Category Archives: Sustainable Development

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

Watching Egypt 1 – Private Worries, Public Hopes

It was a relief to finally hear my client’s voice on the phone. She was a bit breathless, but not sounding in distress. She had been out food shopping by taxi just that afternoon (this was Monday, 31 January), able to find what she needed, “though many people are just buying up whatever they can get, and hoarding it,” she noted. She was surprisingly worried about work, and about the project we’re working on, a major strategy document for economic competitiveness and Green Transformation in Egypt:  “No one is going to the office, because there is no point, the internet is shut down.”

And of course, there was the fire.

The first four floors of the office building had been damaged by a fire set in the shops on the ground floor, probably in connection with looting. Fortunately, the offices of the Egyptian National Council on Competitiveness (ENCC) are on the fifth floor. So the home of one of Egypt’s most important small think-tanks, a place where a true transition to sustainability was being mapped out in careful detail, is still intact.

Whatever happens in Egypt, the country is going to need that Council, and that new Green Transformation strategy, more than ever in the coming years. One of the many documents I had absorbed in trying to learn about the situation there (as part of my work as a strategic advisor to the ENCC) was the most recent national Human Development Report. The numbers on youth unemployment alone, and the accompanying quotes from young, educated people (whose needs for a meaningful life had clearly not been met), were enough to make the events that are happening now in Egypt all too easy to understand.

Not to mention the many comments I had heard from many people when I visited there, on three occasions last year. These comments were usually whispered, or voiced only after a quick look to the left and the right to see who might be listening (if one were in a public place). It reminded me of being in China in 1982, when people I met on the street literally dragged me behind bushes to have conversations about freedom in some European language they were studying. Egypt was not that extreme, but the feeling of caution, bordering on fear, about saying what one really thought was something I encountered regularly on my visits there.

Suddenly, the whispers have grown to a roar.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say. But in this case, many Egyptian experts had 20/20 foresight as well. No one could have predicted an uprising of this kind, of course; and no one I have met while working there predicted it to happen now. But almost everyone said, either subtly or directly, that something like this — a “phase shift” or “nonlinear event,” an encounter with unsustainable trends, building up to a breaking point — was inevitable if Egypt did not make major, transformative changes, and quickly.

The world, watching Egypt, now sees the demands for political openness and justice that are visibly driving the protesters. What is not so obvious is the array of other issues that have contributed to this enormous, tsunami-like outburst of “We’re not going to take it anymore” public emotion.

For example, Cairo was experiencing water shortages as well as sporadic blackouts when I visited last year. These are not usual; they were practically a first. Egypt has prided itself on its provision of energy and especially water to its people in modern times; they are serious matters of national security. But one man I met was embarrassed to be photographed, because newly imposed water restrictions had prevented him from shaving for a few days:  “The Quality Control Director of a food processing factory [his job] should not appear in a photograph unshaven,” he told me.

Meanwhile, prices of some common foodstuffs and other consumer goods were also suddenly skyrocketing, some friends said, and those price increases were not being reported publicly. They were just being felt, and they were so significant that even my wealthier friends were feeling it.

And these were just the pressures visible to anyone.  While energy prices were still heavily subsidized, Egypt had recently changed over from being a net oil exporter to being a net oil importer. It was meeting the deficit — and the needs of its fast-growing population of over 80 million — by pumping out natural gas faster than ever. The production curves literally turned almost straight up.

Were these the indicators of a sustainable future?  Not a chance.

I am convinced these and other pressures, both visible and less visible (but widely known), helped to create a general feeling of unease, and that this feeling combined with the much more visible calls for democracy and openness that are now playing out so very publicly on the world stage. All of it taken together created a pile of very dry social kindling. The dozens of self-immolations that followed on Tunisia’s example were literally the spark that lit a conflagration.

Today, the hopes regarding Egypt are many. Indeed the hopes of the people there, and the hopes of the world on their behalf, have already become highly documented history. World leaders are speaking out in support of the protesters demands in almost unprecedented ways — or at least, in ways not seen since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The public statements of Egypt’s military are no less remarkable in their embrace of transition.

But I have private hopes, as we all do. First and foremost, as an outside observer with clients and friends in Egypt, I hope for their safety and security. (I could easily have been in Egypt the week the protests began, as I had been invited to the country for a work engagement, but felt the need to stay home for family reasons.)

And I also have private worries, more than I care to express in a public blog — worries for the safety of specific individuals I know and their family members. I join my voice to the prayers for safety that my client mentioned so many times, when I finally reached her on her mobile phone on Monday.

When it comes to the Egyptian transformation — for that is what we are witnessing — I think most engaged observers have both high hopes and big worries for its outcome. The opportunity for change is enormous now, and Egypt truly needs enormous changes:  this was a core message of the materials that had been presented to ministers and senior business and society leaders in May of last year. These Egyptian-born ideas about purusing a Green Transformation strategy — renewable energy, water consevation, sustainable agriculture, jobs and capacity development, innovation, education — were due to be presented in an even more strategic and practical way this year.  These were urgent matters before (they were being increasingly framed as national security issues) and they remain urgent, perhaps “super-urgent”, matters for the foreseeable future.

And now, one can add a phrase to the list of “super-urgent” matters, a topic that was essentially taboo just two weeks ago, a topic that numerous people essentially only whispered to me previously, a topic than anyone with access to a global news source can now plainly attest to as being the desperate longing of the Egyptian people, a topic that may even become the source of the accelerated sustainability transformation that Egypt desperately needs:

Democratic participation.

Letter from Syria / the Tigris-Euphrates Region

Picture the cement superstructure of some future small office building, vaguely futuristic in form, strange angles, sitting on scrubland. No walls yet, just empty space between the beams.

Strung between the beams is somebody’s laundry. It’s hard to imagine who would hang laundry here. The nearest residential housing is at least a kilometer away.

More scrubland. Suddenly, a brightly colored waterslide park erupts out of the desert.

The car speeds like a racer past the other vehicles on this hard, flat, macadam road. You pass sheep, walls, fields of stone and cedar, something that makes you think it’s a mosque. And finally, a Subaru dealership.

This is not exactly what I expected when I agreed to come to Aleppo, Syria, to teach the ISIS Method to a four-country regional development training. But then, I didn’t really have any expectations.

It’s been a busy period. I didn’t have time to think much about this trip, beyond the professional planning that the workshop obviously required. Something about Syria surprises me, but I can’t yet put my finger on it. Perhaps that’s why my writer’s brain seized on that just-started, very-unfinished building with the laundry fluttering:  I imagined photographing it, writing a poem about it. There’s something symbolic in that image, something about this region.

It is a region with a very promising future, this is what one feels, even if the flowering of that future is decades away. The region is like a futuristic building, the kind one has never seen before, still under construction.

I’m here because these four countries, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, share the water and fate of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They do not yet share much else — with certain obvious exceptions, of course, including the predominant religion, and thousands of years of history and cultural tradition. But the idea of transboundary collaboration on water, the lifeblood of this or any other region, is new.

So I have come as part of the faculty for a training program designed and managed by a Swedish firm, Ramboll Natura, and financed by SIDA, Sweden’s development aid agency.

And what an interesting group they have assembled! Sophisticated, engaged, questioning. Most are engineers working in water ministries and agencies of various kinds; a few are political scientists. I learn just bits of their life stories: a few have survived extraordinary traumas, though would never guess by looking at them. My dual nationality, Swedish-American, leads to a number of interesting conversations with some of them — about, for example, US-Iran relations. Perhaps, we conclude, the two nations have trouble getting along partly because they are more similar than they appear in some ways.

This is an ISIS workshop. We are using the Pyramid, but the focus is really on the ISIS sequence, Indicators, Systems, Innovation, and Strategy, in a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder context. These workshops cover a lot of ground, fast: that’s the point. That’s why the tools we use to teach the ISIS Method are called “Accelerator.” There’s no time to lose, the clock is ticking. We have to learn fast, plan fast, do fast.

But for this group — multi-lingual, not so used to working with each other, much working in English (their only common language) — I slow it down a little. We take our time analyzing the linkages among environmental systems, economic factors, social concerns (including regional security), and wellbeing. We need to:  there are a few comical misunderstandings, but there are also a few real aha! moments.

Surprisingly, the Indicators we look at that appear most troubling, at least in the long run, are not security-related, but environmental:  all the key indicators they select are in decline, region-wide. Social conditions seem to be steadily improving. Economies are up and down, but on the whole, the group is optimistic about the well-being of the people — with a notable caveat of uncertainty regarding Iraq.

But there is a lot of intelligence in this group, and a lot of passion to tackle these problems as well. Even some of the ministry people almost sound like activists at times. They are full of ideas — training programs they want to run, models they have developed, policy changes that need to be made — and it seems a pity that I only have one copy of The Sutainability Transformation to give away (they all vote on the best idea, the winner gets a book).

We have discussions about regional versus national perspectives, and the need to build trust. How do we do that? Step-by-step, we conclude. Start by getting to know each other, sharing information, doing things together.

Like this course.

My flight back to Stockholm, by way of Istanbul, leaves tonight at 3 a.m. It was a punishing schedule to get here, too. I’m exhausted and deeply lacking sleep. I’ve somehow lost my telephone.

It’s all worth it.

Revisiting the Big Push: A Strategy for Scaling Up Renewable Energy

While the Cancún climate talks were under way, I published several different versions of the following short essay, which first appeared as a blog post in “Triple Crisis,” then as a comment in Eurovoice newspaper’s “Comment:Visions,” and finally is slated for publication in the academic journal Solutions. Here is the Comment:Visions version:

In late 2009, the United Nations quietly published a strategy paper describing what may be the most powerful single intervention in the global endgame on carbon. (I led the writing of this paper as a consultant to the United Nations Division of Sustainable Development, but the ideas largely came from other people, inside and outside the UN system.) Called the “Big Push,” the strategy builds around three key elements:

(1) Establishing feed-in tariff mechanisms globally (that is, guaranteed-purchase price supports for renewable energy)

(2) Investing heavily in renewable energy in the developing world through those mechanisms, and

(3) Providing an array of technical and policy support services to speed adoption and implementation.

Pursuing such a strategy would help the world decarbonize much more quickly, because it would accelerate the drop in price for renewables dramatically, using the enormous scales of the market for energy in developing countries — who urgently need clean, affordable energy services most. The logic here also builds on historical examples, such as the rapid drop in computer chip prices that was engineered by the U.S. government through its purchasing policy in the 1960s.

Economic modeling demonstrated that a “Big Push” strategy, while it looked expensive relative to the levels of aid and investment on offer in the global negotiating process, paid enormous dividends. Per capita incomes would rise much faster than a business-as-usual scenrio — in every region of the world. The poorest developing countries would experience a massive uplift in incomes, and even the already wealthy countries would get wealthier. The “Big Push” of initial subsidies would result in renewable energy becoming the default investment option (without any subsidy) in just 10-20 years, at a price affordable to all.

So why is this idea not on the table now?

First, the dollar figures probably look scary. Renewable energy will eventually become fully competitive with fossil fuels anyway; it’s just not happening fast enough. To make it happen “fast enough” requires placing orders for about a thousand extra gigawatts of solar energy (over what the market would generate on its own), and 100-200 extra GW of wind energy, as soon as possible, at an investment cost of USD 1 to 1.5 trillion, spread over ten years or so.

That sounds like a lot of money. But it equates to about 10 years of what was already pledged at Copenhagen ($100 billion annually), and only two years of U.S. defense spending. And the paybacks, once again, are enormous: improved incomes, better quality of life, and reduced climate risk, all around the world.

And it would happen about as fast as one could possibly imagine, in real political, economic, and technical terms. The “Big Push” would help renewable, carbon-free energy get over the hump of initial investment costs, after which the market would kick into overdrive, as it did for computer chips.

What about the risks? Deutsche Bank, working with the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change, has already through the details of the investment scheme that would be necessary, including the insurance and risk management, in their “GET FiT” program (“Global Energy Transfer Feed-in Tariffs for Developing Countries”), published in April of 2010.

What about the capacity issues in these countries? There the Big Push strategy looks to the successful example of the Green Revolution, with its army of technical experts, extension workers, trainers, and support mechanisms of other kinds, which helped whole countries retool their agricultural systems with amazing speed.

And finally, what about the politics? How hard is to roll out a feed-in tariff program globally? The answer is, it’s already happening. Country by country, feed-in tariff mechanisms are already law (well over 50 countries already have it), or in the process of becoming law, in countries as diverse as Kenya, Egypt, Serbia, and Byelorussia.

The economics works. The technology is there. The political mechanisms are already moving into place. What’s lacking, then? Only a shared vision that we really can pull together, and push hard on a big problem.

There are obviously many things we need to do to create a carbon-neutral society. But for accelerating the process, I see no better candidate than the Big Push.

Link to Comment:Visions

Click here

Download original UN paper:

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Climate and Health: Side Issue, or the Bottom Line?

Aedes Albopictus
Aedes Albopictus, the "Asian Tiger Mosquito," courtesy of Wikipedia

The fall has been so full of climate change-related seminars that I earlier forgot to write up this one:  a day on The Health Impacts of Climate Change at Stockholm’s prestigious Karolinska Institute (Oct 11, 2011).  (Here I must reveal that my wife works at the Institute, Sweden’s leading medical training and research center, as its sustainability coordinator.)

All climate seminars start with a review of the science, and this one had the benefit of local expert Henning Rodhe, who divided the topic in two:  things we “know for sure,” and things that are merely “likely.” The physics of the greenhouse effect is in the “for sure” column — and that puts a minimum temperature rise of 0.5 to 1.0 degrees C., the melting of sea ice, and a sea level rise of at least 200 cm in the “for sure” column as well.

What’s merely “likely,” for example, is that shade, or “negative forcing,” of the aerosol particles we have put into the atmosphere are roughly balanced by the warming effect, or “positive forcing,” of CO2 itself. Take away the aerosols, up goes the temperature still more.

And “likely” is accompanied by another, bigger word, “uncertainty,” which translate to things like 1-6 extra degrees of warming by 2100, or up to a meter of sea level rise. Because the largest uncertainty, noted Rodhe, relates to what we humans are actually going to do about all this in the coming years.

The health-related star of the show was Tony McMichael of Australia, an IPCC author and a very thoughtful epidemiologist whose remarks ranged over a much broader terrain than just “health” — though human health is, in McMichael’s terms, the “anthropocentric bottom line” when it comes to thinking about all global ecosystem impacts …

Continue reading Climate and Health: Side Issue, or the Bottom Line?

Wailing on the Road to Cancún

“It’s so bleak, it’s very depressing. But we are activists. When things are bleak, we don’t give up. We get busy.”

So said Meena Raman of the Malaysia-based activist group Third World Network at a small seminar on climate change held in Stockholm this week.  For me, it was an excellent opportunity to get updated on “The Road to Cancun” — the current state of climate negotiations, leading up to the next big UN conference on the matter next month in Mexico.

Per Holmgren explaining how global warming + global dimming = serious global problem

Last year, I was “in the game” in a small way (see “Reflections on CoP-15 and its Aftermath“). This year, I am just a distant spectator. Frankly, I have not felt very motivated to follow the action. While my assessment of last year’s CoP-15 was a bit more positive than most people’s, I have to confess that my mood has also turned gloomier when it comes to climate change. The recent power switch in the US congress — which effectively ties down the Obama administration, a critical actor in this drama — didn’t help. The climate news gets worse, while the resolve to take action at the highest levels has become, if anything, weaker and weaker.

My mood was hardly improved by listening to Per Holmgren’s quick summary of current climate science. Per is a well-known TV meteorologist in Sweden who just stepped off his TV platform to work on climate issues full time. He confirmed what we have already known, for years and years:  it’s bad, getting worse — likely to get a lot worse. “Are people understanding the situation better?” I asked. Yes, especially younger people, said Per. I meet 12 and 13-year-olds who discuss peak oil and all the rest of it. What about geo-engineering? I’m afraid we’ll have no choice but to do some of that, said Per, at the least “lighter” varieties, like carbon capture and storage.

After that gloomy review of the physical situation, Niclas Hälström then mind-mapped the crowd through the political situation, from Kyoto to today. It was no less complex, and no less gloomy. Niclas’s diagrams showed swirling tendrils of connections … the Bali Action Plan … REDD … Annex 2 Countries … the Copenhagen Accord … this is the vocabulary one must learn to follow climate negotiations as a spectator sport. Even when you understand the concepts, it’s still confusing. (I am reminded of watching cricket as an American university student studying in the UK. No matter how hard my friends tried to explain what was going on, I never really understood, and still don’t.)

After Meena Raman’s talk (I’ll report on her talk in a minute, I’m building up to the high point of the afternoon), an official from the Swedish government provided a “balanced” perspective — meaning that he sometimes spoke positively, sometimes gloomily. Sweden is “more than meeting” its Kyoto targets; but the EU targets, not to mention the world’s, are another matter. His talk was informative, but amounted to reading a press release from PowerPoint slides. I had to leave in the middle to pick up my kids from school, and I had the feeling that I would not miss very much in the way of news. (I will refrain from commentary at this time on Swedish climate policy per se.)

Which brings me to Meena Raman …

Continue reading Wailing on the Road to Cancún

“Changer pour Durer”: Change to Endure

“The French think differently,” said nearly every one of us who was not actually French. Of course, we said this to each other in French, so perhaps we were thinking differently too.

Patrick Viveret presenting at Cerisy-la-Salle, Sep 2009
Patrick Viveret presenting at Cerisy-la-Salle, Sep 2009

Last week (19-24 Sept 2009) I attended an inter-disciplinary colloquium at a castle in Normandy called Cerisy-la-Salle. The central massive stone structure (see photo at the end of this article), constructed in the 1600s to defend a Protestant family’s farm against the local Catholics, is complemented by newer buildings converted to bedrooms, work areas, and exhibition space. Since the 1920s, it has been host to series of cultural meetings and discussions — a series that is now decades old. The list of those who have been there is impressively long, and includes names like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, André Gide …

At Cerisy, for one week, 30-50 people live on the castle grounds and basically talk all day. This summer, the week-long “colloques” have apparently covered everything from the poetry of Rilke to the way science fiction affects the present day, to weightier social themes. Our colloquium, organized by researchers Nils Ferrand of the French institute Cenagref and Diana Mangalagiu of Reims Business School and Oxford University, was called “Changer pour Durer.” The word “durer” is the closest equivalent to “sustain” in French. Sustainable development, for example, is “développement durable,” which sounds like durable development in English. Which is pretty much what it sounds like in French, too.  “Durer” also carries the meaning “endure”, but without the same level of slightly negative overtones. “To last” might be another cut at it. With all these inexact searching for translations, there appear to be good reasons that French researchers — like Swedish ones — sometimes just use the English word “sustainability”. Perhaps the word durable leaves a less-than-satisfying feeling in the mind.

For to be satisfied in the mind, much as a good meal satisfies the palate, appeared to me a very French and lovely thing. Everyone takes a year of philosophy at the high school level in France, and philosophy is (by comparison to virtually any other Western country) astonishingly popular here. There is a popular philosophy magazine. There are hundreds of “Café Philo” meetings around the country, something like an open mike night for thinking, in local brasseries and coffee shops. Philosophers are almost nowhere in sight at most sustainable development seminars I attend; here, they were a major presence. It helped create the feeling that we were approaching familiar topics from an entirely different angle.

Of course, inter-disciplinary dialogue among philosophers and scientists and practitioners and computer model-builders etc. is not an everyday occurrence anywhere, not even in France, and in this way the dialogue at Cerisy on change and sustainability felt rather unique. Ideas that were not new to me still somehow felt new, because they were being expressed in French, and because they were being challenged and questioned by people in disciplines (like philosophy) that are usually not represented in the other meetings I attend — not even the very multi-disciplinary ones like the Balaton Group.

And there was a kind of clear and interesting tension, intellectually speaking, between the philosophers and the model-builders. The former essentially questioned the very premise of doing the latter — that is, building simplified models of the world using equations and computers. The model-builders seemed to think it was because the philosophers just did not understand what they were doing (“it’s as though they don’t *want* to understand” grumbled one scientist). The philosophers seemed to think the model-builders were remarkably and even naively uncritical of the potential impact of simplifying the world in this way, and then actually using the results to guide action in the world. It was not a tension that anyone tried to resolve; the French tradition emphasizes debate, not consensus. Good food and wine in the evening were the closest anyone came to a consensus.

Then there was the art/science debate, which was less tense, and more filled with something like envy or desire. Rosa Casado, a Spanish performance artist, presented some of her work and some carefully sought-out thoughts about her approach to it. (“I don’t usually talk about my work, I usually just do it.”) The scientific model-builders admitted, in the “debate” which followed, that they were increasingly wondering if they were doing science or art these days — for example, when they worked on-site in Sénégal with local farmers and a very participatory process. There was a great deal of intuition and empathetic feeling that had to go into making such a project successful; did this make it less “scientific,” and more “artistic”? “I have to confess I just don’t know anymore,” admitted one researcher.

Another polarity was around age, for this mostly middle-aged-to-elderly (at 49 I was at a sort of median) group of French-speaking thinkers was greatly enriched by the presence of a group of very engaged students or younger researchers. Why, these younger folks wondered in the evenings, are all these older folks speaking about the future so pessimistically? This, I heard from others, was very disconcerting to them since, after all, it was *their* future the older folks were talking about.

For me, personally, the whole experience was enormously enriching. It was the first time I’d presented my work in French (a scary trial for me, probably a chore for the listeners, but a challenge in which I took enormous joy for some reason). The interest in things like the ISIS Method among these new colleagues was gratifying. But it was also the first time I was attending such a seminar, since I don’t know when, without having any organizational responsibilities. I could just sit, and listen, and learn, and think, and occasionally ask a question. What luxury. Oh, and one evening I was invited to play the guitar and perform my songs; it turns out that French-speaking professionals working on sustainability also like to hear English songs with titles like “Exponential Growth” and “Dead Planet Blues.” I brought out some new songs too, like “Damn the Discount Rate” and “Set the World Right Again,” both of which had never been heard outside of a Balaton Group meeting. And with help, I managed a translation of my song “Balaton” into French as well.

In addition to the general learning and some improved French capacity, I came back with two new songs in the works (both in French), a huge new professional project clearly framing itself in my mind, a great deal of inspiration for my next book-writing project … and most importantly, some new friends and colleagues.

I note that I have reported at length here on Cerisy, but have not even written a word yet about the annual Balaton Group meeting in Hungary a few weeks ago — which was also a terrific high point, the best meeting experience we’ve had in a few years perhaps. Many important things happened there. But at Balaton I have, as I note, organizational responsibilities. I have (and happily share now) the role of President, so my experiences and reflections are necessarily group-oriented ones to a large degree. At Cerisy, I could indulge myself, individually, as a mere participant-learner-listener-writer-singer. It was a like holiday for mind, with excellent company in a wonderful, stimulating environment. I felt “changed” in ways that will help me to “endure” as well — for we must endure if we are to keep making change. To the organizers of Changer pour Durer, Nils Ferrand and Diana Mangalagiu, I publicly extend my warmest gratitude.

-Alan

[Photo: Coffee break at Changer pour Durer, Cerisy-la-Salle, France, Sept 2009]

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Karaoke in Beijing is Part of My Job

Beijing's First Pyramid of Sustainable Development, at People's Education Press, 22 May 2009
Beijing's First Pyramid of Sustainable Development, at People's Education Press, 22 May 2009 (click to enlarge)

If you had seen me strolling with my colleagues into the cavernous Partyworld, a deluxe marble-and-chandeliers karaoke center in the center of Beijing, you would have been forgiven for not believing me if I told you that I was working.

When you are a visiting speaker/consultant/trainer in Asia, and the evening’s planned activities include karaoke, well, karaoke is part of the job.  These activities cement group bonds, and increase (one hopes) the chances that the time you have spent learning together will make a lasting and spreading impact.

Plus, through the karaoke session (which lasted something close to five hours), I learned a lot about China.  Sometimes the song texts were translated to me, and the music videos were explained — “this song is coming from the indigenous people in my home province” — and sometimes we just talked, loudly, while others sang. Sometimes I got commentaries:  “This song [a lovely woman in a black and white evening gown is crooning about Chairman Mao] was very popular in the 1980s,” I was told.  Or:  “This girl is from Taiwan [she is dancing in a school uniform, the ambiguous phrase “Taiwan Only” appears often in the video’s background] and very popular”.  Occasional English words and phrases like “One Night in Beijing” or “Cinderella” show up in the song texts; those parts I can sing no problem, and then I can pretty much infer, from those little samples and the imagery, what the rest of the song is about.

I brought my guitar to Partyworld, and when it was my turn to sing (it is eventually everybody’s turn), we turned off the sound system and I did a couple of my own songs, “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On” and “Balaton”. I’m actually not very good at karaoke, so by singing my own songs, I avoided butchering too many pop classics — with the exception of “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters, which, I confess, pushed my own 1970s nostalgia buttons.  Apparently, the Carpenters are very popular in China.

But I wasn’t to get off so easily.  My colleague from Sweden, Marie Neeser, recruited me to help when it was her turn to sing, so we played up our Swedish identities and did a couple of Abba numbers. We acquitted ourselves admirably, as the British would say … which is another way of saying we got through it without any major calamities.

Besides the karaoke, I am in China to teach workshops on the ISIS Method, Pyramid, Amoeba, and strategic change agentry to groups of education officials, researchers, and teachers. We did a one-day Pyramid at the People’s Education Press (China’s largest textbook publisher), and an Amoeba session at this eco-conference center on the outskirts of Beijing. Working through interpreters, I can’t follow everything that happens; but I can set the processes in motion, and watch them, and get snippets of translation.  Fortunately, the workshop processes appear to be working just as they usually do.

The physical Pyramid built here in Beijing was unique — no wooden sticks, they were “too expensive.”  Instead, they found colored plastic tubing, cut it in small pieces, and stapled these together to make the triangles!  This “new technology” worked just fine; perhaps this is the version that will spread now into China’s schools system.

If my writing today is less than scintillating, well, let’s just say that I am lucky to be able to write at all, after our celebratory dinner last night.  The rice wine was flowing, and as with karaoke, it was very often my turn to perform.  I am still recovering today from this “performance.”

I leave Beijing now for Shanghai, where I have not been since 1982.  I expect it will be a little different …

How I Got Lost at the United Nations

In twenty-one years of work on sustainability, I have never before attended a UN meeting. Even when the big sustainability conferences happened (Rio ’92, Johannesburg ’02), I stayed home, content to keep working on projects that were more specific, less global. In fact, even though I lived in New York for years, on two occasions, I have never before set foot in the United Nations Secretariat building. So it is no wonder that I wandered around the Secretariat offices for half an hour looking for a specific conference hall. I’ll explain the meeting I was here to attend in a minute. First, here is how I got lost, and found again, on my way to a briefing for ministers and delegates on current climate science.

UN Headquarters in NY (from Wikipedia)
UN Headquarters in NY (from Wikipedia)

The UN is — obviously — very diverse. People of every sort, languages of every inflection swirl around you here. But in all that diversity, it was rather difficult to find someone who could tell me where I was supposed to go. “Go to the sixth floor ECOSOC conference room,” I had been told, only to find out that there was no such thing. (It did, however, seem possible to get a Ukrainian tranlsator on that floor. I must have mis-heard the instructions.) So I wandered here and there, kind people pointing me to various erroneous destinations. One elevator operator, once I finally got pointed in the right direction (ECOSOC is on the 2nd floor) told me that this could not be right, as I was not allowed to get off on that floor. Only delegates were. So he let me off on the 3rd floor, I found the chamber, entered the upstairs balcony, and then walked down the aisle stairs to the main floor. (I stepped over a high security velvet rope to do this). And there, in the main chamber, Katherine Richardson was already into her presentation.

Continue reading How I Got Lost at the United Nations

Letter from Sweden: The State of the End of the World

The Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm is always a good place to spend a seminar morning on a beautiful Spring day, even when the topic is far from cheery. This is the day, called Valborg, when Swedes, in their several millions, gather around great bonfires to celebrate the coming of Spring. Male choruses sing songs of fertility and virility, the water of life (akvavit, schnaps) makes its inevitable appearance, and great piles of wood are converted into carbon dioxide and water and particulate matter, in a great whoosh of flame. Yes, this was the perfect day to receive an interdisciplinary update on global warming.

Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm
Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm

The 100th in a series of Stockholm Seminars featured a star cast of scientific minds, including Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton, a lead author of the IPCC Report; Johan Rockström and Carl Folke, who together lead the Stockholm Resilience Center; Johan Kleman, an expert on ice sheets and how they melt; and several others. The topic was climate, ecosystems, and development, and the many ways in which their fates are inseparable.

And, potentially, quite bleak. “There is no good news from science right now,” said Johan Rockström. A recent meeting of 2,400 scientists in Copenhagen had concluded that the worst scenarios of the IPCC Fourth Assessment report were being realized. The “Quadruple Squeeze” of human growth, climate change, ecosystem degradation and ever-more-likely “surprises” was making the photo of planet Earth on his presentation slide look wobbly indeed. He named four dilemmas, each with a numerical signature:

• The 20/80 dilemma, with the 20% of Earth’s population that is rich causing most of the damage that could prevent the 80% that is poor of achieving their material aspirations.

• The 550/450/350 dilemma, where the world seems committed to a 550 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide level even though 350 — or lower — is what may be necessary to preserve a stable climate.

• The 60%-loss dilemma, meaning, the sharp decay of the world’s ecosystems, precisely at the moment when we need strong ecosystems to buffer the shock of a changing/warming climate.

• And the 99/1 dilemma, meaning the increasing chance that unlikely things will happen — unpleasant surprises of various kinds, issuing out of the combined changes in social, economic, and ecological systems (think global food price shocks, times 10).

Phrases like “crisis,” “looming disaster,” and “worst-case scenario” are commonplace in the climate-and-ecosystems-and-development debate. Still, they take on a special weight when uttered in the room next to where the Nobel Prizes in science are decided. Not all was doom and gloom, as we shall see, but I could not help feeling a certain relief in knowing that later today, I would be drinking beer with friends in the crisp, clear, lengthening evenings of Sweden. I had the feeling I was going to need it.

DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE ICE SHEETS
One thing to cross off my list of global disasters to worry about is probably sea level rise. Not that it isn’t happening, or won’t happen — it is, and it will. By the end of the century, Johan Kleman told us, we’re looking at about an 85 centimeter (say 3 feet) rise from melting ice. That’s terrible news for Bangladesh, Alexandria, and New York City. But it’s not the worst news. Why?

Continue reading Letter from Sweden: The State of the End of the World

My Earth Day in Africa

I’m reading an article in Scientific American’s magazine “Earth 3.0” about some airlines testing new, greener jet fuels. But I’m here in Entebbe, Uganda airport, about to fly with very ordinary Jet A Kerosene on Kenya Airways to Nairobi. Surreally, an old Star Trek movie is on the television. Of course, I spent most of the day supporting a climate change strategy meeting for the Nile Basin Initiative. Whether or not this clears my “carbon conscience” about the emissions involved this is my Earth Day 2009 fate.

In previous years, I’ve often been an Earth Day keynote speaker somewhere. In 1994, for example, I gave the keynote for celebrations at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, USA — even though I wasn’t a big fan then of the Earth Day concept itself.

“I’m not very happy about the existence of Earth Day,” I told medium-sized crowd gathered in blustery outdoor venue. “The mere fact that we must dedicate a special day to raising our awareness about the health of our natural home is a warning signal of the highest order.”

Imagine, I wrote then, that we were so distanced from our own bodies — so prone to poisoning them, overstretching their capacities, wearing them down faster than they could regenerate etc. — that we decided to create a day called “Body Day,” to try to raise awareness about the fact that we have (or are) bodies. Wouldn’t that be a very bad sign?

Come to think of it, maybe we do need a Body Day.

“Soil and water, air and sunlight … these should be sources of continuous and universal joy, gratitude and celebration — not chronic grief and worry ritualized once a year,” I wrote in 1994.

My, how Earth Day has changed in fifteen years.

Now Google changes its famous logo to a naturescape on Earth Day. Now CNN changes it red logo to green for the day, and reports on how the Chinese are positioning themselves to storm the world with electric cars. Now the US Environmental Protection Agency — a by-product of the first Earth Day — is preparing to regulate carbon dioxide as a dangerous emission. Now I’m reading a whole new sustainability magazine published by Scientific American.

And I’m no longer exhorting university students to love the Earth on Earth Day. Instead, I’ve been quietly typing up notes on a planned series of studies, meetings, workshops etc. designed to help one of the poorest regions on the planet get ready to cope with being one of the first and most hard-hit victims of global warming.

Back in 1994, I wrote about how we should be “redesigning our economy … rebuilding our infrastructure … rededicating ourselves” to making wiser choices. I made a call not for revolution, but for “accelerated evolution.”

To what extent has that happened, over fifteen years of Earth Days? To what extent is it happening, can it happen? That’s a question I’m currently exploring.

On the TV here in the bar, the Star Trek gang is still fighting a bunch of ghoulish aliens.  And once a year, some of us still stop and nod a bit to this planetary body we call our home, in hopes that this will help us learn to live on it sustainably.

Plus ça change …