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My Still Life: 5 objects that show what matters most

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My Still Life: 5 objects representing what matters most to me

My Still Life: 5 objects representing what matters most to me

One of the most powerful elements of the Tallberg New Leaders Program was an exercise called Still Lives, led by British portrait photographer Elizabeth Handy and her husband, author and social theorist Charles Handy. Inspired by the 17th century Dutch tradition where aristocrats would commission still life paintings featuring objects that said things about their wealth, education, travels, etc., Liz decided to update it for this century.

The idea is simple: choose five objects that say something important about you – your values, your work, your family, your life story, whatever matters most to you – plus a flower, to add beauty to the mix. The objects can be just about anything, with a few key exceptions – no gadgetry (cell phones, laptops, etc.), unless they’re really unique to you; no photos of other people, they’re too easy; and no more than one book, to keep the objects diverse. Next, arrange them to be photographed. Finally, share the image with others as a way to explain what matters most to you.

On the second day of the NLP, we made our still lives, photographed by Liz. On the third day, we broke into small groups to share our images with each other. Later in the week, Charles asked me to share my still life with the full Tällberg Forum audience in the main tent.

Here is the video of me sharing my still life (4 min).

My five objects (plus a flower) were:

  • Rock – This small black stone is a piece of volcanic rock I pulled from a river of molten lava near the summit of Volcán de Pacaya, one of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes. I stood twirling the clump of molten lava on a stick for nearly an hour, until it had hardened and cooled enough to carry home. It represents my son Mateo, who we adopted from Guatemala in 2007, because, like him, it’s a thing of immense beauty that came from a hot and violent place.
  • Clave – This Afro-Cuban percussion instrument is what keeps the pulse in much of Latin music. “Clave” literally means “key” in Spanish. It represents my wife, Cilla, who is the key to keeping a steady rhythm in my life. She reminds me when it’s time to turn off the computer and come to bed.
  • Flute – The instrument I’ve played since 4th grade represents creativity, passion and mastery. When I heard Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything, I realized that the flute is the one thing I’ve probably come closest to spending 10,000 hours working on.
  • Notebook – A Moleskin notebook, like Hemingway and other great storytellers used, is a place to record ideas and inspirations. It represents my work as a thinker, a journalist, and a storyteller.
  • Moss – The bed of moss in the back represents my work in the world, building networked communities, fostering interconnection, interdependence, and symbiosis. This patch of moss contained what looked like at least four different species of moss. I found it on a rock in the woods next to the hotel where the New Leaders Program took place. Knowing that this patch of moss could be decades old, after the photo shoot I returned it to the spot where I found it.
  • Lupines – The flowers I chose were 3 blooming stalks from the same purple lupine plant, ranging in shades from deep royal purple to light lavender. I chose these to represent the importance of diversity, of multiple perspectives and facets that can exist, and should be nurtured, within a single being.

For me, the Still Lives exercise was a profound tool for exploring what matters most to me. It was fun, creative, and deeply emotional. It’s easy for me to get stuck in my head, viewing things from an intellectual, analytical perspective. This exercise invited me to explore my own story, and my own hopes and dreams, by asking myself what the objects I carry with me say about me. And it provided a deep window into the lives of my classmates in the New Leaders Program. I won’t share their stories here. But you can see the touching videos of two of them Lagu Alfred Androga and Anu Bhardwaj.

Try this exercise yourself. What five objects (and what flower) would you pick to show what matters most to you?

Written by leifutne

July 17, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Tällberg New Leaders Program

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The midnight sun over Tällberg, with Lake Siljan in the distance.

The midnight sun over Tällberg, with Lake Siljan in the distance.

STOCKHOLM — “Damn you if you don’t put what you learn here to good use.” It was with that somber admonition that Bo Ekman welcomed me and 21 of my peers to the Tällberg Foundation’s New Leaders Programme (NLP). Ekman is the 73 year-old founder and chairman of the Tällberg Forum, an annual gathering that draws some 600 scientists, activists, entrepreneurs, artists and world leaders to a village in central Sweden every June to discuss the world’s problems. The former head of strategy at Volvo is a bit fatalistic about humanity’s odds for redemption in the face of the converging economic and ecological crises.

IMG_0279During the three days leading up to this year’s Tällberg Forum, June 22-25, I had the immense privilege to attend the NLP, an intensive workshop designed to give “people in early positions of responsibility an opportunity to think through their wider role in society… to improve the sensitivities and skills that will make them more effective leaders in their organisation and in society.” It was a chance for my cohort to meet some of our elders, reflect on our own paths as leaders, and build personal connections with peers and mentors to help ease our entry into the larger Tällberg Forum community that would descend on the town several days later.

Whether it was youthful naiveté or a necessary coping mechanism in the face of overwhelmingly bad odds, I’m not sure. But our group was decidedly more sanguine, even audaciously hopeful, about the future than Mr. Ekman.

This year’s NLP class was an impressively diverse group of 22 young activists and social entrepreneurs in our 20s and 30s. There was a journalist from Bangladesh, a Chinese student environmental leader, a socially-responsible investment adviser from South Africa, a Mexican entrepreneur, a Saudi princess, a foundation director from Berlin, a Tanzanian political consultant, a Zimbabwean sustainability consultant living in Sweden, an Indian-American clean-tech investor based in Toronto, and a New York-based management consultant who was born in Sudan and raised in a Kenyan refugee camp, among others.

Tom Cummings

Tom Cummings

The program was designed and facilitated by Rebecca Oliver of the Tallberg Foundation and Tom Cummings of Brussels-based Executive Leadership Partners. Following Cummings’ “Leadership Landscapes” model, the program shifted focus from the personal level to the organizational to the global and back, alternately giving participants opportunities to meditate on our personal stories, values, hopes and dreams; our roles as leaders in our families, organizations, communities, fields/industries, and the wider world; and to engage in a dizzying array of presentations and conversations with experts and leaders in sustainability, diplomacy, health, human rights, business, and science.

I won’t give a play-by-play of the entire program. That would take far too long to write. Instead, I’ll focus on a few highlights.

The “Oh Shit” Briefing

The opening afternoon of the NLP was a bit like boot camp, where they first try to break you down, so they can build you back up even stronger and more effective. After a brief ice-breaker and a welcome from the facilitators, we were treated to a mind-blowingly depressing briefing on the converging global crises from Carl Mossfeldt, VP of the Tällberg Foundation and a former financial industry executive. “I can proudly say that I designed the risk models that led to the failure of two banks,” he related with a wry smile.

Mossfeldt went on to explain how Phase I of globalization was characterized by economic growth leading to localized ecosystem crises. Now we’re in Phase II, in which localized ecosystem crises have started to interact with each other, leading to global system crises. Global systems are reaching tipping points – “planetary boundaries” – beyond which change begins to snowball so fast it’s impossible to predict accurately what the effects will be. In response to these ecosystem crises, social systems are breaking down – for example, the hollowing out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; or the crisis in Darfur, which is linked to desertification, which is driving northern Sudanese Muslims to migrate south, causing land disputes with the villagers of Darfur. One economist even argues that the current economic meltdown can be traced to the 5 hurricanes that hit South Florida and the Gulf Coast earlier this decade. Billions of dollars in insurance claims, the argument goes, destabilized the industry, which in turn destabilized the mortgage business, causing the chain-reaction that brought Wall Street to its knees.

Meanwhile, looking at climate change, the gap between what scientists know about the severity of the crisis and what the public and governments know is widening. “The tools we have available to address these crises are not working,” Mossfeldt says. “The questions we’ve been asking are not working. So what are the questions we should be asking ourselves now?”

Against that uplifting backdrop, Tom and Rebecca invited us to peel ourselves out of our seats and spend the next few days pondering that question, and to imagine our own roles in the answers. “Your life probably has plans for you,” said Tom Cummings.

What those plans are, I’m still not sure. But I came out of my week at Tällberg with a much clearer picture of the direction I’m headed, and a renewed sense of purpose and hope. I’m here on Earth at this point in history to help shepherd humanity through these crises. And my role in that process is to be a facilitator and community builder, using social technologies – both face-to-face and online – to help build stronger, more interdependent, more resilient communities that can weather the storms that are already engulfing us. The planet will still be here in 500 years, but will we?

As architect and social philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Dancing With the Stars

Me and Gro
Me and Gro

I have to pinch myself when I realize that Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister and head of the UN commission on environment and development, actually spent nearly 3 hours with me and my peers in an intimate, wide-ranging conversation on everything from her upbringing in a prominent political family to tips for maintaining personal energy and balance (“always get enough sleep”) to the upcoming UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen. We need a funding mechanism to pay for mitigation and adaptation to climate change that is automatic, Brundtland said. Perhaps 2-4% of all revenue from the global CO2 cap-and-trade system should go into a fund administered by the UN. “I don’t trust parliaments,” she says. If it’s not an automatic mechanism in the new climate treaty, then she fears governments will inevitably renege on their financial commitments to the fund.

My classmate Graham Sinclair and I even had the chance to explain Twitter and Facebook and discuss with Brundtland the merits of engaging in social media.

Other superstars we got to spend some quality time with included: Anders Wijkman, Sweden’s outgoing member of the European Parliament; Jan Eliasson, former UN special envoy to Darfur; Christine Loh, CEO of Hong Kong-based think tank Civic Exchange; and Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre.

My Mentor: John Elkington

John Elkington and me

John Elkington and me

Each of us was also paired up with a mentor – an experienced sustainability leader who had been to Tällberg numerous times before, who could show us the ropes, introduce us to others and help us navigate the crazy gathering that was ahead of us.

My mentor was John Elkington, the British author who coined the term “triple bottom line” – i.e. people, planet, and profit – in 1994, which he elaborated on in his 1997 book Cannibals With Forks: Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. A true guru of green business, he is now the director of Volans Ventures, a London and Singapore-based company that is “part think-tank, part consultancy, part broker and part incubator,” focusing on scaling social innovation. Volans recently published The Phoenix Economy: 50 Pioneers in the Business of Social Innovation.

I’m not sure ours was truly a mentor/mentee relationship. It felt more like meeting a colleague. John is incredibly approachable, and despite his lengthy resume, comes across as virtually ego-less — just as interested, if not more so, in learning about what others are doing, than he is in talking about himself. Meeting John was truly a highlight of the trip. I look forward to collaborating with him in some capacity in the future.

More to Come…

There were many other highlights of the NLP, several of which deserve their own posts. Check back soon for more…

Written by leifutne

July 17, 2009 at 5:08 pm

After Tällberg: Climate on My Mind

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Växjö, Sweden — Everywhere I turn, climate change is on my mind. I’m writing this at my sister-in-law’s house near Växjö, a college town in southern Sweden. Växjö bills itself as “Europe’s greenest city,” so-called by the BBC, for its range of progressive measures on climate, energy, and green building. My in-laws run a 200 year-old country manor house called Osaby Säteri, which sits by a lake on a 10,000-acre nature reserve. It’s a spectacularly calm and beautiful place. I can hardly imagine a better setting to rest and synthesize the massive input of ideas and inspirations that have been bubbling in my brain since spending last week at the Tällberg Forum and Tällberg New Leaders Program.

But despite the calm, I can’t get climate change off my mind. The weather here is unseasonably, oppressively hot — temperatures across Sweden have been in the high 80s for almost 2 weeks. The land here at Osaby is strewn with dead trees from a freak storm that blew through in late 2005 — yet another incident of what Amory Lovins calls “global weirding.” And the news is full of talk about climate policy and the upcoming UN climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen. Sweden took it’s turn as EU President just yesterday. We watched the inaugural festivities on TV, and between the musical acts, the only question the emcee asked prime minister Fredrik Rheinfeldt, of the center-right Moderate party, was “what will you do about the climate question?” He gave the right answer, “That’s the most important issue facing us,” and went on to talk about how Sweden will push other European countries to take action and cut CO2 emissions. Earlier yesterday, protesters from Greenpeace unfurled a banner on Stockholm’s waterfront that read “Tck Tck Tck,” part of a new campaign to drive home the point that time is running out for action on climate.

It would take weeks to relate all of my experiences at Tällberg here. It was a bit like drinking through a fire hose. For a detailed, play-by-play account of what happened at Tällberg, I highly recommend Alan AtKisson’s 6-part series “Camping At Tällberg.” Instead of giving my own complete chronicle, I’ll focus this series of posts on a few highlights, in particular:

  • The New Leaders Program and the nature of leadership
  • Planetary Boundaries — science shows that we’re screwed (or very close to it) on many fronts besides climate
  • Social Enterprise and Reworking the World — fostering sustainable entrepreneurship and youth employment are key to solving not just economic and social crises, but the climate crisis
  • Global Observatory — a taskforce formed at Tallberg to create a space in Copenhagen for a panel of top scientists to monitor the UN climate negotiations and mobilize grassroots activists around the world as needed to prod their governments to shift towards 350ppm CO2 in the atmosphere.
  • Carbon War Room — an impressive new online toolset for activists and businesspeople fighting climate change.

I left Tällberg feeling both more desperate and more hopeful about the fate of humanity and the planet. I’m reminded of Tom Atlee’s line, that “everything is getting worse and worse, and better and better, faster and faster.” I can only hope that we end up on the right side of that equation. I’ll do my part to make sure that happens. And I’ll share my thoughts with you on the above in the coming days.

Written by leifutne

July 2, 2009 at 4:41 pm

I’m Going to the Tällberg Forum!

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TF09I am thrilled to say that in just two weeks I’ll be in Sweden attending this year’s Tällberg Forum, a prestigious conference on sustainability that takes place in Sweden every summer. This invitational gathering brings together 450 leaders in government, business and civil society from around the globe, from Rwandan president Paul Kagame to human rights activist Bianca Jagger, NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen to former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland to InterfaceFlor CEO Ray Anderson, among many others. This year’s theme — “How on Earth can with live together, within the planetary boundaries?” — asks us to “search for the underlying causes of the global crisis, and start the process of envisioning ways out of it.” As the conference website says:

Five dimensions of this challenge will guide our work: the planet, the economy, technology, learning and security/governance/diplomacy. These five dimensions represent inroads into understanding and addressing the global crisis. While strongly inter-related, there is great potential for better understanding and innovation within each. A range of sessions will be available for each dimension during the Forum, where groups of different sizes can engage in prototyping work or open conversation. Many of these sessions are organized in partnership with selected institutions, projects and initiatives who choose to bring their concerns and ideas to the Forum…

The conference asks us to take “the essential but difficult step from ‘systems thinking’ to ‘systems doing’.”

New Leaders Program
Perhaps even more exciting than attending the four-day Tällberg Forum, June 24-29, I’ll also be participating in the Tällberg Foundation’s New Leaders Program (NLP), a three-day intensive just before the Forum, with 40 emerging young leaders between ages 30 and 40. The NLP is a course on looking at global problems from a systems perspective, as well as an opportunity for mentorship and networking. On the third day, when the other attendees show up, the NLP participants get to faciliate the first set of breakout session of the Forum, titled “What We Want to Talk About.”

I’m deeply grateful to the 20 people who have donated more than US$1,500 so that I can attend the NLP. You know who you are.

Reporting from Tällberg — Stay Tuned…
I will be reporting on the proceedings in Tällberg via this blog, as well as posting photos to my Facebook page and shorter updates to my Twitter feed. Please stay tuned, and let me know if there’s anything in particular you want me to look into while I’m there.

Written by leifutne

June 9, 2009 at 1:05 am

Van Jones for Green Jobs Czar?

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powershift-09-van-jonesI’ve been sitting on this story for two weeks, but the green blogs are suddenly abuzz with the rumor that Van Jones may be appointed the White House’s new “Green Jobs Czar.” (See here, there, there, and elsewhere.) So I guess I’ll add what I know.

A close mutual friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me that Jones has passed the requisite FBI background check, and is set to assume the new post of “White House Special Adviser for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation” on March 16. Jones would be in charge of doling out the half-billion dollars in the recent economic stimulus package that is destined for areas like conservation, energy efficiency and clean tech development. He would also be an influential voice in the debate over how the $80 billion for clean energy in the stimulus package is spent.

[UPDATE: Kate Sheppard at Grist quotes an anonymous source close to Jones who says that “‘green jobs czar’ is an overstatement.”]

I can’t imagine a more appropriate pick for this job than the author of the recent book The Green Collar Economy and president of the Oakland-based group Green for All, whose slogan, “building a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty,” should be adopted by Obama himself. And it’s a fitting trajectory for someone who has been beating the green jobs drum for four years. (I interviewed Van for Utne Reader in June 2005 during the UN Green Cities Summit, when he was taking the “green-collar jobs” meme out for an early road-test.)

Hopefully government work won’t require Jones to tone down his fiery rhetorical style. His ability to cast his environmental justice mission in stark moral terms — “do we want eco-apartheid or eco-equity?” — should be seen as an asset by the White House, even if it makes some of the suits on Capitol Hill squirm. And he has an amazing gift for connecting with audiences that might not agree with him on everything. He reportedly had a crowd of evangelical Christians in L.A. so fired up about their religious duty to protect God’s creation they were practically writhing on the floor speaking in green tongues.

Some cynics are questioning whether Jones should take the job, suggesting that he might be more effective on the outside than in government. That thought had crossed my mind, too. But despite his rock-star status among progressive enviros, he’s not yet a household name like Al Gore, who I honestly believe really is more effective where he sits now than he would be in the White House. (An Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize wouldn’t hurt, either.) Would conservative leaders like Paul Wolfowitz or John Bolton have been more effective at advancing their agendas during the Bush years if they had stayed on the sidelines, speaking at conferences and pumping out policy papers for think-tanks? I think not. Government is exactly where Van Jones should be.

The optimist in me has to wonder, too, if Jones’s appointment isn’t a sign that president Obama may be backing away from his support for so-called “clean” coal. In his keynote speech at the PowerShift ’09 conference (see video below), which brought 12,000 young climate activists to DC to lobby Congress for green jobs and clean energy, Jones said: “There is no such thing as the tooth fairy. There is no such thing as unicorns. And there is no such thing as ‘clean’ coal.” (download audio)

Van, the world’s been waiting a long time for you.

Written by leifutne

March 9, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Video: Van Jones Goes to Washington

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One of my personal heroes, Van Jones, president of Green for All and author of The Green Collar Economy, testified last week before Congress on the importance of focusing on green jobs in the economic stimulus package. Jones tells the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming that this Congress has a historic opportunity to solve the two greatest challenges facing the US — the economic meltdown and the climate crisis.

Written by leifutne

January 18, 2009 at 9:47 pm

On the 10th day of Christmas my brother gave to me…

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Voltaic solar battery-charging backpackI arrived home on Sunday to find the coolest, geekiest Christmas present I’ve ever gotten: a Voltaic Converter solar daypack. I try not to be too covetous of material things. But this is one I’ve had my eye on for awhile. (Thanks, Sam! You’re the best.)

Its sleek black fabric is made of 100% recycled PET (soda bottles). It has three PV panels sewn into the back panel, which can output up to 10 volts in peak conditions, though normal output is 4 volts. A red LED in the middle of the logo indicates when it’s charging, which so far seems to be whenever there’s even minimal light. It came with a battery pack and 11 different standard tips, so it can charge most handheld electronic devices.

Around the city, it’ll probably be mostly a sort of eco-geek status symbol. I can’t wait to roll up on my bike at next month’s Green Drinks with this on my back.

But I can definitely picture situations where it’ll be useful when I really am off the grid — like when I’m hiking and I need to keep an extra pair of rechargeable AA batteries at the ready to power a camera or flashlight. And I imagine it’ll come in very handy when we’re on the beach in the Dominican Republic next month and keep running down the batteries in our portable blender.

I have yet to actually try charging anything with it. Will post more when I do.

Written by leifutne

January 6, 2009 at 2:11 am