The Anthropocene: how “frightened” should we be?


Photo from

Be afraid. Be very afraid … of the Anthropocene.

This is the message from Clive Hamilton writing in Nature, the preeminent science journal, in his recent editorial (see sources below). Humans are unequivocably a planetary force for change, and a group of scientists with the authority to decide such things now agrees that this new planetary epoch deserves that special new name. But it should only be framed negatively, insists Hamilton. “The idea of the Anthropocene … should frighten us. And scientists should present it as such.”

That’s wrong: scientists should present theory and evidence. The rest of us then decide what to feel, and do. Leave the incitements to fear to … well, Clive Hamilton.

Meanwhile, the Guardian prevents a more balanced approach, in the person of former UK Royal Astronomer Martin Rees. He doesn’t downplay the enormous risk, the possibility of the “darkest prognosis.” But as he also notes, wryly, “It’s surprising how little we can confidently predict.” And there is also an “optimistic option,” Rees writes. “Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvellous than what’s led to us.”

Whether it means the end of human civilization, or the beginning of a new era of galactic conquest, scientists still have to decide when, exactly, it started. But the leading candidate for a starting date is around 1950, when nuclear weapons, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and other massive imprints on the planet began leaving their signature for future generations to find.

What do you think? Will being fearful of our new responsibility for managing (some prefer stewarding) the whole planet help make the “optimistic option” more possible? I don’t think so.

Personally, I’m committed to the “bravely-face-problems, navigate-safely-through-danger, achieve-sustainability” option that Martin Rees outlines so eloquently. Even if I also believe we have no idea exactly where we are going.

And if we succeed — that is, after we achieve sustainability, against all the admittedly scary odds — who knows what might happen?


Hamilton on fear of the Anthropocene (but he makes good points about how to identify it):

Guardian news story on scientists assessing the new epoch:

Martin Rees on “darkest prognosis” and “optimistic option”:

Also see BBC News on the Anthropocene meeting and the search for a definitive start date:

Seven Pieces of Joan – and a Song about Water

joan-davis-e1374529339249_0My dear friend Joan Davis passed away on Monday, 11 January, 2016. She was a unique and inspirational person, a top scientist who also believed strongly in the spiritual dimension of human life, the “non-quantifiable variables” as she liked to say. Her extraordinary life is being remembered, in English and German, on a special website set up by her close friends in Zurich, Switzerland, where she lived most of her life (she was originally from Ohio). I have written a remembrance of her there.

Here, I am publishing something else. Joan loved stones and shells, which she had lying on her window sills and tables. This text, “Seven Pieces of Joan,” is something like that: a collection of seven discrete memories, like stones clustered on a table, reflecting how much of Joan’s subtle influence in my life I keep discovering as time goes by.

At the end, I have posted a song (about water), which was in large part inspired by Joan. It has very poor sound quality, for which I apologize, but it is the only digital copy I have, of a song that was recorded on a primitive (by today’s standards) cassette deck, in 1993.


Seven Pieces of Joan


Two days before Joan’s death, I had gone back to a certain store to buy a certain wool sweater, like one that I had just bought the week before. I found the styling relaxed, yet somehow elegant in its simplicity. I liked the thin, gray fabric, and the way the end of the sleeves felt unfinished and were rolled up a little bit. “Joan would like this,” I had thought to myself. “It reminds me of one of her sweaters.”


Two decades ago (Joan was fond of talking in terms of decades and quarter-centuries) I was at a Balaton Group meeting. Joan took a liking to one of my shirts, dark blue, linen, long-sleeved. “That is really nice,” she said. “I wish I could find one like that!” So at the meeting’s final banquet, I wore the shirt, and then I stood up and gave a little speech about friendship. “There’s a saying: a true friend is someone who will give you ‘the shirt off his back’. Joan, you have certainly been a true friend to me. So Joan, here, I give you my shirt.” I took the shirt off and presented it to her. She gave me that sidelong, mischievous look, but accepted the gift with gratitude. Later, on visits to her house, I saw her wear it a number of times.


Outside my office-cottage at the back of our property, on the tiny porch I built, there is a certain beautiful shell that I picked up somewhere. I placed it on the corner of the porch, so that it catches my eye each time I go into the cottage. It has a special white-and-reddish beauty, which speaks of its former life in the sea, contrasting perfectly with the plain gray wood of the porch, and the green-brown forest around it. “That shell is like one of those shells Joan has all over her house,” I think often to myself.


Many years ago, on a visit to Wallisellen, I photographed some of Joan’s stones and shells. I downloaded the images to my computer — both Joan and I were avid Mac people — and shrunk them down, and then turned the images into small icons. Then I used the icons to replace the little drawings of folders that Macs have on their desktops. So then, when I needed to open a folder and review my archives or my correspondence, I was usually clicking on one of Joan’s snails or stones.



Joan was a professional water person, and at the time we first got to know each other, so was I. But we shared a relationship to water that went far beyond science and policy. Water, the simplest of chemical compounds, is also the most extraordinary: beautiful, ever-changing, ever-reflecting, and of course, we ourselves are mostly water. Joan, an aquatic chemist, also taught me to appreciate the special qualities of water in new ways. So whenever I am admiring water, thoughts of Joan are never far away.


After my first Balaton Group meeting, where I met Joan for the first time, I wrote a new song. Songs are strange things: once I have composed and written them, and sung them a few times, I (usually) no longer remember how I wrote them. I can remember the feeling-tone that gave rise to the song — in this case, reflecting on the wonder that is water, sitting by Puget Sound in Seattle. And I remember certain special times I perform them — like the first time I played “Water of Life” for the Balaton Group, and for Joan, in 1994.* I remember her smile. There was a bit of water in her eyes.


Joan had a mystical relationship with the number 22. It was a signifier, not of good or bad, but of something very important. When it turned up, she knew she needed to pay close attention to what was happening. She had so many unusual stories around that number; at least one story involved a moment where noticing the number on something (in the context of a car accident) saved her life. I have also loved, for no good reason I can explain, 22: it was the number I chose for my jersey when I played basketball as a teenager. So whenever I see that number, of course I think of Joan. On or about the day Joan died — was it on that day? a few days before, after? — my daughter came to breakfast in a new t-shirt, with a sports theme. The shirt had a big number on it: 22.


* My song “Water of Life” was only recorded once, on a home “demo” cassette album called “Fire in the Night”. The quality of the one copy I have is very bad. But I post it here anyway, and the lyrics below. Conversations with Joan Davis, and listening to her lectures, were very much a part of what inspired this song into being.

Water of Life

Words and Music © 1993 by Alan AtKisson – from the cassette album Fire in the Night

published here in memory of Joan Davis


Look at the light shining off the Sound

There’s nobody around

But me, and this body of water

Alone in a crowd

Of stars and stones and trees and passing clouds

Spirits high, I’m singing right out loud

Sing up the beauty of this


Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

It’s the water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world


Look at these jewels of morning dew

The eyes I’m looking through

Are windows of water

When it falls down

I am water watching water hit the ground

Every drop splashes up a crown

The Queen of all the Earth is


Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

It’s the water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world


The water takes a complete control

Like a river running through my soul

Like a rainstorm roarin’ up my spine

Like an ocean of love that rocks my mind


Look at the waves rolling up the beach

They can almost reach

The place where I’m standing

Won’t be too long

The moon will pull that tidal rush up real strong

Me and my footprints will be gone

But evermore there will be


Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

The water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world

The water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world


The Economics Nobel: Should there be one?

The so-called “Nobel Prize” in economics (note that it is actually *not* a Nobel in the same way as the science, literature, and peace prizes) has awakened more than the usual amount of criticism this year.

EconomicNobelArticleThis Guardian article captures some of the usual complaints, quite well. The writer suggests a broadening out of the prize, to include all of social science, thus getting away from the prize’s tendency to reward technical/mathematical work that sustains the illusions that economics is a science like physics or chemistry. Ample evidence (which might even be called “scientific” evidence) demonstrates that it is not. Economics is a human construction, filled with human assumptions and values that have little relationship to the laws of nature.

But a leading Swedish social science researcher on the topic of corruption, Bo Rothstein, has taken the arguments against the prize one step further. In an article in the major Stockholm daily DN (Swedish only), Rothstein indicates that he planned to use his position in the Royal Academy of Sciences to initiate a formal inquiry as to whether the prize goes against the intent of Alfred Nobel’s will.

Rothstein’s point: research shows that people trained in what we call “economics” today are more likely to be corrupt, and the research has controlled for other factors: meaning it is the training, not other factors in the person’s background, that causes this significant difference in likelihood to become corrupt.

Rothstein’s conclusion is that an economic prize linked to “Nobel” may be promoting the conditions that create corruption in the world — which is quite against Nobel’s clear intentions, since corruption clearly makes the world a worse place and not a better one.

It will be interesting to see where Rothstein’s initiative, which is a serious thing given his prominence, ultimately leads.

New Sustainability “Model Calendar” for 2015!


Click to download – 4.5MB

If you are expecting photo-models, think again. This wonderful 2015 wall calendar — produced by the folks at Stockholm Resilience Center and Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics — is about conceptual models, the kinds of diagrams and think-pieces that help us understand the world.

And it is a gem. Here you will find twelve essential intellectual tools for thinking about sustainability, ecosystems, social systems, and resilience. They are briefly described, elegantly illustrated … and will get you googling to find out more about your favorites. If you’re into this stuff, anyway!

Thanks to Jamila Haider at SRC, who shared this digital copy with me and gave me permission to share it with my friends … Enjoy!

Download the Model Calendar 2015




My To-Do List, Fall 2013 …

FallToDoList2013_BlogPicThis page from my notebook (see photo) sums up the headlines on my to do list for the coming year: launching a new music album, building a global volunteer campaign for sustainability, participating in a number of important scientific processes, publishing a little book, and all the while continuing to do the usual consulting, training, and other work I do, connected with the AtKisson Group.

Can’t possibly do this alone. Success on all these points will absolutely depend on the support of many friends and colleagues. So, for those who are interested, let me walk you through this to-do list item by item …

Launching a new album:  Sometime in the next couple of months you will be warmly invited to listen to ten new songs, written over the last decade, recorded over the last two years, backed by some of Sweden’s best studio musicians. And for once, I will not shy away from asking people I know to tell everyone they know about this album. That’s how strongly I feel about it.

Building a global volunteer campaign:  We have raised the sails on our new Pyramid 2030 initiative, which aims to get hundreds, maybe thousands of groups around the world meeting together in workshop groups, building new understanding together, and generating new ideas, new energy, even new plans and projects for sustainability. Check out the new website at Doing one of these workshops is both fun and very meaningful. You can do it any time, and at any scale, you want. So don’t hesitate for a minute: join up!

About the item called “keep up with major scientific developments”:  I serve on President Barroso’s new Science and Technology Advisory Council here in Europe (it has just launched a website: which is tasked to “examine areas where research and innovation can contribute to Europe’s growth — with a particular focus on benefits and risks of advances in science & technology and how to address and communicate these.” As a sustainability expert, I feel a particular responsibility to dive deeply into these questions, and gather advice from many, so that I can offer meaningful input to the President of the European Commission. That is a big “to do” item, and a continuous one. (As a science and sustainability communicator, I also have to keep updated for the various keynotes and seminars I am asked to do, sometimes in connection with specific topics. On my speaking agenda this fall, for example:  the American Society of Agronomy annual convention, and the launch of the EU’s enormous Graphene research program, coordinated by Chalmers University here in Sweden.)

“Sustainability is for Everyone”: This is the title of a little book I drafted earlier this year, and it is due for release also this fall, most probably in a free e-Book edition. (You can read comments reacting to the draft here). The book integrates nicely with the Pyramid 2030 campaign, because they both aim to empower “sustainability people” to reach out to other people.

Master Classes, Clients, etc.:  On top of (or perhaps underneath) all of this is my job, consulting to organizations on sustainability strategy, training officials and executives on how to apply the ISIS Method and ISIS Accelerator tools, and generally keeping my shoulder to the wheel of the sustainability movement — together with the millions of other people whom I believe that movement now consists of. Included in that work is teaching ISIS Academy Master Classes, promoting AtKisson Group research reports on energy and new economics, and promoting the work of our clients, such as WWF and CDP’s highly influential report The 3% Solution (on why companies should invest more in carbon emissions reduction).

So, a busy year for sure. A big year in terms of ambition, admittedly. Will it be “big” in terms of the success of these initiatives?

I profoundly hope so. I’m working my tail off to make that happen. I am also profoundly grateful that my wife Kristina is working with me now (running Pyramid 2030); that I’ve had a great producer working on the album (Andrea Bauman here in Sweden); and that many, many friends taking on various roles in these initiatives and campaign. From the bottom of my heart, to all of you: thank you.

And to all my friends and readers around the world, who have this far … I’ll be profoundly grateful for any help you can give me on this to do list. Ideas? Suggestions? Offers? Please write to me:  Email to Alan

I’d also like the opportunity to help you … so that together, we can raise sustainability a few more notches on the world’s to do list, as well.

Because that’s the whole point.



Food, Fuel and Fiber? The Challenge of Using the Earth to Grow Energy

This article was commissioned by the Japanese energy magazine “Global Edge,” and reprinted also at

* * *

cornfieldIn May of 2008, while visiting Jakarta, I came across a newspaper story about a protest there.  Hundreds of people had gathered in front of the gates of a charitable NGO whose mission was to feed poor people. The NGO was simply unable to provide enough rice, tofu and other staples to meet the need.  The newspaper explained that the protest had been triggered by the global spike in food prices, which made some staple items unaffordable or — thanks to export freezes — unavailable. But poor, hungry people are not able to differentiate between the “invisible hands” of global markets, and the visible hands that are directly feeding them. The people had come to regard this NGO as something like an “official agency” for food distribution, so they took their unhappiness directly to its door. Continue reading