My tent is back in the closet. The great circus tent used for the Tällberg Forum’s plenary sessions is undoubtedly on its way back home to Italy. The Tällberg Companion — the little book with schedules, participant bios, and general wisdom about how to survive the five-day, change-the-world marathon meeting that is the Tällberg Forum — is up on the shelf, next to the Companions of previous years. I notice that it is half the size of the others, a little resource efficiency case study in its own right. (It is also a growing trend to have business cards that are half the usual size.)
Now that it’s all over, what do I actually think about my experience this year? Many of the people who work with the Tällberg Foundation are, or are in the process of becoming, my friends. This puts an obvious damper on criticism, and biases one toward expressions of (truly well-deserved) gratitude and admiration for the amazing show they put on. They work extremely hard, all year, in cramped offices, to pull off this annual miracle of big thinking, heartfelt community building, and truly soaring artistry.
At least ten of the conversations I had were truly important ones, in which agreements were struck, friendships were deepened, or doors were opened to something new. You can undoubtedly tell from my log — “log” is such a better word than “blog”, don’t you agree? as though we were all ship’s captains sailing the internet — which elements of the Forum’s content struck me as most valuable (e.g., Drew Jones & Co.’s climate game), or which speakers I responded to most (e.g., Nyamko Sabuni).
But what could have made Tällberg more satisfying this year? Because I am always left wanting a little bit, or even a lot, more. Nor am I alone in this; I heard a number of variations on this comment from participants and presenters alike. This is not a criticism of the organizers; I think they created a wonderful conference, rich with content, well-structured, well-presented, a very good mirror of the state of the sustainability movement today. They deserve accolades and laurel wreaths.
Nor, of course, is it a critisicm of the participants. Nearly everyone I met was already working very hard to “address the challenges,” doing whatever it was they do, from creating social enterprises in war-torn countries, to trying to help their company address the realities of the 21st century in a socially responsible way. Some people added to their already-overstretched workloads while in Tällberg, creating new initiatives on climate change or principled philanthropy. Truly, the amount of energy and dedication in evidence, from the 40-year veterans of sustainability work, to the 20- and 30-somethings just emerged from Masters programs and seeking their place of greatest impact, was a joy and a comfort to behold. The “Army of Sustainability” that I write about in The ISIS Agreement has been growing and solidifying quickly in recent years, and Tällberg is one of those spots on the planet where you get a chance to see that, in the flesh.
And yet … this year’s Tällberg Forum left me feeling a bit down, for some reason. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; as my friend Joanna Macy has been teaching for decades, sometimes we have to into the despair of our situation, the feelings of grief and sorrow that are evoked, to find the new energy we need to rise to a great challenge.
First there were the hard facts from science — disappearing fish, acidic oceans, images of drought, the climate challenge, this increasingly clear view of the “long march” humanity must now make, from here to sustainability. Something like this: if all goes *well*, then we and our immediate descendants will be struggling to stop global warming, restore ecoystems, adapt to climate change, and save people from crushing poverty, for the next ninety years.
No one can credibly pretend any more, as some of our movement’s rhetoric tends to convey (at least implicitly), that some magic basket of techno-fixes, stimulus packages, and lifted chins on TV is going to create a revolutionary rescue for planet Earth and its human civilization in the “next ten years.” This is “cathedral-building,” as many have called it, the kind work that takes generations, and where those who started it only live to see the foundations in place, a couple of walls raised. But they end their lives knowing that the project itself is so deeply embedded in the hearts and politics of the people, that what they started is sure to be completed, and will one day stun the world.
Such thoughts were often the talk of Tällberg, both from the stage and around the margins. But I am not sure, still, whether even we have really grasped the urgency of the situation. Here, I use the word “we” carefully (it is usually used very uncarefully in these contexts to mean “the whole of humanity” or maybe just “humanity’s decision-makers) to mean we, the community of people who devote their professional time to sustainability issues and global futures. My own little experiments with camping and low-impact eating during this gathering are hardly more than symbolic, in terms of change; and in fact they were driven more by the pleasures of being in a tent by the lake, and saving a great deal of money, more than by that nagging sense (and nearly all of us in this business have this sense) of ethical duty to the planet and its people. And yet, even my little experiment in lighter conference-going was a piece of exotica in this crowd. We talk, all of us, of the great need for change, and we dedicate our lives to making it happen. But to what extent are we, really, willing to do more than symbolism to reduce the accumulation of destructive demands and behaviors that have (to cite just one statistic) reduced the population of glass eels in the Atlantic marine system to less than one percent of their previous levels, in just one generation’s time? (Source: Silent Sea, Isabella Lövin) We are willing to work extremely hard, clearly. We communicate intensively. We strategize and search for leverage points and buy organic foods. But are we willing to live differently? To create societies and economies that run differently? To manage our wealth (for most of us at Tällberg were wealthy, relative to the whole of the world) differently? Are willing to give anything up, in return for the knowledge that the cathedral of sustainability will be built?
I will be sitting with such thoughts all summer, as I press forward with work on a new book (that last in the three-book series that started with Believing Cassandra and The ISIS Agreement), having to do with how we humans think about the future. I was trolling for help with that book at Tällberg, and got some; I’ll be “blogging for help” as well in the times ahead.
Meanwhile, I have one small complaint worth sharing. I was sorry my friends from the Nile Basin — our workshop attendance was smallish to small — did not get more of the attention I thought they deserved. Their inter-governmental process is both enormous and inspirational, but it was barely noticed in the Tällberg talk-show context (though they did get some Swedish TV and radio time). This relative inattention was a real-world example of that climate game we played, described in an earlier Episode in this series, where the poorer nations — who suffer directly and decisively, right now, the deadliest impacts of global warming — were given very little voice and visibility, while the rest of the climate-change world talked ppm and models and abstract targets. Our workshop conversations on the Nile were high level and meaningful, so I hope my colleagues’ trip from East Africa to central Sweden proves materially useful to them in some way. But I am afraid most people are returning from Tällberg still not knowing much about the reality of sustainable development issues and challenges in this crucial region, the cradle of modern humanity.
And I also have one great hope. There did seem to be some genuine energy gathered around mobilizing the Tällberg community even further, in directions it has been mobilized previously — to push for (and here I come talking ppm as well) 350 as the necessary global target that our best scientific understanding says that we need (see www.350.org), and this new effort to “take the Tällberg tent to Copenhagen” and push all the harder, with all the voices that can be mobilized, for the best possible agreement there.
Not that I think one should pin great hopes on Copenhagen; but I pin great hopes on more and more committed mobilization, in every sector, to address every issue we have before us. This truly is a great rescue operation — people, species, ecosystems — and I hold out hope, relentlessly, that it can be done, because I have seen parts of it done, in my own lifetime. I grew up in the “save the whales!” era; today, compared to that time, and despite the many threats and losses, many whale species are in fact recovering. I grew up in a world where the best experts expected populations to swell to 12 billion or more, of whom a quarter or more would be likely to starve. We already have reduced population growth rates enormously, and avoided much foreseen famine with technological, policy, and economic innovations (some of which have created their own problems, but that is life). We have already capped CFCs and begun to heal the ozone layer. There are many few nuclear weapons in the world than there were a generation ago (still too many, but there is still serious progress there). These things happened, and are happening, because people at all levels of the world’s power hierarchy became seriously engaged and dedicated years of their lives to make them happen.
I saw a lot of that energy at Tällberg, from the youngest to the oldest, from heads of state to school children, and seeing this steadily growing upsurge of human energy and intelligence and love on display is the chief gift of that time.
Note: This is the final installment in a six-part series. You might want to read them in sequence.
This piece originally appeared in AllanAtKisson.com.