This is the third and last installment on my series of posts from the Climate Existence 2010 conference, organized by my friends and colleagues at Uppsala University’s Center for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS). To read the posts in order: 1. Bill McKibben 2. David Abrams
I am on the 5:23 morning bus, leaving the Sigtuna Foundation. It was astonishing to me how many people assumed I would be driving home last night — driving home in a car, from the climate conference! After hearing how essential it was that we change our habits! Of course I took public transport to get here, a comfortable two-hour ride, door-to-door. I could have taken the bus-train-subway-bus combo home late last night, but sleeping over made more sense.
The conference will continue through Wednesday, but my work and my family draw me home. It’s the Autumn Break, my kinds are home from school, and my wife has taken holiday.
I’ll reflect more on the conference, and on my performance last night, in a minute. But first I will continue down memory lane for a bit, for the last time I was here at the Sigtuna Foundation was also my first time (as an adult) in Sweden, and the occasion of my first “date” with my wife — a date that lasted ten days.
That event was a seminar on sustainable development hosted by the Swedish government. I came to speak, and I also helped find a few of the other speakers — friends from the Balaton Group. Kicki, my wife, was working for the government then. At that point, she and I had no idea, of course, that our international fling was going to turn into a life together; now, ten years later, I am awake early and out the door with a longing to get home, to see her and our children. It is somehow harder to be away for one night, here in Sweden, than to be away for a week in Africa or elsewhere.
Last night I did a formal, two-set musical performance for the first time in a few years. I’ve performed often enough informally, and am frequently asked to “do a few songs” in connection with a conference speaking engagement. But this was different: I was the official evening entertainment.
“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.
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.
[Photo: Coffee break at Changer pour Durer, Cerisy-la-Salle, France, Sept 2009]
If you had seen me strolling with my colleagues into the cavernous Partyworld, a deluxe marble-and-chandeliers karaoke center in the center of Beijing, you would have been forgiven for not believing me if I told you that I was working.
When you are a visiting speaker/consultant/trainer in Asia, and the evening’s planned activities include karaoke, well, karaoke is part of the job. These activities cement group bonds, and increase (one hopes) the chances that the time you have spent learning together will make a lasting and spreading impact.
Plus, through the karaoke session (which lasted something close to five hours), I learned a lot about China. Sometimes the song texts were translated to me, and the music videos were explained — “this song is coming from the indigenous people in my home province” — and sometimes we just talked, loudly, while others sang. Sometimes I got commentaries: “This song [a lovely woman in a black and white evening gown is crooning about Chairman Mao] was very popular in the 1980s,” I was told. Or: “This girl is from Taiwan [she is dancing in a school uniform, the ambiguous phrase “Taiwan Only” appears often in the video’s background] and very popular”. Occasional English words and phrases like “One Night in Beijing” or “Cinderella” show up in the song texts; those parts I can sing no problem, and then I can pretty much infer, from those little samples and the imagery, what the rest of the song is about.
I brought my guitar to Partyworld, and when it was my turn to sing (it is eventually everybody’s turn), we turned off the sound system and I did a couple of my own songs, “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On” and “Balaton”. I’m actually not very good at karaoke, so by singing my own songs, I avoided butchering too many pop classics — with the exception of “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters, which, I confess, pushed my own 1970s nostalgia buttons. Apparently, the Carpenters are very popular in China.
But I wasn’t to get off so easily. My colleague from Sweden, Marie Neeser, recruited me to help when it was her turn to sing, so we played up our Swedish identities and did a couple of Abba numbers. We acquitted ourselves admirably, as the British would say … which is another way of saying we got through it without any major calamities.
Besides the karaoke, I am in China to teach workshops on the ISIS Method, Pyramid, Amoeba, and strategic change agentry to groups of education officials, researchers, and teachers. We did a one-day Pyramid at the People’s Education Press (China’s largest textbook publisher), and an Amoeba session at this eco-conference center on the outskirts of Beijing. Working through interpreters, I can’t follow everything that happens; but I can set the processes in motion, and watch them, and get snippets of translation. Fortunately, the workshop processes appear to be working just as they usually do.
The physical Pyramid built here in Beijing was unique — no wooden sticks, they were “too expensive.” Instead, they found colored plastic tubing, cut it in small pieces, and stapled these together to make the triangles! This “new technology” worked just fine; perhaps this is the version that will spread now into China’s schools system.
If my writing today is less than scintillating, well, let’s just say that I am lucky to be able to write at all, after our celebratory dinner last night. The rice wine was flowing, and as with karaoke, it was very often my turn to perform. I am still recovering today from this “performance.”
I leave Beijing now for Shanghai, where I have not been since 1982. I expect it will be a little different …
In The ISIS Agreement, I write about the first time I used songs and songwriting in the context of giving a keynote speech. One of the songs from that time has come strongly into my mind these last days. Why?
Frankly, it’s not one of my best songs, as I would judge it now. The lyric is a bit melodramatic, the melody something like a cross between a hymn and a march, called “And We Rise.” I haven’t sung it in years, and it doesn’t appear on any of my CDs. It was my first attempt (at the request of Donella Meadows) to get the word “sustainability” into a song (actually, I only managed to get “sustain” into the lyric).
But when I agreed to substitute for Wangari Maathai as opening speaker for the 1992 International Conference of the Institute for Cultural Affairs, in Prague, I had to do something, I felt, to bring a feeling of inspiration into the room. That song was one of the results. The song was actually translated into Czech, and copies of the Czech and English text were included in the participant packets. At the end of my speech, all the delegates sang “And We Rise” with me … and they actually did rise. (I joked later that it was my sneaky way to get a standing ovation.)
So why is the song coming back to mind, now? [read on to why out why and to see the text] …
At the closing banquet of the EARCOS teachers conference (I had been the opening keynote speaker) in Kota Kinabalu, one of the bands called me up on the stage to do an improvisational, rock version of my song “Exponential Growth.” Linda Sills, Assoc. Dir. of EARCOS, captured the call-and-response moment on her phone camera …
Author, musician, public servant, dedicated to advancing sustainable development, based in Stockholm, Sweden