alan-atkisson-self-portrait-with-usa-theme-10nov2016As a dual citizen of the USA and Sweden, I am determined to keep working for the vision and reality of sustainable development for all, here in my beloved Europe where I live, in my beloved USA where I have both family and business ties, and around the world. That imperative does not change no matter who is sitting in the White House or any seat of government. The science is irrefutable. The values and ethics of human rights, equity, and opportunity for all, powered by empathy, the creative impulse and our innate curiosity, are the best of what make us human. There may be headwinds now for the issues I and so many others care about – addressing climate change, ocean health, peace, justice, gender equity and more – but the arrow of history has only one direction worth working for, in every country. I don’t plan to stop now, or ever.

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

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

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.

I just had the pleasure and privilege of doing the opening keynote at Sustainable Brands Bangkok 2016. The “Sustainable Brands” concept has truly spread around the world. What’s brilliant about KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz‘s creation is the way it attracts a broad business audience: not just the “true believers” in sustainability and CSR, but also the curious, and the mildly skeptical. It inspires them all to engage — and engagement is step 1.
 
sustainablebrandsbkk-princessIf my speech was an energizing waker-upper (I had the audience do a couple of short change games with me), the following talk — delivered with compellingly serene sincerity — was a call to reflection and deep thought. A member of Bhutan’s royal family, HRH Princess Kezang Choden Wangchuk (pictured, from my Instagram account), focused on ethics and called on businesses to consider their “ultimate purpose,” in the context of Bhutan’s “national happiness” concept. Whenever I’ve lectured on ethics (and I have), I doubt I have ever received the rapturous attention that this crowd seemed to give Her Royal Highness. Then she floated out of the auditorium, with an entourage of a dozen people, as though she had been urgently recalled to the Himalayas. (Probably she had some Thai royals to visit.)
 
During the speeches that came after, it finally got through to me what this conference is about. I thought “Activating Purpose” was just the conference’s title. Somehow I’d missed the fact that “Purpose” is the new “CSR,” or “sustainability,” or “corporate citizenship”. It’s not just a word, but a concept — though still a “fragile” one, said Wander Meijer of Globescan. He showed data that confirmed what you might guess about how much the average person in our world (in 25 countries) trusts the average corporation: exactly 0. (Fortunately the number is not negative, which is possible on their scale.) Corporations that are identified with some sense of purpose that is not just making money do better, in pure return-on-investment terms, than those that don’t, just as has been previously proven for sustainability, CSR etc.
 
But “Purpose” is “the new black” in the sense that everyone can wear it, it looks good on everyone, it’s not hard to explain. In some ways, sustainable development has gotten easier to digest as a company, because you can just download the 17 SDGs. “Use them all, or pick some subset, and make that your purpose. Easy!” said Steve Young, chair of the Caux Round Table. But he also acknowledged that explaining the 17 goals and 169 sub-goals (or “Targets” in UN-speak) is probably more complicated than just saying “Purpose.” Since he also managed to tie the financial advantages and the SDGs to essentially all the great religious and moral traditions of the world — in 15 minutes! — I think could manage to make anything look easy.
 
As I write this, my moment at Sustainable Brands has actually just begun. I still have a workshop to lead, and there is another day of speeches, and there are books to sign (I was launching Parachuting Cats into Borneo in Asia here). But it’s already introduced me to a whole new strain of the sustainability movement — where I’ve lived for three decades — that I did not really know existed. I guess that’s one reason why I’m here.
 
Nice to have a sense of Purpose.

offworldI woke up early this morning, pre-dawn. Storm, wind and rain. For some reason, I had a strong urge to watch a bit of the classic film “Blade Runner”. I was surprised to note that the future it depicts so compellingly is dated November 2019 — just around the corner. Fortunately, our world does not yet look the way it was portrayed in that dystopian vision from 1982, full of smoke and flames and killer living robots. But in some ways, Ridley Scott got it right.

This same morning, I read an article about Elon Musk and his plans to send paying customers off in a giant rocket to colonize Mars, in less than 10 years. Link to article & video

“Start a new life off-world, in the colonies!” says a big advertisement blimp in the opening sequences of “Blade Runner”. (See photo) Maybe we’ll be seeing ads like that pretty soon.

And if the Republican candidate wins the US election, I’m betting Elon Musk gets a line of ticket buyers to Mars outside his door, longer than the queue for a new Tesla.

hillaryclintonforpresident“The word ‘debate’ loses its meaning when one candidate is serious and the other is a vacuous bully.” So wrote the New York Times in today’s edition, and I could not agree more. I am breaking with my usual habit of staying publicly neutral on US electoral politics and strongly endorsing Hillary Clinton for president. I hope you will too, and if you are a US citizen, please be sure to vote, and please encourage others to vote. This is the most crucial US election of our lifetime — I certainly hope the ugliness of the campaign and the risk factor attached to a major candidate (the Republican candidate in this case) never gets this bad again. The Times’ editorial endorsement echoes my own thinking.

Read the New York Times endorsement of Hillary Clinton

greeneconomyvote-switzerlandYesterday, Switzerland held a remarkable vote. The question: whether to legally limit the country to living within its share of the ecological limits of our planet, by 2050. Currently, Switzerland uses three times the sustainable level of resources; so passing this law would have required the whole country, legally, to start a march toward physical sustainability and reduce its use of resources by 2/3, by 2050. (I learned about all this from Swiss-born Mathis Wackernagel, one of the originators of the ecological footprint and head of Global Footprint Network, because it did not even register in the global news.)
A couple of months ago, the “Green Economy” referendum was leading in the polls by 61%. But then came the attacks and scare-mongering, with opponents saying it would lead to “cold showers” and the end of cocoa imports. (Say goodbye to chocolate! In Switzerland!) The Swiss council of ministers advised the public against supporting the proposal. Support fell … but in the end, 36% still voted for it. And in Geneva (where there are many UN and international offices) it actually passed by 51%.
Was this a loss? Mathis, an optimist like me, does not see it that way. This is the first time *ever* that a whole nation has grappled with this fantastically difficult problem. More than a third of them were ready to make that commitment, despite the fear-mongering. And one of the world’s major thought-leading cities, Geneva, voted yes.
There is far, far to go, but just the fact that this issue of reducing our footprint on the Earth is getting serious, national-level attention of this kind in an advanced democracy is cause for at least a little celebration … and to Mathis, whose work no doubt inspired the whole thing: well done!

A few important facts that Americans must keep in mind as we head to the voting booth in 2016:

The Republican candidate has said publicly, “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” adding, in other appearances, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works,” and “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing to us.” (Links to sources provided below.) Regardless of what one thinks of this candidate, one should never forget that the candidate has strongly advocated torture.

The US is a party to at least four ratified international agreements against torture. Ordering the use of torture can be construed, in armed conflict situations, as a war crime.

Advocating torture is universally considered immoral. If elected, it means the candidate could also be ordering the women and men in national service to commit war crimes.

And it is clearly established that it doesn’t “work” as a way to get reliable and actionable intelligence. The US Senate concluded an in-depth study on “enhanced interrogation techniques” — a deplorable and Orwellian way to say “torture” — less than two years ago (Dec 2014). The results were published and are easily available, and they are summarized here:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-30401025

These facts should not be drowned out during the rest of this campaign season’s deeply unfortunate noise.

Sources:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/donald-trump-on-waterboar…/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/donald-trump-on-waterboar…/

https://www.theguardian.com/…/donald-trump-waterboarding-re…

deplorableWatching this US presidential election cycle, from my vantage point in Sweden, has been among the most painful political experiences of my life.

It is truly excruciating to observe the constant mendacity, meanness, and boastfulness of the Republican candidate (I am a dual US/Swedish citizen and grew up Republican, but currently have no party affiliation). It has been a bitter disappointment to see such callow campaign methods win popular support.

If he wins, he has vowed to tear up many of the US policies I hold dear, including the Paris Agreement on climate change and the disavowal of torture. If he loses, he will nonetheless leave behind a deep well of poisoned civility, further polarising a nation.

Recent interviews with committed voters for the Republican candidate indicate that many are aware of the risks and dangers inherent in the candidate’s positions and reckless character, but they “don’t care” because they just want change, and preferably dramatic change, of any kind. (See link below.) They are genuinely hurting, and the Republican candidate is exploiting that pain.

The Democratic candidate was recently criticized for a thoughtless statement that included the word “deplorables”. It is useful to look at the definition of that word, “deplorable”: “deserving strong condemnation; completely unacceptable” and “shockingly bad in quality.”

In my view, the Republican candidate’s campaign, including the positions he has taken and the statements he has made on many issues of deep concern to me — related to climate change, human rights, the US’s global responsibility, the role of women in society, and many more — is deplorable.

Note: This is copied from my public Facebook page and is the first in a series of short posts on current US politics. I do not usually comment on politics but the stakes of this US presidential election are extremely high and make silence unethical. We need to speak up for honesty, integrity, knowledge, humility, and wisdom in politics and public discourse, and not cede the ground to baser methods of public campaigning.

Link:  New York Times article, “We Need Somebody Spectacular

Pushmepullyou_wikipedia_sourced_smaller

A “pushmi-pullyu”, imagery via Wikipedia

Remember Dr. Dolittle? He was a vet who could talk to animals. One of the rarest was the “pushmi-pullyu,” a llama with two heads (one head was where the tail ought to be).

The pushmi-pullyu was a gentle creature that did not like to be stared at. And yet the other animals in Africa convinced him to go with the good Dr., and be put on display in Europe, because Dr. Dolittle was a kind soul who needed money to look after all the animals in his care.

Already you can begin guess why I chose this story to begin a commentary on two large conferences under way this week: the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, and the Global Green Growth Week in Jeju, South Korea.

Dr. Dolittle’s two-headed wonder is an obvious metaphor for the problem of trying to conserve nature while encouraging growth. If both heads want to go in opposite directions, nothing happens. If one head wins out, you get more of one thing (economic growth or nature) and less of the other.

In both congresses, the aim is to find win-win solutions, to “have your cake and eat it too.” The agendas even overlap to some extent: IUCN has sessions like “Driving green growth at a landscape level” while the Green Growth folks will explore topics like “Innovation in Water Governance and Conservation.”

But one would almost prefer that these groups were meeting together, rather than separately, because the overall impression from reviewing their respective agendas is that we still have a “pushmi-pullyu” problem. Green Growth is a wonderful innovation; but we have a long way to go before we can be confident that more of it will also lead to reversing the general decline of nature: species, ecosystems, and global climatic stability.

The Green Growth conference agenda is, of course, inspiring to an old “sustainability wonk” like me. It is covering wonderfully important topics like gender empowerment and new energy policies; and many friends are there. The conference is even debating the question “can economic growth be inclusive and green?”, which at least acknowledges that the jury is still out.

But that’s the conference for Green Growth thinkers. At the “summit” session for Green Growth policy-makers — ministers, bankers, insurance executives — the agenda reads quite differently. That agenda is entirely focused on money, with every session reading something like this: “Is International Green Finance Flowing to the countries and regions that need it?”

In other words, the folks with actual power are not talking much about the “green” part of the agenda, just the growth.

Meanwhile, the IUCN is meeting at a moment when the alarm bells for disappearing species and ecosystems have never rung louder. New research tells us that African elephants have lost 30% of their population in less than ten years. Four out of the six great apes are “one step away from extinction“. Those are the “charismatic megafauna”, but their plight reflects the general trend for nature: continued rapid decay.

The outlook for green growth is, frankly, much better than the outlook for nature. The Global Green Growth Institute’s budget has grown year on year, and the amount of money being invested in our world that carries some kind of “green” badge is definitely growing (“green bonds,” for example, have gone up from about US$ 11 billion in 2013 to 100 billion this year according to one forecast). I should be celebrating this revolution in investment, but the headlines from IUCN leave me feeling more sobered than celebratory.

Clearly, at the moment, the “growth” head of the global conservation/green growth push-me-pull-you is winning. “Nature” — a word that is not even mentioned in the Green Growth conference agenda, except as part of the phrase “natural resources” — is losing.

So I wish that some folks from the IUCN Hawaii gathering, with deep knowledge of these collapsing ecosystems, could be parachuted into the heart of the Green Growth summit. Of course I want green finance to grow; but I also want the people thinking about green finance — about finance and investment and economic growth generally — to spend equal amounts of time trying to reverse the “degrowth” in precious living creatures and irreplaceable ecosystems that I have observed over decades, from childhood enchantment to middle-age melancholy.

To be honest, I’m a little mad at Dr. Dolittle. He helped me fall in love with animals, which makes witnessing their disappearance all the more painful. (Bruce Cockburn, the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter, has an amazing song about this: Beautiful Creatures.)

By the way, if you read the original Dr. Dolittle — you can read the whole 1920 book free online — you’ll discover it’s different from the sweet family movie that so captivated me in 1968, or the less-captivating Eddy Murphy remake from 1998. The book is full of disturbing racial stereotypes, as well as colonialist (as well as sexist) language about relations between Africa and the land of the White Men. It serves as a reminder of why we in the rich nations have a moral duty to take Africa’s development and conservation challenges very seriously.

In short, we still have a lot of work to do. We don’t need Dr. Dolittle. We need a whole army of “Dr. Do-a-Lots” — doing a lot more than we are doing now to save nature, transform the global economy, and reinvent “growth” as prosperity for all.

Before we lose the elephants, the apes, and much more besides.

 

 

 

MtRedoubted_Wikimedia

Photo from Wikimedia.org

Be afraid. Be very afraid … of the Anthropocene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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