerous and viral pockets of poverty and war, our human population is overall getting less poor, and less violent. We have made amazing strides in providing people with education, better access to food and energy and health care, a sense of hope for their children’s future. We have far to go — hundreds of millions are still living in misery — but many trends are moving rapidly in the right direction. We just need to figure out how to keep those positive trends going, while not destroying the planet’s ecosystems, and before social instabilities make the challenge insurmountable.
But there is good news on the action side, too. This year, the world’s governments completed an unprecedented series of global agreements. Recently, they finalized a new deal on climate change that was better than most of us hoped for — even if we know it is still not enough and will have to be improved later. We also have, for the first time, a truly global vision and a set of global goals for where all of humanity should be heading. You probably take the idea of “SDGs” (Sustainable Development Goals) for granted by now. For us, they were an unprecedented historic breakthrough.
We are even starting to understand the fundamental principle that “everything is connected to everything else” — and we are starting to build that principle into our government policies, corporate strategies, and community development programs. It’s not just talk, either: I am watching serious change happen, with my own eyes, every day.
Given everything happening now in our world — the good, the bad, and the ugly, to borrow an old movie title — I find myself thinking about you more and more.
It seems like this time, this specific time, is really going to be decisive for you. Our descendants.
So I just want you to know: things are really, really shaky just now. We’ve had global war before, kicked off by similarly unstable conditions. So we know, unfortunately, that it’s all too possible to fall into that huge and deadly trap.
We also know what it’s like to fudge and hedge and not do what is necessary to secure the health of Nature, and the wellbeing of People — because we are seeing the consequences of insufficient action, on the global scale, right now. We are finally waking up to the fact that these two things, human happiness and ecological integrity, must go together. When they don’t … well, among other things, we get the conditions we are struggling with in Sweden, and many other places, right now.
Basically, we know what failure looks like. And we can see all too clearly that failure, when it comes to managing our presence on planet Earth sustainably, is still a possibility.
But we also know — because we are starting to experience a little of it — what success feels like. Setting clear goals. Working together to achieve them. Maintaining an optimistic vision and intense effort, no matter what. Tackling problems head-on, intelligently, compassionately. Working on making systems better, not just symptoms.
I just want you to know, dear Future Generations, that many of us are working very, very hard to try to make things better. More and more of us, all the time. Working for you, for ourselves, and for all life on this planet. And I believe we are starting to tip that balance in the right direction.
But please — if you can — let me know how it turned out.
Bruce Sterling made his name in science-fiction, part of the wave of “cyberpunk” writers working in the late 1980s and early ‘90s — other names include William Gibson and Neal Stephenson — whose work seemed more predictive than speculative. I enjoyed his novels (they won a number of awards), but I especially enjoyed being part of a movement he launched in 1998, called Viridian.
Being Viridian, in the way Sterling originally conceptualized it, was like being green, except that “there’s something electrical and unnatural about our tinge of green.” A key aim of the movement was to reinvent products, services, technologies, whole economies, so that they were ultra-environmental — but still resoundingly cool.
“We’re an art movement … an ad campaign, a design team, an oppo[sition] research organization, a laboratory and, perhaps most of all, we resemble a small feudal theocracy ruled with an iron hand by a Pope-Emperor,” wrote Sterling in his launch speech.
The last bit was about himself: Part of the Viridian ethos involved having some high-spirited fun and being less predictably eco-dour. The mix was attractive, and I had the pleasure of serving in the Pope-Emperor’s advisory group, which he called the Curia. (I also ended up running an international Viridian Design Competition, complete with $10,000 in donated prize money, that generated a wide range of prototypes for the world’s first smart electricity meters. But that’s another story.)
The Viridian movement also had an arch-enemy: the Global Climate Coalition, an industry lobbying organization, filled with prominent corporations and business associations, whose sole (and shameful) purpose was to oppose action on carbon emissions reduction. But the GCC went extinct in 2001, “after membership declined in the face of improved understanding of the role of greenhouse gases in climate change,” stated Wikipedia — before tacking on, “and public opposition.”
Viridian persisted until 2008 when, in the throes of the global financial crisis, Sterling decided to shut it down. But he left a great deal of parting Viridian advice, such as “Do not economize. Please. That is not the point.” The point was to reinvent stuff, because “the economy is clearly insane.”
Viridian may be gone, but Sterling is still very much around, still prone to the provocative, most recently in a keynote at the SXSW conference in his former hometown, Austin, Texas (where he urged techies to become more artistic). Sterling no longer lives in Austin because, well, he followed his own advice. He reinvented himself as a futurist (among other things). Married to Serbian author and activist Jasmina Tešanović, he divides his time between cities such as Belgrade and Turin, where he curates an annual tech-art fair.
Personally, I see echoes of Viridian thinking all around me in the global sustainability movement. I can trace a trail of historical impact from Viridian, through various websites and books of the 2000s, to today’s renaissance in sustainable design. But I’m a biased optimist. I was curious about how Bruce saw it. So, I caught up with him by email interview.
Alan AtKisson: Bruce, it’s been nearly 20 years since you launched the Viridian movement. I can personally attest that it was fun and inspiring, and it felt disruptive. What kind of impact do you think it made?
Bruce Sterling: Well, I would cynically say that it had a very modest effect on the culture, but it had a major personal effect on me. I was a science fiction writer when I started it, but 20 years later I’m a lot more at ease with designers, artists, architects, engineers, activists — and not in some speculative, writerly way. I really rub shoulders with them now; we lost the Lusitania, but we’re in the same lifeboat.
AtKisson: So, you’ve been closely observing design and architecture for two decades, in multiple locations around the planet. How would you sum up the direction of change? How much greener or sustainable have they gotten? What’s stopping designers from going full Viridian?
Sterling: I wouldn’t say there was one direction of change in design in 20 years. It’s more like the situation of general change in politics or pop music.
One might imagine all politics would become green politics, and that’s not true at all. Pop music might exclusively be ballads about sustainability, but that won’t happen either.
Most design that’s very self-consciously sustainable and green is packaged for a demographic segment called “lifestyles of health and sustainability.” Its aficionados are all over the place — in Germany, everything that is loudly labelled “bio” is aimed at them. They’re about 7 percent of the U.S. consumer population. They never go away, but they never take over the world, either.
Probably the biggest single change is that, 20 years ago, guys in the fossil-fuel business were uneasy about developments, but they considered themselves normal people who were being maligned. Nowadays, they’re actively evil and they know they are evil, they’re very overt in their depredations. Their global business has been de-normalized, it’s chaotic, criminal and even genocidal in places. They could have designed their way out of that if they’d wanted a soft landing, but they chose to die ugly.
AtKisson: You don’t sound wildly optimistic. What’s your expectation — forecast, not hope — about what’s going to happen in the design world over the next 20 years, relative to sustainability, green, climate-friendly or anything remotely “Viridian”?
Sterling: I appreciate that people like motivational sermons and some pep-talk from a futurist, but I always shy away from “optimism” and “pessimism.” This is 2018, and you’re asking me to talk about 2038. If you asked me to talk historically about what happened in 1998, you would never ask if I was an “optimist” about 20 years ago.
We do best in anticipating events if we understand that 2038 and 1998 are two sister years and that the future is a kind of history that hasn’t happened yet. If we’re optimistic, we’re just putting on rose-tinted goggles so as to ignore half the facts.
Twenty years is a good long time. I’m thinking we’re probably in for some big, black-swan discontinuities that make most design ideas of the present day seem pretty silly. It’s like guys in 1938 trying to outguess 1958, in the style of Norman Bel Geddes.
If I had to sum it up in a bumper sticker, I’d guess that design in 2038 would regard most anything we adore as “digital” as being backward, blinkered, dangerous or corny.
AtKisson: People like me see you as a mover and shaker in the Maker and alternative technology movements, as well as “technology as art” [the subject of Sterling’s talk at the SXSW conference in 2018]. To what degree is Viridian-style thinking — serious engagement with climate and other global sustainability challenges — present in those movements? How does it express itself?
Sterling: You’re flattering me here. I’d say that Viridian was a cultural sensibility that never caught on — it died on the vine something like the cleantech of the same period, which might have made sense but was outflanked by other forces.
The 1990s really were a Belle Epoque, like its sister decade the 1890s, but neither one of them came to fruition. We haven’t had a Great War yet, but we’ve had plenty of war, and now climate disasters have outpaced political response and mass disasters are surprising everybody. We’ll have some cultural sensibilities that respond to this situation, but they’re not going to look or act very Viridian. That opportunity is simply gone with the wind.
[Interlude: Bruce and I briefly debated whether he is actually a “mover and shaker.” He took the last word: “I’d be a mover and shaker if there were fewer glaciers melting and I could put Rex Tillerson in jail.”]
AtKisson: OK, so let’s dial back the timeline to the coming year or so, and shift from prediction to practical advice. Viridian may have “died on the vine” as you put it, but the motivation behind it remains as pressing as ever. We need to aim design — mainstream design, not just the committed-green-lifestyle variety — in ultra-climate-friendly and sustainable directions. Fast. Assume designers are actually going to read this. What are your suggestions to them?
Sterling: If I were a designer I’d worry about becoming a handmaiden to ultra-wealthy offshored oligarchs, tech moguls and sovereign wealth funds, because they’re the guys who have all the money nowadays. Designers are generally “on the side of the user,” but when the user’s broke because there’s no middle class, there’s a real threat that you’re either some kind of courtier to the super-rich or else you can’t get the resources to do anything.
The East Germans of the DDR had some really well-trained and meticulous designers, but boy, did they ever make a heap of ugly rubbish. A bad political environment blights everything.
Personally, I like hanging out with open-source design guys, because there are a lot of them in the academy and in the electronic art scene. But I wouldn’t claim that open source is anybody’s path to utopia; people who are in that scene tend to shrug off the money but then they argue about the prestige. There’s a lot of palace intrigue; it’s like literary politics, almost. But, then again, I’m a novelist.
AtKisson: So, what’s your next book about?
Sterling: It’s a historical fantasy about the glory days of the city of Turin in the remote 1640s. I spend a lot of time in Turin and always wanted to write a regional novel about the city and its strange heritage, so this seems to be my chance.
You can revisit the halcyon days of the Viridian movement through its archived website, ViridianDesign.org. Bruce Sterling’s blog, Beyond the Beyond, is a regular feature on Wired.
This blog post was originally published as one of my “North Star” columns on GreenBiz.com.
I wrote this essay 13 years ago. One change: my daughters are a bit older now. The woodpeckers, however, have not changed a bit. First published 26 September 2005 on Worldchanging.com. Reprinted in Because We Believe in the Future: Collected Essays on Sustainability 1989-2009, by Alan AtKisson. Note: On Amazon.com, this book received a one-star review because my dear friend Bob Meadows (the reviewer) was trying to help me and he thought one star was good, and five was bad. The text of the review was quite positive. So, if you feel like helping out with some more positive reviews on Amazon, I’d be grateful. — Alan
I was taking a break from thinking about the great problems of the world. Not just pondering them at leisure: thinking about the problems of the world is, weirdly enough, part of what I have to do for a living. For most of the past few months, my thoughts had been more global than usual, as my current client was a global initiative, and the project involved evaluating its impact worldwide. Conversations with an extremely diverse range of sustainability leaders, from Greenland to New Zealand, had left my head spinning.
So I was taking a break from global thoughts, and drinking a cup of organically-grown, fair-trade coffee, with a dollop of “ecological” milk, as we call it in Sweden. I was thinking, you know, it would be nice to slow down a bit, spend more time just watching and listening to the natural world around me. I used to do a lot more of that; lately, between work and parenting, it feels as though I “never have time.”
About a minute after that particular thought flitted through my mind, on my way out of the kitchen and toward the computer, I heard a raucous uproar outside.
“Magpies,” I said out loud. They are not terribly popular birds, but I like them for their iridescent green-blue trim feathers, their inquisitive intelligence, their “tough-bird” image. Not even the crows mess with the magpies. This was a much louder chorus of magpie-screech than usual, one that kept going and stayed around. Still, it was just a bunch of magpies. There was no compelling reason to go back to the window. I had work to do.
And yet I hesitated. What was that thought I just had? The natural world was screaming at me from just outside the kitchen window. What was it trying to say?
The natural world was screaming at me from just outside the kitchen window. What was it trying to say?
First I saw the magpies, easily a dozen of them. Very unusual for them to band together like that with any kind of common purpose. But they clearly had one.
It was a woodpecker. From the window, it looked dead, or nearly. Why a dozen magpies had ganged up on a woodpecker, I’ll never know, but the beating had been thorough. It lay there spread-winged on the grass, belly down, motionless. And Pelle the cat — whom I call Pelle the Conqueror because of his remorseless attempts to rule our community — was just a meter away, and closing slowly. He looked amazed at his good fortune, and he was taking his time. The magpies were hanging around to jeer and watch.
It’s just natural, right? The cat gets the bird in the end. But woodpeckers are beautiful creatures, possessing, to this observer, a certain dignity. My daughters have learned to recognize their sound, with pleasure. I had to do something.
By luck, there was an empty cardboard box nearby. I shooed away Pelle, folded back the woodpecker’s wings, and lifted her into the box, very delicately. How remarkable! To hold a living wild bird — something I’ve done only three or four times in my life — is like being offered a peek into the tabernacle. And this bird, though injured, was very much alive. It shivered with shock. It scrabbled a few awkward steps, and stuck its sharp beak and head through a too-small hole, cut through the cardboard for human hands. I took hold of the bird again, slowly pulled it back, disengaged its claws, released it again in the center of the box.
My tiny girls would be home soon, and while I was excited at the thought of showing them a woodpecker up close, I was not so eager to have them witness its death, which still seemed quite possible. So I stood there for a moment, pondering the woodpecker, and the feelings of my small children (our 3-year-old is just starting to ask tough questions about death), and fates much smaller than the world’s.
And then the woodpecker flew off. An explosion of wing and feather. “Not dead yet,” as they say.
All because I had a thought, “I should pay more attention to the natural world.” All because for once, I had actually acted on that thought, immediately.
What was nature trying to “say”? I don’t presume to know … nor do I believe that “Nature” was trying to “say” anything, at least not to me. Nature is full of sounds and signals. Whether we listen or not is entirely up to us. But it’s hard to imagine any scenario for “saving the planet” that doesn’t include paying closer attention to those signals than we do now.
Nature is full of sounds and signals. Whether we listen or not is entirely up to us.
Had I saved the woodpecker? I’ll never know that either, of course. But I had the distinct feeling that I had saved, or at least retrieved, a small piece of myself.
I do know that I saved one woodpecker from the ignoble (and rather unnatural) fate of being eaten by a domestic cat, after being marauded by magpies. Perhaps I even saved its life. I doubt that it noticed, and Nature tends not to express gratitude. But who needs gratitude, when your reward is an immediate and deep pleasure?
And the pleasure is likely to continue. Since the woodpecker had flown straight as an arrow toward a venerable old tree, from which we often hear the characteristic rat-tat-tat, its continued survival was likely to result in many more adorable outbursts from my delighted daughters:
As I’m sure you have noticed, renewable energy is taking the world by storm, driven by rapidly falling prices. Ever wonder how that happened?
In 2009, I authored a concept paper for the United Nations Secretariat, for circulation at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. COP15 became infamous because it was deemed a spectacular failure. Heads of state were personally negotiating the terms of the weak “Copenhagen Accord” into the wee hours of the night — a sure sign that the diplomatic process had broken down.
Fortunately, that process had nothing to do with my job in Copenhagen, which was to garner support for a bold new initiative — a “Big Push” strategy — to scale up renewable energy in the developing world, and thereby bring the price down to affordable levels globally.
I’ll skip over the technical details of the plan I was proposing, working on behalf of senior officials in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The basic concept was to invest heavily in renewables in poor countries, using a globally coordinated system of price guarantees (aka “feed-in tariffs” — you can read the “Technical Note” here). Pump money for solar panels and wind turbines into those countries, and the resulting scale-up in production would bring global prices for those technologies down, and fast.
Fast was important: Otherwise, developing countries would get locked into cheaper, dirtier fossil fuels, and there would be no chance of meeting global CO2 reduction targets.
The idea for this Big Push had originated with Tariq Banuri, a brilliant policy innovator from Pakistan who was then serving as the U.N.’s director for sustainable development. My job was to develop his idea into a clear proposal, with numbers and an implementation strategy, then recruit wise and respected voices at Copenhagen to support the package.
And we did. The positive response we received to Tariq’s concept of a “Global Green New Deal” for renewable energy was one of the few bright spots to emerge from Copenhagen, even though not much came of it after that.
(The full story of my experiences in Copenhagen is told in the second edition of my 2010 book, “Believing Cassandra.” After COP15, I started building a nonprofit organization to promote the Big Push, but dropped it when many of our ideas were absorbed into then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, launched in 2011.)
But here’s the punchline: In hindsight, pushing this Big Push strategy was probably unnecessary.
It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme.
It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme. Much to my (and everyone else’s) surprise, the world already has achieved the affordability targets we set, well ahead of the schedule we were envisioning — without any such scheme.
It is important to underscore that those targets, and our proposed schedule — bringing the price of solar and wind energy down to about 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, within 10 to 20 years — seemed wildly, even unrealistically ambitious back in 2009. But by 2017, just eight years after Copenhagen, the achievement of those targets is already in the rear-view mirror.
Net power generating capacity added in 2016, globally, by main technology, in gigawatts.
Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2017,” Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF
Take a good look at the pie chart above. The data comes from Bloomberg, published by U.N. Environment Programme and the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management. Notice that over half of all the new electricity capacity installed globally during 2016 came from solar and wind. For five years running, solar and wind have outpaced coal and gas by a wide margin. While there is a long way to go before the world is driven principally by renewables, the energy transformation is well under way.
The learning curve
A key factor driving this transformation is the price of renewables, which has dropped like a stone. Why? Exactly for the reasons we described in 2009, based on a well-known economics concept called the “learning curve”: The more you make something, the more you learn how to make it cheaply and efficiently.
Economists can predict declines in price by plotting these learning curves on a graph, relating price to the quantity of a thing produced. It doesn’t matter how much time it takes to produce the thing; quantity is the key variable. The faster you produce that quantity, the faster you slide down the learning curve towards the associated lower price.
When drafting our Big Push plan in 2009, I was astonished to find that the learning curves for renewable energy being used by most analysts originally had been drawn in 1992. No one had thought to update them. The curves seemed very pessimistic to me, given how fast China (among other actors) was coming online with solar panels and wind turbines. I suggested those curves needed to be redrawn, with new assumptions, based on the rapid developments and faster-than-expected learning we already were seeing in the renewables market.
As it turns out, my optimism was still amazingly pessimistic.
In 2009, even after adjusting the learning curve, we thought it would take about 2,000 gigawatts of installed solar and wind power to bring the price down to our global affordability target of 3 cents per kWh. But that price was reached in a number of countries, including India, Mexico, Chile and Morocco, by 2016. And the total installed global capacity at that time: Just 800 gigawatts — less than half of what we calculated would be necessary.
Bear in mind, 800 gigawatts of solar and wind energy is still a huge number, compared to where things started in 2009. Back then, the world’s wind turbines, if they were spinning at full capacity, could generate just over 150 GW. By 2016, that number had swelled to nearly 500 GW. The growth in solar photovoltaics was even more rocket-like: from 23 gigawatts of capacity in 2009 to more than 300 in 2016.
Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report
Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report
Even the world’s top energy experts call this rapid fall in prices astonishing. How did the price fall so much faster than anyone expected?
Simple: Our expectations were plain wrong. You’ve no doubt heard of Moore’s Law, describing how the power of computing chips doubles every 18 months. How about Swanson’s Law? The term was introduced in an Economist article in 2012 to describe a similar pattern for solar panels. Swanson’s Law was basically a revised learning curve, one much closer to the curve we redrew at the U.N. in 2009 (but never published).
There is just one problem with Swanson’s Law: it, too, has proven far too pessimistic. Current prices for solar-electric panels are less than half of what Swanson’s Law would have predicted.
In reviewing these amazing and historic developments, it occurred to me that the world did get a Big Push strategy after all. Renewable energy scaled up rapidly in developing countries, pushing down renewable energy prices globally.
But we didn’t need a massive effort to mobilize international aid, as well as investments from the world’s rich countries, at the trillion-dollar scale we envisioned in 2009. It happened thanks to the target countries, the ones we call “developing,” especially China and India. And it happened faster than predicted, because our predictions were too pessimistic.
It turns out these countries learned faster than any “learning curve” Western experts could draw.
There are several extremely important lessons in all that, but here’s the biggest one: Never doubt that massive, transformative change is possible. It’s happening all around us, all the time — and usually faster than anyone expects.
This year, 2018, marks a decade since I first published The Sustainability Transformation* — the 2nd book in my planned 3-volume “Optimist Trilogy.” I’m now working on volume 3. But the “job description” from vol. 2 that appears on the first page of the first chapter is still highly relevant. Enjoy … and spread.
World development is making most people richer and healthier. It is creating enormous new opportunities for human learning and self-expression. But it is also creating a dangerous set of conditions and trends – climate change, a stark rich/poor divide, an erosion of community and social capital, depletion of both non-renewable and renewable resources, conflict over resources, degraded ecosystems, disappearing species, and many other problems – that are increasingly likely to cause collapses and catastrophes, small and large. These growing dangers are greatly diminishing the long-term prospects of both people and nature. Our current course is not sustainable.
Your job is to help change the world, by changing the systems in which you live and work. Your objective is to prevent collapse or catastrophe – in both human and natural systems – and to increase the prospects for a more sustainable and even beautiful future.
To assist you in accomplishing your assignment, you will be given access to current research about the trends shaping that future, as well as up-to-date news about important breakthroughs, tools, technologies and change processes. You will be linked up to other individuals and groups who have accepted the same job and who are spread out across the planet. This global ‘conspiracy of hope’, combined with the latest in communications technology, will make it possible to work in both physical and virtual teams, and to find help and support, almost anywhere.
Your prospects for success are better than they might appear, because slow changes can suddenly become very rapid, and because humanity has a long history of rising to overcome great challenges. But you face a number of daunting obstacles and limitations:
You will be given minimal resources to pursue your mission – indeed, an extremely tiny amount when compared to the resources currently spent to fuel your community, company or government on its current course. You will have to find ways to create large-scale changes with small-scale budgets using high-leverage intervention strategies.
You will be largely invisible to others, and it will sometimes be difficult to explain to other people what you are doing. Phrases like ‘sustainable development’, ‘global transformation’ or ‘a systems perspective’ still leave most people scratching their heads. You will have to communicate your intentions in ways that speak to people’s immediate and local needs while also convincing them to participate in longer-term, larger-scale changes to solve increasingly global problems. There is not enough time to wait for people to ‘wake up’ or ‘get it’ on a mass scale.
You will have limited access to centres of power. If you achieve access, you will often discover that many people sitting in those centres of power feel surprisingly trapped by the system that they are supposedly controlling, and relatively powerless to make change. If you are not able to convince them otherwise, you will have to find other ‘leverage points’, other places to start change processes that can then spread through the system.
Meanwhile, the momentum of change in the wrong direction will be immeasurably huge, and will probably continue to accelerate, in ways that seem unstoppable. It is imperative that you resist tendencies to despair and cynicism, in yourself and others, and that you find effective ways to spread a sense of hope and inspiration. For without hope – the belief that change is possible, that your vision of a sustainable world is attainable – your chances of success fall dramatically.
* The original title of The Sustainability Transformation was “The ISIS Agreement” (2008) — referring both to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to our planning methodology, which is introduced in the book (Indicators, Systems, Innovation, Strategy). The hardback version from 2008 is still available under the old name. We had to change the name of both the methodology and the book, for obvious reasons. The methodology is now called VISIS (we added “Vision”, because it was always part of the methodology anyway).