Back in 2013, I wrote a little book whose purpose was to inspire my colleagues in sustainability. The book, complete with little stick-figure illustrations that I drew myself, was a surprise hit (in relative terms). It sold many thousands of copies, often in large group sales to whole companies or university programs. Sustainability is for Everyone became my second real bestseller.
Fast forward to late 2020. I have been working at Sida for several years now. It’s a wonderful, demanding position that leaves little time for side projects. But the Covid-19 pandemic means that I am not traveling and mostly working from home. That’s when I rediscover the Swedish translation, Hållbarhet är för alla.
The translation was almost complete when I started my current position (as Assistant Director-General in Sweden’s international development agency, leading a large department). I had left it sitting on ice. Turns out it just needed about one weekend of work to revive it, finish it, and publish it, through my own small imprint, Broken Bone Press.
So that’s what I did. And since Christmas was coming, and the pandemic was raging on, I decided to make the PDF version of the book free, as a gift to my adopted country. You can download it here. (Anyone can download it, but it helps to know Swedish if you want to read it. The English version is available through any online bookseller.)
Is the book still relevant, almost eight years later? Highly.
Of course the world has changed. I wrote a new preface in 2017, celebrating the arrival of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (the 17 SDGs). But the central idea is simple, and still necessary: for sustainability to truly succeed, we need as many people as possible to be engaged in making it happen.
Engagement requires communication. That’s what Sustainability is for Everyone (or Hållbarhet är för alla in Swedish, or Nachhaltigkeit ist für jeden in German, and soon La durabilité est l’affaire de tous in French) focuses on: how to communicate about sustainability, with people who may not even be interested.
That’s why this particular book treats this complex concept in such simple terms, with simple drawings: to create a sense of ease and even fun around the challenges of tackling global problems and finding systems-based solutions.
“If the world were a party,” I wrote in 2013, “sustainability would be the smart-but-nerdy cousin who somehow does not get invited — not because nobody likes her, but because everyone assumes that she will not fit in.” My aim was to help make sustainability “the life of the party. After all, without sustainability, the party could become a deadly nightmare.”
So, if you are Swedish, or have friends in Sweden, pass the word: Hållbarhet är för alla. The book is a free gift.
Stockholm’s Fotografiska lets in just 8 people every half hour, for 90-minute slots. There are never more than 24 people in the whole museum of photography, which occupies a large former warehouse at the docks. So I felt quite safe, Covid-responsible, and usually quite alone in the expansive galleries.
I also felt, more often than expected, surprisingly moved. There is something about being alone with artwork that facilitates a deeper experience of it than when one must share it with a crowd of other gallery-goers.
Take, for example, the video installation Passage, by Mohau Modisakeng. It is the kind of installation that I usually breeze through, noting its contours and its principal message, feeling a bit jaded because I have seen so many other similar works. They all tend to run together in a common “art video” blur.
Three black-and-white videos of a Black woman in a white rowboat, projected on a wall with three partitions. The woman in the central video is slow-motion writhing in an almost inundated vessel. She turns and twists under the water, eyes closed. Perhaps she is drowning. Perhaps she is simply looking for a position in which she can rise to the surface and breathe. It is difficult to know. The other two women are also moving about, both in seemingly random ways , both in completely dry boats. One woman is holding a bullwhip.
The imagery has no specific narrative in itself. It takes the accompanying text to make sense of this art: Passage is about water, and South Africa, how water brought people to Cape Town or carried them away from it, into indentured servitude or slavery, starting centuries ago. The heart breaks before it can even take in the magnitude of what this artwork is attempting to represent, with its simple yet sophisticated language of women in boats.
I also learn that in the spoken Setswana language, the word for life (botshelo) means “to cross.” The word for person is “traveler” (bafeti). We are all travelers, making a crossing, from one (unknown) place to another. Life is the journey itself.
Here and now, this strikes me as profound rather than platitudinous — perhaps because I am not traveling at all. For decades, I have traveled with great regularity for my work (as well as for personal reasons, with family on two continents). At least once a month, I go somewhere, and often somewhere quite far away from home. But for the past several months I have not traveled farther than downtown Stockholm. I have not left Sweden since March 2020. And I notice one striking effect that all this relative stillness is having on me: a sharpened self-consciousness.
The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the feeling of singularity in everyone’s lives, I wager. We are, every one of us, unique individuals. Much of the time, we have only ourselves to converse with. We are always alone with our thoughts. The pandemic has made this more apparent.
This does not mean that we are self-sufficient. Certainly the connections we have to others are important, life-defining, more or less essential. The essential connections that we experience directly are many or they are few, depending on where we live, which culture we belong to, what family or friendship means to us. We are also indirectly connected to —and utterly dependent on — the work of many others: the “essential workers” who produce food, work in hospitals, drive trucks. We are of course embedded in deep webs of social, economic, and technological connection.
But in being restricted in how much we can move around, in not meeting so many other people, in staying home, it also becomes achingly clear that we are individuals, separate and free-standing points of self-awareness, each inhabiting a specific spot on this very singular globe we call Earth. The pandemic makes it impossible not to become more aware of this essential feature of the human condition. This is an awareness that some welcome more than others, for even this insight is something we each respond to in highly individualized ways.
I for one experience this time of restricted social contact as affording extra time for reflection. I have more time for myself (and my family) than usual, which means more time to read and think. I see this as largely beneficial, something like an extended retreat. I feel calmer in my mind. I know, more clearly than usual, what I think, why, and what I want or need to do once the wheel of daily work begins to turn again.
But I recognize that others may not see anything positive about this time. Many are suffering in “tunnels of loneliness”, as a writer in the New York Times put it. I further recognize that this gift of additional time to reflect is coming at great cost to so many, and that my thinking is (as it always is) dependent on the continuing “essential work” of many others, who must now expose themselves to higher levels of risk just to keep food on our tables and to provide healthcare to those who fall ill.
Of course, it took a small journey into town to jar this reflection and this writing loose, and that is somewhat ironic. But let no one tell you that we in Sweden are not taking the pandemic seriously. I traveled by car, walked outside around Stockholm’s not-quite-shut-down Old Town (with a mask on), stuck mostly to the most deserted and wintry streets (see photo above), dodged and weaved when necessary to keep two meters away from the small numbers of people I passed on the main thoroughfares, showed up for my appointed time at Fotografiska, stayed far away from the 23 other people sharing the many large exhibition rooms with me (I saw six or seven of those people), and left when my time ran out.
But I am lucky to experience even this small degree of freedom. On this day, January 6, which is Epiphany on the Christian calendar — and still a day off in the secularized holiday system of the Swedish state — I suppose I was looking for some kind of epiphany before returning tomorrow to a calendar full of digital meetings in my home office.
And I suppose I found it. We are alone, yet not alone. We are bound up together, and we are separate. We are all travelers, but many of us are having, and have had, much more difficult journeys than others. Many of us are experiencing loneliness and hardship, so we need to find ways to help each other, to use our singular self-awareness, our separateness, to strengthen and appreciate the things that connect us. We need this especially now, when we are not even permitted to meet.
It is far from being an original epiphany. But it feels like a gift, and I am grateful for it.
 “The virus has burrowed into people’s lives, digging tunnels of loneliness that can feel never-ending even in places that have fared relatively well.” In Jason Horowitz’s article “’I Will Get Up’: A Hard New Year Greets a World in Waiting,” New York Times, 6 January 2021.
Epiphany has always been one of my favoite holidays, not for religious reasons, but because I like the word and what it means: a revelation, a sudden awareness. So here is a “bonus track”: my first song to be pressed into vinyl, in 1986, “Epiphany Dream”:
Covid-19 has had many side unexpected side-effects. While I have so far avoided the virus (I think), I have not avoided certain side-effects — like having more time to write. The result was two books, two stories.
Last summer, I completed a new book. It is a very unusual book, even by my standards. Here is the blurb:
“A scientific meeting about sustainability, the courage of a friend who faced certain death, and a tragi-comic poem in 61 verses are the starting points for these 61 short, luminous essays on the human relationship to time. Begun as a letter to the friend’s now-adult daughter, who had written to the author seeking to understand a mysterious poem dedicated to her father over 20 years previously, The Chronosphere Commentary takes the reader on a journey that varies from playful to philosophical to achingly personal, ultimately confronting the unreliability of memory and the unavoidable shortness of human life in the context of a vast, ancient universe.”
The Chronosphere Commentary was composed over a three-year period on a special website, where you can read the poem straight through, or explore it verse by verse with the commentaries (which became this book).
Why did I write a book of commentaries about a poem about time? Why did I write the poem in the first place? That is a story in itself, starting with the letter mentioned in the blurb … but the book’s intro tells that story. I hope you enjoy The Chronosphere Commentary.
During the late autumn of this Covid year, I finally put the finishing touches on my wife Kristina AtKisson’s wonderful Swedish translation of my old “classic”, Sustainability is for Everyone. And I published it. And I gave it as a digital “julklapp” (Christmas present) to Sweden, free, via this special website (in Swedish):
Of course you can also buy the book at bookstores on paper, or get it as a Kindle e-book.
This little book has had such a surprising life. When I wrote it, I had no idea it would be a book. (It was just a long essay, written to my colleagues in sustainability.) When the essay proved popular, I published the book, but I had no idea it would be a success from a publishing perspective. Anything over 10,000 copies is considered a “bestseller”. This book sold about 30,000 and has been translated into several languages. (The German translation was sponsored by the Government of Austria.)
On March 24, 1995, I performed at a small club in New York. On March 24, 2020, at 8 pm Swedish time (or anytime thereafter), you can travel through time to that club, that show. Grab a virtual table and a drink, sit back and enjoy.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a major global crisis, the likes of we have not seen in living memory. Seemed like a good time to offer a little distraction to people who are stuck in quarantine, self-isolating, “sheltering in place”, and generally having a hard time.
So I’m releasing a new video on YouTube. I dug into my archive, found an old tape, got it digitized, edited and sound-enhanced. If it gives even just a handful of people a little pleasure for 40 minutes, well, that’s something.
Today would have been the birthday of my dear friend Joan Davis, who passed away four years ago, on 11 Jan 2016, just a few weeks shy of her 80th birthday. A website was created to capture remembrances of her, and since my written piece appeared first, and many followed, it is now at the tail end of a very long list of heartfelt memories of this very special person. In Joan’s honor, I republish my remembrance here, today. I also wrote a song for Joan, inspired by our mutual love of water, but it was never released on a formal recording. You can listen to an old demo version of Water of Life here, recorded in my home studio, early 1990s.
13 January 2016
Unexpectedly, late in the day on 11 January 2016, tears welled up in my eyes. I had no idea why, so I shook it off and and went on about my business (I was just leaving my office to go pick up my daughter).
This is not something that usually happens to me. So when I learned that Joan Davis had died on that day, I thought that Joan herself would have appreciated the coincidence.
Joan did not believe in meaningless coincidence; she believed in a universe woven of meaning and full of synchronicity. And she was led to that belief through her own unique approach to science.
Joan, a widely recognized and lauded chemist who focused on water, was nothing if not empirical. She trusted the evidence of her senses. If her senses seemed more, well, sensitive than other people’s, and gave her access to information that most people could not fathom, then only history will determine if she was somewhat ahead of her time. She was certainly special, a unique person in so many ways — the ballet dancer who turned to chemistry, and opened many people’s eyes to the extraordinary qualities of the simple compound we call water.
A small but telling example of my interactions with her: late in her life, Joan became famously sensitive to wifi signals — which she likened to electromagnetic smog. She claimed that prolonged exposure to such signals caused her serious physical distress. Joan was a dear friend, with whom I sometimes disagreed on matters of science or policy, so like many others I tended to view this claim as a quirk of her character, a bit inconvenient (because it increasingly stopped her from traveling), something one tolerates with respect, as one respects the beliefs of people with differing religious views.
At a meeting we were both attending, Joan had specially requested a room that was outside the area covered by wifi. Most people want the opposite — reliable wifi coverage everywhere — and today it is hard to find such a room in a conference center or hotel. But this conference center had a small section of rooms that were not yet covered with “electromagnetic smog”. (As I recall it was one of the reasons we selected that center.)
By chance, I ended up in the room next door to Joan. At around two in the morning, I was awakened by terrifying screams and moans coming through the wall. From Joan’s room. I went into her, and she told me she had been awakened by severe and excruciatingly painful cramps in her legs — not something from which she usually suffered. “So sorry to wake you,” she said. “There must be wifi in here.”
The next morning I checked. And indeed the previous week, a new router and antenna had been added to that section, to extend the wifi coverage — which the person working in reception, who had assigned that room to Joan, had not known about.
I still don’t know what to make of this story, but I gained a new respect for Joan’s unshakable will in such matters. It was almost never possible to argue her over to a different view — for example, that there was no scientific evidence that wifi signals could interact with the body in this way, that her sensitivity was “all in her head” — because she had very credible, bodily evidence of her own. She relied on her own experience, her own senses, first and foremost, even if there was no “scientific” explanation yet available for what she experienced.
Of course, such an anecdote — which I remember now with affection, because it created a private story between us — runs the risk of distracting attention away from the vast bulk of Joan’s professional life. As a prominent researcher, she had developed new methods for testing water quality and treating water. Later, she was a tireless promoter of organic farming, not just because of her belief in the dangers of pesticides in food, but also because of how organic farming methods sequester carbon, care for soils, and improve retention of water. She served on numerous boards, bringing wisdom and ethical principle into the proceedings.
And she had fought an extraordinary battle of courage to rise to prominence in her profession. As a young chemistry graduate student in Ohio, and the only female in her cohort, she won an award for the best doctoral dissertation. However, when she received the formal letter notifying her about the award, the letter also explained, with regret, that women were not invited to the annual dinner at which award was presented. So she would have to be given this accolade in absentia.
Joan told me many other stories of her life — some professional, some personal. Some happy and remarkable, some tragic. She had overcome adversity of many kinds, physical, emotional, professional, and usually through sheer force of will, coupled with a great capacity for equanimity. I cannot possibly recount all the stories that are worth telling, nor am I sure that I would remember them accurately. This is one of the many things one feels keenly, as a loss, when a beloved friend who owns those stories suddenly vanishes.
Instead I will close this small remembrance of Joan Davis with an appreciation of her equally great qualities as a listener. She had a gift for deep listening, for making one feel heard, comprehended, and appreciated. Many people who knew her speak of a “glow” that seemed to emanate from her, a sparkle in her eyes. Even when physically delicate, she loved “bearhugs” (at least verbal ones). Even when months went by between conversations, one could instantly “go deep” with Joan, and talk about the most crucial issues, the biggest emotions, and the great mystery of being conscious and alive on planet Earth, in this remarkable time.
I wish that we could have shared more of that time with her.
“Water of Life” – for Joan Davis – 1993
Home demo, recorded on a Tascam PortaOne
Look at the light shining off the Sound
There’s nobody around
But me, and this body of water
Alone in a crowd
Of stars and stones and trees and passing clouds
Spirits high, I’m singing right out loud
Sing up the beauty of this
Clean water, clear water, cool water
Water of life
Pure water, wild water
The water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world
Look at these jewels of morning dew
The eyes I’m looking through
Are windows of water
When it falls down
I am water watching water hit the ground
Every drop splashes up a crown
The Queen of all the Earth is
Clean water, clear water, cool water
Water of life
Pure water, wild water
The water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world
The water takes a complete control
Like a river running through my soul
Like a rainstorm roarin up my spine
Like an ocean of love that rocks my mind
Look at the waves rolling up the beach
They can almost reach
The place where I’m standing
Won’t be too long
The moon will pull that tidal rush up real strong
Me and my footprints will be gone
But evermore there will be
Clean water, clear water, cool water
Water of life
Pure water, wild water
The water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world
The twist: these are the same songs as on my previous album, American Troubadour. But they are in reverse order. New album title. New package.
Because few people have ever heard this music.
Even if you have heard this album, it feels like a completely new experience when you listen to it in reverse. Starts very calm, reflective. Then it builds. It’s a journey from an intensely personal, inward focus towards global concern and inspiration.
This is the album as I originally envisioned it. And the cover I originally designed.
Frankly, I have never liked the cover on American Troubadour. It’s always bothered me. To be honest, the whole process of releasing that album went sideways. The studio production went beautifully. We were all very hopeful. Then things went wrong with the cover, the marketing plan, the release party, everything. The process kind of fell apart. It’s a long story.
But I believe in these songs. I believe they deserve a fresh start, a better chance to find listeners.
So I’m making this album available for free, digitally. You can download the whole album here. Of course you can also stream the album on platforms like Spotify, Apple or YouTube as usual (and please do that, it helps when those streaming numbers go up). And you can buy the album from the usual distributors, if you prefer.
But especially if you have never listened to these songs, please listen now. I believe you will find at least one song that will touch you.
Give you solace. Give you hope.
And then, if you feel like it — please spread the word. And the music.
What you can expect from this Facebook page: Info about me, my music, other people’s music, thoughts about music in general, and the occasional shout-out to the work of other friends — which may have nothing to do with music, except that music is essential, it goes with everything, inspires and gets inspired by everything. Music is an essential part of what makes us human.
Want to know more? Here’s the complete backstory, which ends with the words, “Hence this Facebook page.”
If you know me, then you know that I’ve been a steady public voice pushing for sustainable development for over 30 years. You know that I’ve written books, keynoted conferences, advised governments and companies, and that nowadays I work as a public official in Sweden with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida. (Obvious but important note: This page has nothing to do with my job at Sida and everything posted here is strictly my own opinion. I have a separate FB page for my work as a public official, http://www.facebook.com/AlanAtKissonPublic)
And you also know that music has always been a small but integral part of my public work as a sustainability advocate.
It’s been over 40 years since I got my first paycheck as a musician, singing lead in a big show band called “Jubilation”, in New Orleans, USA, in 1978. Just a college kid, I’d been playing piano all my life till I picked up the guitar in ‘77 when I came to New Orleans to study science, philosophy and the arts. In 1979 I became a relatively poor student at Oxford University, UK. So I played and sang in a pub called “The Monk’s Retreat” two nights a week, covering the Eagles, John Denver, Carole King, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Dan Fogelburg, Don Maclean etc. The income and tips from those endless repetitions of “Fire and Rain” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” covered my meager food budget. They also built my chops as singer-guitarist.
Let’s skip over the part about the luminous dream I had about a guitar while living in a California forest, summer of 1982, or the fortune cookie that seemed to encourage me to move to New York and pursue a professional career as a singer, songwriter, guitarist. Let’s just say, that’s what I did. To the consternation of relatives, who thought I should be doing something else with my fancy education.
That first year in New York, I was strongly aided by my former drama teacher from high school, Patricia Jenkins. She encouraged me artistically, helped find work and a place to live. I “debuted” with a little gig at a now-defunct jazz club called Kelly’s Village West (about 15 people came). I also made my first cassette album of original songs, “Whitewing,” recorded in the bedroom-recording-studio of Darryl Cherney, an accomplished comedy songwriter who, many years later, became an environmental activist in California and radical green presidential candidate. At the time, Darryl shared a small New York apartment with a great big cat and moved furniture for a living, and I worked for him for a while as I tried to edge my way into the competitive music world of Manhattan.
There was a folk musicians’ cooperative in those days, a holdover from the 60s tied to a small club in Greenwich Village called Speakeasy. I volunteered there, producing shows and performing myself, eventually graduating from Monday-night open mike to Thursday or Sunday headliner (Fridays and Saturdays were reserved for established folk artists like Odetta or Dave Van Ronk).
Sometimes I performed in a trio with Judith Zweiman and Mark McColl, dubbed “Whitewing” after my album and song about the myth of Icarus. A high point of this phase was having one of my songs (“Epiphany Dream”) selected for inclusion in the cooperative’s highly regarded publication-with-vinyl-record, Fast Folk Musical Magazine.
I also had other “day jobs”, mostly typing and secretarial work for lawyers. (I am a very fast typist.) One of those jobs was working for Kirk D’Amico, now president & CEO of Myriad Pictures, then a rising entertainment lawyer. Kirk introduced me to a band that was looking for a guitarist and backup singer. I had never touched an electric guitar before, but I bought one, and learned, and soon I was fronting the band and writing rock songs as well. We wore skinny leather ties and called ourselves Local Colour. Soon we were playing the edgy clubs of the day — CBGB, Bitter End, 8BC, Kamikaze — and there are complex tales to be told of personnel changes and new names and the tough world of gigging in New York.
A side note: yes, I played weddings and wrote songs-on-demand for freshly-joined couples. But I also played hospitals, psychiatric wards, and institutional homes for people with challenging differences of ability. These are actually my fondest memories of being a working musician in New York, playing my songs for people who sometimes responded very deeply to specific melody or lyric.
Then, after years of patiently climbing the ladder, the big break: Kirk D’Amico offered to be my manager and, together with another very well-placed entertainment lawyer named Tim DiBaets (Tim still represents artists and directors), work to boost me into pop stardom.
Why did I ultimately turn them down, walk away from the contract, cut my hair and get a job as chief administrator for the US branch of a small, international peace organization?
The simple version of the complex story is this: I imagined life as a successful popular music artist (which was hardly a given but was suddenly a very real possibility), and realized that I didn’t want it.
Thus began a very different journey. In 1988 I and my then-partner decided to move to Seattle. We were just drawn to it. We made the decision to move before we even had jobs. But miraculously, I landed a job before we moved: as managing editor of the one-and-only magazine in the world, at least that I knew of at that time, focused on sustainability, systems thinking, philosophy and cultural change. All the things that had most motivated me in my university studies.
And now we are getting into stories best left to my books, where I explain how the musical career that I thought I had left behind kept popping up again — by a combination of external demand and inner compulsion — until I had to accept that singing, writing songs, playing the guitar was an undeniable and permanent part of my life. I had to find some way to work it into the rest of my professional identity.
So in 1997 I left my then-job as executive director of an economics think-tank, released my first two albums (“Testing the Rope” and “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On”), and went on a self-organized world tour of speeches and small concerts. Let’s call it a sabbatical.
One result of all that global wandering was my first book, Believing Cassandra (1999), which came with a musical CD of original songs to illustrate the text.
And so it was — from 1992 until just a few years ago — that I traveled the world, doing my “day job” as a keynote speaker, strategic adviser, organizational leader, professional trainer, facilitator, moderator, and topical expert in the field of sustainability and sustainable development. Almost everywhere, I would incorporate a bit of music: an a capella song into a keynote (see the end of my TEDx talk for an example), a small evening performance as part of a conference, or even a full-blown one-man musical from time to time.
But not everywhere! One has to use one’s judgment about these things. Mostly, having music available as a tool helped me get noticed and served as a “unique selling point” in my previous professional work. (“Do you want me to sing as part of my keynote?” “Yes, that is why we decided to engage you.”) Occasionally, however, it has perhaps been a liability. (“The senior officials are worried that you might sing at this event!” “Tell them not to worry, of course I know when not to sing.”) But incorporating music into my other, “serious” policy work, as I have somehow managed to do for a very long time, has made the journey so much more interesting and enjoyable.
So now, despite 40 years of musical activity, despite everything I’ve recorded and performed and written about music, it suddenly occurs to me — as I write this text, and launch this Facebook page, on 11 Jan 2020 — that I have never properly given my own music its due. It has always been a “tool in my toolbox,” taken out or hidden away. I have never given my own songs and compositions a proper chance to be discovered by whoever might appreciate them, enjoy them, take something from them — or at least take a little inspiration from my example of blending music and the creative arts in with serious professional work. (Because I certainly do not expect everyone to like my music.)
Part think-piece, part cri-de-coeur, my manifesto was an attempt to make sense of my own thoughts and worries about where humanity was heading, and to make the case for global transformation. This was not an obvious line of argument at the time. While my own mentors in the field were mostly arguing for putting the brakes on global development, and mostly for environmental reasons, I called for speeding things up — but dramatically changing course. I saw no ethical or logical alternative.
For myriad reasons, I argued, we cannot stop development. Technology and industrialization have irreversibly opened Pandora’s box. Meanwhile, billions still suffer from hunger and need. But if we are to be sustainable, we cannot keep doing development the same way. Transformation — including rebuilding our energy systems, recalibrating financial markets, altering consumption and production patterns, rescuing an environment in decline, eliminating poverty, drastically reducing the risk of war, and implementing the universal adoption of human rights — is our only viable option to achieve a sustainable future on planet Earth.
In late 1999, thoughts like these still seemed both alarmist and utopian to anyone standing outside the sustainability movement. I confess to a kind of missionary zeal in my need to express them in book and manifesto format. To this day, I have no idea if any of my writing has made any difference at all in the course of subsequent events, outside the small audience of individuals who have gifted me with their attention over the years. In retrospect, the question seems quite unimportant.
But fortunately, I was hardly alone in thinking those thoughts or in writing them down and spreading them. Read, for example, the Earth Charter, adopted by thousands of organizations at roughly the same time. Drafted by a global who’s who of political and civil society leaders during the 1990s, it says roughly the same thing I was trying to say in my manifesto, but in more formal language. (I was personally unaware of the Earth Charter until 2005.)
A decade later, in late 2009, I again took stock of the global situation and, at the invitation of a United Nations think-tank process, wrote a new article called “Pushing Reset on Sustainable Development.” Things were definitely looking brighter by then, but once again I argued (to an audience of global specialists and policy-makers) that incremental advances in areas like gender equality and “corporate social responsibility” were far from sufficient. Our aim needed to be much higher, our goals keyed to absolute standards, not relative performance targets. Transformation — “reset” — was still our only hope.
Then, in 2015, there came a breakthrough. Fifteen years after the release of both the global Earth Charter and my personal manifesto, five years after my “reset” article, the United Nations formally adopted — under the overarching title “Transforming Our World” — the global 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change. Here at last was the proof that none of us had been “voices crying in the wilderness”. We were harbingers of what was to come. In 2015, global alarm about the negative aspects of long-term development trends, mixed with aim-high optimism about the changes we needed to make, had become the official mainstream.
I was so overcome with hope and happiness that I wrote dance-pop-reggae-rap song — and made a very UN-y music video — to celebrate.
Now it is five years later, once again the end of a decade. The transformation we call “sustainable development” is no longer the stuff of idealistic manifestos; it is a policy and a process being pursued by governments, corporations, investors, universities, cities, and of course countless civil society organizations.
But the process is also under existential threat. It is far from clear that a majority of humanity would vote for this transformation, even if provided with all the relevant facts. Some governments, like the one I now work for (Sweden), are acting internationally in strong alignment with these goals. Others seem robustly committed to moving in the opposite direction. Popular movements seem equally divided: some march for democracy and stopping climate change, others march to oppose taxes on carbon dioxide or to resist the extension of human rights to the most oppressed. And nearly everywhere, activists, journalists and researchers are finding it more and more difficult to stand up for taking principled action, for telling the truth, or even for generating basic knowledge. More and more of these “everyday heroes” are actually getting murdered for it.
So I will not be writing any new manifestos this year. We have plenty of such documents now, with all the right endorsements (though some of the endorsements have also been eroding).
Instead, I am using our Swedish winter holidays to rest up, reflect, and gear up for yet another new chapter in the decades-long global movement to achieve sustainable development.
If I was writing that chapter, I would probably title it something like this: “The challenge of persisting, persevering against the odds, and accelerating transformation.”
We have turned the corner. We have mapped the path up the mountain. Yes, there are enormous obstacles, and there will be backsliding. But we know the path is the right one.
There is nowhere to go but all the way up.
This is the fourth installment of my personal newsletter, Words&Music. To receive Words&Music as an email, sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9
A year and a half has gone by since I started working at Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The work is challenging, rewarding, all-engrossing. It has been an extraordinary honor to represent Sweden in international venues and lead my department of over 100 very skilled and experienced professionals. But that is not what drove me to finally write to you today (with apologies for the long break between letters).
It has been exactly 20 years since the publication of Believing Cassandra: How to be an optimist in a pessimist’s world.
Commissioned by my friend and mentor, Donella Meadows, Believing Cassandra was my first book. it was also my first book to be referred as a “bestseller” (I’ve had two), because it was officially named so on Amazon for its category. The book has been published in at least two other languages, Russian and Japanese, and was still being used in college courses as recently as 2017. It has sold something like 35,000 copies over its lifetime, as a rough guess. That is not a big number — but it was a big number in the tiny world of sustainability books.
And the book – to my great surprise – still feels relevant. Updated in 2011 for the second edition, some of the data and examples now seem ancient, of course. But the book’s messages about the basic concepts of systems, sustainability, and the power of people to create transformative change are not exactly stale. In fact, their time appears to have (finally) come.
I reread some of the book on a rainy Saturday afternoon, just hours after my return from a work trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It made want to me reflect on the last twenty years — where we were in 1999 as a world, where we are now, farther along the sustainable development path, definitely not far enough — and also want to tell you about a very important breakthrough.
But first a word about my visit to Ethiopia. I am sure you noticed that Prime Minister Abiy was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This means a lot for the country internationally, but I am not sure it helped in the process of securing peace internally. Most people I talked to seemed oblivious to the prize and far more concerned with practical matters of peace, stability, and economic reform and development. There was also a recent wave of ethnic violence in Ethiopia, and a fair degree of nervousness, especially among the more educated people I spoke with. The violence was sparked by a single Facebook post by a single “activist” political leader, underscoring the double-edged power of social media both to unite and organize for change, and to divide and mobilize our lesser qualities as human beings.
Nonetheless, I am happy to report that there is also a rising wave of hope in Ethiopia for democracy, human rights, and resilience in the face of growing climate stress. According to a government minister I spoke with, in the past year or two, over 4 billion trees have been planted in that country of 110 million people (350 million trees were planted on a single day of national mobilization). During my visit I met children organized to secure better educational conditions, academics leading top-flight research programs, civil society workers learning to navigate the recently liberalized laws for civil organizing, and development professionals using systems analyses to create high-leverage interventions in the job market: Ethiopia needs to create new jobs for about 2 million young people every year.
It was thinking about countries like Ethiopia that led me, writing 20 hears ago, to highlight the differences between Growth and Development. It is important to me that Believing Cassandra, although inspired by the 1972 book Limits to Growth, is not anti-growth. My message has always been pro-growth for the poor who really need it, and pro-development – sustainable development – for the whole world. Ethiopia certainly needs growth in jobs, democracy, and access to education and resources. But Ethiopia, like all nations on Earth, without exception, also needs a more sustainable model of development than the one the world pursued during the previous century.
Fortunately, that is exactly what my agency Sida, and the whole of Swedish development cooperation, is committed to supporting. We fund only renewable energy. We emphasize gender quality. We keep a sharp focus on democracy, human rights, justice and transparency. We steadfastly support the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their implementation, which means aiming, long-term, for a world free from poverty, hunger, and unfairness, living within the capacity of the planet’s ecosystems. Of course that is an idealistic vision. But it is also the only vision worthy of aspiring to.
It is important to note that the world adopted 17 Sustainable DevelopmentGoals in 2015 – not sustainable growth goals. The increasing sense of climate crisis is forcing all of us to think hard about our consumption patterns (food, air travel, stuff in general), and the crisis of plastic in the ocean is forcing us to face hard facts about our unsustainable production systems. We cannot keep heading in this direction, globally. We obviously don’t need more growth of CO2 emissions or rainforest clearance. Nonetheless, we absolutely do need – just as I wrote in Believing Cassandra in 1999 – to accelerate development. Not slow down, but go faster. We need transformative change, and we need it as quickly as possible.
I still believe that the process of transforming our economies and making them more sustainable holds great promise for meeting the very real needs in our world, including the needs of still-poor nations like Ethiopia. Back in 1999 and 2000, writing in a magazine (remember magazines?) called Newsweek, I called this transformation the “New New Economy.” (The digital economy was referred to then as the “New Economy”.) It has taken longer than I and many others hoped, but I do see signs of a more sustainable economy finally starting to emerge at scale around the world, especially in the centrally important sector of renewable energy, but also in the critical sector of finance. More on this below.
But we still have so far to go. Part of why I joined Sida after so many years working independently and with my consulting network was the desire to be part of a bigger institution, a larger team, and help to make bigger, institutional changes. After a year and half, that certainly feels like the right choice. Because again, I see recent signs of hope, even breakthrough.
A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to attend the launch of a new initiative, convened by the UN Secretary-General, called Global Investors for Sustainable Development. This new global alliance of 30 of the world’s largest finance and investment firms is modeled on a similar network managed by Sida in Sweden. There were 18 CEOs present at the launch of the GISD, from countries around the world. Together, they represented over 16 trillion dollars in capital. This gathering, framed around a new joint commitment to sustainable development, was a first of its kind, not just for the UN, but for the world.
We at Sida are supporting this new global initiative with both grant money and technical support. The CEOs of these 30 member firms have signed a joint statement committing them to step up their actions in support of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs – which means that the sustainability agenda that we have been struggling to bring to the forefront of decision-making for several decades has just gotten (theoretically) a huge financial boost. Just how huge remains to be seen. But even small gestures from companies like this are measured in the billions of US dollars (tens of billions of Swedish kronor).
At the launch event, these CEOs were (finally) saying things that sounded a lot like my optimistic calls for accerating economic transformation in Believing Cassandra 20 years ago. They see contributing to the shift to a sustainable global economy not just as a duty, but as an opportunity. You can imagine that I sat there listening with a wide range of feelings, from that mildly exasperated “finally” that I wrote in parentheses above (as in, “Why did it take so long?”) to great joy that so many top financial leaders, responding to the UN Secretary-General’s call to action, were publicly joining that “Army of Change Agents” that I also wrote about in my second book ten years later (see the last chapter of The Sustainability Transformation).
Maybe these two stories about the Global Investors UN initiative and my trip to Ethiopia, which were just two of the many things that happened to me in the past three weeks, explain why these newsletters are so infrequent. So, what about Words&Music? My old newsletter, WaveFront, went out to nearly 5,000 addresses. Words&Music goes out to just 180 (I had to purge my WaveFront mailing list because of European data and privacy protection laws – which I support).
Are you, my 180 subscribers, still interested in hearing from me, in this format? Please hit reply to drop me a line and let me know. While you are at it, please also let me know what you think of Believing Cassandra, twenty years later (if you have read it). Is the book still relevant today? Should I try to update it one more time, a 3rd edition?
Many thanks for reading this long letter! Social media was not even invented in 1999, when Believing Cassandra was published. I have learned to use it, to “keep it short” — but like Mark Twain, I still find it easier (and more satisfying) to write longer letters. Guess I will always be old-fashioned that way. Even as I continue to work, as optimistically as I can, for a very different future.
This is the third installment of my personal newsletter, Words&Music. To receive Words&Music as an email, sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9
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.