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.
Exactly 20 years ago (29 December 1999) I put pen to paper at a friend’s house in East London and began to write a personal manifesto for the new millennium.
The resulting document, ”Sustainability is Dead — Long Live Sustainability”, had a short, modestly viral life. It was emailed around the Internet, released by my book publishers as a standalone tract, condensed into a magazine article, included in university courses, and ultimately anthologized in Marco Keiner’s The Future of Sustainability (Springer, 2006).
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
>>>>> From the desk of Alan AtKisson <<<<<
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
>>>>> From the desk of Alan AtKisson <<<<<
One can be forgiven the narcissistic act of googling oneself when one is on vacation. Curiosity arises. There is ample free time. It has been a long while since I checked my Google search results, and checking such things is a necessary act of personal hygiene in the digital age. If people ask the Internet about me, what are they currently being told?
So I type “alan atkisson” into my phone’s browser to see what comes up.
Two surprises: (1) Google now serves up, as the first thing you see, a formatted profile of the person whose name you have searched for, if they have any kind of public presence. Google tells you who they are and what they do, before serving you the usual list of search results. (2) I have such a Google profile. And it isn’t “Sustainability expert” (my job for 30 years) or “Swedish international development official” (my current job).
It’s “Musical artist.”
It is difficult to know what to make of this result. I might have expected “Author”: my books have sold tens of thousands of copies, far more than my albums. In fact, for most of my life, I have thought of myself principally as a writer who happened to work as an organizational leader and advisor.
But Google says different.
On what basis has it made this surprising determination of my primary professional identity?
Definitely not income. Since 1988 (the year I started working in sustainability) my total revenues earned purely from music probably don’t add up to a single annual salary — in any profession.
Perhaps this surprising internet search result is a reflection of our global culture’s fascination with pop music and musical artistry generally. Google’s AI prioritized my lifetime of mostly-on-the-side activity as a singer, songwriter and guitarist because that’s what the world values most: musical entertainment.
Consider this fact: based on the number of Google “hits” you get when you search on their names, Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran are nearly ten times more important than Antonio Guterres and Greta Thunberg. (I hope you know who the latter two are.)
Following this logic, with my six studio albums, a UN-recognized climate-change single (“Set the World Right Again”) and a very UN-y music video that is approaching 50,000 views (“We Love the SDGs”), I qualify as a “Musical artist.” So that is what gets prioritized by Google, despite the fact that sustainable development has been my professional focus for decades.
Not even being in the “International Sustainability Hall of Fame” is enough to bring that identity to the forefront in Google’s data-driven eyes, because sustainability is just nowhere near as important as music. (A search on “sustainability” gets nearly a billion Google hits, but “music” gets ten times that many.)
Of course, it could be that this is a message — something I should listen to the way people once listened to the Oracle of Delphi. Maybe the AI algorithms, in their all-knowing wisdom, have stared into the currents of the world and deduced something fundamental about me that I have failed to recognize in myself.
It is true (and I have written about this in my books) that I would never have been invited to certain key sustainability conferences and meetings early in my career were it not for the fact that I also played guitar. Later, even large companies and government agencies, for whom I worked as a senior advisor on economic or scientific issues, would occasionally insist that I also perform a song or two as part of my engagement with them. Often the inclusion of a musical interlude was a condition for getting certain speaking or consulting gigs. (On a few occasions, however, I also had to reassure a worried executive or government official that I was not going to sing unless explicitly asked to.)
Given all these reflections, I have decided to take Google’s message to heart and to consider it an honor – instead of a puzzlement – that the world’s greatest web search algorithm considers me to be, first and foremost, a Musical artist.
To be clear, I will not be changing jobs. Working at Sida, serving as Assistant Director-General of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is a true joy. Every day, I have the honor of leading a large department and contributing to the overall management of one of the world’s leading development organizations, working to finance and facilitate sustainable development. It’s an amazing “day job”.
But thanks to Google and its AI-powered oracle, I might start playing my guitar, and singing my songs, just a little more often.
This morning I pulled out my old Martin D-2832 — a mass-produced model from the early 1980s, my first “serious” guitar — and got just as much joy from running my fingers over the grooved and smooth metal of its strings as the first time I played it, sitting on an amp at the Sam Ash music store in midtown Manhattan. Compared to the forgettable beginner-guitar I was using at the time, the Martin was a revelation. Once I held it, and heard it, I had to have it. Four hundred twenty-five dollars was a lot of money then, especially to me — a month’s wages. Measured in pleasure, it is the best investment I ever made.
Martins are not easy to play, but they reward the diligent. At first, I could barely make a decent-sounding chord. My hands had to strengthen, my dexterity had to become more precise. But I learned. I have strummed and finger-picked that instrument for 27 years now, recorded several albums with it, written the vast majority of my songs on it. To the extent that I can call myself a guitarist, it is thanks to that guitar, and I was known in my early days occasionally to sleep with it (when I snoozed off with the instrument still in my hands, late of an evening).
The loyalty has paid off: even if I practically ignore it for months, my first-love guitar now reminds me how to find the chord, the pattern, the tone, just by picking it up again. It re-teaches me the songs I learned, or wrote, decades ago. It encourages repetition, which is the basic secret of becoming a musician (or most anything), by hinting at a nuance of tone or emphasis that I missed the first time around, which stimulates a longing to try again. And it brings enormous satisfaction when the nuance is found.
My guitar reminds me of places, because many of my strongest memories were cemented into my mind by the addition of a song, written or performed at the behest of a specific site. “Midsummer Island” was composed on Utö in the Swedish archipelago. “The Last Dice” assembled itself in Istanbul. “Goin’ to the Top” came out on a quay next the Sydney Opera House. In each case, I did not say to myself, “This would be a good place to write a song.” It was more like this: a song emerged in my mind and said, “This would be a good place to write me.”
My Martin was always my principal travel guitar, so it has been with me in dozens of countries. The accumulation of distance traversed shows in its many small cracks and dents, which mirror similar features that seem to have accumulated on my own face. These days I rarely travel with the guitar, because airlines have made that harder and harder, and because my work travel now (as a Swedish government official) never includes a musical performance, in the way that my work trips routinely used to.
But that is not a sad fact. That history of extensive travel is now a part of the guitar itself, part of its personality, part of what I automatically think about when I pull it out of the soft zippered bag that has always protected it just enough, but not too much.
I have other guitars, of course — a fine bright Taylor that I use principally for recording now, a relatively new classical that outclasses me and delights with its watery tone, and my old electric, an ESP strat, hand-built from parts by the legendary Mark Dann of Greenwich Village (a talented bass player who was a mainstay of the “Speakeasy” and “Fast Folk” singer-songwriter crowd).
I love all my instruments, of course. But not equally.
Approaching 60 years of age, I wonder now at the future of me and my guitars. Will they outlast me, or me them? If I live to my 80s, will I have as much pleasure in the composition or repetition of a song as I did sitting on a Greyhound bus in 1980s, crossing some piece of the US while lightly plucking the metal strings, creating whispers of sound so as not to wake the sleepers around me, finding the right progression or hammer-stroke to illustrate the ache in the middle of a moment of beauty?
There is a certain ding, a concave depression in the shape of a fingernail, on the lower face of my Martin that was acquired on that specific journey. The bus trip, the song, the moment when a loose buckle on my backpack smacked the soft wood of the Martin — I remember it all well.
And as long as I have that guitar, I always will.
This is the second installment of my personal newsletter, Words&Music. To receive this in your inbox, sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9
Global poverty. Climate change. Political uncertainty. Swedish development aid. Financial markets. The United Nations and the World Bank. The challenge of learning to lead a complex department, in a complex public agency, in complex times.
These are a few of the things that have been on my mind the past six months. Certainly I intended to write to you more often. I also believed, perhaps naively, that I would continue working on my current book, digitally scribbling away at poetry, prepping for an eventual return to the recording studio.
Instead, I have been completely engrossed in my job.
And this has been very rewarding: I am lucky to be leading a department full of smart, committed, and friendly people, as well as sitting on an overall management team that can be similarly described. I’ve also had the honor of representing Sida at the annual meetings of the World Bank and UN General Assembly. I’ve had literally hundreds of meetings during this time, received thousands of emails, signed dozens of decision documents.
There has been a lot to learn, and there remains a lot to be learned. It’s never-ending, of course. But finally, this weekend, I found myself thinking of you — the people who signed up for my newsletter, up to half a year ago.
So much has happened during that half-year. The most profound change, from my personal point of view, has been the change in my own perspective. Immersion in the governmental and inter-governmental machinery of sustainable development, including the interfaces between governments and companies and non-profits and academic institutions, is quite different from advising those entities as an external consultant (which was my principal profession over the past 25 years).
For one thing, as a decision-maker, I now depend on the advice and the work of others. It quickly becomes impossible to set oneself into the details of every issue (as a consultant I always dug into the details). I must trust my colleagues. They present the results of their analyses, describe the logic they have used to arrive at a proposed course of action. If it makes sense to me, I approve it, cheer them on, or carry it forward for discussion at the leadership level. If I am not fully convinced, or if I see areas that I believe can or must be improved in some way, we look together at the relevant details of those aspects that seem problematic, till we arrive at a good conclusion. (And I’m not always right, of course.)
On the other hand, if I have an idea for a course of action, it makes no sense for me to simply “just do it”. There is a vast library of relevant knowledge and experience, a great team, sitting all around me. I don’t have to do anything of scale on my own; in fact, it’s part of my job not to do things on my own, but to mobilize, inspire, support others to do that work (and much other work besides, including everything that we are already tasked with doing, by the Swedish government or by our agency’s Director-General).
And sometimes it turns out that “my idea” has actually been incubated elsewhere, by others, somewhere inside my agency, for some time: then my job becomes one of supporting my colleagues and helping that idea find its way to a bigger life.
I have a new-found appreciation for people like Wallace Stevens, already one of my favorite poets of the 20th Century, who managed to write his poems and essays while also working as a top executive in a large insurance company. If he could do it, I say to myself, eventually so can I.
This is by no means a complaint. I assume you have been reading between the lines of the letter and understanding how much I love this job. I am keenly aware that responsibility is a privilege. So I have been giving that responsibility my all.
But after a half-year, I am finally re-discovering life outside my job. (Not my family life — they have always been at the center of my little corner of the universe.) There are poems to write, songs to sing, a few books I want to continue developing.
And there is you — the much-appreciated people who indicated, by signing up for this newsletter, that you were interested in what I am thinking and writing and/or singing. I hope you are following me on social media (if you like social media — Twitter is my principal channel). You will get a mix there of work-related and personal views on the world.
But I will be back to you soon with news about the other stuff: my longer-term project to write a book on developing the human capacity to imagine our future (in more constructive ways than we do currently), and shorter-term projects to bring nearly-completed work out into the public sphere.
Thanks again for your continued interest … and just for fun, here’s one of my old songs that might be of interest, because it seems (to me) more and more timely with each passing year: “Trying to be Happy in a Crazy World“. The link is to a free YouTube version. You can also listen to it on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon etc. Lyrics are pasted in below. (Don’t miss the little twist in the lyric on the very last refrain.)
Warm regards from Stockholm,
Trying to be Happy in a Crazy World
Words and Music © 1991 by Alan AtKisson – from the album “Believing Cassandra“, available on most major streaming services, and free to listen to on YouTube
Open up the paper — turn on the news —
Get a double dose of the daily blues
And the man in the mirror, he’s struggling free
Like he’s swimming up from the bottom of the sea, he’s …
Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Sometimes history seems like a practical joke
That ends with a planet going up in smoke
We’re slippin’ and slidin’ — it’s a banana peel dance
Are we just the victims of global circumstance? Are we …
Trying to be happy in a crazy world …
Well it’s hard to keep your hope when there’s such trouble in the world
The thorns among the roses, the swine who eat the pearls
And it seems so very hard to love just one human being
When it happens, the joy makes the angels sing
Maybe life’s a riddle — or maybe it’s school
Maybe we’re a family of hopeless fools
Maybe we’re just tired of livin’ on a little blue ball
We’re playin’ dangerous games that make no sense at all — Maybe we’re
Trying to be crazy in a happy world
Trying to be crazy in a happy world
Trying to be crazy in a happy world
This post invites you to sign up for my newsletter, Words&Music. Sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9
Now here’s the background:
In May 2018, I assumed a new professional position, working as Director of the Department of Partnership & Innovation at Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.
Becoming a public official in Sweden caused a number of other changes in my life, including (of course) the closure of my consulting business, as well as handing off or stepping down from many projects that I had pursued for years. I was fortunate to have a network of wonderful colleagues, formerly called the “AtKisson Group,” to whom I could pass on certain initiatives and products — the tools I created, for example, are now managed by the Sustainability Accelerator Network. To get the story of this transition in full, see the final edition of my company newsletter, WaveFront, which is published here: http://AtKisson.com/the-last-wavefront/
But while I have stopped being a consultant, I continue to be a writer and a musician, and I continue to work in the field of sustainable development. Here on my personal website, I will continue to post information about my books, articles, poems, songs, music, and whatever else I come up with. And I will continue to blog and post on Twitter and other social media.
To keep interested readers up to date, I have also (re-)launched a new (old) email newsletter, called “Words&Music”. There are certain overlaps between the newsletter and this website, but they are not identical. My blog includes public statements and is focused largely on professional matters. Words&Music is a private, personal letter, sent irregularly, about unpredictable topics. It’s free of course, but you have to actively sign up if you want to receive it.
When you sign up, you will receive the first Welcome email. It will tell you about the inspiration for Words&Music (via my mentor Donella Meadows and her “Dear Folks” letters). And it will lead you to — among other things — the under-construction website for my 1997 long poem, Chronosphere.
It’s about time.
This short post was originally published on the now-defunct website Worldchanging.com, in 2007. The story of Chydenius serves as a good reminder of the importance of maintaining a free press and the right of public access to government information — principles that seem increasingly under attack around the world. The text has been slightly updated.
In 2016, the Finland-based Anders Chydenius Foundation celebrated the 250th anniversary of the world’s first Freedom of Information Act. Sweden and Finland were one big empire in those days, and the Swedish-Finnish law — passed in 1766, two hundred years before a similar law was passed by the U.S. Congress and ensuring open access to all government papers and other kinds of information under a “principle of public access” — was largely the product of one man’s visionary ethical ideas.
Anders Cydenius was the Finnish political thinker and clergyman who proposed the “Law on Freedom of Information” as part of a set of political reforms that worked their way through the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) of its day. Chydenius also wrote passionately about equality, free trade, universal human rights, liberal capitalism, and especially the rights of the poor. He is one of the most influential thinkers in the early development of the politics, economics, and values base for what has become known as the “Nordic Model.”
According to the short Wikipedia article about him, Chydenius “was also a scientist and skilled eye-surgeon, the maker of several inventions, a pioneer of vaccination in Finland and the founder of an orchestra.”
But apart from such short encyclopedia notices, it would be hard for an English-speaker to learn much about Chydenius. A modern biography by Finnish historian Pentti Virrankoski (Anders Chydenius: Democratic politician of the Enlightenment, 1986) appears not to be translated into English. Two books on Chydenius’s contributions to an open society and freedom of information have been published recently, by the relatively new Anders Chydenius Foundation; and these books (in Finnish and Swedish) include very short English summaries. But as one of the contributors notes, “there is no summary English account [of Chydenius work] directed toward an international public.”
I stumbled upon Chydenius while researching economic history. His work The National Gain (1765) preceded Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (widely considered the founding treatise of modern economics) by eleven years. Chydenius’ earlier work covered much of the same territory — including a description of the process that Smith would later call “the invisible hand.”
Even in this super-connected age, news sometimes travels slow. While you probably never heard of him, Chydenius was an inspiring, world-changing figure. His ideas about openness and freedom have had a big impact on your life — and they continue to do so, especially every time you read the news.
This was originally published in 2015 on my personal Facebook page just before I launched my North Star column on GreenBiz. If anything, the situation I attempted to describe three years ago in this popular-audience piece (written while on a trans-Atlantic flight) has continued to intensify, so I am republishing it again now.
Dear Future Generations:
I’m sure it’s obvious to you — you can see things better than we can, in hindsight — but I want to report to you that we are living through a time of dramatic change. Historic change. The kind of moment where everything seems to be balanced on a knife edge, and it could tip either way.
I am writing to you from Stockholm, Sweden. I’ll start with what is happening here, then I’ll paint you a global picture. Because it’s all connected.
Not long ago, this was a quiet little corner of Europe, a place where everything “worked.” There was essentially no poverty. No homeless people. There was a shared belief in something we called “solidarity.”
We don’t use that word much any more. In a few short years, we now have beggars on every street corner. There are people here who have fled from poverty or war, only to wind up living in tents, or sports halls, or outside on the street. Many thousands more war refugees, after traveling thousands of miles, are knocking on our door — so many that our government just decided to close that door. This is a pattern being repeated in many other countries, too. (Though one country, Canada, just decided to open their previously closed door. Good for them.)
Meanwhile, our “Western” part of the world is reeling from a series of small but extremely violent, deadly, and scary attacks — we call it “terrorism” — whose purpose is to strike fear into people’s hearts, ratchet up tensions, and provoke us into global war. The strategy is almost working. Our extreme right wing political groups are gaining strength, countries are rattling swords, and demagogues reminiscent of the 1930s are rising up amongst us. (Unfortunately, these populist rage-baiters have access to technologies far more powerful than the microphones used by Hitler and Mussolini.)
Meanwhile, it’s warm this winter — again. According to global data, this year is the warmest our modern, industrial civilization has ever measured. And we (as you well know) are the ones warming things up. That’s not all we’re doing to the planet, either. Huge alarm bells are ringing for Nature, everywhere. Some of us are trying to wrestle down our overall “footprint” on this Earth. But so far, humanity’s “foot” keeps pressing down harder and heavier, pinning us to the mat.
We’re also struggling to leave a bit of wildness for you to enjoy, but it’s extremely hard work. All it takes is a small number of uncaring or greedy or needy or ignorant people to destroy wild Nature — by setting fire to Sumatra, say, or poaching African elephants. I’d like to be able to say about these people, “They know not what they do.” But in fact, they know exactly what they are doing. And there are global markets ready to absorb the “profits” of their illegal activities. They are extremely clever about getting past our increasingly desperate defenses, too. It’s starting to seem obvious why the mammoth, the dodo, and the passenger pigeon are no longer with us: it only takes one of us to kill the last of anything.
That sounds like a pretty bleak picture, and it is. A dismal thought crosses my mind at least once a day: we could all too easily tumble into an abyss of war, political dystopia, and ecological catastrophe.
But that’s the bad news, one side of the knife edge. The other side — the good news — is, well, surprisingly good.
Despite dangerous and viral pockets of poverty and war, our human population is overall getting less poor, and less violent. We have made amazing strides in providing people with education, better access to food and energy and health care, a sense of hope for their children’s future. We have far to go — hundreds of millions are still living in misery — but many trends are moving rapidly in the right direction. We just need to figure out how to keep those positive trends going, while not destroying the planet’s ecosystems, and before social instabilities make the challenge insurmountable.
But there is good news on the action side, too. This year, the world’s governments completed an unprecedented series of global agreements. Recently, they finalized a new deal on climate change that was better than most of us hoped for — even if we know it is still not enough and will have to be improved later. We also have, for the first time, a truly global vision and a set of global goals for where all of humanity should be heading. You probably take the idea of “SDGs” (Sustainable Development Goals) for granted by now. For us, they were an unprecedented historic breakthrough.
We are even starting to understand the fundamental principle that “everything is connected to everything else” — and we are starting to build that principle into our government policies, corporate strategies, and community development programs. It’s not just talk, either: I am watching serious change happen, with my own eyes, every day.
Given everything happening now in our world — the good, the bad, and the ugly, to borrow an old movie title — I find myself thinking about you more and more.
It seems like this time, this specific time, is really going to be decisive for you. Our descendants.
So I just want you to know: things are really, really shaky just now. We’ve had global war before, kicked off by similarly unstable conditions. So we know, unfortunately, that it’s all too possible to fall into that huge and deadly trap.
We also know what it’s like to fudge and hedge and not do what is necessary to secure the health of Nature, and the wellbeing of People — because we are seeing the consequences of insufficient action, on the global scale, right now. We are finally waking up to the fact that these two things, human happiness and ecological integrity, must go together. When they don’t … well, among other things, we get the conditions we are struggling with in Sweden, and many other places, right now.
Basically, we know what failure looks like. And we can see all too clearly that failure, when it comes to managing our presence on planet Earth sustainably, is still a possibility.
But we also know — because we are starting to experience a little of it — what success feels like. Setting clear goals. Working together to achieve them. Maintaining an optimistic vision and intense effort, no matter what. Tackling problems head-on, intelligently, compassionately. Working on making systems better, not just symptoms.
I just want you to know, dear Future Generations, that many of us are working very, very hard to try to make things better. More and more of us, all the time. Working for you, for ourselves, and for all life on this planet. And I believe we are starting to tip that balance in the right direction.
But please — if you can — let me know how it turned out.
Bruce Sterling made his name in science-fiction, part of the wave of “cyberpunk” writers working in the late 1980s and early ‘90s — other names include William Gibson and Neal Stephenson — whose work seemed more predictive than speculative. I enjoyed his novels (they won a number of awards), but I especially enjoyed being part of a movement he launched in 1998, called Viridian.
Being Viridian, in the way Sterling originally conceptualized it, was like being green, except that “there’s something electrical and unnatural about our tinge of green.” A key aim of the movement was to reinvent products, services, technologies, whole economies, so that they were ultra-environmental — but still resoundingly cool.
“We’re an art movement … an ad campaign, a design team, an oppo[sition] research organization, a laboratory and, perhaps most of all, we resemble a small feudal theocracy ruled with an iron hand by a Pope-Emperor,” wrote Sterling in his launch speech.
The last bit was about himself: Part of the Viridian ethos involved having some high-spirited fun and being less predictably eco-dour. The mix was attractive, and I had the pleasure of serving in the Pope-Emperor’s advisory group, which he called the Curia. (I also ended up running an international Viridian Design Competition, complete with $10,000 in donated prize money, that generated a wide range of prototypes for the world’s first smart electricity meters. But that’s another story.)
The Viridian movement also had an arch-enemy: the Global Climate Coalition, an industry lobbying organization, filled with prominent corporations and business associations, whose sole (and shameful) purpose was to oppose action on carbon emissions reduction. But the GCC went extinct in 2001, “after membership declined in the face of improved understanding of the role of greenhouse gases in climate change,” stated Wikipedia — before tacking on, “and public opposition.”
Viridian persisted until 2008 when, in the throes of the global financial crisis, Sterling decided to shut it down. But he left a great deal of parting Viridian advice, such as “Do not economize. Please. That is not the point.” The point was to reinvent stuff, because “the economy is clearly insane.”
Viridian may be gone, but Sterling is still very much around, still prone to the provocative, most recently in a keynote at the SXSW conference in his former hometown, Austin, Texas (where he urged techies to become more artistic). Sterling no longer lives in Austin because, well, he followed his own advice. He reinvented himself as a futurist (among other things). Married to Serbian author and activist Jasmina Tešanović, he divides his time between cities such as Belgrade and Turin, where he curates an annual tech-art fair.
Personally, I see echoes of Viridian thinking all around me in the global sustainability movement. I can trace a trail of historical impact from Viridian, through various websites and books of the 2000s, to today’s renaissance in sustainable design. But I’m a biased optimist. I was curious about how Bruce saw it. So, I caught up with him by email interview.
Alan AtKisson: Bruce, it’s been nearly 20 years since you launched the Viridian movement. I can personally attest that it was fun and inspiring, and it felt disruptive. What kind of impact do you think it made?
Bruce Sterling: Well, I would cynically say that it had a very modest effect on the culture, but it had a major personal effect on me. I was a science fiction writer when I started it, but 20 years later I’m a lot more at ease with designers, artists, architects, engineers, activists — and not in some speculative, writerly way. I really rub shoulders with them now; we lost the Lusitania, but we’re in the same lifeboat.
AtKisson: So, you’ve been closely observing design and architecture for two decades, in multiple locations around the planet. How would you sum up the direction of change? How much greener or sustainable have they gotten? What’s stopping designers from going full Viridian?
Sterling: I wouldn’t say there was one direction of change in design in 20 years. It’s more like the situation of general change in politics or pop music.
One might imagine all politics would become green politics, and that’s not true at all. Pop music might exclusively be ballads about sustainability, but that won’t happen either.
Most design that’s very self-consciously sustainable and green is packaged for a demographic segment called “lifestyles of health and sustainability.” Its aficionados are all over the place — in Germany, everything that is loudly labelled “bio” is aimed at them. They’re about 7 percent of the U.S. consumer population. They never go away, but they never take over the world, either.
Probably the biggest single change is that, 20 years ago, guys in the fossil-fuel business were uneasy about developments, but they considered themselves normal people who were being maligned. Nowadays, they’re actively evil and they know they are evil, they’re very overt in their depredations. Their global business has been de-normalized, it’s chaotic, criminal and even genocidal in places. They could have designed their way out of that if they’d wanted a soft landing, but they chose to die ugly.
AtKisson: You don’t sound wildly optimistic. What’s your expectation — forecast, not hope — about what’s going to happen in the design world over the next 20 years, relative to sustainability, green, climate-friendly or anything remotely “Viridian”?
Sterling: I appreciate that people like motivational sermons and some pep-talk from a futurist, but I always shy away from “optimism” and “pessimism.” This is 2018, and you’re asking me to talk about 2038. If you asked me to talk historically about what happened in 1998, you would never ask if I was an “optimist” about 20 years ago.
We do best in anticipating events if we understand that 2038 and 1998 are two sister years and that the future is a kind of history that hasn’t happened yet. If we’re optimistic, we’re just putting on rose-tinted goggles so as to ignore half the facts.
Twenty years is a good long time. I’m thinking we’re probably in for some big, black-swan discontinuities that make most design ideas of the present day seem pretty silly. It’s like guys in 1938 trying to outguess 1958, in the style of Norman Bel Geddes.
If I had to sum it up in a bumper sticker, I’d guess that design in 2038 would regard most anything we adore as “digital” as being backward, blinkered, dangerous or corny.
AtKisson: People like me see you as a mover and shaker in the Maker and alternative technology movements, as well as “technology as art” [the subject of Sterling’s talk at the SXSW conference in 2018]. To what degree is Viridian-style thinking — serious engagement with climate and other global sustainability challenges — present in those movements? How does it express itself?
Sterling: You’re flattering me here. I’d say that Viridian was a cultural sensibility that never caught on — it died on the vine something like the cleantech of the same period, which might have made sense but was outflanked by other forces.
The 1990s really were a Belle Epoque, like its sister decade the 1890s, but neither one of them came to fruition. We haven’t had a Great War yet, but we’ve had plenty of war, and now climate disasters have outpaced political response and mass disasters are surprising everybody. We’ll have some cultural sensibilities that respond to this situation, but they’re not going to look or act very Viridian. That opportunity is simply gone with the wind.
[Interlude: Bruce and I briefly debated whether he is actually a “mover and shaker.” He took the last word: “I’d be a mover and shaker if there were fewer glaciers melting and I could put Rex Tillerson in jail.”]
AtKisson: OK, so let’s dial back the timeline to the coming year or so, and shift from prediction to practical advice. Viridian may have “died on the vine” as you put it, but the motivation behind it remains as pressing as ever. We need to aim design — mainstream design, not just the committed-green-lifestyle variety — in ultra-climate-friendly and sustainable directions. Fast. Assume designers are actually going to read this. What are your suggestions to them?
Sterling: If I were a designer I’d worry about becoming a handmaiden to ultra-wealthy offshored oligarchs, tech moguls and sovereign wealth funds, because they’re the guys who have all the money nowadays. Designers are generally “on the side of the user,” but when the user’s broke because there’s no middle class, there’s a real threat that you’re either some kind of courtier to the super-rich or else you can’t get the resources to do anything.
The East Germans of the DDR had some really well-trained and meticulous designers, but boy, did they ever make a heap of ugly rubbish. A bad political environment blights everything.
Personally, I like hanging out with open-source design guys, because there are a lot of them in the academy and in the electronic art scene. But I wouldn’t claim that open source is anybody’s path to utopia; people who are in that scene tend to shrug off the money but then they argue about the prestige. There’s a lot of palace intrigue; it’s like literary politics, almost. But, then again, I’m a novelist.
AtKisson: So, what’s your next book about?
Sterling: It’s a historical fantasy about the glory days of the city of Turin in the remote 1640s. I spend a lot of time in Turin and always wanted to write a regional novel about the city and its strange heritage, so this seems to be my chance.
This blog post was originally published as one of my “North Star” columns on GreenBiz.com.