Alan AtKisson: Accelerating Sustainability

Acceleration is Alan AtKisson’s life. He starts early and moves fast. From editor of In Context magazine in his teens, to one of the pioneers of sustainability indicators, to figuring out – in the space of an hour – that change requires “ISIS” (indicators, systems, innovation and strategy), Alan has been in the fast lane for the past twenty years.

And yet the environmental movement seems to have stood still in many regards. Yes, we have a better understanding of global environmental change. And nations meet regularly to talk about curbing greenhouse gases – without, so far, much to show for it. And corporations have greened their practices and supply chains. But we have so far to go. Especially if you look at that first “I” – indicators, and first “S” – systems.

Most of our global environmental and economic indicators and systems are headed in the wrong direction – no matter what Bjorn Lomborg might have told you. But it’s worse than that.  According to AtKisson, we’re measuring the wrong things anyway. Well at least the economists are. We ecologists are right on track. Always have been, right? Well sure, but no one’s listening. Environment ranks around #20 on the list of twenty things that worry U.S. citizens behind jobs, terrorism, and the outcome of The Bachelor.

What should economists measure? In a word: happiness. And indeed they have begun to do just that. France, England and famously Bhutan, among other nations have begun to look for other measures of well-being besides income, which decouples from happiness at around $10,000 U.S. income.

How do we get more communities and regions and countries to start monitoring and setting policy in accordance with “subjective well-being” as versus GDP or per capita income? Part of the motivation might be that if you don’t get your indicators right, understand systems, know where to innovate, and have a strategy for getting there, you end up with … Egypt and Lybia and Bahrain.  Lots of money on those systems (OK not so much in Egypt), but most of it’s going to the wrong places. People aren’t happy. Their systems – electricity, water, social capital – are failing.

That’s what AtKisson saw in a recent economic development project in Egypt, just before that country tipped over into a what will hopefully be a positive reorganization phase. But we don’t have to wait for chaos. We can intervene in systems before they go critical. We can bring people together while political, economic and environmental systems are still functional, if unstable. This is the work in front of us in places like Portland, the Pacific Northwest, and North America.

But we’ll still have to work on local, regional, and international strategies for the rest of the world. And we’ll need more people like AtKisson working at those scales. Because there’s something to the butterfly effect – or maybe we should call it the Tunisian street vendor effect: Far away things that may seem insignificant to us here in the rain-soaked Northwest can trigger unforeseen consequences. Systems are like that.


One response to “Alan AtKisson: Accelerating Sustainability

  1. One interesting idea that I got from AtKisson’s talk is that of the unpredictability of the “tipping point”. Several times during the evening he referenced this idea, once when talking about recent world events jump-started in Tunisia, and again when talking abut the need to find “leverage points”, not knowing when one might instigate a major shift.

    I also (as in the blog above) distinctly heard AtKisson say that an income above $10,000 decouples from happiness. I wondered about this figure at the time. Is this truly what AtKisson meant to say? My understanding of the happiness income link is that it IS coupled until basic needs are met. Certainly it takes an income higher than $10,000 to provide basic needs. Could AtKisson have misspoke?

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