Category Archives: Sustainable Development

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

New Book: “Parachuting Cats into Borneo”

Parachuting-Cats-into-Borneo-Cover-small“Fascinating” (Paul Polman, CEO Unilever) … “Highly Recommended” (Maureen Hart, ISSP) … “Indispensable” (Michael Kobori, Levi Strauss)

The Center for Sustainability Transformation and the AtKisson Group are pleased to announce the publication of a new book by our co-founders, Axel Klimek and Alan AtKisson.

Parachuting Cats into Borneo – and Other Lessons from the Change Café  offers the reader a complete Master Class of tools and approaches for promoting positive change, in the form of an easy-to-read business book.

The book has been drawing praise and endorsements from reviewers the world over, including Unilever CEO Paul Polman, German social scientist Ortwin Renn, former African Union Commissioner Bience Gawanas, and green business guru Joel Makower, among many others (see below). Publisher’s Weekly in the US called it “a shrewd and discerning look at systemic change” that was “insightful” and “particularly valuable” — both for making change happen and dealing with daily work life.

Parachuting Cats into Borneo takes its name from an historic, cautionary tale about what can go wrong: about two-thirds of efforts to make positive change in organizations and institutions end up in failure, according to studies cited in the book. Klimek and AtKisson bring over fifty years of combined experience to the table, to help readers avoid common obstacles and equip themselves for greater success.

While aiming to support positive change of all kinds, the authors build on decades of experience working with the special problems of sustainability transformation in companies, governments, cities and institutions. Sustainability has been an especially valuable learning arena, note Klimek and AtKisson, “because achieving [sustainability] requires altering some very deeply embedded human habits, concepts, and attitudes.” The closing chapters are devoted to building capacity for leading change in one of the most demanding, and increasingly essential, challenges of our time: making sustainability real.

To order the book, please visit your favorite bookseller (such as Amazon) or the publisher’s website.

If you would like a review copy for a publication or for an organizational bulk order, please contact the Center for Sustainability Transformation (



by Axel Klimek and Alan AtKisson, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016

“A fascinating account of the cultural, psychological, and institutional barriers that prevent more change programs from succeeding – and how to overcome them.”

–Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever


“I’ve been waiting for this book, from these gentlemen, for years. Decades of distilled experience, insight, wisdom, guidance, and delight about engaging the most challenging parts of change―people and groups of people. (Technological innovation is simple by comparison.) Only one in three change initiatives succeed, the authors tell us. This little book, and the thoughtful systems and tools it offers, might just help you boost your odds.”

–Gil Friend, chairman and CEO, Natural Logic, Inc.


Parachuting Cats into Borneo takes change management off the white board and places it into your own hands―inviting you into a café conversation with the authors, who put together a thoughtful collection of practical tools that I found valuable even after 25 years in the sustainability and social change field. Grab a pen and some paper (and a coffee!). This book will take you on a thought journey, best when you have a change process and goal in mind. And who doesn’t?”

–Gillian Martin Mehers, managing director, Bright Green Learning; coauthor of The Climate Change Playbook


“Welcome to the world café―where it’s raining, well, cats. Axel Klimek and Alan AtKisson are hosting. Slow down, relax, and prepare to change the way you think about change.”

–John Elkington, co-founder, Environmental Data Services (ENDS), SustainAbility, and Volans; coauthor of The Breakthrough Challenge


“We live in times of continuous accelerating change―as I have personally experienced―and yet we have difficulty adapting to it. That’s human nature: We like the comfort of stability and predictability. Here Klimek and AtKisson draw a short and very easy-to-read roadmap for implementing sustainable change. A great effort and recommended reading.”

–Nani Falco Beccalli, former President and CEO, GE Europe


“Change is difficult, and usually takes time, but this book gave me hope that change will happen, whatever time it takes, and guided me through the appropriate sequence of steps I should take to achieve my mission―slowly but steadily. The book presents a combination of concern, determination, and faith: concern about people and nature, the determination to continue the path, and the faith  that what we are doing is right. I received this book on June 11 and started reading it the morning of June 12. I powered off my mobile, and I went on reading ‘til the afternoon of June 13. At that time I discovered that it was my birthday; I think that this book was the best birthday present I had this year!”

–Boshra Salem, director, Office of International Relations, Alexandria University; member, Women in Science Hall of Fame (Egypt)


Parachuting Cats into Borneo is a great guidebook for leaders and individuals who want to create transformational changes in any society, community, organization, workspace, or family they are a part of. The authors have done a great job illuminating not only the most up-to-date ‘skills and knowledge’ on change processes, such as a system approach and coaching, but also ‘attitude and being,’ or how leaders can develop themselves and cultivate organizational cultures. I have been using these approaches in Japan and elsewhere in the world, and they have proven to be effective in work for many clients across sectors.”

–Riichiro Oda, president and CEO, Change Agent, Inc. (Japan)


“The one thing we all have more and more of is CHANGE, and we all need to become more skillful in navigating through it. Klimek and AtKisson are great companions to have with you on your change journey, providing guidance, great stories, and good company.”

–Peter Hawkins, Professor of Leadership, Henley Business School; chairman, Renewal Associates (UK)


“This book is a must for anyone who is involved in change processes toward a more equitable, humane, and environmentally friendly world. It is not the usual ‘how to do and get what you want’ instruction book. No recipes, no safe or proven success guidelines, no software program for making changes happen! It is a book about personal and group empowerment. It orients readers to become agents of change based on their own resources and their own creative ideas. And all this for a common purpose: to reach a more sustainable future for all.”

–Ortwin Renn, scientific director, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (Germany)


Parachuting Cats is a small book with a really big bag of tools for the change agent’s toolkit―describing how, when, and where each can best be used. Some are tools for personal change that make one a more effective change agent; others are tools for helping organizations and communities create lasting change. Highly recommend for all sustainability professionals or anyone working to make the world a better place. I could and will reread this book at least ten times and get more out of it each time.”

–Maureen Hart, executive director, International Society of Sustainability Professionals (USA)


“An apparently endless stream of conferences and workshops is applauding the big transformation toward sustainable development. And is tiring. Real action is not following suit. I see a growing disconnect between advocacy and personal behavior (and the behavior of advocates’ home institutions). Yet never before has humankind been in a better position to successfully end hunger and poverty within the limits of ecological boundaries. Never before have there been so many experts and campaigners dedicated to making this planet a better place. But, strangely enough, all this does not yet deliver. Action is often halted. Advanced thinking is often restricted to special interest groups. Experts are arguing within the boundaries of their own unconnected communities. That is why this book is timely. The authors bridge change attitudes on the personal level and the structural level. They help us understand (and change) the patterns of our very habitudes―and, fortunately, they never forget the importance of changing vested interests and political structures in a democratic society. Absorbing Klimek and AtKisson’s recommendations has added value to both my thinking and acting.”

–Günther Bachmann, secretary general, German Council for Sustainable Development; advisor to the Global Network of National Councils for Sustainable Development


“Spanning change management, leadership, strategy, and spirituality, Klimek and AtKisson’s volume is an indispensable guide for current and would-be sustainability leaders.”

–Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability, Levi Strauss & Co.


Parachuting Cats offers a deep dive into what it takes for our economies and our families to flourish within Earth’s finite limits. For all the attention paid to technologies, policies, leadership, and ‘corporate social responsibility,’ creating the change we want to see in the world means understanding how societies and institutions transform. In the end, it’s the system, stupid, that needs transforming. Klimek and AtKisson tell us how to do that. This is a vital read for our turbulent times.”

–Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor, GreenBiz Group; coauthor of The New Grand Strategy


“Many of us need to change ourselves or to bring about change through our work but always get stuck in a rut because we need confirmation to do the right thing. This book helps us enter into conversations to see within and around us and to make that so-needed transformation.”

–Bience Gawanas, former commissioner for Social Affairs, African Union


“As a funder, I was drawn to organizations that had both a clear vision for the future and an approach to the inevitable difficulties of change. If this valuable toolkit had been around, I would have sent a copy with every grant check.”

–David Grant, former president and CEO, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; author of The Social Profit Handbook


About Those Parachuting Cats

ParachutingCats-IconOn September 1, my latest book — written together with my dear friend and business partner Axel Klimek — hits the shelves, both physically and digitally.

Parachuting Cats into Borneo distills our many years of working together into very readable little book on how to make change happen, and also how to avoid the common pitfalls that prevent change from happening.

“But what about those cats?” you may immediately be wondering. “Did they really parachute cats into Borneo? And why is that the title of the book?”

The short answer to the first question is yes. I won’t give away the story here, because I want you to buy the book. You can even follow the footnotes to the academic sources and the evidence about what actually happened. (But you may already know this story from many other sources, including the song I wrote about this historical event from the 1950s.)

And why this title? Two reasons: (1) To draw attention to the book, and (2) to reinforce a key point. All too often, when trying to change things for the better, we end up changing them for the worse. And then we have to take even more drastic action to try to fix the new problems we have inadvertently created.

“Parachuting Cats into Borneo” is a true story, but it’s also a metaphor: it’s something we always want to avoid having to do! We have loaded up this book with tools, methods, advice, coaching, and stories to help you increase your chances of success as you try to make your organization, or your corner of the world, a better place.

So that you don’t have to parachute cats into Borneo … or anywhere else!

With over 60 years of experience between us, Axel and I believe that this little book can truly be helpful — to anyone trying to start, lead, manage, or fix a change process. In almost any context.

And that means: helpful to just about everyone.

And hopefully, also, a pleasure to read. (I am glad to report that the early reviews are very positive.)

On September 1st, the cats are coming!

You can pre-order Parachuting Cats into Borneo today at the publisher’s website, at Amazon, or via your favorite book-seller.

Wake Up: We Have a Long, Long Way to Go

Greenbiz-article-cover-Feb2016Reprinted from, 16 Feb 2016

People like me — professional optimists in the field of sustainability — are fond of pointing out the positive. And lately there have been many positives to point out, such as the global adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

However, sometimes even optimists need to wake up and smell the coffee. This metaphor is not as positive as it sounds (I love the smell of coffee), because it means that in some important respects, we optimists are sometimes living in a dream world. 

Last week I woke up from a happy dream about global agreements and was reminded of the following stark fact: While there are happy signs of forward motion on sustainability, all around us, we are still, in real physical terms, just getting started on the actual challenge of sustainability transformation. This is especially true in the business sector.

Case in point: A comprehensive new research study in the Journal of Cleaner Production makes it very clear that corporate sustainability programs are still a long, long way from the actual practice of biophysical sustainability. 

You might say, “Yes, well, we knew that already.” So did I. But the numbers were still shocking, even to me (and I’ve been tracking the trends in sustainability for nearly 30 years). 

Researchers in Denmark recently analyzed 40,000 corporate responsibility, sustainability, and CSR reports, dating back to the year 2000. (Just the thought of looking at 40,000 such reports is already shocking.) The authors focused only on companies producing physical products; they excluded services such as finance and retail. And they found that the number of those companies making reference to actual ecological limits — the hard-and-fast physical boundaries that we must live within, here on planet Earth — was exceedingly small: just 5 percent.

What is more worrying: That 5 percent figure had not changed significantly over a 15-year period. Many more companies produce reports, of course; but the portion of them referencing the limits of ecosystems was static. By that measure, corporate sustainability reporting has not improved, on average, in a decade and a half. 

The title of the article by Anders Bjørn et al. is framed as a question: “Is Earth recognized as a finite system in corporate responsibility reporting?” After 40,000 reports, the authors summarize their answer this way: “Not really.”

The story actually gets worse from there, but it’s time to fill in some details. By “ecological limits,” the researchers were referring to things like the agreed 2-degrees-C limit on global temperature rise from greenhouse gas emissions, the limits of forests or fish to regenerate themselves, and other tipping points in ecosystems. They also carefully excluded references to big-picture, long-term-vision terms like “circular economy” or “cradle to cradle,” and focused on concrete references to “quantifiable disturbances in nature.”

We know a great deal about these limits and disturbances nowadays, thanks to concepts like Planetary Boundaries. But that knowledge has not made its way into corporate sustainability reporting. If any ecological limits were mentioned in those reports at all, it was most often 2 degrees: other limits were hardly on the corporate radar screen. 

Mentioning limits in your corporate report is one thing; actually managing your business with limits in mind is another. Can you guess how many companies — out of 40,000 that were analyzed — used ecological limits for real target setting? for management of the business? for adjustments in their product portfolio? Hint: It was much, much less than 5 percent.

Answer: 31 companies.  In percentage terms, that’s 0.3 percent.

From there, the authors go on to analyze just why these numbers are so low, and they do a remarkably thorough job — for example, Bjørn et al. compared their data with the CDP data, and found that 17 companies listed by CDP as “committed to GHG emissions reduction targets that limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius” did not show up in their study’s database, because the 17 companies in question did not actually mention 2 degrees “or any other climate change-related ecological limit” in their published reports.

The authors also looked into three case studies of companies that have made commitments to manage their operations and products with ecological limits in mind (in this case related to climate change). They chose Alstom, Ricoh, and Nissan — two of three are Japanese, because it turns out that Japanese firms are over-represented in the list of companies publicly embracing quantifiable ecological limits. The findings? These best-in-class companies still “did not directly report progress towards planned changes based on ecological limits.” 

This is a ground-breaking, potentially worldview-altering study that deserves deep reflection, by everyone in the sustainability community (I have only summarized its most news-worthy points). Despite many years of successful efforts to get sustainability on the table — the concept is now thoroughly mainstreamed into corporate management, and its adoption continues to spread — this study suggests that the way we practice sustainability, even just from an environmental perspective, is still woefully lacking. 

Until business management starts to pay serious attention to the limits of our planet’s ecological systems, and to manage its operations with these limits in mind, our planet’s ecosystems remain at grave risk. (I wonder what a similar study would find when it comes to the social dimension?)

After also reviewing many of the initiatives that do exist to promote a more serious engagement with limits (such as the setting of “science-based targets” or “One-Planet Thinking”), Bjørn et al. sound yet another note of caution. They remind us that so far, eco-efficiency has not managed to decouple environmental impact from economic growth. So efficiency alone won’t cut it; deeper changes are necessary. For that reason, “we find it problematic” (they conclude with academic understatement) “that none of the recent initiatives appears to ask companies to reflect upon the role of their products in a societal transformation towards sustainability.” 

I still believe we should celebrate sustainability’s recent successes: They are hugely meaningful, and thousands if not millions of people have struggled to get us this far. It’s hard work transforming economic systems, and we need to celebrate every major step towards victory.

But we also need to bear in mind: the world’s sustainability journey is truly just beginning. And the alarm clock is ringing ever louder.

Seven Pieces of Joan – and a Song about Water

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

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

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


Seven Pieces of Joan


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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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

Water of Life

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

published here in memory of Joan Davis


Look at the light shining off the Sound

There’s nobody around

But me, and this body of water

Alone in a crowd

Of stars and stones and trees and passing clouds

Spirits high, I’m singing right out loud

Sing up the beauty of this


Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

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


Look at these jewels of morning dew

The eyes I’m looking through

Are windows of water

When it falls down

I am water watching water hit the ground

Every drop splashes up a crown

The Queen of all the Earth is


Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

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


The water takes a complete control

Like a river running through my soul

Like a rainstorm roarin’ up my spine

Like an ocean of love that rocks my mind


Look at the waves rolling up the beach

They can almost reach

The place where I’m standing

Won’t be too long

The moon will pull that tidal rush up real strong

Me and my footprints will be gone

But evermore there will be


Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

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

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


New Single: “We Love the SDGs”

I am happy to announce the release of my new single, “We Love the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals)”, on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and all major streaming services. Video coming soon. Produced in Stockholm with Andreas Bauman, with Torbjörn ”Tobbe” Fall on guitar, Ulric Johansson on bass, and Magnus Fritz on percussion — many thanks, guys! You can always listen to my music for free, but if you purchase the song for download before New Year, I will donate 50% to refugee relief. Happy holidays!!


An Open Letter to Future Generations

Dear Future Generations,

I’m sure this is obvious to you — you can see things better than we can, in hindsight. But I want to report to you that we are living through a time of dramatic change. Historic change. The kind of moment where everything seems to be balanced on a knife edge, and it could tip either way.

I am writing to you from Stockholm, Sweden. I’ll start with what is happening here, then I’ll paint you a global picture. Because it’s all connected.

Not long ago, this was a quiet little corner of Europe, a place where everything “worked.” There was essentially no poverty. No homeless people. There was a shared belief in something we called “solidarity.”

We don’t use that word much any more. In a few short years, we now have beggars on every street corner. There are people here who have fled from poverty or war, only to wind up living in tents, or sports halls, or outside on the street. Many thousands more war refugees, after traveling thousands of miles, are knocking on our door — so many that our government just decided to close that door. This is a pattern being repeated in many other countries, too. (Though one country, Canada, just decided to open their previously closed door. Good for them.)

Meanwhile, our “Western” part of the world is reeling from a series of small but extremely violent, deadly, and scary attacks — we call it “terrorism” — whose purpose is to strike fear into people’s hearts, ratchet up tensions, and provoke us into global war. The strategy is almost working. Our extreme right wing political groups are gaining strength, countries are rattling swords, and demagogues reminiscent of the 1930s are rising up amongst us. (Unfortunately, these populist rage-baiters have access to technologies far more powerful than the microphones used by Hitler and Mussolini.)

Meanwhile, it’s warm this winter — again. According to global data, this year is the warmest our modern, industrial civilization has ever measured. And we (as you well know) are the ones warming things up. That’s not all we’re doing to the planet, either. Huge alarm bells are ringing for Nature, everywhere. Some of us are trying to wrestle down our overall “footprint” on this Earth. But so far, humanity’s “foot” keeps pressing down harder and heavier, pinning us to the mat.

We’re also struggling to leave a bit of wildness for you to enjoy, but it’s extremely hard work. All it takes is a small number of uncaring or greedy or needy or ignorant people to destroy wild Nature — by setting fire to Sumatra, say, or poaching African elephants. I’d like to be able to say about these people, “They know not what they do.” But in fact, they know exactly what they are doing. And there are global markets ready to absorb the “profits” of their illegal activities. They are extremely clever about getting past our increasingly desperate defenses, too. It’s starting to seem obvious why the mammoth, the dodo, and the passenger pigeon are no longer with us: it only takes one of us to kill the last of anything.

That sounds like a pretty bleak picture, and it is. A dismal thought crosses my mind at least once a day: we could all too easily tumble into an abyss of war, political dystopia, and ecological catastrophe.

But that’s the bad news, one side of the knife edge. The other side — the good news — is, well, surprisingly good.

Despite dangerous and viral pockets of poverty and war, our human population is overall getting less poor, and less violent. We have made amazing strides in providing people with education, better access to food and energy and health care, a sense of hope for their children’s future. We have far to go — hundreds of millions are still living in misery — but many trends are moving rapidly in the right direction. We just need to figure out how to keep those positive trends going, while not destroying the planet’s ecosystems, and before social instabilities make the challenge insurmountable.

But there is good news on the action side, too. This year, the world’s governments completed an unprecedented series of global agreements. Right now, they’re finalizing a new deal on climate change that looks like it will be better than most of us hoped for — even if we know it is still not enough and will have to be improved later. We also have, for the first time, a truly global vision and a set of global goals for where all of humanity should be heading. You probably take the idea of “SDGs” (Sustainable Development Goals) for granted by now. For us, they were an unprecedented historic breakthrough.

We are even starting to understand the fundamental principle that “everything is connected to everything else” — and we are starting to build that principle into our government policies, corporate strategies, and community development programs. It’s not just talk, either: I am watching serious change happen, with my own eyes, every day.

Given everything happening now in our world — the good, the bad, and the ugly, to borrow an old movie title — I find myself thinking about you more and more.

It seems like this time, this specific time, is really going to be decisive for you. Our descendants.

So I just want you to know: things are really, really shaky just now. We’ve had global war before, kicked off by similarly unstable conditions. So we know, unfortunately, that it’s all too possible to fall into that huge and deadly trap.

We also know what it’s like to fudge and hedge and not do what is necessary to secure the health of Nature, and the wellbeing of People — because we are seeing the consequences of insufficient action, on the global scale, right now. We are finally waking up to the fact that these two things, human happiness and ecological integrity, must go together. When they don’t … well, among other things, we get the conditions we are struggling with in Sweden, and many other places, right now.

Basically, we know what failure looks like. And we can see all too clearly that failure, when it comes to managing our presence on planet Earth sustainably, is still a possibility.

But we also know — because we are starting to experience a little of it — what success feels like. Setting clear goals. Working together to achieve them. Maintaining an optimistic vision and intense effort, no matter what. Tackling problems head-on, intelligently, compassionately. Working on making systems better, not just symptoms.

I just want you to know, dear Future Generations, that many of us are working very, very hard to try to make things better. More and more of us, all the time. Working for you, for ourselves, and for all life on this planet. And I believe we are starting to tip that balance in the right direction.

But please — if you can — let me know how it turned out.


The “Nobel Prize” in Sustainable Development goes to …

I’m sitting on a train, on my way home from moderating the Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development, one of the world’s top prizes in the field (I call it Sweden’s Sustainability Nobel Prize), awarded this year to Jeremy Leggett, Peter Hennicke, and Beate Weber-Schuerholz, three pioneers who were ahead of their time in starting the sustainable energy transformation … and whose own leadership in making that transformatino happen has been sustained over decades. My interview with them starts at 1:04 or 1:05 on this YouTube video (which is 3-1/2 hours long, the whole ceremony!). You can read about them here:

Gothenburg Award Winners 2015
L to R, Jeremy Leggett, Peter Hennicke, Beate Weber-Schuerholz

All three are extremely warm human beings, who display remarkable humility despite their huge accomplishments. It was a pleasure, and honor, to interview them on stage, together with a Swedish panel of energy leaders, and to work with the many wonderful people who make the Gothenburg Award happen every year. Our stage crew was fantastic, the musicians superb, my co-moderator (the master of ceremonies) Catarina Rolfsdotter-Jansson a consummate professional. And Lena Hildingsson of Göteborg & Co. deserves enormous credit for managing the whole process, quite invisibly (which is an indicator that she did it very well).

My deep gratitude to all for this wonderful assignment (and also to Akademiska Hus, who invited me to moderate a morning seminar with Peter Hennicke on buildings and energy efficiency, which proved to be surprisingly lively and fascinating). Altogether a wonderful experience. And congratulations, Gothenburg, for once again showing global leadership on sustainable development, with your commitment to this award!

Coming Soon: An SDG Song

Preview-of-Video copy
What are they so happy about, I wonder?

If you have visited this blog recently, you may have noticed a password-protected page marked with a “Preview” sign, and titled with the phrase “We Love the SDGs”.

That’s the title of my new single. Yes, a song about the SDGs. And to make it even more interesting: it is highly dance-able.

When will this song be launched, you may wonder? As soon as we finish the video. Yes, the video, which has been shot, and is now being edited.

All of this activity is connected to the project I’ve been working on, with friends, on the side of my other professional consulting work (which is, currently, for the UN and several other clients).

That project is 17Goals, of course. Our new multi-stakeholder partnership and social media campaign to promote engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Previously I wrote about why I am so enthusiastic about this project. And in fact, now that we are up and running, I am actually even more enthusiastic.

Initial response has been wonderful. Prominent organizations, and even government officials, have told me that they are using our 17Goals Intro Slides and other materials when they give presentations on the SDGs. That’s exactly what we wanted to happen.

And we continue to fill out our “curated” (that means highly selective) collection of tools and resources. My colleagues Lisa Baumgartel and Michael Blume deserve lots of credit for making the site look good (and function well), and Lisa is also helping a lot on the content side.

When the video is done … well, then things get really interesting. Bente Milton of Transition World in Denmark is working on that now, and I love the high-energy, big-joy concept she proposed. When we launch, we are going to launch big … and that means we will ask everyone we know to help spread this thing. We are doing to work really hard to make it go viral.

Because if we are successful, that will, in turn, draw people to the 17Goals site … and onward to the UN’s SDGs. Which, as you know, I believe to be one of the most important developments in contemporary global history.

So, apologies for not sharing the song with everyone, everywhere, already … but we want to get everything ready. And then …

Launching 17Goals: Aiming to Scale Up

17Goals_Logo_smallerLet me tell you about our new website and social media channel:  17Goals.

I am feeling very optimistic these days. The world, as I write this, is about to enter a new era. The largest gathering of global leaders in history is assembling at UN headquarters in New York to launch this era. Until today, we called the coming era the “Post-2015” period. Now we can call it by its new, formal name: the era of the 2030 Agenda, and the Sustainable Development Goals — the SDGs.

To celebrate the arrival of these history-making words, I took some action. I gathered (virtually) a number of friends, and together we hatched an idea. That idea went public yesterday.

17Goals is an initiative, a project, a campaign, a program (take your pick, and yes, eventually it will be an app) whose purpose is to make it easier for anyone, anywhere to engage with the SDGs. To learn about them in more depth — from a whole-systems perspective. To share information about them, with their classes or colleagues or communities. And to take action, using a wide variety of tools and resources that we are making available via the website.

17Goals is live now … but it is a newborn, and it has a lot of growing and developing still ahead. Already, you can use the site to take a tour through SDGs and sample over 30 selected websites and tools — the ones we think can really inform you, and really help you make a difference.

In the future, I imagine 17Goals being the gateway to an ample but very selective (“curated” is the word people use these days) library of tools, handbooks, videos, etc. that are all excellent ways to learn about sustainable development — and do sustainable development — in a more integrated way. You will be able to search it easily, find what you need (e.g., by combining various goals), and put it to work.

Much of the current messaging around the “Global Goals” attempts to simplify them, sometimes to as few as “three key messages”, or “one overarching goal.” That’s useful for communicating, but my personal belief and experience is that many people want to engage with the complex reality of our world. And they — as well as their students and colleagues and friends — can handle that complexity. They don’t need it always boiled down and simplified.

That’s why 17Goals has its name: it puts the emphasis on the 17. These goals were arrived at through an incredibly intensive and delicate process of international negotiation (hats off to the UN for facilitating that!). And they are all inter-connected.

This new initiative — which is a not-for-profit venture hosted (to start) by my firm but with the named support of many other partners — is going to be a very active and exciting place to be, virtually, for the coming months. We’ll be building it, fast. We’ll be sharing what we find, and what we are building, in real time.

It’s also going to be a fun place to be physically … in just a couple of weeks, at the Gribskov Culture Hall in Denmark (about an hour north of Copenhagen). Partnered with our new friends at Transition World, led by Bente Milton, we have attached the launch of this initiative to a fabulous conference with young people and adults on Accelerating Change — so it has now become, also, the “launch event” for 17Goals. I’ll be keynoting that conference, and then over 500 students will spend much of the day doing 20 or of our “Pyramid” workshops — linked to the SDGs. (You can find out more about Pyramid here.)

Now, the following might sound a bit “over-the-top” … but I’m personally putting my whole “bag of tricks” on the line for this event, because I think the SDGs deserve our all. In addition to the keynote, I’ll be debuting a new song that I’ve written about the 17 SDGs — and I think you’ll be a little surprised by it, once we release it publicly. (If you want to hear it early, you have to come to Denmark.)

And then in the evening, I will be performing my one-man show: “Sustainability is for Everyone: the Musical!

Actually, the Accelerating Change event is a lot bigger than anything I have to offer, as it also brings in big names in Denmark’s cultural/entertainment world, and some serious psychological depth as well, thanks to the very thoughtful people with whom I have the good fortune to share the stage. Plus, all that youth energy and brilliance from the students!

But to sum this up: from now on, it’s all about “Accelerating Change”. Scaling up. The SDGs are here, now. This global vision of a sustainable world — specified in 17 goals and 169 targets, signed by nearly every head of state on Planet Earth — is “official.”

As someone who’s been in the business of promoting sustainability for over 27 years, this time that we’re living through is just amazing — the realization of a lifelong dream. The dream of sustainable development truly becoming “global”, “mainstream”, and “normal” … while still retaining its essential qualities of being a big “stretch goal.” A vision, around which all of need to unite, in order to make it real.

That’s the motivation for creating 17Goals. I know: it is just one of many initiatives to engage with the SDGs. And that’s great: in fact, that’s the point. We need many initiatives. But I am going to work with our wonderful partners to make 17Goals … well, one of the coolest places to do it.

See you there!

Story of a Song: “Set the World Right Again”

50songs50stories_book_coverSince this week the UNFCCC is featuring “Set the World Right Again” as its “Climate Song of the Week,” here is the story behind the song. This is the second excerpt from my book-in-progress, “50 Songs, 50 Stories.” – Alan

Some songs start as a vague idea, some as a line of specific words. Some songs grow out of an experience you want to capture. And some just emerge out of your guitar. You start fooling around on your instrument, and you discover something you like. One musical phrase suggests another, which leads to something else, and all those “somethings” link up together (with a little work) to become the skeleton of a song. Then the skeleton needs some flesh, in the form of a melody, which usually “sings itself” out of the chords when you start experimenting with a little free humming. Last but not least (in this version of how things can go, the process always varies) comes the text, the script that this new song — with its specific energy and feeling, its special atmosphere and intention — is meant to deliver to listeners, every time they hear it.

That’s how the process went with “Set the World Right Again.” I went through three different sets of lyrics before I finally understood what this song wanted to be about.

The first version was a love song — frankly, a pathetic lyric that did not stand up to the power of the music, so I tore it up and started from scratch. My second attempt was no better, and I began to despair of ever finding the song’s true voice. But I loved the way this music made my body swing, so I kept trying.

Or rather, I stopped trying. I relaxed, and listened.

I asked myself: what do I hear? This song is obviously about urgency. What is most urgent thing in my life? That’s easy: my work. What is my work about? What is sustainable development about?

That year, 2009, was the year of the great climate change summit in Copenhagen, “CoP-15.”  (“CoP” stands for “Conference of the Parties,” and refers to those nations who had signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change back in 1992. It was their 15th meeting.) I would be attending that conference in my role as a consultant to the United Nations, and presenting a paper on an ambitious new plan for scaling up renewable energy, around the world. Climate change, the “fire that you can’t put out,” was very much on my mind — and in my heart.

In professional situations like UN conferences, one does not talk much about emotions. One might express a feeling of “irritation” that negotiations are going so slowly, or even admit that the lack of progress is “disappointing” — but one does not have much room to express depression, grief, or fury at those who are trying to sow confusion and discord (as some try actively to do). There is precious little room for despair at the thought of the bleak future that a failure to reach agreement might seriously entail.

Nor, it turns out, is there much room to express serious hope, either. Expressing one’s longing for success, one’s faith in the future, in deeply emotional terms is almost as taboo as weeping at the prospect that future generations may never see a polar bear, may become refugees when their land is drowned, may struggle to grow enough food in a globally warmed world.

Taboo or not, emotion is always in the room — even a room the size of Copenhagen’s Bella Centre, where CoP-15 gathered so many thousands of officials, experts, and activists. Indeed, if one was really paying attention, one could read a certain over-arching emotional tone in that giant conference center, a feeling that seemed to color everything that was said and nearly every interaction, even in such a huge and diverse coming-together of people from so many different countries and cultures. At CoP-15, I would have called that feeling “desperate hope”: choosing optimism, and making great effort, despite seemingly impossible odds.

And that, I finally realized, was what this song is about.


Set the World Right Again

Words and Music © 2009 by Alan AtKisson


Like a fire that you can’t put out

A bad dream that you can’t stop thinking about

An experiment you shouldn’t have run

This world is a child with a gun


You want to put the train on some new track

End the tragedy before they start the last act

Get the help of every woman and man

Stop the madness any way you can

            And set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again


Your objective is to turn the tide

In a game of risk and danger – and you have to choose sides

It’s a game you have no choice but to play

And you wonder if there’s any way

            To set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again


            There are voices that say that it’s already too late

            There are voices that drown out each other in debate

            There are voices that claim that there’s no place to start

            But the only voice to listen to

            Is the voice in your heart


In the end it all comes down to love

What you care enough about to be the champion of

And believe no matter how hard it seems

That it’s possible to live this dream

            And set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again


            Set the world right again …


You can find “Set the World Right Again” on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, and most streaming services.