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What it Means to be a Sustainability Change Agent

I was lying on my back in the snow, staring up through the branches of the big old oak tree in front of our house, when it hit me. That’s where I’d ended up after going down hill on my buttocks (on purpose, riding tea-saucers with my youngest daughter). It felt lovely just to lie there, looking up, knowing that beyond that beautiful mixture of blue sky and white cloud was endless deep space — and that I was one of seven billion little points of consciousness living inside this tiny, protective bubble of earth, water, and air.

We humans are born with the ability to know something about our planetary situation. But not all of us have the opportunity to learn about it. And not all of us who have the opportunity to learn about it actually manage to do so. Some actively don’t want to know.

Those of us who do know are quite the minority — though at least we are a growing minority. The knowledge that we are a self-aware form of life, living on a small planet, circling a normal star in a normal galaxy, protected from the dangers of the cosmos and supported in our evolution by the most intricate web of natural systems, may be the most revolutionary thought in all of human history.

Among that relatively small-but-growing minority, there are also those who feel driven to actively seek out more and more information. The more they understand, the more they want to know — and the more astonished and amazed they get. And usually worried as well.

Many of the really interested ones turn into scientists. Many of the really worried turn into activists. (Actually, that works both ways of course — some of the scientists are the most worried of them all.) And then there are those who have a strong desire to dive directly into the actual machinery of human civilization, somewhere, anywhere, and start fixing the things that are obviously broken, and that are leading us step-by-step in the worst of directions.

Those are the people I think of when I think of the phrase “sustainability change agent.”

Sustainability change agents live with two sets of complementary feelings — a burning desire to known and understand what’s actually happening in this extraordinary planetary pageant we call “Life on Earth,” and an equally strong compulsion to do something to safeguard that pageant from catastrophic, avoidable dangers. Because the more one learns about how the atmosphere actually works, how the energy coming from the sun warms us to just the right temperature thanks to the special balance of gases in that atmosphere, how human agriculture and energy systems and financial markets and all the rest of it are dangerously out of alignment with the laws of physics and biology that govern not just the atmosphere, but also the planet’s water systems, soils, nutrient flows, fish regeneration rates, and so much more …

Well, the more one knows, the more one wants to do.

That’s the thought that hit me, lying there in the snow, looking up through the spidery tendrils of the oak-tree branches, thinking about the vastness of space beyond that blue-white wonder we call the sky. How could I have chosen any other profession? I so love learning about this planet, how it works, how unique and beautiful it is compared to everything else we can see (so far) in the universe. Books on the astonishing evolution and intricacy of nature, and books on the remarkable diversity and drive of human culture, are equally treasured in my library. Both nature and human civilization are worth striving to protect. They are both “family,” you might say, with all the special duties and obligations and pleasures that family life brings with it.

Of course, understanding the extent of the dangers and disruptions that we and other living things (our family) now face — dangers created by human actions, though mostly created unconsciously — is not pleasant. I imagine it feels something like being a doctor, specializing in the care of diseases caused by smoking, or environmental pollution, or other preventable, catastrophic dangers. Knowledge of the risks we face, understanding of the scale of the challenges we must overcome, can be felt as a burden.

As far as I know, there is only one “cure” for that feeling of burden that knowledge of our planetary situation can bring, and that’s action. Doing whatever one can to make a difference. Believing, and increasingly knowing, that many, many other people are doing the same kinds of things, for the same kinds of reasons, in a process of rapid change and innovation we call “transformation.” And trusting that although the hour is late and the challenges many, there are now so many shoulders pushing on that wheel of transformation that it will soon begin rolling faster and faster, until it is almost rolling of its own accord.

That, for me, is what means to be a sustainability change agent.

“And the winning song is …”

Aren’t you curious to know which of my songs is the most popular? That is, the most purchased in its digital format, on iTunes,, etc.? You won’t believe it. I certainly didn’t believe it.

Let me back up.

It would be easy to scribble pages and pages of philosophical rumination on the importance of music — in general, and to me personally. But let me be a little crass and commercial here. Not only is writing and singing songs an emotional outlet or me; it’s a business.

Admittedly, it’s not exactly a big business. I can total up my actual cash earnings for 2010 in three digits. My musical income probably doesn’t even cover the family budget for dairy products.

So you can understand why I didn’t even bother to check the annual sales figures on iTunes etc. until the close of 2010. The relatively small amount of money wasn’t surprising — but the sales figures on individual songs was very surprising. (Getting more curious? Read on …)

You see, what music actually does, among other things, is differentiate me from other consultant/speaker types. I can think of several paid events I did last year where the thing that got me the “gig” — that is, the thing that helped me stand out against the growing sea of sustainability authors and experts and speakers — was being able to throw in a song or two as part of my presentation. I don’t do this automatically, because obviously, there are many professional situations where singing a song is exceedingly inappropriate. But I am often surprised myself when a client requests (or sometimes just sort of hints!) that they’d also like me to sing a bit, even in very formal situations.

So music does help me earn my living as a sustainability consultant, even if in a somewhat indirect way.

Which is what led me to expect that the top song for the year would be one of my sustainability-themed songs — like “Dead Planet Blues” (humorous, on the album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On”) or “Balaton” (serious, on the album “Testing the Rope”), both of which are mentioned in my books, complete with lyrics.

I was so wrong.

My top-selling song for all of 2010 was …

“The Strangely Popular Lichen Song” (see lyrics and link at the end of this post)

Yes, the Lichen Song earned me more money last year than the Parachuting Cats, the Extinction Blues, or Homone Havoc … and a lot more than any of my serious and soulful tunes about life, love, and the meaning of it all.

Which means it truly earned its name:  the “Lichen Song” is “Strangely Popular,” and always has been, since I first wrote it after attending a naturalist training course in 1991. The teacher had taught us a one-liner to help us remember that a lichen was the symbiotic union of two very different kinds of living thing:  “Freddie Fungus and Alice Algae took a lichen to each other,” he said. I repeated this one-liner to a friend, who said, “That sounds like it could be a song.” “Oh, no,” I said — for I immediately heard the melody in my head, and the song began virtually to write itself.

So there you have it — the union of a fungus and an algae became a song that went mini-viral in 2010. Maybe I’ll use the proceeds to buy a few mushrooms for the family …

The Strangely Popular Lichen Song

Music and lyrics © 1991 by Alan AtKisson – from the album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On,” Rain City Records, 1999

Available on iTunes:  Click here

Once there was a fungus — Freddy was his name

Said “There’s no love for me among us, all us fungi look the same.”

So he took himself a courtin’ down to where the green things grow

Met some algae name of Alice, and she set his heart aglow


Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae took a LICHEN to each other

They grew so very close that now you cain’t tell one from t’other

Now those lichens lead a simple life, they never are alone —

Alice does the cookin’, and Freddy builds the home

Freddy said “Oh Alice, you’ve made my life complete,”

But Alice said, “Now Freddy, there’s something else we need.

Got to have some lichen children — little ones like you and me,”

So they broke themselves in pieces, and that’s how lichens came to be


So if you’re a lonesome fungus, and you’re hungry too besides,

Better hook up with somebody who can photosynthesize

And if you love each other, as all good couples do,

And take vows of symbiosis, you can be a lichen too!


Revisiting the Big Push: A Strategy for Scaling Up Renewable Energy

While the Cancún climate talks were under way, I published several different versions of the following short essay, which first appeared as a blog post in “Triple Crisis,” then as a comment in Eurovoice newspaper’s “Comment:Visions,” and finally is slated for publication in the academic journal Solutions. Here is the Comment:Visions version:

In late 2009, the United Nations quietly published a strategy paper describing what may be the most powerful single intervention in the global endgame on carbon. (I led the writing of this paper as a consultant to the United Nations Division of Sustainable Development, but the ideas largely came from other people, inside and outside the UN system.) Called the “Big Push,” the strategy builds around three key elements:

(1) Establishing feed-in tariff mechanisms globally (that is, guaranteed-purchase price supports for renewable energy)

(2) Investing heavily in renewable energy in the developing world through those mechanisms, and

(3) Providing an array of technical and policy support services to speed adoption and implementation.

Pursuing such a strategy would help the world decarbonize much more quickly, because it would accelerate the drop in price for renewables dramatically, using the enormous scales of the market for energy in developing countries — who urgently need clean, affordable energy services most. The logic here also builds on historical examples, such as the rapid drop in computer chip prices that was engineered by the U.S. government through its purchasing policy in the 1960s.

Economic modeling demonstrated that a “Big Push” strategy, while it looked expensive relative to the levels of aid and investment on offer in the global negotiating process, paid enormous dividends. Per capita incomes would rise much faster than a business-as-usual scenrio — in every region of the world. The poorest developing countries would experience a massive uplift in incomes, and even the already wealthy countries would get wealthier. The “Big Push” of initial subsidies would result in renewable energy becoming the default investment option (without any subsidy) in just 10-20 years, at a price affordable to all.

So why is this idea not on the table now?

First, the dollar figures probably look scary. Renewable energy will eventually become fully competitive with fossil fuels anyway; it’s just not happening fast enough. To make it happen “fast enough” requires placing orders for about a thousand extra gigawatts of solar energy (over what the market would generate on its own), and 100-200 extra GW of wind energy, as soon as possible, at an investment cost of USD 1 to 1.5 trillion, spread over ten years or so.

That sounds like a lot of money. But it equates to about 10 years of what was already pledged at Copenhagen ($100 billion annually), and only two years of U.S. defense spending. And the paybacks, once again, are enormous: improved incomes, better quality of life, and reduced climate risk, all around the world.

And it would happen about as fast as one could possibly imagine, in real political, economic, and technical terms. The “Big Push” would help renewable, carbon-free energy get over the hump of initial investment costs, after which the market would kick into overdrive, as it did for computer chips.

What about the risks? Deutsche Bank, working with the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change, has already through the details of the investment scheme that would be necessary, including the insurance and risk management, in their “GET FiT” program (“Global Energy Transfer Feed-in Tariffs for Developing Countries”), published in April of 2010.

What about the capacity issues in these countries? There the Big Push strategy looks to the successful example of the Green Revolution, with its army of technical experts, extension workers, trainers, and support mechanisms of other kinds, which helped whole countries retool their agricultural systems with amazing speed.

And finally, what about the politics? How hard is to roll out a feed-in tariff program globally? The answer is, it’s already happening. Country by country, feed-in tariff mechanisms are already law (well over 50 countries already have it), or in the process of becoming law, in countries as diverse as Kenya, Egypt, Serbia, and Byelorussia.

The economics works. The technology is there. The political mechanisms are already moving into place. What’s lacking, then? Only a shared vision that we really can pull together, and push hard on a big problem.

There are obviously many things we need to do to create a carbon-neutral society. But for accelerating the process, I see no better candidate than the Big Push.

Link to Comment:Visions

Click here

Download original UN paper:

Click here