Category Archives: Government, Policy, Politics

Words&Music 2: What a difference a half-year makes

Dear Reader,

This is the second installment of my personal newsletter, Words&Music. To receive this in your inbox, sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9

Dear Reader,

Global poverty. Climate change. Political uncertainty. Swedish development aid. Financial markets. The United Nations and the World Bank. The challenge of learning to lead a complex department, in a complex public agency, in complex times.

These are a few of the things that have been on my mind the past six months. Certainly I intended to write to you more often. I also believed, perhaps naively, that I would continue working on my current book, digitally scribbling away at poetry, prepping for an eventual return to the recording studio.

Instead, I have been completely engrossed in my job.

And this has been very rewarding: I am lucky to be leading a department full of smart, committed, and friendly people, as well as sitting on an overall management team that can be similarly described. I’ve also had the honor of representing Sida at the annual meetings of the World Bank and UN General Assembly. I’ve had literally hundreds of meetings during this time, received thousands of emails, signed dozens of decision documents.

There has been a lot to learn, and there remains a lot to be learned. It’s never-ending, of course. But finally, this weekend, I found myself thinking of you — the people who signed up for my newsletter, up to half a year ago.

So much has happened during that half-year. The most profound change, from my personal point of view, has been the change in my own perspective. Immersion in the governmental and inter-governmental machinery of sustainable development, including the interfaces between governments and companies and non-profits and academic institutions, is quite different from advising those entities as an external consultant (which was my principal profession over the past 25 years).

For one thing, as a decision-maker, I now depend on the advice and the work of others. It quickly becomes impossible to set oneself into the details of every issue (as a consultant I always dug into the details). I must trust my colleagues. They present the results of their analyses, describe the logic they have used to arrive at a proposed course of action. If it makes sense to me, I approve it, cheer them on, or carry it forward for discussion at the leadership level. If I am not fully convinced, or if I see areas that I believe can or must be improved in some way, we look together at the relevant details of those aspects that seem problematic, till we arrive at a good conclusion. (And I’m not always right, of course.)

On the other hand, if I have an idea for a course of action, it makes no sense for me to simply “just do it”. There is a vast library of relevant knowledge and experience, a great team, sitting all around me. I don’t have to do anything of scale on my own; in fact, it’s part of my job not to do things on my own, but to mobilize, inspire, support others to do that work (and much other work besides, including everything that we are already tasked with doing, by the Swedish government or by our agency’s Director-General).

And sometimes it turns out that “my idea” has actually been incubated elsewhere, by others, somewhere inside my agency, for some time: then my job becomes one of supporting my colleagues and helping that idea find its way to a bigger life.

I have a new-found appreciation for people like Wallace Stevens, already one of my favorite poets of the 20th Century, who managed to write his poems and essays while also working as a top executive in a large insurance company. If he could do it, I say to myself, eventually so can I.

This is by no means a complaint. I assume you have been reading between the lines of the letter and understanding how much I love this job. I am keenly aware that responsibility is a privilege. So I have been giving that responsibility my all.

But after a half-year, I am finally re-discovering life outside my job. (Not my family life — they have always been at the center of my little corner of the universe.) There are poems to write, songs to sing, a few books I want to continue developing.

And there is you — the much-appreciated people who indicated, by signing up for this newsletter, that you were interested in what I am thinking and writing and/or singing. I hope you are following me on social media (if you like social media — Twitter is my principal channel). You will get a mix there of work-related and personal views on the world.

But I will be back to you soon with news about the other stuff: my longer-term project to write a book on developing the human capacity to imagine our future (in more constructive ways than we do currently), and shorter-term projects to bring nearly-completed work out into the public sphere.

Thanks again for your continued interest … and just for fun, here’s one of my old songs that might be of interest, because it seems (to me) more and more timely with each passing year:  “Trying to be Happy in a Crazy World“. The link is to a free YouTube version. You can also listen to it on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon etc. Lyrics are pasted in below. (Don’t miss the little twist in the lyric on the very last refrain.)

Warm regards from Stockholm,
Alan

Trying to be Happy in a Crazy World

Words and Music © 1991 by Alan AtKisson – from the album “Believing Cassandra“, available on most major streaming services, and free to listen to on YouTube

Open up the paper — turn on the news —
Get a double dose of the daily blues
And the man in the mirror, he’s struggling free
Like he’s swimming up from the bottom of the sea, he’s …

Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Trying to be happy in a crazy world

Sometimes history seems like a practical joke
That ends with a planet going up in smoke
We’re slippin’ and slidin’ — it’s a banana peel dance
Are we just the victims of global circumstance?  Are we …

Trying to be happy in a crazy world …

Well it’s hard to keep your hope when there’s such trouble in the world
The thorns among the roses, the swine who eat the pearls
And it seems so very hard to love just one human being
When it happens, the joy makes the angels sing

Maybe life’s a riddle — or maybe it’s school
Maybe we’re a family of hopeless fools
Maybe we’re just tired of livin’ on a little blue ball
We’re playin’ dangerous games that make no sense at all — Maybe we’re

Trying to be crazy in a happy world
Trying to be crazy in a happy world
Trying to be crazy in a happy world

 

Freedom of Information: You Have Chydenius To Thank for That

This short post was originally published on the now-defunct website Worldchanging.com, in 2007. The story of Chydenius serves as a good reminder of the importance of maintaining a free press and the right of public access to government information — principles that seem increasingly under attack around the world. The text has been slightly updated.

Anders Chydenius (Wikipedia)

In 2016, the Finland-based Anders Chydenius Foundation celebrated the 250th anniversary of the world’s first Freedom of Information Act. Sweden and Finland were one big empire in those days, and the Swedish-Finnish law — passed in 1766, two hundred years before a similar law was passed by the U.S. Congress and ensuring open access to all government papers and other kinds of information under a “principle of public access” — was largely the product of one man’s visionary ethical ideas.

Anders Cydenius was the Finnish political thinker and clergyman who proposed the “Law on Freedom of Information” as part of a set of political reforms that worked their way through the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) of its day.  Chydenius also wrote passionately about equality, free trade, universal human rights, liberal capitalism, and especially the rights of the poor. He is one of the most influential thinkers in the early development of the politics, economics, and values base for what has become known as the “Nordic Model.”

According to the short Wikipedia article about him, Chydenius “was also a scientist and skilled eye-surgeon, the maker of several inventions, a pioneer of vaccination in Finland and the founder of an orchestra.”

But apart from such short encyclopedia notices, it would be hard for an English-speaker to learn much about Chydenius. A modern biography by Finnish historian Pentti Virrankoski (Anders Chydenius: Democratic politician of the Enlightenment, 1986) appears not to be translated into English. Two books on Chydenius’s contributions to an open society and freedom of information have been published recently, by the relatively new Anders Chydenius Foundation; and these books (in Finnish and Swedish) include very short English summaries. But as one of the contributors notes, “there is no summary English account [of Chydenius work] directed toward an international public.”

I stumbled upon Chydenius while researching economic history. His work The National Gain (1765) preceded Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (widely considered the founding treatise of modern economics) by eleven years. Chydenius’ earlier work covered much of the same territory — including a description of the process that Smith would later call “the invisible hand.”

Even in this super-connected age, news sometimes travels slow.  While you probably never heard of him, Chydenius was an inspiring, world-changing figure. His ideas about openness and freedom have had a big impact on your life — and they continue to do so, especially every time you read the news.

The ‘big push’ transforming the world’s energy systems

As I’m sure you have noticed, renewable energy is taking the world by storm, driven by rapidly falling prices. Ever wonder how that happened?

In 2009, I authored a concept paper for the United Nations Secretariat, for circulation at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. COP15 became infamous because it was deemed a spectacular failure. Heads of state were personally negotiating the terms of the weak “Copenhagen Accord” into the wee hours of the night — a sure sign that the diplomatic process had broken down.

Fortunately, that process had nothing to do with my job in Copenhagen, which was to garner support for a bold new initiative — a “Big Push” strategy — to scale up renewable energy in the developing world, and thereby bring the price down to affordable levels globally.

I’ll skip over the technical details of the plan I was proposing, working on behalf of senior officials in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The basic concept was to invest heavily in renewables in poor countries, using a globally coordinated system of price guarantees (aka “feed-in tariffs” — you can read the “Technical Note” here). Pump money for solar panels and wind turbines into those countries, and the resulting scale-up in production would bring global prices for those technologies down, and fast.

Fast was important: Otherwise, developing countries would get locked into cheaper, dirtier fossil fuels, and there would be no chance of meeting global CO2 reduction targets.

The idea for this Big Push had originated with Tariq Banuri, a brilliant policy innovator from Pakistan who was then serving as the U.N.’s director for sustainable development. My job was to develop his idea into a clear proposal, with numbers and an implementation strategy, then recruit wise and respected voices at Copenhagen to support the package.

And we did. The positive response we received to Tariq’s concept of a “Global Green New Deal” for renewable energy was one of the few bright spots to emerge from Copenhagen, even though not much came of it after that.

(The full story of my experiences in Copenhagen is told in the second edition of my 2010 book, “Believing Cassandra.” After COP15, I started building a nonprofit organization to promote the Big Push, but dropped it when many of our ideas were absorbed into then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, launched in 2011.)

But here’s the punchline: In hindsight, pushing this Big Push strategy was probably unnecessary.

It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme.

It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme. Much to my (and everyone else’s) surprise, the world already has achieved the affordability targets we set, well ahead of the schedule we were envisioning — without any such scheme.

It is important to underscore that those targets, and our proposed schedule — bringing the price of solar and wind energy down to about 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, within 10 to 20 years — seemed wildly, even unrealistically ambitious back in 2009. But by 2017, just eight years after Copenhagen, the achievement of those targets is already in the rear-view mirror.

Net power generating capacity added in 2016, globally, by main technology, in gigawatts.

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2017,” Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF

Take a good look at the pie chart above. The data comes from Bloomberg, published by U.N. Environment Programme and the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management. Notice that over half of all the new electricity capacity installed globally during 2016 came from solar and wind. For five years running, solar and wind have outpaced coal and gas by a wide margin. While there is a long way to go before the world is driven principally by renewables, the energy transformation is well under way.

The learning curve

A key factor driving this transformation is the price of renewables, which has dropped like a stone. Why? Exactly for the reasons we described in 2009, based on a well-known economics concept called the “learning curve”: The more you make something, the more you learn how to make it cheaply and efficiently.

Economists can predict declines in price by plotting these learning curves on a graph, relating price to the quantity of a thing produced. It doesn’t matter how much time it takes to produce the thing; quantity is the key variable. The faster you produce that quantity, the faster you slide down the learning curve towards the associated lower price.

When drafting our Big Push plan in 2009, I was astonished to find that the learning curves for renewable energy being used by most analysts originally had been drawn in 1992. No one had thought to update them. The curves seemed very pessimistic to me, given how fast China (among other actors) was coming online with solar panels and wind turbines. I suggested those curves needed to be redrawn, with new assumptions, based on the rapid developments and faster-than-expected learning we already were seeing in the renewables market.

As it turns out, my optimism was still amazingly pessimistic.

In 2009, even after adjusting the learning curve, we thought it would take about 2,000 gigawatts of installed solar and wind power to bring the price down to our global affordability target of 3 cents per kWh. But that price was reached in a number of countries, including India, Mexico, Chile and Morocco, by 2016. And the total installed global capacity at that time: Just 800 gigawatts — less than half of what we calculated would be necessary.

Bear in mind, 800 gigawatts of solar and wind energy is still a huge number, compared to where things started in 2009. Back then, the world’s wind turbines, if they were spinning at full capacity, could generate just over 150 GW. By 2016, that number had swelled to nearly 500 GW. The growth in solar photovoltaics was even more rocket-like: from 23 gigawatts of capacity in 2009 to more than 300 in 2016.

Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

Even the world’s top energy experts call this rapid fall in prices astonishing. How did the price fall so much faster than anyone expected?

Simple: Our expectations were plain wrong. You’ve no doubt heard of Moore’s Law, describing how the power of computing chips doubles every 18 months. How about Swanson’s Law? The term was introduced in an Economist article in 2012 to describe a similar pattern for solar panels. Swanson’s Law was basically a revised learning curve, one much closer to the curve we redrew at the U.N. in 2009 (but never published).

There is just one problem with Swanson’s Law: it, too, has proven far too pessimistic. Current prices for solar-electric panels are less than half of what Swanson’s Law would have predicted.

In reviewing these amazing and historic developments, it occurred to me that the world did get a Big Push strategy after all. Renewable energy scaled up rapidly in developing countries, pushing down renewable energy prices globally.

But we didn’t need a massive effort to mobilize international aid, as well as investments from the world’s rich countries, at the trillion-dollar scale we envisioned in 2009. It happened thanks to the target countries, the ones we call “developing,” especially China and India. And it happened faster than predicted, because our predictions were too pessimistic.

It turns out these countries learned faster than any “learning curve” Western experts could draw.

There are several extremely important lessons in all that, but here’s the biggest one: Never doubt that massive, transformative change is possible. It’s happening all around us, all the time — and usually faster than anyone expects.

© 2018 by Alan AtKisson. Originally published on Greenbiz.com as his “North Star” column, 23 Jan 2018.

Instagram Diary from Almedalen 2017

Here are the texts from all my Instagram posts from “Almedalsveckan”, the famous Swedish week of political and (increasingly) marketing activity focused on current social issues — a “festival of opinion” as some call it. For the pictures, visit my Instagram page.

In fact, Almedalen reminds me of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, with talk instead of music as the focus. One wanders from hotel seminar room, to theater ship parked in the harbor, to outdoor stage. Famous faces are everywhere, talking live from outdoor TV studios, passing by on the street. People stage “pop-up” seminars, the offerings are overwhelming in their diversity. “Almedalen” is a park in the tiny city of Visby, on the island of Gotland, in the middle of the Baltic Sea — an idyllic spot famed as a pearl of medieval architecture, with an ancient wall, ruins, cobbled streets, the works. A series of annual summer political speeches delivered here by Olof Palme in the 1960s has grown into this mega-happening of over 4,000 events, generating complaints by some that it has turned the first week of summer vacation in July into a working week. But a pleasant one.

My original Instagram posts are sometimes augmented with later commentary in brackets.

*  *  *

Almedalen! I’m attending Sweden’s famous “political festival” – thousands (literally) of seminars etc. this week. I’m on vacation, here purely out of personal interest, no “assignments”.

Starting the day with a topic close to my heart: water. Lots of friends and colleagues at this opening event, including my wife Kristina. (As head of NMC, Sweden’s leading network for sustainable businesses, she’s working. Note: website mostly in Swedish.) Ingrid Pettersson, who runs one of Sweden’s largest research organizations, FORMAS, has just noted that according to the SDG indicators, Sweden has achieved the goals. But dig just a little deeper, and the light is not green, but blinking red. Action on water = essential for the future, even here in Sweden.

*  *  *

Listening to a debate on Sweden’s cultural politics – always a hot issue, and always guaranteed to be discussed in sophisticated terms, supported by rhetorical gifts. “Grab art by the bleep” is the name of this session. [It turns out that this title was the invention of moderator Alexandra Pascalidou, and a reference to Donald Trump’s recorded boast about being able to grab women by the bleep without negative consequence.]

A worry expressed here: when politicians can’t or won’t talk honestly or deeply about serious issues – growing social problems, climate, etc – then “culture” is expected to deal with it. If you don’t include “social sustainability” in your grant application, you don’t get the money. Real dialogue is outsourced to theater, dance etc. But art should be free to lift the universal, not be expected to function as an opinion article in the newspaper.

Then the conversation gets tougher. Culture should be like the stand-up comedy branch, says actor-comedian Öz Nujen: if you’re not funny you disappear.

Another voice: art – expression of oneself – is a human right, the state must pay for it, and only when marginalized voices start to (finally) find a place and a voice, that is when other political forces start arguing against state support.

Tough debate. Laughter, and anger. But the best, most lively and “real” conversation I’ve heard so far. #riksteatern

*  *  *

Ministers in blue jeans: welcome to #Almedalen where Ardalan Shekarabi & others present govt’s new action plan for #SDGs.

[Shekarabi, the guy with the t-shirt and beard in the middle, is “Civil Minister” in Sweden and a lead promoter of the 2030 Agenda, especially at the local level. He’s a charismatic presence, though when I saw him later in the day, he seemed thoroughly worn out. That’s why I felt compelled to stop him on the street a few minutes later and just say “thank you” for his hard work to promote the world’s most important agenda.

Almedalen reminds me of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, with talk instead of music as the focus

Sweden’s government picked Almedalsveckan to release its new action plan for the SDGs, focusing on six key areas: 1. An equal and equitable society, 2. Sustainable cities, 3. A circular economy that contributes to the wellbeing of society, 4. Strong industry with sustainable business models, 5. Sustainable and healthy food, and 6. Strong knowledge and innovation.

FYI, they were a bit upstaged by Volvo Cars, which simultaneously released news that all its vehicles would have electric motors by 2019 — which landed the company on the front page of the Financial Times. Of course, Volvo didn’t mean electric-only: their cars will be mostly hybrids for some years to come, and still dependent on fossil fuel to go serious distances. But it’s still a major global first for a car company, and a great indicator of where things are going.]

*  *  *

At #Almedalen watching IBM’s Watson recommend treatments for breast cancer. Maybe in the future, the supercomputers and robots will meet here instead?

[This session was basically a presentation by an IBM representative of the Watson medical application. It was impressive. Watson, a self-programming supercomputer famous for beating humans at Jeopardy, can crunch through the vast flow of new research coming out in the scientific press and find treatment options that even the best human doctors just haven’t managed to learn about yet. This was one of several sessions I attended — or tried to attend — on how artificial intelligence is changing our society. They were popular and often over-subscribed.]

*  *  *

72% of Swedish companies say they have “upgraded their business model” as part of their sustainability work, up from 65% 4 years ago. The percentage of those who find profit in sustainability is also up by a lot. This I learned while sitting in the auditorium of a theater-ship at Almedalen, listening to a who’s who in Swedish sustainable business.

It’s great news, of course. But panelists say that in 10 years, most companies will realize that this was “a first recalibration in a much longer journey” of transformation.

*  *  *

Now I’m in a basement – on a suddenly sunny day – listening to a seminar on the 2030 Agenda and the #SDGs at the local government level. @IdaTexell who serves on the national delegation for the SDGs is describing the 6 priority areas that were chosen by the delegation, and why the municipal is critical.

The big news? How popular this topic is. The cellar is bursting with folk, out the back and up the stairs. The person beside me works on sustainability in Malmö. When I noted that things have changed a lot in 30 years of sustainability work – from a lonely few to millions and millions of people engaged – she says, “it’s certainly better than if the process had gone in the opposite direction.”

*  *  *

Getting out of classic sustainability issues, to defense. American Chamber of Commerce in Sweden (“AmCham”, my firm is a member) is sponsoring a seminar on US-Swedish cooperation. What I’ve learned so far: 50% of SAAB’s JAS Gripen fighter jet is American components. (That was a surprise.) Technology exchange is important for both countries, as well as intel. Sweden’s military is small, but professional, and strategically important. There is no formal military alliance – Sweden is not a NATO member, and is officially neutral – but the country cooperates with NATO and the US, not only in the Baltic but in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Then the talk gets real and a bit tougher. The US “would have to do the job” if Sweden were attacked (presumably by Russia); and Swedish airspace is so important to any defense of the Baltic states, that Sweden is a likely strategic target in case of crisis or war. Hence, cooperation.
And of course, there is a significant business aspect. Boeing and SAAB are building a new fighter jet together.

Everyone on this panel is “optimistic about Swedish-American cooperation. It’s happening, it will continue.” Not to fight a war, they are quick to point out, but to avoid one.

The risk level? Higher than one might think, because of a “drastic” build-up of Russian military capability, the huge gap between that buildup and the current state of Swedish capability and EU readiness, and of course the risk of surprises. (And, I would add, accidents.)

*  *  *

I pounded the ancient pavement all day at #Almedalen, attended 7 seminars and a mingle, met many old friends, made some new ones, bumped into a couple of clients, and personally thanked a minister (Shekarabi, I bumped into him on the street) for his untiring efforts to promote the SDGs. (In Sweden we defer to Agenda 2030, in English it’s called the 2030 Agenda and/or the SDGs.)

What a thing: a “festival of opinion”, real democracy in action. And everything worked smoothly, on time. I didn’t see a glitch anywhere. And #sustainability was clearly the dominant theme, it’s thoroughly mainstreamed, the transformation is well under way here in Sweden. Hooray for Almedalen!

*  *  *

New topic: biohacking. Transhumanism. This seminar is called “The perfect human: no longer science fiction.”

We can design life, redesign ourselves genetically. Should we?

“We’ve gone from theory of evolution TO intelligent design,” says a famous YouTuber and proponent, and this claim sets the stage, in a provocative way, for the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden (waiting in the wings). We can design life, redesign ourselves genetically. Should we? Who decides? In China, studies have already started, on live human subjects, to modify genes in stem cells (if I heard right) in order to treat cancer. Should Sweden do the same?

Now comes the Archbishop herself. She’s surprisingly positive about all this. Humans are “co-creators” with the Creator, and the church can help with the “really long-term questions”, such as who should get access to these new technologies, and who should pay. “We have 2,000 years of experience to lean on” in tackling complex ethical issues, she reminds us.

After the church comes the state. A government representative tells us, “Swedes are very positive to technology generally.” Sweden is the first country to offer complete genetic sequencing of all newborns, as a way to check for genetic diseases that might need treatment. But the state wants to make sure that the technology is used to help people – cure disease etc – and that all have access, that we don’t create class differences based on economic access.

Risks? Oh, my, yes. Not least, the “slippery slope” to racist eugenics. But the YouTubing transhumanist says, wait: it’s not a slippery slope, but a rocket ramp! We can create incredible human diversity with help of technology – people who fit into all kinds of environments. Presumably bearing all kinds of colors on their skin etc.

Finally, a little philosophy from the Archbishop (whose belief in God and eternal life has been gently questioned by the government official, who is clearly nonreligious): “Of course we strive for perfection, “she says. “But if everyone at Almedalen was perfect, how fun would it be to have this discussion?”

*  *  *

Sunset in Visby. The #Almedalen tents are being taken down. Actually there are a couple days still to go, but somehow it feels over.

Main message: sustainability is thoroughly mainstream.

Sustainability was the hottest topic here – hundreds of sessions (out of 4,000 total events), followed by digitalization. That’s right: sustainability “beat” digitalization. Of course, not everything I heard was interesting, relevant, “serious”. There was a lot of crowing and taking credit for the dawn. A lot of pure marketing and salesmanship using the S word as buzzword.

But that’s what happens when something goes mainstream. You get the good, the bad, and the cynical (the ugly). As I try to remind others as well as myself: this is what victory looks like. Institutionalization. Normal. The highs and lows – and long slogs – of real life.

“Sustainability is for Everyone”.

(FYI, an updated 2nd edition of my 2013 bestseller with that title will be released shortly.)

Celebrating a victory for ethics and eloquence

For politically centrist, ethically minded people, who prefer serious debate to trolling and twitterstorms, these are challenging times. As Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times (see link below), extremism and outrage is the order of the day. We need antidotes. Here’s one: would you like to see (and hear) an example of principled, eloquent, ideologically balanced political leadership in action? I urge you to watch this 20-min video of the speech delivered by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, marking the removal of the last of four statues originally erected to honor the leaders of the Confederacy and promote their awful and resoundingly defeated worldview. These monuments to inequality are finally gone. [Commentary continues after video]

 
New Orleans is one of the cities I have called home. I was partly educated there, I worked as a social worker in its French Quarter, I became a professional musician singing on the city’s stages (and sometimes on its streets). Later, I returned as a consultant to the region’s bi-partisan business leadership, and helped them develop a strategy for vision and action for sustainable development. The implementation of that strategy (2001-2005) was starting to work — until Katrina hit.
 
Regretfully, I have not been back to the city since (though I have wanted to go). But I have followed the rebuilding process, including its social rebuilding, and I have been deeply moved to watch the courage and bravery of the city’s political leadership in bringing down these monuments to racism, slavery, and the “cult of the lost cause.”
 
Mayor Landrieu’s speech has rightly been lifted up by Bruni and others as a timely landmark. For me, as someone who has lived in and loved New Orleans, and for a time attempted to serve the city as a “change agent” (I’ve written about this experience in my books), this speech also puts on display an inspiring example of true change leadership in action. Landrieu has held the vision, but he has also led a large, participatory process — city council, judicial system, public hearings, all of it. This success in overcoming one of the most reactionary pockets of resistance to progress in modern America (how does one honestly defend monuments to the champions of slavery?) is an inspiring case study worthy of continuing study, and support.
 
In these sometimes discouraging times, we need examples like this, to remind us of what true progress looks like. Watch, listen, and rejoice.
 
Also worth reading: NY Times article about Landrieu’s speech, by Frank Bruni:

To the President-Elect: A Confidential Briefing

To the President-Elect of the United States:

Considering who your closest advisors are, it is a fair guess that no one else is going to give you a briefing on sustainability. So I offer you one. I will keep it short, because you have a lot of information to absorb now. (People say that you have a short attention span. I don’t believe that, because you have been single-mindedly focused on one thing — winning the presidency — for the better part of two years.)

This is what you really need to know: the problems are real.

Climate change, dying seas, melting ice, dangerous pollutants, people driven to migration because they are desperately poor and/or under attack, and because they see attractive wealth and safety elsewhere in the world, and because the Earth under their feet or the fish in the sea no longer support them … There is a long list of problems that I wish I could tell you were just a bluff. Just an elaborate conspiracy by scientists who, for obscure reasons, are trying to grab power by scaring the public. (Believe me, scientists want a lot of things, but power is not one of them.)

Unfortunately, these are facts, not a bluff. And although you campaigned on denying facts like these, as president, you will have to deal with them.

“Sustainability” and “sustainable development” are words used by the rest of the world to talk about how to tackle these huge, complex problems. In fact, the world came to a mega-agreement, last September, that included 17 “Sustainable Development Goals”. Just read the list of 17. If you want to know what sustainable development means, that’s the briefing.

FYI, the US was just one of 193 nations that adopted those 17 goals. If you pull out, there will still be 192.

My guess is that you know some of this already. You’ve already been getting confidential briefings, and now you’ll get secret military briefings too. And the US military sees climate change and related sustainability problems as a major security risk. They’re going to tell you all this, and they’re going to show you that melting ice and rising seas and drought-driven migrants are just as real as Russian ICBMs and the artificial Chinese islands in the South China Sea.

Maybe this new knowledge you are getting — much of it from generals and admirals with a ton of medals on their chests, or spy chiefs with access to top secret CIA information — explains a tiny bit of the more humble tone you’ve been striking in public. Maybe the awesome responsibility is sinking in. We hear that you are a fast learner. (At least, we heard that from you. I very much hope you are right in that self-assessment.)

I said I would keep this short, so I’ll add just a word or two about the economy. Sustainability is taken very seriously by many leading US, Chinese, and other global companies — and increasingly by the global stock and bond markets, too — which means that you will have to take these issues a lot more seriously. But fortunately, this part will be easier.

You are a businessman, so you understand the language of risk, and the magic of compound interest. Economically, all these issues we group under sustainability are now understood as serious risks to business and financial performance — if you don’t deal with them.

The risks are growing exponentially, which means surprisingly fast, just as a good rate of return on an investment, or compound interest, doubles your money surprisingly fast.

But when we do invest in addressing them — spurring innovation in energy and materials and construction methods and all the rest of it — it turns out that the benefits grow exponentially too. Just ask a few CEOs. Or check out this recent report, backed by a big panel of global business leaders, on the trillion-dollar benefits (that is not an exaggeration) of sustainable development in just one business sector: agriculture. (I know, agriculture is not your favorite topic, but as president, you have to deal with everything.)

Let’s wrap this up. You’ve got a lot of things to do, like figuring out how to break the news to your followers that much of what you were promising them, during the campaign, now appears impossible to deliver.

Here’s a hint: you’ll come closer to, say, delivering on millions of new jobs if you take sustainability and climate change seriously, instead of scrapping environmental protections or the Paris Agreement. You’ll do more to address the issue of illegal immigration if you take sustainable development seriously, and invest in helping other countries to build secure and resilient economies, than if you build a monster wall.

An earlier Republican president with whom you are already being compared, Ronald Reagan, famously quipped that “facts are stupid things.” Well, in a way, he was right, because facts alone tell us nothing. They certainly don’t tell us what to do.

But the facts don’t go away, no matter how many tweets one throws at them. Here’s another historical fact: presidents, once they leave the mud-pit of the campaign trail and come into the actual command center of government, often seem to mature quickly. They find ways to finesse those promises, and react to reality, as adults must do. Information is power, but getting power also brings with it new information. And with information comes responsibility.

That responsibility — which you have won at high cost to the social fabric of the United States, using campaign tactics that have sent tremors of deep worry around the world — is yours now.

I hope you exercise it wisely.

Sincerely,

Alan AtKisson

P.S.  If there is anything more you want to know about sustainability, and how to actually address these problems that you have just inherited from your predecessor, I know a lot of people who might be willing to help you. Some of them are even Republicans.

Post-Election Statement

alan-atkisson-self-portrait-with-usa-theme-10nov2016As a dual citizen of the USA and Sweden, I am determined to keep working for the vision and reality of sustainable development for all, here in my beloved Europe where I live, in my beloved USA where I have both family and business ties, and around the world. That imperative does not change no matter who is sitting in the White House or any seat of government. The science is irrefutable. The values and ethics of human rights, equity, and opportunity for all, powered by empathy, the creative impulse and our innate curiosity, are the best of what make us human. There may be headwinds now for the issues I and so many others care about – addressing climate change, ocean health, peace, justice, gender equity and more – but the arrow of history has only one direction worth working for, in every country. I don’t plan to stop now, or ever.

First published on my Instagram & Facebook accounts. Photo © Alan AtKisson from Instagram.

Postscript: There is a very traditional little Swedish cafe (“konditori”) near my home, where I go to often, to sit and think and write. Oddly, they have decorated the place with Americana. The combination — an understated and very Swedish environment, where local workers go for breakfast, but with reminders of American culture and New York (where I lived for many years) all around — was the perfect place to reflect on a stunning election result in the United States.

Hillary Clinton for President

hillaryclintonforpresident“The word ‘debate’ loses its meaning when one candidate is serious and the other is a vacuous bully.” So wrote the New York Times in today’s edition, and I could not agree more. I am breaking with my usual habit of staying publicly neutral on US electoral politics and strongly endorsing Hillary Clinton for president. I hope you will too, and if you are a US citizen, please be sure to vote, and please encourage others to vote. This is the most crucial US election of our lifetime — I certainly hope the ugliness of the campaign and the risk factor attached to a major candidate (the Republican candidate in this case) never gets this bad again. The Times’ editorial endorsement echoes my own thinking.

Read the New York Times endorsement of Hillary Clinton

Swiss reject pioneering “Green Economy” referendum, but Geneva passes it

greeneconomyvote-switzerlandYesterday, Switzerland held a remarkable vote. The question: whether to legally limit the country to living within its share of the ecological limits of our planet, by 2050. Currently, Switzerland uses three times the sustainable level of resources; so passing this law would have required the whole country, legally, to start a march toward physical sustainability and reduce its use of resources by 2/3, by 2050. (I learned about all this from Swiss-born Mathis Wackernagel, one of the originators of the ecological footprint and head of Global Footprint Network, because it did not even register in the global news.)
A couple of months ago, the “Green Economy” referendum was leading in the polls by 61%. But then came the attacks and scare-mongering, with opponents saying it would lead to “cold showers” and the end of cocoa imports. (Say goodbye to chocolate! In Switzerland!) The Swiss council of ministers advised the public against supporting the proposal. Support fell … but in the end, 36% still voted for it. And in Geneva (where there are many UN and international offices) it actually passed by 51%.
Was this a loss? Mathis, an optimist like me, does not see it that way. This is the first time *ever* that a whole nation has grappled with this fantastically difficult problem. More than a third of them were ready to make that commitment, despite the fear-mongering. And one of the world’s major thought-leading cities, Geneva, voted yes.
There is far, far to go, but just the fact that this issue of reducing our footprint on the Earth is getting serious, national-level attention of this kind in an advanced democracy is cause for at least a little celebration … and to Mathis, whose work no doubt inspired the whole thing: well done!

“Do not forget”: A few terrible facts about torture

A few important facts that Americans must keep in mind as we head to the voting booth in 2016:

The Republican candidate has said publicly, “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” adding, in other appearances, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works,” and “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing to us.” (Links to sources provided below.) Regardless of what one thinks of this candidate, one should never forget that the candidate has strongly advocated torture.

The US is a party to at least four ratified international agreements against torture. Ordering the use of torture can be construed, in armed conflict situations, as a war crime.

Advocating torture is universally considered immoral. If elected, it means the candidate could also be ordering the women and men in national service to commit war crimes.

And it is clearly established that it doesn’t “work” as a way to get reliable and actionable intelligence. The US Senate concluded an in-depth study on “enhanced interrogation techniques” — a deplorable and Orwellian way to say “torture” — less than two years ago (Dec 2014). The results were published and are easily available, and they are summarized here:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-30401025

These facts should not be drowned out during the rest of this campaign season’s deeply unfortunate noise.

Sources:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/donald-trump-on-waterboar…/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/donald-trump-on-waterboar…/

https://www.theguardian.com/…/donald-trump-waterboarding-re…