Category Archives: Sustainable Development

Change to improve long-term, systemic conditions for humans and nature

Words&Music 2: What a difference a half-year makes

Dear Reader,

This is the second installment of my personal newsletter, Words&Music. To receive this in your inbox, sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9

Dear Reader,

Global poverty. Climate change. Political uncertainty. Swedish development aid. Financial markets. The United Nations and the World Bank. The challenge of learning to lead a complex department, in a complex public agency, in complex times.

These are a few of the things that have been on my mind the past six months. Certainly I intended to write to you more often. I also believed, perhaps naively, that I would continue working on my current book, digitally scribbling away at poetry, prepping for an eventual return to the recording studio.

Instead, I have been completely engrossed in my job.

And this has been very rewarding: I am lucky to be leading a department full of smart, committed, and friendly people, as well as sitting on an overall management team that can be similarly described. I’ve also had the honor of representing Sida at the annual meetings of the World Bank and UN General Assembly. I’ve had literally hundreds of meetings during this time, received thousands of emails, signed dozens of decision documents.

There has been a lot to learn, and there remains a lot to be learned. It’s never-ending, of course. But finally, this weekend, I found myself thinking of you — the people who signed up for my newsletter, up to half a year ago.

So much has happened during that half-year. The most profound change, from my personal point of view, has been the change in my own perspective. Immersion in the governmental and inter-governmental machinery of sustainable development, including the interfaces between governments and companies and non-profits and academic institutions, is quite different from advising those entities as an external consultant (which was my principal profession over the past 25 years).

For one thing, as a decision-maker, I now depend on the advice and the work of others. It quickly becomes impossible to set oneself into the details of every issue (as a consultant I always dug into the details). I must trust my colleagues. They present the results of their analyses, describe the logic they have used to arrive at a proposed course of action. If it makes sense to me, I approve it, cheer them on, or carry it forward for discussion at the leadership level. If I am not fully convinced, or if I see areas that I believe can or must be improved in some way, we look together at the relevant details of those aspects that seem problematic, till we arrive at a good conclusion. (And I’m not always right, of course.)

On the other hand, if I have an idea for a course of action, it makes no sense for me to simply “just do it”. There is a vast library of relevant knowledge and experience, a great team, sitting all around me. I don’t have to do anything of scale on my own; in fact, it’s part of my job not to do things on my own, but to mobilize, inspire, support others to do that work (and much other work besides, including everything that we are already tasked with doing, by the Swedish government or by our agency’s Director-General).

And sometimes it turns out that “my idea” has actually been incubated elsewhere, by others, somewhere inside my agency, for some time: then my job becomes one of supporting my colleagues and helping that idea find its way to a bigger life.

I have a new-found appreciation for people like Wallace Stevens, already one of my favorite poets of the 20th Century, who managed to write his poems and essays while also working as a top executive in a large insurance company. If he could do it, I say to myself, eventually so can I.

This is by no means a complaint. I assume you have been reading between the lines of the letter and understanding how much I love this job. I am keenly aware that responsibility is a privilege. So I have been giving that responsibility my all.

But after a half-year, I am finally re-discovering life outside my job. (Not my family life — they have always been at the center of my little corner of the universe.) There are poems to write, songs to sing, a few books I want to continue developing.

And there is you — the much-appreciated people who indicated, by signing up for this newsletter, that you were interested in what I am thinking and writing and/or singing. I hope you are following me on social media (if you like social media — Twitter is my principal channel). You will get a mix there of work-related and personal views on the world.

But I will be back to you soon with news about the other stuff: my longer-term project to write a book on developing the human capacity to imagine our future (in more constructive ways than we do currently), and shorter-term projects to bring nearly-completed work out into the public sphere.

Thanks again for your continued interest … and just for fun, here’s one of my old songs that might be of interest, because it seems (to me) more and more timely with each passing year:  “Trying to be Happy in a Crazy World“. The link is to a free YouTube version. You can also listen to it on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon etc. Lyrics are pasted in below. (Don’t miss the little twist in the lyric on the very last refrain.)

Warm regards from Stockholm,
Alan

Trying to be Happy in a Crazy World

Words and Music © 1991 by Alan AtKisson – from the album “Believing Cassandra“, available on most major streaming services, and free to listen to on YouTube

Open up the paper — turn on the news —
Get a double dose of the daily blues
And the man in the mirror, he’s struggling free
Like he’s swimming up from the bottom of the sea, he’s …

Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Trying to be happy in a crazy world
Trying to be happy in a crazy world

Sometimes history seems like a practical joke
That ends with a planet going up in smoke
We’re slippin’ and slidin’ — it’s a banana peel dance
Are we just the victims of global circumstance?  Are we …

Trying to be happy in a crazy world …

Well it’s hard to keep your hope when there’s such trouble in the world
The thorns among the roses, the swine who eat the pearls
And it seems so very hard to love just one human being
When it happens, the joy makes the angels sing

Maybe life’s a riddle — or maybe it’s school
Maybe we’re a family of hopeless fools
Maybe we’re just tired of livin’ on a little blue ball
We’re playin’ dangerous games that make no sense at all — Maybe we’re

Trying to be crazy in a happy world
Trying to be crazy in a happy world
Trying to be crazy in a happy world

 

The ‘big push’ transforming the world’s energy systems

As I’m sure you have noticed, renewable energy is taking the world by storm, driven by rapidly falling prices. Ever wonder how that happened?

In 2009, I authored a concept paper for the United Nations Secretariat, for circulation at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. COP15 became infamous because it was deemed a spectacular failure. Heads of state were personally negotiating the terms of the weak “Copenhagen Accord” into the wee hours of the night — a sure sign that the diplomatic process had broken down.

Fortunately, that process had nothing to do with my job in Copenhagen, which was to garner support for a bold new initiative — a “Big Push” strategy — to scale up renewable energy in the developing world, and thereby bring the price down to affordable levels globally.

I’ll skip over the technical details of the plan I was proposing, working on behalf of senior officials in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The basic concept was to invest heavily in renewables in poor countries, using a globally coordinated system of price guarantees (aka “feed-in tariffs” — you can read the “Technical Note” here). Pump money for solar panels and wind turbines into those countries, and the resulting scale-up in production would bring global prices for those technologies down, and fast.

Fast was important: Otherwise, developing countries would get locked into cheaper, dirtier fossil fuels, and there would be no chance of meeting global CO2 reduction targets.

The idea for this Big Push had originated with Tariq Banuri, a brilliant policy innovator from Pakistan who was then serving as the U.N.’s director for sustainable development. My job was to develop his idea into a clear proposal, with numbers and an implementation strategy, then recruit wise and respected voices at Copenhagen to support the package.

And we did. The positive response we received to Tariq’s concept of a “Global Green New Deal” for renewable energy was one of the few bright spots to emerge from Copenhagen, even though not much came of it after that.

(The full story of my experiences in Copenhagen is told in the second edition of my 2010 book, “Believing Cassandra.” After COP15, I started building a nonprofit organization to promote the Big Push, but dropped it when many of our ideas were absorbed into then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, launched in 2011.)

But here’s the punchline: In hindsight, pushing this Big Push strategy was probably unnecessary.

It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme.

It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme. Much to my (and everyone else’s) surprise, the world already has achieved the affordability targets we set, well ahead of the schedule we were envisioning — without any such scheme.

It is important to underscore that those targets, and our proposed schedule — bringing the price of solar and wind energy down to about 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, within 10 to 20 years — seemed wildly, even unrealistically ambitious back in 2009. But by 2017, just eight years after Copenhagen, the achievement of those targets is already in the rear-view mirror.

Net power generating capacity added in 2016, globally, by main technology, in gigawatts.

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2017,” Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF

Take a good look at the pie chart above. The data comes from Bloomberg, published by U.N. Environment Programme and the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management. Notice that over half of all the new electricity capacity installed globally during 2016 came from solar and wind. For five years running, solar and wind have outpaced coal and gas by a wide margin. While there is a long way to go before the world is driven principally by renewables, the energy transformation is well under way.

The learning curve

A key factor driving this transformation is the price of renewables, which has dropped like a stone. Why? Exactly for the reasons we described in 2009, based on a well-known economics concept called the “learning curve”: The more you make something, the more you learn how to make it cheaply and efficiently.

Economists can predict declines in price by plotting these learning curves on a graph, relating price to the quantity of a thing produced. It doesn’t matter how much time it takes to produce the thing; quantity is the key variable. The faster you produce that quantity, the faster you slide down the learning curve towards the associated lower price.

When drafting our Big Push plan in 2009, I was astonished to find that the learning curves for renewable energy being used by most analysts originally had been drawn in 1992. No one had thought to update them. The curves seemed very pessimistic to me, given how fast China (among other actors) was coming online with solar panels and wind turbines. I suggested those curves needed to be redrawn, with new assumptions, based on the rapid developments and faster-than-expected learning we already were seeing in the renewables market.

As it turns out, my optimism was still amazingly pessimistic.

In 2009, even after adjusting the learning curve, we thought it would take about 2,000 gigawatts of installed solar and wind power to bring the price down to our global affordability target of 3 cents per kWh. But that price was reached in a number of countries, including India, Mexico, Chile and Morocco, by 2016. And the total installed global capacity at that time: Just 800 gigawatts — less than half of what we calculated would be necessary.

Bear in mind, 800 gigawatts of solar and wind energy is still a huge number, compared to where things started in 2009. Back then, the world’s wind turbines, if they were spinning at full capacity, could generate just over 150 GW. By 2016, that number had swelled to nearly 500 GW. The growth in solar photovoltaics was even more rocket-like: from 23 gigawatts of capacity in 2009 to more than 300 in 2016.

Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

Even the world’s top energy experts call this rapid fall in prices astonishing. How did the price fall so much faster than anyone expected?

Simple: Our expectations were plain wrong. You’ve no doubt heard of Moore’s Law, describing how the power of computing chips doubles every 18 months. How about Swanson’s Law? The term was introduced in an Economist article in 2012 to describe a similar pattern for solar panels. Swanson’s Law was basically a revised learning curve, one much closer to the curve we redrew at the U.N. in 2009 (but never published).

There is just one problem with Swanson’s Law: it, too, has proven far too pessimistic. Current prices for solar-electric panels are less than half of what Swanson’s Law would have predicted.

In reviewing these amazing and historic developments, it occurred to me that the world did get a Big Push strategy after all. Renewable energy scaled up rapidly in developing countries, pushing down renewable energy prices globally.

But we didn’t need a massive effort to mobilize international aid, as well as investments from the world’s rich countries, at the trillion-dollar scale we envisioned in 2009. It happened thanks to the target countries, the ones we call “developing,” especially China and India. And it happened faster than predicted, because our predictions were too pessimistic.

It turns out these countries learned faster than any “learning curve” Western experts could draw.

There are several extremely important lessons in all that, but here’s the biggest one: Never doubt that massive, transformative change is possible. It’s happening all around us, all the time — and usually faster than anyone expects.

© 2018 by Alan AtKisson. Originally published on Greenbiz.com as his “North Star” column, 23 Jan 2018.

The Sustainability Change Agent’s Job Description

This year, 2018, marks a decade since I first published The Sustainability Transformation* — the 2nd book in my planned 3-volume “Optimist Trilogy.” I’m now working on volume 3. But the “job description” from vol. 2 that appears on the first page of the first chapter is still highly relevant. Enjoy … and spread.

JOB DESCRIPTION

World development is making most people richer and healthier. It is creating enormous new opportunities for human learning and self-expression. But it is also creating a dangerous set of conditions and trends – climate change, a stark rich/poor divide, an erosion of community and social capital, depletion of both non-renewable and renewable resources, conflict over resources, degraded ecosystems, disappearing species, and many other problems – that are increasingly likely to cause collapses and catastrophes, small and large. These growing dangers are greatly diminishing the long-term prospects of both people and nature. Our current course is not sustainable.

Your job is to help change the world, by changing the systems in which you live and work. Your objective is to prevent collapse or catastrophe – in both human and natural systems – and to increase the prospects for a more sustainable and even beautiful future.

To assist you in accomplishing your assignment, you will be given access to current research about the trends shaping that future, as well as up-to-date news about important breakthroughs, tools, technologies and change processes. You will be linked up to other individuals and groups who have accepted the same job and who are spread out across the planet. This global ‘conspiracy of hope’, combined with the latest in communications technology, will make it possible to work in both physical and virtual teams, and to find help and support, almost anywhere.

Your prospects for success are better than they might appear, because slow changes can suddenly become very rapid, and because humanity has a long history of rising to overcome great challenges. But you face a number of daunting obstacles and limitations:

  • You will be given minimal resources to pursue your mission – indeed, an extremely tiny amount when compared to the resources currently spent to fuel your community, company or government on its current course. You will have to find ways to create large-scale changes with small-scale budgets using high-leverage intervention strategies.
  • You will be largely invisible to others, and it will sometimes be difficult to explain to other people what you are doing. Phrases like ‘sustainable development’, ‘global transformation’ or ‘a systems perspective’ still leave most people scratching their heads. You will have to communicate your intentions in ways that speak to people’s immediate and local needs while also convincing them to participate in longer-term, larger-scale changes to solve increasingly global problems. There is not enough time to wait for people to ‘wake up’ or ‘get it’ on a mass scale.
  • You will have limited access to centres of power. If you achieve access, you will often discover that many people sitting in those centres of power feel surprisingly trapped by the system that they are supposedly controlling, and relatively powerless to make change. If you are not able to convince them otherwise, you will have to find other ‘leverage points’, other places to start change processes that can then spread through the system.
  • Meanwhile, the momentum of change in the wrong direction will be immeasurably huge, and will probably continue to accelerate, in ways that seem unstoppable. It is imperative that you resist tendencies to despair and cynicism, in yourself and others, and that you find effective ways to spread a sense of hope and inspiration. For without hope – the belief that change is possible, that your vision of a sustainable world is attainable – your chances of success fall dramatically.

Good luck.

 

* The original title of The Sustainability Transformation was “The ISIS Agreement” (2008) — referring both to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to our planning methodology, which is introduced in the book (Indicators, Systems, Innovation, Strategy). The hardback version from 2008 is still available under the old name. We had to change the name of both the methodology and the book, for obvious reasons. The methodology is now called VISIS (we added “Vision”, because it was always part of the methodology anyway).

How universities are using our tools to accelerate sustainability

Above: Masters students at University of Iceland completing an AtKisson “Pyramid” workshop.

This article was originally published in my “North Star” column series on Greenbiz.com

Just how central are universities to advancing the practice of sustainability? Most professionals would say, “Very.” Universities create knowledge relevant to sustainability, they train sustainability practitioners and they often act as beacons of sustainability leadership in their communities or even nations. A good example of this would be the ambitious climate commitment, to which more than 90 colleges and universities in the United States have signed on, facilitated by the nonprofit organization Second Nature.

Given that universities play such a central role, how much do we know about how universities pursue sustainability, in a whole-systems way?

The answer: Not much.

But now we know a little bit more, thanks to a new academic research paper on sustainability in higher education, co-authored by myself and three colleagues, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. Lead author Dana Kapitulčinová, a researcher from Charles University in Prague, led a two-year process that involved a broad literature survey on tools and methods being used in university sustainability programs, followed by a deep dive into the use of one specific set of tools for integrated sustainability planning: AtKisson Group’s Accelerator suite. (The other two authors were Joanne Perdue, chief sustainability officer at University of Calgary in Canada; and Marcus Will, a researcher at the University of Applied Sciences Zittau/Görlitz in Germany.)

To continue with full disclosure, we initiated this study first and foremost to find out how universities were using Accelerator — in their sustainability program offices as well as in their classrooms — so that we could improve it. We surveyed university-based users from 17 institutions in 13 countries across four continents. We crunched the numbers on their answers and looked for patterns we could learn from.

But one thing led to another and soon we also found ourselves broadening our research. We wanted to understand the tools and methods being used to affect every dimension of sustainability in higher-education (HE) institutions, including teaching and learning, research, campus operations, outreach and administration, including assessment and reporting. We wanted to put our specific findings about the Accelerator tools into a general context.

The fact that no one else had performed this type of general review before is what ultimately got our study published in a major international journal.

TFMAs in the SCATs

We started by highlighting the documented importance of key individuals — “change agents” — in university sustainability processes. These processes usually involve significant organizational transformation, which means they require careful planning and facilitation. Then we asked, how were these change agents — who typically operate with very limited resources — approaching the challenge of facilitating a transformation, especially given the extremely complex nature of large higher-education institutions? What tools and methods were they using?

To deal with our results, we had to invent a new acronym: SCAT — the “sustainability change agents’ toolbox.” But just one new acronym was not enough. People promoting sustainability in universities come at this daunting challenge in so many ways, using so many terminologies, that we invented another acronym: TMFAs, for “Tools, Methods, Frameworks/models and Approaches.”

When we catalogued all the TMFAs in the SCATs that we could find, in the context of higher education and sustainability, here’s what we found:

  • So many TMFAs were in use — from various kinds of footprinting, to formal sustainability management and reporting systems, to tailored processes with complex names such as “the Cleaner Production Infused Academic Program for Sustainable Development” — it was impossible to list them all. Some TMFAs were used in just one institution; some were used in hundreds. We could provide only examples for illustration purposes, otherwise our very long academic paper would have become a multi-year Ph.D dissertation.
  • Most TMFAs we looked at were single-purpose, focused on just one dimension of university life, such as teaching or reporting. They usually did not get applied across multiple dimensions in an integrated way. But we did find a few exceptions, including environmental footprinting methods (carbon footprints and ecological footprints) and participatory assessment and reporting methods (such as the widely used STARS program of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education). Fortunately for us, our Accelerator training and planning tools also made this list.
  • The choice of TMFAs in the SCATs were all over the map, meaning it was difficult to find any simple recurring pattern. HE institutions tended to develop their own tailored toolbox of TMFAs, depending on the kind of institutions they were, as well as on the specific change agents who were driving sustainability. The choice of TMFAs also seemed to be influenced by the institutions’ participation in various national or international initiatives. Here’s how we summed it up in academic language:

Integration of sustainability principles in higher education therefore happens on different levels and along various pathways including via international as well as national channels (sustainability-specific projects or programs), via sustainability-aware university leaders (establishing sustainability leadership positions within institutions) or via committed individuals (including faculty, researchers or students).

After describing this rather turbulent marketplace of tools and approaches, our research article moved on to the question of how people were using our tools, known as the Accelerator. The Accelerator is an integrated toolset that includes the Sustainability Compass for orientation and assessment; the Pyramid Workshop for planning and teaching sustainability; the Amoeba Model for training and supporting change agents; and a 360-degree strategic planning module called StrateSphere. The tools are undergirded by a generic sustainability methodology that we also developed called VISIS, which stands for Vision, Indicators, Systems, Innovation and Strategy. The VISIS method is open source, and it has been used by the U.N. Secretariat as well as being included by the U.N. Development Group in its recommended catalog of tools and methods to support implementation of the SDGs.

Accelerator, based on VISIS, has been around in its current form for 15 years, but we never actually had gotten around to documenting these tools, as an integrated package, for the academic press. The toolset is proprietary, but we make a simplified free version available to educators, NGOs and individuals for non-commercial use.

Despite this long history, we did not have a clue about what people in universities were doing with the Accelerator tools once they acquired them. We especially wanted to know if they were using the tools as intended: to support an integrated approach, infusing sustainability throughout management, operations and classroom teaching, using similar tools, methods and symbols (such as the Sustainability Compass).

Why did we think that universities might be using our tools this way? Because a number of primary and secondary schools — mostly in Asia, and mostly associated with the prominent International Baccalaureate (IB) network — already had been doing so. The Sustainability Compass formally has been integrated into the IB’s global curriculum for middle-year students. Demand among IB educators for our integrated approaches to sustainability had proven strong enough that a new organization had formed and spun off from our commercial enterprise. Compass Education, a non-profit based in Thailand and the United States, provides training on the Accelerator tools (and other systems-based approaches to sustainability) to hundreds of teachers and administrators from dozens of countries every year. The program has spread from Asia to other continents as well.

But success at the primary and secondary levels of education did not automatically imply that the tools would work similarly at universities. Compared to secondary schools, universities are much larger and much more complicated. Universities also have a culture of individual autonomy that touches every level of institutional life.

Compasses, pyramids and amoebas

Secondary schools, in sharp contrast, are quite regimented organizations. There is often a specific curriculum that all must follow and a relatively tight command structure that flows from rectors to teachers, administrators and operational staff. It is quite possible for schools to adopt our “Sustainability Compass” as a framework at the management level, use our “Sustainability Pyramid” workshop to plan action at the operational level, then mirror that process all the way out into the classroom and even into the early grade-levels, supported by “Amoeba”-trained change agents.

We know that it’s possible, because it has already happened.

But that scenario is decidedly not a description of how a university works. In the academic culture, models are meant to be questioned. Pre-packaged tools and methods are met with skeptical criticism. The idea that a university president or chancellor simply could instruct professors, administrators and operational staff to use a common sustainability framework is unlikely in the extreme.

The deeply democratic and inherently critical nature of university culture creates special challenges for sustainability change agents. They cannot rely on a chain of command. They must convene, convince, facilitate, instruct and lead people in highly participatory and inclusive ways. Our Accelerator tools are designed to support such inter-disciplinary, participatory processes. But were they helping university change agents achieve their goals? Additionally, was Accelerator being used in the integrated fashion we intended, across multiple parts of the institution?

The answer to both questions was a resounding “sometimes” — and certainly not as often as we would like. We were gratified to receive a lot of positive feedback on the effectiveness of the tools. In the situations where Accelerator tools were being used, they clearly worked. But we were surprised to learn that classroom teaching was the most common setting for the use of our tools (we had expected to see planning and operations dominate). At the same time, in those institutions where tools such as the Sustainability Compass or Pyramid Workshop were being effectively used in management, they had not spread much into teaching.

Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, they had not spread very quickly from one type of use to another. There were exceptions to the rule, and the cut-off for our data gathering was 2014 (that’s an indicator of how slow the process of getting academic papers published can be). We know anecdotally that in several institutions, use of these tools has continued to spread into other dimensions of those universities — out of the office for sustainability setting, for example, and into student engagement programs or graduate research applications.

What’s next? First, given the importance of universities, our paper concluded that — brace yourself — more research is needed in this area. We think there is a general need for better knowledge about change processes within institutions of higher education, and about how their integration of sustainability can be accelerated — with a special focus on the challenging role of change agents and on their ability to master key skillsets. We are not likely to be the ones who take up that research challenge, but we have done the first survey and introduced some useful analysis concepts (TMFAs and SCATs). We hope others will be willing to carry the ball forward.

Second, in our study, we barely touched on the role of students in this process — and as everyone who works in universities knows, students are very often the most effective drivers of change in those environments. Numerous Ph.D dissertations and masters theses could be written around this question.

And finally, we concluded that our own tools need some updating and improvement, if they are to meet the needs of the rapidly changing sustainability movement. Accelerator is still one of the few options available for integrated and inter-disciplinary orienting, engaging, mobilizing, training and planning work around sustainable development. But if the aim of these tools is to accelerate transformational change in complex environments, we will need to “accelerate the Accelerator.”

We look forward to seeing what others do, to carry on this research. Understanding how people can change universities, so that universities can help change societies, might turn out to be one of the most powerful leverage points we have for advancing sustainable development.

Happy World Oceans Day … Seriously

From my personal Facebook page today:

Dear Friends,

http://SDG14.net

As you know, lately I’ve been investing a lot of my time on raising ocean awareness (together with many thousands of other people). My firm sponsored the “Out to Sea” exhibit on ocean plastics (also known as the Plastic Garbage Project). We launched SDG14.net. I keynoted European Maritime Day. And we’ve been supporting WWF on its Blue Economy and related ocean strategies. I’d like to believe, on this World Oceans Day, in the middle of the UN Ocean Conference now happening in NY, that it’s all having a positive effect — that all our actions in concert, including the big pushes by some governments (like Sweden & Fiji), the work of countless NGOs, and a growing number of folks like us have started to lift the oceans up to greater visibility.

Continued action on this is essential. I keep repeating “Ocean is the new climate,” but really it’s more than that. The atmospheric climate system is an essential, fateful thing, but it is inanimate. The oceans are full of life, they are the *cradle* of life, and that life is literally dying away. When we say, “save the planet,” usually half ironically, what we really mean is, save and protect the Earth’s living systems, and the non-living systems that are essential to all of us. #SaveOurOcean as the hashtag goes, but also, save life on land, save the life-sustaining balance of gases in our atmosphere, save the possibility for everyone, everywhere to have what they need. And in this, there is no room for modern irony. It really must be done, in all seriousness and earnestness. Sometimes this involves a confrontation with grief. But also, the work can bring a satisfying sense of joy and purpose.

Which is why I can close with a heartfelt: Happy World Oceans Day.

In Sweden, corporate sponsors did not “show up”

This is the original Facebook post from Jan 9, 2017, that made us realize we should try crowdfunding for our exhibit on ocean plastic waste. UPDATE 25 JAN 2017: WE ARE HALF WAY THERE! THANKS TO SWEDISH, JAPANESE, USA AND OTHER SPONSORS. Can you help? Click here to read more and contribute …

[Translation of original post in Swedish]  Right now, I am feeling very disappointed with Swedish business. Not a single company has agreed to sponsor an exhibit that we are trying to bring here, to Stockholm, about plastic garbage in the oceans. Not a single one! I won’t name any names but we have asked many of the most well known, including those who have profiled themselves on this question.

Image may contain: one or more people and foodThe problem is huge. The opportunity is also huge. Sweden’s government has stepped forward and sponsored the world’s first UN summit meeting on the oceans and SDG 14 [on the sustainability of the oceans and seas], in June 2017 in NY. The exhibit — which is very dramatic and educational — would be timed with World Water Day and would raise the profile of ocean issues in Sweden. Government agencies and others were ready to help with content for seminars etc. But the corporate sponsors we approached said, “We can’t prioritize that right now,” or “We don’t have the resources,” and such.

You know me. I don’t usually complain. I am, at bottom, an optimist. But this is truly a deep disappointment. This wasn’t huge money we were after. I expected more from Sweden’s private sector, as a land of sustainability leadership.

If you know someone with resources (company, foundation, private individual) who could imagine sponsoring a fantastic exhibit on how we can save our seas from the plague of plastic, please get in touch with me. [Time is of the essence, the window is closing.]

Thanks for reading this letter of complaint, Facebook friends!

For 2017: Short video about the long term

short-video-long-term-alan-atkisson-vimeo-thought-leader-tvFor New Year 2017: short video thoughts about the long-term nature of the challenges and opportunities we face.

Five minutes, please watch, and feel welcome to comment.

It was a pleasure to be interviewed by Natalie & Mikkel of Thought Leader Global. They do an excellent job of bringing out deeper issues in a gentle way that works well in modern video format.

Here’s their recent interview of me (from Nov 2016 at the “Framtanker” conference):

https://vimeo.com/194260215

Check out their channel, Thought Leader TV, http://www.thoughtleader.global/

Happy 2017 everyone … an evolutionary eye-blink, but an important one for all of us here on planet Earth.

To the President-Elect: A Confidential Briefing

To the President-Elect of the United States:

Considering who your closest advisors are, it is a fair guess that no one else is going to give you a briefing on sustainability. So I offer you one. I will keep it short, because you have a lot of information to absorb now. (People say that you have a short attention span. I don’t believe that, because you have been single-mindedly focused on one thing — winning the presidency — for the better part of two years.)

This is what you really need to know: the problems are real.

Climate change, dying seas, melting ice, dangerous pollutants, people driven to migration because they are desperately poor and/or under attack, and because they see attractive wealth and safety elsewhere in the world, and because the Earth under their feet or the fish in the sea no longer support them … There is a long list of problems that I wish I could tell you were just a bluff. Just an elaborate conspiracy by scientists who, for obscure reasons, are trying to grab power by scaring the public. (Believe me, scientists want a lot of things, but power is not one of them.)

Unfortunately, these are facts, not a bluff. And although you campaigned on denying facts like these, as president, you will have to deal with them.

“Sustainability” and “sustainable development” are words used by the rest of the world to talk about how to tackle these huge, complex problems. In fact, the world came to a mega-agreement, last September, that included 17 “Sustainable Development Goals”. Just read the list of 17. If you want to know what sustainable development means, that’s the briefing.

FYI, the US was just one of 193 nations that adopted those 17 goals. If you pull out, there will still be 192.

My guess is that you know some of this already. You’ve already been getting confidential briefings, and now you’ll get secret military briefings too. And the US military sees climate change and related sustainability problems as a major security risk. They’re going to tell you all this, and they’re going to show you that melting ice and rising seas and drought-driven migrants are just as real as Russian ICBMs and the artificial Chinese islands in the South China Sea.

Maybe this new knowledge you are getting — much of it from generals and admirals with a ton of medals on their chests, or spy chiefs with access to top secret CIA information — explains a tiny bit of the more humble tone you’ve been striking in public. Maybe the awesome responsibility is sinking in. We hear that you are a fast learner. (At least, we heard that from you. I very much hope you are right in that self-assessment.)

I said I would keep this short, so I’ll add just a word or two about the economy. Sustainability is taken very seriously by many leading US, Chinese, and other global companies — and increasingly by the global stock and bond markets, too — which means that you will have to take these issues a lot more seriously. But fortunately, this part will be easier.

You are a businessman, so you understand the language of risk, and the magic of compound interest. Economically, all these issues we group under sustainability are now understood as serious risks to business and financial performance — if you don’t deal with them.

The risks are growing exponentially, which means surprisingly fast, just as a good rate of return on an investment, or compound interest, doubles your money surprisingly fast.

But when we do invest in addressing them — spurring innovation in energy and materials and construction methods and all the rest of it — it turns out that the benefits grow exponentially too. Just ask a few CEOs. Or check out this recent report, backed by a big panel of global business leaders, on the trillion-dollar benefits (that is not an exaggeration) of sustainable development in just one business sector: agriculture. (I know, agriculture is not your favorite topic, but as president, you have to deal with everything.)

Let’s wrap this up. You’ve got a lot of things to do, like figuring out how to break the news to your followers that much of what you were promising them, during the campaign, now appears impossible to deliver.

Here’s a hint: you’ll come closer to, say, delivering on millions of new jobs if you take sustainability and climate change seriously, instead of scrapping environmental protections or the Paris Agreement. You’ll do more to address the issue of illegal immigration if you take sustainable development seriously, and invest in helping other countries to build secure and resilient economies, than if you build a monster wall.

An earlier Republican president with whom you are already being compared, Ronald Reagan, famously quipped that “facts are stupid things.” Well, in a way, he was right, because facts alone tell us nothing. They certainly don’t tell us what to do.

But the facts don’t go away, no matter how many tweets one throws at them. Here’s another historical fact: presidents, once they leave the mud-pit of the campaign trail and come into the actual command center of government, often seem to mature quickly. They find ways to finesse those promises, and react to reality, as adults must do. Information is power, but getting power also brings with it new information. And with information comes responsibility.

That responsibility — which you have won at high cost to the social fabric of the United States, using campaign tactics that have sent tremors of deep worry around the world — is yours now.

I hope you exercise it wisely.

Sincerely,

Alan AtKisson

P.S.  If there is anything more you want to know about sustainability, and how to actually address these problems that you have just inherited from your predecessor, I know a lot of people who might be willing to help you. Some of them are even Republicans.

Post-Election Statement

alan-atkisson-self-portrait-with-usa-theme-10nov2016As a dual citizen of the USA and Sweden, I am determined to keep working for the vision and reality of sustainable development for all, here in my beloved Europe where I live, in my beloved USA where I have both family and business ties, and around the world. That imperative does not change no matter who is sitting in the White House or any seat of government. The science is irrefutable. The values and ethics of human rights, equity, and opportunity for all, powered by empathy, the creative impulse and our innate curiosity, are the best of what make us human. There may be headwinds now for the issues I and so many others care about – addressing climate change, ocean health, peace, justice, gender equity and more – but the arrow of history has only one direction worth working for, in every country. I don’t plan to stop now, or ever.

First published on my Instagram & Facebook accounts. Photo © Alan AtKisson from Instagram.

Postscript: There is a very traditional little Swedish cafe (“konditori”) near my home, where I go to often, to sit and think and write. Oddly, they have decorated the place with Americana. The combination — an understated and very Swedish environment, where local workers go for breakfast, but with reminders of American culture and New York (where I lived for many years) all around — was the perfect place to reflect on a stunning election result in the United States.

The Anthropocene: how “frightened” should we be?

MtRedoubted_Wikimedia
Photo from Wikimedia.org

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?

Sources:

Hamilton on fear of the Anthropocene (but he makes good points about how to identify it):
http://www.nature.com/news/define-the-anthropocene-in-terms-of-the-whole-earth-1.20427

Guardian news story on scientists assessing the new epoch:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth

Martin Rees on “darkest prognosis” and “optimistic option”:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/the-anthropocene-epoch-could-inaugurate-even-more-marvellous-eras-of-evolution

Also see BBC News on the Anthropocene meeting and the search for a definitive start date:
http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-37200489