Category Archives: Personal

Launching “Swedified” – a new blog

swedified-opensFor years, I have wanted to write about what it is like to come to this small, unusual country — Sweden — and then become part of it.

There is a Swedish word used to describe foreign people (or things) that have been absorbed by the unique culture of Sweden, but have been given a kind of Swedish twist in the process: försvenskad. Or in English: swedified.

Which is the name of the new blog I launched recently. To get a sense of what it’s about, read the Welcome letter. And to read the first full article on the site — commemorating the remarkable life of my friend Vincent Williams, an American-Swedish artist who passed away in 2016 — click here.

A Brief History of Self-Sharing

BlogImage_24Feb2015_2On a recent ski-vacation, we bumped into one of my wife’s old school-friends. My wife was a little surprised, but not her friend. “Oh, I knew you were here,” she said. “I saw Alan’s posting on Instagram.”

Unwittingly, by sharing a photo on social media — just a nature scene, shot from a moving train — I had telegraphed to the world where my wife was, too. And she is not active on social media. So she was a bit shocked to discover that her location could be figured out so easily, based on my random nature photo (though fortunately she wasn’t upset about it). But this tiny incident underscored the profound changes that have occurred, in my lifetime, regarding how we share information about ourselves.

I’ve always been a sharer. I’m a writer, after all, and my books often combine a personal with an expository voice. If you read my first book, Believing Cassandra, you will learn a lot about the origins of the sustainability movement; but you will also learn a lot about me. I share personal letters and journal entries as a way of illustrating general points about data, history, or sustainability issues.

So for me, the transition to social media was a kind of seamless evolution. The phases look like this:

•    Phase 1. Letter writing: I wrote many long letters to friends and family, from my teen years.
•    Phase 2. Publishing in newsletters/magazines: I started publishing my writing around 1987.
•    Phase 3. Personal newsletter: In the early 1990s, following the example of my friend/mentor Donella Meadows, I started writing regular summaries of thoughts and activities and sending them, by post, to my circle of friends, contacts, and readers. Like her, I called them “Dear Folks” letters.
•    Phase 4. Listserves and e-newsletters: By the late 1990s I had shifted this activity over to email. This included sending around columns that were sometimes picked up and published.
•    Phase 5. Blogging: I started blogging seriously in 2008 (a bit late). Blog entries took the place of those earlier email newsletters and occasionally published columns. I more or less stopped submitting my work to other publications, though I continued to respond to invitations to publish (and still do).
•    Phase 6. Social Media: I started with Twitter and Facebook about the same time, but got more active later.

And here’s a pattern I notice: as time goes on, social media — the latest phase — is tending to obliterate the phases that went before it. Example: I blogged only eight times in 2014, compared to 20 times in 2012. I publish less than before. And I definitely write many fewer letters.

Why? Partly because people seem less and less interested.

I certainly don’t take this personally. There is a well-known enormous flood of information out there. What’s more, the majority of that flood is personal information: things like my nature photo, times a billion. In the old days, I was unusual (as are all writers) in that I shared personal information publicly. It was theoretically shared with the whole world, even if in practice the real numbers of people reading what I wrote were in the tens of thousands, tops.

Today, virtually everyone shares personal information publicly. Sometimes whether they want to or not (like my wife). And that information is far more accessible than my little newsletters ever were, whether they were on paper or in electronic format.

Skimming through Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, I am instantly in touch with hundreds of friends and contacts. All of them are sharing the kinds of thoughts that I went to great effort to push out into the world, back when I was writing my “Dear Folks” newsletters, printing up a couple of hundred copies, sticking them in envelopes and posting them.

Just more briefly.

Of course, social media is a great equalizer that way. We “writers” (and other kinds of artists) are not so special anymore. Anyone and everyone can now tell the whole world what they think, what they are doing, what they are planning to do, with a few clicks on that little handheld device we still insist on calling a “phone”.

What does this evolution mean for the future of personal communication? I have no idea. Perhaps the whole notion of actively informing people about what you think and do will die away. Robots will decide what we should publish on our social media timelines. Then robots will decide which of those pieces of information, published by others, we should read. (Actually, that’s what is already happening: Facebook’s automated algorithms determine whether what you publish there will actually appear on your friends’ timelines. How their robots make that determination is not public knowledge.)

But I note one more interesting pattern: the impact of this evolution, on me, is a reduced desire to share. Maybe it is also a function of getting older, but I feel less and less motivated to tell the world what I think — especially now that this act is now wrapped together with the culture of selfies, trolls, and hashtags. (That is, ubiquitous photographic narcissism, anonymous meanness to other people, and ever-shorter attention spans about what’s important in this world.)

Obviously, I do keep active on social media — hence this blog post, which I’ll also flag on Twitter and Facebook. Since I am still a writer (and songwriter), and want to at least give the world a chance to discover my books and songs, I make sure to post things into the great flood of tweets and timelines on a regular basis. Sometimes I’m happily and pleasantly surprised by the response, too.

But to be honest, posting on social media is just a lot less fun than those “Dear Folks” newsletters I used to write.

And I notice that the things I post are less and less personal. I may post just as much as I ever did, but I share less than I used to.

Maybe I’ll end up back where I started — writing letters to friends and family, on paper. There remains a deep satisfaction, a visceral as well as intellectual pleasure, in physically tracing out one’s thoughts in a line of ink. Then sending the letter away, as a physical object in the world, to be received, opened, and read by another human being, sitting at a kitchen table.

It feels more like true sharing. I’m old-fashioned that way.

My 2014, by the numbers

For me, 2014 was a particularly busy, productive, and satisfying year of work for sustainability. The account below covers the year from my personal perspective, but on most of these assignments I was joined by wonderful group of colleagues, partners, and associates. More about them at the end of this post. First, here’s the report:

Countries where I worked physically: 12

Austria, Belgium, Belize, Canada, France, Germany, Namibia, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand

Countries where I only worked virtually (via Internet): 3

Japan, Russia, United States

Clients served: 18   Number of Projects: 30

Al-Sayer Holding, Kuwait (4 projects)
UNEP-International Environmental Technology Center, Japan
Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management (HaV)
NamWater, Namibia
International Society of Sustainability Professionals, USA
Sasin Graduate Institute of Business, Thailand
Niras/SIDA – International Training Program in Integrated Sustainable Coastal Development (4 classes), Sweden
CEMUS/Centre for Sustainable Development, Uppsala University, Sweden(3 lectures)
Göteborg & Co. – Moderating The Gothenburg Award, Sweden
GIZ South Africa (2 projects)
UN DESA, New York (2 projects)
UNOSD, South Korea
Government of Belize (in association with UN DESA and UNDP)
WWF (International and Sweden) (3 projects)
Toshiba, Japan (via Change Agent, Inc.)
Wuppertal Institute, Germany
SIWI – Stockholm International Water Institute, Sweden
Calgary Regional Partnership, Canada

Pro bono service engagements: 5

ARÈNE, Île-de-France (Pyramid 2030 workshop)
FutureEarth (Advisory consultation meeting)
Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel (member of jury)
President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council, European Commission
FORES, Sweden (Pyramid 2030 workshop)

Professional associations attended: 2

The Balaton Group: Annual meeting focused on the SDGs
The Club of Rome: Conference on Decoupling

Keynote presentations: 4

“Green Growth, the SDGs, and a Collaborative Systems Approach to Development,” Global Systems Science conference, Brussels
“Systems and Cities: Past, Present, Future,” International Urban Futures Conference, Graz, Austria
“Sustainability Leadership: In Search of a New Vision,” Leadership Conference on Energy and Environmental Law, South Korea
“Reclaiming Sustainability Leadership: Notes toward New Nordic Vision,” Nordic Global Compact Network, Stockholm

Master Class in Sustainability and Change: 1

Our final ISIS Academy Master Class was delivered in Bangkok, Thailand, in partnership with CREATE/Sasin Graduate Institute in Business, with 24 wonderful participants from a dozen countries. It became impossible to continue using the name “ISIS,” because now it makes people think of the militant jihadist group of the same name in Iraq and Syria. So ISIS Academy was transformed into the Center for Sustainability Transformation. The new Center is re-launching with its new branding in 2015.

Special highlights: 5

Release of 6th CD/digital music album, American Troubadour
Debut of one-man show “Sustainability is for Everyone: The Musical” at Mt. Royal University, Calgary, Canada
TEDx Talk at Uppsala University
Publication of article in Russian academic journal Safety in the Technosphere (with N. Tarasova, A. Makarova, and S. Makarov)
Elected a Full Member of the Club of Rome

Active Members of AtKisson Group: around 50

A special pleasure for me this year was working with my wife, Kristina ‘Kicki’ AtKisson, who re-joined the AtKisson Group full-time in June as a Senior Associate. I was also very grateful for the close partnership of Axel Klimek, Hal Kane, and Robert Steele, as well as the whole AtKisson Group network. The number “around 50” means that some are more active than others (there are actually 57 on the list) … but all of them are important to me personally.

And so are my clients. I am grateful for all of you, in 2014. I could not wish for better colleagues … and friends.

How we made American Troubadour

AmericanTroubadour“There’s a story behind every song” (see AmericanTroubadour.com) … but there’s also a story behind the album.

And it’s a good story.

In June of 2001, in Stockholm, on Midsummer Day, I got married. Nine months later, Kristina gave birth to our first child. To say that everything changed in my life, in and around that Midsummer of 2001, would be quite an understatement.

With marriage came not only partnership and fatherhood, but also a new country, a new language, a new culture. From that day on, I started to feel more and more Swedish. (I didn’t stop being American; I just added a new, second national identity, one that felt eerily familiar, since it echoed the Icelandic — they say — cultural patterns of my father’s family.)

One of the new traditions I had to learn about was the “svensexa”, the Swedish bachelor party. The bachelor in question is put through numerous tests and trials. One of the kinder ones involved being required to improvise a song to my beloved, at midnight, in the middle of downtown Stockholm, after numerous beverages had already been imbibed. (Where my friends found a guitar, I’ll never know.)

Amazingly, a song to my beloved actually emerged. Not all at once, but over the next couple of days. Obviously, I had to play this song at our wedding. Just as obviously, there was no way I could manage that. Solution: record it.

So I looked in the yellow pages (we still had those back then), or maybe I web-searched too, but in any case, I found a little studio, run by Andreas “Bauer” Bauman. We whipped up a decent recording of that song, which is about my wife’s numerous names (“Anna-Kristina-Kicki-Du,” a song that has not been released publicly). And the DJ at the wedding party surprised her with it, during our first dance.

Oh, the look on her face … that’s a beautiful memory.

Fast-forward more than ten years, to November 2011.

I’ve accumulated a bunch of new songs by then. I’m also a busy consultant, running a couple of international organizations, globetrotting, the usual. But I feel this unquenchable urge to go into the studio and record.

I’ll just document these new songs, I say to myself. Guitar, vocals, maybe a little bass — like my first CD album, Testing the Rope (1997).

Where to do the recording? A quick web search: Andreas is still there. What’s more, his studio is just five minutes from my house. He remembers me. We’re both a bit more grizzled, we’ve both had a couple of kids … we connect.

A few songs into this little documentation project, Andreas starts saying things like, “riktigt bra” and “klockrent” (which means he thought the songs were really good). He says they are too good to leave on the shelf. He starts gently suggesting some additional musicians. It’s clear he’s not fishing for extra work; he’s offering to do this without pay, because he likes the music.

And he starts pulling in some amazing people. I’m clueless about what’s happening. “I’ll see if Ronander can play on this,” he says (about “Entebbe Blues”). “Uh, who’s that?” I say. Mats Ronander is, of course, a household name in Sweden; he once toured with Abba.

As the project grows, I start pulling in folks too. Turns out some of my neighbors are excellent musicians — a female vocal trio, an old-time fiddle-player, an opera singer.

Everyone makes wonderful contributions.

Andreas and I meet every month or so, in between my travels. Ideas zip around faster and faster. The musicians work magic. Andreas orchestrates us all gently, beautifully. Encouraged by Andreas, I started dreaming bigger. For the title song, “American Troubadour,” I start recording voices on my iPhone, gathering them from both the US and from Sweden, people reading the text of the Declaration of Independence. (In the spoken-word middle section, which Andreas mixed so well, you can hear the voices of sustainability pioneer Hunter Lovins, the American-Swedish artist Vincent Williams, and many others, including my own daughters, Saga and Aila AtKisson, in the lead role.)

The process takes two and half years, because we’re both doing lots of other things, Andreas and I. At the end, the whole thing seems to be built on a combination of love for music, creativity, and professionalism. The other musicians have gone the extra mile to make something wonderful out of their sessions, which (I learned) were “old school” pleasures for them: real live recording sessions, creative dialogues, that even involved talking about the ideas and feelings in the songs. Not just responding to someone’s email request with a track recorded at home in front of a computer, and “mailed in.”

Even the graphics are a labor of love. Andreas’s wife introduces us to one of Stockholm’s hottest PR and graphics bureaus. They take time from their busy corporate practice to work on “American Troubadour,” at rates far less than they would normally charge … because they think the project is cool. They (Christian Hammar and Björn Lundevall of FLB Europa) like the whole American-Swedish thing, and they work far harder on it than I have any right to expect. They even come up with a great new symbol for … well, for me.

Icon_YellowFieldMy music. My travel-influenced perspective on the world. My dual-citizen life, which has been so deeply enriched by the marriage that starts this story (listen to “Midsummer Island”). Which has helped to sustain me … in my work to sustain others … who are working on sustainability (listen to “Set the World Right Again,” and “Going to the Top”).

What a journey “American Troubadour” has been. So unexpected. So fun, and musically satisfying. It’s so wonderful that it’s finally out there, finally finished.

And yet, I have the feeling it’s just another beginning.

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:
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2146449,00.html

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:
http://www.scidev.net/global/enterprise/news/costs-of-economic-growth-have-outweighed-benefits.html
or review the formal paper here:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800913001584

[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.

Alan

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)

A Year of Work in Sustainability

As 2012 comes to a close, I plan to reflect back on the year in sustainability and write think-piece about it. There is a lot to reflect on at the global scale: there was Rio+20 and the Doha climate conference, there was the impact of a US election and a lot of new sustainability science published. But in this post, in preparation for a more general reflection, I have first made a personal inventory of highlights from my own year of work. In doing the inventory, one feeling came up often, and strongly:  gratitude. I feel lucky to work in this field, and I could not do it were it not for the trust and support I get from clients, colleagues, and friends around the world.

On reflection, 2012 felt like a specially productive year. Here are the highlights of what I did professionally:

  • Published the Life Beyond Growth report, which was republished in Japan as a book together with Junko Edahiro and distributed free on the Internet in English. The report summarizes the history, current status, and future prospects of alternatives to traditional economic growth, in terms of both frameworks and indicators. The report was widely circulated in relevant professional circles and resulted in an invitation to present work, and to chair a panel, at the Fourth OECD World Forum on Measuring Well-Being for Development and Policy Making, in Delhi, India. (Thanks to associates Hal Kane, Dana Kapitulcinova, and Catherine Kesy for their help with that report.
  • Completed a “state-of-the-art” briefing report for the United Nations Office for Sustainable Development (UNOSD) on “Knowledge, Capacity Building, and Networks for Sustainable Development.” The report summarizes current theory and practice in these three areas of SD work and provides strategic recommendations to UNOSD on its own planning, which by extension concerns the planning of sustainable development work at the national level, particularly in developing countries. The report will be discussed at a seminar on “Knowledge for Sustainability Transition” to be held at the UNOSD in March 2013. (Thanks to Dana K. again for her assistance with the research.)
  • Published two books: a collection of my essays in sustainability between 1989 and 2009 (Because we Believe in the Future), and Collected Poems 1982-2009.
  • Ran our fourth ISIS Academy Master Class (together with Axel Klimek), this one in partnership with CSCP, Wuppertal, Germany. We had a wonderful group of people that blended highly experienced directors and consultants with younger professionals.
  • Ran our first ISIS Academy workshop in India, for Indian business leaders in sustainability, in partnership with CEE India. This event also marked my first trip to India (for the OECD World Forum). Thanks to my colleagues in India for their hard work and for taking such good care of me in Ahmedabad!
  • Ran “Competitive Sustainability” workshops with Ernst & Young partners, together with Axel Klimek and Piotr Magnuszewski. The workshops included the debut of the upgraded version of our new sustainable business simulation game, Green&Great. Thanks to Piotr’s team especially for their very hard work to make “Green&Great” truly great!
  • Advised Levi Strauss & Co. sustainability executives, and provided (together with Axel Klimek) the global sustainability team with an offsite training retreat on sustainability leadership and change. Thanks to Michael Kobori and Colleen Kohlsaat for these assignments.
  • Moderated the opening plenary session of the high level Open Innovations Forum in Moscow in November, 2012, and supported my friends Alexander Chikunov and Stanislav Vavilov at the Rostock Group in the development of the panel and the invitation of the panelists. Also lectured again at Mendeleev University at the invitation of Prof. Natalia Tarasova. Thanks to my Russian colleagues for entrusting me with these important tasks!
  • Taught my annual course in the “Practical Tools for Change Agents” with the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP). The course reached 30 people in the US, Canada, Russia, Germany, Australia and a few other spots around the globe. Thanks to the ISSP team, and to Christy Nordstrom for her excellent technical support.
  • Taught several workshops on leadership and change for sustainable development with Swedish SIDA-financed courses for regional officials in Africa and Asia. This work was done in collaboration with Niras Natura, a longtime partner and the primary contractor for these SIDA training programs. These workshops impacted around 100 officials from many different countries. Many thanks to my Niras colleagues for these assignments, and to Marie Neeser, who invited me into my first such assignment several years ago and introduced me to her colleagues.
  • Conceived, launched and directed the Pyramid 2012 Campaign, a global voluntary initiative that engaged over 1,000 people in more than 20 countries in “building Pyramids,” that is, doing Pyramid workshops to learn about sustainable development and create sustainability initiatives. The results of Pyramid 2012 were documented in a report that was submitted to the UN in advance of the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development. Heaps of thanks to Tom Mclean for inviting me to keynote the conference in Manila that became the start of Pyramid 2012, to Christine Apetrei for helping to coordinate the campaign, and to many friends and colleagues around the world who organized or hosted Pyramid workshops. (Be on the lookout for the Pyramid 2013 initiative, preview and sign-up available at the beta website.)
  • Completed six years of service as president (and later co-president) of the Balaton Group (formally the International Network of Resource Information Centers, INRIC). After working with co-president Gillian Martin Mehers and our engaged Steering Committee to put together the 31st annual meeting — which focused on the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth and the future of modeling — I decided to step down, and I passed the leadership on to the wonderfully capable co-president team of Gillian and long-time member Wim Hafkamp. It was a good time to make the change: the Balaton Group has a healthy budget and a revived Donella Meadows Fellows program, and it celebrated its 30th (and 31st) meetings with a sense of renewed energy for the future. It is also somewhat more visible: in September 2012, the Balaton Group was the subject of a special issue of the journal “Solutions,” and a new 18-minute introductory film produced in 2011-2012 is available now on the web. There are too many people to thank here, but I especially want to appreciate Gillian Martin Mehers, who was a fantastic co-president during the past 3-4 of those years.
  • Worked with new partner firm “The Good Guys AB” in Stockholm to produce a strategic sustainability review and recommendations for a large Swedish company. Thanks to Estelle Westerling of The Good Guys for inviting me into the project and to Shawn Westcott and Andreas Föller for recommending me.
  • Performed and completed a strategic analysis and review, and strategic recommendations, for the UN Center for Regional Development (UNCRD), which has a global program office based in Japan, and satellite offices in Nairobi and Bogotá. Many thanks to my colleagues at UN-DESA for their trust in giving me these assignments, and to Tariq Banuri, former director of the Division of Sustainable Development, who invited me to do my first assignment with UN-DESA back in 2009.
  • Started a new project with colleagues from Swedish institutes and universities, leading seminars on the future of Sweden’s transport system, and held the first meeting of experts from transport-related companies and research organizations. Many thanks to John Holmberg, Vice-Rector for Sustainable Development at Chalmers University, for bringing me into that project, which will continue in 2013.
  • Provided keynotes, lectures and workshop presentations to a wide variety of audiences including the Global Issues Network in Manila (an education conference which also launched Pyramid 2012, Feb 2012), the Department of Water of Botswana (Mar 2012), the annual meeting of the European Sustainable Development Network (EU policy makers, June 2012), the Oil, Gas, Minerals and Mining Partners of Ernst & Young (Europe, Middle East, India and Africa region, July 2012), the opening of the academic year for several sustainability courses at Uppsala University for the CEMUS program (September 2012), the Growth in Transition conference in Vienna (October 2012), the Sustainable Fashion Academy in Stockholm (Nov 2012), and the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco (Dec 2012).

Many thanks to so many colleagues and friends (there are too many to name) in this special business we call sustainability for giving me the chance to contribute with these and other projects during 2012. I look forward to 2013 with hope … and with pleasure.

Pyramid 2012: The Story of Building a Shared Dream

This is the personal “back story” on the origins of the Pyramid 2012 campaign, which published its final report on 18 June 2012. For the official story of this two-month-long “global workshop,” in which well over a thousand people participated, spread across twenty countries, please visit the campaign website to read the press release, 14-page final report, and the individual workshop reports that were sent in from around the world.

http://pyramid2012.net

Fifteen years ago I raced out of a seminar room near the shore of Lake Balaton, in Hungary. I needed to think. I needed to sit very still, alone, by the lake’s edge, and ponder this vision that had popped into my brain.

Was I really going to do this? Was I serious?

I really was. I went home and reorganized my life to make the realization of that vision possible.  Resigned from my job. Simplified my life. And began planning a global art project for sustainability.

A few delays and complications popped up, which kept me in that job, but I was exceedingly determined. One year later, I was finally on a sabbatical year, which involved traveling around the world and visiting sustainability initiatives, most of them in cities. I had saved funds to support myself for the year, so I offered free workshops to the sustainability groups I visited, on indicators and change strategy. I played benefit concerts. While traveling, I was also planning my global art project for sustainability. I studied a number of similar global art projects — and noticed that most of them had a difficult time getting financed, and making an impact.

So I made small change in plan.

The vision of the art project was terribly important to me, but its purpose was more important:  to generate inspiration and facilitate real change. And there was a very strong possibility that by doing it as an art project, it would not result in much change.

So at the end of that sabbatical, I did *not* launch a global art project. Instead, I wrote a book, and re-invigorated my consultancy. I decided to grow my consulting company … and make *that* my art project. By calling the work I was doing consulting, instead of art, there was a much greater chance that the work would result in concrete changes.

Much of the content of the work — dealing with global trends and visions of a positive future — would be the same. But framing it as “consulting” and “training” instead of “art” meant that people would relate to it very differently. To me, it was still my “global art project” … but that was a kind of secret.

Now I fast forward, skipping over the serendipitous co-creation of the Pyramid workshop in 2000 (the story is told in my book The Sustainability Transformation), the steady spread of the Pyramid and other Accelerator tools, the expansion of AtKisson Group … and we come to another moment, in the middle of 2008, when the AtKisson Group gathered for a strategy retreat in Barcelona, in connection with the IUCN global congress (I was doing a Pyramid there). In Barcelona, we hatched a plan to try to catalyze hundreds — okay, actually thousands — of Pyramid workshops around the world. The goal was ten thousand, to be exact. We called the idea “10kP,” meaning, 10,000 Pyramids.

It sounds a bit crazy now. But we were inspired by Barcelona. And these were also the last months before the 2008 financial meltdown. Anything seemed possible then. Also, my team-members at the time were very enthusiastic — it was one of them, not me, who had formulated the 10kP concept (I tip my hat to Shawn Westcott). They understood this whole “consulting firm as secret art project” idea. So we decided to just go for it, think big, and seek sponsors.

In fact, I was on a fundraising trip to the U.S., looking for sponsors for our grandiose 10kP Pyramid plan, when Lehman Brothers crashed. You might say that the collapse of one “pyramid scheme” — the U.S. subprime mortgage market — killed our very different sort of “pyramid scheme”:  our plan to get thousands of groups around the world active on sustainability, through Pyramid workshops.

As you can imagine, the fundraising visits went very poorly indeed. After the big banking crash made headlines, every funder I met just shook her or his head ruefully. Almost immediately, money for big, global programs became a logical impossibility. After a few days, I stopped asking.

And the dream of lots of Pyramids — which was nearly the same dream I had had at Lake Balaton a decade earlier, even though Pyramid was not invented yet — went on ice.

Then an email arrived in mid-2011, from Tom Mclean, a teacher at the International School of Manila. Tom had participated in a very short little Pyramid workshop we had offered at a teacher’s conference in Malaysia. That Pyramid had been just a couple of hours long, a “speed” version to introduce teachers to the methodology. Tom was hooked. He was also organizing an international “Global Issues Network” (GIN) conference for 400 high school students. He sent me a two-part invitation:  come to Manila to keynote the conference; and help them run 20 parallel Pyramid workshops with the students.

Of course I said yes. As it happened, when the conference finally happened in Feb 2012, the students were perfectly capable of running those workshops by themselves. All that I — and Robert Steele, who really deserves a *lot* of the credit for everything that’s happened with Pyramid in recent years — needed to do was watch. The students framed the workshops, trained each other on how to do them, created YouTube video demonstrations, produced policy insights worthy of global negotiators … It was truly wonderful.

But something else also happened at the GIN Manila conference.

We launched Pyramid 2012.

Pyramid 2012 was a scaled down, volunteer-driven version of the older “10kP” idea. Using the 20 student Pyramids as an inspirational springboard, we invited lots of other groups, of all kinds — educational, professional, civic — to do Pyramids of their own. There were no sponsors for Pyramid 2012 (except my little company). Instead, there were just volunteer workshop leaders … using a free “Pyramid Lite” manual … and a low-cost WordPress free website … and a lot of love and goodwill. I hired a wonderful part-time coordinator, Cristina Apetrei, to help spread the word and organize the participants.

And then friends, colleagues, strangers … people signed up.

During February and March, and into April and May, probably somewhere around a hundred Pyramid workshops happened. We could only document 65, because not everyone manages to go to a website and upload a report or a picture, etc. But we know that well over a thousand people participated, in twenty countries or more, from Moscow to Manila, from Iceland to Zimbabwe.

And, oh, those Pyramids.

It was so beautiful, wonderful, inspiring to see the reports and photos of all those Pyramid workshops coming in. Students learned. Officials planned. Citizens collaborated. Messages were sent to the Rio+20 summit:  we called our final report, “Building the Future We Want,” because we dedicated the Pyramid 2012 campaign to supporting that global summit, by creating local action. And indeed, a number of new action projects were born … and have started to grow.

And Pyramid 2012 keeps going. NGO groups in India, teacher trainings in Indonesia, farmers in Colombia … notices of continued activity keep coming in, via email and Facebook and blog comments. Pyramid 2012 has taken on a life of its own.

So, that’s the personal story, the dream, behind Pyramid 2012. It took fifteen years for my dream of a “global art project,” involving groups around the world engaging with sustainability trends and visions, to be realized. But the feeling of satisfaction at finally doing it — and seeing other people get engaged, make discoveries, hatch initiatives, and build pyramids — was quite profound.

During the process of being realized, the dream of Pyramid 2012 became something much better than I had originally imagined. Because it became a shared dream. I watched with amazement and gratitude as my colleagues and friends, and indeed everyone participating, just grabbed this thing and made it their own. Made it better. Got passionate. Made it work. And wanted it to continue, and to grow.

Now, we’re trying to figure out how to make it grow. We don’t yet know how … but we’re dreaming.

I will end this narrative with an excerpt from an email I just received (while writing this) from a Pyramid 2012 workshop leader in Colombia, Julia Andrea Osorio Henao. As her words reminded me so beautifully, this campaign, or initiative, or art project — whatever it is! — it is no longer “mine”. It is many people’s, including small farmers in the Colombian countryside, with whom she is using Pyramid, to help them manage their resources more sustainably.

“As I told you,” wrote Julia, “I continue doing Pyramids in my doctoral research work. So count me in to continue your dream, that is also mine … building together the future we want!!!”

If you are interested in being part of the planning for any future extension and expansion of Pyramid 2012, please let us know. You can either send an email to coordinator [at] pyramid2012.net, or go to this link and sign up for our newsletter:

Link to Pyramid 2012 Newsletter sign-up page

Subject: Sustaining happiness (or, Why I didn’t go to a meeting on Happiness)

[Copy of Facebook Status Update]
Friends, if you follow my Twitter feed, you’ll see a note from friend Kristin Vala Ragnarsdottir saying she missed seeing me at the High-Level Meeting on Happiness hosted by the Prime Minister of Bhutan at UN headquarters in NY. This is a very significant meeting, and I was pleased and honored to be invited. (They even said, “and please bring your guitar” … along with our recent Life Beyond Growth report.) I really hope you all take note of this meeting, the declaration they will issue, the World Happiness Report released there, and more.

So, why didn’t I go?

Simple: it would have meant missing important events with my children … adding stress to my wife’s work schedule … well, several other kinds of stress. Ultimately, a light dawned, and I decided to stay home. It did not make sense to sacrifice my own family’s happiness, in order to attend a meeting on happiness, no matter how important that meeting turns out to be.

But let me voice my strong support for the meeting’s them of “sustainable happiness” from here in Stockholm. We, and the planet, really need it.

[Here is a press release on the results of the meeting:  link]

Reflecting on Life, Sustainability, and Star Trek

How different would my life be if I had never seen Star Trek?

The question occurred to me because recently — in a fit of nostalgia, or out of a simple desire to have something to watch on the TV at 11 pm, when I’m too tired to read, and not quite sleepy enough to close my eyes — I bought the latest, and last, Star Trek series on DVD.

The series is called “Enterprise,” and it is a “prequel” to the original Star Trek series that I grew up watching as a child and teenager. A couple of hundred years from now, Humanity sends its first starship out into galactic wilds. There is no “United Federation of Planets” yet (this was presumably a human invention that came later), the Vulcans are not fully to be trusted, and Captain Archer has even brought his dog on the “mission.”

I write that word “mission” in quotes, because it seems that Humanity’s new starship has no mission except to fly around looking for something interesting to do. They’re like teenagers who just got a driver’s license:  they’re cruising, out for trouble. It’s hardly great television, but it makes me chuckle, and somehow warms the heart.

Never a “Trekkie” or even a “Trekker,” the original Star Trek series nonetheless had a deeply formative influence on my teenage life. I watched the show, in re-run then, every day after school for who-knows-how-many years. Televisions took a while to warm up back then (1970s), the sound usually coming on before the picture. It happened often that I turned on in mid-episode, heard about 5 seconds of background music … and knew exactly which episode was on. I dreamt, often, that I was Captain Kirk.

I know that to a modern ear, my youthful immersion in Star Trek lore sounds a little, well, pathetic. But back then, it was not so nerdy, especially in Florida, in eyeshot of the moonshots. Saturn V rockets used to make our windows rattle. Half the boys I knew dreamt of becoming astronauts, during some phase of their young lives.

Which brings me back to my question: would my life be any different, had I not grown up watching Star Trek and dreaming about travel between the stars, meeting alien cultures, exploring an ever-expanding horizon of scientific and cross-cultural mystery?

Contrast that question with, say, a similar one about James Joyce’s Ulysses:  how different would my life be if I had not read this masterwork of 20th Century literature? I did love the book, particularly its closing section, but I cannot say that it has had any formative influence on my personality that I can detect, other than contributing to a vaguely modernist (and post-modernist) worldview and love of language that more properly belongs to the whole of literature, rather than any specific work.  But Star Trek … well, that was more like Ulysses of the Homeric tradition. It was a formative myth. It captured, and amplified, a deeply felt longing, one that had nothing to do with spaceships. The myth of Star Trek had to do with learning, growing, expanding one’s consciousness and capability, overcoming adversity, taking chances, making your own destiny by sheer force of will and imagination.
These have all been central themes in my life, as they are in most people’s lives. In my case, they have been tightly coupled to a life-long quest to make a positive difference, and a contribution to the changes we call “sustainable development.” I have no idea whether watching Star Trek made me more predisposed to travel off to other countries, early in my life, and try to learn about those cultures by immersing myself in them. I don’t know how much it added to my seemingly in-born desire to make change, promote innovation, facilitate improvement. But it is not an unreasonable question to ask, if I hadn’t watched Star Trek, would I have made the same choices in life along the way? I’ll never know the answer to that question for sure — life has no counterfactuals, as they say — but I have my suspicions.

Watching Star Trek now — whether the Enterprise series, or the J.J. Abrams’ relaunch film of a few years back, which seemed aimed at twenty-somethings — is still fun, but it’s fun in a nostalgic sort of way. It’s like looking at a family photo album:  it helps me remember how I got here. My own Ulysses adventure ultimately led me to a very different life, in Sweden.

While I still enjoy traveling and exploring, in connection with my work on sustainable development, I no longer long for it. There’s a home, hearth, family and children in my life now. These fully claim all my capacity for longing, whenever I’m away from them.

But that sense of mission persists. In the end, the Humans of Star Trek are really just trying to make the Universe a better, safer place for kids to grow up in.

Sounds like sustainability work to me.

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.