Category Archives: Social Networking

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.

Knowledge and Sustainability: The Global State of The Art

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

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

Download the report (1 MB)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flummoxed About My Music (plus, a free song)

Update 12 Apr 2013: I wrote this about six months ago, but now, I am no longer feeling so “flummoxed.” The musical path forward is getting much clear. See What Music Means (to Me).

I confess: I am flummoxed. (Translation: deeply puzzled about what to do.) Why? Because I don’t know how to reach my audience. I’m a family man, and a working sustainability consultant, and those are my highest priorities, in that order. But I’m also a writer, a poet, a songwriter, a musician. I don’t have the time (or the energy, or the drive for attention) required to run around tooting my horn and selling my creative products. But this world doesn’t notice you if you don’t.

So why am I making a new album, full of new songs? And what should I do with my old ones?

[Keep reading, or scroll down, and find the free (very old! 1983!) song to listen to, in MP3 format.]

Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I imagine that my potential audience is somewhat bigger than the Twitter followers (833) and the Facebook friends (642 “friends” + 318 “likes” on my public page).  Or the average 500 per month who visit my blog. Or the 500 or so who actually open my company newsletter (out of 2,700 on the list).

Evening performance for Northwest Earth Institute, Portland, OR, 2003 (photo from the NWEI newsletter)

In fact, I am pretty sure my audience used to be bigger, back in the good old pre-Twitter days. My first book sold something close to 20,000 copies. My essays on the now-defunct blog Worldchanging were probably read by many more, and occasionally got noticed by the news media. My music … well, to be honest (with myself), not that many people know my music. My greatest “hit” is a YouTube video (my song “System Zoo”) that has been watched 7,757 times. Yes, my albums are available on iTunes and Amazon … and I have sold a whopping 107 songs and six albums through those channels, generating $118.

That doesn’t much bother me. I write songs because it pleases me to write them, and play them, and record them, and occasionally even listen to them. If no one else ever listens to them … well, that’s fine.

Like any artist, I would certainly prefer that other people listen to my songs, read my books, etc. But — again — I deeply dislike tooting my own horn and doing self-promotion. And the older I get, the less energy I’m willing to spend on self-promotional activity. Hence I am flummoxed.

So, for example:  what to do with my music — old and new? Here is that free song I promised, the opening title track from my very first album, a 10-song cassette demo, produced in 1983, in New York, on a 4-track reel-to-reel system engineered by Darryl Cherney, in his studio/bedroom. He was living with his Mom in those days, and a big white cat whose purring was so loud it could be heard on the tape if we didn’t throw it out of the room. The song is called Whitewing, and it retells the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus (click the link to open the song in a new window):


When I made Whitewing, I was just starting to dream of a career in music. A few years (and a few bands) later, I was finally offered the management contract of my dreams … and I turned it down. Cut my hair. Changed careers. Headed toward what we now call sustainability. The reality of succeeding in a career in music — endless touring, smoky bars, playing the same repertoire every night for months — was, when I finally looked that possibility in the face, far less appealing than the dream.

And yet, today I go into the studio again. I’m in the process of recording my sixth album — after a break of twelve years. You probably never heard of most of my albums — “Fire in the Night,” “Testing the Rope,” or the twelve Rilke poems I set to music on “Falcon, Storm, or Song.” (I recorded that one in the year 2000, but did not release it until 2006.) Three of them — the Rilke album, plus the humor album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On,” and the more serious singer-songwriter collection “Testing the Rope” — are available on Tunecore.

This new album is a return to the troubadour-style ballads of “Testing the Rope.” In fact, I’m thinking of calling the album “American Troubadour,” which is one of the song titles, and also a good description of how I feel these days in relation to music:  American.  You see, living in Sweden — which has a long troubadour tradition, yet not a lot of places for troubadours to play, and even less opportunity for 52-year-old, family-man, American-origin troubadours to play — has further complexified my situation, and made the whole music thing an even more private affair. On top of that, Sweden is not a country where you stand up and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m not just this, I’m also that, and I’m actually this other thing as well, and please listen to my songs and read my books.” Sweden feeds my natural inclination to not draw attention to myself, even though I am in a profession — author, speaker, performer, etc. — that requires drawing attention to oneself.

Then there’s the issue of mixing your professional identity (which I’ve written about in my books). I do quite a lot of work that falls into a category that one might call “serious” — advising companies or UN agencies, writing reports on global economic issues, moderating high-level panel discussions, etc. But my best-known songs (as anyone reading this probably knows) are humorous. Singing humorous songs, especially live, puts one automatically in a sort of “clown-entertainer” role. “Serious” work and “clown” work do not mix together very well.

People tell me, “Oh, but your songs are so effective at getting these messages across!” (I heard this just yesterday, at lunch — and I say thank you very much to the person who said it!) It’s often true that when I give a keynote speech or do a training, people remember what I sing — when I do sing, which isn’t always — more than what I say. I know that because I meet people who heard me years ago, and the first thing they say is, “You’re the guy who sang that song!”

So, I’m flummoxed.

Flummoxed or not, I’m going to keep doing what I do. Maybe more so. All of it. Including music. I’m going to start putting more of that music here, on my blog, so you can access it (for free). And I’m making a new album. (It’s not a funny one.) I have no idea how I’m going to promote that album, or even pay for it — but there’s a decade worth of songs that are just demanding to be recorded. They won’t let me alone until I do.

And then … I’ll put the work out there. On Facebook, Twitter, the Blog, the Amazon, whatever channels are available.

And see what happens.

Blogging, Tweeting, Booking Face – Results & Survey

For the last month, I’ve done my best to write publicly (on the internet) about my professional life, with a personal voice, as often as I possibly could. “Daily” was the original ambition. It became “often” instead.

What did I learn? Should I continue, with the same frequency?

You know, that’s really up to you — to those of you who are reading this.  I’d really like your feedback. Should I write more? More often? Less? On what?

Here’s a link:  please take the survey! (then continue reading this entry)

Since starting this “one-month intensive,” readers have come to my personal website about 1,000 times (I have no idea how many actual readers that translates to). I’ve gained a little over 50 followers on Twitter. That’s lovely, especially if I think of these readers as friends, reading my letters. I wrote a lot of letters as a young man, and they were a wonderful way to figure out what I thought, and exchange thoughts and feelings with others. But hand-written letters go to one or two persons at a time. A “blog entry” (oh, how I dislike the language of Web 2.0) is typically read by 30-50 people (my biggest day was around 300, but that was two years ago during the Copenhagen climate summit, the recent tops is 82). And again, if I think of it as writing a letter that reaches that many friends and family members, it’s at least a more efficient way of writing to them.

Isn’t it?

Wait a minute, isn’t that what Facebook is for?

Shouldn’t I just use these channels for marketing? Ah, but then people become less interested. Of course, it’s all marketing, isn’t it?  Aren’t we all sort of “marketing ourselves” in this tweet/blog/facebook part of the world? Even when we are “baring our hearts”? Maybe even especially then?

And aren’t we all overloaded with information? Isn’t it getting harder to care, what someone writes about what they think? Harder to prioritize what to read?

You can see I’m a bit confused, which is why I’d love some feedback from you. But if you have read this far, you are clearly interested in these questions, so here is a little more information about the results of my “one-month intensive.”

# of blog posts I wrote during the period 19 May to 22 June:  10

# of twitter/linkedin/facebook posts:  about 150

# of comments attracted:  less than 10

Most popular blog post during that time:  “What Lady Gaga and I Have in Common”  (Link:

No surprise there: I wrote the post partly as an experiment, to see if mentioning Gaga would increase average readership. It did, by more than 50% for that day, and it’s getting three times the hits of the next most popular posting.

I tweeted live from high-level seminars on the future of the planet, and large-scale conferences on future of our lifestyles … I reflected out loud on the ethics and practice of my profession as a sustainability consultant (including the intriguing topic of confidentiality) … I told the world about being in a car accident in Korea, even before I told my family (and I still have not mentioned it to my children). And despite all that …

Most people want to read about me and Lady Gaga. Maybe I should write about celebrities more often!

I look forward to your feedback …

Watching Egypt 1 – Private Worries, Public Hopes

It was a relief to finally hear my client’s voice on the phone. She was a bit breathless, but not sounding in distress. She had been out food shopping by taxi just that afternoon (this was Monday, 31 January), able to find what she needed, “though many people are just buying up whatever they can get, and hoarding it,” she noted. She was surprisingly worried about work, and about the project we’re working on, a major strategy document for economic competitiveness and Green Transformation in Egypt:  “No one is going to the office, because there is no point, the internet is shut down.”

And of course, there was the fire.

The first four floors of the office building had been damaged by a fire set in the shops on the ground floor, probably in connection with looting. Fortunately, the offices of the Egyptian National Council on Competitiveness (ENCC) are on the fifth floor. So the home of one of Egypt’s most important small think-tanks, a place where a true transition to sustainability was being mapped out in careful detail, is still intact.

Whatever happens in Egypt, the country is going to need that Council, and that new Green Transformation strategy, more than ever in the coming years. One of the many documents I had absorbed in trying to learn about the situation there (as part of my work as a strategic advisor to the ENCC) was the most recent national Human Development Report. The numbers on youth unemployment alone, and the accompanying quotes from young, educated people (whose needs for a meaningful life had clearly not been met), were enough to make the events that are happening now in Egypt all too easy to understand.

Not to mention the many comments I had heard from many people when I visited there, on three occasions last year. These comments were usually whispered, or voiced only after a quick look to the left and the right to see who might be listening (if one were in a public place). It reminded me of being in China in 1982, when people I met on the street literally dragged me behind bushes to have conversations about freedom in some European language they were studying. Egypt was not that extreme, but the feeling of caution, bordering on fear, about saying what one really thought was something I encountered regularly on my visits there.

Suddenly, the whispers have grown to a roar.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say. But in this case, many Egyptian experts had 20/20 foresight as well. No one could have predicted an uprising of this kind, of course; and no one I have met while working there predicted it to happen now. But almost everyone said, either subtly or directly, that something like this — a “phase shift” or “nonlinear event,” an encounter with unsustainable trends, building up to a breaking point — was inevitable if Egypt did not make major, transformative changes, and quickly.

The world, watching Egypt, now sees the demands for political openness and justice that are visibly driving the protesters. What is not so obvious is the array of other issues that have contributed to this enormous, tsunami-like outburst of “We’re not going to take it anymore” public emotion.

For example, Cairo was experiencing water shortages as well as sporadic blackouts when I visited last year. These are not usual; they were practically a first. Egypt has prided itself on its provision of energy and especially water to its people in modern times; they are serious matters of national security. But one man I met was embarrassed to be photographed, because newly imposed water restrictions had prevented him from shaving for a few days:  “The Quality Control Director of a food processing factory [his job] should not appear in a photograph unshaven,” he told me.

Meanwhile, prices of some common foodstuffs and other consumer goods were also suddenly skyrocketing, some friends said, and those price increases were not being reported publicly. They were just being felt, and they were so significant that even my wealthier friends were feeling it.

And these were just the pressures visible to anyone.  While energy prices were still heavily subsidized, Egypt had recently changed over from being a net oil exporter to being a net oil importer. It was meeting the deficit — and the needs of its fast-growing population of over 80 million — by pumping out natural gas faster than ever. The production curves literally turned almost straight up.

Were these the indicators of a sustainable future?  Not a chance.

I am convinced these and other pressures, both visible and less visible (but widely known), helped to create a general feeling of unease, and that this feeling combined with the much more visible calls for democracy and openness that are now playing out so very publicly on the world stage. All of it taken together created a pile of very dry social kindling. The dozens of self-immolations that followed on Tunisia’s example were literally the spark that lit a conflagration.

Today, the hopes regarding Egypt are many. Indeed the hopes of the people there, and the hopes of the world on their behalf, have already become highly documented history. World leaders are speaking out in support of the protesters demands in almost unprecedented ways — or at least, in ways not seen since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The public statements of Egypt’s military are no less remarkable in their embrace of transition.

But I have private hopes, as we all do. First and foremost, as an outside observer with clients and friends in Egypt, I hope for their safety and security. (I could easily have been in Egypt the week the protests began, as I had been invited to the country for a work engagement, but felt the need to stay home for family reasons.)

And I also have private worries, more than I care to express in a public blog — worries for the safety of specific individuals I know and their family members. I join my voice to the prayers for safety that my client mentioned so many times, when I finally reached her on her mobile phone on Monday.

When it comes to the Egyptian transformation — for that is what we are witnessing — I think most engaged observers have both high hopes and big worries for its outcome. The opportunity for change is enormous now, and Egypt truly needs enormous changes:  this was a core message of the materials that had been presented to ministers and senior business and society leaders in May of last year. These Egyptian-born ideas about purusing a Green Transformation strategy — renewable energy, water consevation, sustainable agriculture, jobs and capacity development, innovation, education — were due to be presented in an even more strategic and practical way this year.  These were urgent matters before (they were being increasingly framed as national security issues) and they remain urgent, perhaps “super-urgent”, matters for the foreseeable future.

And now, one can add a phrase to the list of “super-urgent” matters, a topic that was essentially taboo just two weeks ago, a topic that numerous people essentially only whispered to me previously, a topic than anyone with access to a global news source can now plainly attest to as being the desperate longing of the Egyptian people, a topic that may even become the source of the accelerated sustainability transformation that Egypt desperately needs:

Democratic participation.

“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.


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


Facebook Frenzy

As anybody actually watching me digitally will already know, I recently got more caught up with Facebook.  Clicked through a bunch of friend requests.  I still have over a hundred outstanding requests — for causes, games, you-name-it — but those I just have to ignore.  Here’s a note I drafted to try to explain why it took me so long to say yes to so many people … thanks for your understanding!

Dear Facebook friends,

With my deepest apologies for a group note, and for the slowness of a reply … I am happy to be connected. And let me explain my slowness in replying to your invitation.

I had dozens of outstanding friend requests.  Previously, when I started using Facebook, I had a policy of just having fairly close personal friends, family, and professional colleagues as “friends” on Facebook. I let requests from lots of wonderful folks that I had met more briefly, or knew through others but had not met personally, just pile up. I didn’t want to click “Ignore,” but I wasn’t sure how to respond either. Then, people I did know pretty well, or whom I had known long ago, also showed up and got stuck in that pile — high school friends, for example … and anyway, the whole thing just sort of got out of control.

So, I have a new policy of welcoming all these connections, and thinking differently about how I use Facebook, about what it’s for.

Thanks for reaching out!  I look forward to staying connected …