To my Swedish friends I sometimes have to explain that in American slang, the phrase "shows up" means a lot more than just showing up, being there, simply making an appearance. A phrase like "The King shows up" means that the King participates, takes a significant action role, does a lot more than just, well, showing up.
That's exactly what His Majesty Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden, did on 18 January of this year when -- in his role as Patron of The Natural Step -- he hosted a day-long session in Stockholm called The Sustainability Leadership Challenge. He made a fine opening speech to the assembled hundred leaders who had gathered from a dozen countries. And then, he stayed: he participated in the presentations and round-table discussions on sustainable economics, climate change, bio-fuels, ecosystem restoration, industrial technology advances, community planning, and ethics, before leaving discretely sometime after lunch.
In this country where the top weatherman on national television looks like a rock star and speaks regularly to the news anchors about climate change, one might expect that the King would turn up at a green-ish event or two. He and Queen Sylvia certainly turned up at the premier of Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth." But by hosting this leadership summit, by staying, by "showing up," the King made it clear that his engagement is not merely symbolic. He not only set a wonderful example of commitment and engagement by a head of state; he also heard some very inspiring stories, and plenty of evidence that sustainable development is reaching a kind of "tipping point."
More on this below, but first some background.
The Natural Step ("TNS") was founded with the King's help eighteen years ago. Most people working with sustainability know this famous story: In the late 1980s, Swedish pediatric cancer researcher Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt became concerned that environmental experts were quarreling about details, and forgetting that they shared certain essential agreements about basic principles, based on the laws of physics and biology. He managed to develop a "consensus document" about those principles that was signed off on by dozens of leading Swedish scientists. The document also received the King's imprimatur and was launched on Sweden's national television, together with a workbook and teaching cassette that were distributed to every school and household in the country. (Note: The original story is recounted in a 1991 edition of the magazine I used to edit, In Context, which is archived on the web. See "Educating a Nation: The Natural Step.")
Over the years, TNS evolved from a campaign into a methodology, and from a methodology into a consultancy, working with many of the early leaders in sustainability. Especially in its early years, TNS was enormously influential in Sweden. Dozens of major companies (e.g. Ikea, Scandic Hotels, and McDonalds) and cities adopted it and become case studies and models for other countries. Even the U.S. Army now uses a modified version of TNS methods to support sustainable base management. Along the way many books and technical articles have been published, and Dr. Robèrt - "Kalle" to his friends in Sweden - has won major international prizes.
Of course, the TNS method is not universally embraced, even in Sweden; but even Swedish sustainability veterans who no longer work with TNS methods explicitly (and very many "old-timers" still do) will often acknowledge a debt of gratitude to its early influence. The organization has gone through several transformations and is currently reinventing itself for what I reckon to be the fourth time. [Full Disclosure: I once shared office space with TNS in Stockholm, have collaborated with them on projects, and have spoken at TNS conferences; but I have never been employed by TNS. My consulting group uses somewhat different methods and is not a TNS licensee; but we refer clients to TNS, and have gotten referrals from TNS as well. In short, we're friends.]
For this event, once again with the King of Sweden's help, TNS reached out beyond the boundaries of its own constituency to convene leaders and attempt to frame "cross-sectoral initiatives." The King's challenge was this: to frame several ambitious projects that could be completed in one year, and that could significantly advance the sustainability agenda.
There was plenty of evidence in the room that even the "very ambitious" is extremely possible. During the morning speeches, His Majesty heard several stunning examples of sustainability scaling up.
Example 1: Per Carstedt, founder of Sweden's BioAlcohol Fuel Foundation, recounted the inspiring story of growing demand for ethanol in Sweden from a handful of cars and filling stations ten years ago, to 800 stations today. He made it clear that TNS had been an important early inspiration and partner in the process. "We must make the switch to renewable, climate neutral fuels," said Carstedt. "We have no option." (Later, when I made my own small speech at this event, I thanked Carstedt publicly for his work. "Thanks to you, when I moved to Sweden, I did have an option: I could buy an ethanol car.")
Example 2: Katharina Bach of Colombia's Ministry of Environment and Human Settlements described how the fabled Colombian case study of Gaviotas -- a classic example of how community development, ecosystem restoration, appropriate technology, job creation, and peace-building can combine to create transformation under even the most challenging social conditions -- is now going to be duplicated throughout a large tract of Colombia, at an enormous scale. Working in partnership with Gunter Pauli and ZERI Foundation, Colombia has recently secured over $350 million in private sector investment money to replicate the Gaviotas experiment throughout a huge tract of the country. Imagine former guerillas rebuilding rainforests, and shipping sustainable forest-based products instead of cocaine to a global export market.
Example 3: The resort community of Whistler, Canada, appears to have made such a virtue out of sustainable community planning that they finally reached their goal of attracting the Winter Olympics, thanks in part to their ultra-green profile. Considering that the town was barely a town just twenty-five years ago (it was partly created in order to attract the Olympics) and has grown with amazing rapidity into the most popular North American skiing destination, it's no wonder that the city's leadership realized a need for sustainability. But if the Mayor, Ken Melamed, is any indicator, they are very serious about it indeed. The city was recently approached about building an airport, he reported. "I told them, sure, you can build an airport ... so long as you can make the whole operation carbon neutral." He underscored that he "wasn't saying no" -- just setting a very high bar. Whistler itself is far from carbon neutral, but it has a clear policy of aiming in that direction, and already boasts bio-diesel firetrucks; perhaps they'll be the first to get bio-fuel planes ferrying people from Vancouver.
After His Majesty left to attend to the rest of his head-of-state agenda, the group continued working and framed several initiatives. But I'm still waiting for the report to find out what most of these were, because I also had to leave a bit early -- though for much less lofty, indeed rather tiny, but very important reasons: my two young children. Sustainability is, after all, about the world they and other children will inherit, which is all the more reason to take the King's challenge very seriously.
Whatever one's position on monarchies, it does not hurt the cause of sustainable development that the monarch who hands out the Nobel Prize is now challenging sustainability leaders to step it up. You will be hearing more about the King of Sweden's Sustainability Leadership Challenge, and the initiatives that grow out of it, over the course of this year. And when he reconvenes us in January of 2008, I expect there will be a whole new list of inspiring examples and case studies.