Category Archives: Writing

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

Why I am a stubborn optimist

boy standing on water

Issue #10 of my personal newsletter, Words & Music

My North Star platform at the Greenbiz.com website is no more. But they still publish columns by me when i send them. You can see the whole archive here. Maybe this column will be my last one — I have been writing columns for a long time, and this one seems a good note to go out on.

Don’t worry, I will still send thoughts to you on this channel. If you want them!

By the way, this article has already been picked up for republishing by an association for optimists based in Australia. Want to republish it? Contact me.

If your principal concern is sustainable development — with a focus on such issues as eliminating poverty, averting climate change, empowering women and creating the conditions for peace — then the current data absolutely does not look good.

COVID-19 has decimated economies and plunged well over 100 million people back into extreme poverty. Even a global pandemic has made only the tiniest of dents in carbon dioxide’s relentless accumulation in the atmosphere. Women globally are said to be “suffering the highest rates of intimate partner violence ever seen,” a particularly brutal and disheartening side effect of this wicked virus. Meanwhile, armed conflict has been trending upward in recent years — and the world feels more like a tinderbox.

So why on Earth would I title this article “Why I am a stubborn optimist”?

Because I still believe, as I have written so many times, in practically every book I have published, that optimism is a choice — indeed, the only reasonable choice we can make if we intend to actually change the world.

This does not mean that I believe everything is going to be fine. Things are not fine now, many things are getting worse, and they are likely to continue to get worse for a good long while.

So why be optimistic? As some unknown scribe once quipped regarding people’s worries about getting older: Consider the alternative.

Choosing a pessimistic outlook, no matter how well-grounded in “the facts” — which actually means current trends, since we are talking about developments over time — is not likely to motivate any effort to turn those negative trends around. “We are doomed!” does not work as a call to action.

A neutral “I have no expectations” or a cynical “What do you expect? Humanity is hopeless” attitude seems hardly better, except perhaps as a strategy for managing near-term disappointment, which we are guaranteed to experience time and time again. We are, after all, trying to move mountains.

Only stubborn, collective optimism, with the sustained energy and effort that follow in its wake, creates the conditions for eventual success. As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke put it, “I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Of course, many believe that a realistic pessimism is the only defensible approach to the crushing scale of our long-term development challenges, and they present reasonable reasons for that view. If you truly believe we are headed into hell, optimism seems foolish. It lures people into wasting precious time, trying to change unavoidable outcomes, when in fact we should focus on preparing for the coming dark age.

In its brightest variety, this philosophy advocates small-scale community resilience and a certain attitude of wise, resolute preparedness. Global collapse is so likely as to be almost inevitable, say proponents. Things such as the current pandemic — or the Ever Given’s recent blockage of the Suez Canal, which demonstrated the fragility of a global economy built on long supply chains — are simply small harbingers of the truly ominous difficulties that lie ahead.

At its most extreme, this philosophy is called “survivalism.”

Of course, even survivalists are optimists of a kind: They have a vision of making it through even the bleakest nuclear winter or riding out the global scorching caused by a climate gone haywire, safe in a bunker or an isolated enclave deep in the mountains of New Zealand.

But here is what I have observed: stubborn, insistent optimism has changed the world time after time, often against seemingly impossible odds. I reflect often on the accomplishments of Gandhi. The end of apartheid. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Changes that once seemed truly impossible — an independent India, democracy for all in South Africa, the end of communist dictatorships in central and eastern Europe (the last two happening in my lifetime) — are now historical facts, decades old.

Further, I submit that the transformative results of stubborn optimism are all around us, right now. The exponential rise of renewable energy and electric cars, after many false starts and failures to overcome market skepticism and opposition. The much-too-slow but nonetheless steady spread of legal acceptance and protection of rights for people who identify as LGBTQ. The rapid digital transformation of Africa, which could see three-quarters of people on the continent connected to the internet by 2030, a driver of systemic change that increases long-term prosperity.

It is hard to remember, when transformations such as this start to become reality, just how impossible they once seemed — and how easy it was to give in to pessimism, cynicism or passive neutrality.

Fortunately, the stubborn optimists persisted, and the world is already better for it. In fact, that is the only way the world ever gets better.

Warm regards,

Alan
www.AlanAtKisson.com

Harder but not impossible: Covid-19 and the Sustainable development goals

To sign up to receive Words&Music as an email newsletter, click above

Issue #9 of my personal newsletter, Words & Music

After a year of quiet, I finally published a new column on my North Star platform at the Greenbiz.com website. This column was also published in a Swedish version, here. Plus there’s an afterword, on music, and some news about book translations. Here’s the column:

In 2015, the world, acting through the United Nations, set in place a system of 17 very ambitious goals to guide humanity’s development toward sustainability through 2030.

Now it is 2021. Neither nature nor global politics has been especially kind to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, over the past few years.

Nature’s complex mechanisms have served up a global pandemic caused (apparently) by a cross-species virus together with intensifying fires and storms that can be credibly attributed to climate change; and the global political arena has mightily distracted us with assaults on democracy and global solidarity as well as chronic conflict along multiple fronts.

COVID-19 gets the lion’s share of the blame, of course, for our current troubles. In too many places and across too many dimensions of sustainable development, the pandemic has turned hard-won progress into a backslide whose momentum must first be stopped and reversed before development can again take on the shape of positive transformation. I am thinking especially of global poverty, hunger, health and education — SDGs 1 through 4 — where the latest figures from the World Bank and other centers of analysis paint a bleak picture of years lost and lives threatened.

But the analysis does not stop there. The SDGs are treated as an interlinked system of goals because that is how the world actually works. I won’t bore you with the relevant SDG numbers, but you can easily build your own mental systems map from the following:

  • Girls not getting opportunities to educate themselves contributes to reversals in gender equality, which in turn affects the quest for long-term economic prosperity, which makes it harder for girls to get educated.
  • People who had climbed up over the poverty line, but are now falling back under it, are mostly doing so in the cities, which hardly contributes to making those cities more sustainable.
  • Plane traffic may be reduced, which is indisputably good for the climate, but reduced as well are the investments into the greener economies of tomorrow that can prevent climate change, rescue biodiversity and create good jobs for a sea of unemployed people, especially youth.

Virtuous cycles can turn vicious. That is an undeniably dismal state of affairs for those of us whose professional lives revolve around trying to help the world achieve these universally acclaimed goals (which also inform the more specific development goals set for Sida, the Swedish agency where I work, by Sweden’s government). How is it possible not to succumb to an erosion of hope?

As always: by looking at the big picture, taking the long view and continuing to seek more effective levers of change.

There are no silver linings in a global pandemic. But there are unexpected things to observe and to learn from — such as the dramatic acceleration of digitalization. Profound changes in working methods and styles have been reported wherever decent internet is to be had. Suddenly, meetings and conferences that previously “had to be” held in physical, face-to-face settings are working just fine on screen. Maybe better: You can include more people, under roughly equal conditions, when you don’t have to fly them around and put them up in hotels of varying fanciness.

Necessity has mothered digital invention together with rapid learning advances that have proved to us that we can change must faster than our most ambitious management plans assumed was possible.

Thanks to these advances, work on sustainable development has not stopped. In fact, in some critical areas, it has intensified. Consider finance. In the past year major investment leaders at the global level have pushed themselves and others to take stronger stands (and produced better measurable results) on climate change, diversity, gender equity and corporate responsibility generally. Investment levels in developing countries may be down, but new vehicles for that investment are being innovated and designed, so that when the money flow eventually accelerates again it will have more and potentially more effective places to go.

It is not my purpose here to paint a rosy picture of the future with these short syntheses and personal impressions gleaned from dozens of recent digital meetings, reports, dialogs and conferences. As a world, we have a tough road ahead. People living in rising poverty and oppression have it toughest of all, and I challenge everyone reading this to keep that reality in the forefront of their minds as we continue down that road.

But it is important also to bear in mind that COVID-19 has not made the achievement of sustainable development impossible. It has, of course, made achieving those goals by 2030 a whole lot harder (and it was already very hard). Yet it has also shown us that even in the midst of serious global calamity, when the goalposts are still shifting away from us, we can (and must) keep pressing forward. Working to prevent greater damage where we have to. Making positive change where we can. Believing that the tide eventually will turn again in our favor.

Because that is what will make it turn.

*  *  *

For those who have read all the way through the “Words” part of this newsletter, here comes “&Music”.

I started playing guitar recently. That might seem a strange statement — I have been playing the guitar for 43 years. Just not recently.

Despite all the extra home time that a pandemic provides, my guitars have resolutely stayed in their respective cases most of the year. But last Sunday, I set a goal of playing all four of my guitars at least once during the day: my workaday Martin D-2832 (which I carried with me everywhere for decades, it has many dings and airport security stickers to prove it), my much-fancier Taylor (the one I use for shows and recordings), the classical guitar I still think of as my “new” guitar (I bought it five years ago, see picture from my friend Gillian Martin Mehers), and my electric, an ESP strat built for me by Mark Dann, the legendary bass-player whom I met during the heyday of Greenwich Village’s “Speakeasy”/Fast Folk era, also known as the 1980s. (Mark is still active, here is a recent YouTube video of him recording a bass track in his studio.)

On that same Sunday, I also drank real espresso coffee for the first time in over a year. Do you think those two things somehow go together?

In any event, I played all four guitars. And then I played guitar every day last week. I kept one by my desk, to pull up during short breaks from all the Zoom, Teams, and Skype meetings. It gave me such joy (and a little pain) to reacquaint my fingers with the strings.

Maybe it was the coffee: I felt it in my system for days afterwards (though I drank not another drop). In between meetings with my colleagues at Sida, the agency where I work, and where we aim to improve the lives of people living in poverty and oppression, I would either pop out for a quick walk in the warming Swedish weather, or pick up my guitar to relearn an old favorite.

Often this one, Moon’s Best Friend, an autobiographical song about what I remember from being two, three, and four years old — with a bit of artistic embellishment, I confess.
Listen to “Moon’s Best Friend” on YouTube  /  Spotify  /  Apple Music Amazon
From the album “Testing the Rope”, Rain City Records, 1997

The song focuses on my relationship to my babysitter, a teenage boy named Peter. Here’s the chorus:

Will you read me that story ’bout the Moon’s Best Friend
Pick me up — swing me round again
My heart comes all undone
Can I tell you how it feels to be two years old

The embellishment is this: there was no children’s book called “Moon’s Best Friend”. I made up that little detail. But over the years, the fact that such a book didn’t actually exist bothered me.

So a few years ago, I wrote and illustrated a children’s book for two- to four-year-olds, called “Moon’s Best Friend.”

But that is a story for another day.

Finally, there are now Swedish, French, and German editions of my little bestseller Sustainability is for Everyone. all now available in both paper and free PDF versions at their respective websites. Just click the language of your choice.

Stay safe and healthy,

Warm regards,

Alan
www.AlanAtKisson.com

Covid side-effects: two books, two stories

Covid-19 has had many side unexpected side-effects. While I have so far avoided the virus (I think), I have not avoided certain side-effects — like having more time to write. The result was two books, two stories.

Story 1

Last summer, I completed a new book. It is a very unusual book, even by my standards. Here is the blurb:

“A scientific meeting about sustainability, the courage of a friend who faced certain death, and a tragi-comic poem in 61 verses are the starting points for these 61 short, luminous essays on the human relationship to time. Begun as a letter to the friend’s now-adult daughter, who had written to the author seeking to understand a mysterious poem dedicated to her father over 20 years previously, The Chronosphere Commentary takes the reader on a journey that varies from playful to philosophical to achingly personal, ultimately confronting the unreliability of memory and the unavoidable shortness of human life in the context of a vast, ancient universe.”

The Chronosphere Commentary was composed over a three-year period on a special website, where you can read the poem straight through, or explore it verse by verse with the commentaries (which became this book).

Go to the special website:
https://chronospherepoem.wordpress.com/book/

Why did I write a book of commentaries about a poem about time? Why did I write the poem in the first place? That is a story in itself, starting with the letter mentioned in the blurb … but the book’s intro tells that story. I hope you enjoy The Chronosphere Commentary.

Story 2

During the late autumn of this Covid year, I finally put the finishing touches on my wife Kristina AtKisson’s wonderful Swedish translation of my old “classic”, Sustainability is for Everyone. And I published it. And I gave it as a digital “julklapp” (Christmas present) to Sweden, free,  via this special website (in Swedish):

https://hallbarhetforalla.wordpress.com/

Of course you can also buy the book at bookstores on paper, or get it as a Kindle e-book.

This little book has had such a surprising life. When I wrote it, I had no idea it would be a book. (It was just a long essay, written to my colleagues in sustainability.) When the essay proved popular, I published the book, but I had no idea it would be a success from a publishing perspective. Anything over 10,000 copies is considered a “bestseller”. This book sold about 30,000 and has been translated into several languages. (The German translation was sponsored by the Government of Austria.)

You can get the original English version at this website or at any bookstore.

Two books, two stories, two Corona-virus side-effects that, for me at least, were a surprise benefit of this challenging, stay-at-home time.

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.