Getting Better, or Getting Worse? Revisiting my book Believing Cassandra

© 2022 by Alan AtKisson

Part 1 in a series of essays. DRAFT published 19 July 2022 at

In 1999 I published my first book, Believing Cassandra. That book – which opens with a retelling of the history of another book, The Limits to Growth (1972) was an instant hit in its very tiny niche, earning “Bestseller” status for its category and sending me around the world on the keynote-speaker circuit. Believing Cassandra was purchased in boxloads by organizations as diverse as Nike Inc., the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Army. For many years it held a spot in university courses, and there was enough demand for it as an introductory book on global sustainability trends and strategies for action that a second, updated edition came out in 2010.

These past few weeks, I began going through Believing Cassandra again to see what might need to be updated if I decided to put out a third edition. Does the book hold up? Is its message still relevant, given the rapid expansion of sustainable development over the past decade? Is it worth updating the data, the examples, the general framing of sustainability? And what about the trends I described, both good and bad? Have things turned out the way I and others expected?

In this series of essays, I will share my initial findings from this review process, starting with an overarching reflection: an initial review of the data suggests that the World has gotten mostly better since 1999 (and especially since 2010), but that the health of Nature has continued to get worse. In Believing Cassandra, I use “World” to mean the whole human family and its activity on this planet, and “Nature” to refer to the biosphere as well as the non-living planetary systems that keep us alive.

Such simple summaries do not, however, reflect the situation well, or even accurately — which is the subject of this first essay. Here is something I wrote in 1999, on page 8 of Believing Cassandra, to describe the global situation at that time:

Today, we live in a World of swelling populations concentrated in the poorest regions, disappearing fish and fresh water resources, declining food production per capita, global financial turmoil, increasingly desperate migration (often caused by natural or environmental disaster), rising conflict over land and resources, toxic pollution affecting nearly every living organism, and a dangerously changing climate caused by the ever-increasing emissions from our cars, power plants, and factories.

When I updated the book in 2010, I saw no reason to change that one-sentence summary. In just 68 words, it paints an undeniably gloomy picture of global trends. But is it accurate now? Would I write it differently today? Let’s take the sentence apart, piece by piece, and look at the current and historical data underlying its claims.

1. “Today, we live in a World of swelling populations concentrated in the poorest regions …”

Surprise: this one-sentence summary is no longer accurate. The situation regarding global poverty, population growth, and the relationship between them has changed dramatically since when I began researching my book in the 1990s. Much of that change was already under way in 2010, but it accelerated dramatically in the years after that.

The biggest changes have occurred in China and India. By 2020, China declared that it had completely eliminated extreme poverty, by its own definition of that term.[1] In effect, just 6% of China’s total population at the time (1.4 billion) were counted as poor. And those were just the overall national numbers, which aggregate urban and rural trends together. If you only looked at the Chinese countryside, the story was even more dramatic: from 98% poverty in 1978 to 5% in 2020. No matter which specific definition of the “poverty line” one uses, the transformation in China is truly remarkable.

But the story in India, whose population grew by about 40% between 2000 and 2020, also reaching about 1.4 billion, is also remarkable. That country is also expected to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 – despite the dip in the economy resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Reducing poverty is one of the great human success stories of the early 21st century. The goal set by the UN in the year 2000 was to cut global poverty in half within 15 years. That goal was accomplished far ahead of schedule. There were about 1,7 billion poor people in the year 2000. By 2015, that number had dropped to just over 700 million. China and India were the global motors for that change.

So where are the World’s poor today? A recent study of global poverty trends over the past three decades summarizes the situation this way:

Whereas in 1990, poverty was concentrated in low-income, Asian countries, today’s (and tomorrow’s) poverty is largely found in sub-Saharan Africa and fragile and conflict-affected states [emphasis added]. By 2030, sub-Saharan African countries will account for 9 of the top 10 countries by poverty headcount. Sixty percent of the global poor will live in fragile and conflict-affected states. (Karas and Dooley, “The evolution of global poverty 1990-2020,” 2 February 2022, Brookings Institution)

What about population growth? Globally, it has been steadily slowing down for decades. But in sub-Saharan Africa – where much of global poverty is increasingly concentrated, as noted above – the growth rate is still 2.7%, which is much higher than any other major region in the world.

The details of global poverty analysis are numerous and complicated and the World has gotten much more sophisticated in its methods for measuring it.[2] But obviously I would be forced to rewrite this first part of my global-summary sentence if I were to produce a third edition of my first book. Perhaps it would go something like this: “Today, we live in a World where the number of people living in poverty has rapidly declined – but poverty remains persistent in those regions affected by conflict and swelling populations.”

2. “… disappearing fish and freshwater resources, …”

Summarizing global trends in fish stocks is tricky business. On the one hand, the amount of wild fish caught by humans has essentially remained stable since the 1990s. What has changed has been the type of fish caught (e.g. switching to deeper-water fish when surface-dwelling species become relatively depleted) as well as the region-scale picture, with different species experiencing very different fates, depending on a wide range of human and natural factors. Cod off the coast of Canada, for example, have never recovered after their crash in the 1970s and 1980s. Bottom-dwelling fish in UK waters have declined over 75% since their peak in the 1960s.

But quite a number of fisheries have recovered after collapsing, thanks to effective reforms in fisheries management. And the number of fish that people are either catching in the wild or growing in pens, and then either eating or feeding to their land animals, is absolutely not declining, but rather steadily growing, thanks to the rapid rise of aquaculture. I completely missed this extremely important trend in the first two editions of Believing Cassandra. In 1999, global aquaculture production was about 30% of the world’s total fish consumption. By 2015, it was more than half of the total. The most recent data I see suggests that aquaculture is now much bigger than the capture of wild fish, perhaps by as much as 50%. (I say “perhaps” because measuring total fish production and consumption is even tricker. In its most recent global survey of fish production, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization devotes a special section to the data revisions that were required from the 2018 to the 2020 edition. The revisions mostly resulted in lower totals.)

It goes without saying that producing fish through aquaculture requires resources – including energy and feed – that are often not sustainable in the long run. But still, “disappearing fish” no longer works as a simple or even accurate summary of the situation. The global picture is much more nuanced. A just-released global study of biodiversity trends from the international program known IPBES notes that “Countries with robust fisheries management have seen stocks increasing in abundance” (such as bluefin tuna in the Atlantic) but also notes that “the status of stocks is often poorly known, but generally believed to be below the abundance that would maximise sustainable food production”. Translation: we don’t know for sure, but we are probably still fishing too much.

Freshwater resources are another story entirely – and also an extremely complex one. In 1999, when I drafted Believing Cassandra, as well as when I updated the book in 2010, it seemed that most global assessments of fresh water availability were ringing alarm bells about the future. Unsustainable agricultural groundwater extraction, a warming planet, melting glaciers (which store water for many people in poorer regions), pollution and other trends were creating both water scarcity and water stress.

Water scarcity and water stress are still big problems today, for much the same reasons. But finding good scientific summaries with clear messages about global trends is a challenge, because the global picture has, again, become much more complicated – not least because of climate change and its increasing reality and impact. The best global study I could find uses data from a special satellite-based measuring system, called “GRACE”, that looked at changes in the total mass of water in basins around the world between 2002 and 2017. Here is how the researchers summarized their findings, published in 2019:

The availability of fresh water is rapidly changing all over the world, creating a tenuous future that requires attention from policymakers and the public. … The world’s wet regions are getting wetter and its dry areas are getting drier much more quickly than previously thought, changes that threaten the availability of fresh water and create new risks to people’s health, the food supply, and the environment. (Jay Famigletti, “A Map of the Future of Water,” Pew Charitable Trusts, 3 March 2019.)

Considering the recent headlines – e.g. major floods in Sydney, major droughts in Italy – that sounds about right. But again, I would have to edit my sentence: “disappearing” is no longer defensible as a simple summary of the global situation regarding either fish or fresh water. So here is my proposed rewrite of this phrase. The message is less simple, less alarming, but no less important: this is a World of “uncertain trends in our fish stocks, and rapid and troubling changes in our freshwater resources.”

3. … declining food production per capita, …

On this point, I was simply wrong. Global food production per capita has been steadily and constantly increasing since 1990.

In my defense, I was listening intently to other leaders in sustainability at the time, well-known researchers who had long been ringing alarm bells about falling grain stockpiles and pressures on land use from growing populations. (Such researchers are often accused of being gloomy “Cassandras,” even when they eventually prove to be right, which was the whole point of my book.) Also, the problem of inequality in the distribution of food production was a problem then and remains a challenge today.

But let the public record show: I allowed the general atmosphere of worry about food futures, which was the prevalent zeitgeist within the sustainability research community, to affect my reading of the actual data. I humbly retract this inaccurate statement.

A correct reading of the data, in global summary, goes roughly like this: we live in a World where food production has both steadily increased and become more efficient, meaning it takes less cropland to feed each person (see a good analysis of global food production trends from 1990-2013 in this research paper from 2020).

Global food production is a success story because it has led to reduced hunger around the World, but it is not an unequivocally positive story. In the World’s poorest regions, increasing crop efficiency is not keeping ahead of population growth, which means cropland demand is growing. And that means pressures on biodiversity are growing, as forests and other wild habitats get converted to cropland. Food production also contributes mightily to climate change; it faces regional challenges regarding freshwater availability (see above); and on a finite planet, there are obvious ultimate limits to the amount of cropland available to us, limits that we must continuously work to live within, not least through our dietary choices.

But reviewing the global data from the last few decades was a rather harsh lesson to me. My plainly incorrect summary statement about “declining food production per capita” somehow evaded not only my own journalistic judgment, but also numerous editors and reviewers, across two editions of the book. (No one has ever questioned that statement, at least not directly to me.) We must all have been affected by the general warning signals and alarm bells about food production that we were constantly hearing in the professional sustainability community. In this case, it seems I “believed Cassandra” a little too well.

But what about the future? Will this positive trend eventually turn negative, as many still worry or claim? I am very reluctant to say. In fact, from what I have seen over the past two decades, humans seem quite capable of both advancing farming technology quickly and changing their diets, which is what it will take to keep feeding the World. Plant-based diets are suddenly getting popular. Even fast-food chains offer good-tasting veggie hamburgers now. It’s all about choices. Serious students of this question will want to look at the UN Food and Agriculture Organizations future-scenario study from 2018 (and many other more recent articles).

For a new version of Believing Cassandra, I would have to write something like this: we live in a World of increasing food production per capita — but with important choices ahead of us if we want to continue that trend and eliminate hunger sustainably.

4. … global financial turmoil, … 

When I was drafting Believing Cassandra, the World was wrestling with the serious fallout of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. When I updated the book in 2010, we were still reeling from the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. The statement “global financial turmoil” still seems like a reasonable summary of what was going on at both points in time.

But “global financial turmoil” also seems like a reasonable thing to say about our own time. As I write this article, in mid-2022, inflation is heating up globally as a side effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Stock markets are falling. And the new markets in cryptocurrency are crashing. Many leaders, including the people who run our central banks, are demonstrably worried.

But so far at least, the global economy has not stopped in its tracks or crashed completely, and it is not likely to collapse any time soon.  Which prompts this reflection: when are we not affected by “global financial turmoil”? The complexity of the global financial system grows continuously. Crises appear with great regularity. National and international regulatory mechanisms adapt, innovate, and manage the crises. Dealing with continuous change at this scale is a tremendous challenge – and I can say this with confidence thanks to professional interactions with some of the world’s leading financial actors over the past few years – but the World actually seems to be getting better at handling the risks, as well as the consequences of the inevitable breakdowns.

So in fact, deploying the phrase “global financial turmoil” in this way, with its overtones of warning about great trouble ahead or even impending future collapse, no longer works for me. I would amend the phrase like this: we live in a World of growing financial complexity, which brings with it unavoidable risk and occasional crisis but which also, on the whole, has exhibited a rather remarkable stability.

Issuing warnings about financial challenges is still useful in this situation. We need our financial Cassandras to make the World stay on its toes and avoid real meltdowns in our currencies, debt structures, and investment markets. But perhaps the financial sky is not so close to falling as I seemed to be implying back in 1999 and 2010. If we stay vigilant, we will probably be okay. And that is an important insight, because in fact there are other, much bigger problems to worry about. (See especially point 8 below.)

5. … increasingly desperate migration (often caused by natural or environmental  disaster), …

On this point, I was definitely not wrong. In fact I underestimated just how quickly and steadily this problem would grow, and what decisive consequences it would have for our World.

Since 1990, the number of migrants in the world – people who are on the move seeking work or safety somewhere else than where they would otherwise live – has doubled to about 300 million. Around one-third of these people are refugees displaced by war, violence, human rights abuses, and/or climate change. And the number of refugees has doubled in just the last ten years.

The phrase “increasingly desperate” is also horribly accurate, given the number of people who are now dying in their attempts to reach political safety or economic possibility: to pick just one example, over 3,000 died just trying to get to Europe by sea in 2021.

Unfortunately, in an update of Believing Cassandra, this phrase – first penned over two decades ago – would not need to be changed. It seems to be getting truer all the time.

6. … rising conflict over land and resources …

Unfortunately again, this brief summary of the global situation has held up and remains accurate, which means that the problem has continued growing. The Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) has documented a steadily rising number of active armed conflicts in the World since Believing Cassandra was first published – from just over 30 in 2002 to 56 in 2020. PRIO also notes that “Both shortages and abundance of resources have increasingly been linked to conflict activity.”

Sadly, no update required.

7. … toxic pollution affecting nearly every living organism, …

In retrospect, I was indulging in hyperbole when I composed this phrase. To claim that toxic pollution affects “nearly every living organism” is a bit absurd when you consider that Earth may be home to a trillion different species of microbes alone. (Estimates of the number of individual bacteria truly make the head spin.) So, scratch that line. It is pure exaggeration.

But unfortunately, we cannot scratch the problem itself. Exposure to toxic chemicals of all kinds is estimated to be the number one cause of death in human beings, according to a global study in the Lancet. There is even a scientific name now for the cumulative exposure faced by each individual, over the course of their lifetime, to the 2,900 catalogued toxins in our environment: the “exposome”. Many of the chemicals in the exposome are persistent, meaning they get into your body and stay there. And new chemicals are being added to this creepy cocktail all the time – most recently, ubiquitous microplastics.

In the interests of scientific accuracy, as well as good writing, let me officially rephrase this summary: we live in a World where everyone is exposed to an enormous and expanding medley of toxic chemicals, a problem that is likely the number one threat to our health today and whose long-term effects we are far from understanding.

8. … and a dangerously changing climate caused by the ever-increasing emissions from our cars, power plants and factories.

This last phrase is a real killer, and I mean that literally. Regardless of how right or wrong the text of Believing Cassandra was in its descriptions and interpretations of the other global trends mentioned above, the gist of this final statement – written sixteen years before the signing of the Paris Agreement – is no longer in doubt. There is today a shared global understanding that we have a “dangerously changing climate.” Most days, you can read about it in the news.

There are two picky details that would nonetheless cause me to amend statement number 8 above: (1) CO2 emissions growth from the transport sector has slowed (it actually fell by 10% during the Covid-19 pandemic) and emissions could start falling in coming years, as the world converts to electric and other low-emission technologies. More and more people reading a book like Believing Cassandra might have a Tesla charging up in the garage. So listing “cars” first (because I thought people reading the book could easily relate to their cars) no longer works well here, even though fossil-fuel-driven cars and trucks will be with us for many years to come. (2) In 2020, the global Covid-19 pandemic caused a small decrease in CO2 emissions overall, which makes the description “ever-increasing” technically false — even though emissions rebounded to their highest levels in history in 2021.

But these matters of textual exactness are truly petty in comparison to the actual problem. As I write this article, global warming is once again making headlines by fueling deadly heat waves and forest fires across Europe. The link between climate change and increasing incidence of weather-related disaster, once hotly debated, is no longer controversial. Most of the World knows that we are in serious trouble. Recently the Prime Minister of Spain said plainly, “Climate change kills.” These days, even global oil companies are making “net zero” pledges to drawn down their carbon emissions.

And the Cassandras of yesterday are saying, “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

At the same time (in fact, on the same day that I started writing this essay) the New York Times has reported that US action to address climate change is unlikely reach the levels needed to avert dangerous climate change due to the growing problem of inflation. What the United States does or does not do matters greatly, since it remains the World’s largest economy. But it seems that today’s version of “global financial turmoil” – that is, the kind of short-term economic problem about which I wrote about in point 4 above – is once again pushing our biggest long-term global crisis, affecting life on Earth for generations to come, down the list of political priorities. At least, for now. If the real Cassandra of Troy were here, she would certainly have something to say about that.  

Conclusion: major revision required

To add it all up: my one-sentence summary of global sustainability trends, which seemed accurate in both the 1999 and 2010 versions of Believing Cassandra, would require serious revision in 2022. Nor could that same summary be done in just one comprehensible sentence: the world has become far too complicated for that. Perhaps I could replace it with another short sentence reflecting on how we have continued to “purchase” improved global welfare for the growing human World at the “cost” of sacrificing Nature and endangering ourselves — but that is actually related to another set of trends and quite a different story, with its own nuances, ambiguities and uncertainties.

We are only on page 8, and already Believing Cassandra needs a serious overhaul. Partly this is because both the World’s and Nature’s sustainability issues have become much more complicated, and the science of analyzing them has advanced in parallel. Today’s Cassandras – who now form a large army of researchers working at universities, institutes, public agencies and civil society organizations around the World – speak a very different language of “planetary boundaries”, “tipping points”, and “resilience”, and they have even renamed our current historical era to reflect humanity’s dominant impact on Nature. They say we are all living in the “Anthropocene”.

But in larger part, Believing Cassandra would have to be revised because we are already living in the future World that sustainability’s pioneers have been warning us about for half a century – but also trying to change for the better. In some ways, those efforts to change the World’s trajectory succeeded: there are positive changes happening all around us. Catastrophes like mass hunger or the complete collapse of global fisheries have been avoided, renewables and efficiency are transforming our energy systems, and many fewer people live in crushing poverty. We don’t think so much about the positive aspects of these trends because, as a newspaper editor told me many years ago, “positive trends aren’t news.”

So can we relax? Is “The Sustainability Transformation” – also the title of my second book, first published in 2008 – already happening, already here? Or do those of us working for a sustainable future need to redouble our efforts, and our numbers?

What do you think?

This is part one in a series of essays revisiting my published books and re-examining them for their relevance in today’s world. You can follow the series at my blog,

[1] USD 2.30 per day considering price levels in  2011. The World Bank was using USD 1.90 per day.

[2] Follow this link for an introduction to multidimensional poverty analysis and other tools, which is what we use at the agency I work for now, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Closing my company — AtKisson, Inc. — for good

The title is a play on words. Yes, I am completely closing down my nearly 30-year-old company, AtKisson, Inc., and English uses the phrase “for good” to mean “permanently.”

The last logo of the AtKisson Group

But I also want to celebrate that company’s history, because it truly aimed to be a force for good: aiming to do good things, and to be a good business in the ethical sense.

I started it as a one-man enterprise, “AtKisson & Associates”, founded in late 1992 as a vehicle for the consulting, innovation and change work for sustainability that had become my guiding passion. At that point, the “Associates” were imaginary. But they came.

My dear friends Lawrence Molloy and Lee Hatcher (Lee is now deceased) helped me build the business by offering free rent. Other friends invested time, sweat, ideas and money. Lee ultimately joined as a managing director and worked with me for many years.

By 1997 the business was incorported as AtKisson, Inc., and by 2001 we had offices in both Seattle and Stockholm. In 2009, in partnership with my friend Axel Klimek, we branched into Germany as well (Axel now owns and runs a spinoff from the firm called the Center for Sustainability Transformation, building further on his own extensive experience and client base). At its peak the AtKisson Group never employed more than a handful of people, but we managed a very dedicated network of other firms, university-based programs, and individuals — stretching from the US and Europe to Thailand, Australia and Japan — who could join together for team projects at a global scale.

The “AtKisson Group”, as we called the network, often out-competed much larger firms to win truly amazing clients, ranging from leading nonprofits like WWF to global iconic companies like Levi Strauss. We had a very broad client base: for many years we advised the US Army on how to make its US and European bases greener, while at the same time helping UN agencies to train media people and activist groups on how to spread the word on sustainability.

Our client relationships were very long-lasting. We worked with Levi’s for over a decade. We supported the multi-nation “Baltic 21” initiative off and on, through many changes in its leadership and its structure, for over 17 years.

The workshop and planning tools we developed have been used by communities of indigenous Australians, university sustainability programs, corporate CSR initiatives, and many more — ultimately including hundreds of teachers and schools around the world. (The tools are now owned and managed by Compass Education, a non-profit spinoff from the AtKisson Group.)

I am particularly proud of the reputation we had for doing very high quality work, and for holding high standards of integrity. We never compromised our principles. If I felt another firm’s methods were better suited for the job, I said so to the client. Everyone who joined our network signed our Code of Ethics. If something went wrong with a project, or the client was not 100% happy, we fixed it, at no extra charge.

Of course we had our ups and downs as a business. But we survived 9/11 (half our contracts were canceled overnight), hurricane Katrina (New Orleans was a major client at the time), and the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, among other challenges. We were never a huge success economically. But we were efficient, effective, resilient, competitive, and long-lasting.

And we were extremely mission-driven. Corporate and government work was valuable in itself, but I also used it to help subsidize UN and international development work, some of which was partly voluntary.

Some of my favorite work under the banner of the AtKisson Group involved advising and supporting the United Nations Secretariat over nearly a decade (I did that work as an individual), and also teaching officials in international training programs funded by Sida, where I now work. These were not the most lucrative clients, to say the least, but they were very satisfying to work with because the results were so tangible, and sometimes global in their impact. (In an odd twist of fate, I am now leading the department at Sida that funded some of those programs.)

In 2018, when I joined Sida, I put the company on ice. Colleagues in my network continued on, of course, and they still do; and it was hard to say goodbye to something I had built up over decades. But I felt called to follow the evolution of sustainable development work — which I and my company had helped to pioneer — into the mainstream of government decision-making. Because mainstreaming sustainability had always been the whole purpose of the enterprise, from the beginning.

The Swedish subsidiary was dissolved in 2019, in 2021 I donated most of the company’s assets to Compass Education, and as of 2022, the US company will formally cease to exist.

So, now it is time to say a final goodbye to my wonderful little company, which allowed me to both pursue personal dreams and to work for global goals, and to make that my job. I also want send out a huge thanks to the friends, sponsors and investors who helped build the company, the professionals who worked with me as employees or associates, the advisors who kept us on track legally and financially, and the many clients (285 different organizations) who engaged our services.

THANK YOU. All of you made AtKisson, Inc. — and all the impacts it made, over three decades — possible. I am, and will always be, deeply grateful.

Note: The website of the company will remain online ( for a while as an archive and as a memory. The website also provides links to organizations in the network, some of whom continue to work as professional consultants, trainers and advisers.

World premier for “Christmas Night” – A song from the archives

In 1983 I recorded my first demo album, a ten-song cassette of original songs. I was 23, living in New York, just starting out as a singer/songwriter, and I needed this album to start getting gigs. The album, titled “Whitewing” after the title track, was recorded in my friend Darryl Cherney’s bedroom/studio, with his huge white cat often laying beside me as I played and sang into Darryl’s 4-track.

This song, “Christmas Night”, has never been recorded since then, and it was never released on any “official” album of mine. (All my albums are on the independent Rain City Records label.) Buy hey, it is Christmas Eve, and this song is a love story that goes from mad to sad to glad. It has a happy ending. Nice to have happy endings in these pandemic times, right?

The recording quality is pretty awful, as this song was rescued from a decaying cassette copy. Plus, on the vocal track, I am doing my best gravelly country-music voice. But maybe this sweet little song, from back when I was learning the craft, will bring you a little smile. Here is the world Internet premier of my 1983 song, “Christmas Night” (lyrics below):

Christmas Night – 1983 Demo (Copyright Alan AtKisson, all rights reserved)


Words and Music © 1983 by Alan AtKisson – from the cassette album Whitewing

The snow fell on the world on a winter’s day

The cold fell on our world and was there to stay

      Well you walked out and left your pain

      And left me feelin’ so insane

      And all your presents bore my name

      But I pretended not to grieve

      Christmas Eve

The dove in wintertime is a hungry bird

And love in wintertime is a lonely word

      Well see me standin’ at your door

      I won’t be knockin’ anymore

      I just wanted to say more

      But I’d said all that I could say

      Christmas Day

Upon the holly tree grows a berry red

It feeds these hungry birds while the world lies dead

      Well you walked back through winter storms

      I find you crying in my arms

      What was cold has turned to warm

      And I knew everything would be alright

      Christmas Night

      And now our hearts begin to pour

      Our love is stronger than before

      And I just want to love you more

      And everything will be alright

      Christmas Night

Compass, Pyramid, Amoeba: How these tools for accelerating sustainability came to be, how they began spreading around the world, and what’s going to happen next

By Alan AtKisson

In 2021 I donated all the copyrights and licensing agreements for the “Accelerator” – a set of tools that I and colleagues created, developed, and used around the world, over a period of nearly 30 years – to the international non-profit organization Compass Education. “Accelerator” has three main parts: (1) the Sustainability Compass for learning about key concepts, (2) an interactive workshop called Pyramid focused on planning for action and doing sustainable development, and (3) a simulation game called Amoeba for learning about making change happen (plus a few other tools). The whole package is now called the Compass Tools, or sometimes the Sustainability Tools.

In this article I recount the story of how the tools came to be – at least, as viewed from my perspective as lead innovator. To my great delight, all these tools have been adopted by many other people and have spread far and wide. So the real story of Accelerator is a lot bigger than my perspective, and a lot longer than this article can hope to cover. That bigger story is also why I believe there is a firm foundation for my hope that the life of these tools, now under new management, will continue for a long time to come, growing, developing, and supporting transformative learning and change for a sustainable world.

It All Started with an Amoeba

The story of Accelerator roughly parallels the birth and development of the modern sustainability movement. We can mark that movement’s launch with the publication of Our Common Future – the report of the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development from 1987, which introduced the term “sustainable development” to the global community. Accelerator was born, or at least began to take shape, just a few years later.

In 1990, I and other friends co-founded a volunteer initiative called Sustainable Seattle. Our focus, at first, was the production of the world’s first sustainability indicators report. Was our city heading in the right direction, or not? Could we effectively combine traditional indicators, like economic growth and unemployment, with environmental and social measures? Could we show how everything had to work together, to ensure a sustainable city in the long run?

We were not aware, at the time, that this idea was pioneering. We had no clue that our process – multi-stakeholder consultation, using a systems-based approach to develop indicators that integrated social, economic, and environmental trends – would become a “standard model” and spread around the globe. We were just passionately engaged in trying to bring these new ideas, sustainability and sustainable development, to the Seattle mainstream. Creating a set of measurements and indicators to chart the region’s progress toward this new, comprehensive vision seemed like a strategic way to get started. And by being very inclusive and participatory, our process was also a strategy, designed to get other people on board and spread the word.

So it was not by accident that we focused on creating indicators, and that we involved a large group of people in that process, and that we were redefining a familiar management concept (“what gets measured gets managed”). Our choice of project focus was influenced by something called the Amoeba.

At one of our first organizing meetings, I passed around an article I had recently published, about a new simulation game. The game was built around the core concepts of “innovation diffusion theory” – the science of how ideas spread. Given that sustainability was a new idea for most people, we needed to learn how to spread it. So I built a roll-playing exercise and workshop around that need, elaborating on research by Everett Rogers, the pioneering theorist of communications and innovation theory.

That simulation game, now called “Amoeba” after the visual model for organizational change that I developed around Rogers’ work (I was also building on an initial inspiration from my boss at the time, Robert Gilman), has since had a wonderful life. People have acted out the Amoeba Game roles of Innovator, Change Agent, Mainstreamer, Reactionary and more, in dozens of languages, using dozens of different scenarios. And they have used the principles embedded in the Amoeba Game to plan hundreds (maybe thousands) of change initiatives.

The original “Amoeba” model, from an overhead transparency, sometime in the early 1990s, (The graphics got a lot better over time.)

The Amoeba Game proved to be surprisingly popular – perhaps because the Game itself embraced key principles for facilitating the spread of new ideas: it was simple, short, highly adaptable to different cultures and situations, and fun. The Amoeba made the concepts of innovation diffusion easy to grasp, quickly. It was also useful: as part of the workshop experience, people learned to build more effective strategies for positive change. (You can watch a short TED-talk about Amoeba here.)

How did the spread of Amoeba happen? 1992, I was given the opportunity to present the Amoeba Game to an international network of sustainability researchers, systems thinkers, and simulation designers, at an annual meeting in Europe of something called the “Balaton Group” (after a lake in Hungary). That experience led to a revelation: by linking the power of useful, easy-to-transfer ideas to the power of a global network of highly motivated, influential people, you can accelerate change. Sometimes rather dramatically.

My little game about spreading useful new ideas turned out to be, all by itself, a useful new idea. It started spreading. I started actively using the principles embedded in the Amoeba Game to accelerate the spread of the Amoeba Game. And that led me to wonder: could these same principles help spread the concept of sustainability?

The answer to that question was a resounding yes.

Finding – or Getting Found by – the Sustainability Compass

Parallel to all this work on innovation, the “Sustainable Seattle” initiative continued to grow. We had decided to focus on indicators of sustainability partly because – following the principles in the Amoeba model – it made sustainability quicker to understand and easier to adopt. People were already familiar with the concept of indicators from the nightly news, or from their management jobs. We were making it simple for them to embrace the new concept of sustainability, because it was attached to other concepts they were already familiar with.

We published our first report on sustainable development trends in Seattle in 1993, and the report started spreading around the world, mostly by word of mouth (usually at international conferences). Other cities took an interest. Some began copying us, both our process of multi-stakeholder engagement, and our model of defining indicators that pointed us in the direction of sustainability. I started traveling around myself, teaching people in other places how to do what we had done in Seattle – and of course, I was keenly aware that by doing so, I was in the middle of an exercise in spreading innovation. I consciously used the Amoeba concepts to help make sustainability indicators simpler, more useful, and easier to understand. I also tried to make the process of working on them more pleasurable and attractive.

As you can imagine, the process of defining measurements of sustainability can become quite technical. You have to define what to measure, analyze the data, sometimes commission new research. Then you have to take that data and turn it into effective communications, so that decision-makers and the general public can make sense of it. Complicated spreadsheets and research studies have to be translated into simple symbols: a basic chart, perhaps with some up-or-down trend-arrows (which is what we did in Seattle), maybe a system of green, yellow or red lights (which became more common later).

My work with Sustainable Seattle got me invited back to a meeting of the Balaton Group in 1994. Once again, I saw the power of networking link up with the power of important, easy-to-transfer ideas to accelerate change. Balaton members carried the Sustainable Seattle story with them into other international meetings and wrote about it in their newsletters. Word spread through other networks, too. More sustainability indicator projects sprang up – from Sustainable Pittsburgh to Sustainable Penang – and along the way I built a small consulting firm. I also got recruited to a senior position in a respected think-tank. Both jobs helped me spread the word still farther.

At the same time, the UN’s first global agreement on sustainable development (a document called “Agenda 21” from the 1992 Earth Summit) started stimulating programs at the national and local level. People wanted to translate the ideas in Agenda 21 into action, and they needed tools to do it. A wave was building.

I was part of that wave, and my work on indicators got me into a number of high-level academic and government processes, where leading researchers and officials were wrestling with big questions. One of those processes was led by Donella (“Dana”) Meadows, the famed lead author of the global bestseller Limits to Growth (1972), and a co-founder of the Balaton Group. And one of the toughest questions those researchers and officials were asking was also the most fundamental one: how do we define “sustainability”?

Dana and her colleagues (including me) ultimately decided to embrace a framework developed by a highly respected “ecological economist” named Herman Daly. Daly proposed a hierarchy: first, there is Nature. Without a healthy, well-functioning planet, you cannot have an Economy, which takes resources from Nature and produces the things humans want and need. To organize that process of economic production and distribution, you eventually get a Society: laws and institutions, peaceful ways of living and working together, educational and medical systems, etc. Finally, if all of the things in that hierarchy are working as they should be, the result is Wellbeing: happy, healthy people, leading satisfying lives.

I thought Daly’s hierarchy was a lovely idea. But there were problems. Remember, I looked at the world through an “Amoeba” lens:  if you want ideas to spread quickly, you need to simplify them. You need to make them appear useful, relevant, attractive. Daly’s hierarchy might be “right” in some sense, but it looked awfully hard to communicate. I also wasn’t convinced it was fully “right”, because the connections among those four topics were much more complicated than a simple hierarchy. We needed something that would make Daly’s ideas easier to understand, but also give us a more integrated way of seeing how Nature, Economy, Society and Wellbeing all affect each other – how they all work together as a system, not as a hierarchy.

Sometimes you get an “Aha!” moment. You are stumbling around in your mind and you find an idea. Or maybe the idea finds you.

That’s me, and the Sustainability Compass “Eureka” moment,
captured in a photo by Joan Davis, 1997

In 1997, in the middle of an indicator meeting convened by Dana Meadows, hosted by the Balaton Group, and sponsored by the Dutch government, someone said the word “compass”. They were referring to how indicators provide us with a sense of direction.

Huh, I thought. A compass.

North, East, South, West.

Nature, Economy, Society, Wellbeing.


I ran to the whiteboard, made a quick sketch, and the Sustainability Compass – using the familiar letters N, E, S and W, but giving those letters new meanings – was born. (See photo.)

Later, I and my dear friend and colleague Lee Hatcher (1949-2019) would create a way to aggregate sustainability indicators into a set of four indices – overall “scores” for Nature, Economy, Society and Wellbeing. Our model of scoring sustainability, using the Compass framework, got picked up by a few cities and has been documented in academic publications.

But it wasn’t the indicator application of Compass that proved to be the biggest impact of my little “Aha!” moment. It was the Compass itself. That simple symbol – with the familiar directions replaced by the four inter-connected aspects of sustainability that Daly originally identified – has truly lived an amazing life. The Compass helps people grasp the idea of sustainability quickly. It links the idea to a very familiar symbol for setting direction. Also, being circular, it supports a much more systemic understanding. The shape of the Compass suggests that we consider how “everything is linked to everything else.”

Today, nearly 25 years later, the Sustainability Compass is still going strong, and still spreading. In fact, a whole educational movement seems to be growing around it. I will come back to that.

The most widely-used version of the Sustainability Compass.
(There have been many different graphic interpretations of the Compass.)

How to Build a Pyramid

By the end of the 1990s, there was Compass and Amoeba. Now I want to tell you about the third tool in this toolbox, Pyramid. I confess that Pyramid is my personal favorite, because it combines everything above, and more besides , into one dynamic group experience. And it has the potential to catalyze major initiatives – which it has done many times.

This part of the story does get a bit more complicated. So I will break it into three chunks: the background conditions in the sustainability movement at the time, the open-source method I developed for strategic planning in a sustainability context, and the birth of the Pyramid tool itself.

Then I’ll tell you (briefly) what happened next … and about my hopes for the future

The Background. Throughout the 1990s, indicators were a popular way to start grappling with sustainability. But by the end of the decade, people were more interested in doing things rather than just measuring trends. I and my colleagues – by now I had a growing firm, with offices in Seattle (USA) and my new home in Stockholm (Sweden), and a growing international network of associates and clients – were passionately interested in turning all this new knowledge about sustainability into action.

By the year 2000, there were a number of other systems in place for making indicators, some of them specialized around the special needs of cities or companies. The world was getting very good at developing measurements to tell us whether our cities, companies and nations were heading toward long-term ecological, economic, social and individual health: in a word, sustainability.

The indicators told us that mostly, we were going in the wrong direction.

So how could we facilitate and accelerate the process of moving from indicators to action? What kinds of tools did the world need, to get people thinking together, planning together, doing together? Out of that question grew a few more  “Aha!” moments, as well as a shared project.

The Method. In the back of my mind, there had always been a kind of thread running through the work I was trying to do. Indicators were not an end in themselves: they provided an entry point for systems thinking, understanding how different trends were linked together in chains of cause and effect. By studying the trends and analyzing their linkages, through the lens of systems thinking, you could gain insights about where to focus your change efforts for maximum sustainability impact. After you figured out where to focus on making change, then you had to decide what to change.

Then you had to convince people to actually do it.

This thread of thinking finally came together in a speech I gave in 2000 in Portland, Oregon. Doing Indicators – mapping the significant trends – was just step one. Then came Systems analysis, using the linkages among the indicators (which have been selected to describe all the key aspects of sustainability) to find the most powerful points of intervention. The third step was Innovation, choosing the specific ideas and changes to introduce at these “leverage points” inside your company, city, school or university. Finally, you needed a Strategy for successfully introducing and implementing those changes, as part of your sustainability program.

Those four steps – Indicators, Systems, Innovation, Strategy – made a nice acronym: ISIS.

The first presentation of the ISIS (now VISIS) Method,
from an overhead transparency drawn in the year 2000

Well, it was nice at the time. Anybody familiar with the history of conflict in the Middle East will understand why we later had to change that acronym. So I added a “Step 0” – having a clear Vision of sustainability – and renamed it VISIS. The “VISIS Method” is now known as an open-source planning process that can be used in any sustainability context.

And it is the method I had in my head when I met Sydney Green.

Designing the Pyramid Tool. My friend Sydney had been leading a sustainability (or “healthy community”) initiative in her home city of Orlando, Florida. She saw me speak at a conference and invited me to come work on indicators for her region. By coincidence, I had grown up in Orlando. So I was very happy to say yes. Sydney and I, together with my business partner Lee Hatcher, worked on producing the first-ever Compass Indicator Report. What a joy to use my new tool for measuring sustainability in my old hometown!

Then a regional initiative in New Orleans hired me and my team to do the same thing there. I asked Sydney to join us in New Orleans, to speak about her experience in Orlando. While there, we took a walk in the city’s natural jewel, Audubon Park, together with my colleagues Lee Hatcher and Sandy Bradley.

Sydney had previously been telling me about an idea she had for her work Orlando. The idea involved engaging community members in a workshop exercise to build consensus on action. She and her colleagues thought it would be fun to actually build a physical, four-sided pyramid model, as part of the workshop, symbolizing the four aspects of community development they were focused on at the time. Perhaps they could build the pyramid in layers during the course of a community workshop. It was a beautiful germ of an idea, but they had not finished it yet.

As we sat in a gazebo in Audubon Park, talking about these things, it hit me: another Eureka! moment.

The four sides of Sydney’s community development pyramid could be replaced by the four “directions” of the Sustainability Compass.

The layers in building up the physical pyramid model could be the strategic planning process of the ISIS Method (from here on out, I will use VISIS Method).

We all got excited about this idea of blending the Compass and VISIS with a physical pyramid. We thought we were inventing a new simulation game about building a sustainable community. (As things turned out, we were inventing something much more interesting than that.)

A few months later, the four of us met again in Sydney’s rustic lakeside vacation cabin, in central Florida, to design the “Pyramid Game”. We worked out how the process would go: teams built around the Compass directions, a sequence of activities built around the VISIS Method, the pyramid growing in the center of the room. Lee, who had worked many years as a professional engineer, figured out how to construct a physical pyramid model using simple wooden ice cream sticks (later we used tongue depressors, which are larger). We added a lot of sticky notes and pens, and some slides to explain the rules. Presto, we had a prototype.

I took the prototype of the Pyramid to the next meeting of the Balaton Group (and a few other places) for testing. To make a long story short, people loved the Pyramid – but they said we had to change it. As my friend Wim Hafkamp, a leading economist in the Netherlands, put it: “This Pyramid of yours is great, but it is too serious to be a game.”

The Final Product. That is how Pyramid became a teaching and planning workshop. Over the course of one or two days, building a Pyramid takes a group of people – students or professionals – on a journey of learning and discovery, or sometimes a process of planning. They envision sustainability for their organization, community, or school. They develop simple indicators to reflect that vision, using the Sustainability Compass. They practice systems thinking with those indicators and look for what Donella Meadows called “Places to Intervene in a System” – more simply known as leverage points. Then they brainstorm ideas for specific things to change, at those leverage points. Finally, they build strategies for how to make those changes happen.

Along the way, they build a physical Pyramid, growing level by level, reflecting the four Compass directions, and recording their journey – everything from their first scattered dreams and visions of sustainability, to their growing consensus on analysis, to the capstone on the top: an agreement about the most effective actions to take.

A classic Pyramid at the close of Pyramid planning workshop, this one from the city of Townsville, Australia in 2004. The Vision is on the table, organized by Compass categories. The Indicators are on the bottom row of the Pyramid, followed by Systems insights, Innovations, Strategies for change, and on top, the agreement to act. Photo by Michael Lunn.

I tested the new Pyramid workshop a few more times, wrote facilitator manuals, and we launched it with paying customers (like the US Army) and pro bono customers (like the United Nations) in 2001. At last, we had a complete package of tools. Inspired by the success of things like software packages, we even started thinking about turning it into a suite of tools, and licensing it to others.

Accelerator was born.

What Happened Next … and What I Hope will Happen

Using the Accelerator was always, for me, a joy. The package kept improving and growing. It was like having a Swiss Army Knife for professional sustainability consulting and training. And people enjoyed working with it – there were always smiles after an Amoeba Game or a Pyramid Workshop. The Sustainability Compass produced many “Aha!” moments that were always a pleasure to witness.

And the people who began gathering around the tools were a joy as well. There are too many to recount, so I will focus on just two for now: Robert Steele and Gonthong Lourdesamy. They worked with a small NGO that had gotten support from UNEP to run sustainability training programs on a converted rice barge, traveling up and down the rivers of Thailand. In 2001, UNEP contracted with my firm to use the new Pyramid workshop on the barge. Robert and Gonthong facilitated this new workshop over two days, with a group of media people from all over Southeast Asia. And they did it based only on a freshly written manual, sent by email, and a long coaching phone call with me. (At this point, I had only run the workshop myself about ten times.)

That the workshop on the rice barge was a success probably says more about Robert and Gonthong, their skill and patience, than it does about the Pyramid. That the success of that workshop led to twenty years of close collaboration with Robert (Gonthong moved on to other work a few years later), and ultimately to the founding of Compass Education, is one of the best-ever results from the use of Pyramid workshop.

But I am getting ahead of my story.

The first “Accelerator Intensive” workshop group in Sweden, with its completed Pyramid model, organized around the Sustainability Compass. Robert Steele is squatting down on the far right. Gonthong Lourdesamy is on the far left, front row.

In 2002, I convened the first “Accelerator Intensive” at a retreat center near my home in Sweden. People came from Sweden, Europe, Japan, India, Australia, the US, and of course Thailand. Robert and others really learned the tools intensively there, and then they carried them – as did hundreds of other people who later went through similar training sessions – out into the world. Over two decades, Compass, Pyramid and Amoeba inspired university curricula, helped cities plan sustainability programs, and nudged companies toward the next step on their sustainability journeys, among many other things.

But it was the Sustainability Compass, sitting there at the base of the Pyramid, that really spoke to schools. It proved to be a powerful tool in the classroom – so much so that it eventually gave rise to a new, spin-off organization, powered by volunteers, and designed to transform the teaching of sustainability so that it could reach millions of teachers and students around the world.

And that is what I hope will happen next.

My fervent hope is that Compass Education – which first grew out of my firm as volunteer-driven initiative, and which then became a non-profit organization formed and nurtured by Robert Steele and his longtime associate Watkana “Nong” Thongrueng, and which has now grown into a global movement of teachers, administrators, and of course students, led by Executive Director Nicole Swedlow and a very dedicated board – will succeed. That the Accelerator will help them to succeed. Because the world needs them to succeed.

But how that happens is a story for another day – and a story for other people to tell, specifically the wonderful team at Compass Education, which now owns Compass, Pyramid, Amoeba … and a significant piece of my heart.

Opening slide from the latest professional version of the Accelerator tools, last updated by me in 2019. The next version – whatever it becomes! – will be produced by Compass Education.

A big step toward a big vision

I am pleased to announce that I am donating all the sustainability tools that I and colleagues have developed over many years, operating as AtKisson Group, to Compass Education, an international non-profit with a big vision: reaching 1 million teachers. 

Compass Education will also manage all professional and commercial licensing of the Sustainability Compass, the Pyramid workshop, the Amoeba tools for innovation and change, and other elements. 

These tools, grouped into a suite called “Accelerator”, have been used by hundreds of companies, institutions, universities, and schools, in so many countries that I cannot count them all. They are described in several of my books, especially The Sustainability Transformation. And now they have found a great new permanent home — a dynamic and dedicated team of people, building a global movement for sustainability, systems thinking, and leadership in education. 

Compass Education is focused on schools and teachers and impacting the next generation, but these tools remain extremely relevant for this generation — and for use in many other professional settings. Compass Ed (which spun out of my firm ten years ago) will also be providing professional support to organisations, consultants, businesses, and others who currently use the tools or wish to use them. 

This is a big step for me, to give away things that I spent decades creating, developing, and using, in hundreds of different situations. It is also a big step for Compass Education, to take on the responsibility of managing them. But I feel confident that this donation is the best way to ensure that these tools — especially Compass, Pyramid and Amoeba — make the biggest possible impact. 

A deep bow to my friends and colleagues at Compass Education, who have spent a decade using these tools and other methods to build a robust “transformation support system” and a huge network around the world. (I helped found the organisation but have largely been a cheerleader since then.) Thanks for taking on the Accelerator tools. Keep building, keep working toward your vision, and I look forward to continuing our collaborations. 

Read the formal announcement and watch the announcement video in the Compass Education newsletter>

The secret to making change happen

There is a lot of advice packed into my books, much of it focused on making change happen. But if I were to lift up just one reflection on leading change in organizations, one that I still both observe and try to practice in my own work, it would be this one.

Click for large view and to download. Free to share, repost, use as wallpaper, etc.

“Almost nothing is more effective as a means for speeding up the process of change within organizations than simple kindness and generosity.”

From my book The Sustainability Transformation (2008, 2011).

Making your own road

There is a story behind this little inspirational poster, the second in my series (and free to share).

Twenty years ago, I wrote a song called “Goin’ to the Top”, dedicated to the people of New Orleans. I had hoped (and in fact had been promised) that Aaron Neville would perform the song at a big event that I organized there, working with local business leaders on their long-term development plan. In the end, Aaron Neville was not available, so I performed the song myself, with a band hired in for the occasion.

Then the song sat on a shelf, for a long time.

Finally in 2014, I recorded and released the song on my album “American Troubadour” (with some great guitar help from Torbjörn Fall, an excellent Swedish studio band, and Andreas Bauman’s expert production). You can find it on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube etc.

I do love this song. It is pure pop, I admit, but also pure optimism, which is what we felt for New Orleans at that time. It’s a song about promise, potential, aiming high. We certainly need that now, across every dimension of global sustainability.

This poster is just one line from the song, perhaps the line that resonates with me most. It’s not about “going your own way”. It’s about creating the path you need, to get where you have to go.

Why I am a stubborn optimist

boy standing on water

Issue #10 of my personal newsletter, Words & Music

My North Star platform at the website is no more. But they still publish columns by me when i send them. You can see the whole archive here. Maybe this column will be my last one — I have been writing columns for a long time, and this one seems a good note to go out on.

Don’t worry, I will still send thoughts to you on this channel. If you want them!

By the way, this article has already been picked up for republishing by an association for optimists based in Australia. Want to republish it? Contact me.

If your principal concern is sustainable development — with a focus on such issues as eliminating poverty, averting climate change, empowering women and creating the conditions for peace — then the current data absolutely does not look good.

COVID-19 has decimated economies and plunged well over 100 million people back into extreme poverty. Even a global pandemic has made only the tiniest of dents in carbon dioxide’s relentless accumulation in the atmosphere. Women globally are said to be “suffering the highest rates of intimate partner violence ever seen,” a particularly brutal and disheartening side effect of this wicked virus. Meanwhile, armed conflict has been trending upward in recent years — and the world feels more like a tinderbox.

So why on Earth would I title this article “Why I am a stubborn optimist”?

Because I still believe, as I have written so many times, in practically every book I have published, that optimism is a choice — indeed, the only reasonable choice we can make if we intend to actually change the world.

This does not mean that I believe everything is going to be fine. Things are not fine now, many things are getting worse, and they are likely to continue to get worse for a good long while.

So why be optimistic? As some unknown scribe once quipped regarding people’s worries about getting older: Consider the alternative.

Choosing a pessimistic outlook, no matter how well-grounded in “the facts” — which actually means current trends, since we are talking about developments over time — is not likely to motivate any effort to turn those negative trends around. “We are doomed!” does not work as a call to action.

A neutral “I have no expectations” or a cynical “What do you expect? Humanity is hopeless” attitude seems hardly better, except perhaps as a strategy for managing near-term disappointment, which we are guaranteed to experience time and time again. We are, after all, trying to move mountains.

Only stubborn, collective optimism, with the sustained energy and effort that follow in its wake, creates the conditions for eventual success. As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke put it, “I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Of course, many believe that a realistic pessimism is the only defensible approach to the crushing scale of our long-term development challenges, and they present reasonable reasons for that view. If you truly believe we are headed into hell, optimism seems foolish. It lures people into wasting precious time, trying to change unavoidable outcomes, when in fact we should focus on preparing for the coming dark age.

In its brightest variety, this philosophy advocates small-scale community resilience and a certain attitude of wise, resolute preparedness. Global collapse is so likely as to be almost inevitable, say proponents. Things such as the current pandemic — or the Ever Given’s recent blockage of the Suez Canal, which demonstrated the fragility of a global economy built on long supply chains — are simply small harbingers of the truly ominous difficulties that lie ahead.

At its most extreme, this philosophy is called “survivalism.”

Of course, even survivalists are optimists of a kind: They have a vision of making it through even the bleakest nuclear winter or riding out the global scorching caused by a climate gone haywire, safe in a bunker or an isolated enclave deep in the mountains of New Zealand.

But here is what I have observed: stubborn, insistent optimism has changed the world time after time, often against seemingly impossible odds. I reflect often on the accomplishments of Gandhi. The end of apartheid. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Changes that once seemed truly impossible — an independent India, democracy for all in South Africa, the end of communist dictatorships in central and eastern Europe (the last two happening in my lifetime) — are now historical facts, decades old.

Further, I submit that the transformative results of stubborn optimism are all around us, right now. The exponential rise of renewable energy and electric cars, after many false starts and failures to overcome market skepticism and opposition. The much-too-slow but nonetheless steady spread of legal acceptance and protection of rights for people who identify as LGBTQ. The rapid digital transformation of Africa, which could see three-quarters of people on the continent connected to the internet by 2030, a driver of systemic change that increases long-term prosperity.

It is hard to remember, when transformations such as this start to become reality, just how impossible they once seemed — and how easy it was to give in to pessimism, cynicism or passive neutrality.

Fortunately, the stubborn optimists persisted, and the world is already better for it. In fact, that is the only way the world ever gets better.

Warm regards,


Introducing a series of shareable quotes

I have been writing about sustainability and sustainable development for over thirty years. Much of what I have written is outdated — based on old facts, old reflections, and old situations that have changed dramatically. Recently I found myself wondering: what, in all of that writing, might possibly stand the test of time?

So on a rainy Saturday in March, I went through some of my old books and other publications — and I was pleasantly surprised. I found quite a lot of material in those books that was still true, and still useful. I ran across a number of quotes that I still stand behind. So I paired some of these quotes up with photographs, to make them shareable on social media and the web.

Click for hi-res version

Here’s the first one: “Our generation is charged with an unprecedented responsibility: to lay secure foundations for a global civilization that can last for thousands of years.”

The source of that quote is the “manifesto” I starting writing near the turn of the millennium and completed on 31 December 1999. It was first published as a standalone pamphlet by Chelsea Green (one of my publishers), then reprinted several times in magazines and books.

The exercise of writing a manifesto, which I called “Sustainability is Dead — Long Live Sustainability,” was prompted by the worries expressed by a lot of my colleagues at the time: that the concept of sustainability was getting watered down and threated to become devoid of meaning. The manifesto was my attempt to clarify sustainability to myself, since I was dedicating my working life to its advancement. Writing the manifesto was an enormously satisfying exercise. It helped me formulate a number of ideas about the universality of the sustainability vision, and the need to ground it in both absolute and realistic terms, based in our understanding of science and technology, as well as global fairness and intergenerational ethics.

Those ideas are still part of my work to this day, and they inform everything else I have written about sustainability and sustainable development since that time.

I still stand behind these words because I think they are true, and because I believe that we need to take this thought — which I am happy to admit is far from original — much more seriously.

Here are just a few of the things we humans are doing that will have impacts over thousands of years: changing the climate, depleting key resources, allowing species and ecosystems to disappear, creating wastes that won’t go away, leaving behind dangerous technological artefacts that must be kept secure for millennia.

And of course, we are setting cultural patterns in place that will probably have thousand-year echoes. Consider the fact that we still follow patterns of ancient Roman law across much of the world. Many of us work in merit-based bureaucracies first pioneered by the ancient Chinese. Here’s a provocative question: what, from today’s global culture, is also likely to survive the test of time?

Obviously, every era of human endeavor creates things that persist and affect the rest of history. There is, however, a big difference today: we are changing the whole planet, fast, and doing it in a way that we know will have very long-lasting impact. And right now, the balance of that impact is decidedly negative.

Our generation — more accurately, the several generations that are alive right now, as well as several more still to come — has to get this right. We have to put human development on a secure, sustainable course. If we do not succeed, human civilization will not succeed, and the evolution of life on planet Earth will have to recover from a period of rapid and perilous diminishment.

Not an easy reflection to keep in mind. That’s why I thought it was worth making into a small digital poster.

Which you are welcome to share.

Harder but not impossible: Covid-19 and the Sustainable development goals

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Issue #9 of my personal newsletter, Words & Music

After a year of quiet, I finally published a new column on my North Star platform at the website. This column was also published in a Swedish version, here. Plus there’s an afterword, on music, and some news about book translations. Here’s the column:

In 2015, the world, acting through the United Nations, set in place a system of 17 very ambitious goals to guide humanity’s development toward sustainability through 2030.

Now it is 2021. Neither nature nor global politics has been especially kind to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, over the past few years.

Nature’s complex mechanisms have served up a global pandemic caused (apparently) by a cross-species virus together with intensifying fires and storms that can be credibly attributed to climate change; and the global political arena has mightily distracted us with assaults on democracy and global solidarity as well as chronic conflict along multiple fronts.

COVID-19 gets the lion’s share of the blame, of course, for our current troubles. In too many places and across too many dimensions of sustainable development, the pandemic has turned hard-won progress into a backslide whose momentum must first be stopped and reversed before development can again take on the shape of positive transformation. I am thinking especially of global poverty, hunger, health and education — SDGs 1 through 4 — where the latest figures from the World Bank and other centers of analysis paint a bleak picture of years lost and lives threatened.

But the analysis does not stop there. The SDGs are treated as an interlinked system of goals because that is how the world actually works. I won’t bore you with the relevant SDG numbers, but you can easily build your own mental systems map from the following:

  • Girls not getting opportunities to educate themselves contributes to reversals in gender equality, which in turn affects the quest for long-term economic prosperity, which makes it harder for girls to get educated.
  • People who had climbed up over the poverty line, but are now falling back under it, are mostly doing so in the cities, which hardly contributes to making those cities more sustainable.
  • Plane traffic may be reduced, which is indisputably good for the climate, but reduced as well are the investments into the greener economies of tomorrow that can prevent climate change, rescue biodiversity and create good jobs for a sea of unemployed people, especially youth.

Virtuous cycles can turn vicious. That is an undeniably dismal state of affairs for those of us whose professional lives revolve around trying to help the world achieve these universally acclaimed goals (which also inform the more specific development goals set for Sida, the Swedish agency where I work, by Sweden’s government). How is it possible not to succumb to an erosion of hope?

As always: by looking at the big picture, taking the long view and continuing to seek more effective levers of change.

There are no silver linings in a global pandemic. But there are unexpected things to observe and to learn from — such as the dramatic acceleration of digitalization. Profound changes in working methods and styles have been reported wherever decent internet is to be had. Suddenly, meetings and conferences that previously “had to be” held in physical, face-to-face settings are working just fine on screen. Maybe better: You can include more people, under roughly equal conditions, when you don’t have to fly them around and put them up in hotels of varying fanciness.

Necessity has mothered digital invention together with rapid learning advances that have proved to us that we can change must faster than our most ambitious management plans assumed was possible.

Thanks to these advances, work on sustainable development has not stopped. In fact, in some critical areas, it has intensified. Consider finance. In the past year major investment leaders at the global level have pushed themselves and others to take stronger stands (and produced better measurable results) on climate change, diversity, gender equity and corporate responsibility generally. Investment levels in developing countries may be down, but new vehicles for that investment are being innovated and designed, so that when the money flow eventually accelerates again it will have more and potentially more effective places to go.

It is not my purpose here to paint a rosy picture of the future with these short syntheses and personal impressions gleaned from dozens of recent digital meetings, reports, dialogs and conferences. As a world, we have a tough road ahead. People living in rising poverty and oppression have it toughest of all, and I challenge everyone reading this to keep that reality in the forefront of their minds as we continue down that road.

But it is important also to bear in mind that COVID-19 has not made the achievement of sustainable development impossible. It has, of course, made achieving those goals by 2030 a whole lot harder (and it was already very hard). Yet it has also shown us that even in the midst of serious global calamity, when the goalposts are still shifting away from us, we can (and must) keep pressing forward. Working to prevent greater damage where we have to. Making positive change where we can. Believing that the tide eventually will turn again in our favor.

Because that is what will make it turn.

*  *  *

For those who have read all the way through the “Words” part of this newsletter, here comes “&Music”.

I started playing guitar recently. That might seem a strange statement — I have been playing the guitar for 43 years. Just not recently.

Despite all the extra home time that a pandemic provides, my guitars have resolutely stayed in their respective cases most of the year. But last Sunday, I set a goal of playing all four of my guitars at least once during the day: my workaday Martin D-2832 (which I carried with me everywhere for decades, it has many dings and airport security stickers to prove it), my much-fancier Taylor (the one I use for shows and recordings), the classical guitar I still think of as my “new” guitar (I bought it five years ago, see picture from my friend Gillian Martin Mehers), and my electric, an ESP strat built for me by Mark Dann, the legendary bass-player whom I met during the heyday of Greenwich Village’s “Speakeasy”/Fast Folk era, also known as the 1980s. (Mark is still active, here is a recent YouTube video of him recording a bass track in his studio.)

On that same Sunday, I also drank real espresso coffee for the first time in over a year. Do you think those two things somehow go together?

In any event, I played all four guitars. And then I played guitar every day last week. I kept one by my desk, to pull up during short breaks from all the Zoom, Teams, and Skype meetings. It gave me such joy (and a little pain) to reacquaint my fingers with the strings.

Maybe it was the coffee: I felt it in my system for days afterwards (though I drank not another drop). In between meetings with my colleagues at Sida, the agency where I work, and where we aim to improve the lives of people living in poverty and oppression, I would either pop out for a quick walk in the warming Swedish weather, or pick up my guitar to relearn an old favorite.

Often this one, Moon’s Best Friend, an autobiographical song about what I remember from being two, three, and four years old — with a bit of artistic embellishment, I confess.
Listen to “Moon’s Best Friend” on YouTube  /  Spotify  /  Apple Music Amazon
From the album “Testing the Rope”, Rain City Records, 1997

The song focuses on my relationship to my babysitter, a teenage boy named Peter. Here’s the chorus:

Will you read me that story ’bout the Moon’s Best Friend
Pick me up — swing me round again
My heart comes all undone
Can I tell you how it feels to be two years old

The embellishment is this: there was no children’s book called “Moon’s Best Friend”. I made up that little detail. But over the years, the fact that such a book didn’t actually exist bothered me.

So a few years ago, I wrote and illustrated a children’s book for two- to four-year-olds, called “Moon’s Best Friend.”

But that is a story for another day.

Finally, there are now Swedish, French, and German editions of my little bestseller Sustainability is for Everyone. all now available in both paper and free PDF versions at their respective websites. Just click the language of your choice.

Stay safe and healthy,

Warm regards,