Category Archives: Sustainable Development

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

In Sweden, corporate sponsors did not “show up”

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading this letter of complaint, Facebook friends!

For 2017: Short video about the long term

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

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

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

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

https://vimeo.com/194260215

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

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

To the President-Elect: A Confidential Briefing

To the President-Elect of the United States:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you exercise it wisely.

Sincerely,

Alan AtKisson

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

Post-Election Statement

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

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

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

The Anthropocene: how “frightened” should we be?

MtRedoubted_Wikimedia
Photo from Wikimedia.org

Be afraid. Be very afraid … of the Anthropocene.

This is the message from Clive Hamilton writing in Nature, the preeminent science journal, in his recent editorial (see sources below). Humans are unequivocably a planetary force for change, and a group of scientists with the authority to decide such things now agrees that this new planetary epoch deserves that special new name. But it should only be framed negatively, insists Hamilton. “The idea of the Anthropocene … should frighten us. And scientists should present it as such.”

That’s wrong: scientists should present theory and evidence. The rest of us then decide what to feel, and do. Leave the incitements to fear to … well, Clive Hamilton.

Meanwhile, the Guardian prevents a more balanced approach, in the person of former UK Royal Astronomer Martin Rees. He doesn’t downplay the enormous risk, the possibility of the “darkest prognosis.” But as he also notes, wryly, “It’s surprising how little we can confidently predict.” And there is also an “optimistic option,” Rees writes. “Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvellous than what’s led to us.”

Whether it means the end of human civilization, or the beginning of a new era of galactic conquest, scientists still have to decide when, exactly, it started. But the leading candidate for a starting date is around 1950, when nuclear weapons, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and other massive imprints on the planet began leaving their signature for future generations to find.

What do you think? Will being fearful of our new responsibility for managing (some prefer stewarding) the whole planet help make the “optimistic option” more possible? I don’t think so.

Personally, I’m committed to the “bravely-face-problems, navigate-safely-through-danger, achieve-sustainability” option that Martin Rees outlines so eloquently. Even if I also believe we have no idea exactly where we are going.

And if we succeed — that is, after we achieve sustainability, against all the admittedly scary odds — who knows what might happen?

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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 (CforST.com).

ParachutingCats-Icon

EARLY REVIEWS FOR PARACHUTING CATS INTO BORNEO

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 Greenbiz.com, 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.

https://rememberingjoandavis.wordpress.com/

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

1

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.”

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

 

5

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.

6

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.

7

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!!

WeLovetheSDGs_Cover_v4