Category Archives: Writing

Writing about writing, and writing of my own that is not about sustainability

Relaunching “Words&Music” – my personal newsletter

Dear reader,

This post invites you to sign up for my newsletter, Words&Music. Sign up here: http://eepurl.com/duzZz9

Now here’s the background:

In May 2018, I assumed a new professional position, working as Director of the Department of Partnership & Innovation at Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Becoming a public official in Sweden caused a number of other changes in my life, including (of course) the closure of my consulting business, as well as handing off or stepping down from many projects that I had pursued for years. I was fortunate to have a network of wonderful colleagues, formerly called the “AtKisson Group,” to whom I could pass on certain initiatives and products — the tools I created, for example, are now managed by the Sustainability Accelerator Network. To get the story of this transition in full, see the final edition of my company newsletter, WaveFront, which is published here:  http://AtKisson.com/the-last-wavefront/

But while I have stopped being a consultant, I continue to be a writer and a musician, and I continue to work in the field of sustainable development. Here on my personal website, I will continue to post information about my books, articles, poems, songs, music, and whatever else I come up with. And I will continue to blog and post on Twitter and other social media.

To keep interested readers up to date, I have also (re-)launched a new (old) email newsletter, called “Words&Music”. There are certain overlaps between the newsletter and this website, but they are not identical. My blog includes public statements and is focused largely on professional matters. Words&Music is a private, personal letter, sent irregularly, about unpredictable topics. It’s free of course, but you have to actively sign up if you want to receive it.

Sign up for Words&Music here >>

When you sign up, you will receive the first Welcome email. It will tell you about the inspiration for Words&Music (via my mentor Donella Meadows and her “Dear Folks” letters). And it will lead you to — among other things — the under-construction website for my 1997 long poem, Chronosphere.

It’s about time.

 

Viridian revisited: An interview with Bruce Sterling

Photo by Pablo Balbontin Arenas (via Wikipedia)

Bruce Sterling made his name in science-fiction, part of the wave of “cyberpunk” writers working in the late 1980s and early ‘90s — other names include William Gibson and Neal Stephenson — whose work seemed more predictive than speculative. I enjoyed his novels (they won a number of awards), but I especially enjoyed being part of a movement he launched in 1998, called Viridian.

Being Viridian, in the way Sterling originally conceptualized it, was like being green, except that “there’s something electrical and unnatural about our tinge of green.” A key aim of the movement was to reinvent products, services, technologies, whole economies, so that they were ultra-environmental — but still resoundingly cool.

“We’re an art movement … an ad campaign, a design team, an oppo[sition] research organization, a laboratory and, perhaps most of all, we resemble a small feudal theocracy ruled with an iron hand by a Pope-Emperor,” wrote Sterling in his launch speech.

The last bit was about himself: Part of the Viridian ethos involved having some high-spirited fun and being less predictably eco-dour. The mix was attractive, and I had the pleasure of serving in the Pope-Emperor’s advisory group, which he called the Curia. (I also ended up running an international Viridian Design Competition, complete with $10,000 in donated prize money, that generated a wide range of prototypes for the world’s first smart electricity meters. But that’s another story.)

The Viridian movement also had an arch-enemy: the Global Climate Coalition, an industry lobbying organization, filled with prominent corporations and business associations, whose sole (and shameful) purpose was to oppose action on carbon emissions reduction. But the GCC went extinct in 2001, “after membership declined in the face of improved understanding of the role of greenhouse gases in climate change,” stated Wikipedia — before tacking on, “and public opposition.”

Viridian persisted until 2008 when, in the throes of the global financial crisis, Sterling decided to shut it down. But he left a great deal of parting Viridian advice, such as “Do not economize. Please. That is not the point.” The point was to reinvent stuff, because “the economy is clearly insane.”

Viridian may be gone, but Sterling is still very much around, still prone to the provocative, most recently in a keynote at the SXSW conference in his former hometown, Austin, Texas (where he urged techies to become more artistic). Sterling no longer lives in Austin because, well, he followed his own advice. He reinvented himself as a futurist (among other things). Married to Serbian author and activist Jasmina Tešanović, he divides his time between cities such as Belgrade and Turin, where he curates an annual tech-art fair.

Personally, I see echoes of Viridian thinking all around me in the global sustainability movement. I can trace a trail of historical impact from Viridian, through various websites and books of the 2000s, to today’s renaissance in sustainable design. But I’m a biased optimist. I was curious about how Bruce saw it. So, I caught up with him by email interview.

Alan AtKisson: Bruce, it’s been nearly 20 years since you launched the Viridian movement. I can personally attest that it was fun and inspiring, and it felt disruptive. What kind of impact do you think it made?

Bruce Sterling: Well, I would cynically say that it had a very modest effect on the culture, but it had a major personal effect on me. I was a science fiction writer when I started it, but 20 years later I’m a lot more at ease with designers, artists, architects, engineers, activists — and not in some speculative, writerly way. I really rub shoulders with them now; we lost the Lusitania, but we’re in the same lifeboat.

AtKisson: So, you’ve been closely observing design and architecture for two decades, in multiple locations around the planet. How would you sum up the direction of change? How much greener or sustainable have they gotten? What’s stopping designers from going full Viridian?

Sterling: I wouldn’t say there was one direction of change in design in 20 years. It’s more like the situation of general change in politics or pop music.

One might imagine all politics would become green politics, and that’s not true at all. Pop music might exclusively be ballads about sustainability, but that won’t happen either.

Most design that’s very self-consciously sustainable and green is packaged for a demographic segment called “lifestyles of health and sustainability.” Its aficionados are all over the place — in Germany, everything that is loudly labelled “bio” is aimed at them. They’re about 7 percent of the U.S. consumer population. They never go away, but they never take over the world, either.

Probably the biggest single change is that, 20 years ago, guys in the fossil-fuel business were uneasy about developments, but they considered themselves normal people who were being maligned. Nowadays, they’re actively evil and they know they are evil, they’re very overt in their depredations. Their global business has been de-normalized, it’s chaotic, criminal and even genocidal in places. They could have designed their way out of that if they’d wanted a soft landing, but they chose to die ugly.

AtKisson: You don’t sound wildly optimistic. What’s your expectation — forecast, not hope — about what’s going to happen in the design world over the next 20 years, relative to sustainability, green, climate-friendly or anything remotely “Viridian”?

Sterling: I appreciate that people like motivational sermons and some pep-talk from a futurist, but I always shy away from “optimism” and “pessimism.” This is 2018, and you’re asking me to talk about 2038. If you asked me to talk historically about what happened in 1998, you would never ask if I was an “optimist” about 20 years ago.

We do best in anticipating events if we understand that 2038 and 1998 are two sister years and that the future is a kind of history that hasn’t happened yet. If we’re optimistic, we’re just putting on rose-tinted goggles so as to ignore half the facts.

Twenty years is a good long time. I’m thinking we’re probably in for some big, black-swan discontinuities that make most design ideas of the present day seem pretty silly. It’s like guys in 1938 trying to outguess 1958, in the style of Norman Bel Geddes.

If I had to sum it up in a bumper sticker, I’d guess that design in 2038 would regard most anything we adore as “digital” as being backward, blinkered, dangerous or corny.

AtKisson: People like me see you as a mover and shaker in the Maker and alternative technology movements, as well as “technology as art” [the subject of Sterling’s talk at the SXSW conference in 2018]. To what degree is Viridian-style thinking — serious engagement with climate and other global sustainability challenges — present in those movements? How does it express itself?

Sterling: You’re flattering me here. I’d say that Viridian was a cultural sensibility that never caught on — it died on the vine something like the cleantech of the same period, which might have made sense but was outflanked by other forces.

The 1990s really were a Belle Epoque, like its sister decade the 1890s, but neither one of them came to fruition. We haven’t had a Great War yet, but we’ve had plenty of war, and now climate disasters have outpaced political response and mass disasters are surprising everybody. We’ll have some cultural sensibilities that respond to this situation, but they’re not going to look or act very Viridian. That opportunity is simply gone with the wind.

[Interlude: Bruce and I briefly debated whether he is actually a “mover and shaker.” He took the last word: “I’d be a mover and shaker if there were fewer glaciers melting and I could put Rex Tillerson in jail.”]

AtKisson: OK, so let’s dial back the timeline to the coming year or so, and shift from prediction to practical advice. Viridian may have “died on the vine” as you put it, but the motivation behind it remains as pressing as ever. We need to aim design — mainstream design, not just the committed-green-lifestyle variety — in ultra-climate-friendly and sustainable directions. Fast. Assume designers are actually going to read this. What are your suggestions to them?

Sterling: If I were a designer I’d worry about becoming a handmaiden to ultra-wealthy offshored oligarchs, tech moguls and sovereign wealth funds, because they’re the guys who have all the money nowadays. Designers are generally “on the side of the user,” but when the user’s broke because there’s no middle class, there’s a real threat that you’re either some kind of courtier to the super-rich or else you can’t get the resources to do anything.

The East Germans of the DDR had some really well-trained and meticulous designers, but boy, did they ever make a heap of ugly rubbish. A bad political environment blights everything.

Personally, I like hanging out with open-source design guys, because there are a lot of them in the academy and in the electronic art scene. But I wouldn’t claim that open source is anybody’s path to utopia; people who are in that scene tend to shrug off the money but then they argue about the prestige. There’s a lot of palace intrigue; it’s like literary politics, almost. But, then again, I’m a novelist.

AtKisson: So, what’s your next book about?

Sterling: It’s a historical fantasy about the glory days of the city of Turin in the remote 1640s. I spend a lot of time in Turin and always wanted to write a regional novel about the city and its strange heritage, so this seems to be my chance.

You can revisit the halcyon days of the Viridian movement through its archived website, ViridianDesign.org. Bruce Sterling’s blog, Beyond the Beyond, is a regular feature on Wired.

This blog post was originally published as one of my “North Star” columns on GreenBiz.com.

The Sustainability Change Agent’s Job Description

This year, 2018, marks a decade since I first published The Sustainability Transformation* — the 2nd book in my planned 3-volume “Optimist Trilogy.” I’m now working on volume 3. But the “job description” from vol. 2 that appears on the first page of the first chapter is still highly relevant. Enjoy … and spread.

JOB DESCRIPTION

World development is making most people richer and healthier. It is creating enormous new opportunities for human learning and self-expression. But it is also creating a dangerous set of conditions and trends – climate change, a stark rich/poor divide, an erosion of community and social capital, depletion of both non-renewable and renewable resources, conflict over resources, degraded ecosystems, disappearing species, and many other problems – that are increasingly likely to cause collapses and catastrophes, small and large. These growing dangers are greatly diminishing the long-term prospects of both people and nature. Our current course is not sustainable.

Your job is to help change the world, by changing the systems in which you live and work. Your objective is to prevent collapse or catastrophe – in both human and natural systems – and to increase the prospects for a more sustainable and even beautiful future.

To assist you in accomplishing your assignment, you will be given access to current research about the trends shaping that future, as well as up-to-date news about important breakthroughs, tools, technologies and change processes. You will be linked up to other individuals and groups who have accepted the same job and who are spread out across the planet. This global ‘conspiracy of hope’, combined with the latest in communications technology, will make it possible to work in both physical and virtual teams, and to find help and support, almost anywhere.

Your prospects for success are better than they might appear, because slow changes can suddenly become very rapid, and because humanity has a long history of rising to overcome great challenges. But you face a number of daunting obstacles and limitations:

  • You will be given minimal resources to pursue your mission – indeed, an extremely tiny amount when compared to the resources currently spent to fuel your community, company or government on its current course. You will have to find ways to create large-scale changes with small-scale budgets using high-leverage intervention strategies.
  • You will be largely invisible to others, and it will sometimes be difficult to explain to other people what you are doing. Phrases like ‘sustainable development’, ‘global transformation’ or ‘a systems perspective’ still leave most people scratching their heads. You will have to communicate your intentions in ways that speak to people’s immediate and local needs while also convincing them to participate in longer-term, larger-scale changes to solve increasingly global problems. There is not enough time to wait for people to ‘wake up’ or ‘get it’ on a mass scale.
  • You will have limited access to centres of power. If you achieve access, you will often discover that many people sitting in those centres of power feel surprisingly trapped by the system that they are supposedly controlling, and relatively powerless to make change. If you are not able to convince them otherwise, you will have to find other ‘leverage points’, other places to start change processes that can then spread through the system.
  • Meanwhile, the momentum of change in the wrong direction will be immeasurably huge, and will probably continue to accelerate, in ways that seem unstoppable. It is imperative that you resist tendencies to despair and cynicism, in yourself and others, and that you find effective ways to spread a sense of hope and inspiration. For without hope – the belief that change is possible, that your vision of a sustainable world is attainable – your chances of success fall dramatically.

Good luck.

 

* The original title of The Sustainability Transformation was “The ISIS Agreement” (2008) — referring both to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to our planning methodology, which is introduced in the book (Indicators, Systems, Innovation, Strategy). The hardback version from 2008 is still available under the old name. We had to change the name of both the methodology and the book, for obvious reasons. The methodology is now called VISIS (we added “Vision”, because it was always part of the methodology anyway).

Letter to Santa Claus 2002: The 2016 Update

letter-to-santa-2016In 2002, before the Age of Social Media, I wrote a regular column called “Find/Replace.” The following “Letter to Santa” went sort-of-viral, which means it got copied and sent out on various people’s email lists (including science fiction writer Bruce Sterling’s list, which was an important list at the time).

I thought about that article today when catching up on the latest news from the North Pole, which has been 20 degrees C, or 36 degrees F, warmer than usual. Those temperatures are not a mistake. Read them again. The Washington Post called the numbers “insane“.

Unfortunately, this was exactly the future I asked Santa to help us avoid, when I first wrote to him 14 years ago. But there’s still a grain of hope, because maybe — just maybe — Santa might finally be giving me the present I asked for.

Here is the 2002 original article (which was also published in my essay collection Because We Believe in the Future), followed by a new 2016 “P.S.” that reflects on what we actually got … and what we still need.

Dear Santa, I Hear the North Pole is Melting

© 2002 by Alan AtKisson; new “P.S.” © 2016

Permission granted to turn this into an email virus. [2016 update: share on social media.]

Dear Santa,

This year, unlike certain previous years in my life, I have been a relatively ‘good boy.’ Starting a family will do that to a person. I’m betting that I’ve made your list for a pretty good present.

However, I’m afraid that what I really want for Christmas this year, you can’t give me: a new energy system for planet Earth. A stabilization in our emission of greenhouse gasses. The avoidance of global climate catastrophe.

I’m betting that no amount of patient, no-complaints baby care gets me that big a pile of chips to play in the old Christmas Casino. You can’t cash in your karma on miracles.

But Santa, you know, global warming is a lot more real than you are.

You know as well as I do that Nature does what it does, regardless of whether certain political leaders and automobile advertisers might like to pretend to the contrary.

In fact, you know the immutability of Nature’s laws better than I do, since you’re sitting up there on a melting sheet of ice that’s thinned 40% since the 1970s.

By midcentury, Santa, you’ll need a summer houseboat – for you, the elves, and several thousand homeless polar bears.

And apparently, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Bangladesh that we humans are going to do much about it. Did you see the news from India, Santa, about the latest international climate negotiations conference?

Experts espousing the views of industry were thrilled with the shift in New Delhi,’ said the New York Times on November 3, 2002. The ‘shift’ was this: the world is basically giving up on trying to stop or slow down global warming. ‘Industry’ (not all industry – some industry makes the ‘Nice’ list) was thrilled because they won’t have to invest in innovation, pay carbon taxes, reinvent their products, convert to zero-emissions energy systems.

All the serious talk now, said the Times, is about adapting to the inevitable.

Santa, I know climate change is inevitable, because it is already happening. I try to read the science journals, in between diaper changes: I know that hundreds if not thousands of indicators, from the pole-ward migration of warmer-climate species, to the increase in devastating El Niños, are ‘consistent with the expected effects of an increase in global temperatures.’ Because I’ve been patiently taught, I know – unlike about two-thirds of MIT graduate students tested on this question! – that even if we stopped emitting CO2 and other greenhouse gasses today, global temperatures would continue to rise for years.

It’s called ‘a delay in the system.’ It is going to happen, for the same reason that summer days keep getting hotter even when they’re getting shorter (after June 21, for you and me, who both live in the northern hemisphere).

You know all about delays in the system, Santa. That’s why after you make your lists, you check them twice, in case some naughtiness or niceness got reported late.

But delay or not, I’m not willing to just give up, and watch my favorite Andean glaciers or Swedish ski areas disappear. I don’t like the idea of New Orleans vanishing under 20 feet of water when the next global-warming- enhanced hurricane goes partying on Bourbon Street. (People usually drink ‘Hurricanes’ on Bourbon Street; this Hurricane could drink them.)

Santa, I know it is unseemly for a grown man to come begging and pleading to a fictitious troll in a red polyester suit. But I’m writing to you, rather than to our World Leader types, because the World Leaders have essentially tossed in their monogrammed towels. You – the great dispenser of unexpected gifts for the often barely deserving – seem to be our only hope.

So, Santa, please give us something to replace the burning of fossil fuels.

You’ve got to give it to us quick, and it’s got to be relatively cheap and easy to spread around – because let’s face it, Santa, everybody wants energy. And food (grown with energy). And water (transported with energy). And transport (powered by energy). But we’ve got, well, bad energy right now. Energy is our major need, and our major problem. Major change is in order.

For instance, if we’re really going to do something about global warming, all our cars need different motors. All our coal-fired power plants need to be converted to some space-age hydrogen fuel cell array, or maybe some wacky Tesla coil device, harvesting the warps and woofs of space itself.

I don’t know if you’ve got something like that for us in that slick, reindeer-powered, zero-emissions sled of yours, Santa, but you better have something. We’re about to go to war over this stuff, again – just in time for Christmas.

But I’m not giving up hope. We may be a kooky species who, when it comes to planetary management, is still a little slow on the uptake. But we try to be good. We deserve to be on the ‘Nice’ list, even if some of us are being a little naughty with our corporate accounting practices.

Santa, please, give us a new energy system. Give us climate stability. Give our great-grandchildren the gift of a white, icicle-y, Frosty-the-Snowman Christmas. Or better yet – give us the guts to do it ourselves.

Yours,

Alan

P.S. Santa, I’m re-sending you this letter in December 2016, with an update on my 2002 wish list.

First, thanks for starting to stabilize our CO2 emissions. That’s really nice, and I really love all those new windmills and solar panels. But it was a little late in coming, and maybe I didn’t ask precisely enough. Here’s an updated wish: instead of stopping at stabilization, please give us emissions reduction. Eventually, to net-zero. Otherwise our goose is cooked. Literally.

Second, a big thank you for Al Gore’s 2006 film, all those IPCC reports, and most especially, the Paris Agreement of 2015. Back in 2002, that Agreement seemed absolutely impossible. Now, even India — where that 2002 “world gives up” meeting happened — is on board. Not bad, Santa. But once again, just a little slower than I’d been hoping. (Plus, I’m a little worried about that new guy in the White House. Try to convince him to get onto your ‘Nice’ list too. The world needs it.)

Third, just to be clear: when I wrote in 2002 about New Orleans eventually getting flooded by a hurricane, I was expressing a big worry, not a wish. Not to say I blame you for Hurricane Katrina three years later. I just want to make sure you had not misread my letter. No more killer hurricanes, please!

Fourth, when I wrote about all cars needing new motors, that reference to a “wacky Tesla coil” was just a joke. But I guess you understood that, because you gave us the very un-wacky Tesla electric car instead. Fantastic. Now, could you just speed up that global car-motor conversion process, like, a lot? And throw in lots of fast-charging stations? (I drive a Nissan Leaf now, and it’s really great. But you can give me a Tesla if you want.)

Finally, Santa, let me just go ahead and ask you for a miracle.

We’re not supposed to want miracles. We’re supposed to just work really hard. But you know, we could really use some help here.

Current climate debates seem to be split between the optimistic techno-fix types, and the melancholy preachers of a drastic drawdown in consumer consumption behavior. Frankly, we probably need both, but either of them would probably be a miracle. So I guess I’m asking for two.

Plus, please throw in anything else you’ve got in that magic bag of yours — anything that can result in rapid reductions in emissions and even the removal of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

I’m getting the feeling that maybe you don’t think we deserve a bunch of miracles. I understand your skepticism. But we’ll be really good.

I promise.

Launching “Swedified” – a new blog

swedified-opensFor years, I have wanted to write about what it is like to come to this small, unusual country — Sweden — and then become part of it.

There is a Swedish word used to describe foreign people (or things) that have been absorbed by the unique culture of Sweden, but have been given a kind of Swedish twist in the process: försvenskad. Or in English: swedified.

Which is the name of the new blog I launched recently. To get a sense of what it’s about, read the Welcome letter. And to read the first full article on the site — commemorating the remarkable life of my friend Vincent Williams, an American-Swedish artist who passed away in 2016 — click here.

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.

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

 

An Open Letter to Future Generations

Dear Future Generations,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,
Alan

A Brief History of Self-Sharing

BlogImage_24Feb2015_2On a recent ski-vacation, we bumped into one of my wife’s old school-friends. My wife was a little surprised, but not her friend. “Oh, I knew you were here,” she said. “I saw Alan’s posting on Instagram.”

Unwittingly, by sharing a photo on social media — just a nature scene, shot from a moving train — I had telegraphed to the world where my wife was, too. And she is not active on social media. So she was a bit shocked to discover that her location could be figured out so easily, based on my random nature photo (though fortunately she wasn’t upset about it). But this tiny incident underscored the profound changes that have occurred, in my lifetime, regarding how we share information about ourselves.

I’ve always been a sharer. I’m a writer, after all, and my books often combine a personal with an expository voice. If you read my first book, Believing Cassandra, you will learn a lot about the origins of the sustainability movement; but you will also learn a lot about me. I share personal letters and journal entries as a way of illustrating general points about data, history, or sustainability issues.

So for me, the transition to social media was a kind of seamless evolution. The phases look like this:

•    Phase 1. Letter writing: I wrote many long letters to friends and family, from my teen years.
•    Phase 2. Publishing in newsletters/magazines: I started publishing my writing around 1987.
•    Phase 3. Personal newsletter: In the early 1990s, following the example of my friend/mentor Donella Meadows, I started writing regular summaries of thoughts and activities and sending them, by post, to my circle of friends, contacts, and readers. Like her, I called them “Dear Folks” letters.
•    Phase 4. Listserves and e-newsletters: By the late 1990s I had shifted this activity over to email. This included sending around columns that were sometimes picked up and published.
•    Phase 5. Blogging: I started blogging seriously in 2008 (a bit late). Blog entries took the place of those earlier email newsletters and occasionally published columns. I more or less stopped submitting my work to other publications, though I continued to respond to invitations to publish (and still do).
•    Phase 6. Social Media: I started with Twitter and Facebook about the same time, but got more active later.

And here’s a pattern I notice: as time goes on, social media — the latest phase — is tending to obliterate the phases that went before it. Example: I blogged only eight times in 2014, compared to 20 times in 2012. I publish less than before. And I definitely write many fewer letters.

Why? Partly because people seem less and less interested.

I certainly don’t take this personally. There is a well-known enormous flood of information out there. What’s more, the majority of that flood is personal information: things like my nature photo, times a billion. In the old days, I was unusual (as are all writers) in that I shared personal information publicly. It was theoretically shared with the whole world, even if in practice the real numbers of people reading what I wrote were in the tens of thousands, tops.

Today, virtually everyone shares personal information publicly. Sometimes whether they want to or not (like my wife). And that information is far more accessible than my little newsletters ever were, whether they were on paper or in electronic format.

Skimming through Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, I am instantly in touch with hundreds of friends and contacts. All of them are sharing the kinds of thoughts that I went to great effort to push out into the world, back when I was writing my “Dear Folks” newsletters, printing up a couple of hundred copies, sticking them in envelopes and posting them.

Just more briefly.

Of course, social media is a great equalizer that way. We “writers” (and other kinds of artists) are not so special anymore. Anyone and everyone can now tell the whole world what they think, what they are doing, what they are planning to do, with a few clicks on that little handheld device we still insist on calling a “phone”.

What does this evolution mean for the future of personal communication? I have no idea. Perhaps the whole notion of actively informing people about what you think and do will die away. Robots will decide what we should publish on our social media timelines. Then robots will decide which of those pieces of information, published by others, we should read. (Actually, that’s what is already happening: Facebook’s automated algorithms determine whether what you publish there will actually appear on your friends’ timelines. How their robots make that determination is not public knowledge.)

But I note one more interesting pattern: the impact of this evolution, on me, is a reduced desire to share. Maybe it is also a function of getting older, but I feel less and less motivated to tell the world what I think — especially now that this act is now wrapped together with the culture of selfies, trolls, and hashtags. (That is, ubiquitous photographic narcissism, anonymous meanness to other people, and ever-shorter attention spans about what’s important in this world.)

Obviously, I do keep active on social media — hence this blog post, which I’ll also flag on Twitter and Facebook. Since I am still a writer (and songwriter), and want to at least give the world a chance to discover my books and songs, I make sure to post things into the great flood of tweets and timelines on a regular basis. Sometimes I’m happily and pleasantly surprised by the response, too.

But to be honest, posting on social media is just a lot less fun than those “Dear Folks” newsletters I used to write.

And I notice that the things I post are less and less personal. I may post just as much as I ever did, but I share less than I used to.

Maybe I’ll end up back where I started — writing letters to friends and family, on paper. There remains a deep satisfaction, a visceral as well as intellectual pleasure, in physically tracing out one’s thoughts in a line of ink. Then sending the letter away, as a physical object in the world, to be received, opened, and read by another human being, sitting at a kitchen table.

It feels more like true sharing. I’m old-fashioned that way.