Category Archives: Featured

Why I Wrote “Purging Wallace Stevens”

Unfortunately, I was deeply affected by the poetry I loved and/or studied as a university student — Rimbaud, Tagore, Elliot, and so many others. Wallace Stevens was perhaps the most difficult to understand, and I loved his work all the more for that, just as I loved Wittgenstein or Hegel. I really understood very little of what I was reading in those days. But I read it all hard, I carried it to bed with me, I scrutinized the volumes while sunbathing nude (the one and only day that was possible, in May of 1980) in the cow pasture out behind my Oxford college. I was earnest.

I wrote poetry then, but it was bad. When I began to write poetry somewhat more seriously, in the early 1990s, Stevens got in the way. I could not possibly measure up to him. Having read Stevens so assiduously meant that I was also, to use a word I learned from another writer the other day, “primed” to think in his oblique, formalistic terms. I sounded like a poor imitation. That is why I had to purge him.

This poem emerged in a kind of controlled verbal rage against not just Stevens, but against the strictures of that schooled set of influences. I’ll reprint the poem here, then explain its references. Readers of Stevens will immediately recognize that this poem is chock full of references to his work. And of course, the embedding of references to other poems, philosophers, artists, the science of the day, is precisely what reading people like Stevens and Eliot and Pound, and studying literature generally, taught me to do.
So this was the weapon I took up against my mental priming.

Purging Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars and tell him to

get his ass out of town. He doesn’t give the orders

anymore — not in Key West, not anywhere. His world

 

is an attic, a koan at the end of the mind

posed by a million angels, all of them

unnecessary. Our complacencies are of the painful

 

variety:  the muscular ones who whip the Kurds

or contemplate serial murder on Sunday morning.

Oh Wallace, we hardly knew you. Your words said only

 

what would suffice. You met every man of your time

but one, who sold insurance at a crap shoot. You

did not face the women of your time. They could have

 

introduced you, at the grand finale of seem, to the

sticky puddle underneath the emperor of ice cream.

1992

Reprinted from Alan AtKisson, “Collected Poems: 1989-2009,” Broken Bone Press, 2012

So, that felt good. I got that out of my system. Here is what you might have missed, if you were a less obsessive fan of Wallace Stevens’ work.

Call the roller of big cigars

The principal poem being toyed with here is Stevens’ most anthologized work:  “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Professors loved to teach this poem, with its tough-minded meditations on the interplay of appearance and reality.  “Let be be finale of seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” That’s Stevens’ closing line. “Do you get it?” the teachers would always say. “Ice cream always melts. Death and entropy are all that rules us in the end.” They appeared to love flogging their students with this kind of confrontation with our mortality.

not in Key West

In “The Idea of Order in Key West,” which is perhaps Stevens’ second-most-anthologized poem, I was taught that he was celebrating the human capacity to impose linear order on a chaotic natural world. The sail boats at Key West “mastered the night” (get that play on words with “mast”) with their straight lines against the sky, etc. etc. Well, two can play at the double entendre game, so I do, with “doesn’t give the orders anymore”.

a koan at the end of the mind / posed by a million angels

Here my studies of Zen Buddhism crept into the picture:  there are no koans in Stevens, but his work is very koan-like, especially “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (the third most anthologized poem of his, though I have no data to back up these ordinal claims). I’m blending, in these lines, “The Palm at the End of the Mind” (the title of my tattered collection of his work) and “The Necessary Angel,” his singular book of essays.

Our complacencies are of the painful variety

The upper-class domestic sketching in “Sunday Morning (“Complacencies of the peignoir” is the opening line, as I recall). The newspapers were full of violence against the Kurdish people (and others) in those days, and some serial murderer (Jeffrey Dahmer maybe?) was in the headlines. We weren’t in the 1920s anymore. Oh, and the roller of big cigars, “the muscular one,” is bid to whip concupiscent curds in “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” (The word “cereal” shows up in one of those Stevens’ pieces too — I am writing all this from memory now, so I am not quite sure exactly where it shows up.)

Your words said only / what would suffice.

Stevens explicitly practiced the art of saying “what would suffice,” like a sculptor chipping away at stone till what’s left is statue. Of course, I admired this, deeply, else I never would have had to become so irate in order to purge it, in an effort to find my own voice.

… who sold insurance at a crap shoot.

Stevens, as is well known, was a senior insurance executive. That was his “day job.” Here I am claiming — with something like false bravado — that he never actually encountered himself. His poetry is certainly self-reflective, deeply intelligent, sometimes achingly beautiful … but also cold and impersonal, like the poetry of a self-aware supercomputer. What’s the crap shoot? Oh, that’s easy. That’s life. But the insurance approach to poetry has the tendency to reduce life’s blood-and-sweat vagaries, its reckless gambling, to the precision of actuarial tables, which is, as I insinuate here (with that subtle word “crap”), a load of crap.

You did not face the women of your time.

The treatment of women in Stevens’ work is deeply problematic. They are posed, if they are present at all, in their peignoirs, or as two-dimensional cut-outs, inquisitively but rather naively questioning Picasso and his blue guitar. This is masculine, old-boy stuff. It seems, in Stevens, that only the men have minds — orderly, masterly minds.

Which is why this poem ends on a note of pity. Who knows what Stevens really thought, or felt. I hope that my purge-by-critique is base and unfair; I am, after all, reacting against a cardboard cut-out. But how different might he have been — how different would his poetry have been — had he broken a few more pencils, ripped up the dance floor a bit, lain his head in his lover’s lap and sighed a deep sigh … and just listened to what she had to say.

Flummoxed About My Music (plus, a free song)

Update 12 Apr 2013: I wrote this about six months ago, but now, I am no longer feeling so “flummoxed.” The musical path forward is getting much clear. See What Music Means (to Me).

I confess: I am flummoxed. (Translation: deeply puzzled about what to do.) Why? Because I don’t know how to reach my audience. I’m a family man, and a working sustainability consultant, and those are my highest priorities, in that order. But I’m also a writer, a poet, a songwriter, a musician. I don’t have the time (or the energy, or the drive for attention) required to run around tooting my horn and selling my creative products. But this world doesn’t notice you if you don’t.

So why am I making a new album, full of new songs? And what should I do with my old ones?

[Keep reading, or scroll down, and find the free (very old! 1983!) song to listen to, in MP3 format.]

Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I imagine that my potential audience is somewhat bigger than the Twitter followers (833) and the Facebook friends (642 “friends” + 318 “likes” on my public page).  Or the average 500 per month who visit my blog. Or the 500 or so who actually open my company newsletter (out of 2,700 on the list).

Evening performance for Northwest Earth Institute, Portland, OR, 2003 (photo from the NWEI newsletter)

In fact, I am pretty sure my audience used to be bigger, back in the good old pre-Twitter days. My first book sold something close to 20,000 copies. My essays on the now-defunct blog Worldchanging were probably read by many more, and occasionally got noticed by the news media. My music … well, to be honest (with myself), not that many people know my music. My greatest “hit” is a YouTube video (my song “System Zoo”) that has been watched 7,757 times. Yes, my albums are available on iTunes and Amazon … and I have sold a whopping 107 songs and six albums through those channels, generating $118.

That doesn’t much bother me. I write songs because it pleases me to write them, and play them, and record them, and occasionally even listen to them. If no one else ever listens to them … well, that’s fine.

Like any artist, I would certainly prefer that other people listen to my songs, read my books, etc. But — again — I deeply dislike tooting my own horn and doing self-promotion. And the older I get, the less energy I’m willing to spend on self-promotional activity. Hence I am flummoxed.

So, for example:  what to do with my music — old and new? Here is that free song I promised, the opening title track from my very first album, a 10-song cassette demo, produced in 1983, in New York, on a 4-track reel-to-reel system engineered by Darryl Cherney, in his studio/bedroom. He was living with his Mom in those days, and a big white cat whose purring was so loud it could be heard on the tape if we didn’t throw it out of the room. The song is called Whitewing, and it retells the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus (click the link to open the song in a new window):

AtKisson_Whitewing_1983DemoVersion

When I made Whitewing, I was just starting to dream of a career in music. A few years (and a few bands) later, I was finally offered the management contract of my dreams … and I turned it down. Cut my hair. Changed careers. Headed toward what we now call sustainability. The reality of succeeding in a career in music — endless touring, smoky bars, playing the same repertoire every night for months — was, when I finally looked that possibility in the face, far less appealing than the dream.

And yet, today I go into the studio again. I’m in the process of recording my sixth album — after a break of twelve years. You probably never heard of most of my albums — “Fire in the Night,” “Testing the Rope,” or the twelve Rilke poems I set to music on “Falcon, Storm, or Song.” (I recorded that one in the year 2000, but did not release it until 2006.) Three of them — the Rilke album, plus the humor album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On,” and the more serious singer-songwriter collection “Testing the Rope” — are available on Tunecore.

This new album is a return to the troubadour-style ballads of “Testing the Rope.” In fact, I’m thinking of calling the album “American Troubadour,” which is one of the song titles, and also a good description of how I feel these days in relation to music:  American.  You see, living in Sweden — which has a long troubadour tradition, yet not a lot of places for troubadours to play, and even less opportunity for 52-year-old, family-man, American-origin troubadours to play — has further complexified my situation, and made the whole music thing an even more private affair. On top of that, Sweden is not a country where you stand up and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m not just this, I’m also that, and I’m actually this other thing as well, and please listen to my songs and read my books.” Sweden feeds my natural inclination to not draw attention to myself, even though I am in a profession — author, speaker, performer, etc. — that requires drawing attention to oneself.

Then there’s the issue of mixing your professional identity (which I’ve written about in my books). I do quite a lot of work that falls into a category that one might call “serious” — advising companies or UN agencies, writing reports on global economic issues, moderating high-level panel discussions, etc. But my best-known songs (as anyone reading this probably knows) are humorous. Singing humorous songs, especially live, puts one automatically in a sort of “clown-entertainer” role. “Serious” work and “clown” work do not mix together very well.

People tell me, “Oh, but your songs are so effective at getting these messages across!” (I heard this just yesterday, at lunch — and I say thank you very much to the person who said it!) It’s often true that when I give a keynote speech or do a training, people remember what I sing — when I do sing, which isn’t always — more than what I say. I know that because I meet people who heard me years ago, and the first thing they say is, “You’re the guy who sang that song!”

So, I’m flummoxed.

Flummoxed or not, I’m going to keep doing what I do. Maybe more so. All of it. Including music. I’m going to start putting more of that music here, on my blog, so you can access it (for free). And I’m making a new album. (It’s not a funny one.) I have no idea how I’m going to promote that album, or even pay for it — but there’s a decade worth of songs that are just demanding to be recorded. They won’t let me alone until I do.

And then … I’ll put the work out there. On Facebook, Twitter, the Blog, the Amazon, whatever channels are available.

And see what happens.

Announcing Two New Books from Alan AtKisson

Now available for purchase online, or for ordering through your favorite bookstore: two new books by Alan AtKisson

Because We Believe in the Future: Collected Essays on Sustainability, 1989-2009 is a greatest-hits selection of Alan’s best articles, speeches, and blog posts over a twenty-year period. Woven together by personal commentary, these essays offer the reader a walking tour through the history of the modern sustainability movement, as seen from AtKisson’s unique perspective. In voices that are at times provocative, ironic, substantive or philosophically reflective, Alan’s writing always aims to inspire engagement for change. (An ISIS Academy publication, 2012).  Click here to purchase online

Collected Poems 1982-2009 represents the first time that Alan AtKisson’s poetry has been published in book form. As a poet, AtKisson covers a wide range of subject matter including contemporary global issues, deeply personal stories, and the unexpected intersections between the two. Also known as a singer and songwriter, AtKisson’s use of language is precise and rhythmic. The poetic forms he uses are highly varied, ranging from strict formality to wildly referential free verse. He often invokes the work of other poets directly, such as Wallace Stevens, T. S. Elliot, and James Bertolino; and he experiments with poetic structure, while aiming to keep the text accessible to a general readership. Click here to purchase online

Are interested in reviewing these books for a publication? Please write to:  information@atkisson.com

Is “Sustainable Development” Dying?

This short article’s title does not refer to the upcoming Rio+20 summit, which even Ban Ki-moon is publicly worried about (see my piece about managing expectations for the summit, link below).

But of course, it could.

Nor does it refer to the general, spreading sense of malaise felt by many sustainability activists and professionals — that despite swelling numbers of people working in our field, companies taking it more and more seriously, etc., we are still losing ground rapidly in the fight against the spiraling decay of planetary ecosystems and the exhaustion of key resources.

But of course, I could probably write an article about that, too.

No, this article is about the words “sustainability” and “sustainable development.” According to Google’s “Ngram Viewer” (which counts the frequency of words appearing in the millions of books that Google has scanned into its gargantuan databases) the race is over. “Sustainable development” has lost, “sustainability” has won.

In fact, if the downward trend in the use of “sustainable development” continues (data is actually only available through 2008), then “sustainable development” will have completely disappeared from view by about 2030 … just when we probably need it most, I might add.

I’ve copied the graph at the head of this article (is one allowed to do this?), but you can also click here to see the same graph on Google … and run your own experiments.

Things really get interesting when you add the word “resilience,” which can refer to a few other things besides just socio-ecological resilience, the kind of resilience that is considered to be, well, part of sustainability. But still, the steady rise in its relative frequency of use is impressive. “Resilience” must have passed “sustainable development” about two years ago.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a great fan and promoter of sustainable development. I have written (in The Sustainability Transformation) in defense of both these terms, “sustainability” and “sustainable development”:  I point out their differences, their complementarity. They are both essential to understanding the nature of our times, and what to do about global problems. I love them equally.

But notice, we used “sustainability” in the title of my book. And I am also observant of the discipline of the market. So I have to ask the question: despite this clear preference that the world seems to have for “sustainability,” why are we still holding global summits on “sustainable development”?

And when will we start holding global summits on “resilience”?

The way things are going, we are certainly going to need more of that.

(Here is the link to WaveFront newsletter, May 2012, and article on “Managing Expections at the Rio+20 Summit”)

Stockholm+40: Dreaming about revolution

I thought I would write blog entries throughout the Stockholm+40 conference. Instead, I listened – not so much to the formal presentations and speeches, though there were a few good ones. I listened to my friends and colleagues. “What are you working on?” I wanted to know. “How is it going?”

For me, the sustainability movement is first and foremost a human movement, a movement of people, working for change. Some are tired, they say, and some are scared. Some are happy with a new job, some are bored with the old job, some are on fire with the passion of a new project. A conference like this – global, but not enormous – provides a rare opportunity to take the temperature of the whole global movement.

But right now, as I write, the Minister of Environment for Egypt is talking. Sustainable development is happening in Egypt, he tells us; and he calls for support to make something happen at Rio+20. Ideas are discussed at international meetings, but nothing happens in between, he laments. He is responding to the impassioned statements of the “stakeholders” (half of them are business people), who want justice, transparency, lifestyle change. Now the secretary of environment from Hong Kong is also stressing the “walk the talk” message …

Well, if you are someone who has been around sustainability work for a while, you would feel very much at home here. It would feel very familiar to you. Some of the speeches are truly rousing and cleverly new in their angle; others make even an optimist change agent like me think in curmudgeonly way, “Oh, dear me, I have been hearing this for over twenty years …”

So, what’s new? Or at least, new in the sense that these topics are under-stressed in these kinds of official conferences? What caught my interest, in terms of what was said from the stage?

  • The fact that growth – “the elephant in the room” – was directly debated, in sharp-though-civil exchanges between champions of free market liberalism and academic experts on resource and ecosystem limits. Usually, above a certain level of international officialdom, that doesn’t happen.
  • The fact that Sha Zukang, the UN’s Secretary-General of Rio+20, went off his scripted prepared remarks and got quite emotionally charged up in his call to make the upcoming conference truly meaningful.
  • The idea that a sustainable lifestyle has to include the idea of human rights, gender equality, and the security of people.
  • The acknowledgement (and this was from Tim Jackson, who was full of pithy and thoughtful insights) that it is not so easy to say, “we should consume less stuff,” since access to flashy new stuff is not just a status issue – it is an issue of hope. New flashy stuff means progress, in our societies. Take that away and you take away some people’s sense of hope.
  • The fact that Maurice Strong – the most senior, elder, and arguably the biggest power-insider in the room – called openly for “revolution.” (That’s a picture of Maurice, on stage.)
  • Rebeca Grynspan, UNDP’s Costa Rican-born Associate Administrator, calling for a global mandate to create alternative measures of progress (and she was a bright light generally, full of energy and clarity).
  • Achim Steiner and Todd Stern (google those names if you don’t know them) just announced a major advance in the formation of a new “Climate and Clean Air Coalition,” focused on reducing diesel emissions, black carbon, methane flaring and other air pollution issues that also exacerbate global warming … I’m actually not sure what they are concretely doing yet, but they claim it will not be just a “talk shop,” and they are excited about the progress they are making … and it’s good to hear the US’s climate negotiator talking positively about change instead of explaining US reluctance in climate talks … so I am interested to learn more …

… and then there were the many “unofficial” conversations. Coffee chat. There, I learned more about Stanley Nyonyi’s and Telma Gomes’s project on creating Global Dialogues:  they plan to have people talking and exploring their vision of the future around a thousand tables in Rio. I learned about a young activist’s efforts to create small, green businesses in Nigeria. I got the latest news, from friends working for UNDP and UNEP, on progress on the Sustainable Energy for All initiative that is being driven by the UN Secretary-General (I wrote about that here). These are actually the conversations that give the most insight and even hope, because that’s where one can feel a sense of reality:  real people, doing real things.

And of course, I had a lot of meetings here. Colleagues from the UN, with whom I worked on planning the new UN Office for Sustainable Development, or with whom other colleagues in my circle of colleagues and clients have worked, were here; so I got caught up on how things are progressing. I did my best to make some useful connections between people; others helped make connections for me (Marie Neeser – my neighbor, friend, colleague, client, and much-admired colleague who does most of her extraordinarily effective work behind the scenes – deserves a special public thanks in that regard).

With apologies to the planet for the extra CO2 involved in holding meetings like this, emails really cannot substitute for this kind of live, human conversation. Of course, for me, coming to Stockholm+40 was just a bus ride away from home (a ride that I could even share with my wife, Kristina AtKisson, who coordinates sustainability efforts at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute). It’s not likely that I will go to Rio+20. But I was happy to be here, at Stockholm+40, to reflect on the bittersweet fact that we are now 40 years into this global struggle for a sustainability transformation … and to dream, at least, that when I am as senior as Maurice Strong, I might be able to attend a meeting that is reflecting on the history instead of the future of this revolution – a revolution accomplished, and good.

NEW: Green Economy + National Happiness = ?

Can we create “happiness for all” while preserving the planet? Will humanity manage to create “green economies”, and convert our current economic systems from destructive forces to sustainable and indeed restorative processes, in time? The new report Life Beyond Growth — issued on March 1, 2012, by the Tokyo-based Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy, and Society — maps the past and future of this emerging vision, and the growing revolution in economic thinking that is behind it.

The report, however, takes a nuanced view. Notice the word “economies” in the paragraph above: while we often refer to a single “global economy,” the truth of the matter is that human civilization is comprised of a complex network of many different economic systems, powered by many different kinds of energy and information, guided by many different hands, both visible and invisible. Many of the world’s economies are still free-standing, subsistence communities, where people farm or hunt and live off what is around them, with relatively little interaction with global-scale processes.

Of course, even indigenous tribes living deep in the Amazon are increasingly tied into the world’s larger network of economic transactions, clustered (at least for reporting purposes) into nation states, and woven tightly together by trade, technology, and currency exchange. But the “the global economy” is not a monolith. The process of using resources, creating value, and meeting human needs and aspirations looks very different from one place to another.
And so does happiness.

The rise of the Green Economy has been accompanied by the rise of happiness and well-being as new paradigms for national progress, complete with new indicators. Countries around the world are studying, preparing, or already using these measures as policy tools. The measurement of happiness may differ in methodology depending on whether one is British or Bhutanese, but within that diversity lies a clear commonality: the desire for a good life, and the growing realization that it is good lives, and not GDP growth per se, that our citizens actually want, and that our economies are truly meant to provide.

Life Beyond Growth, after surveying the dizzying diversity of concepts and measurements now being experimented with across the globe, makes a simplifying proposal:  let’s link these two concepts, Green Economy and National Happiness, explicitly.

There is ample justification for this linkage in existing international agreements; indeed, happiness — or at least, the possibility for achieving it — may already be a human right. None of the thirty articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, specifically mentions happiness. But Article 25 states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family….” It also specifies many of factors identified by researchers as the precursors to subjective happiness. These basic needs include food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and other social services, including support to those who are unemployed. Many other rights guaranteed by the Declaration are also related to what researchers say make us happy, including work, recreation, and the possibility to participate in the decisions that affect our lives.

If a phrase like “National Happiness” is at least a close cognate to the concept of universal well-being sketched out in the Declaration — and despite debates over nuances of definition, few would deny that it is — then the adoption of National Happiness measures, in conjunction with Green Economy policies, could be seen as an overdue implementation of the ideals embraced by the world more than sixty years ago. More importantly, embracing happiness as a human right could create the possibility for compromise and common vision regarding a fair distribution of global resources. Happiness, research now confirms, does depend on having achieved a certain minimum standard of material prosperity. But growth beyond that minimum appears to return less and less happiness, until it finally reaches a point where growth itself, green or otherwise, turns into nothing more than waste.

Marrying the concept of Green Economy to the concept of National Happiness can help us see the differences between growth that enriches, and growth that actually impoverishes. It has the potential to describe — perhaps for the first time — a clear and actionable vision for sustainability at the global scale. Where do we truly need growth, to ensure that happiness is at least within reach? And where do we need de-growth, for example in our carbon emissions or impact on biodiversity, if we are to insure that all have a chance to exercise their right to happiness, now and in the future?

For the first time, research techniques can even provide us with measurable, quantitative targets that link economic progress to wellbeing. New indicators can give us feedback on our progress toward this integrated vision vision, using measures that compete favorably with traditional economic signals in terms of robustness. We really do have all the tools we need to aim effectively toward transformation.

The world is in serious need of a new vision, one that can make the concept of sustainable development more real for people, and that can provide the nations of the world with a new sense of common ground. I believe that vision is already emerging all around us, in places large and small — as noted earlier, from Britain to Bhutan.

It’s a simple equation, easy to remember:  Green Economy + National Happiness = Sustainable World.

Why Russia Should Invest in Sustainability

Seven Reasons why Russia Should Invest in Sustainability — Three of Them Unconvincing

by Alan AtKisson

CEO, AtKisson Inc. & Author, The Sustainability Transformation

On Wednesday, 10 February, I made the second keynote presentation (after Ashok Khosla’s opening) to a conference in Moscow called “Innovative Russia: Responding to Global Challenges.” The other participants on the 11-person panel were a small who’s who of combined Russian and Silicon Valley leadership. You can view the program here:  http://gvacapital.com/ir.  Moderator Yermolai Solzhenitsyn’s affiliation is not listed there, but he’s the managing partner for McKinsey in Moscow. The photograph was taken from the stage, with my iPhone, during Ashok Khosla’s speech.

Response to the speech was positive enough that I turned it into an article text, published below, which will also be translated and published by the Russian on-line magazine gazeta.ru. Since my books were recently published in Russian translation, I also managed to slip in — during a final comment, about how venture capitalists could at least try to put some sustainability content into their investment decisions, instead of making money on anything at all and then giving some of their wealth to charity — a note of gratitude to Natalia Tarasova, a professor at Mendeleev University and good friend. She had overseen the translation.

Why “Seven Reasons”? Because Muscovites love the number seven. And why are “Three of them Unconvincing”? Read, and you’ll see …

These are exciting times in sustainability. In practice, sustainability involves reinventing business and governance processes so that they stop destroying key ecosystems, depleting irreplaceable resources, and increasing the gap between rich and poor. “Practice” is exactly what has been missing from sustainability work for most of the concept’s lifetime. But recently, sustainability has moved out of the category “something that academics, bureaucrats, and activists talk about” to the category “something that mainstream business leaders and investors do something about.” This is a monumental shift that has been gestating for some time, if you knew where to look. But it really began showing evidence of its exponential growth rates only in the past three to five years. Now, the evidence is overwhelming:

  • Countries like South Korea and China have embraced the concept of “Green Economy” or “Cyclic Economy” with serious policy initiatives and billions of dollars of investment
  • Global companies like Unilever or Siemens (and dozens of others) have set goals that combine ambitious revenue growth with strong reductions in environmental impact, impressive increases in corporate responsibility practice, and serious commitments to “sustainability innovation”
  • Global consulting and auditing giants such as Ernst & Young have been hiring hundreds of people to support new, growing divisions with titles like “Climate Change and Sustainability Services”
  • Investment in renewable energy grabs headlines every week, such as the recent deal between United Arab Emirates and Spain to invest USD 5 billion in Spanish solar technology
  • Oil and gas economic powerhouses such as Norway are redirecting more and more of their windfall fossil-fuel-generated capital into cleaner and more sustainable solutions (Norway recently pledged to increase its domestic renewable energy use to 67.5% of total by 2020, which translates to an increase of 9% every year in wind, hydro, solar and other sources)

These items are already commercial facts, but more visionary innovations and mega-projects are also taking shape in the world’s think-tanks and testing grounds. From South Korea’s large-scale tidal energy installations, to the bio-mimicry technologies erupting from the minds of biologists working in collaboration with engineers, to the giant-but-increasingly-realistic proposals such as “DESERTEC” (generating solar electricity in the Sahara) or mega-grids (e.g. linking up East Asia with a vast complex of underground, highly efficient mag-lev trains and supercables) … it is no wonder that anyone just waking up to this transformative revolution in humanity’s planetary management strategy might find it all a bit dizzying.

Of course, up to now, humanity had no “planetary management strategy” — and this was precisely the problem. Our activities, super-amplified through the power of cheap energy and technology, had become planetary in scale, but disruptive (and largely destructive) of the planet’s billion-year-old natural processes. And indeed, for decades, it was largely academics and citizen activists (plus a relative handful of visionary leaders in business, the United Nations, local government, and other arenas) who worried the most about what was happening, and tried to do something about it.

That “something” that these early leaders were trying to “do” was to change government policies, business practices, consumer attitudes, educational curricula, and other elements of our increasingly inter-connected global system. The request was actually simple:  Add sustainability to these things. Add systems thinking. Add a longer-term, more holistic perspective to the definition of “success.”

For many years, these efforts to change thinking (and practice, and policy, and investment) did not seem to be working, or at least not working fast enough, and certainly not working at anything like the right scale. But such is the magic of exponential growth:  what appear first as insignificantly small, incremental changes are in fact replication and multiplication processes. They grow by doubling. Things appear to go faster and faster, and at a certain point, things take off. Think cell phones, Internet, Total Quality Management. Few people remember that seeking to perfect quality, as a manufacturing practice, was still a new idea a few decades ago. The idea’s original proponents could barely get noticed by business leaders. But then the Total Quality Management movement started (in Japan), it grew exponentially, it took off … and by one decade ago, “Quality Management” was such a normal, mainstream concept that everyone stopped thinking about it.

That’s what’s happening in sustainability:  take-off. Sure, there are ups and downs even in the midst of take-off, which is exactly what you would expect in a maturing market of any kind. But the overall pattern in unmistakable. Wherever you look on the map of the world, from the renewable energy fields of Brazil, to the environmental accounting practices of shoe-maker Puma, to the spread of clean cooking stove technology to the smoked-out kitchens of the developing world, you can see transformative change accelerating before your very eyes.

But not in Russia.

Why is Russia missing from the emerging map of transformation to a greener and more sustainable economy? With its enormous amounts of money, resources, and brainpower, it could be leading the way, as several other oil and gas-based economies are doing. But analysts far more well-informed than myself — including Russia’s own leadership — have long noted with worry that Russia’s surging economy is almost entirely based on the export of raw resources. The country’s rising prosperity floats on that sea of oil and gas, as a few Google clicks (engineered partly by Sergey Brin’s Russian brainpower) will easily tell you. Easy wealth breeds indifference, and Russian innovators tend to take their inventiveness elsewhere, to places like Silicon Valley, resulting in a drain of capital, both financial and intellectual, from the country.

This situation could easily be reversed. I use the word “easily” in an entirely theoretical sense:  in practice, nothing is easy in Russia, as any Russian is quick to tell you. The entire nation seems to take pride in its enormous capacity for problems and difficulties — and by extension, its capacity for overcoming them. Nonetheless, in theory, Russia could change relatively quickly from being a sustainability laggard to a serious leader, especially in areas related to technology and large-scale industrial implementation.

What follows are seven reasons why Russian leaders in government and business — including that class of wealthy and powerful people known universally as the “Oligarchs,” together with the people who advise them — should take the opportunity for investing in sustainability far more seriously than they currently do. While all seven reasons are convincing to me, I am quite certain that the first three will not be convincing to anyone in a position of power in Russia. For that reason, I have clearly labeled these first three as “Unconvincing Reasons.”

But that leaves four reasons that seem to have the potential for unlocking a torrent of creativity, investment, and change in the way Russia pursues its economic destiny. Because many Russian economic leaders started their professional lives as physicists and scientists, I will use — starting from Reason #4 — the concept of Potential Energy as a metaphor for what I, as an outsider, see as possible in Russia. A small shift in thinking could result in large shifts in the real world, resulting in multiple benefits, not just for Russians, but for the world as a whole.

UNCONVINCING REASON #1:  THREATS TO NATIONAL SECURITY

Many sustainability issues have a national security dimension. If you are sitting on resources that others desperately need but don’t have — like oil, or water — you may find soldiers at your doorstep. UN diplomats quietly pointed to climate change and precipitation declines as underlying causes for the forced migrations and slaughters of Darfur. Australia has concerns about what happens on its Northern shorelines if refugees flee swamped coastlines or other disruptions. The US Department of Defense runs scenario exercises based on climate change, conflicts over resources, and other sustainability worries, and is moving aggressively into biofuels and solar energy to insulate defense operations from the vagaries of a global energy market. One would think that arguments like these would be compelling to anyone in the leadership of a nation with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

But Russia is vast. It has resources that it perceives, rightly or wrongly, to be virtually endless. It has an extremely strong defense (which, according to recent news reports, is slated to get even more budget support in coming years). No one in Russia worries seriously about hungry Finns or Latvians storming across the border, or even Chinese troops for that matter. No one worries about where the fuel to run tanks and warships and fighter jets will come from. Despite the echoes of Cold War saber-rattling in recent Russia-NATO exchanges, nobody worries about missiles falling on Moscow anymore. National security is truly not an issue for Russia. Arguing for sustainability “for the sake of national security” would generate nothing more than an ironic chuckle, so let’s cross that off the list.

UNCONVINCING REASON #2:  BREACHING THE PLANETARY BOUNDARIES

In a landmark article published in September 2009 in the journal Nature, an eminent international group of scientists concluded that humanity’s activities had already pushed several global ecosystems (climate, biodiversity, the nutrient cycle) over the limit of what those systems could tolerate. Other systems were heading quickly over the same precipice. The long-term consequences would be “detrimental or even catastrophic for large parts of the world” — strong language that reflects the seriousness with which they viewed the available data. They called for concerted action to bring humanities use of resources and emissions of waste back into the “safe zone” of what the planet can sustain. Their arguments were so compelling that political leaders have been sitting up and taking notice, including the United Nations High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, which is chaired by two presidents.

But once again:  Russia is vast.  Even if the worst-case scenarios associated with these trends come to pass, the typical Russian leader is likely to think, “So what?” If water dries up in one place, we’ll shift agriculture to another. Too hot and dry in the south? Too much nitrogen in the water table? Too much climate change? We’ll just grow wheat in balmy Siberia. The rest of the world may have serious troubles, but Russia feels insulated by its size, geographic diversity, and resource wealth. Cross Reason #2 of the list as well.

UNCONVINCING REASON #3:  THE NEED TO “SAVE THE WORLD” FROM CATASTROPHE

A generation of sustainability champions (including myself) were inspired to act by the analyses contained first in a little book called The Limits to Growth, published in 1972 and updated twice, the last time in 2004. The original worries presented in Limits — that the exponential growth of population, resources, and pollution would eventually bump up against the boundaries of the planet (see Reason #2) — have been supplemented in recent years by the notion that there could be “tipping points” in the global system. Resource depletion, ecosystem disturbance, and other activities may seem “sustainable” for a while, but when they can cross an invisible line in the sand, they suddenly collapse like a house of cards, taking innumerable species (and humans) with them. An example might be the Amazon:  at what point does the number of trees lose critical mass and trigger a sudden shift from Rainforest to dry savannah? Unfortunately, such nightmare scenarios are the stuff of current serious scientific analysis.

When people use the phrase “save the world” in the context of sustainability, usually with a kind self-mocking (or just plain mocking) undertone, what they often mean is the effort to stop destructive processes before it is simply too late to prevent some sort of resulting catastrophe. People are emboldened in this work by remembering that, on several occasions, humans actually have saved the world, or at least important parts of it. The most famous example is the threat to the ozone layer caused by the production of CFCs:  production of this insidiously dangerous chemical was dramatically reduced, essentially just in time to prevent the loss of the planet’s one and only atmospheric shield against dangerous ultraviolet radiation. Even the phrase “Save the Whales!” from the 1970s can be celebrated now as a kind of world-saving triumph, at least for several whale species, which have bounced back from the brink of near-certain extinction.

But is “saving the world” a compelling reason for Russia to invest more seriously in the sustainability transformation? Hardly. Russia will be fine. See above: even in a truly worst-case scenario, Russia would adapt and survive, as it always has. (Remember that Russian affinity for surviving serious and complicated problems.) And as for saving the world for its own sake, well … what has the world done for Russia lately? Scratch Reason #3.

If you question my characterizations above, consider the data. While reading through the excellent English-language summaries provided by the organizers of the recent Russia 2012 Forum — an event that happens right after Davos, and manages to entice many of the global Davos stars to stop in Moscow on their way home — I came upon this wonderful tidbit at the end of a slide presentation on Russian attitudes to risk management in the financial markets. As the last item in an otherwise dull review of what Russian investors think about hedge funds, participants were asked, “Do you believe the world will end any time soon?”  “Yes,” said 4.3% of respondents. “No,” said 45.6%. But the majority response, 50.1%, was this:  “I don’t care, I’m hedged.”

Having dispensed with the unconvincing reasons for why Russia should invest in sustainability, let’s turn to the potentially convincing ones, and to that wonderful and relevant concept from basic physics:  Potential Energy.

REASON #4:  CAPTURING AN EXTRAORDINARY ONE-TIME FINANCIAL OPPORTUNITY

According to published analyses, there is a lot of money in Russia currently trapped in its antiquated buildings, equipment, and infrastructure. It is trapped there partly by energy price subsidies, but it is also trapped by a simple lack of attention and focus. There may be more exciting things to do on a Friday night in Moscow than improving the energy efficiency of buildings and machines; however, there are few things that are potentially more profitable in the long term.

The key word here is “potential.” An apple hanging by its stem has what physicists call “potential energy.” Break the stem — or better yet, if the stem is gripped between your two fingers, simply open your hand — and the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, the energy of motion. The apple falls.

According to a report by McKinsey & Co. published in 2009 (“Pathways to an energy and carbon efficient Russia”), there are many such apples in the Russian economy. Relatively simple incentives and decisions, the equivalent of simply letting the apples fall, could create a very respectable flow of money, even in a country used to the torrential flows of petro-rubles. Consider the following:

  • An initial investment of €70 billion to upgrade buildings and construction would result in savings of €190 billion over a twenty-year period. This is equivalent to a 120% return on investment.
  • When it comes to producing heat and energy, a €20 billion investment produces €60 billion in savings over the same period, a whopping 200% ROI.

In fact, says McKinsey, “Russia has the largest relative potential among all the BRIC countries to reduce [CO2] emissions through implementing only measures that are economically attractive” [emphasis added]. While the savings in CO2 may not be a compelling motivator for Russia’s economic leadership, the potential for solid returns on investment should be — not to mention the jobs that could be created in order to do the work, and the pleasure of owning shiny new (or renovated) buildings and machines.

The benefits include health and safety: Russia’s own Geographical society reported last year (March 2011) that “we have fundamentally obsolete production facilities and communal infrastructures, which is [a recipe for] a major disaster.” Fully 60-80% of Russia’s energy infrastructure is estimated to be in need of maintenance and repair, and those repairs could be combined with efficiency upgrades. Around 90% of industrial waste is not recycled back into production: waste is going to waste, when it could be generating more economic value. These figures represent a great deal of financial potential energy that could be released by the right combination of incentives, policies, and forward-looking investors.

What is that combination, exactly? These are the kinds of big, complicated problems that Russians ought to love, because solving them could make some people quite wealthy. The potential exists not only in renovating the existing infrastructure, but in the new things that must be built just to meet projected demand. Over 60% of the infrastructure to provide Russia’s expected energy needs in 2030 has yet to be built. What choices will Russia make about how to build it? Wasteful ones? Or long-term profitable and sustainable ones?

In fact, it is entirely possible that the estimates of McKinsey and others may be conservative. For example, the rise of “passive house” technologies in Europe in recent years has produced many examples of extraordinary cost savings (which is another way of saying, extraordinary profit). A typical Soviet-era apartment complex in, say, the Czech Republic can now be rebuilt to save 90% of its previous energy consumption, while creating brighter and more attractive living environments. No one really knows what would happen if innovations such as these were serious deployed throughout the Russian economy, because no one has tried.

The apple is still clenched firmly in the hand.

REASON #5: THE COMPETITION FOR ECONOMIC AND GEO-POLITICAL POSITION

Like it or not, Russia is in competition for power and influence on the world stage. At the moment, the nation’s vast fossil fuel and other resource reserves are the primary platform on which it stands. But this powerful platform will not last forever, and its lifespan may be shorter than many believe.

The global energy market is changing with extreme rapidity. Many countries are embracing new (and environmentally controversial) methods of extracting oil and gas explicitly to reduce their dependence on the global market … and by implication, their dependence on Russia. Other nations, such as China and South Korea, are taking what might be called “hard positions” in sustainability and green economic innovation, partly as a way of increasing their “soft power”:  South Korea has been rewarded for the billions it invests in “Green Growth” with an enhanced profile as a forward-thinking technology leader envied by many. Meanwhile, the financial crisis continues to depress demand, and if high unemployment persists or deepens, the word “depression” may creep back into the global economic lexicon. Experts speculate openly about what will happen if these trends combine to create a “perfect storm” — from the Russian economic perspective — of dramatic drops in the price of oil and gas. The picture they paint is not rosy.

The reality of today’s energy market, as well as the future of how that market will develop, are both devilishly complicated. Some say “peak oil” will drive prices sky-high; others say depressed demand and diversification will send prices plummeting. Predicting the future is impossible. But that simply underscores the very real possibility that Russia may not have more than a decade left to enjoy its extraordinary fossil fuel capital windfall. If the petro-ruble river starts to run dry, what will Russia have to show for all its years of easy money? As more nations “frack” their own gas, install windmills and solar cells, super-insulate their houses, and start driving their cars on electricity generated off their own roof-tops, what will they buy from Russia? What will Russians buy from each other?

Investments in sustainability of the kinds described above — not just in the low-hanging fruit in Reason #4, but also in the more visionary directions described earlier, including the emerging fields of biomimicry, green chemistry, and sustainability-oriented nano-, bio-, and info-technology — would accelerate the kind of economic transition that everyone says Russia needs. Russia has the chance to transform itself from pipeline-and-oil-barrel hulk to a focus of technical and economic admiration, while renewing its economy on back of a much more diverse and robust industrial portfolio. Granted, the world’s hunger for oil and gas is not going to disappear any time soon; but the world’s hunger for sustainability-oriented innovation, and its respect for those who seriously invest in it, is growing exponentially. This has created a serious global race in which Russia is not currently competing.

And you have to be in it, to win it.

REASON #6: IMPROVED QUALITY OF LIFE FOR THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE

In a recent issue of Science journal, an international team of 24 researchers documented the benefits in every country, worldwide, of reducing tropospheric ozone and black soot. In brief, by taking action to improve a menu of 14 wasteful and pollution-generating industrial activities — of which all but one apply strongly to Russia — health will improve, food production will increase, and millions of premature deaths would be avoided (an estimated 40,000 of them in Russia). The cost? Negative. The whole exercise would generate net positive income by reducing healthcare expenditures and increasing agricultural output. The fact that these actions would also help reduce the impact of climate change is just a bonus (“Simultaneously Mitigating Near-Term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security,” 13 January 2012).

This is just the most recent in a long line of research papers, case studies, and living-proof models showing that “going green” is good for people as well as the planet. In buildings renovated to be sustainable and efficient, fewer people get sick and employee retention rates improve. If you make city streets or even parking lots more beautiful and pedestrian-friendly, people will walk more instead of driving their cars round and round looking for a parking spot that is 50 meters closer to the door.

Sustainability innovations of these kinds do not just save lives, make money, and stimulate economic development: they make people happy. They create optimism. They can help point whole societies squarely toward the future, and generate a feeling of hope.

What Russian leader, in government or in business, would not want this for the Russian people?

Which brings us to the seventh, and most compelling reason for why Russia should invest seriously in sustainability.

REASON #7:  BECAUSE YOU CAN

Russia, compared to most other countries on Earth, is in a privileged starting position when it comes to investing in sustainability. It has ample financial and intellectual capital to invest — much of which is leaving the country, at the moment, but that is a flow that could be reversed. It has surplus resources to such an extent that the word SURPLUS should be written in large letters. It has a relatively unchallenged position of national security, and no need to project power globally (because, among other reasons, it has all the resources it needs). It has a deep heritage of leadership in science and technology on which to draw. And it has plenty of low-hanging, money-making fruits to pick from its economic tree.

More importantly, Russia’s strengths give it the resilience needed to take some risks and absorb some losses — for as any entrepreneur will tell you, one has to be ready to take a loss once in a while, in order to accomplish a big win. Changing national economic habits, technologies, and infrastructures is going to require a lot of focused thought, domestic reform, strong incentives (e.g. to reverse human and financial capital outflows), and occasionally nerves of steel. Russia needs to find its niche on the global sustainability stage and, for its own sake, to do it quickly. As noted earlier, the theory is easy and straightforward. The practice will be challenging.

But Russians are a tough people. They like challenges, and they don’t like to lose. There is a great deal to be won by investing seriously in sustainability and economic transformation. Russia certainly should do this, if only because — in ways that truly are unique to this country — Russia can.

How I Created (Not) a UN Campaign

This article is about how I became obsessed with trying to create, or catalyze into being, an international campaign to dramatically increase renewable energy investment in the developing world — and why I now feel ready to let go of that obsession. The short version is this:  The campaign is happening, and the UN is doing it.

I have a hard time letting go of my ideas for initiatives, once they are hatched. And the UN campaign is not exactly what I imagined for the initiative we were calling “Big Push.” But it’s certainly close enough for me to say, okay, this is one project I can take off my plate. Here’s the link:

http://sustainableenergyforall.org

This campaign is about as high level as such a thing can get. The initiative comes straight from the Secretary-General’s office. The campaign was created by an act of the UN General Assembly, which has declared 2012 “The Year of Sustainable Energy for All.” (See Resolution 65/151)

What did I have to do with all this? Not much. But anyone who has been watching this space will recall the work I did in 2009 for UNDESA’s Division for Sustainable Development. The vision for the Big Push was not mine (it was Tariq Banuri’s, former director of DSD) nor were most of the ideas and analyses that went into it (I was building on the work of many people, inside and outside the UN, and especially the World Economic and Social Survey 2009). My job was to help assemble a coherent strategy document to take to the Copenhagen CoP-15 climate summit, in December 2009. Working with a number of colleagues, we pieced together something that I still think of as being beautiful and elegant in design:  a high-leverage, large-scale program for spreading renewables quickly in the world’s poor countries, with the effect of improving people’s lives, while also accelerating the renewables market in the rich countries and speeding the transition to a renewable energy future.

The “Big Push” strategy paper was well-received:  we quickly won the endorsement of many leading climate/energy researchers, plus WWF International and other NGOs. You can download that strategy document by clicking here.

Copenhagen did not work out as anyone hoped, of course, and the strategy paper just lay there for awhile. But I could not let it go. The vision and ideas may have originated from others (the “Innovators” in this specific case), but in classic “Change Agent” fashion, I had become thoroughly convinced that this was an idea that had to happen, if we were to achieve the transformation to a sustainable world in reasonable time.

So I began to make some noise about creating an independent, international “Big Push Campaign,” outside the UN system. I talked to friends in leadership positions, recruited the excellent help of an astrophysicist-turned-energy-researcher at Harvard (Achim Tappe, thank you!), networked with other experts, and even had the marvelous opportunity to present the Big Push concept as an opening speech to this year’s World Renewable Energy Congress (Anders Wijkman, thank you!). You can access the text of my speech to the Congress by clicking here.

At the heart of the original strategy is the idea of spreading, and globally subsidizing, the pricing mechanism called a “Feed-in Tariff,” or “FiT”. This involves guaranteeing that if you build a renewable energy installation, you can sell the resulting electricity to the grid, at a subsidized price. The mechanism works incredibly well, and has driven the explosion of wind and solar development in Denmark, Germany, Spain and other countries. New countries keep adding it (Japan just did), but others are also drawing in the brakes (as the UK just did), because it works too well (think some people).

There were many other technical, policy, and outreach aspects to this plan, which you can read about in the original paper, and in the more advanced technical ones that followed, such as Deutsche Bank’s studies for the Secretary-General’s advisory group 2010 and 2011, focusing on how to create a global “FiT” mechanism while managing the risks etc. How did all of this, and many other streams of activity, work together to become the new UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative? To be honest, I really have no idea; I moved on to other projects at the UN (like this one), and no longer have a direct window into that process. Did my work in 2009 have any impact in 2010 and 2011? I’d like to think so — I know UNDESA really spread that paper around, both inside the UN system and outside — but I really don’t know, one way or the other. That’s the consulting life:  you engage with a system, you do something, the system changes … and you never really know if those changes happened (even just in part, even just a tiny little bit) because you engaged with the system … or if the system would have changed anyway, with or without you. Understanding this basic truth keeps one feeling very humble about consulting work, even when it feels “important”. Perhaps especially then.

The most important question, however, is certainly not whether my work had any impact. Not even the technical side of renewable energy scale-up is much of a question at this point:  it’s well established now that the technologies work, the policy mechanisms work, the market works. There are exciting breakthroughs on sustainable energy happening, and being reported, nearly every day. (My current favorite is this one:  indoor solar lighting using only a plastic bottle, water, and a piece of tin or aluminum. It’s spreading like wildfire in the Philippines, where it was invented. Check it out on this short BBC video.)

The really big question is, will these strategies actually work? What clearly isn’t working yet is marshaling the political will to actually transform the global energy system, as the UK government’s recent pull-back on their highly successful FiT program illustrates all too dismally. What isn’t working yet is the serious mobilization of capital, at the scale we really need, and in the right direction. What isn’t working yet is the removal of fossil fuel subsidies that push the whole planet in the wrong direction, while helping the world’s richest energy companies get richer. Etc. etc. etc. There is certainly a lot to do … and there are a lot of powerful interests at play.

So at this point, it no longer makes much sense for me to try to recruit others into a new and separate global campaign, as one among a dozen projects on my plate. Instead, I’ve started putting my shoulder to the wheel of the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, promoting it through every channel I have access to. It’s not enough, as we all know, even to have a UN General Assembly resolution and the UN Secretary-General pushing an agenda like this.

It’s going to take a Big Push from all of us.

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.

Labeling Sustainability: Is Certification Working?

The answer from this small seminar group of world experts on assessing the impact of sustainability standards — gathered by IVL, IISD, RFF and others to review the work of a big international research program called Entwined — is a qualified yes.

The “Yes” is interesting (and thanks to Erika Svensson of IVL for inviting me, so I could hear it) … but the qualifications are even more interesting.

For example, isn’t it amazing that it takes an independent, rigorous set of research programs just to find out whether these various voluntary standards are actually working? One of the findings of the State of Sustainability Initiatives annual assessment is that most of these standards — things like Forestry Stewardship Council certification, or Rainforest Alliance’s coffee labeling program — have no clue about the actual impact of what they are doing.

Or rather, the transparency of that impact is low (“red” on a slide displayed by Jason Potts of IISD). Standards organizations don’t have good numbers, and/or don’t publish them. So teams of researchers have been combing the market data, interviewing farmers, etc. to figure this out. Data is scarce. The data that does exist is fascinating (see my Twitter posts from this same seminar), such as the fact that Peru, with only 2 or 3% of the global coffee market, has 20% of the “sustainability certified” coffee market.

So, what are the findings? Researchers and data geeks will want to dig into the actual studies, but the executive summary is:  it’s an imperfect world, but standards and labeling does work. Environmental performance (comparing, for example, farmers that are certified to those that are not) improves.  It’s not that use of agro-chemicals drops to zero, of course, but — in one study for example, focused on coffee — that there was a 38% difference in the application of such chemicals between certified and non-certified farms. That’s actually a good result. (See the study, by Allen Blackman et al. at Resources for the Future)

Question time at the Entwined Seminar

Not only does it work environmentally, it works socially as well:  training programs work, capacity improves, even agricultural yields appear to go up as a result of that capacity building. Kids of sustainability-trained farmers in Vietnam, for example, appear to do better at school! (That tidbit from Daniele Giovannucci of COSA.)

That’s good news … because there are literally hundreds of these voluntary standards and certification systems in use around the world (600+ by one count), many at the producer level, many more at the consumer product level. It’s not about a fixed set of criteria, or setting up a label and then relaxing. “We see eco-labeling as a process,” says Caroline Hopkins of the Swedish Nature Conservation Society. She describes how that process works:  they move a voluntary standard into the market (say, removal of chlorine from paper production), and when critical mass is achieved and the technical/economic feasibility of this improved environmental behavior is proven, then they want to move the voluntary label into national legislation and regulation — and get out of the labeling business for that product. “So that we can move on to more urgent matters.”

What’s really happening here? In a quiet way, I think these standards and certification systems are a quiet way of practicing global governance. Phrases like “world government” usually get certain groups, especially in the United States, extremely upset. But we do have world government, of course, or at least “world governance”:  the UN, WTO, the vast body of international treaty law, etc. etc. But these globalized, voluntary standards for “greener” product development are also a form of global governance. What’s more, it is truly multi-stakeholder global governance:  data from IISD showed how the governing boards of these standard-setting groups are very nice mixtures of NGO and private sector, developed and developing country representatives, producers and consumers. This is “soft” stuff, in purely legal terms, because nobody actually has to do it. But as these labeling schemes reach critical mass, companies feel more or less required to participate.

Right now, there are protesters in the streets of many world cities demanding more democracy in the way the world’s economy is run. Ironically, it seems there might be a relatively new, inclusive, democratic, transparent process of economic global governance emerging right now, at least in a specific instance, and right under our noses:  on all those green labels in the supermarket.