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Letter from Tällberg: We Are Running Out of Time
Alan AtKisson, 27 Jun 08

(Worldchanging shares many connections with the Tällberg Forum, the annual meeting of minds by the shores of a Lake in Northern Sweden, with Alex, Alan and Nicole all having attended in past years. Alan reports on this year's conversation. -ed)

What do global warming and Swedish day care centers have in common?

A train journey of several hours to participate in the annual Tällberg Forum provides time to reflect on what may be the most critical, and scarce, resource of all: time.

The problem is local and quotidian, and global and mammoth, at the same time. In my Swedish day care parents' cooperative, for example, a shortage of time has slowly been eroding our capacity to keep up with maintenance tasks, while taking its toll on the various meetings and celebrations that form the heartbeat of our small-but-important (to us and our children) community. Attendance is down a bit, complaints are up, and there is no extra time in the storage shed. "Full up" is the phrase used by more and more to describe even their family calendars.

The day care center is just one example of what appears to be a global epidemic: time is running out. It is as though someone has opened a leak in the hourglass of civilization. Everyone is complaining about it. Less time for friends. Less time for oneself.

Less time to save the Earth and its living systems.

This is also the message of scientists gathered here in the tiny village of Tällberg, which for some years has hosted an annual gathering of leaders to discuss the topic, "How on Earth Can We Live Together?" The 2008 Tällberg Forum is now under way, and live on the web.

As I write, Johan Rockström -- the head of Stockholm Environment Institute -- has just fallen off the stage. He did it on purpose to illustrate a point: things change, no problems are visible, until suddenly ... "Shit!" says Johan, as he tumbles off the stage dramatically and unexpectedly. That's a nonlinear change, a "tipping point."

The Earth system is tumbling toward a number of them, and for the past two days, an interdisciplinary team of scientists here (including Jim Hansen, who just testified the US Congress twenty years after his path-breaking testimony in 1988) has been defining a consensus on the "safe boundaries" in ten different Earth systems, from biodiversity to ozone to freshwater to climate. Johan, Jim Hansen, Diane Liverman, Tariq Banuri, and Will Steffen and others on the stage now, and are starting to report on that consensus. Hansen is explaining how they came to the conclusion that the target for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be "lower" than our current levels (rather than a cap at some higher level). Why 350? "Because we must avoid consequences that we could not bear under any sensible concept of stewardship of civilization, and the remarkable planet on which civilization developed."

These worried-but-understated scientists seem positively optimistic compared to James Lovelock, who sent a video message that basically told us, "It's too late." Gaia's going to heat up in order to shed us like a bad case of the fleas. He advises us to start planning for the salvaging of civilization in a world gone mad -- mad in the sense of very, very angry.

The scientists on the stage are saying something much more hopeful. The "planetary boundary" message, they say, gives us a clear and positive message. If we stay inside the safe zone, we can continue to do what do. Yes, we've passed some, but we can pull back. We need to understand where the boundaries are, and how to live within them. Then, says Will Steffen, "the second half of the century will look very different."

The group is debating what "different" means. A Fortress World? The end of coal? And what of those in poverty? The debate goes on ...

Meanwhile, during the past two days, another group was convened in the same hotel in Tällberg to discuss the ethical or moral implications of this increasing urgency, this skyrocketing risk of going beyond the boundaries that result in irreversible change. Scientists are doing their best to communicate this danger. But the rest of us must respond. It is a moral obligation. What does that obligation look like?

I sat with that group, which included business leaders, religious historians, indigenous people, NGO leaders, etc. The conversation was hardly simple; it produced no new agreement or statement (while the scientists produced a draft paper that they will aim at the leading journals). But the actual ethics, most seemed to agree, are no different than they have ever been. Think long-term. Act for the good of the whole. There is, however, an increasing imperative to "act now." When the house is burning, there is no time to reflect on whether you can live with an ethical compromise.

(We also discovered that much of the ethical reflection work had been done in other fora, such as this report on a seminar convened by the Yale School of Forestry.

It is difficult to imagine that all of my time-stressed Swedish neighbors are going find the time to read a scientific warning on the world's transgression of multiple tipping points, much less add it to their "full up" calendars. But I do plan to talk with them about it at our next cooperative day care workday -- at least, I'll talk with those who can make the time to actually attend.

Fortunately, it's not all talk here in Tällberg. There is also song. Last night we were treated to amazing concert in a local church, with many different artists. The high point was an a capella, improvised duet between two phenomenal women, Sofia Jannok and Ghada Shbeir -- a Sami, and a Lebanese, each singing in the ancient styles and languages of their very different peoples. They had never sung together before this event. And yet they created, with just two voices, a soaring sense of harmony and creativity, longing and grief, friendship and promise.

And that, at least, is a good beginning.

Photo: Bo Ekman, founder of the Tällberg Forum, opening the proceedings in the company of a symbolic fence -- a boundary at 350 ppm for carbon dioxide.

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Good report and thanks. I found this graf to be the most important:

"These worried-but-understated scientists seem positively optimistic compared to James Lovelock, who sent a video message that basically told us, "It's too late." Gaia's going to heat up in order to shed us like a bad case of the fleas. He advises us to start planning for the salvaging of civilization in a world gone mad -- mad in the sense of very, very angry."

I still don't understand why more people are NOT listening to Dr Lovelock. As you know, I have nicknamed my polar cities as "Lovelock retreats" in honor of the great man, and I also linked to your report on my blog here.

Lovelock sums it all up. We should be preparing now, not for the end, but a new beginning, which will entailo a major shift in human thinking.

When your descendants enter the first polar cities (Lovelock retreats) in Sweden in 2500, that will be the day all this makes sense. I understand now that it does not make sense. Cheers,


Posted by: Danny Bloom on 28 Jun 08

By the way, Alan, is that video speech by James Lovelock available anywhere online? Or at the Tallberg Forum website? I could not find it yet. If so, can you post a link above. Thanks.

Posted by: Danny Bloom on 29 Jun 08

It seems to me that more and more people are recognizing that change is needed, but people aren't sure what to do. Clearly more than just individual action is needed -- a movement is needed. In the research community, we've been exploring methods for creating a social movement around these issues. Researchers who've looked at how past social movements originate have pointed to the value of (1) socializing folks to an issue (2) bringing them together in a shared space and (3) strong leaders (i.e. Gore). My own work ( and that of others in the community has begun looking at whether we can demonstrate that online social networks can help support (1) and (2).

Posted by: Jennifer Mankoff on 29 Jun 08

Very interesting conversation. I made a comment on this topic a while back that was blocked. Basically, I said that in addition to arguing for specific actions like switching out lightbulbs and driving less, we should be finding what the sustainable limits of civilized behavior are scientifically, and figuring out how to live with dignity within them. This is an expanded sort of human etiquette and potential status symbol. Some people will live better because they feel for others, some will live better because they like it, and some will live better because it improves their standing in the eyes of others. The more people trying to do the same thing for more reasons, the easier collective action for change becomes, and the really eye opening shifts start to happen. It's a nonlinear change.


Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 30 Jun 08

Time seems to be a very common concern with leaders in the field of sustainability. A sense of urgency is felt and it can push one into action. Action is certainly needed, however a new mental model for action must be used: that of a whole-systems and long-term perspective. We must avoid the reactive, quick-fix solutions that have guided the actions of the past which caused the current unsustainable state of the world we live in today.

It is vital to consider what we see as the problem as a symptom of a greater, less visible problem. It is crucial to suspend our urge to react with a solution that we "know". New ways are required, beyond what we "know", waiting to emerge. We must go to the source of challenges faced in our lives. While it is likely a more time-demanding and tough issue to address, it is where we will find true growth, learning and solution. We are very good at treating symptoms of problems, however we must remember that a symptom is just that, and the true source of the problem is at the heart of the problem.

Time is cyclical. We can be mindful of how we use it and what we expend our energy on. Human energy is the resource. We are the ones who must sleep, rest and die, time is still there.

Posted by: Kim Edwards on 30 Jun 08

Dear Alan AtKisson,

Do you think there could be value in having some people organize a forum to meaningfully consider what is likely to occur if absolute global human population numbers increase from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion people in the middle of Century XXI?

Recent reports indicate that the human population worldwide will exceed 7.0 billion in 2012. Only 13 years have passed since the global population passed the 6.0 billion mark.

The USA is refusing to fund UNFPA for the 7th consecutive year. A global gag rule remains in effect regarding open discussions of the human overpopulation of Earth.

If it turns out that skyrocketing human population numbers are indeed the "mother" of all global challenges and that 9 billion humans could literally overwhelm the limited resources and frangible ecosystem services of our planetary home, can you or Alex Steffen or Nicole or some else working to preserve human and environmental health, please take a moment and suggest how we could make some forward movement toward openly acknowledging what appears to be the most formidable of all threats to life as we know it and the integrity of Earth.

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 30 Jun 08

Time - Shakespeare's favourite word and the ocean in which our tiny lives swim.

Michael Ende wrote a wonderful childrens' book called 'Momo' in which the heroine has to save the world from the 'grey men', the gentlemen from the Timesaving Bank, who persuade everyone to stop spending time with their families telling stories and to 'save' time with the bank instead. A great parable for our time.

Michal Ende was also deeply interested in the idea of 'complementary' or 'community currencies'. His documentary on alternative monetary possibilities sparked off a whole movement in Japan. The worldwide community currencies movement continues to mature as we master the design and organisation of these potential lifeboats for our turbulent times.

See my website for many links to this movement:

Posted by: John Rogers on 11 Jul 08



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