Category Archives: Sustainable Development

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

Why I am a stubborn optimist

boy standing on water

Issue #10 of my personal newsletter, Words & Music

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.

COVID-19 has decimated economies and plunged well over 100 million people back into extreme poverty. Even a global pandemic has made only the tiniest of dents in carbon dioxide’s relentless accumulation in the atmosphere. Women globally are said to be “suffering the highest rates of intimate partner violence ever seen,” a particularly brutal and disheartening side effect of this wicked virus. Meanwhile, armed conflict has been trending upward in recent years — and the world feels more like a tinderbox.

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.

Further, I submit that the transformative results of stubborn optimism are all around us, right now. The exponential rise of renewable energy and electric cars, after many false starts and failures to overcome market skepticism and opposition. The much-too-slow but nonetheless steady spread of legal acceptance and protection of rights for people who identify as LGBTQ. The rapid digital transformation of Africa, which could see three-quarters of people on the continent connected to the internet by 2030, a driver of systemic change that increases long-term prosperity.

It is hard to remember, when transformations such as this start to become reality, just how impossible they once seemed — and how easy it was to give in to pessimism, cynicism or passive neutrality.

Fortunately, the stubborn optimists persisted, and the world is already better for it. In fact, that is the only way the world ever gets better.

Warm regards,

Alan
www.AlanAtKisson.com

Introducing a series of shareable quotes

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.

Click for hi-res version

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.

Which you are welcome to share.

Harder but not impossible: Covid-19 and the Sustainable development goals

To sign up to receive Words&Music as an email newsletter, click above

Issue #9 of my personal newsletter, Words & Music

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.”

But that is a story for another day.

Finally, there are now Swedish, French, and German editions of my little bestseller Sustainability is for Everyone. all now available in both paper and free PDF versions at their respective websites. Just click the language of your choice.

Stay safe and healthy,

Warm regards,

Alan
www.AlanAtKisson.com

Voilà! The French edition has arrived

http://ladurabilite.wordpress.com/

Do you speak French? Or maybe you want to practice your French, by reading a 49-page, simple, clear, and entertaining little book about sustainability?

La durabilité est l’affaire de tous is for you. Your colleagues. Your French class. Basically, tout le monde.

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.

So please spread the word, and the website.

If you prefer English, visit this website. (A free version is available there, too.)

 

 

Do you Speak Swedish? This book is for you (and it’s free)

https://hallbarhetforalla.wordpress.com/

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.

If you prefer English, visit this website. (A free version is available there, too.)

And stay tuned, the French version is on the way.

 

Covid side-effects: two books, two stories

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.

Story 1

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).

Go to the special website:
https://chronospherepoem.wordpress.com/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.

Story 2

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):

https://hallbarhetforalla.wordpress.com/

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.)

You can get the original English version at this website or at any bookstore.

Two books, two stories, two Corona-virus side-effects that, for me at least, were a surprise benefit of this challenging, stay-at-home time.

Take a break from Corona and travel back in time

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.

Here’s the link:
https://youtu.be/OTeB2DPNPq4

The site is open now, and the video premieres at 8 PM Swedish time (20.00 CET). At that time, I’ll be live online, chatting with whoever turns up. It’s a 40-minute set.

Some of the songs are — that is, they became — old favorites. Others have never been released as a studio recording. This live version is their best documentation.

So join me Tuesday, or just watch it on YouTube later, at your leisure. Something to do that’s a little different, if you’re tired of Netflix videos under quarantine.

— Alan

P.S. I also wrote a new column about how to conduct better online meetings and trainings — also prompted by the Corona crisis. That’s here, on GreenBiz.com

Remembering Joan Davis, 1937-2016

Prof. Joan S. Davis, 1937-2016

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

Words&Music 4: Reflections on an Old Manifesto

Dear Friends,

Exactly 20 years ago (29 December 1999) I put pen to paper at a friend’s house in East London and began to write a personal manifesto for the new millennium.

The resulting document, ”Sustainability is Dead — Long Live Sustainability”, had a short, modestly viral life. It was emailed around the Internet, released by my book publishers as a standalone tract, condensed into a magazine article, included in university courses, and ultimately anthologized in Marco Keiner’s The Future of Sustainability (Springer, 2006).

Part think-piece, part cri-de-coeur, my manifesto was an attempt to make sense of my own thoughts and worries about where humanity was heading, and to make the case for global transformation. This was not an obvious line of argument at the time. While my own mentors in the field were mostly arguing for putting the brakes on global development, and mostly for environmental reasons, I called for speeding things up — but dramatically changing course. I saw no ethical or logical alternative.

For myriad reasons, I argued, we cannot stop development. Technology and industrialization have irreversibly opened Pandora’s box. Meanwhile, billions still suffer from hunger and need. But if we are to be sustainable, we cannot keep doing development the same way. Transformation — including rebuilding our energy systems, recalibrating financial markets, altering consumption and production patterns, rescuing an environment in decline, eliminating poverty, drastically reducing the risk of war, and implementing the universal adoption of human rights — is our only viable option to achieve a sustainable future on planet Earth.

In late 1999, thoughts like these still seemed both alarmist and utopian to anyone standing outside the sustainability movement. I confess to a kind of missionary zeal in my need to express them in book and manifesto format. To this day, I have no idea if any of my writing has made any difference at all in the course of subsequent events, outside the small audience of individuals who have gifted me with their attention over the years. In retrospect, the question seems quite unimportant.

But fortunately, I was hardly alone in thinking those thoughts or in writing them down and spreading them. Read, for example, the Earth Charter, adopted by thousands of organizations at roughly the same time. Drafted by a global who’s who of political and civil society leaders during the 1990s, it says roughly the same thing I was trying to say in my manifesto, but in more formal language. (I was personally unaware of the Earth Charter until 2005.)

A decade later, in late 2009, I again took stock of the global situation and, at the invitation of a United Nations think-tank process, wrote a new article called “Pushing Reset on Sustainable Development.” Things were definitely looking brighter by then, but once again I argued (to an audience of global specialists and policy-makers) that incremental advances in areas like gender equality and “corporate social responsibility” were far from sufficient. Our aim needed to be much higher, our goals keyed to absolute standards, not relative performance targets. Transformation — “reset” — was still our only hope.

Then, in 2015, there came a breakthrough. Fifteen years after the release of both the global Earth Charter and my personal manifesto, five years after my “reset” article, the United Nations formally adopted — under the overarching title “Transforming Our World” — the global 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change. Here at last was the proof that none of us had been “voices crying in the wilderness”. We were harbingers of what was to come. In 2015, global alarm about the negative aspects of long-term development trends, mixed with aim-high optimism about the changes we needed to make, had become the official mainstream.

I was so overcome with hope and happiness that I wrote dance-pop-reggae-rap song — and made a very UN-y music video — to celebrate.

Now it is five years later, once again the end of a decade. The transformation we call “sustainable development” is no longer the stuff of idealistic manifestos; it is a policy and a process being pursued by governments, corporations, investors, universities, cities, and of course countless civil society organizations.

But the process is also under existential threat. It is far from clear that a majority of humanity would vote for this transformation, even if provided with all the relevant facts. Some governments, like the one I now work for (Sweden), are acting internationally in strong alignment with these goals. Others seem robustly committed to moving in the opposite direction. Popular movements seem equally divided: some march for democracy and stopping climate change, others march to oppose taxes on carbon dioxide or to resist the extension of human rights to the most oppressed. And nearly everywhere, activists, journalists and researchers are finding it more and more difficult to stand up for taking principled action, for telling the truth, or even for generating basic knowledge. More and more of these “everyday heroes” are actually getting murdered for it.

So I will not be writing any new manifestos this year. We have plenty of such documents now, with all the right endorsements (though some of the endorsements have also been eroding).

Instead, I am using our Swedish winter holidays to rest up, reflect, and gear up for yet another new chapter in the decades-long global movement to achieve sustainable development.

If I was writing that chapter, I would probably title it something like this: “The challenge of persisting, persevering against the odds, and accelerating transformation.”

We have turned the corner. We have mapped the path up the mountain. Yes, there are enormous obstacles, and there will be backsliding. But we know the path is the right one.

There is nowhere to go but all the way up.

Warm regards,

Alan

This is the fourth installment of my personal newsletter, Words&Music. To receive Words&Music as an email, sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9

>>>>> From the desk of Alan AtKisson <<<<<

Words&Music 3: Believing Cassandra at 20, Mobilizing global investors for the SDGs

Dear Friends,

A year and a half has gone by since I started working at Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The work is challenging, rewarding, all-engrossing. It has been an extraordinary honor to represent Sweden in international venues and lead my department of over 100 very skilled and experienced professionals. But that is not what drove me to finally write to you today (with apologies for the long break between letters).

It has been exactly 20 years since the publication of Believing Cassandra: How to be an optimist in a pessimist’s world.

First published in 1999, Believing Cassandra was quickly declared a “bestseller” on Amazon.com. This is the 2nd edition cover.

Commissioned by my friend and mentor, Donella Meadows, Believing Cassandra was my first book. it was also my first book to be referred as a “bestseller” (I’ve had two), because it was officially named so on Amazon for its category. The book has been published in at least two other languages, Russian and Japanese, and was still being used in college courses as recently as 2017. It has sold something like 35,000 copies over its lifetime, as a rough guess. That is not a big number — but it was a big number in the tiny world of sustainability books.

And the book – to my great surprise – still feels relevant. Updated in 2011 for the second edition, some of the data and examples now seem ancient, of course. But the book’s messages about the basic concepts of systems, sustainability, and the power of people to create transformative change are not exactly stale. In fact, their time appears to have (finally) come.

I reread some of the book on a rainy Saturday afternoon, just hours after my return from a work trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It made want to me reflect on the last twenty years — where we were in 1999 as a world, where we are now, farther along the sustainable development path, definitely not far enough — and also want to tell you about a very important breakthrough.

But first a word about my visit to Ethiopia. I am sure you noticed that Prime Minister Abiy was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This means a lot for the country internationally, but I am not sure it helped in the process of securing peace internally. Most people I talked to seemed oblivious to the prize and far more concerned with practical matters of peace, stability, and economic reform and development. There was also a recent wave of ethnic violence in Ethiopia, and a fair degree of nervousness, especially among the more educated people I spoke with. The violence was sparked by a single Facebook post by a single “activist” political leader, underscoring the double-edged power of social media both to unite and organize for change, and to divide and mobilize our lesser qualities as human beings.

Nonetheless, I am happy to report that there is also a rising wave of hope in Ethiopia for democracy, human rights, and resilience in the face of growing climate stress. According to a government minister I spoke with, in the past year or two, over 4 billion trees have been planted in that country of 110 million people (350 million trees were planted on a single day of national mobilization). During my visit I met children organized to secure better educational conditions, academics leading top-flight research programs, civil society workers learning to navigate the recently liberalized laws for civil organizing, and development professionals using systems analyses to create high-leverage interventions in the job market: Ethiopia needs to create new jobs for about 2 million young people every year.

It was thinking about countries like Ethiopia that led me, writing 20 hears ago, to highlight the differences between Growth and Development. It is important to me that Believing Cassandra, although inspired by the 1972 book Limits to Growth, is not anti-growth. My message has always been pro-growth for the poor who really need it, and pro-development – sustainable development – for the whole world. Ethiopia certainly needs growth in jobs, democracy, and access to education and resources. But Ethiopia, like all nations on Earth, without exception, also needs a more sustainable model of development than the one the world pursued during the previous century.

Fortunately, that is exactly what my agency Sida, and the whole of Swedish development cooperation, is committed to supporting. We fund only renewable energy. We emphasize gender quality. We keep a sharp focus on democracy, human rights, justice and transparency. We steadfastly support the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their implementation, which means aiming, long-term, for a world free from poverty, hunger, and unfairness, living within the capacity of the planet’s ecosystems. Of course that is an idealistic vision. But it is also the only vision worthy of aspiring to.

It is important to note that the world adopted 17 Sustainable DevelopmentGoals in 2015 – not sustainable growth goals. The increasing sense of climate crisis is forcing all of us to think hard about our consumption patterns (food, air travel, stuff in general), and the crisis of plastic in the ocean is forcing us to face hard facts about our unsustainable production systems. We cannot keep heading in this direction, globally. We obviously don’t need more growth of CO2 emissions or rainforest clearance. Nonetheless, we absolutely do need – just as I wrote in Believing Cassandra in 1999 – to accelerate development. Not slow down, but go faster. We need transformative change, and we need it as quickly as possible.

I still believe that the process of transforming our economies and making them more sustainable holds great promise for meeting the very real needs in our world, including the needs of still-poor nations like Ethiopia. Back in 1999 and 2000, writing in a magazine (remember magazines?) called Newsweek, I called this transformation the “New New Economy.” (The digital economy was referred to then as the “New Economy”.) It has taken longer than I and many others hoped, but I do see signs of a more sustainable economy finally starting to emerge at scale around the world, especially in the centrally important sector of renewable energy, but also in the critical sector of finance. More on this below.

But we still have so far to go. Part of why I joined Sida after so many years working independently and with my consulting network was the desire to be part of a bigger institution, a larger team, and help to make bigger, institutional changes. After a year and half, that certainly feels like the right choice. Because again, I see recent signs of hope, even breakthrough.

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to attend the launch of a new initiative, convened by the UN Secretary-General, called Global Investors for Sustainable Development. This new global alliance of 30 of the world’s largest finance and investment firms is modeled on a similar network managed by Sida in Sweden. There were 18 CEOs present at the launch of the GISD, from countries around the world. Together, they represented over 16 trillion dollars in capital. This gathering, framed around a new joint commitment to sustainable development, was a first of its kind, not just for the UN, but for the world.

We at Sida are supporting this new global initiative with both grant money and technical support. The CEOs of these 30 member firms have signed a joint statement committing them to step up their actions in support of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs – which means that the sustainability agenda that we have been struggling to bring to the forefront of decision-making for several decades has just gotten (theoretically) a huge financial boost. Just how huge remains to be seen. But even small gestures from companies like this are measured in the billions of US dollars (tens of billions of Swedish kronor).

At the launch event, these CEOs were (finally) saying things that sounded a lot like my optimistic calls for accerating economic transformation in Believing Cassandra 20 years ago. They see contributing to the shift to a sustainable global economy not just as a duty, but as an opportunity. You can imagine that I sat there listening with a wide range of feelings, from that mildly exasperated “finally” that I wrote in parentheses above (as in, “Why did it take so long?”) to great joy that so many top financial leaders, responding to the UN Secretary-General’s call to action, were publicly joining that “Army of Change Agents” that I also wrote about in my second book ten years later (see the last chapter of The Sustainability Transformation).

Maybe these two stories about the Global Investors UN initiative and my trip to Ethiopia, which were just two of the many things that happened to me in the past three weeks, explain why these newsletters are so infrequent. So, what about Words&Music? My old newsletter, WaveFront, went out to nearly 5,000 addresses. Words&Music goes out to just 180 (I had to purge my WaveFront mailing list because of European data and privacy protection laws – which I support).

Are you, my 180 subscribers, still interested in hearing from me, in this format? Please hit reply to drop me a line and let me know. While you are at it, please also let me know what you think of Believing Cassandra, twenty years later (if you have read it). Is the book still relevant today? Should I try to update it one more time, a 3rd edition?

Many thanks for reading this long letter! Social media was not even invented in 1999, when Believing Cassandra was published. I have learned to use it, to “keep it short” — but like Mark Twain, I still find it easier (and more satisfying) to write longer letters. Guess I will always be old-fashioned that way. Even as I continue to work, as optimistically as I can, for a very different future.

Warm regards,

Alan

This is the third installment of my personal newsletter, Words&Music. To receive Words&Music as an email, sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9

>>>>> From the desk of Alan AtKisson <<<<<