Category Archives: Mind, Body, Health

How to Keep Doing Sustainability in an Absurd World

A professional colleague of mine recently resigned from the sustainability movement. Seriously ill from years of overwork, and despairing of the movement’s chances for success, this person had no choice but to quit. Trying to change the world’s destructive energy technologies, protect the rights of future generations to enjoy functioning ecosystems, and/or save the world from the ravages of climate change was just too much for a body – or soul – to bear.

All I could do was empathize. On the one hand, it is easy to find reasons for optimism these days. Daily, my email inbox fills up with notices about new technology breakthroughs, new creative policy initiatives, new corporate sustainability strategies. Over the past two decades, sustainability has multiplied from a lonely cause championed by a handful of idealists into a profession involving hundreds of thousands of people, and to a multi-billion-dollar market in services. Surely that’s an indicator of amazing success!

On the other hand, my inbox also fills with ample reasons to weep. The oceans, leading scientists announced recently, are dying. Famine is once again striking East Africa. The nations around the Arctic are rapidly shifting their militarizing presence to the far north, rattling (nuclear) swords to make sure they will each get a fair share of the oil and gas that can now be extracted from under the melting ice. Every week, the nuclear disaster in Japan is revealed to be “even worse” than the government had most recently admitted. And so it goes.

Summer, especially in Sweden, is a good time to reflect on these seeming paradoxes. The pace of work here slows down to a crawl. The family is together for weeks on end. Few people call, except friends. The world around me is a green-blue wonder of life.

Believe it or not, at such times, it is helpful to me to return to my own writing. Like many people, I write in order to think, and I’ve been down this trail of thought many times before. But I tend to forget what I’ve written, or thought, almost completely – even when it involves an insight that, when I first had it years ago, really helped me to put things in perspective.

Here’s what I found, again, when paging through my book Believing Cassandra, on page 87 of the new edition:

“Based on the evidence at hand … it seemed likely that the disconnection between global imperatives and societal responses was somehow built into the structure of the World, rather than issuing from any lack of data or correctable moral lapse on the part of humanity.

The situation, I realized, was fundamentally absurd.”

Absurdity, I went on to write, was an “enormously liberating idea,” because it released one from earnestness, while retaining the seriousness. Think of the great absurdist plays, like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: they combine deadly seriousness and comedic silliness in a wonderful – and strangely familiar– mix.

Of course the work of sustainability seems terribly important, not silly. It probably is terribly important. But how will we ever know for sure? Certainly not by counting the number of corporate sustainability reports.

“We know something about what has transpired on Planet Earth over the past millennia and we can make some good guesses, with the aid of science and computer models, about what is likely to happen during the next hundred. But we have no idea what it all means. Nor can we ever know. We are stuck in not knowing. Such a situation is the precise definition of absurdity …” (Believing Cassandra, p. 97)

While on vacation I had the chance to talk to an old family friend who, by chance, is also one of the world’s foremost ocean scientists. What did he make of the recent announcement (by the International Program on the State of the Ocean, http://www.stateoftheocean.org) that the oceans were “dying.” He didn’t dispute it. The science around what was driving extinction threats – global warming, acidification, overfishing, etc. – was sound. But his reflections quickly turned to the very long term.

Whenever the planet has gone through one of these big extinction events, he noted, it has been followed by a massive explosion of new life and new diversity. When the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago (the fifth major extinction event – humans are causing the sixth), mammals were tiny things running around on all fours trying to eat dinosaur eggs. That great catastrophe (from a dinosaur’s perspective) created the possibility for mammals to evolve. Now, we stand up, write scientific papers, and have conversations like this one.

In other words, no extinction … no us.

In the long run, it seems, it will all work out fine for planet Earth – no matter how things end up working out for us humans in this century. With a long enough time perspective, even the absurdity of our present situation just fades away.

However, this century is my century on this planet, as well as the century of my children. So I’m going to continue doing what I can to accelerate change for sustainability, and to stop – or at least slow down – the madness I perceive in the way we humans, as a species, use up resources, create waste, and generally tend to forget that we lived on a finite, living planet, where everyone deserves a fair chance at a fulfilling life.

But thanks to these summer reflections – and thanks also to the advice of my overworked colleague (get well!) – I’ll be doing it with a lighter heart.

Climate and Health: Side Issue, or the Bottom Line?

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Aedes Albopictus, the "Asian Tiger Mosquito," courtesy of Wikipedia

The fall has been so full of climate change-related seminars that I earlier forgot to write up this one:  a day on The Health Impacts of Climate Change at Stockholm’s prestigious Karolinska Institute (Oct 11, 2011).  (Here I must reveal that my wife works at the Institute, Sweden’s leading medical training and research center, as its sustainability coordinator.)

All climate seminars start with a review of the science, and this one had the benefit of local expert Henning Rodhe, who divided the topic in two:  things we “know for sure,” and things that are merely “likely.” The physics of the greenhouse effect is in the “for sure” column — and that puts a minimum temperature rise of 0.5 to 1.0 degrees C., the melting of sea ice, and a sea level rise of at least 200 cm in the “for sure” column as well.

What’s merely “likely,” for example, is that shade, or “negative forcing,” of the aerosol particles we have put into the atmosphere are roughly balanced by the warming effect, or “positive forcing,” of CO2 itself. Take away the aerosols, up goes the temperature still more.

And “likely” is accompanied by another, bigger word, “uncertainty,” which translate to things like 1-6 extra degrees of warming by 2100, or up to a meter of sea level rise. Because the largest uncertainty, noted Rodhe, relates to what we humans are actually going to do about all this in the coming years.

The health-related star of the show was Tony McMichael of Australia, an IPCC author and a very thoughtful epidemiologist whose remarks ranged over a much broader terrain than just “health” — though human health is, in McMichael’s terms, the “anthropocentric bottom line” when it comes to thinking about all global ecosystem impacts …

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“Changer pour Durer”: Change to Endure

“The French think differently,” said nearly every one of us who was not actually French. Of course, we said this to each other in French, so perhaps we were thinking differently too.

Patrick Viveret presenting at Cerisy-la-Salle, Sep 2009
Patrick Viveret presenting at Cerisy-la-Salle, Sep 2009

Last week (19-24 Sept 2009) I attended an inter-disciplinary colloquium at a castle in Normandy called Cerisy-la-Salle. The central massive stone structure (see photo at the end of this article), constructed in the 1600s to defend a Protestant family’s farm against the local Catholics, is complemented by newer buildings converted to bedrooms, work areas, and exhibition space. Since the 1920s, it has been host to series of cultural meetings and discussions — a series that is now decades old. The list of those who have been there is impressively long, and includes names like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, André Gide …

At Cerisy, for one week, 30-50 people live on the castle grounds and basically talk all day. This summer, the week-long “colloques” have apparently covered everything from the poetry of Rilke to the way science fiction affects the present day, to weightier social themes. Our colloquium, organized by researchers Nils Ferrand of the French institute Cenagref and Diana Mangalagiu of Reims Business School and Oxford University, was called “Changer pour Durer.” The word “durer” is the closest equivalent to “sustain” in French. Sustainable development, for example, is “développement durable,” which sounds like durable development in English. Which is pretty much what it sounds like in French, too.  “Durer” also carries the meaning “endure”, but without the same level of slightly negative overtones. “To last” might be another cut at it. With all these inexact searching for translations, there appear to be good reasons that French researchers — like Swedish ones — sometimes just use the English word “sustainability”. Perhaps the word durable leaves a less-than-satisfying feeling in the mind.

For to be satisfied in the mind, much as a good meal satisfies the palate, appeared to me a very French and lovely thing. Everyone takes a year of philosophy at the high school level in France, and philosophy is (by comparison to virtually any other Western country) astonishingly popular here. There is a popular philosophy magazine. There are hundreds of “Café Philo” meetings around the country, something like an open mike night for thinking, in local brasseries and coffee shops. Philosophers are almost nowhere in sight at most sustainable development seminars I attend; here, they were a major presence. It helped create the feeling that we were approaching familiar topics from an entirely different angle.

Of course, inter-disciplinary dialogue among philosophers and scientists and practitioners and computer model-builders etc. is not an everyday occurrence anywhere, not even in France, and in this way the dialogue at Cerisy on change and sustainability felt rather unique. Ideas that were not new to me still somehow felt new, because they were being expressed in French, and because they were being challenged and questioned by people in disciplines (like philosophy) that are usually not represented in the other meetings I attend — not even the very multi-disciplinary ones like the Balaton Group.

And there was a kind of clear and interesting tension, intellectually speaking, between the philosophers and the model-builders. The former essentially questioned the very premise of doing the latter — that is, building simplified models of the world using equations and computers. The model-builders seemed to think it was because the philosophers just did not understand what they were doing (“it’s as though they don’t *want* to understand” grumbled one scientist). The philosophers seemed to think the model-builders were remarkably and even naively uncritical of the potential impact of simplifying the world in this way, and then actually using the results to guide action in the world. It was not a tension that anyone tried to resolve; the French tradition emphasizes debate, not consensus. Good food and wine in the evening were the closest anyone came to a consensus.

Then there was the art/science debate, which was less tense, and more filled with something like envy or desire. Rosa Casado, a Spanish performance artist, presented some of her work and some carefully sought-out thoughts about her approach to it. (“I don’t usually talk about my work, I usually just do it.”) The scientific model-builders admitted, in the “debate” which followed, that they were increasingly wondering if they were doing science or art these days — for example, when they worked on-site in Sénégal with local farmers and a very participatory process. There was a great deal of intuition and empathetic feeling that had to go into making such a project successful; did this make it less “scientific,” and more “artistic”? “I have to confess I just don’t know anymore,” admitted one researcher.

Another polarity was around age, for this mostly middle-aged-to-elderly (at 49 I was at a sort of median) group of French-speaking thinkers was greatly enriched by the presence of a group of very engaged students or younger researchers. Why, these younger folks wondered in the evenings, are all these older folks speaking about the future so pessimistically? This, I heard from others, was very disconcerting to them since, after all, it was *their* future the older folks were talking about.

For me, personally, the whole experience was enormously enriching. It was the first time I’d presented my work in French (a scary trial for me, probably a chore for the listeners, but a challenge in which I took enormous joy for some reason). The interest in things like the ISIS Method among these new colleagues was gratifying. But it was also the first time I was attending such a seminar, since I don’t know when, without having any organizational responsibilities. I could just sit, and listen, and learn, and think, and occasionally ask a question. What luxury. Oh, and one evening I was invited to play the guitar and perform my songs; it turns out that French-speaking professionals working on sustainability also like to hear English songs with titles like “Exponential Growth” and “Dead Planet Blues.” I brought out some new songs too, like “Damn the Discount Rate” and “Set the World Right Again,” both of which had never been heard outside of a Balaton Group meeting. And with help, I managed a translation of my song “Balaton” into French as well.

In addition to the general learning and some improved French capacity, I came back with two new songs in the works (both in French), a huge new professional project clearly framing itself in my mind, a great deal of inspiration for my next book-writing project … and most importantly, some new friends and colleagues.

I note that I have reported at length here on Cerisy, but have not even written a word yet about the annual Balaton Group meeting in Hungary a few weeks ago — which was also a terrific high point, the best meeting experience we’ve had in a few years perhaps. Many important things happened there. But at Balaton I have, as I note, organizational responsibilities. I have (and happily share now) the role of President, so my experiences and reflections are necessarily group-oriented ones to a large degree. At Cerisy, I could indulge myself, individually, as a mere participant-learner-listener-writer-singer. It was a like holiday for mind, with excellent company in a wonderful, stimulating environment. I felt “changed” in ways that will help me to “endure” as well — for we must endure if we are to keep making change. To the organizers of Changer pour Durer, Nils Ferrand and Diana Mangalagiu, I publicly extend my warmest gratitude.

-Alan

[Photo: Coffee break at Changer pour Durer, Cerisy-la-Salle, France, Sept 2009]

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A Year Without Coffee

FirstCoffeeAug2009I am sitting in my favorite cafe in Stockholm’s south side, laptop out, sipping on a strong cafe latté … for the first time in a year.
It tastes wonderful.

To those of you who love coffee, I can almost recommend taking a year-long fast, just to rediscover how wonderful this drink truly is.
But I jump ahead of myself. If this stuff is so wonderful, why in the world did I quit?

Confessions of a Coffee Addict

As recently as ten years ago, I rarely drank coffee. When I did, it was one cup, once in a while. Moving to Sweden in 2001 changed that. Soon I was contributing to the national statistics (Sweden ranks a global second in coffee consumption per capita, after Finland) with 4-7 cups a day.

Having babies and the constant sleep deprivation helped drive that big jump, as did the long Swedish winters. Cultural factors also played a part: Swedes drink coffee in an almost ritualistic way, often even taking two cups after dinner. Or at least, that’s how it is in my circle of family and friends here in Stockholm! (I extrapolate from this all too often.)
In my old neighborhood, I became known for always walking around the common areas and playground with a coffee thermos-cup in hand. Often I took one onto the bus with me. I ordered large coffees at the cafe, and if the refills weren’t free, I bought them. I used coffee to wake up in the morning, to get going in mid-day, to combat jet lag, to fend off that sad feeling that sometimes comes over one in February … and I soon realized I was thoroughly addicted to the stuff.

I know a little bit about addiction, having once been a counselor to heroin addicts. Coffee is a rather mild thing by comparison, but my need was no less real to me. And scary, in a way: how could I live without coffee?

Accidental Cold Turkey

One year and one day ago, we arrived home from our annual vacation trip to Gotland, where my coffee consumption — fueled by the leisure of being on parental leave for two months — had seemingly soared to new heights. I felt awash with coffee, and so, when we discovered there was no coffee in the house on our return, I did not feel compelled to rush out to the store and rectify the Problem. Let’s see if I can go a day without coffee, I thought. Let’s see how that feels.

It felt terrible. I am a person who never gets headaches. Ever — except when eating very cold foods too quickly, or after bumping my head. But I get none of that throbbing awfulness that most people take medication for, from time to time.

I had a headache. I felt a bit sleepy, even a little too-easily irritated. But on the other hand, I was still on holiday. I was just hanging out with my kids, and I made of a point of not being irritable with them. I ignored the headache.

The next day, it was still there. This I took as a real indicator that my addiction was quite real, and physical. So I resolved to go another day. And another. I wanted to see what would happen, how I would feel.

After about three days, the headache disappeared. After a week, the feeling of “need” disappeared. I got used to feeling a bit different: “Much calmer,” I’d tell people, when they asked about the difference. “But a little stupider.”

The latter was the most puzzling to me. Did coffee really make me feel smarter? Or just mentally faster? How would not having coffee in my system affect my work? My social life? My budget? (Cafe lattés are expensive!)

Thus was born my one-year experiment. I decided, in this sort of accidental evolutionary way, to take a year off from coffee. By then, it should be thoroughly out of my system — not just physically, but also emotionally, and socially. I would get used to saying “No, thanks,” and taking tea or something else instead. I would find out what life without coffee was really like, the whole year round (even in darkest winter).

And then, a year later, I would drink it again, just to see what the difference was.

That’s what I’m doing right now.

Oh, My, What a Difference

My whole face is a bit tingly. My mind is certainly tingly. I feel much more focused and determined and analytical. (It would have been good to have these feelings when the economic crisis started playing havoc with my company’s finances and marketing plan!)

Or … do I really feel these things? Is it the coffee? Or is the fact that I’m on my first day of work after our annual summer vacation, my mind rested and almost longing to work, with a lot of things to focus on and get done?

The physical tingling is definitely real: that’s coffee. My eyes dart around, following thoughts that skitter around the mind like hares … I don’t really remember having that feeling in the last year. Nor did I miss it! I enjoyed the calmer, slower rhythm of thought that I began to associate with being coffee-free. (I was never fully caffeine free. I drank tea once or twice a day, and even the occasionally caffeinated soft drink. But this was nothing like the caffeine shock that a double espresso seems to provide.)

Hmmm … now, it seems, I have a new “weapon” in my mental arsenal. As long as I don’t rebuild that addictive behavior pattern — and it is my firm intention not to, and to only drink coffee a few times a week — I can “use” it to speed up my thoughts and give myself, at least in subjective/illusory terms, a feeling of being more productive, sharp, and focused.

But there’s something else I notice, a kind of “mental cost” to this sped-up feeling … and that’s the speed itself. It’s as though the thoughts are moving *too* fast, more quickly than I can reflect on them. I can think, but I can’t think so easily about what I’m thinking. It’s a kind of “Just Do It,” or rather “Just think it” mentality. There seems less room for that questioning moment when I ask myself, “Am I on the right track?” For the train has already sped down the track it was on …

I’m sure the reader will guess that I am exaggerating my perceptions a bit here; but I am seriously searching my mental experience for differences, and I am certainly finding them. In this way, the experiment seems already to be a success. The question now is, can I moderate this usage, really test the difference in practice? Will anyone notice the difference? Will I?

The Fringe Benefits to One’s Conscience of a Year Without Coffee

As the foregoing attests, my experiment in coffee freedom was not a grand Act of Will, and there was no attempt in it to Make a Statement either. But as a fringe benefit, I did discover that my will power was strong enough to break, decisively, a genuine addiction. (We’ll see if it remains so, now that I’ve tasted the forbidden fruit again!) There is something comforting and even confidence building about that.

There are also the fringe benefits for the planet to consider — for surely giving up coffee generates some. The stuff is grown in plantations which, if not managed to preserve songbird biodiversity and protect peoples, are part of the juggernaut that is replacing nature with human production and consumption processes, and often impoverishing local folks in the process.

Then there are the preparation, packaging, and shipping processes, with their carbon footprints and their polluting emissions and such. For a year, at least, I did not contribute to these.

My family’s economy also benefited, since the tea I drank (often herbal) was cheaper, and I drank far less of it. This also reduced my personal energy consumption, since I boiled a lot less water.

And finally, the longer my experiment went on, the more I also saw the benefit of sacrifice. Yes, sacrifice — a word that is not popular in our consumerist, post-religious (even for the religious), modern societies. Modern people are not expected to “sacrifice” anything. Even dieters are expected to enjoy low-fat chocolate. And in my field, sustainable development, the strategic talk usually revolves around how to get people or companies to switch to sustainable solutions without ever invoking the idea that some things must, in the end, be given up.

One way I kept my own motivation going, in this tiny personal combat with a fairly mild case of addiction, was to think this thought: if I can’t give up something as small as coffee-drinking, for just a year, how can I expect anyone else to give up anything larger? Like, switching out their large, fossil-fuel burning vehicle for something smaller and more electrical? That extra spontaneous charter vacation to Thailand? Fresh strawberries in February, shipped in from half a world away?

But I don’t want to turn this experiment into an exercise in personal righteousness, because it wasn’t that. Giving up coffee for a year was easier than giving up a whole lot of other things that, if I were radically dedicated to fundamentalist simple living for global equity and sustainability, I would probably feel duty-bound to deny myself.

And now, the last third of that first, fabulous cup of coffee, modestly ennobled and greatly enhanced by a year of abstinence, beckons. I don’t know when I will drink my next cup of coffee — maybe tomorrow, maybe not.

But I do intend to savor this one, to the very last drop.

Return to Pusat Pertolongan

“Pusat Pertolongan” means “Help Center” in Malay, and it was a drug addiction rehabilitation center in Malaysia. Founded by a former German Catholic priest who converted to Islam, it operated out of a former home for victims of leprosy or TB (I am not sure which) in the town of Batu Gajah, near the city of Ipoh.

And I lived and worked there from 1981-82, as a Henry Luce Scholar, on a one-year assignment.

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Alan AtKisson beside entrance sign for Pusat Pertolongan, 1 Apr 2009

The program was modeled on the highly confrontational, behavioral, sometimes psychologically brutal self-help program at Daytop Village on Staten Island.  Mostly, therapists were ex-junkies themselves.  Somehow, even though I was just 21 years old, the farthest thing from an ex-junkie, and the only non-Malaysian in the place, the management decided I should be the Officer in Charge and Therapist to the senior residents in the program.

I was not very effective as a therapist to Malaysian junkies. So I kept requesting that I be demoted. Finally, in a foreshadowing of my future career, I found my place as staff trainer and organizational consultant.  (The story is summarized in my book The Sustainability Transformation.)

In April 2009, I found myself in Malaysia on other business, with an extra day or so before I could fly home.  So I went to Ipoh, hired a car and driver, and went out to Batu Gajah, looking for Pusat Pertolongan.  Thanks to the kindliness of the local residents, I found it.

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