There is a lot of advice packed into my books, much of it focused on making change happen. But if I were to lift up just one reflection on leading change in organizations, one that I still both observe and try to practice in my own work, it would be this one.
“Almost nothing is more effective as a means for speeding up the process of change within organizations than simple kindness and generosity.”
There is a story behind this little inspirational poster, the second in my series (and free to share).
Twenty years ago, I wrote a song called “Goin’ to the Top”, dedicated to the people of New Orleans. I had hoped (and in fact had been promised) that Aaron Neville would perform the song at a big event that I organized there, working with local business leaders on their long-term development plan. In the end, Aaron Neville was not available, so I performed the song myself, with a band hired in for the occasion.
Then the song sat on a shelf, for a long time.
Finally in 2014, I recorded and released the song on my album “American Troubadour” (with some great guitar help from Torbjörn Fall, an excellent Swedish studio band, and Andreas Bauman’s expert production). You can find it on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube etc.
I do love this song. It is pure pop, I admit, but also pure optimism, which is what we felt for New Orleans at that time. It’s a song about promise, potential, aiming high. We certainly need that now, across every dimension of global sustainability.
This poster is just one line from the song, perhaps the line that resonates with me most. It’s not about “going your own way”. It’s about creating the path you need, to get where you have to go.
My North Star platform at the Greenbiz.com website is no more. But they still publish columns by me when i send them. You can see the whole archive here. Maybe this column will be my last one — I have been writing columns for a long time, and this one seems a good note to go out on.
Don’t worry, I will still send thoughts to you on this channel. If you want them!
By the way, this article has already been picked up for republishing by an association for optimists based in Australia. Want to republish it? Contact me.
If your principal concern is sustainable development — with a focus on such issues as eliminating poverty, averting climate change, empowering women and creating the conditions for peace — then the current data absolutely does not look good.
So why on Earth would I title this article “Why I am a stubborn optimist”?
Because I still believe, as I have written so many times, in practically every book I have published, that optimism is a choice — indeed, the only reasonable choice we can make if we intend to actually change the world.
This does not mean that I believe everything is going to be fine. Things are not fine now, many things are getting worse, and they are likely to continue to get worse for a good long while.
So why be optimistic? As some unknown scribe once quipped regarding people’s worries about getting older: Consider the alternative.
Choosing a pessimistic outlook, no matter how well-grounded in “the facts” — which actually means current trends, since we are talking about developments over time — is not likely to motivate any effort to turn those negative trends around. “We are doomed!” does not work as a call to action.
A neutral “I have no expectations” or a cynical “What do you expect? Humanity is hopeless” attitude seems hardly better, except perhaps as a strategy for managing near-term disappointment, which we are guaranteed to experience time and time again. We are, after all, trying to move mountains.
Only stubborn, collective optimism, with the sustained energy and effort that follow in its wake, creates the conditions for eventual success. As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke put it, “I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Of course, many believe that a realistic pessimism is the only defensible approach to the crushing scale of our long-term development challenges, and they present reasonable reasons for that view. If you truly believe we are headed into hell, optimism seems foolish. It lures people into wasting precious time, trying to change unavoidable outcomes, when in fact we should focus on preparing for the coming dark age.
In its brightest variety, this philosophy advocates small-scale community resilience and a certain attitude of wise, resolute preparedness. Global collapse is so likely as to be almost inevitable, say proponents. Things such as the current pandemic — or the Ever Given’s recent blockage of the Suez Canal, which demonstrated the fragility of a global economy built on long supply chains — are simply small harbingers of the truly ominous difficulties that lie ahead.
At its most extreme, this philosophy is called “survivalism.”
Of course, even survivalists are optimists of a kind: They have a vision of making it through even the bleakest nuclear winter or riding out the global scorching caused by a climate gone haywire, safe in a bunker or an isolated enclave deep in the mountains of New Zealand.
But here is what I have observed: stubborn, insistent optimism has changed the world time after time, often against seemingly impossible odds. I reflect often on the accomplishments of Gandhi. The end of apartheid. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Changes that once seemed truly impossible — an independent India, democracy for all in South Africa, the end of communist dictatorships in central and eastern Europe (the last two happening in my lifetime) — are now historical facts, decades old.
I have been writing about sustainability and sustainable development for over thirty years. Much of what I have written is outdated — based on old facts, old reflections, and old situations that have changed dramatically. Recently I found myself wondering: what, in all of that writing, might possibly stand the test of time?
So on a rainy Saturday in March, I went through some of my old books and other publications — and I was pleasantly surprised. I found quite a lot of material in those books that was still true, and still useful. I ran across a number of quotes that I still stand behind. So I paired some of these quotes up with photographs, to make them shareable on social media and the web.
Here’s the first one: “Our generation is charged with an unprecedented responsibility: to lay secure foundations for a global civilization that can last for thousands of years.”
The source of that quote is the “manifesto” I starting writing near the turn of the millennium and completed on 31 December 1999. It was first published as a standalone pamphlet by Chelsea Green (one of my publishers), then reprinted several times in magazines and books.
The exercise of writing a manifesto, which I called “Sustainability is Dead — Long Live Sustainability,” was prompted by the worries expressed by a lot of my colleagues at the time: that the concept of sustainability was getting watered down and threated to become devoid of meaning. The manifesto was my attempt to clarify sustainability to myself, since I was dedicating my working life to its advancement. Writing the manifesto was an enormously satisfying exercise. It helped me formulate a number of ideas about the universality of the sustainability vision, and the need to ground it in both absolute and realistic terms, based in our understanding of science and technology, as well as global fairness and intergenerational ethics.
Those ideas are still part of my work to this day, and they inform everything else I have written about sustainability and sustainable development since that time.
I still stand behind these words because I think they are true, and because I believe that we need to take this thought — which I am happy to admit is far from original — much more seriously.
Here are just a few of the things we humans are doing that will have impacts over thousands of years: changing the climate, depleting key resources, allowing species and ecosystems to disappear, creating wastes that won’t go away, leaving behind dangerous technological artefacts that must be kept secure for millennia.
And of course, we are setting cultural patterns in place that will probably have thousand-year echoes. Consider the fact that we still follow patterns of ancient Roman law across much of the world. Many of us work in merit-based bureaucracies first pioneered by the ancient Chinese. Here’s a provocative question: what, from today’s global culture, is also likely to survive the test of time?
Obviously, every era of human endeavor creates things that persist and affect the rest of history. There is, however, a big difference today: we are changing the whole planet, fast, and doing it in a way that we know will have very long-lasting impact. And right now, the balance of that impact is decidedly negative.
Our generation — more accurately, the several generations that are alive right now, as well as several more still to come — has to get this right. We have to put human development on a secure, sustainable course. If we do not succeed, human civilization will not succeed, and the evolution of life on planet Earth will have to recover from a period of rapid and perilous diminishment.
Not an easy reflection to keep in mind. That’s why I thought it was worth making into a small digital poster.
After a year of quiet, I finally published a new column on my North Star platform at the Greenbiz.com website. This column was also published in a Swedish version, here. Plus there’s an afterword, on music, and some news about book translations. Here’s the column:
In 2015, the world, acting through the United Nations, set in place a system of 17 very ambitious goals to guide humanity’s development toward sustainability through 2030.
Now it is 2021. Neither nature nor global politics has been especially kind to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, over the past few years.
Nature’s complex mechanisms have served up a global pandemic caused (apparently) by a cross-species virus together with intensifying fires and storms that can be credibly attributed to climate change; and the global political arena has mightily distracted us with assaults on democracy and global solidarity as well as chronic conflict along multiple fronts.
COVID-19 gets the lion’s share of the blame, of course, for our current troubles. In too many places and across too many dimensions of sustainable development, the pandemic has turned hard-won progress into a backslide whose momentum must first be stopped and reversed before development can again take on the shape of positive transformation. I am thinking especially of global poverty, hunger, health and education — SDGs 1 through 4 — where the latest figures from the World Bank and other centers of analysis paint a bleak picture of years lost and lives threatened.
But the analysis does not stop there. The SDGs are treated as an interlinked system of goals because that is how the world actually works. I won’t bore you with the relevant SDG numbers, but you can easily build your own mental systems map from the following:
Girls not getting opportunities to educate themselves contributes to reversals in gender equality, which in turn affects the quest for long-term economic prosperity, which makes it harder for girls to get educated.
People who had climbed up over the poverty line, but are now falling back under it, are mostly doing so in the cities, which hardly contributes to making those cities more sustainable.
Plane traffic may be reduced, which is indisputably good for the climate, but reduced as well are the investments into the greener economies of tomorrow that can prevent climate change, rescue biodiversity and create good jobs for a sea of unemployed people, especially youth.
Virtuous cycles can turn vicious. That is an undeniably dismal state of affairs for those of us whose professional lives revolve around trying to help the world achieve these universally acclaimed goals (which also inform the more specific development goals set for Sida, the Swedish agency where I work, by Sweden’s government). How is it possible not to succumb to an erosion of hope?
As always: by looking at the big picture, taking the long view and continuing to seek more effective levers of change.
There are no silver linings in a global pandemic. But there are unexpected things to observe and to learn from — such as the dramatic acceleration of digitalization. Profound changes in working methods and styles have been reported wherever decent internet is to be had. Suddenly, meetings and conferences that previously “had to be” held in physical, face-to-face settings are working just fine on screen. Maybe better: You can include more people, under roughly equal conditions, when you don’t have to fly them around and put them up in hotels of varying fanciness.
Necessity has mothered digital invention together with rapid learning advances that have proved to us that we can change must faster than our most ambitious management plans assumed was possible.
Thanks to these advances, work on sustainable development has not stopped. In fact, in some critical areas, it has intensified. Consider finance. In the past year major investment leaders at the global level have pushed themselves and others to take stronger stands (and produced better measurable results) on climate change, diversity, gender equity and corporate responsibility generally. Investment levels in developing countries may be down, but new vehicles for that investment are being innovated and designed, so that when the money flow eventually accelerates again it will have more and potentially more effective places to go.
It is not my purpose here to paint a rosy picture of the future with these short syntheses and personal impressions gleaned from dozens of recent digital meetings, reports, dialogs and conferences. As a world, we have a tough road ahead. People living in rising poverty and oppression have it toughest of all, and I challenge everyone reading this to keep that reality in the forefront of their minds as we continue down that road.
But it is important also to bear in mind that COVID-19 has not made the achievement of sustainable development impossible. It has, of course, made achieving those goals by 2030 a whole lot harder (and it was already very hard). Yet it has also shown us that even in the midst of serious global calamity, when the goalposts are still shifting away from us, we can (and must) keep pressing forward. Working to prevent greater damage where we have to. Making positive change where we can. Believing that the tide eventually will turn again in our favor.
Because that is what will make it turn.
* * *
For those who have read all the way through the “Words” part of this newsletter, here comes “&Music”.
I started playing guitar recently. That might seem a strange statement — I have been playing the guitar for 43 years. Just not recently.
Despite all the extra home time that a pandemic provides, my guitars have resolutely stayed in their respective cases most of the year. But last Sunday, I set a goal of playing all four of my guitars at least once during the day: my workaday Martin D-2832 (which I carried with me everywhere for decades, it has many dings and airport security stickers to prove it), my much-fancier Taylor (the one I use for shows and recordings), the classical guitar I still think of as my “new” guitar (I bought it five years ago, see picture from my friend Gillian Martin Mehers), and my electric, an ESP strat built for me by Mark Dann, the legendary bass-player whom I met during the heyday of Greenwich Village’s “Speakeasy”/Fast Folk era, also known as the 1980s. (Mark is still active, here is a recent YouTube video of him recording a bass track in his studio.)
On that same Sunday, I also drank real espresso coffee for the first time in over a year. Do you think those two things somehow go together?
In any event, I played all four guitars. And then I played guitar every day last week. I kept one by my desk, to pull up during short breaks from all the Zoom, Teams, and Skype meetings. It gave me such joy (and a little pain) to reacquaint my fingers with the strings.
Maybe it was the coffee: I felt it in my system for days afterwards (though I drank not another drop). In between meetings with my colleagues at Sida, the agency where I work, and where we aim to improve the lives of people living in poverty and oppression, I would either pop out for a quick walk in the warming Swedish weather, or pick up my guitar to relearn an old favorite.
Often this one, Moon’s Best Friend, an autobiographical song about what I remember from being two, three, and four years old — with a bit of artistic embellishment, I confess. Listen to “Moon’s Best Friend” on YouTube / Spotify / Apple Music / Amazon From the album “Testing the Rope”, Rain City Records, 1997
The song focuses on my relationship to my babysitter, a teenage boy named Peter. Here’s the chorus:
Will you read me that story ’bout the Moon’s Best Friend
Pick me up — swing me round again
My heart comes all undone
Can I tell you how it feels to be two years old
The embellishment is this: there was no children’s book called “Moon’s Best Friend”. I made up that little detail. But over the years, the fact that such a book didn’t actually exist bothered me.
So a few years ago, I wrote and illustrated a children’s book for two- to four-year-olds, called “Moon’s Best Friend.”
As I wrote in my previous post, Sustainability is for Everyone was my second book to be called a “bestseller” (defined in a leading dictionary as a book “whose sales are among the highest of its class” — the class in this case being popular books on sustainability, which admittedly is a very specialized niche).
With the Swedish edition finally completed and safely launched into the marketplace, including a special website free PDF edition, we decided to do the same thing with JF Fillaut’s wonderful French translation, which had been lying in a digital drawer and waiting for my attention for an embarassing three years.
The beautiful French edition looks a lot like the English, Swedish, and German versions — but everything is in the language of Paris and Sénégal and countless other beautiful places. Including my hand-drawn illustrations.
Back in 2013, I wrote a little book whose purpose was to inspire my colleagues in sustainability. The book, complete with little stick-figure illustrations that I drew myself, was a surprise hit (in relative terms). It sold many thousands of copies, often in large group sales to whole companies or university programs. Sustainability is for Everyone became my second real bestseller.
Fast forward to late 2020. I have been working at Sida for several years now. It’s a wonderful, demanding position that leaves little time for side projects. But the Covid-19 pandemic means that I am not traveling and mostly working from home. That’s when I rediscover the Swedish translation, Hållbarhet är för alla.
The translation was almost complete when I started my current position (as Assistant Director-General in Sweden’s international development agency, leading a large department). I had left it sitting on ice. Turns out it just needed about one weekend of work to revive it, finish it, and publish it, through my own small imprint, Broken Bone Press.
So that’s what I did. And since Christmas was coming, and the pandemic was raging on, I decided to make the PDF version of the book free, as a gift to my adopted country. You can download it here. (Anyone can download it, but it helps to know Swedish if you want to read it. The English version is available through any online bookseller.)
Is the book still relevant, almost eight years later? Highly.
Of course the world has changed. I wrote a new preface in 2017, celebrating the arrival of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (the 17 SDGs). But the central idea is simple, and still necessary: for sustainability to truly succeed, we need as many people as possible to be engaged in making it happen.
Engagement requires communication. That’s what Sustainability is for Everyone (or Hållbarhet är för alla in Swedish, or Nachhaltigkeit ist für jeden in German, and soon La durabilité est l’affaire de tous in French) focuses on: how to communicate about sustainability, with people who may not even be interested.
That’s why this particular book treats this complex concept in such simple terms, with simple drawings: to create a sense of ease and even fun around the challenges of tackling global problems and finding systems-based solutions.
“If the world were a party,” I wrote in 2013, “sustainability would be the smart-but-nerdy cousin who somehow does not get invited — not because nobody likes her, but because everyone assumes that she will not fit in.” My aim was to help make sustainability “the life of the party. After all, without sustainability, the party could become a deadly nightmare.”
So, if you are Swedish, or have friends in Sweden, pass the word: Hållbarhet är för alla. The book is a free gift.
Covid-19 has had many side unexpected side-effects. While I have so far avoided the virus (I think), I have not avoided certain side-effects — like having more time to write. The result was two books, two stories.
Last summer, I completed a new book. It is a very unusual book, even by my standards. Here is the blurb:
“A scientific meeting about sustainability, the courage of a friend who faced certain death, and a tragi-comic poem in 61 verses are the starting points for these 61 short, luminous essays on the human relationship to time. Begun as a letter to the friend’s now-adult daughter, who had written to the author seeking to understand a mysterious poem dedicated to her father over 20 years previously, The Chronosphere Commentary takes the reader on a journey that varies from playful to philosophical to achingly personal, ultimately confronting the unreliability of memory and the unavoidable shortness of human life in the context of a vast, ancient universe.”
The Chronosphere Commentary was composed over a three-year period on a special website, where you can read the poem straight through, or explore it verse by verse with the commentaries (which became this book).
Why did I write a book of commentaries about a poem about time? Why did I write the poem in the first place? That is a story in itself, starting with the letter mentioned in the blurb … but the book’s intro tells that story. I hope you enjoy The Chronosphere Commentary.
During the late autumn of this Covid year, I finally put the finishing touches on my wife Kristina AtKisson’s wonderful Swedish translation of my old “classic”, Sustainability is for Everyone. And I published it. And I gave it as a digital “julklapp” (Christmas present) to Sweden, free, via this special website (in Swedish):
Of course you can also buy the book at bookstores on paper, or get it as a Kindle e-book.
This little book has had such a surprising life. When I wrote it, I had no idea it would be a book. (It was just a long essay, written to my colleagues in sustainability.) When the essay proved popular, I published the book, but I had no idea it would be a success from a publishing perspective. Anything over 10,000 copies is considered a “bestseller”. This book sold about 30,000 and has been translated into several languages. (The German translation was sponsored by the Government of Austria.)
On March 24, 1995, I performed at a small club in New York. On March 24, 2020, at 8 pm Swedish time (or anytime thereafter), you can travel through time to that club, that show. Grab a virtual table and a drink, sit back and enjoy.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a major global crisis, the likes of we have not seen in living memory. Seemed like a good time to offer a little distraction to people who are stuck in quarantine, self-isolating, “sheltering in place”, and generally having a hard time.
So I’m releasing a new video on YouTube. I dug into my archive, found an old tape, got it digitized, edited and sound-enhanced. If it gives even just a handful of people a little pleasure for 40 minutes, well, that’s something.
Today would have been the birthday of my dear friend Joan Davis, who passed away four years ago, on 11 Jan 2016, just a few weeks shy of her 80th birthday. A website was created to capture remembrances of her, and since my written piece appeared first, and many followed, it is now at the tail end of a very long list of heartfelt memories of this very special person. In Joan’s honor, I republish my remembrance here, today. I also wrote a song for Joan, inspired by our mutual love of water, but it was never released on a formal recording. You can listen to an old demo version of Water of Life here, recorded in my home studio, early 1990s.
13 January 2016
Unexpectedly, late in the day on 11 January 2016, tears welled up in my eyes. I had no idea why, so I shook it off and and went on about my business (I was just leaving my office to go pick up my daughter).
This is not something that usually happens to me. So when I learned that Joan Davis had died on that day, I thought that Joan herself would have appreciated the coincidence.
Joan did not believe in meaningless coincidence; she believed in a universe woven of meaning and full of synchronicity. And she was led to that belief through her own unique approach to science.
Joan, a widely recognized and lauded chemist who focused on water, was nothing if not empirical. She trusted the evidence of her senses. If her senses seemed more, well, sensitive than other people’s, and gave her access to information that most people could not fathom, then only history will determine if she was somewhat ahead of her time. She was certainly special, a unique person in so many ways — the ballet dancer who turned to chemistry, and opened many people’s eyes to the extraordinary qualities of the simple compound we call water.
A small but telling example of my interactions with her: late in her life, Joan became famously sensitive to wifi signals — which she likened to electromagnetic smog. She claimed that prolonged exposure to such signals caused her serious physical distress. Joan was a dear friend, with whom I sometimes disagreed on matters of science or policy, so like many others I tended to view this claim as a quirk of her character, a bit inconvenient (because it increasingly stopped her from traveling), something one tolerates with respect, as one respects the beliefs of people with differing religious views.
At a meeting we were both attending, Joan had specially requested a room that was outside the area covered by wifi. Most people want the opposite — reliable wifi coverage everywhere — and today it is hard to find such a room in a conference center or hotel. But this conference center had a small section of rooms that were not yet covered with “electromagnetic smog”. (As I recall it was one of the reasons we selected that center.)
By chance, I ended up in the room next door to Joan. At around two in the morning, I was awakened by terrifying screams and moans coming through the wall. From Joan’s room. I went into her, and she told me she had been awakened by severe and excruciatingly painful cramps in her legs — not something from which she usually suffered. “So sorry to wake you,” she said. “There must be wifi in here.”
The next morning I checked. And indeed the previous week, a new router and antenna had been added to that section, to extend the wifi coverage — which the person working in reception, who had assigned that room to Joan, had not known about.
I still don’t know what to make of this story, but I gained a new respect for Joan’s unshakable will in such matters. It was almost never possible to argue her over to a different view — for example, that there was no scientific evidence that wifi signals could interact with the body in this way, that her sensitivity was “all in her head” — because she had very credible, bodily evidence of her own. She relied on her own experience, her own senses, first and foremost, even if there was no “scientific” explanation yet available for what she experienced.
Of course, such an anecdote — which I remember now with affection, because it created a private story between us — runs the risk of distracting attention away from the vast bulk of Joan’s professional life. As a prominent researcher, she had developed new methods for testing water quality and treating water. Later, she was a tireless promoter of organic farming, not just because of her belief in the dangers of pesticides in food, but also because of how organic farming methods sequester carbon, care for soils, and improve retention of water. She served on numerous boards, bringing wisdom and ethical principle into the proceedings.
And she had fought an extraordinary battle of courage to rise to prominence in her profession. As a young chemistry graduate student in Ohio, and the only female in her cohort, she won an award for the best doctoral dissertation. However, when she received the formal letter notifying her about the award, the letter also explained, with regret, that women were not invited to the annual dinner at which award was presented. So she would have to be given this accolade in absentia.
Joan told me many other stories of her life — some professional, some personal. Some happy and remarkable, some tragic. She had overcome adversity of many kinds, physical, emotional, professional, and usually through sheer force of will, coupled with a great capacity for equanimity. I cannot possibly recount all the stories that are worth telling, nor am I sure that I would remember them accurately. This is one of the many things one feels keenly, as a loss, when a beloved friend who owns those stories suddenly vanishes.
Instead I will close this small remembrance of Joan Davis with an appreciation of her equally great qualities as a listener. She had a gift for deep listening, for making one feel heard, comprehended, and appreciated. Many people who knew her speak of a “glow” that seemed to emanate from her, a sparkle in her eyes. Even when physically delicate, she loved “bearhugs” (at least verbal ones). Even when months went by between conversations, one could instantly “go deep” with Joan, and talk about the most crucial issues, the biggest emotions, and the great mystery of being conscious and alive on planet Earth, in this remarkable time.
I wish that we could have shared more of that time with her.
“Water of Life” – for Joan Davis – 1993
Home demo, recorded on a Tascam PortaOne
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
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
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
Author, musician, public servant, dedicated to advancing sustainable development, based in Stockholm, Sweden