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Letter from Tällberg: Getting Serious about the State of the World
Alan AtKisson, 15 Jul 06

Tällberg Forum, Day 1

Just after the "cacophany orchestra" -- everyone making music using hunks of wood, plastic bags, PVC pipes, you name it -- we heard one of the world's leading climate scientists, James Hansen, explain just how bad three degrees of warming in a century really is, and what we can do about it. It's bad. Half of all Earth's species would be driven to extinction, for example. Hansen's advice: Changing lightbulbs and buying a hybrid car are nice, but not nearly enough. We must get governments to do their job, take the threat seriously, and create long-term policies and strategies at a scale that will actually address, indeed solve, the problem.

"We" are the participants in the Tällberg Forum, a now-annual gathering in central Sweden, a super-conference of sorts, a "Swedish Davos" with a focus more on environment and ethical futures than on economic growth. The Forum's motto is a question: "How on Earth can we live together?"

Two years ago, few had heard of the Tällberg Forum, though it had been going for over two decades. Then last year, 2005, it grew from a small, quiet gathering of leaders to a larger, more public, and more global "event" that included Secretary-General Kofi Annan, well-known figures of many kinds, a few heads of state. The proceedings were appreciated for their creativity, informality, and quality. Last year's expanded event was a hit; this year it's is an even bigger assembly, with plenaries held under one of Europe's largest tents. (The tent is Italian, and looks like a burgundy castle.)

Last year, I wrote a column about Sweden's many summer talk-fests (though I had not attended any of them), including Tällberg. I poked a bit of light-hearted fun at the whole phenomenon. I was told last fall that my column came to the attention of the Tällberg Foundation board. This year, I'm invited ... and I've brought my whole family. This is one of Tällberg's distinguishing features: it invites participants to bring spouses and family, and encourages them to participate as well, and charges no extra fee.

This year, I must confess, I am not likely to write anything terribly critical. Magic has happened already, on Day 1, in terms of meetings and conversations with people I needed and wanted to talk to. I appreciate the spirit of the spectacles and ceremonies that have been organized to inspire us while we deliberate on the topic of "Getting Serious".

But I still have to wonder ... after the video uplink with Kofi Annan (whose speech was not his most memorable), the moving words and pictures of global trouble, the lovely singing, the cultural moments like the long narrow "church boats" rowing by in orchestrated spectacle at the end of our lake-side barbecue, while Oren Lyons, a well-known Chief from the North American Onandaga Nation, provided an invocation for peace, brotherhood, and stewardship ... still, after all this majesty and magic, I find myself asking ... is this what "Getting Serious" is all about? What does it really mean to "Get Serious" about climate change, human poverty, species extinction?

The next days will tell the tale. We are meeting in morning sessions called "Design Workshops", focused on ten specific regions of the world. The purpose is to design a future for them, with sustainability in mind. The Design Workshops are this year's Forum design innovation, a way to connect the event to the real world, to make an impact.

Founder Bo Ekman's opening presentation was an effective piece of sustainability showmanship, and it captured something in my feeling perfectly. He reminded us of the global basics -- the "hockey stick" graphs of CO2, economic growth, population. He displayed iconic photos of critical world problems with clever, punchy, summary headlines: Hurricane Katrina, for example, was dubbed the "$200 Billion Dollar Baby". A musical group broke in now and then to provide pacing, color, and emotional commentary; they sang bits of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights at one point.

And after his review of the global news, up came a picture of the Great Tent at Tällberg, in which we were all seated. "And now," said Bo, "back to unreality."

Tällberg Day 2, Thursday, 29 June 2006

I have gone to China. More specifically, I have gone to the Design Workshop focused on Guandong Province, which adjoins Hong Kong. It is, one must note, unlikely in the extreme that this workshop group will produce anything like a "design" for Guandong -- some new set of ideas and/or initiatives that will help a large and complicated chunk of China solve the low-wage global-sweatshop trap while dealing with climate change and the clamor for human rights. But some of my work currently involves China, so I came here to learn, and I am gratefully learning a lot.

Of course, I came late. One thing about coming to a conference with your toddlers: you can't really plan to "participate in full". Our two-year-old developed a fever in the night, so we canceled the baby-sitter and pondered the alternatives. My wife had been planning to attend a workshop too; now, she'll stay with the kids in the morning. As things turn out, I'll need to take off in the afternoon to be with them, thus missing all the fabulous speakers, but also having a really great excuse for not sitting inside a hot Italian tent during a Swedish heat wave and going for ice cream instead.

In the afternoon, I do is show up just in time for the closing roundtable, all fourteen plenary speakers on the stage making their final one-minute summations. So I get the "holographic sampler," range of optimistic and worried voices, ranging from Amory Lovins to Manfred Max-Neef to the President of Latvia. I have arrived just in time, too, since one of the speakers, a leading European official, mentions the Earth Charter. As it happens, this will be the one and only mention of the Charter from the plenary stage, and I will miss it, because I was thinking about something else: my friend Andre Heinz, sitting behind me, whacks me on the back to alert me that it has happened. Later, I will be told that the remark was mostly framed as a lament: "it's a pity more people don't use the Earth Charter ..." or something like that.

The President of Latvia is proving very popular with this crowd. She had yesterday, for example, asked Kofi Annan what the UN could do, since Gaia appeared to be a bit angry with humanity (she was no doubt speaking metaphorically, rather than scientifically, but it was the first time I heard a President use the term Gaia). On this closing panel today, she reminds us that humans are basically rather stupid -- or at least, more stupid than we care to admit, and so must be seen as muddling through as best we can, and with an extra responsibility to try a bit harder, given our meager capacities. Of course I feel compelled to press an Earth Charter into her hands at the end of the session.

Tällberg Day 3, 30 June 2006

I'm late for China again. Our daughter's well, so we have engaged the babysitter, so that both my wife and I can attend workshops. But I am stuck for a good hour on email, first. Then I arrive in time to hear John Ashton, the UK Government's special representative on the issue of climate change, give us a briefing on the state of things, with some relation to China, but mostly speaking in a global frame. He is philosophical first, technical second.

Philosophically, he notes that these times ask not "What should we do?", but for fundamentally, "Who are we?" Technically, he notes that after we have figured out who we are, we have to tackle the problem of coal. There is so much of it, it is so cheap. Without a serious strategy regarding coal -- the use of which is growing rapidly, even in Europe -- there is no such thing as a meaningful strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

During the Q&A, I have to ask him about mega-engineering. This he dismisses, with the usual reflection that, since we've got it so wrong by accident, we probably shouldn't try to do anything on purpose with anything so complex as the global climate system. This is an argument I find weak at best, particularly in light of Ashton's opening "who we are" question. His position is a standard one, and I see it as essentially a moral argument, but without a logical analysis. It doesn't engage the threshold issue: should one continue to hold the ideological line on man's incompetence to intervene consciously in the global climate system, if unconscious interventions are pushing us to the edge of potentially irreversible thresholds and terrible danger? But Ashton has plenty of that quality called "pondus" in Swedish -- weight, gravitas -- and I feel today more like "papa to two very young girls" than like "global expert in sustainable development," so I'm not in the mood to debate the point.

And that afternoon ... well, it's just really hard to attend these marathon speaker sessions in the Italian tent when the temperature is in the "very hot" range and my girls are clamoring to go splash in the lake. But later that day, after the plenaries, the networking -- that is, meeting people and either getting to know them or, if I know them, getting some business done -- is just fabulous.

You see, my older daughter, age four, has given me a pocketful of flower petals, and clear instructions. "Give them to everyone you know, papa, but don't give them to the people you don't know." "But what if I meet them and get to know them?" "Well, then you know them, so you can give them a flower petal." Thanks to my daughter's flower petals, I have at least twenty really good conversations.

Tällberg Day 4, 1 July 2006

I can't believe this event is already winding down! Last night was, by the way, supposed to be my personal "big night" -- that is, I had a speaking role in the conference. I was meant to be part of a small panel talking about "humanity's strained relationship with the Earth," and this panel was meant to be part of an outing, by bus, over to a nearby nature museum. But the timing of the trip went all wrong, there was no time to sit and talk at the nature museum. And instead, we speakers were invited to address the group on the bus, during the 40minute return trip to Tällberg.

To keep the group's attention, I pretended to be a tour guide, describing our passage through the history of the sustainable development movement, from the perspective of the Earth Charter. "Over there, that area that looks like a well-managed Swedish farm, is the 1972 Stockholm conference on the environment, where it all began" I said. Later: "See that large circus tent? That's the Rio Summit." And later: "We're coming up on the middle 90s, and those two very tall trees standing together on the left, those are Maurice Strong and Mikhail Gorbachev, founding the Earth Charter Commission." And so on. Then I gave the microphone to Dumisani Nyoni, a hip young man from Zimbabwe. He has worked with Earth Charter longer than I have, and speaks about it much more eloquently, from the perspective of youth. At 24, he is running a program to transform rural schools in his home country.

This morning, once I again, I was late for the workshop on China, thanks to breakfast with family and morning email. When I arrived, the excellent facilitators were doing their best to pull some coherent content out of the assembled interested parties. The group was amazingly mixed: current and former senior executives of large companies, a few ambassadors, NGO leaders, journalists, academics. Everybody (including me) had something important they just had to put on the table, of course. The facilitators fought bravely to construct a "narrative" out our insistent diversity, and perhaps they succeeded. The written record will at least present it that way, to their credit.

Every day (or so I hear), the plenary talks have been better than the last. A session on climate and energy, sponsored by The Economist magazine and webcast to the world, apparently got a bit heated, with a Saudi prince nay-saying many common worries about the future. A briefing on the situation in Palestine also caused sparks to fly. I heard bits and pieces of these, as I chased after my two-year-old and chatted with folks in the conference foyer, including (memorably) a Sami man who patiently guided me and my wife to good sources for learning about his people's history, about which, we realized, we knew next to nothing. For me, and perhaps for most people here, the best talks were talks like these, over coffee or lunch, with many leading to arrangements being made for further conversation in the future.

I confess that on Day 1, I had hopes that Tällberg Forum would "do something." Or perhaps "be something." A turning point. A new start. A breakthrough. A time of serious new commitment to change. I know that is unrealistic, but I have embraced the Buckminster Fuller dictum, "Dare to be naive." It is the only way such things can be made the least bit possible. It is the only way to avoid the far worse trap of cynicism. There was significantly less cynicism than usual on display at Tällberg, which is perhaps one of the greatest compliments one can give to an international conference on the problems of our time. It seemed quite a number of people, including some relatively powerful people (when in their public roles), were also daring to be at least a little naive.

But by Day 3, I had made my peace with the fact that the Tällberg Forum was what it was: a good conference, with a particularly interesting assemblage of people, in a particularly nice place. The musicians, led by multi-instrumentalist Ale Möller and serving up a pot pourri of world music, were superb and inspiring. The Tällberg organization itself was also "tight", just as one says of a good band. They struggled with timing, but they kept the whole thing moving forward, broke it up with artistic interludes, created an atmosphere that created, in turn, a good place to talk.

And the talk? Well, as one of my colleagues reminded me, "This is as good as it gets." He explained that he had attended quite a number of "high end" conferences recently, including Davos and others, and that one just should not have very high expectations about the world's capacity for serious, searching dialogue about global direction. Tällberg was, for him, an indicator of how well the world was thinking about big issues, in a multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural way, because it represented a kind of peak in how such dialogues occur. This was a sobering reflection.

But perhaps the trend is in the right direction. To my mind, the world is not anywhere near as "serious" as it needs to get about the complex problems we face in this century. But the Tällberg motto, "Getting Serious", implies that this is a process. We will need to keep working, as a world, on "Getting Serious" for a long time to come.

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Interesting letter

Posted by: jr on 15 Jul 06

Well, Alan, even after folks "got serious" about building Chartres, it still took several centuries.

Posted by: David Foley on 15 Jul 06

still the wrong people to talk about this... most people who attend this "conferences" are already concerned and "enlighted" but most of them have no influence. what we need is make people with influence join in and talk. i'm not speaking about official conferences where such people can say afterwards that they were attending and that's it... i mean that this people have to come because they are interested in the future of our planet to talk. the alternative would be that some of the "enlighted" people get more influence :)

Posted by: Damir Perisa on 16 Jul 06

I can't remember the exact statistics of how much of the world's wealth is in the hands of how few people, but....alot, and in the hands of ...not many. These are the super-rich that get invited to Bilderberg meetings, etc, and the subject of conspiracy theories (which are not necessarily false simply by virtue of being unproven).

Does anyone have any feeling for what the tone of conversations is these days in the oak-paneled clubs where those who wield some serious economic influence get together (as in my imagination they do)? Saudi princes aside, peak oil and climate change must be worrying folks who have ALOT (of $$) to lose if things go pear-shaped.

My feeling is that if we really want something to happen it's going to be far more effective if "we" can exert force on our complex global system at the point where force is most effective. I'm thinking along the lines of network theory, complextity, dynamic systems, etc. Thinking globally, acting locally might not actually work all that well. The system as it currently functions might be quite resistant to local behavioural modifications, such as green consumerism.

Seeing as our governments don't have as much power as they used to, or at least certain democratic governments appear not to represent "the people" anymore, I'm guessing that it would be worthwhile convincing the ones who (for now) wield signigicant behind the scenes financial power to start showing some unofficial leadership as they have traditionally wielded unofficial influence. Are the big banking and finance people present at gatherings such as Tallberg?

What worries me a little is that the concerns of the mass of humanity are not necessarily the same as the concerns of those at the very top of the food chain - are we really a "We"? And assuming that the majority of people do soon come to realise the level of threat our economy and our survival face, is enlightened self interest really a sufficient substitute for selfless dedictation to the greater good?

These days we should all have in our minds the old line that if we don't hang together we may hang separately, and this could even include "the big guys" if things really get out of hand.

Posted by: DaveDownunder on 16 Jul 06

Thanks again for another thoughtful message Alan. "Dare to be naive" I think is a potent description of the approach that's needed, particularly as the multi-discliplinary approach we need doesn't only mean bringing together a multidisciplinary group to work on an issue, but requires us to delve into and ask questions of each others' area of expertise.

The Earth Charter is featuring at the Earth Dialogues meeting in Brisbane this week. Unfortunately I heard of it too late to get in to hear Gorbachev's session, but I'm glad I happen to be in the area at the right time to attend the other sessions. These talk fests must be important in terms of re-energising and focusing the people who are trying to do their bit.

The development of the enviro mindset to the stage you describe, where it connects the big problems, is important because myopic environmentalism alone didn't have the answers. If it's so that the 'environmental' movement has gone through 3 or 4 distinct waves, and the latest one is seeing it broaden into a more comprehensive approach to 'sustainability', then yr compass points reach into aspects of everyone's life. But for many these problems are intangible, unnoticable or ill-defined so they don't feel the compulsion to act. But at least many aspects of sustainability are being adopted by businesses and governments, ie becoming mainstream which is necessary. The politicisation that we're seeing of sustainability issues will ultimately defeat itself.

The people like yourself who are considering all the interrelated, complex aspects of sustainability are maintaining momentum and advancing our skills and capacity for societies to draw on in the future. Even just building and disseminating the right dialogue and vocabulary is important for bringing these issues to the consciousness of a range of professions.

One constant source of optimism for me is that life persists. Wherever you look - a stunted tree on the edge of a cliff; among extreme human poverty; a neglected pet - life always persists.

Posted by: Janelle Downunder on 18 Jul 06

Thank you, Alan, for this thoughtful piece. Wish we could see more Design Workshops in lieu of bureaucratic meetings, out here in the world.

Posted by: Dawn Danby on 21 Jul 06

Well the Earth Charter gots lots of mention at the Brisbane Earth Dialogues. The QLD govt undertook to introduce the Earth charter into school Sustainable Development curriculum.

Addressing the issue of dialogue v's action, people were strongly encouraged to join local, state and federal political parties and/or NGOs. I think these types of dialogue need to reach ordinary people ie for the discussions between experts to involve as many ordinary people off the street as they can possibly reach.

Posted by: Janelle Downunder on 23 Jul 06



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