Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Time to count the spoons": Alan Atkinson on sustainabilty back-peddling

Dr. Samuel Johnson reminded us some time back that "When a man proclaims his honor loudly at the table, it's time to count the spoons". Which is what our guest editorials Alan Atkisson is going for us today as he comments on loudly proclaimed sustainability initiatives from Europe and America. Oops. Something appears to be missing here.

Sustainability under assault

Reading the news has not been easy for champions of sustainability in recent weeks, at least in the Western World. That means the news has not been kind to the interests of future generations, to new economic thinking, to accelerated innovation, to long-term prosperity, or to life on Earth, for that matter. It almost feels as though sustainability itself is under assault, at least from some national governments -- just when its value in economic terms has been solidly established, and the need for it in environmental and social terms has risen dramatically.

Let's review the situation.

First, the new UK government axed the Sustainable Development Commission ( This Commission, led by Jonathan Porritt, has been an extraordinary source of innovative thinking and clear-sighted critique for the past decade. Its impact on the UK has been very important ... but its impact has also been global. And as a "cost-cutting" measure, it's wrong-headed.

The Commission was costing the UK government roughly 3 million pounds per year, but by following (some of) its advice on energy conservation and the like, the UK government was already saving many times that amount -- and could have saved a lot more.

Outside the UK, the Commission's reports helped to advance and even to reframe the debate on sustainability -- especially Commissioner Tim Jackson's landmark report, "Prosperity without Growth" (now a book, published by Earthscan. Hint: Download the original report free while the Commission's website is still working. Click here >> )

Across the pond in the United States of America, energy and climate change legislation died in the Senate -- despite the fact that a supposedly pro-climate-action majority of 60 Democrats sits there. Barring a political miracle, the Senate may have wasted the best historical opportunity to get something serious into US law, and it has at least wasted precious time.

Crossing the Atlantic again, France has earned positive headlines for its recent legislative commitment to sustainability, both its new "Grenelle" package of laws, and its recently released national strategy on "développement durable" (interestingly, many languages use a word meaning "durable" or "enduring" in place of "sustainable").

But at the same time, my colleagues in France tell me that actual money for sustainability programs has been drastically cut; and according to the French papers, the new national strategy lacks "any detail ... on how the necessary investments for the realization of its objectives are to be financed." (Les Echos, 27 July 2010)

Meanwhile, the news on the state of the planet has not been heart-warming, either. A recent global report on biodiversity carries the scary title "Dead Planet, Living Planet" -- a glass-half-empty message if ever there was one. Ironically, we are losing to fight to retain biodiversity, even as we get better at figuring out how much life on Earth is actually worth to us in cold, hard cash -- somewhere between 21 and 72 trillion dollars per year, according to the United Nations Environment Program's new report on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. That's roughly equivalent to the entire annual Gross World Product ($58 trillion in 2008).

Meanwhile (again), a new NOAA report is out on climate change, and US and UK scientists are using words like "undeniable" and "glaringly obvious." Even Russia's President Medvedev is talking like a climate activist these days, as his country swelters in record-breaking heatwaves.

So ... what's a sustainability optimist to do, in the face of such pessimistic news?

Veteran planet-watcher Lester Brown, lecturing in Stockholm, was asked how he maintained optimism in the face of the gathering gloominess. "I get that question a lot, and I have a one-word answer," he joked. "Bourbon."

Lester's real answer, of course (both at that lecture, and as evidenced by his own years of extraordinary work), is not alcohol -- it's action.

And not just any action: strategic action, designed to create the most powerful impacts possible, in the shortest amount of time.

Because that's what we're all working for, and that's what the world needs.

Now more than ever.

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About the author:

Alan AtKisson began professional work on sustainability in 1988, serving as executive editor of the pioneering journal In Context: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture. In 1990, he and other colleagues co-founded the Sustainable Seattle initiative, later recognized by the United Nations as a model project in urban sustainability and indicator development. Also in 1990, Alan began to introduce the concept of "sustainability change agents" through workhops and lectures, and to develop the tools and methods that are now called the ISIS Accelerator and used world wide. In 1992, Alan began consulting on sustainability and founded the small business that has grown into the AtKisson Group. -

A few closing words from Alan on their current work in this area:
At the moment, my publisher Earthscan and I are planning the re-launch of two of my books in new versions. Both of them are about what it takes to be optimistic and to continue making positive, strategic, accelerated change for sustainability -- no matter what the odds.

So be on the lookout this November for the new Believing Cassandra: How to be an Optimist in a Pessimist's World(you can already pre-order the fully updated new edition). Also, my second book, The ISIS Agreement, will appear in paperback then with a new introduction, cover ... and even a new title. I'll keep the (very optimistic) new title for the ISIS book secret for now ... but the new subtitle should give you a taste of it: "How to Make Positive Change in Difficult Times."

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