Assessing our Impact in 2013

December 31, 2013

It’s New Year’s Eve, the end of the year. We traditionally think of December 31 as the “end,” though in reality, we are locked in an ongoing, all-but-eternal cycle of orbital loops around our mother-star, the Sun. These annual trips are expected to keep going for 5 billion years. Talk about sustainable transportation!

We inherited the practice of marking a specific day in the solar loop as the year’s end from the Egyptians, via Julius Caesar, whose calendar was adjusted for accuracy by Pope Gregory’s mathematicians in 1582 — though Sweden did not adopt this new “Gregorian calendar” until the 1700s, and then only gradually, taking forty years to come into phase with the rest of Europe. Sweden then, as now, liked to be different.

Whatever calendar one uses, if you live in Sweden, the axial tilt of the Earth means that right now, it’s dark. Very dark. But we are past the solstice, and the days are starting to get lighter. So it seems “natural” to think of this time as both an “end” and a “new start.”

I, for one, am grateful for both.

Before I assess 2013 from a sustainability perspective, and from a personal (professional) perspective, let’s consider the world.

Overall, the world — meaning human civilization, the ancient roots of “world” meaning “the age of human beings” — is doing fine.

The long-term trends for people look good: lengthening life spans, falling birth rates, better health, rising education levels, global poverty still bad but slowly diminishing, economic trends tipping up a bit. The world is more or less at peace. We have much to be grateful for.

But not if you live in Syria — or have been forced to flee that war-ravaged country. The world’s Great Powers are locked in a post-Cold War geopolitical stalemate, and millions of Syrians are suffering the consequences. The world stands outside Syria, watches, sends arms to the soldiers (on both sides) and aid to the children. There will be no Happy New Year for Syria.

Spots on the globe like Syria, or the eastern Philippines (recovering from the greatest typhoon ever recorded), or South Sudan (currently moving from independence toward civil war) remind us that all is not well, even as most of us in the top one or two billion spend most of our global reflection time thinking about the march of our fantastical technology. Or more accurately, participating in it.

One billion: that’s about how many smartphones were sold this year. We bought one of them, for our 10-year-old daughter. She was nearly the last kid in her 4th grade class to get such a device. Smartphones are essentially mini-computers, tiny windows into the galaxy of data we call the Internet. The Internet is now so integral to our lives here in Sweden (as in many other places) that we scarcely know what it means to be human without it. So we carry the Internet with us wherever we go. It’s the way we live.

An illustration: I will post this short essay to my blog, summarize it on Facebook, point to it from my Twitter feed. Then I’ll watch the click rates to see how many people read it, and whether that impacts my Klout score. (2013 was the year I gave in and joined Klout. My score seems stuck at 60.) The days when I might actually print and mail this text as a letter to anyone, besides members of my family over the age of 80, are long gone.

One could spend many words reflecting on the march of technology in all its forms — the headlines in 2013 went to topics like robotics, nanomaterials, brain science — but those billion new smartphones symbolize everything else. If technology had a Klout score, it would be much, much bigger than Barack Obama’s.

What about sustainability, then? One could also say that sustainability is doing fine, based on the way it continues its steady march into corporate board rooms, city plans, school curricula, etc. A couple of indicators: In 2014, schools around the world that use the “International Baccalaureate” (a widely-adopted common curriculum) will start teaching the Sustainability Compass, a little model I invented in 1997, to all their middle year students.’s Joel Makower, whose little newsletter has grown into an international media and conference conglomerate, writes that 2013 was “like most years, a very good year — at least when it comes to green business news.” (It was also a very good year for his business, “a satisfying and exhilarating year of growth.” Congratulations, Joel!)

So the idea of sustainability has penetrated the mainstream. But a glance at the carbon dioxide data, species extinction rates, the still-smoldering ruins of Fukushima’s nuclear plants, the plight of the poor in places like Bangladesh, and mountains of floating plastic in the sea tell us that sustainability still has a long, long way to go in practice. (That’s why I wrote Sustainability is for Everyone.)

For myself, I will always remember 2013 as difficult, but rewarding. The economics could have been a lot better (2014 is already much more promising). But I am so grateful for the work I am privileged to do, with sustainability champions around the world. This year I worked with the United Nations secretariat, with large companies, with government officials and business executives and educators from many countries. My colleagues and friends did much the same. I am quite sure that the impact of the AtKisson Group network, in terms of contributing to the Sustainability Transformation, was at an all time high. (Read our year-end newsletter, at the website.)

In 2013, I also received the professional honor of being inducted into the “Sustainability Hall of Fame” by my peers (my first such public distinction), and being appointed to the president’s advisory council on science and technology here in Europe. I published a book, completed a music CD (to be released in 2014), launched a global volunteer initiative (, and generally had a great deal of creative fun, in between doing global consulting assignments, and loading the dishwasher here at home.

I am deeply grateful. Thank you, world. Good luck to everyone in the coming year.

And welcome, 2014.

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