“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.
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.)
“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.
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.
[Photo: Coffee break at Changer pour Durer, Cerisy-la-Salle, France, Sept 2009]
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
On a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, 24 March 2009, I caught a direct visual impression of the Asian Brown Cloud — brown haze below, blue sky above. I immediately used the resulting images in the keynote speech I gave there, in two slides, as part of a section on the need for good indicators. “Sometimes we can see what’s happening with our own eyes … and sometimes we can’t.”
As the world spins deeper into economic recession (is anyone formally using the word “depression” yet?), it seems appropriate to take a look at the number by which we measure such things: the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. This mega-statistic is the indicator used by countries since WWII to measure their growth, and is by far the dominant measure of overall national progress. And yet, the creator of the GDP, Simon Kuznets, actually warned the United States Congress against using it to measure national progress. In this video excerpt (of a lecture given in Australia in 2001), I recount the history of the GDP. I also once wrote a song about the GDP — yes, a song, sung to the tune of a lively Latvian melody — but more about that later.
This article was commissioned by the Japanese energy magazine “Global Edge,” and reprinted also at Worldchanging.com.
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In May of 2008, while visiting Jakarta, I came across a newspaper story about a protest there. Hundreds of people had gathered in front of the gates of a charitable NGO whose mission was to feed poor people. The NGO was simply unable to provide enough rice, tofu and other staples to meet the need. The newspaper explained that the protest had been triggered by the global spike in food prices, which made some staple items unaffordable or — thanks to export freezes — unavailable. But poor, hungry people are not able to differentiate between the “invisible hands” of global markets, and the visible hands that are directly feeding them. The people had come to regard this NGO as something like an “official agency” for food distribution, so they took their unhappiness directly to its door. Continue reading Food, Fuel and Fiber? The Challenge of Using the Earth to Grow Energy→