Category Archives: Featured

New Sustainability “Model Calendar” for 2015!

ModelCalendar2015
Click to download – 4.5MB

If you are expecting photo-models, think again. This wonderful 2015 wall calendar — produced by the folks at Stockholm Resilience Center and Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics — is about conceptual models, the kinds of diagrams and think-pieces that help us understand the world.

And it is a gem. Here you will find twelve essential intellectual tools for thinking about sustainability, ecosystems, social systems, and resilience. They are briefly described, elegantly illustrated … and will get you googling to find out more about your favorites. If you’re into this stuff, anyway!

Thanks to Jamila Haider at SRC, who shared this digital copy with me and gave me permission to share it with my friends … Enjoy!

Download the Model Calendar 2015

 

 

 

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 …

 

The world in 2014: six shocking trends to keep watching

SixShockTrends_BlogPicIn a recent blog post, I looked back on 2013 in optimistic terms. Good things happened last year, and positive trends were strengthened, despite the obvious shadows and sorrows that appear in the nightly news.

Now I turn my attention to the year ahead. I take for granted that most of those good things (e.g. lengthening life spans, rising education levels) will keep happening. As a veteran sustainability watcher, I am also unsurprised by both the bad news (global warming) and the good news (living wage programs) that comes with that territory. I doubt that you would be surprised either.

So to make this interesting, I’m taking another tack.

Below I have identified six trends that I observed in 2013, that appear set to continue and probably grow stronger in 2014, and that I find truly shocking. By “shocking,” I mean that they caught me by surprise, and that I am still struggling to understand them.

Your list might be different. I’d be happy to hear about that. Send me feedback, and if I get enough good material, I will summarize what I hear from you in my next column (with attribution, of course)

Here we go …

1. The slow-motion debate on the surveillance state

This is the issue that dominated headlines and awakened strong emotions and uncertainties around the world in 2013. The surveillance itself is old news. But it feels as though the broader social debate is barely getting started, here in 2014. That’s what’s shocking.

On 1 January 2014, The New York Times published a lead editorial calling for clemency in the case of Mr. Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on what federal judges in the United States have declared unconstitutional prying into the private lives of US citizens. (Prying into the lives of citizens in other countries is apparently legal, under US law.) Others see Snowden as a traitor, and he is wanted in the US for espionage, charges which he is famously avoiding by hiding out in Russia.

Hundreds of people logged on to support the Times editorial, which noted that there is no evidence that this broad-based data collection and invasion of our privacy has stopped any terrorist activity. But hundreds also  logged on to excoriate the editorial writers.

Several world leaders who were the target of NSA and other agencies’ spying techniques have been very publicly angry about having their private phones tapped, by supposed friends. A few US congressional actions grab a headline now and then. But “muted” is perhaps the best description of the overall public reaction — at least, compared to the scale and importance of the issue (in my view).

Even academics, medical professionals, lawyers and others for whom the preservation of privacy and confidentiality should be a big issue have been surprisingly quiet, in collective professional terms, though recent revelations about broken encryption codes have awakened some of them from slumber.

I noticed that even among friends, people were often uncomfortable talking about this issue. Why? And why has the public been relatively quiet, up to now?

My theory has two parts. First, most of us are just a little afraid. The NSA and the other spy agencies are scary. Second, most of us have probably assumed the worst all along: that everything we do on the Internet can be monitored. The loss of privacy is part of the price of all those cheap or free Internet services. It’s a trade we feel willing — or perhaps forced by the times — to make.

Imagine if, fifty or even just twenty years ago, information surfaced that every letter in the postal system, every phone call was being reviewed by government authorities. Would we have been as complacent?

We seem to be stumbling into a George Orwell-style future, at least where our private lives are concerned. Our shocking quiet on this issue one trend to keep watching in 2014. Will it persist? Will we just accept the fact that government authorities can, if they want to, monitor our every move and every publicly-expressed thought? Or will the discomfort grow?

2. The shale gas revolution and its impact on global geopolitics

“Nobody saw this coming” is a frequent phrase heard in connection with the rise of shale gas and “fracking.” According to its Energy Information Agency, as of late 2013 the United States — dependent for decades on the oil of the Middle East — is now a net exporter of fossil fuels.

Meanwhile Japan is leading the hunt for new methods to harvest methane hydrates, a vast new reserve of energy previously locked into ice crystal at the bottom of the sea. South Korea and others are following suit. Success in turning these and other “unconventional” sources of oil into home-grown mega-businesses that reduce the need for imports seems to be just around the corner.

In a long article in The Atlantic published in May 2013, political writer Charles C. Mann put journalistic words to the thoughts that had been haunting me for a couple of years: what are the other, non-climate-change related side effects of this transformation?

The world has been enjoying decades of relative international stability. Stable does not mean unchanging: change has been constant and fast, such the rise of China and India and other “emerging markets.” Stable also does not mean conflict-free, as the “war on terror,” NATO’s (dwindling) presence in Afghanistan, and the current horrors in Syria currently attest. But the gradualness in shifts regarding the global balance of power (which underlies and shapes both trade relationships and security) has assured some predictability.

That predictability is quickly being shattered. The unexpectedly sudden shift in terms of who controls, sells, imports and exports the world’s primary source of energy is a truly shocking development. Countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela may be staring at a future where they have much less geopolitical leverage, or at least a much less predictable playing field, not to mention falling export revenues. What will they do then? Whose aircraft carriers will, for example, ply the Straits of Hormuz? What will Russia do when the threat of shutting off gas exports no longer causes much worry to anyone? This is certainly a trend I will be keeping my eye on in 2014.

3. A growing flood of refugees is being met with a rising tide of meanness

Here in Europe, right-wing, anti-immigrant (as well as anti-Europe) groups are still on the upswing, grabbing headlines and parliamentary seats. Meanwhile, dead bodies were washing up on the shores of Europe’s southern-most islands with horrifying frequency last year, the result of overcrowded boats ferrying enormous numbers of desperate people. They came seeking not just better lives, but any worthwhile life at all, and many died looking.

More insidious than these highly visible news stories are the shocking cases of people from Africa or the Middle East turning up in Europe, seeking asylum, having their applications legally rejected, and being forcibly sent home. According to Swedish Radio report I heard recently, over 300,000 people were sent home in this way from Europe last year, packed into special deportation planes like sardines. Some of them scream and wail so much at the thought of returning to the hells from which they have just escaped that immigration officers tape their mouths shut.

Or, they put muzzles across their faces.

Or, occasionally, they kill them.

By accident, of course. But a number of deaths have occurred, e.g. from asphyxiation. One horrific story involved a man being deported from the UK, having his hands tied behind his back and his face shoved between his knees (on the special go-back-to-Angola airplane), until he began to suffocate and then died of a heart attack. No one, said the radio news report, has been punished or reprimanded in connection with this incident. “I am still waiting for justice,” said the man’s destitute wife. (Source: Sveriges Radio)

These stories from Europe are of course similar stories from the north shore of Australia or the southern border of the United States. People are on the move, in increasing numbers. It’s perfectly natural: I’ve often thought that if I woke up one day, and found myself magically transformed into a Somali in a war-torn, destitute part of that country, the first think I would do is start walking north.

What’s shocking about this trend of increasing illegal migration, fueled by poverty and conflict and climate change, is not that it’s happening. What’s shocking is how the world’s most advanced countries, all professing a commitment to human rights, are treating so many of these people with such meanness. I will be paying more attention to this trend in 2014.

4. The problem of violence against women is finally getting (somewhat) more systematic attention

In its yearly round-up of big stories and important happenings in 2013, the esteemed journal Nature included this shocker in a “top 10” list: women researchers on anthropology and other field studies are often harassed or molested by the men they work with — not by hired workers, but by professors and post-docs. In other words, by their professional mentors and colleagues. It took a brave researcher (Kathryn Clancy), armed with scientifically conducted surveys, to surface a widespread problem that everyone had previously kept quiet about.

Meanwhile, the frequency of international news stories about group rapes or public molestation events in various countries is starting to compete with bus crashes and train wrecks. To me, hearing about a bus going over a cliff in another country is far less shocking than hearing about a young woman whose life was destroyed by six or seven evil — there is no other word to describe them — evil men. Newspapers specialize in shocking stories. And yet I only started noticing such news stories begin appearing with regularity during the last year (another one appeared in the Stockholm paper Dagens Nyheter as I was writing this).

The year 2013 was also the year when the United Nations saw fit to create an International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, on November 25. I am ashamed to say that I did not notice it. And it is shocking to think that these problems are still with us, systematically and horrifically, in 2014.

I for one plan to pay closer attention next year, not just on November 25, but every day, to one of the most troubling trends to continue its emergence over the world’s horizon of consciousness in the previous year. And I add my voice to the call for all nations, all professional associations, all similar authorities to take the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (issued in 1993) more seriously to heart.

5. We are outsourcing our minds to the Internet

Evidence is piling up that our reliance on Internet-based digital appliances and functions, such as the search window on your smartphone, affects not just the way we live; it affects our ability to think.

A new article in Scientific American summarizes recent research about an issue that deeply worries some (like Nicholas Carr, author of 2011’s The Shallows), but causes others to roll their eyes with exasperation and remind us that previous revolutionary inventions did not turn out so bad. Writing took information that was previously committed to memory and passed down orally, and created records that could be passed down over centuries. The printing press spread writing to the masses. Both technological innovations seem to have contributed to advances in human consciousness, not declines. The Internet, say the optimists, is just the next phase in our evolution.

And yet, “the Cloud” does seem to be clouding up our brains. The effect is real, measurable, and, well, shocking. Scientists have learned that we naturally divide up memory and other mental tasks within our social group, relying on other people to remember things for us. Now, the Internet has become something like a universal, all-knowing nerdy classmate who gives everyone all the answers on all the tests. People don’t remember things as well, because the InterNerd remembers everything for everybody.

Research shows that even just knowing that a certain piece of information is available with a few clicks on a keyboard dramatically reduces our ability to store and recall that information — even when we are trying to commit it to memory.

Thinking is, in part, about finding new associations among the things that we remember. This kind of thinking gets harder to do if we don’t remember anything.

The smartphones appearing in the hands of younger and younger children, the rise of more integrated digital appliances such as Google Glass, and the new iThink brain implant from Apple (okay, I made the last one up, but it seems rather inevitable, don’t you think?) will only accelerate this trend.

Where will it lead?

Search for “impact of Internet on human mind” at the end of 2014, and see what comes up. If you remember to think about it.

6. We are all becoming “brands”

I read with interest a review in Science of the new book Status Update (access requires subscription), by Alice Marwick, which documents her research into the social world of the social media moguls. (The review in Science seemed fair, balanced, and mostly positive, whereas the New York Times dismissed it savagely. That’s why I plan to read the book myself.)

The review, at least, helped convince me that something very strange — possibly shocking — is happening to our culture. I have experienced it myself, in web-based fora like these:  to be noticed, one must be on social media. And to be noticed on social media is to participate in a great, global game of personal branding.

Previously I have chalked off my discomfort with social media to the general problem of being an author/consultant/songwriter in a world flooded with information. Participating on Twitter and Facebook is partly driven by the pleasure of connecting with old friends … but the main reason I justify spending time  there is marketing. There is no point in writing books that do not get read (or music albums that don’t get listened to). To get read or listened to, things have to be noticed. In today’s world, that means I, the author and creative content generator, have to be noticed.

And “noticing” increasingly happens on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

I further notice that I am more often clicking that little button on Facebook that says “Boost” for a post that I actually want people to read, such as an announcement about my book Sustainability is for Everyone. That is, I’m paying Facebook to get people to notice me. I also check my “Klout” score, and I watch the click rates on my blog and my newsletter. I’m happy when they go up, worried when they go down … despite my attempts at ironic detachment.

Moreover, I notice that more and more of my social media “friends” are more and more predictable. Others, like me, have learned to post in a certain way that consistently telegraphs who they are: their personality, their interests, what you can rely on them to provide (e.g., certain kinds of photographs, daily Buddhist quotes, best loved poems, karaoke moments, etc.). They have learned what kinds of posts attract the “Likes” and attention of other friends, and so they do more of that. They may not feel the edge of marketing competitiveness that I here admit to, because they are not trying to sell anything. But they are playing the branding game, nonetheless.

Marwick’s point (according to the Science reviewer) is that the “socialistic” dream of the Internet — where people contribute to the common good willingly, in a sea of Wikipedias — has given way to the “capitalistic”, neo-liberal, young-male world of competition for points and attention, à la Mark Zuckerberg in the movie Social Network. And that constant “notice-me” branding is becoming the modern world’s social currency.

If true, I think this trend is also shocking: that we have let ourselves be pulled willingly into controlled, online environments that are essentially big Skinner boxes, training us to click and like and find new ways to gain and trade attention. And we do this while allowing our information to be sold to advertisers. Hm.

If you agree that this is at least a little bit shocking, please Like me on Facebook, Link with me on LinkedIn, Follow me on Twitter, etc.

*

What did I miss? If you think I neglected climate change, water crises, and other classic global problems, I assure you, that was strictly on purpose. Melting ice, acidifying oceans, overfishing, rising coal use in Germany and Japan, and other worrying dilemmas are not shocking any more. Indeed, not even the low priority given such issues by global decision makers is shocking any more. What is shocking, perhaps, is the way we’ve become accustomed to ignoring, collectively, a very real and pressing planetary emergency.

But I am curious to know what you think. What do you find shocking, here in these early days of 2014? What do you plan to pay more attention to, as they year progresses? Drop me a note (in the blog comment line, or by email) and I’ll summarize your answers in a future piece.

Meanwhile, despite my obvious worries, I also note that it is positively shocking how sustainability has become so much more accepted and so normal a part of doing business these days. But that trend was not shocking enough to make my list.

At least, not yet.

*

AD:

Have you read Sustainability is for Everyone yet? Check it out here:  http://AtKisson.com/S4E

Assessing 2013: Another sustainable loop around the sun

Assessing2013_BlogPicIt’s New Year’s Eve, the end of the year. We traditionally think of December 31 as the “end,” though in reality, we are locked in an ongoing, all-but-eternal cycle of orbital loops around our mother-star, the Sun. These annual trips are expected to keep going for 5 billion years. Talk about sustainable transportation!

We inherited the practice of marking a specific day in the solar loop as the year’s end from the Egyptians, via Julius Caesar, whose calendar was adjusted for accuracy by Pope Gregory’s mathematicians in 1582 — though Sweden did not adopt this new “Gregorian calendar” until the 1700s, and then only gradually, taking forty years to come into phase with the rest of Europe. Sweden then, as now, liked to be different.

Whatever calendar one uses, if you live in Sweden, the axial tilt of the Earth means that right now, it’s dark. Very dark. But we are past the solstice, and the days are starting to get lighter. So it seems “natural” to think of this time as both an “end” and a “new start.”

I, for one, am grateful for both.

Before I assess 2013 from a sustainability perspective, and from a personal (professional) perspective, let’s consider the world.

Overall, the world — meaning human civilization, the ancient roots of “world” meaning “the age of human beings” — is doing fine.

The long-term trends for people look good: lengthening life spans, falling birth rates, better health, rising education levels, global poverty still bad but slowly diminishing, economic trends tipping up a bit. The world is more or less at peace. We have much to be grateful for.

But not if you live in Syria — or have been forced to flee that war-ravaged country. The world’s Great Powers are locked in a post-Cold War geopolitical stalemate, and millions of Syrians are suffering the consequences. The world stands outside Syria, watches, sends arms to the soldiers (on both sides) and aid to the children. There will be no Happy New Year for Syria.

Spots on the globe like Syria, or the eastern Philippines (recovering from the greatest typhoon ever recorded), or South Sudan (currently moving from independence toward civil war) remind us that all is not well, even as most of us in the top one or two billion spend most of our global reflection time thinking about the march of our fantastical technology. Or more accurately, participating in it.

One billion: that’s about how many smartphones were sold this year. We bought one of them, for our 10-year-old daughter. She was nearly the last kid in her 4th grade class to get such a device. Smartphones are essentially mini-computers, tiny windows into the galaxy of data we call the Internet. The Internet is now so integral to our lives here in Sweden (as in many other places) that we scarcely know what it means to be human without it. So we carry the Internet with us wherever we go. It’s the way we live.

An illustration: I will post this short essay to my blog, summarize it on Facebook, point to it from my Twitter feed. Then I’ll watch the click rates to see how many people read it, and whether that impacts my Klout score. (2013 was the year I gave in and joined Klout. My score seems stuck at 60.) The days when I might actually print and mail this text as a letter to anyone, besides members of my family over the age of 80, are long gone.

One could spend many words reflecting on the march of technology in all its forms — the headlines in 2013 went to topics like robotics, nanomaterials, brain science — but those billion new smartphones symbolize everything else. If technology had a Klout score, it would be much, much bigger than Barack Obama’s.

What about sustainability, then? One could also say that sustainability is doing fine, based on the way it continues its steady march into corporate board rooms, city plans, school curricula, etc. A couple of indicators: In 2014, schools around the world that use the “International Baccalaureate” (a widely-adopted common curriculum) will start teaching the Sustainability Compass, a little model I invented in 1997, to all their middle year students. Greenbiz.com’s Joel Makower, whose little newsletter has grown into an international media and conference conglomerate, writes that 2013 was “like most years, a very good year — at least when it comes to green business news.” (It was also a very good year for his business, “a satisfying and exhilarating year of growth.” Congratulations, Joel!)

So the idea of sustainability has penetrated the mainstream. But a glance at the carbon dioxide data, species extinction rates, the still-smoldering ruins of Fukushima’s nuclear plants, the plight of the poor in places like Bangladesh, and mountains of floating plastic in the sea tell us that sustainability still has a long, long way to go in practice. (That’s why I wrote Sustainability is for Everyone.)

For myself, I will always remember 2013 as difficult, but rewarding. The economics could have been a lot better (2014 is already much more promising). But I am so grateful for the work I am privileged to do, with sustainability champions around the world. This year I worked with the United Nations secretariat, with large companies, with government officials and business executives and educators from many countries. My colleagues and friends did much the same. I am quite sure that the impact of the AtKisson Group network, in terms of contributing to the Sustainability Transformation, was at an all time high. (Read our year-end newsletter, at the AtKisson.com website.)

In 2013, I also received the professional honor of being inducted into the “Sustainability Hall of Fame” by my peers (my first such public distinction), and being appointed to the president’s advisory council on science and technology here in Europe. I published a book, completed a music CD (to be released in 2014), launched a global volunteer initiative (Pyramid2030.net), and generally had a great deal of creative fun, in between doing global consulting assignments, and loading the dishwasher here at home.

I am deeply grateful. Thank you, world. Good luck to everyone in the coming year.

And welcome, 2014.

About “Sustainability is for Everyone” (new book)

S4E_BlogPicOne evening last May, lying in bed, I was wondering what to say at the induction ceremony for the ISSP Sustainability Hall of Fame. Suddenly I took up my laptop and started tapping on the keyboard.

The result was a little text called Sustainability is for Everyone.

I feel pretty about about this little book. Partly because it’s little — just 49 pages. The first draft was even shorter before, but after giving it to the attendees at the ISSP event, and circulating it to friends and colleagues for feedback, I added two chapters and a preface. Then I decided to publish it, and promote it out to the world … because the response to the draft was so positive.

Maybe I hit a nerve.

The book is for sale now, as of two days ago. As I write this, I can see that it’s climbed to #13 on Amazon.com’s list of “Green Business” books. I’m already getting notices of people buying it in bulk to send to the family, friends, work teams, or clients. Translations are in the works. It’s all great fun …

But the main thing is: the message seems to have hit home. Sustainability is for everyone. It’s not “rocket science.” It’s not about “saving the world.” It’s just about taking care of ourselves, our families, our communities, our businesses, and of course, the little planet we live on, which we tend to call “nature.” And helping other people, all around the world, rich or poor (especially poor), do the same.

So I’d be grateful if you help spread the word … Sustainability is for Everyone.

URL: http://AtKisson.com/S4E

Hashtag:  #sforeveryone

My To-Do List, Fall 2013 …

FallToDoList2013_BlogPicThis page from my notebook (see photo) sums up the headlines on my to do list for the coming year: launching a new music album, building a global volunteer campaign for sustainability, participating in a number of important scientific processes, publishing a little book, and all the while continuing to do the usual consulting, training, and other work I do, connected with the AtKisson Group.

Can’t possibly do this alone. Success on all these points will absolutely depend on the support of many friends and colleagues. So, for those who are interested, let me walk you through this to-do list item by item …

Launching a new album:  Sometime in the next couple of months you will be warmly invited to listen to ten new songs, written over the last decade, recorded over the last two years, backed by some of Sweden’s best studio musicians. And for once, I will not shy away from asking people I know to tell everyone they know about this album. That’s how strongly I feel about it.

Building a global volunteer campaign:  We have raised the sails on our new Pyramid 2030 initiative, which aims to get hundreds, maybe thousands of groups around the world meeting together in workshop groups, building new understanding together, and generating new ideas, new energy, even new plans and projects for sustainability. Check out the new website at http://Pyramid2030.org. Doing one of these workshops is both fun and very meaningful. You can do it any time, and at any scale, you want. So don’t hesitate for a minute: join up!

About the item called “keep up with major scientific developments”:  I serve on President Barroso’s new Science and Technology Advisory Council here in Europe (it has just launched a website: http://ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/president/advisory-council/index_en.htm) which is tasked to “examine areas where research and innovation can contribute to Europe’s growth — with a particular focus on benefits and risks of advances in science & technology and how to address and communicate these.” As a sustainability expert, I feel a particular responsibility to dive deeply into these questions, and gather advice from many, so that I can offer meaningful input to the President of the European Commission. That is a big “to do” item, and a continuous one. (As a science and sustainability communicator, I also have to keep updated for the various keynotes and seminars I am asked to do, sometimes in connection with specific topics. On my speaking agenda this fall, for example:  the American Society of Agronomy annual convention, and the launch of the EU’s enormous Graphene research program, coordinated by Chalmers University here in Sweden.)

“Sustainability is for Everyone”: This is the title of a little book I drafted earlier this year, and it is due for release also this fall, most probably in a free e-Book edition. (You can read comments reacting to the draft here). The book integrates nicely with the Pyramid 2030 campaign, because they both aim to empower “sustainability people” to reach out to other people.

Master Classes, Clients, etc.:  On top of (or perhaps underneath) all of this is my job, consulting to organizations on sustainability strategy, training officials and executives on how to apply the ISIS Method and ISIS Accelerator tools, and generally keeping my shoulder to the wheel of the sustainability movement — together with the millions of other people whom I believe that movement now consists of. Included in that work is teaching ISIS Academy Master Classes, promoting AtKisson Group research reports on energy and new economics, and promoting the work of our clients, such as WWF and CDP’s highly influential report The 3% Solution (on why companies should invest more in carbon emissions reduction).

So, a busy year for sure. A big year in terms of ambition, admittedly. Will it be “big” in terms of the success of these initiatives?

I profoundly hope so. I’m working my tail off to make that happen. I am also profoundly grateful that my wife Kristina is working with me now (running Pyramid 2030); that I’ve had a great producer working on the album (Andrea Bauman here in Sweden); and that many, many friends taking on various roles in these initiatives and campaign. From the bottom of my heart, to all of you: thank you.

And to all my friends and readers around the world, who have this far … I’ll be profoundly grateful for any help you can give me on this to do list. Ideas? Suggestions? Offers? Please write to me:  Email to Alan

I’d also like the opportunity to help you … so that together, we can raise sustainability a few more notches on the world’s to do list, as well.

Because that’s the whole point.

Warmly,

Alan

Having Coffee with my Father’s French Horn

Coffee_French_Horn_Aug2013As I continue re-integrating music into my professional life (the upcoming release of my most ambitious album ever is starting to feel more real), there occasionally come unexpected moments of wonder.

Consider this French horn, which I have brought with me to this cafe. (I’m taking it in for appraisal.) This was my father’s French horn. He died in 1985, but he had stopped playing the instrument a quarter century before that.

When I was born.

In fact, he used to half-joke that I was the reason he stopped playing, because I-as-newborn cried when he practiced.

The truth of the matter, as I learned later, was that my father — not unlike myself — had left professional music for other intellectual interests (and steadier pay), some years before I was born. My father had authored a successful music textbook, Basic Counterpoint, before he even finished graduate school. But he was restless, Harold AtKisson, and he switched over to writing, teaching English, and being a professional hypnotist in the late 1950s. Long story.

But here comes the “wonder” bit in today’s story, here is what having coffee with this instrument has led me suddenly to understand:

If it were not for this French horn, I would not exist.

My father’s musical skill (he was something of a prodigy on this horn) helped him run away from an abusive family situation when he was 15 and join the National Guard. The soldiers took him in, sheltered him, and let him lie about his age, partly because they needed a good French horn player for their band. Music was literally my father’s salvation.

He stayed, moved to the US Army when he came of age, and this horn ultimately took my father to Hollywood, where — because of his role in an Army band during wartime — he met many of the musical stars of the day (I have his autographed photographs of Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton …).

But he was too smart and restless, even then, just to play his horn. He ended up spending two wartime years in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, as an Army Intelligence officer. The experience changed him, not for the better, and I wrote a poem about that (another long story).

Back from the war, Harold AtKisson pursued a relatively brilliant if erratic musical career, before shocking his professors with the successful textbook, and landing a position at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

Where he met my mother.

The story of my mother (herself a prodigy on the organ and piano) and father’s meeting and their marriage just three months later is the stuff of legend in my family. It involves private detectives, family shock and dismay, kleptomania, and scenes straight out of the black-and-white movies of the day. I’ll write that story another time.

For now, I will just report that I, their first child, was born 2-1/2 years later — thus proving to the tut-tutting relatives that it was not pregnancy, but true love, that had pulled my parents together like an electromagnet. They waited that long to get pregnant on purpose, just to make the point.

So there it is. Without you, French horn, and the specific life-path that you made possible for my father, I would not be alive to experience the joy I felt yesterday, sitting on the porch, picking the strings on my guitar, feeling its vibrations float through and around my upper body, and listening to my wife and children chatting in the kitchen.

Your life made my life possible, French horn. Thank you. And drink your coffee. We have an appointment to keep.

What Music Means (to Me)

AtKissonBlogPhoto9Apr2013This article describes how music came back into my life — again — and the process of recording my new album with some of Sweden’s leading musicians. The album is to be released later this year (2013) .

A few years ago, I heard someone ask the veteran global trend analyst Lester Brown — who is known for dire warnings about the state of the planet — this question: “How do you maintain your optimism?”

“I have a one-word answer for that,” said Lester. “Bourbon.”

As someone whose professional life often involves analyzing global trends, and then informing others about them (while trying to help them change the direction of those trends), I often get asked the same question. So I adopted Lester’s snappy, whiskey-based answer and modified it. “Unlike Lester,” I would say, “I have a two-word answer for that. Single malt.”

My real answer, of course, is more complicated (as is Lester’s). It has to do with maintaining a long-term perspective, seeing the positive developments that have unfolded over decades, enjoying the “now” of the work in terms of human companionship and the pleasure of learning, and a deep commitment to family.

But lately, I’ve decided to change my snappy two-word answer back to one word.

Music.

As I wrote in my book Believing Cassandra, music came back into my life out of emotional necessity. I spent much of my 20’s working as a professional musician, performing in the rock and folk clubs of New York. Then I changed career tracks, and became a sustainability expert. But my early professional plunge into issues such as climate change, poverty, oppression, and biodiversity loss (starting in 1988) stirred up some strong emotions. Writing songs, starting with the dark comedy song “Dead Planet Blues,” helped me to express those emotions and deal with them … and probably helped me avoid drinking too much whiskey.

But music is, of course, its own pleasure. It has its own purpose, quite separate from any personal or global agenda we bring to it. I have been reminded about this while working on my new album over the past year and a half.

The songs on this album were written during the past decade, and some of them are deeply personal. For the first part of the project — which involved just me and my guitar, showing up at the studio once every couple of months — I just focused on the songs as songs. They are each different, ranging from up-tempo acoustic-rock to whispery ballads. After each recording session, I was happy just hearing the sounds of my beautiful Taylor acoustic guitar, captured on the rough mix tapes.

But in the past few months, it has been the turn of other Stockholm-based musicians to come in and add their sounds, talents and interpretations to my basic picking, strumming, and singing. And Andreas Bauman, who has been helping me produce the album in his studio, brought in some great musicians.

First there was Micke Ajax, an exceptionally sensitive percussionist, who read the mood and rhythm of each song perfectly and gave them a wonderfully compelling beat. Mats Nilsson, playing together with Micke, laid down rich, melodic bass lines … and suddenly the songs also had groove.

Then last week came Tobias “Tobbe” Fall, who plays guitar with Sweden’s truly top singers (like Tommy Körberg and the popular summer TV show Allsång på Skansen, where nearly every current Swedish pop artist shows up during the summer). Tobbe brought five or six guitars with him, each of which seemed able to produce ten or more unique sounds. But most of all, Tobbe brought his extraordinary musicality, virtuosity, and a genuine engagement with the material. He and Andreas (who is also a keyboardist, with an excellent sense for musical ideas) worked together like artist and architect, bouncing ideas back and forth for sound, mood, phrasing … which Tobbe would then execute perfectly.

For me, listening, adding my own requests and ideas, occasionally pulling out my own guitar to play a bit with Tobbe so he could quickly see which chord voicings I was using, it was just a joy.

It wasn’t just the joy of hearing my songs come to life in the hands of musical masters. It was the joy of music itself. It was the pleasure of watching Micke and Mats have a musical conversation based on backbeats and melodic bass lines. It was the thrill of watching Tobbe rip off several killer electric guitar solos in the space of five minutes, just after laying down beautiful ringing tones on his aquatic-sounding baritone guitar.

I confess I had forgotten just what joy listening to music can be. My own music listening habits were nearly atrophied. The joy of family life more than filled my non-work time. Music was something I still did … but really didn’t know what to do with (as I wrote here last year). I still sang sometimes in my presentations, as anyone reading this probably knows; but I didn’t go to many concerts, except for my daughters’ piano and violin performances (plenty of joy there, too). I didn’t listen to my CD’s, or explore music online so very much. My musical life was far from dead; I enjoyed listening to what my children listened to, as they graduated from kids’ songs to current Swedish pop. But my music ears were pretty far from being fully alive, too.

Actually, two things have happened to change that. First, my recent experiences in the studio sent me back into my CD collection and got me pulling out my guitar more often, just to play it. They got me surfing through the unending world of online music. They helped me rediscover the simple pleasure of listening to a well-crafted song or a virtuoso guitar piece.

Secondly, I was approached out of the blue by the new Swedish organization, Performing Artists for the Environment (Artister för Miljön). Sweden’s former top TV meteorologist, Pär Holmgren (who is now a full-time environmental communicator), started AfM with friends, and invited me to get involved … as an artist. Since I also work as a consultant to the UN, an advisor to the EU, and other similar roles, I am sometimes careful about also identifying myself as an “artist”, to the point of occasionally hiding the fact. Why? Because I sometimes run into people in positions of authority who find it difficult to accept that one can be a serious consultant if one is also a serious musician.

But Pär’s invitation spoke specifically to the more integrated artistic-professional life that I used to champion more actively. The afternoon in March that I spent with other performing artists — some of whom were learning about the real gravity of global environment challenges for the first time — was inspiring and refreshing. And as a benefit, because Pär and his colleagues had reminded me that I was indeed a performing artist, I began to see myself as one again.

Which was good timing, because soon, I will have a new album ready to launch. Thanks to Andreas and the musicians who have enriched it, it will be an album that one can listen to because one likes the lyrics and the messages and the stories in the songs … but also just because one likes the music, the way it sounds.

So now I wish to publicly thank Andreas, Micke, Mats, Tobbe, Mats Ronander (a Swedish music star, who plays a mean harmonica on one of my songs), and the other musicians still to come to Andreas’s studio, as well as Pär Holmgren and his colleagues at AfM, for reminding me what music means.

For reminding me that music is … music. Its own joy.

For reminding me that being a musician is a joy.

For reminding me that being a musician and songwriter who also seeks to support the great changes happening in our world in the name of sustainability, using every tool and talent one has — that this, too, is a joy, and an unending source of optimism.

And it’s much, much better than whiskey.

What the Master Class is like …

dec2012coverphoto[Note: The Center for Sustainability Transformation used to be called ISIS Academy. We changed the name in 2014, when “ISIS” became associated with a very different approach to change.]

In February, ISIS Academy will be coming to the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University for our next Master Class in Change for Sustainability, and our first such course in the United States (click here or click the image to download the brochure). What is that? you may be wondering. What is a Master Class?

These days, the term “Master Class” has become a common way to describe a sort of high-level workshop, of any kind. But the origins of the term were (to my knowledge) in music and dance. Talented and experienced performers would study with people who had become well-known for their work. Such classes were short and intensive and designed to help the students — who were themselves already professionals, often with students of their own — lift their abilities to a new level.

When we launched the first ISIS Academy Master Class, in 2009, the phrase seemed natural. Master is exactly what these classes are designed to do: to help sustainability professionals, from newly minted to highly experienced, master a new set of tools and skills quickly, while also deepening their own sense of personal mastery over their own capacity and development path.

We who teach the class are under no illusions that we know everything. Sustainability has grown dramatically in recent years, in both breadth and depth. There is too much information and knowledge for anyone to master. That’s why having good tools, good habits of mind, and a good sense of one’s one edges — whether polished or rough — is so essential to success.

What we do have is experience. A lot of it. Our purpose in these classes is to use our experience to help participants make better use of their own experience and wisdom … and other people’s as well.

Of course, there are some technical things to learn. We go deep into both the theory and practice of ISIS, and show how virtually any sustainability process can be understood and improved by looking at the indicators, systems analysis, innovations, and strategies that are in play.We do this with a mix of presentation, discussion, case study, interactive exercises … even games. There are lots of ways to learn, and we try to use all of them!

We also make sure everyone there feels comfortable not just with our tools (Compass, Pyramid, Amoeba and the like) … but with the whole concept of what it means to use a tool. Any tool. How to choose the right tool for the job, regardless of whether its ours, or someone else’s.

We take frequent pauses to point not just what we are teaching, but also how we are teaching it. We want participants to be able to take home as much as possible, including the methods we use … so that they can use them too. And teach others with them.

And of course, we spend ample time making sure the participants are learning from each other. We take a good long look at the interpersonal, and inner/personal, side of sustainability work. A key skill we try to impart is the skill of coaching, that is, being able to help each other with good listening, great questions, and insights that build the other person’s strengths.

One of our participants once called the Master Class “the missing piece in my sustainability education.” We don’t know if that’s true for everybody, but we do aim to help people achieve that feeling of completeness:  that they are full masters of what means to tackle the joined-up challenges of designing and envisioning sustainable systems, and moving the people and organizations in that the direction of that vision.

Finally, while I have been writing mostly about what a Master Class is like from a participant’s perspective — because that’s what a Master Class is all about — I have to confess that for us who to teach these classes, they are pure joy. To spend some days with a group of people who care a great deal about improving this world we live in, who are working very hard to both advance themselves, and to advance the great issues that we group under this word “sustainability,” is such a privilege. Indeed, it’s inspirational, and we tend to leave these classes just as recharged and reinvigorated to do the work as are the so-called “participants.” Truly, we all learn from each other.

Actually, we have three Master Classes coming up in early 2013: India in January (with Axel Klimek and CEE India); in Arizona in February (see brochure); and in the UK in March. There will will likely be another one in Germany in June, as well. Interest has grown since that first Master Class gathered in Stockholm in 2009 — and that is a very good indicator indeed.

Report from OECD: What Winning Looks Like

Here’s a letter I sent out to my friends in the Balaton Group from New Delhi, India, where I was recently attending an OECD World Forum and moderating a panel on sustainability. I never thought attending a meeting on national statistics could make me so happy.  /Alan

Dear friends,

I am reporting to you now from the floor of the OECD World Forum on “Measuring Well-Being for Development and Policy Making.” Around me is a collection of chief national statisticians, senior economists, OECD officials, and assorted political and civil society actors from around the world.

My purpose in writing to you is to communicate a short message:  we won.

I do not mean, of course, that we have “won” the “fight” for a sustainable future. Far from it. What I mean by this is something very narrow and specific, and concerns the fight to convince policy-makers that the GDP should not be the central measure of progress. This is a fight that many people have been involved with for many years, going back to the late 1980s.

Why do I say “we won”? Because at this conference are many people whose job is to prepare the national and global statistics that inform those policy-makers, as well as a number of actual policy-makers. The consensus among those attending this Forum is clear:  these new measures of overall quality of life as well as subjective wellbeing (“Gross National Happiness” and its many imitations, under many names, now in dozens of countries) have become fully mainstream — and they might even challenge GDP for supremacy in the coming years. Programs to develop and launch and use these new indicators in policy-making are now happening in dozens of countries, and they are clearly on the rise. The commitments are serious and appear to be long-term. Virtually everyone at this event, from the head of the OECD to national statisticians, seems to agree that GDP is no longer adequate, and in fact can be dangerously misleading.

Of course, there are many caveats. The fascination with growth and the GDP is hardly going away, and many factors — not least the deep economic crisis here in Europe — could eventually slow the momentum of this “new mainstream”. But what is interesting, indeed rather amazing to me, is that the momentum around the new measures continues to grow, at these high levels of government and international policy making, *despite* the financial crisis. (And in some cases, *because of* the financial crisis, which has exposed the problems in many measurement systems, not just the GDP.)

In political terms, the OECD is rather more progressive than some other international organizations; it is certainly more progressive than the WTO, for example. So a consensus within the OECD does not mean “everyone” in political power, by any means. But, especially as compared to the small think-tanks and academic centers that have championed these ideas, the OECD is unquestionably at the heart of the policy world, and a good indicator of “mainstream-ness”. Australia, France, China, Mexico, several African countries, Indian states, and dozens more … This is critical mass.

There’s another important factor that convinces me that we have won. Many of these national statisticians are saying — from the podium as well as in private conversations — that they see the future of their profession moving this way, and they want to be on the train. “We’re a conservative bunch,” one of them said to me, “and that adds to our credibility. But now we see that these new measurements have reached a point where if we don’t get on that train, we might become less relevant.”  And they want to be more relevant, not less. Expanding the kinds of measures that reflect national progress is actually good for their careers, good for their budgets, and good for their overall political standing. What’s more, it makes good sense to them now.

So, especially if you are someone who remembers those old indicator projects and meetings and reports from the early 1990s and afterward … take a moment and mentally celebrate. We started pushing this rock up the hill a long time ago (taking over from those who pushed before us) … and more and more people joined in … and now it is over the hump, and appears to be rolling on its own steam.

This is what winning looks like.

Warm best from India,

Alan