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Letter from London and Edinburgh
Alan AtKisson, 8 Jul 05

I seem to have a knack for being on the scene for historic events, but I assure that this is completely unintentional. I certainly did not want to be anywhere near London for a terrorist attack, or anywhere near the G8 meeting and its protests, and since I am currently staying in a London hotel, but had flown up to Edinburgh for a morning speech in Scotland's Parliament building, I was affected by both. Sort of.

"Typical," as we'd say in Sweden. I also had just flown into Boston on the evening of September 10, 2001, to launch a sustainability initiative for the island of Martha's Vineyard. And in 1999, I launched my book in Seattle with a reading that was strategically timed by my publicist to coincide with the WTO meeting. I ended up doing the reading under conditions of martial law. [NB: My "publicist" was none other than Alex Steffen.]

Yesterday, after arriving in Edinburgh around 8 am, I negotiated those zig-zaggy fences you've seen on TV, and the police scrutinizing everything thrice, to get into the Parliament building, where I learned that if we went out to take part in the "Climate Alarm" demonstration later that day we would not be let back in. A few minutes later we heard, in mid-meeting, via announcement from a member of Parliament, about the bombs. Everybody madly checked their cell phone weblinks and Blackberries, but the meeting went on. The planned "Climate Alarm" -- thousands to gather with noisemakers in Parliament Square at 13:45, signifying that 13% of the world emits 45% of the CO2 -- became a minute of silence. By the time I got back to London that evening, everything felt oddly normal. Just quiet.

I felt grateful to have avoided spending day watching television, as I did on 9/11, but of course greatly saddened for those who were directly affected ... and indeed for all of us. We are each, in our own way, directly affected.

But the reflections that prompt this short letter have less to do with the tragic events in London yesterday, or with what it felt like to run a sustainability workshop on September 12, 2001 (strained and unnatural), or what we did when tear gas cannisters started falling during the 1999 Seattle demonstration march -- where, by the way, I met a future client, a venture capital investor, which tells you just how mainstream that crowd was. (We peeled off and went to lunch at a nice restaurant.)

Instead, I want to offer a few tentative observations about the challenge of working for long-term change in a short-term world.

Observation 1: Things like this were predicted to happen years ago. As trends in resource use increase -- trends that include increasing gross inequality, spread across lines of ideological and cultural incongruity -- conflict and instability also increases. People have been seeing this coming since at least the 1970s. These conflicts are what someone once called the "social limits to growth."

Observation 2: And of course, that makes it all the harder to make the changes that have to be made. You should be spending as many of your resources as possible -- and by resources let's clearly include money, attention, psychic energy, creativity, not just oil and such -- reinventing stuff, but instead, you have to spend some of those resources addressing the social breakdowns caused by the fact that you didn't reinvent stuff earlier. You're racing against time, but your lane is getting wetter, muddier and stickier, while time's lane is smooth and unchanging.

Observation 3: It really doesn't take a whole lot to distract the whole world from big, long-term issues. Actually, the press did a reasonably good job of not losing total sight of the G8 Africa-and-poverty dialogue that was meant to dominate the news for 48 hours, but didn't. Just four well-placed bombs in one city reduced the world's attention to some of the world's most important problems, by a factor of something like 90%. And those four bombs did it just as effectively as four jet planes aimed at big buildings in New York and Washington, or ten bombs on trains in Madrid. The terrorists are getting more efficient.

Observation 4, and this relates to Worldchanging: We need to plan for the fact that most of the world is going to be increasingly distracted by awful events, large and small, that have some relationship -- and often effect-to-cause relationship -- to bigger, long-term issues. That means having strategies that embed the big-long-term deeply into the public psyches and institutions over a stretched-out period of time, relentlessly and methodically, over years, rather than overly relying on periodic big bangs like Live8 and G8.

What's an example of such a strategy? How about this one, for starters: Get everybody to read Worldchanging, every day.

Just a few thoughts from your often-sort-of-near-the-scene correspondent ...

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Much appreciated, Alan - thank you. It's especially important to learn to see the underlying pattern connecting short-term events, or the same template recurring in multiple situations. One hears of hurricane destruction in Honduras with scarcely a whisper about deforestation, or about conflict in the Congo with no mention of it's being the principal source for a metal used in cell phones.

I remember an NPR newscast several days after the WTC & Pentagon attacks, in the midst of the anthrax scare. The newscast reported the SAME STORY four times in a row:

1. Farmers are anxious to get crop dusting planes back in the air, because after decades of pesticide use, crop losses from pests are higher than ever and more pests have developed resistance;

2. The Centers for Disease Control are urging doctors not to prescribe Cipro without good cause, because after decades of widespread antibiotic use, microbes are rapidly developing resistance to antibiotics;

3. A new report reveals that 20 years after President Reagan launched the "War on Drugs", dealers and cartels have become more efficient, vicious and violent than ever, drug street prices are low and purity is high;

4. President Bush announced that we're in a new "War on Terror"...

By then I was shouting at the radio, "You repeating the same damned story! The predator strengthens the prey!"

Well, it's a "systems-head" thing. Weird, no doubt, but no weirder than what passes for "news and analysis" these days.

Posted by: David Foley on 9 Jul 05



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