Category Archives: Culture, Values, Philosophy

A Brief History of Self-Sharing

BlogImage_24Feb2015_2On a recent ski-vacation, we bumped into one of my wife’s old school-friends. My wife was a little surprised, but not her friend. “Oh, I knew you were here,” she said. “I saw Alan’s posting on Instagram.”

Unwittingly, by sharing a photo on social media — just a nature scene, shot from a moving train — I had telegraphed to the world where my wife was, too. And she is not active on social media. So she was a bit shocked to discover that her location could be figured out so easily, based on my random nature photo (though fortunately she wasn’t upset about it). But this tiny incident underscored the profound changes that have occurred, in my lifetime, regarding how we share information about ourselves.

I’ve always been a sharer. I’m a writer, after all, and my books often combine a personal with an expository voice. If you read my first book, Believing Cassandra, you will learn a lot about the origins of the sustainability movement; but you will also learn a lot about me. I share personal letters and journal entries as a way of illustrating general points about data, history, or sustainability issues.

So for me, the transition to social media was a kind of seamless evolution. The phases look like this:

•    Phase 1. Letter writing: I wrote many long letters to friends and family, from my teen years.
•    Phase 2. Publishing in newsletters/magazines: I started publishing my writing around 1987.
•    Phase 3. Personal newsletter: In the early 1990s, following the example of my friend/mentor Donella Meadows, I started writing regular summaries of thoughts and activities and sending them, by post, to my circle of friends, contacts, and readers. Like her, I called them “Dear Folks” letters.
•    Phase 4. Listserves and e-newsletters: By the late 1990s I had shifted this activity over to email. This included sending around columns that were sometimes picked up and published.
•    Phase 5. Blogging: I started blogging seriously in 2008 (a bit late). Blog entries took the place of those earlier email newsletters and occasionally published columns. I more or less stopped submitting my work to other publications, though I continued to respond to invitations to publish (and still do).
•    Phase 6. Social Media: I started with Twitter and Facebook about the same time, but got more active later.

And here’s a pattern I notice: as time goes on, social media — the latest phase — is tending to obliterate the phases that went before it. Example: I blogged only eight times in 2014, compared to 20 times in 2012. I publish less than before. And I definitely write many fewer letters.

Why? Partly because people seem less and less interested.

I certainly don’t take this personally. There is a well-known enormous flood of information out there. What’s more, the majority of that flood is personal information: things like my nature photo, times a billion. In the old days, I was unusual (as are all writers) in that I shared personal information publicly. It was theoretically shared with the whole world, even if in practice the real numbers of people reading what I wrote were in the tens of thousands, tops.

Today, virtually everyone shares personal information publicly. Sometimes whether they want to or not (like my wife). And that information is far more accessible than my little newsletters ever were, whether they were on paper or in electronic format.

Skimming through Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, I am instantly in touch with hundreds of friends and contacts. All of them are sharing the kinds of thoughts that I went to great effort to push out into the world, back when I was writing my “Dear Folks” newsletters, printing up a couple of hundred copies, sticking them in envelopes and posting them.

Just more briefly.

Of course, social media is a great equalizer that way. We “writers” (and other kinds of artists) are not so special anymore. Anyone and everyone can now tell the whole world what they think, what they are doing, what they are planning to do, with a few clicks on that little handheld device we still insist on calling a “phone”.

What does this evolution mean for the future of personal communication? I have no idea. Perhaps the whole notion of actively informing people about what you think and do will die away. Robots will decide what we should publish on our social media timelines. Then robots will decide which of those pieces of information, published by others, we should read. (Actually, that’s what is already happening: Facebook’s automated algorithms determine whether what you publish there will actually appear on your friends’ timelines. How their robots make that determination is not public knowledge.)

But I note one more interesting pattern: the impact of this evolution, on me, is a reduced desire to share. Maybe it is also a function of getting older, but I feel less and less motivated to tell the world what I think — especially now that this act is now wrapped together with the culture of selfies, trolls, and hashtags. (That is, ubiquitous photographic narcissism, anonymous meanness to other people, and ever-shorter attention spans about what’s important in this world.)

Obviously, I do keep active on social media — hence this blog post, which I’ll also flag on Twitter and Facebook. Since I am still a writer (and songwriter), and want to at least give the world a chance to discover my books and songs, I make sure to post things into the great flood of tweets and timelines on a regular basis. Sometimes I’m happily and pleasantly surprised by the response, too.

But to be honest, posting on social media is just a lot less fun than those “Dear Folks” newsletters I used to write.

And I notice that the things I post are less and less personal. I may post just as much as I ever did, but I share less than I used to.

Maybe I’ll end up back where I started — writing letters to friends and family, on paper. There remains a deep satisfaction, a visceral as well as intellectual pleasure, in physically tracing out one’s thoughts in a line of ink. Then sending the letter away, as a physical object in the world, to be received, opened, and read by another human being, sitting at a kitchen table.

It feels more like true sharing. I’m old-fashioned that way.

Subject: Sustaining happiness (or, Why I didn’t go to a meeting on Happiness)

[Copy of Facebook Status Update]
Friends, if you follow my Twitter feed, you’ll see a note from friend Kristin Vala Ragnarsdottir saying she missed seeing me at the High-Level Meeting on Happiness hosted by the Prime Minister of Bhutan at UN headquarters in NY. This is a very significant meeting, and I was pleased and honored to be invited. (They even said, “and please bring your guitar” … along with our recent Life Beyond Growth report.) I really hope you all take note of this meeting, the declaration they will issue, the World Happiness Report released there, and more.

So, why didn’t I go?

Simple: it would have meant missing important events with my children … adding stress to my wife’s work schedule … well, several other kinds of stress. Ultimately, a light dawned, and I decided to stay home. It did not make sense to sacrifice my own family’s happiness, in order to attend a meeting on happiness, no matter how important that meeting turns out to be.

But let me voice my strong support for the meeting’s them of “sustainable happiness” from here in Stockholm. We, and the planet, really need it.

[Here is a press release on the results of the meeting:  link]

Reflecting on Life, Sustainability, and Star Trek

How different would my life be if I had never seen Star Trek?

The question occurred to me because recently — in a fit of nostalgia, or out of a simple desire to have something to watch on the TV at 11 pm, when I’m too tired to read, and not quite sleepy enough to close my eyes — I bought the latest, and last, Star Trek series on DVD.

The series is called “Enterprise,” and it is a “prequel” to the original Star Trek series that I grew up watching as a child and teenager. A couple of hundred years from now, Humanity sends its first starship out into galactic wilds. There is no “United Federation of Planets” yet (this was presumably a human invention that came later), the Vulcans are not fully to be trusted, and Captain Archer has even brought his dog on the “mission.”

I write that word “mission” in quotes, because it seems that Humanity’s new starship has no mission except to fly around looking for something interesting to do. They’re like teenagers who just got a driver’s license:  they’re cruising, out for trouble. It’s hardly great television, but it makes me chuckle, and somehow warms the heart.

Never a “Trekkie” or even a “Trekker,” the original Star Trek series nonetheless had a deeply formative influence on my teenage life. I watched the show, in re-run then, every day after school for who-knows-how-many years. Televisions took a while to warm up back then (1970s), the sound usually coming on before the picture. It happened often that I turned on in mid-episode, heard about 5 seconds of background music … and knew exactly which episode was on. I dreamt, often, that I was Captain Kirk.

I know that to a modern ear, my youthful immersion in Star Trek lore sounds a little, well, pathetic. But back then, it was not so nerdy, especially in Florida, in eyeshot of the moonshots. Saturn V rockets used to make our windows rattle. Half the boys I knew dreamt of becoming astronauts, during some phase of their young lives.

Which brings me back to my question: would my life be any different, had I not grown up watching Star Trek and dreaming about travel between the stars, meeting alien cultures, exploring an ever-expanding horizon of scientific and cross-cultural mystery?

Contrast that question with, say, a similar one about James Joyce’s Ulysses:  how different would my life be if I had not read this masterwork of 20th Century literature? I did love the book, particularly its closing section, but I cannot say that it has had any formative influence on my personality that I can detect, other than contributing to a vaguely modernist (and post-modernist) worldview and love of language that more properly belongs to the whole of literature, rather than any specific work.  But Star Trek … well, that was more like Ulysses of the Homeric tradition. It was a formative myth. It captured, and amplified, a deeply felt longing, one that had nothing to do with spaceships. The myth of Star Trek had to do with learning, growing, expanding one’s consciousness and capability, overcoming adversity, taking chances, making your own destiny by sheer force of will and imagination.
These have all been central themes in my life, as they are in most people’s lives. In my case, they have been tightly coupled to a life-long quest to make a positive difference, and a contribution to the changes we call “sustainable development.” I have no idea whether watching Star Trek made me more predisposed to travel off to other countries, early in my life, and try to learn about those cultures by immersing myself in them. I don’t know how much it added to my seemingly in-born desire to make change, promote innovation, facilitate improvement. But it is not an unreasonable question to ask, if I hadn’t watched Star Trek, would I have made the same choices in life along the way? I’ll never know the answer to that question for sure — life has no counterfactuals, as they say — but I have my suspicions.

Watching Star Trek now — whether the Enterprise series, or the J.J. Abrams’ relaunch film of a few years back, which seemed aimed at twenty-somethings — is still fun, but it’s fun in a nostalgic sort of way. It’s like looking at a family photo album:  it helps me remember how I got here. My own Ulysses adventure ultimately led me to a very different life, in Sweden.

While I still enjoy traveling and exploring, in connection with my work on sustainable development, I no longer long for it. There’s a home, hearth, family and children in my life now. These fully claim all my capacity for longing, whenever I’m away from them.

But that sense of mission persists. In the end, the Humans of Star Trek are really just trying to make the Universe a better, safer place for kids to grow up in.

Sounds like sustainability work to me.

What I loved about S. Korea

The shock of the car accident I had in Seoul (see previous post), and the more ordinary shock of being in a new country, have settled down a bit now, and I find myself thinking more and more about the week I spent in S. Korea. What am I thinking about? Not the car accident. Not the amazing pace of growth, either. These were first impressions. I have more lasting impressions of …

– The food. Spicy, varied, lots of vegetables, lots of small dishes …

– The kindness of nearly everyone I met. The taxi driver, for example, kept calling the hotel to make sure I didn’t want to go get an x-ray. My professional colleagues treated me to wonderful meals and free-flowing conversation. Pub owners practiced their English in relaxed fashion, people went out of their way to help me, etc.

– The subway trains. Still amazes me that most people didn’t even hold on. They are that smooth. They go on time. They just work!

– The Indonesian coffee that my colleagues served at the office I was visiting (what I loved was that they had a coffee culture, generally!)

– The fabulous curvy creativity of the architecture in Incheon, and the fact that they had planned for green space everywhere.

– The fact that the nation as a whole seems to have a dream, and is amazingly focused on realizing it, quickly.

– The fact that you could walk around at night without even a thought that you were in any risk.

– The incredible seriousness and industriousness of the people I was working with … what long hours! And yet, they had time for hobbies and interests … music, gardening …

… and I think about so much more. Yes, my first impressions were certainly affected by that car accident. But as time goes by, I think less and less about it, and more and more about the wonderful people I met …

Seemed important to publish that, too!

“San-ten-ichi-ichi” — what March 11 means to Japan (so far)

I was on UN business in Korea this week, but on Friday, I took a day off to fly to Osaka and meet with friends Junko Edahiro and Riichiro Oda, at a hotel near Osaka’s Kansai airport. I wanted to find out how they were doing, and how the country was doing, since the last time I visited — which was the week before the earthquake. Both Junko and Rich are marathon runners; they looked the picture of health, and made me think once again about diversifying my exercise routine, which usually consists of pulling suitcases around in airports.

Junko is a well-known environmental advocate, writer, and translator. She wears many hats in her nation’s sustainability movement, including founder of the NGO Japan for Sustainability. Sometimes Junko is teaching classes on how to combine three e’s:  learning English, empowering oneself, and doing environmental work (one of her companies is actually called “e’s”). Sometimes she is advising the prime minister on options for climate change policy — among many other activities. Riichiro, or “Rich,” is a systems expert and consultant who teaches corporations and agencies how to apply systems thinking; he also manages the administration of Junko’s various enterprises and initiatives, which she seems to create at the rate of about one per year.

Most recently, Junko founded a new Institute for the Study of Happiness, Economy, and Society. A few days before the multi-disaster comprised of a mega-earthquake, a giant tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown, I had been in Japan to help her launch that Institute. Now, to say the least, the context within which that new institute is working has been utterly changed. I also went to Japan to find out how it has been changed, from Junko and Rich’s perspective.

*

First, the language:  most Japanese now refer to the disaster in the same way that most Americans (and indeed, most of the world) refer to the events of September 11, 2001.  It is just called “San-ten-ichi-ichi,” or literally, “three-dot-one-one.” And the region where the disaster struck, and where it is in fact still striking in the form of uncontrollable nuclear reactor failures, is called “the Affected Area.”

“March 11 marked the true end of the post-War period in Japan,” says Junko. “Before that point, the country believed that we could eventually get back to the kind of economic growth we had experienced before. March 11 crushed any hope of return to growth, and has forced the country to face the harsh reality.” A society-wide process of deep consideration is under way, among government and corporate leaders as well as the general public.

If anything, the disaster has increased interest in sustainability, resilience, systems thinking, and any possible avenue to new insight about how to reorient economy and society in the post-“San-ten-ichi-ichi” period. The highly efficient “just-in-time” inventory and production system proved fragile. There were no stocks or buffers of materials and parts on which to draw when production was disrupted. Recent cost-cutting of staff also eliminated much of the Japanese “playable force” staffing system, in which companies always had a spare team of people who could be deployed to reinforce those functions that needed extra help. This new awareness of “system effects” is helping Rich’s business return to his normal, overloaded state of busy-ness.

March 11 has also had a number of unexpected social effects:  marriages are on the rise, as couples move to cement their relationships quickly to increase a feeling of security about the future. Community-based activity is also increasing. But at the same time, the Tokyo area has also experienced a wave of divorce and strained relationships, as families split over the question of whether to remain there, or move farther away, to Osaka or the west of Japan. When it comes to radiation exposure and young children, “mothers want to lower their risk to zero.” Many are moving away from Tokyo with their children, leaving behind their husbands, who are attached to jobs and other social roles. In doing this, Japanese mothers are following the example of foreign embassies such as France, which sent some people home and moved everyone else to Osaka. (The irony of Junko’s choosing France as an example, given how defiantly reliant France is on nuclear power, is worth considering.)

It was shocking to hear Junko’s descriptions about how much — or rather, how little — information was being given to the Japanese people through the official channels. Because she is a professional translator, she had access to multiple English-language sources on the internet that explained far more about the nuclear disaster itself, the radiation leaks and risks, etc. than was ever available in the Japanese press.  Junko took it on herself to explain this information in everyday Japanese, and recruited a radiation expert from a research hospital (i.e., someone not tainted by TEPCO, the fully discredited electricity company that owned the Fukushima nuclear plant) to check what she wrote. This information she broadcast on her already popular e-newsletter, the readership of which grew significantly.

As a result of both the mismanagement of the crisis and the authorities’ poor handling of information about what had actually happened, the traditionally submissive relationship between the people and the national leadership has become deeply frayed. The crisis revealed, said Junko, that the government did not really trust the public.  Authorities controlled the release of information in order not to “create panic,” but in doing so created more nervousness and panic, which created more distrust, more information control, and more nervousness and panic, in a vicious circle. “It is easy to make a systems diagram of this,” she notes with a hint of irony, “and I have drawn many of them.”

Why was it so difficult for people to get information on radioactivity and other nuclear power issues in Japan, in the midst of a nuclear meltdown crisis? And why does Junko — whose bridge-building work usually attracts positive attention from groups as diverse as deep-green environmentalists and big-industry representatives — start getting attacked her efforts to publish more of the facts on what was actually happening at Fukushima?

“Nuclear power is an emotional or ideological issue here,” said Junko, whose academic training was in psychology. “People, especially men, tend to equate nuclear power with power generally.” I note recent psychological research showing that when people have strong ideological commitments, fact-based counter-arguments often just harden their positions. This explains how even in the face of a meltdown — one that will make a large area sited only 150 km north of Tokyo uninhabitable for generations — nuclear power still has rabid defenders in Japan.

The electricity shortages themselves, common in Tokyo but not in Osaka or elsewhere, act as a continuous reminder of the situation. The lighting in train stations and other public locations is noticeably dimmer, Junko tells me. But this “dark side” has a “bright side,” because “people are realizing that they did not need all that light in the place. The dimmer light is more comfortable.” The directives to reduce energy are causing a kind of social transformation, in everything from direct energy usage (turning off Tokyo’s ubiquitous vending machines) to the way people dress at work (men are encouraged to ditch their suits in favor of a “super-cool,” tie-less look that requires less air conditioning).

“People are rediscovering the meaning of ‘enough’, and remembering that ‘enough’ is also comfortable,” says Junko.  This reminds me of the concept of a “teachable moment,” which I learned practicing social work years ago:  the moment when defenses come down and the person can actually learn something that changes their view of themselves and the context of their lives. Junko grabbed onto that term immediately. “This is such a moment,” she says, “so I am doing a lot of teaching.”

But she is also doing a lot of learning. In March and April, her usual busy speaking schedule was largely canceled, and Junko suddenly had a lot of time on her hands. So she used it to pursue a ten-year-old dream:  to study the Chinese classics (such as the “Analects of Confucius”). She found a teacher, signed up for classes, and started studying … which, among other things, involves learning 52,800 Chinese characters. “In the Edo period,” Junko tells me, “children would learn these characters. The saying was, 100 characters, 100 times a day.” That is, they would repeat each character a hundred times, until they had memorized it, and they would do that with a hundred characters, every day — usually before even learning what those characters meant. After one and a half years, they knew them all, and could start reading. “I think it will take me a bit longer,” she says with an impish smile.

In dialogues, Junko and her teacher learned that they share a common sense of purpose, even though they are promoting different things. Both are teaching in order to change and improve Japanese society.

And if ever any society was faced with a “teachable moment,” it is Japan, now.

David Abrams: Breathing ourselves aware on planet “EAIRTH”

David Abrams lecturing at Climae Existence 2010
David Abrams explains why Earth should be called "EAIRTH"

This is the second in my series of posts from the conference “Climate Existence 2010.” The series began with a post on Bill McKibben’s opening keynote. This one covers the afternoon keynote and the workshop I went to, which awakened some memories …

“We don’t live on the Earth.  We live in the Earth.  Or rather in the EAIRTH.

This is David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous or more recently Becoming Animal. He is explaining why he is proposing a slight change in the name of our planet.  The addition of that “I” puts the word “AIR” in the middle of the word “EARTH.”  It calls our attention to something that is both invisible and essential.

Because the air is invisible, says David, we tend to treat it as nonexistent. That’s why we can treat it like an open sewer, as McKibben called it this morning. But for indigenous people, that very invisibility is part of what makes the air so sacred to them.  “It’s a kind of a secret,” says Abram (who is also a sleight-of-hand magician, who likes secrets).  “Secret. Sacred. Same word.”

“The air is the unseen medium of exchange,” says David. We speak when breathing out, not breathing in, and our sounds are carried on the air to each other. For oral-history people’s, the air is “a thicket of meaning,” full of stories and spirits.

He introduces us to the word Ních’i — Navajo (Dineh) for “holy wind.” This was translated as “spirit” by the early anthropologists, “but they missed that this inner wind was entirely continuous with the wind out there,” with the air.  David traces the origins of various words related to air, and consciousness, and they intertwine beautifully:  “atmosphere,” for example, from “atma” and “atmos” in ancient Sanskrit, meaning … air, and soul.

He is drawing (I find this on the internet, searching on the phrases I hear from him in real time) on an article he published in 2009, “The Air Aware,” published in Orion magazine. David’s words are carefully chosen, he is a “writerly” writer.  It is an inspired reading.  But he occasionally breaks out of the box of his own text (and literally steps out from behind the podium) to speak, rather than read, and to breathe, and to make his case for taking the reality of the air-in-which-we-live-and-breathe more seriously, more passionately.  (“Passion,” from Latin, replacing an Old English word that combined “suffering” with “endurance.”)

The last time I saw David Abram, fifteen years ago …

Continue reading David Abrams: Breathing ourselves aware on planet “EAIRTH”

International Buy-a-Qur’an Day

I bought a copy of the Qur’an today.  It seemed the best way to register my support to all my Muslim friends in the face of the media circus around this low-minded Florida “pastor,” whose behavior is so antithetical from the Christianity I learned as a child (a child in Florida, as it happens).  Buying a Qur’an also seemed a good way to mark the anniversary of 9/11, in the face of the ugly protests against an Islamic Culture Center in Manhattan. Buying a Qur’an was also a way of reminding myself of the importance of these days for many of my new friends and clients in Egypt, here at the close of Ramadan.

In fact, I thought of all these things only after crossing the box on the book club order form.  I had decided to order the Qur’an mostly because I thought it was time to read it again, considering where my work has taken me lately; and the translated edition on offer (Folio) was spectacularly beautiful.

I’m not a religious man, and I live in one of the world’s most secular nations, Sweden.  But this is not the first time I’ve bought a copy of the Qur’an.  At university I took a course in the Religions of Asia, and read the Qur’an (“Koran” then), the Pali Canon, the Bhagavad Gita, and many other sacred texts. They moved me, they stirred me, and they still do today. Where else can you read about what human beings have been striving after, for thousands of years? The Qur’an is a particularly stunning text, even in English translation; one takes it for granted, based on the evidence of centuries, that its Arabic is transformative in its poetry and power.

So I’ll say no more about the “pastor,” who does not merit the title; and I dearly wish the world’s media had simply ignored him. Instead, I’ll look forward to the delivery of this beautiful book, the sacred  text of a religion whose name means “peace.” I’ll look forward to reading it, and seeing it beside my editions of the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and other holy texts that have been so inspirational to me over the years.

Today was my “International Buy-a-Qur’an Day.”

“Changer pour Durer”: Change to Endure

“The French think differently,” said nearly every one of us who was not actually French. Of course, we said this to each other in French, so perhaps we were thinking differently too.

Patrick Viveret presenting at Cerisy-la-Salle, Sep 2009
Patrick Viveret presenting at Cerisy-la-Salle, Sep 2009

Last week (19-24 Sept 2009) I attended an inter-disciplinary colloquium at a castle in Normandy called Cerisy-la-Salle. The central massive stone structure (see photo at the end of this article), constructed in the 1600s to defend a Protestant family’s farm against the local Catholics, is complemented by newer buildings converted to bedrooms, work areas, and exhibition space. Since the 1920s, it has been host to series of cultural meetings and discussions — a series that is now decades old. The list of those who have been there is impressively long, and includes names like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, André Gide …

At Cerisy, for one week, 30-50 people live on the castle grounds and basically talk all day. This summer, the week-long “colloques” have apparently covered everything from the poetry of Rilke to the way science fiction affects the present day, to weightier social themes. Our colloquium, organized by researchers Nils Ferrand of the French institute Cenagref and Diana Mangalagiu of Reims Business School and Oxford University, was called “Changer pour Durer.” The word “durer” is the closest equivalent to “sustain” in French. Sustainable development, for example, is “développement durable,” which sounds like durable development in English. Which is pretty much what it sounds like in French, too.  “Durer” also carries the meaning “endure”, but without the same level of slightly negative overtones. “To last” might be another cut at it. With all these inexact searching for translations, there appear to be good reasons that French researchers — like Swedish ones — sometimes just use the English word “sustainability”. Perhaps the word durable leaves a less-than-satisfying feeling in the mind.

For to be satisfied in the mind, much as a good meal satisfies the palate, appeared to me a very French and lovely thing. Everyone takes a year of philosophy at the high school level in France, and philosophy is (by comparison to virtually any other Western country) astonishingly popular here. There is a popular philosophy magazine. There are hundreds of “Café Philo” meetings around the country, something like an open mike night for thinking, in local brasseries and coffee shops. Philosophers are almost nowhere in sight at most sustainable development seminars I attend; here, they were a major presence. It helped create the feeling that we were approaching familiar topics from an entirely different angle.

Of course, inter-disciplinary dialogue among philosophers and scientists and practitioners and computer model-builders etc. is not an everyday occurrence anywhere, not even in France, and in this way the dialogue at Cerisy on change and sustainability felt rather unique. Ideas that were not new to me still somehow felt new, because they were being expressed in French, and because they were being challenged and questioned by people in disciplines (like philosophy) that are usually not represented in the other meetings I attend — not even the very multi-disciplinary ones like the Balaton Group.

And there was a kind of clear and interesting tension, intellectually speaking, between the philosophers and the model-builders. The former essentially questioned the very premise of doing the latter — that is, building simplified models of the world using equations and computers. The model-builders seemed to think it was because the philosophers just did not understand what they were doing (“it’s as though they don’t *want* to understand” grumbled one scientist). The philosophers seemed to think the model-builders were remarkably and even naively uncritical of the potential impact of simplifying the world in this way, and then actually using the results to guide action in the world. It was not a tension that anyone tried to resolve; the French tradition emphasizes debate, not consensus. Good food and wine in the evening were the closest anyone came to a consensus.

Then there was the art/science debate, which was less tense, and more filled with something like envy or desire. Rosa Casado, a Spanish performance artist, presented some of her work and some carefully sought-out thoughts about her approach to it. (“I don’t usually talk about my work, I usually just do it.”) The scientific model-builders admitted, in the “debate” which followed, that they were increasingly wondering if they were doing science or art these days — for example, when they worked on-site in Sénégal with local farmers and a very participatory process. There was a great deal of intuition and empathetic feeling that had to go into making such a project successful; did this make it less “scientific,” and more “artistic”? “I have to confess I just don’t know anymore,” admitted one researcher.

Another polarity was around age, for this mostly middle-aged-to-elderly (at 49 I was at a sort of median) group of French-speaking thinkers was greatly enriched by the presence of a group of very engaged students or younger researchers. Why, these younger folks wondered in the evenings, are all these older folks speaking about the future so pessimistically? This, I heard from others, was very disconcerting to them since, after all, it was *their* future the older folks were talking about.

For me, personally, the whole experience was enormously enriching. It was the first time I’d presented my work in French (a scary trial for me, probably a chore for the listeners, but a challenge in which I took enormous joy for some reason). The interest in things like the ISIS Method among these new colleagues was gratifying. But it was also the first time I was attending such a seminar, since I don’t know when, without having any organizational responsibilities. I could just sit, and listen, and learn, and think, and occasionally ask a question. What luxury. Oh, and one evening I was invited to play the guitar and perform my songs; it turns out that French-speaking professionals working on sustainability also like to hear English songs with titles like “Exponential Growth” and “Dead Planet Blues.” I brought out some new songs too, like “Damn the Discount Rate” and “Set the World Right Again,” both of which had never been heard outside of a Balaton Group meeting. And with help, I managed a translation of my song “Balaton” into French as well.

In addition to the general learning and some improved French capacity, I came back with two new songs in the works (both in French), a huge new professional project clearly framing itself in my mind, a great deal of inspiration for my next book-writing project … and most importantly, some new friends and colleagues.

I note that I have reported at length here on Cerisy, but have not even written a word yet about the annual Balaton Group meeting in Hungary a few weeks ago — which was also a terrific high point, the best meeting experience we’ve had in a few years perhaps. Many important things happened there. But at Balaton I have, as I note, organizational responsibilities. I have (and happily share now) the role of President, so my experiences and reflections are necessarily group-oriented ones to a large degree. At Cerisy, I could indulge myself, individually, as a mere participant-learner-listener-writer-singer. It was a like holiday for mind, with excellent company in a wonderful, stimulating environment. I felt “changed” in ways that will help me to “endure” as well — for we must endure if we are to keep making change. To the organizers of Changer pour Durer, Nils Ferrand and Diana Mangalagiu, I publicly extend my warmest gratitude.

-Alan

[Photo: Coffee break at Changer pour Durer, Cerisy-la-Salle, France, Sept 2009]

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Karaoke in Beijing is Part of My Job

Beijing's First Pyramid of Sustainable Development, at People's Education Press, 22 May 2009
Beijing's First Pyramid of Sustainable Development, at People's Education Press, 22 May 2009 (click to enlarge)

If you had seen me strolling with my colleagues into the cavernous Partyworld, a deluxe marble-and-chandeliers karaoke center in the center of Beijing, you would have been forgiven for not believing me if I told you that I was working.

When you are a visiting speaker/consultant/trainer in Asia, and the evening’s planned activities include karaoke, well, karaoke is part of the job.  These activities cement group bonds, and increase (one hopes) the chances that the time you have spent learning together will make a lasting and spreading impact.

Plus, through the karaoke session (which lasted something close to five hours), I learned a lot about China.  Sometimes the song texts were translated to me, and the music videos were explained — “this song is coming from the indigenous people in my home province” — and sometimes we just talked, loudly, while others sang. Sometimes I got commentaries:  “This song [a lovely woman in a black and white evening gown is crooning about Chairman Mao] was very popular in the 1980s,” I was told.  Or:  “This girl is from Taiwan [she is dancing in a school uniform, the ambiguous phrase “Taiwan Only” appears often in the video’s background] and very popular”.  Occasional English words and phrases like “One Night in Beijing” or “Cinderella” show up in the song texts; those parts I can sing no problem, and then I can pretty much infer, from those little samples and the imagery, what the rest of the song is about.

I brought my guitar to Partyworld, and when it was my turn to sing (it is eventually everybody’s turn), we turned off the sound system and I did a couple of my own songs, “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On” and “Balaton”. I’m actually not very good at karaoke, so by singing my own songs, I avoided butchering too many pop classics — with the exception of “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters, which, I confess, pushed my own 1970s nostalgia buttons.  Apparently, the Carpenters are very popular in China.

But I wasn’t to get off so easily.  My colleague from Sweden, Marie Neeser, recruited me to help when it was her turn to sing, so we played up our Swedish identities and did a couple of Abba numbers. We acquitted ourselves admirably, as the British would say … which is another way of saying we got through it without any major calamities.

Besides the karaoke, I am in China to teach workshops on the ISIS Method, Pyramid, Amoeba, and strategic change agentry to groups of education officials, researchers, and teachers. We did a one-day Pyramid at the People’s Education Press (China’s largest textbook publisher), and an Amoeba session at this eco-conference center on the outskirts of Beijing. Working through interpreters, I can’t follow everything that happens; but I can set the processes in motion, and watch them, and get snippets of translation.  Fortunately, the workshop processes appear to be working just as they usually do.

The physical Pyramid built here in Beijing was unique — no wooden sticks, they were “too expensive.”  Instead, they found colored plastic tubing, cut it in small pieces, and stapled these together to make the triangles!  This “new technology” worked just fine; perhaps this is the version that will spread now into China’s schools system.

If my writing today is less than scintillating, well, let’s just say that I am lucky to be able to write at all, after our celebratory dinner last night.  The rice wine was flowing, and as with karaoke, it was very often my turn to perform.  I am still recovering today from this “performance.”

I leave Beijing now for Shanghai, where I have not been since 1982.  I expect it will be a little different …

My Earth Day in Africa

I’m reading an article in Scientific American’s magazine “Earth 3.0” about some airlines testing new, greener jet fuels. But I’m here in Entebbe, Uganda airport, about to fly with very ordinary Jet A Kerosene on Kenya Airways to Nairobi. Surreally, an old Star Trek movie is on the television. Of course, I spent most of the day supporting a climate change strategy meeting for the Nile Basin Initiative. Whether or not this clears my “carbon conscience” about the emissions involved this is my Earth Day 2009 fate.

In previous years, I’ve often been an Earth Day keynote speaker somewhere. In 1994, for example, I gave the keynote for celebrations at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, USA — even though I wasn’t a big fan then of the Earth Day concept itself.

“I’m not very happy about the existence of Earth Day,” I told medium-sized crowd gathered in blustery outdoor venue. “The mere fact that we must dedicate a special day to raising our awareness about the health of our natural home is a warning signal of the highest order.”

Imagine, I wrote then, that we were so distanced from our own bodies — so prone to poisoning them, overstretching their capacities, wearing them down faster than they could regenerate etc. — that we decided to create a day called “Body Day,” to try to raise awareness about the fact that we have (or are) bodies. Wouldn’t that be a very bad sign?

Come to think of it, maybe we do need a Body Day.

“Soil and water, air and sunlight … these should be sources of continuous and universal joy, gratitude and celebration — not chronic grief and worry ritualized once a year,” I wrote in 1994.

My, how Earth Day has changed in fifteen years.

Now Google changes its famous logo to a naturescape on Earth Day. Now CNN changes it red logo to green for the day, and reports on how the Chinese are positioning themselves to storm the world with electric cars. Now the US Environmental Protection Agency — a by-product of the first Earth Day — is preparing to regulate carbon dioxide as a dangerous emission. Now I’m reading a whole new sustainability magazine published by Scientific American.

And I’m no longer exhorting university students to love the Earth on Earth Day. Instead, I’ve been quietly typing up notes on a planned series of studies, meetings, workshops etc. designed to help one of the poorest regions on the planet get ready to cope with being one of the first and most hard-hit victims of global warming.

Back in 1994, I wrote about how we should be “redesigning our economy … rebuilding our infrastructure … rededicating ourselves” to making wiser choices. I made a call not for revolution, but for “accelerated evolution.”

To what extent has that happened, over fifteen years of Earth Days? To what extent is it happening, can it happen? That’s a question I’m currently exploring.

On the TV here in the bar, the Star Trek gang is still fighting a bunch of ghoulish aliens.  And once a year, some of us still stop and nod a bit to this planetary body we call our home, in hopes that this will help us learn to live on it sustainably.

Plus ça change …