Category Archives: Arts & Literature

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

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Issue #9 of my personal newsletter, Words & Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because that is what will make it turn.

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is a story for another day.

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

Stay safe and healthy,

Warm regards,

Alan
www.AlanAtKisson.com

Reflections on (Covid) Ephiphany

Stockholm, Old Town (Gamla Stan), 6 Jan 2021

I confess that I went to a museum today.

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.

Not today.

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.[1] 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.


[1] “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 side-effects: two books, two stories

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.

Story 1

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).

Go to the special website:
https://chronospherepoem.wordpress.com/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.

Story 2

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):

https://hallbarhetforalla.wordpress.com/

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.)

You can get the original English version at this website or at any bookstore.

Two books, two stories, two Corona-virus side-effects that, for me at least, were a surprise benefit of this challenging, stay-at-home time.

Relaunching “Words&Music” – my personal newsletter

Dear reader,

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.

Sign up for Words&Music here >>

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.

 

Launching “Swedified” – a new blog

swedified-opensFor years, I have wanted to write about what it is like to come to this small, unusual country — Sweden — and then become part of it.

There is a Swedish word used to describe foreign people (or things) that have been absorbed by the unique culture of Sweden, but have been given a kind of Swedish twist in the process: försvenskad. Or in English: swedified.

Which is the name of the new blog I launched recently. To get a sense of what it’s about, read the Welcome letter. And to read the first full article on the site — commemorating the remarkable life of my friend Vincent Williams, an American-Swedish artist who passed away in 2016 — click here.

New Book: “Parachuting Cats into Borneo”

Parachuting-Cats-into-Borneo-Cover-small“Fascinating” (Paul Polman, CEO Unilever) … “Highly Recommended” (Maureen Hart, ISSP) … “Indispensable” (Michael Kobori, Levi Strauss)

The Center for Sustainability Transformation and the AtKisson Group are pleased to announce the publication of a new book by our co-founders, Axel Klimek and Alan AtKisson.

Parachuting Cats into Borneo – and Other Lessons from the Change Café  offers the reader a complete Master Class of tools and approaches for promoting positive change, in the form of an easy-to-read business book.

The book has been drawing praise and endorsements from reviewers the world over, including Unilever CEO Paul Polman, German social scientist Ortwin Renn, former African Union Commissioner Bience Gawanas, and green business guru Joel Makower, among many others (see below). Publisher’s Weekly in the US called it “a shrewd and discerning look at systemic change” that was “insightful” and “particularly valuable” — both for making change happen and dealing with daily work life.

Parachuting Cats into Borneo takes its name from an historic, cautionary tale about what can go wrong: about two-thirds of efforts to make positive change in organizations and institutions end up in failure, according to studies cited in the book. Klimek and AtKisson bring over fifty years of combined experience to the table, to help readers avoid common obstacles and equip themselves for greater success.

While aiming to support positive change of all kinds, the authors build on decades of experience working with the special problems of sustainability transformation in companies, governments, cities and institutions. Sustainability has been an especially valuable learning arena, note Klimek and AtKisson, “because achieving [sustainability] requires altering some very deeply embedded human habits, concepts, and attitudes.” The closing chapters are devoted to building capacity for leading change in one of the most demanding, and increasingly essential, challenges of our time: making sustainability real.

To order the book, please visit your favorite bookseller (such as Amazon) or the publisher’s website.

If you would like a review copy for a publication or for an organizational bulk order, please contact the Center for Sustainability Transformation (CforST.com).

ParachutingCats-Icon

EARLY REVIEWS FOR PARACHUTING CATS INTO BORNEO

by Axel Klimek and Alan AtKisson, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016

“A fascinating account of the cultural, psychological, and institutional barriers that prevent more change programs from succeeding – and how to overcome them.”

–Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever

 

“I’ve been waiting for this book, from these gentlemen, for years. Decades of distilled experience, insight, wisdom, guidance, and delight about engaging the most challenging parts of change―people and groups of people. (Technological innovation is simple by comparison.) Only one in three change initiatives succeed, the authors tell us. This little book, and the thoughtful systems and tools it offers, might just help you boost your odds.”

–Gil Friend, chairman and CEO, Natural Logic, Inc.

 

Parachuting Cats into Borneo takes change management off the white board and places it into your own hands―inviting you into a café conversation with the authors, who put together a thoughtful collection of practical tools that I found valuable even after 25 years in the sustainability and social change field. Grab a pen and some paper (and a coffee!). This book will take you on a thought journey, best when you have a change process and goal in mind. And who doesn’t?”

–Gillian Martin Mehers, managing director, Bright Green Learning; coauthor of The Climate Change Playbook

 

“Welcome to the world café―where it’s raining, well, cats. Axel Klimek and Alan AtKisson are hosting. Slow down, relax, and prepare to change the way you think about change.”

–John Elkington, co-founder, Environmental Data Services (ENDS), SustainAbility, and Volans; coauthor of The Breakthrough Challenge

 

“We live in times of continuous accelerating change―as I have personally experienced―and yet we have difficulty adapting to it. That’s human nature: We like the comfort of stability and predictability. Here Klimek and AtKisson draw a short and very easy-to-read roadmap for implementing sustainable change. A great effort and recommended reading.”

–Nani Falco Beccalli, former President and CEO, GE Europe

 

“Change is difficult, and usually takes time, but this book gave me hope that change will happen, whatever time it takes, and guided me through the appropriate sequence of steps I should take to achieve my mission―slowly but steadily. The book presents a combination of concern, determination, and faith: concern about people and nature, the determination to continue the path, and the faith  that what we are doing is right. I received this book on June 11 and started reading it the morning of June 12. I powered off my mobile, and I went on reading ‘til the afternoon of June 13. At that time I discovered that it was my birthday; I think that this book was the best birthday present I had this year!”

–Boshra Salem, director, Office of International Relations, Alexandria University; member, Women in Science Hall of Fame (Egypt)

 

Parachuting Cats into Borneo is a great guidebook for leaders and individuals who want to create transformational changes in any society, community, organization, workspace, or family they are a part of. The authors have done a great job illuminating not only the most up-to-date ‘skills and knowledge’ on change processes, such as a system approach and coaching, but also ‘attitude and being,’ or how leaders can develop themselves and cultivate organizational cultures. I have been using these approaches in Japan and elsewhere in the world, and they have proven to be effective in work for many clients across sectors.”

–Riichiro Oda, president and CEO, Change Agent, Inc. (Japan)

 

“The one thing we all have more and more of is CHANGE, and we all need to become more skillful in navigating through it. Klimek and AtKisson are great companions to have with you on your change journey, providing guidance, great stories, and good company.”

–Peter Hawkins, Professor of Leadership, Henley Business School; chairman, Renewal Associates (UK)

 

“This book is a must for anyone who is involved in change processes toward a more equitable, humane, and environmentally friendly world. It is not the usual ‘how to do and get what you want’ instruction book. No recipes, no safe or proven success guidelines, no software program for making changes happen! It is a book about personal and group empowerment. It orients readers to become agents of change based on their own resources and their own creative ideas. And all this for a common purpose: to reach a more sustainable future for all.”

–Ortwin Renn, scientific director, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (Germany)

 

Parachuting Cats is a small book with a really big bag of tools for the change agent’s toolkit―describing how, when, and where each can best be used. Some are tools for personal change that make one a more effective change agent; others are tools for helping organizations and communities create lasting change. Highly recommend for all sustainability professionals or anyone working to make the world a better place. I could and will reread this book at least ten times and get more out of it each time.”

–Maureen Hart, executive director, International Society of Sustainability Professionals (USA)

 

“An apparently endless stream of conferences and workshops is applauding the big transformation toward sustainable development. And is tiring. Real action is not following suit. I see a growing disconnect between advocacy and personal behavior (and the behavior of advocates’ home institutions). Yet never before has humankind been in a better position to successfully end hunger and poverty within the limits of ecological boundaries. Never before have there been so many experts and campaigners dedicated to making this planet a better place. But, strangely enough, all this does not yet deliver. Action is often halted. Advanced thinking is often restricted to special interest groups. Experts are arguing within the boundaries of their own unconnected communities. That is why this book is timely. The authors bridge change attitudes on the personal level and the structural level. They help us understand (and change) the patterns of our very habitudes―and, fortunately, they never forget the importance of changing vested interests and political structures in a democratic society. Absorbing Klimek and AtKisson’s recommendations has added value to both my thinking and acting.”

–Günther Bachmann, secretary general, German Council for Sustainable Development; advisor to the Global Network of National Councils for Sustainable Development

 

“Spanning change management, leadership, strategy, and spirituality, Klimek and AtKisson’s volume is an indispensable guide for current and would-be sustainability leaders.”

–Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability, Levi Strauss & Co.

 

Parachuting Cats offers a deep dive into what it takes for our economies and our families to flourish within Earth’s finite limits. For all the attention paid to technologies, policies, leadership, and ‘corporate social responsibility,’ creating the change we want to see in the world means understanding how societies and institutions transform. In the end, it’s the system, stupid, that needs transforming. Klimek and AtKisson tell us how to do that. This is a vital read for our turbulent times.”

–Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor, GreenBiz Group; coauthor of The New Grand Strategy

 

“Many of us need to change ourselves or to bring about change through our work but always get stuck in a rut because we need confirmation to do the right thing. This book helps us enter into conversations to see within and around us and to make that so-needed transformation.”

–Bience Gawanas, former commissioner for Social Affairs, African Union

 

“As a funder, I was drawn to organizations that had both a clear vision for the future and an approach to the inevitable difficulties of change. If this valuable toolkit had been around, I would have sent a copy with every grant check.”

–David Grant, former president and CEO, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; author of The Social Profit Handbook

 

About Those Parachuting Cats

ParachutingCats-IconOn September 1, my latest book — written together with my dear friend and business partner Axel Klimek — hits the shelves, both physically and digitally.

Parachuting Cats into Borneo distills our many years of working together into very readable little book on how to make change happen, and also how to avoid the common pitfalls that prevent change from happening.

“But what about those cats?” you may immediately be wondering. “Did they really parachute cats into Borneo? And why is that the title of the book?”

The short answer to the first question is yes. I won’t give away the story here, because I want you to buy the book. You can even follow the footnotes to the academic sources and the evidence about what actually happened. (But you may already know this story from many other sources, including the song I wrote about this historical event from the 1950s.)

And why this title? Two reasons: (1) To draw attention to the book, and (2) to reinforce a key point. All too often, when trying to change things for the better, we end up changing them for the worse. And then we have to take even more drastic action to try to fix the new problems we have inadvertently created.

“Parachuting Cats into Borneo” is a true story, but it’s also a metaphor: it’s something we always want to avoid having to do! We have loaded up this book with tools, methods, advice, coaching, and stories to help you increase your chances of success as you try to make your organization, or your corner of the world, a better place.

So that you don’t have to parachute cats into Borneo … or anywhere else!

With over 60 years of experience between us, Axel and I believe that this little book can truly be helpful — to anyone trying to start, lead, manage, or fix a change process. In almost any context.

And that means: helpful to just about everyone.

And hopefully, also, a pleasure to read. (I am glad to report that the early reviews are very positive.)

On September 1st, the cats are coming!

You can pre-order Parachuting Cats into Borneo today at the publisher’s website, at Amazon, or via your favorite book-seller.

Seven Pieces of Joan – and a Song about Water

joan-davis-e1374529339249_0My dear friend Joan Davis passed away on Monday, 11 January, 2016. She was a unique and inspirational person, a top scientist who also believed strongly in the spiritual dimension of human life, the “non-quantifiable variables” as she liked to say. Her extraordinary life is being remembered, in English and German, on a special website set up by her close friends in Zurich, Switzerland, where she lived most of her life (she was originally from Ohio). I have written a remembrance of her there.

https://rememberingjoandavis.wordpress.com/

Here, I am publishing something else. Joan loved stones and shells, which she had lying on her window sills and tables. This text, “Seven Pieces of Joan,” is something like that: a collection of seven discrete memories, like stones clustered on a table, reflecting how much of Joan’s subtle influence in my life I keep discovering as time goes by.

At the end, I have posted a song (about water), which was in large part inspired by Joan. It has very poor sound quality, for which I apologize, but it is the only digital copy I have, of a song that was recorded on a primitive (by today’s standards) cassette deck, in 1993.

 

Seven Pieces of Joan

1

Two days before Joan’s death, I had gone back to a certain store to buy a certain wool sweater, like one that I had just bought the week before. I found the styling relaxed, yet somehow elegant in its simplicity. I liked the thin, gray fabric, and the way the end of the sleeves felt unfinished and were rolled up a little bit. “Joan would like this,” I had thought to myself. “It reminds me of one of her sweaters.”

2

Two decades ago (Joan was fond of talking in terms of decades and quarter-centuries) I was at a Balaton Group meeting. Joan took a liking to one of my shirts, dark blue, linen, long-sleeved. “That is really nice,” she said. “I wish I could find one like that!” So at the meeting’s final banquet, I wore the shirt, and then I stood up and gave a little speech about friendship. “There’s a saying: a true friend is someone who will give you ‘the shirt off his back’. Joan, you have certainly been a true friend to me. So Joan, here, I give you my shirt.” I took the shirt off and presented it to her. She gave me that sidelong, mischievous look, but accepted the gift with gratitude. Later, on visits to her house, I saw her wear it a number of times.

3

Outside my office-cottage at the back of our property, on the tiny porch I built, there is a certain beautiful shell that I picked up somewhere. I placed it on the corner of the porch, so that it catches my eye each time I go into the cottage. It has a special white-and-reddish beauty, which speaks of its former life in the sea, contrasting perfectly with the plain gray wood of the porch, and the green-brown forest around it. “That shell is like one of those shells Joan has all over her house,” I think often to myself.

4

Many years ago, on a visit to Wallisellen, I photographed some of Joan’s stones and shells. I downloaded the images to my computer — both Joan and I were avid Mac people — and shrunk them down, and then turned the images into small icons. Then I used the icons to replace the little drawings of folders that Macs have on their desktops. So then, when I needed to open a folder and review my archives or my correspondence, I was usually clicking on one of Joan’s snails or stones.

 

5

Joan was a professional water person, and at the time we first got to know each other, so was I. But we shared a relationship to water that went far beyond science and policy. Water, the simplest of chemical compounds, is also the most extraordinary: beautiful, ever-changing, ever-reflecting, and of course, we ourselves are mostly water. Joan, an aquatic chemist, also taught me to appreciate the special qualities of water in new ways. So whenever I am admiring water, thoughts of Joan are never far away.

6

After my first Balaton Group meeting, where I met Joan for the first time, I wrote a new song. Songs are strange things: once I have composed and written them, and sung them a few times, I (usually) no longer remember how I wrote them. I can remember the feeling-tone that gave rise to the song — in this case, reflecting on the wonder that is water, sitting by Puget Sound in Seattle. And I remember certain special times I perform them — like the first time I played “Water of Life” for the Balaton Group, and for Joan, in 1994.* I remember her smile. There was a bit of water in her eyes.

7

Joan had a mystical relationship with the number 22. It was a signifier, not of good or bad, but of something very important. When it turned up, she knew she needed to pay close attention to what was happening. She had so many unusual stories around that number; at least one story involved a moment where noticing the number on something (in the context of a car accident) saved her life. I have also loved, for no good reason I can explain, 22: it was the number I chose for my jersey when I played basketball as a teenager. So whenever I see that number, of course I think of Joan. On or about the day Joan died — was it on that day? a few days before, after? — my daughter came to breakfast in a new t-shirt, with a sports theme. The shirt had a big number on it: 22.

 

* My song “Water of Life” was only recorded once, on a home “demo” cassette album called “Fire in the Night”. The quality of the one copy I have is very bad. But I post it here anyway, and the lyrics below. Conversations with Joan Davis, and listening to her lectures, were very much a part of what inspired this song into being.

Water of Life

Words and Music © 1993 by Alan AtKisson – from the cassette album Fire in the Night

published here in memory of Joan Davis

 

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

It’s 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

It’s 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 water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world

 

Why a “one-man musical” on sustainability, you ask?

Stage-JumpingFirst and most truthful answer: because it’s fun.

Now, here’s the longer and more nuanced answer.

Years ago, in the early 1990s, I discovered that music was a great way to deal with the emotions that come up around overwhelmingly huge global problems. Key people in my life — most notably Donella Meadows, lead author of The Limits to Growth, and a dear friend as well as mentor — heard my first songs on sustainability issues, and immediately asked for more.

I should explain that this tendency to write songs did not come out of nowhere. I spent my 20s in New York, playing music professionally and doing other fun things, before going back to the kind of work for which I had been trained at university, and finding my home in the field we now call sustainable development. See my book Believing Cassandra for the whole story.

So, encouraged by the positive response I was getting, from Donella and many other people, I wrote more songs … and people kept asking for more. And suddenly I was no longer an “ex-musician” doing sustainability. I was a sustainability expert who also did music.

And I started making albums. Not all of the songs that I wrote had sustainability themes, but a lot of them did. I started mixing a few of those songs into my speeches and workshops. Apparently that worked, because people kept asking me to do more of that. They even paid me for it.

This went on for about 20 years.

Now, even back in the 1990s, I was already starting to play with the idea of a “musical” — a show about sustainability, Broadway style, with a mixture of songs that were funny and serious. I emphasize that I was just playing.

But after Donella Meadows died, in 2001, I decided to try to do that show for real, to honor her memory and her countless encouragements. But to be honest, writing a whole musical play was beyond me. And I was busy with other things, like settling into a new home country (Sweden), growing a business, and raising a family.

Still, I kept doing music, and people kept asking for more.

I have a habit of incubating ideas like this for a long time, but not letting go of them. Finally, in 2014 the thought occurred to me: why not make this a one-man show? Take the best bits from my introductory lectures on sustainability, combine personal stories about events and people who had inspired me, pick out the “greatest hits” from my collection of sustainability-related songs, weave it together into a quasi-theatrical narrative … and just do it.

Now, my hat goes off to Mike Quinn, director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at Mt. Royal University in Calgary, Canada. Mike had invited me to Calgary, to do their annual sustainability lecture in the spring of 2014. I proposed using that opportunity to debut my “one-man musical”, and linking it to the surprisingly popular little book I had recently published, Sustainability is for Everyone. Mike quickly agreed. (Frankly, without Mike’s bravery, this whole thing might never have happened.)

The debut performance went well — at least, according to the review in the student newspaper! So I did it again, at a conference in Hungary in the fall. Good reaction there, too!

So now, as I write this, it’s Spring 2015. I just turned 55. And I’ve decided that … well, performing this musical is really fun. I get to act, speak, play guitar, sing, get the audience involved … and they have fun, too.

I also believe, very strongly, that sustainability — this quest to help our world change course, avoid the worst ravages of environmental destruction and climate change, while assuring that everyone has as good a life as possible — needs the arts and culture just as much as it needs advances in science, technology, economics, and policy. We need to mobilize every gram or ounce of creativity at our disposal, if we are going to tackle and solve complex problems. If I can help shake loose a little more creativity from people, by taking a risk myself and being a little creative … well, I’ll try anything. Within reason.

Of course, I’m still consulting, writing books, and working with the UN and companies and leaders of all stripes, as a strategic advisor. That’s also fun! I’ll also continue giving straightforward lectures and keynotes, with or without music. I truly believe in helping to advance sustainability with every tool and capacity I have, and in encouraging others to do the same.

But hey, if you need an hour or so of someone standing up in front of your group, being provocative, informative, reflective, inspirational (hopefully!), and funny, while showing pictures, telling stories, singing a bunch of songs, and even getting the crowd singing … then I’m your man.

— Alan AtKisson

For information on booking Alan for a performance of “Sustainability: The Musical!”, please write to him using the Contact form on this website. If you missed the main page with the promotional video “trailer,” click on: The Musical!

Inside Llewyn Davis: Not the Greenwich Village I Knew

BlogPic_InsideLlewynDavisYou might expect that I should love the film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” about the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, seen through the eyes of a young folk singer, who is a reinterpreted version of the young Dave van Ronk. Van Ronk was a legend by the time I hit that scene, as a young singer-songwriter, in the early 1980s. I barely knew him, but I did work the soundboard for one of his performances at the Speakeasy — a folk music club and artists’ cooperative, which put on nightly shows behind a falafel stand on Macdougal Street. I thought Van Ronk was an awesome performer, with a dominating stage presence. I found him intimidating at the time.

Folk music was serious business to the artists who were keeping it alive in those clubs. As a newcomer, you had a steep hill to climb, to prove yourself worthy to be in their company. Van Ronk’s memoir, on which the movie was partly based, is called “The Mayor of Macdougal Street.” I haven’t even read it yet, but I thought of him more as the Pope. I didn’t dare approach Van Ronk, partly because I was not even a true “folky” — though I did get one song, “Epiphany Dream,” onto a “Fast Folk” record album, a periodic collection that was published as a “musical magazine” by the Speakeasy cooperative, and which you can still find online. (I thought of Jack Hardy, editor of Fast Folk, as the mayor.)

I spent several fun, formative musical years in that colorful Speakeasy / Folk City / Macdougal Street music scene, which is painted in brownish-grayish tones in the Coen Brothers film. I have some beautiful memories, too: the legendary Odetta watching my show, complimenting me, hugging me, the memory of which gladdens me still. At the same time, however, I was also fronting a rock band, playing at clubs in the rougher parts of the East Village and Soho, clubs with names like CBGB, 8BC, Kamikaze. (This double life probably made me suspect in the folk world, but that’s another story.)

Yet despite this semi-personal connection to what was being portrayed on the screen, I did not love “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I found myself skipping and fast-forwarding through big hunks of it, in 10-20 second stuttering hops, trying to find parts I liked.

And I did find a few gem moments, most of them musical performances, including a surprising folk turn by Justin Timberlake. The film certainly captured the look of the New York folk music scene as I remember it, which (I now realize) had not changed that much by 1982. Indeed, my experience of New York itself was pretty much just as that movie portrayed it: a little run-down, funkier, more dangerous than the shiny place it is today.

So, I didn’t hate the film. But several others from that scene and time — most publicly Christine Lavin and Suzanne Vega — did hate it, and they went public with harsh criticisms. I mostly agree with their general complaint: the movie doesn’t reflect what I remember of life in that community. We were all young, aspiring songwriters, by turns cooperative and competitive, enjoying the feeling that we were part of something with a history. The Greenwich Village folk scene was a kind of musical nebula that occasionally gave birth to a star (Suzanne Vega broke out with two worldwide hits, “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner”, about the time I began turning from aspiring New York musician into an aspiring Seattle sustainability wonk who still did music). But mostly, that community was all about dedication to tradition, craft, songwriting, artistry, mutual support. Being a musician in New York — especially being a songwriter outside the mainstream of pop — was a hard business. We needed each other.

This is really my chief complaint about “Inside Llewyn Davis”: I felt nothing of that. In fact, I felt nothing at all. I really wanted to just get through the film and go back to work. (I was watching it on a long plane flight.) A reviewer who loved the movie noted that it’s just a fiction, maybe a profound one, and even called Lavin and Vega “narcissistic” for criticizing it — that is, for not accepting it as an original, aching, coming-of-age story, that has nothing to do with their reality. The Coen Brothers, in that reading, just borrowed bits of Van Ronk’s memoir, and images of that time and scene, in order to tell a different story about misplaced ambitions and the hard treatment dished by the real world on youthful dreams.

But I have to defend my old Speakeasy colleagues, Lavin and Vega, on this point: if someone takes your youth, full of colorful people and memories that you love, and repaints it as tawdry and sad, and then presents this portrayal to the world as The Truth On Film, you are fully entitled to hate that movie. And to attack it, critically. (Thanks, Christine and Suzanne, for doing that. I called you “colleagues” above, rather than friends, because while I knew you, I never really knew you. I always wished I had — I so admired your work, you were role models — but I doubt you even remember me. I was a junior, marginal player in that league. I was a Wednesday and Thursday night kind of performer; you were Friday and Saturday night. Still, it gives me pleasure to remember that we played on the same stages, sometimes in the same multi-artist shows …)

So the true Greenwich Village Folk Music Movie remains to be made. Or … maybe it would be interesting to make a movie about a folk musician who lives a double life as a rock ‘n’ roll artist, flitting between gigs in different parts of New York, dancing with the ghost of Dylan’s controversial flip to electric guitar, moving furniture to make a living with a fellow songwriter and, improbably enough, future Earth First! activist (my old friend Darryl Cherney, who recorded my first cassette album in his bedroom studio, and who was the spitting image of the guy playing Llewyn Davis), avoiding the muggers and the groupies and the drugs (I was a total nerd in that regard), performing at weddings and funerals and hospitals for the mentally disturbed, until finally getting a big break with the offer of a serious management deal (the guy that offered me that deal is now head of a major Hollywood movie studio), but then realizing he had a different calling in life, this thing we call “sustainability” …

Well, if you are into making movies, I’ve got a story for you.

PS: Hey, my new album — which which owes a debt of gratitude to those old Greenwich Village days, but is sort of “global folk-rock” — is finished, we are just working on the packaging and marketing now … Stay tuned …