“Deplorable”: Why we have to speak up about the US election

deplorableWatching this US presidential election cycle, from my vantage point in Sweden, has been among the most painful political experiences of my life.

It is truly excruciating to observe the constant mendacity, meanness, and boastfulness of the Republican candidate (I am a dual US/Swedish citizen and grew up Republican, but currently have no party affiliation). It has been a bitter disappointment to see such callow campaign methods win popular support.

If he wins, he has vowed to tear up many of the US policies I hold dear, including the Paris Agreement on climate change and the disavowal of torture. If he loses, he will nonetheless leave behind a deep well of poisoned civility, further polarising a nation.

Recent interviews with committed voters for the Republican candidate indicate that many are aware of the risks and dangers inherent in the candidate’s positions and reckless character, but they “don’t care” because they just want change, and preferably dramatic change, of any kind. (See link below.) They are genuinely hurting, and the Republican candidate is exploiting that pain.

The Democratic candidate was recently criticized for a thoughtless statement that included the word “deplorables”. It is useful to look at the definition of that word, “deplorable”: “deserving strong condemnation; completely unacceptable” and “shockingly bad in quality.”

In my view, the Republican candidate’s campaign, including the positions he has taken and the statements he has made on many issues of deep concern to me — related to climate change, human rights, the US’s global responsibility, the role of women in society, and many more — is deplorable.

Note: This is copied from my public Facebook page and is the first in a series of short posts on current US politics. I do not usually comment on politics but the stakes of this US presidential election are extremely high and make silence unethical. We need to speak up for honesty, integrity, knowledge, humility, and wisdom in politics and public discourse, and not cede the ground to baser methods of public campaigning.

Link:  New York Times article, “We Need Somebody Spectacular

Democracy + Climate Change Action = True

Revolution, people protest against government, man fighting for rights, silhouettes of hands up in the sky, threat of warAn opinion article in one of the world’s leading science journals, Nature, argues that there is a growing a tendency among some science researchers to question whether democracy is well-suited to achieving sustainable development — and warns that such thinking is very misguided.

Sociologist Nico Stehr, who directs the European Center for Sustainability Research, focuses attention on climate change and the perceived “inconvenience” of having to work through democratically elected politicians to get climate-related policies enacted. “Academics increasingly point to democracy as a reason for failure,” writes Stehr, before offering numerous examples. Often the quotes are from world-famous and highly-placed scientists. He also describes the reasons they give: short-term thinking, presumed scientific illiteracy, and basic human psychology, among others.

He warns that such thinking leads toward fuzzy images of technocratic governance, and that these have already been discredited by history. “Nations that have followed the path of ‘authoritarian modernization’,” notes Stehr, citing examples, “cannot claim to have a record of environmental accomplishments.” The leaning of some towards technocratic governance also reflects an overly optimistic assessment of centralized social and economic planning.

Stehr brings counter-examples to the table in favor of democracy as the only viable system of governance for tackling large, complex, environmental problems — the ozone hole and Montreal Protocol being the most obvious. “Democracies learn from mistakes,” he concludes, while “autocracies lack flexibility.” He concedes that “humanity’s capacity to plan ahead is limited,” but argues that democratic governance processes are better able to cope with the messy and complicated interactions of physical, social, and economic processes.

Stehr rounds off his review with a ringing defense of democratic governance:

“There is but one political system that is able to rationally and legitimately cope with the divergent political interests affected by climate change and that is democracy. Only a democratic system can sensitively attend to the conflicts within and among nations and communities, decide between different policies, and generally advance the aspirations of different segments of the population. The ultimate and urgent challenge is that of enhancing democracy, for example by reducing social inequality.”

To do otherwise, e.g. let authoritarian powers decide, or blindly follow the instructions of scientists, is “dangerous,” says Stehr.

Governing the SDGs: Make Your Voice Heard

Remember the SDGs? The new global goals for sustainable development, being negotiated at the UN, right now, for the whole world to adopt this September?

Maybe you are not following the negotiations on the SDGs as closely as I am (I have to follow it closely, it is part of my current consulting assignment with the UN). So I thought I’d update you. And also pass on an opportunity to make your voice (and other people’s voices) heard.

At the end of this post is a set of links to a survey being conducted to get civil society voices into the mix on how the SDGs are to be governed, coordinated, implemented etc. The survey is in multiple (UN) languages.

Yesterday, I was watching the live webcast from the UN, and I listened to the Co-Facilitators of the SDG negotiating process — the ambassadors of Ireland and Kenya — summarize the last two days of negotiating. This week, the discussions are focused on the review and follow up process for the SDGs. That is, how nations will report back to the UN, and to each other.

Now, this is a lot more interesting that it sounds at first glance. For one thing, “follow-up and review” means Indicators: how to track and report on progress. (Anybody reading this knows I’m a big fan of sustainability indicators, having worked with them for 25 years … and Indicators are a core part of our VISIS Method.)

For another, this week’s dialogue is about accountability: just how committed is the world (that is, the community of nations) to the SDGs? The Co-Facilitators of the negotiations highlighted that this week, the nations are debating whether to talk about this process using the phrase “monitoring and accountability,” or the lighter-sounding “review and follow-up.” In diplomacy, language is almost everything. Use of the first phrase means, in simple terms, that the world will take the SDGs much more seriously.

But … there are a lot of complex positions, conceptual debates, and geopolitical nuances also hidden in that one example of what is currently being discussed. I won’t bore you with the details, because I barely understand it all myself. But one thing I do know: this process will end up determining a number of things about how we talk about, and do, sustainable development … for many years to come.

So, if you want to weigh in, here are the links to the surveys, in English, Spanish, French and Russian. And even if you do not have a clue what the “HLPF” is (the “High-Level Political Forum,” where the countries will meet, under the UN’s auspices, to assess SDG progress once a year, and every four years it will be the Heads of State), then going through the survey will be a kind of learning experience.

Here comes the text from the umbrella initiative “SD2015” with the survey links, followed by a link to the live negotiations.



Civil society is a critical actor in sustainable development governance.
Now is the time to convey your organisation’s views and recommendations.

Fill out the survey and participate in the consultation around stakeholder engagement in the
High Level Political Forum (HLPF)

Participate today:

English version: http://www.sustainabledevelopment2015.org/index.php/engagement-tools/consul…

Español versión: http://www.sustainabledevelopment2015.org/index.php/engagement-tools/consul…

Français version: http://www.sustainabledevelopment2015.org/index.php/engagement-tools/consul…

Pусский версия: http://www.sustainabledevelopment2015.org/index.php/engagement-tools/consul…

This online survey is a part of a wider consultation on the HLPF that SD2015 is carrying out until June 2015. The purpose is to make use of this crucial opportunity for members of Major Groups and other Stakeholders to shape engagement in the HLPF. Findings will be shared in a report in June-July 2015.

(Reference Quote:)
“Stakeholders active in areas related to sustainable development will autonomously establish and maintain effective coordination mechanisms for participation in the high-level political forum”
— General Assembly Resolution on the organization aspects of the HLPF

And if you want to follow the action this week, live, it’s here:


“A Fresh Start for Sustainable Development”

BlogFeaturePicture_Development_v2Note: A different, chattier version of this post was sent to WaveFront newsletter readers. The eight-point summary is the same. To read WaveFront, sign up at www.AtKisson.com.

The new issue of the leading journal Development, under the new editorship of Tariq Banuri, is finally out! Much food for thought there. I have an essay in its thematic section on the future of development. The essay is called “A Fresh Start for Sustainable Development” [Citation and link: Development (2013) 56(1), 52–57]

Since the essay is behind a paywall, I provide a bare-bones summary below. If you need a copy of the full essay, and cannot access Development, write to information [[ at ]] atkisson.com.

  • Sustainable Development is in the process of being reconsidered and restarted, very slowly, “as though a giant finger was pushing down on a giant global reset button, at a steady but visually glacial pace.” You can see this happening from the global level (e.g. the UN Sustainable Development Goals) all the way down to the local level (e.g. Transition Towns).
  • This is timely. Sustainability became mainstream in recent years by (1) making the risks of non-sustainability clear, and (2) speaking the language of economics and management, and proposing that sustainable development could be achieved through reforms to business as usual, with economic benefits. I promoted this strategy, as did many others, and it has been successful. But this strategy has run its course.
  • The rise of the “Green Economy” and “Green Growth” — one of the manifestations of sustainability’s success in pursuing the above mainstreaming strategy — is a necessary, but far from sufficient, condition for achieving true sustainable development. Wellbeing, equity, freedom and opportunity are equally important.
  • Sustainability needs to return to its roots. It is a set of ambitious and idealistic — not “realistic” — goals, that include the eradication of poverty, the transformation of the global energy system, gender equality, peace. These ultimate goals probably cannot be achieved through “business as usual.” Transformation, not mere reform, is needed.
  • Sustainability’s goals may be radical, but they are not marginal. “They are enshrined in numerous global agreement texts, including Rio+20’s The Future We Want” [one of several UN texts agreed to by the all the world’s governments].
  • We need to return to a solid understanding of basic sustainability: system states that can continue. The disappearance of water, species, soil, and other resources is not sustainable. Widening income and poverty gaps and mass youth unemployment are not sustainable either. We must recall the fundamental goal of this work:  the achievement and maintenance of sustainability in every major system on which the health, wellbeing, and stability of our world (human and natural) depends.”
  • I propose the following formulation as a summary of the goal:  “Green Economy + Wellbeing for All = Sustainable World.”
  • A vision for sustainability based in transformation and aiming for ultimate, idealistic goals means that the work is far from over. There is tremendous learning to be done, great adherence to ethics required, lots of hard work to do — but essential, exciting work — in the decades ahead.

Summer: A Time for Measuring, Analyzing, Discussing — and even Experiencing! — Happiness

The following was originally composed as a set of notes for use by Junko Edahiro, who writes a monthly newsletter on happiness and wellbeing issues in Japan. See the website of her Institute, ISHES, for more info.

My own summer vacation, spent mostly in Sweden and the United States, has been a happy one … but the summer has also produced a lot of interesting news about happiness, wellbeing, and alternatives to traditional economic growth, in both countries.

Let’s start with the US. First came a special Summer Double Issue of Time Magazine, which had “The Pursuit of Happiness” as a cover story (July 8/July 15, 2015). Several articles detailed what makes Americans happy, and compared US results with the results of surveys in other countries:  the US ended up 23rd on a list of 50 countries. It also reported on fascinating genetic and neurological research that suggests Americans are more pre-disposed to be happy … because the country is made up of immigrants. People who move, seek novelty, and exhibit other “forward-looking behavior” are also more likely to be happy and optimistic, and there are certain genetic markers for these and related traits that show up more often in Americans.

In fact, these genetic markers for novelty-seeking show up more often in human beings depending on how far they are from Africa, the cradle of civilization. The restless types left Africa, many thousands of years ago, and the most restless kept moving. (Does that mean Australia’s aboriginals and Patagonia’s native Americans are the happiest people genetically? The article did not say.)

Anyway, it turns out that searching for new things is also one of the behaviors that is most likely to be correlated with happiness: the article called it “the joy of pursuit.” We are happier when searching for things than when we find them!

The articles also covered the relationship between money and happiness, and noted that “money can indeed buy happiness, at least in certain circumstances.” And within limits. Doubling your salary from US$ 75,000 to 150,000 does not make people twice as happy … but it *does* make them happier, say current research findings.

Of course, your money-related happiness also depends on comparisons with neighbors, as everyone (including researchers!) already knows. But in the age of social media, things get complicated, because now the whole world is your neighbor … and you don’t just compare cars or houses. You compare Twitter followers.

Americans, the article concludes, do not “simply inherit happiness,” but American happiness “has long been high and healthy — a simple gift of biology, history and environment but a gift all the same.”

See the whole article here:

Meanwhile, the whole Sharing Economy has now come to the attention of the most prominent sustainability voice in the US mainstream media — that is, Thomas Friedman. While Friedman is often “late to the party” on topics like this (he tends to “discover” things years after other people have written about them), what he does is bring the full weight of the New York Times to bear. And he also writes brilliantly. So his article about the Share Economy and how it is shaking up normal consumer markets is really worth reading, even if you already know a lot about this topic.

See:  http://nyti.ms/18tqX65

In my other home country, Sweden, there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of attention and writing focused on alternatives to the GDP. A lead editorial in Dagens Nyheter (DN, the leading daily newspaper) took up the issue of measuring wellbeing, specifically the new study by Ida Kubiszewski, Robert Costanza and others, which looks at the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) over several decades. Kubiszewski et al. concluded that GPI — which subtracts environmental and social costs from traditional GDP measures (among other innovative features) — peaked globally in 1978 but since then has gone down, even though GDP has increased. Rising income inequality and increasing environmental degradation were the chief culprits.

But the Swedish newspaper was critical of the study. “The concept [of the GPI] succeeds as advocacy,” wrote the editors. “But does it actually make us any wiser?”

Equality and environment “are not trivial aspects of development,” wrote DN. But “an index that is created to show us that money is not the most important thing is going to confirm just that point.” While critical of the GPI for simply reflecting its own set of values-based interpretations, DN did not defend the GDP; it noted that GDP sometimes tracks with happiness, sometimes not, and “does not say anything more about society’s wellbeing than annual income says about an individual’s wellbeing.” The newspaper called strongly for more discussion and debate on issues of money, happiness, values, and longterm sustainability, but concluded that one should skip the GPI, which it characterized as a “detour via an easily manipulated index.”

Well, whether or not you agree with Swedish newspaper editors, you can get a summary of the actual report here:
or review the formal paper here:

[NOTE: Of course I do not personally agree with DN on this. The *use* of the GDP is far more “easily manipulated” than the factors in the GPI, and all such measures are inherently normative and values-based. But I have a bias: I used to manage the GPI program years ago, and Bob and Ida are friends.]

The debate that DN calls for received a big jolt forward with the recent publication of a new book in Sweden (available only in Swedish) called “Swearing in Church: 24 Voices about Endless Growth on a Finite Planet.”* To “swear in church” is a Swedish phrase that underscores the fact that criticizing growth is essentially sacrilegious in Western society: you don’t do it. So the “twenty-four voices” assembled in this volume of essays are themselves a statement, because they represent a wonderful diverse and prominent sample of Swedish society, from Anders Wijkman (well known political figure and current global chairman of the Club of Rome) to Stina Oscarson (who runs the Swedish national radio theater) to Pär Holmgren (a famous TV weatherman and climate change educator) and Fredrik Lindström (a much-loved TV personality and language critic). That all of them were willing to “swear in church” about the problem of unending economic growth, and that they did it together in the same volume, speaks volumes.

We will see how much impact the book actually makes … but I take it as an excellent indicator that I was first introduced to the book by my Swedish mother-in-law, who had it lying around on the coffee table at the family’s summer place, on the island of Gotland. She knew about the book before I did.

As an extended family, we tend to spend our summer days on Gotland doing … well, not much. Lying on the beach. Talking. Playing volleyball. Cooking dinner. Most of which costs relatively little money, in pure GDP terms.

But ah, yes, it certainly does make us happy.


P.S. The UK also just published its second annual national happiness report. People are a little happier there this year:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23501423

* Swedish title: “Att svära i kyrkan – Tjugofyra röster om evig tillväxt på en ändlig planet” (2013)

Indicators, MDGs, SDGs, and GDP


Mariama Williams (L) and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (R) at Kulturhuset in Stockholm, 16 May 2013

On Thursday 16 May, I attended an excellent public seminar on the power of indicators and numbers in the context of sustainable development. Hosted by UNDP and the Dag Hammarsköld Foundation, in Stockholm, it featured two powerful women speakers: Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, former director of the UN’s Human Development Index and now a professor at the New School in New York; and Mariama Williams, a senior researcher at the South Centre. I tweeted this seminar three times, and used words like “brilliant” and “inspiring,” even though the presentation slides were terrible and neither speaker was a spectacular orator. But their analysis was incisive, compelling, their way of presenting was genuine and direct, and they forced one to rethink even old thoughts in new ways.

Fukuda-Parr, once a champion of the aggregated index, presented a devastating critique of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Well, “devastating” is overstating, and she did not really have a solution to offer regarding the problems identified — but the problems are serious. Goals and their respective indicators, chosen to help simplify communications messages and get people motivated to act, became frameworks for giving and evaluation, and indeed replaced the more complex and nuanced conceptual frameworks that had previously characterized the issues. The MDG’s “began to define development.” This is quite problematic: “gender equality,” for example, gets reduced to the number of girls in school — which turns an enormous, deep global dialogue and not uncontroversial development process into a nice, non-threatening little percentage figure. (These are my words, not hers.)

I tweeted this link to her and her colleagues’ papers, constituting a critical review of the MDG process and its numbers:


I have not read the papers yet, but I plan to, and assume/hope that I got the basic message from Fukuda-Parr herself. Having listened to so much cheer-leading regarding the MDGs, which I do personally think have been very useful, and watching the formation now of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with some concern and worry, Fukuda-Parr’s critical skepticism was like a breath of fresh air into the dialogue. Especially as it came from the former director of yet another mega-indicator, the Human Development Index!

Her talk was peppered with phrases like “narrowing down effect,” “silos”, “perverse incentives” (knock down the housing of poor people and increase your score on ghettos!). She related how previously solid goals and targets — such as halving the *number* of people going hungry — got turned into much *less* ambitious ones. Halving the *percentage* of people without enough food, when populations are growing, leaves *more* people without nutrition than the older goal would have. “Water for all” became, effectively, “water for some.”

Ah, but what to do? No real answers here from Fukuda-Parr, except some “do nots”, like “Don’t take the indicators literally.” She advocates more the messy, paradoxical dialogue, than the clear, goal-seeking mega-indicator. This appeals to the intellectual, but not to the manager.

Mariama Williams had a different take, focused on the next-to-impossible challenge that she summed up (verbally) this way: There is a big development gap + there is a huge debt overhang in the developing world + we have reached or exceeded the planetary ecosystem boundaries + there is a huge mitigation gap on climate change so the world will eventually be steaming + there are occasional disasters in poor areas that reverse years of progress.

“Governments are still struggling to catch up with the 2015, MDG agenda,” she noted. “And here comes the *post*-2015 agenda. And the train has already left the station.”

Williams presented the classic critique of the GDP, but in some detail, including emphasizing its origins as a tool of wartime, something that did its job well but is “past its sell-by date”. And she referenced a couple of milestone reports that summed up the status of the alternatives — including, I was pleased to hear, our own “Life Beyond Growth” report. (http://lifebeyondgrowth.org)

Williams, like Fukuda-Parr, didn’t have answers, nor did she promise any. She had excellent answers to question though, from the audience, showing how the political dialogue around the MDGs and other topics had effectively deflected any serious grappling with structural inequalities in the world. Both women agreed that equality had sunk lower on the political dashboard because of the way these goals and measures are handled, instead of being raised up higher. And important stories had gotten buried: China, for example, has succeeded on so many development indicators by *not* following the Washington consensus, which few wish even to speak about, while Brazil used serious labor policies to both protect workers and create jobs in a vibrant economy, something that again falls far outside of the neo-liberal consensus, but is (unsurprisingly) overlooked.

What do I take away from all this critical talk? A good, healthy skepticism about the SDG process — which I nonetheless am pledged to supporting, especially with our volunteer-driven Pyramid 2030 campaign, which is still in the “gearing up” mode (http://pyramid2030.org). And gratitude for the people who speak out and ask tough questions, when so many others nod and smile and say how wonderful these things are. I’ll close with a quote from Fukuda-Parr:

“There are things that we treasure that we simply cannot measure.”

Knowledge and Sustainability: The Global State of The Art

Recently I had the honor — and the amazingly complex challenge — of preparing a report for the new United Nations Office for Sustainable Development (UNOSD), based in Incheon, Korea. The title of the report signals its state-of-the-art global breadth:  “Knowledge, Capacity Building, and Networks for Sustainable Development: A Review.”

This report has been published on the web by the UNOSD, and you can download it from their website, free, in PDF format, from this link:

Download the report (1 MB)

This consulting assignment was one of the most challenging I have taken on, because the subject was so huge and so, well, meta. “Meta” meaning one level up from the usual focus on content:  it wasn’t just about all the things we need to know regarding the implementation of sustainability. It was also about “what we know about knowing.”

It wasn’t just about how to build capacity for doing sustainable development. It was about building the capacity to build capacity. Learning how to learn. And also about the networks where people learn about sustainable development, and share that learning with each other.

But of course, the report also reviewed what we need to learn — and just cataloging the list of relevant knowledge domains, using UN global agreements as the source, took up a full page, in three columns, small type.

One-third of this report consists of recommendations specific to the new UNOSD (for an upcoming expert meeting on knowledge for sustainability transition); but the other two-thirds should be of interest to any sustainability practitioner.

Here are the main conclusions. Note that this is a very brief, top-headline summary: the full report is 35 pages, full of analysis; and it included an additional spreadsheet, not published here, with a review of 200-300 global sources, programs, organizations etc. that are relevant to SD knowledge, capacity building, and networks.

“The main conclusions of this report can be summarized in four general statements:

    • The *nature of knowledge* is changing, and with it the nature of sustainable development knowledge, driven by the accelerated production of knowledge and by rapid advances in the technologies to access it.

    • This change in the nature of sustainable development knowledge has profound implications for the practice of sustainable development, and for the process of building capacity to implement it. Among other effects, the change forces a shift in emphasis from individual experts to multi-disciplinary groups, and from vertical hierarchies to horizontal networks.

    • The new knowledge and capacity-building environment, combined with the emergence of *networked governance* and the increasing importance of *boundary work*, requires that governments (in an SD context) increasingly adopt the role of *facilitator*. (The *italicized* terms are defined below [in the main report].)

    • All of these developments strongly underscore the need for the UNOSD [in its role as a hub for knowledge and capacity building especially to national governments] and provide suggestive guidance to the development of its knowledge sharing, capacity building, and networking activities. These recommendations are noted throughout the report and are summarized in the Executive Summary.

We now consider the basis for each of these statements in some depth. [… End of Excerpt …]

The public release of this report now gives you the opportunity to have input. If you read the report, and have thoughts or comments to share, please feel invited to leave a comment here (or write to me through the Contact link). I’ll carry that feedback, as best I can, into the global meeting process.

I simply could not have completed this report (or even dared to do it) without the help of many people, including my research assistant at the time, Dana Kapitulcinova, and many friends around the world who contributed content and insights (they are named in the report). I hope others find this report as interesting and useful to read as it was for me, and my colleagues, to produce it. My public thanks to the UNOSD for giving me such a challenging, and wonderful, assignment!

Report from OECD: What Winning Looks Like

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what winning looks like.

Warm best from India,


Life Beyond Growth—download free report

New report traces revolution in how we think about “progress”

Is there Life Beyond Growth? The new report by that name declares decisively yes, citing more and more countries that are seriously questioning the “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP) and traditional economic growth as their default definition of “progress.”

Despite all the economic and political turmoil of the past year — from the Arab Spring to the Great East Japan Earthquake, from the “Occupy” movement to the near-meltdown of the Eurozone — a quiet revolution in economic thought has continued to gain steam. Concepts such as “Green Economy,” “Green Growth,” “Gross National Happiness,” and even “National Wellbeing” have governments around the world exploring new ways to frame, and measure, the idea of national progress. Most recently, the United Nations formally joined the conversation, with its own high-level panel calling for “new ways to measure progress” in advance of the Rio+20 global summit.

These ideas are not new; some are decades old. But the political willingness to engage with them is *very* new. Leaders are realizing that social and environmental conditions simply demand a different approach. As Angel Gurría, head of the OECD, declared last year, “Growth as usual is no longer an option.”

Commissioned by the new Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy, and Society (ISHES) in Tokyo, Life Beyond Growth was written to help people (especially decision-makers) come to grips with the sudden rise of these new ideas, frameworks, and alternatives to the GDP as the sole measure of “Growth as Usual.” Meant to be the first installment in an annual series of reports, Life Beyond Growth 2012 traces “the evolution of a revolution,” from the origins of traditional economic growth to the present day rise of the candidates to replace it, or complement it, as the principal goal of national development.

Life Beyond Growth also takes a geo-political look at ideas like Green Economy (popular among environmentalists) and Green Growth (embraced especially by dynamic Asian economies such as South Korea) and maps out their future prospects:  Who promotes them? Who is adopting them? Where are they gaining traction or meeting resistance? And what is the impact of trends such as the rise of Corporate Social Responsibility, the protests of the Occupy movement, the persistence of armed conflicts, or the upsurge in United Nations activity tied to the Rio+20 summit? Life Beyond Growth attempts describe and even visualize these influences, and come to some conclusions.

Will measures of “Green Growth” replace the GDP in the future? Or will “Gross National Happiness” and indicators of national wellbeing eventually take an equal seat at the table? The authors and sponsors of Life Beyond Growth do not pretend to know the answers in any definitive way. But after a review that attempts to be thorough, balanced, and sympathetic, the report does take a stand. The complex global realities of our time, where one billion lead charmed lives and another billion live extremely deprived ones, demands a differentiated view. Some concepts logically, and ethically, hold more meaning for some groups than for others.

But in the end, says Life Beyond Growth, a consensus does seem to be emerging: we should all be aiming for a world that is environmentally green, economically secure, and happy, for all. Does that sound visionary? It should:  if there was ever a time when the world needed a clear consensus on a new economic vision for the future, that time is now.

Alan AtKisson served as lead author for Life Beyond Growth 2012. To learn more and to read the ISHES’ Life Beyond Growth report (free download), visit this website:  http://lifebeyondgrowth.org

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.