Believing Cassandra

By Bryan Walker 20/12/2010

Believing Cassandra: How to be an Optimist in a Pessimist's WorldThe gift of foresight given to Cassandra was nullified by the accompanying curse that no one would believe her. Her warnings were ignored and ancient Troy fell. It’s a haunting myth which Alan Atkisson harnesses in his book Believing Cassandra: How to be an Optimist in a Pessimist’s World. If we believe Cassandra and take action to avoid the disasters she prophesies we prove her wrong. But the worst and most painful outcome for any Cassandra is to be proven right.

The book was first published in 1999 but has been revised and updated for this 2010 edition. The author comments on how much that was in the future tense in the first edition had to be shifted to the present or past tense, and yet how little of it had to be changed. This is not surprising. The book is rooted in the many warnings that have been sounded for some decades now about the limits of growth, and the dangers that await us as we exceed the boundaries for safety for human civilisation. Those warnings and dangers remain current. Atkisson starts with the dizzying exponential population growth of the past century, is fully alarmed by the level of biodiversity loss, and invites readers to consider the graph of rising global CO2 emissions as they would such horrific paintings as Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son.

‘Growth’ must cease, says the author, but for this to happen ‘Development’ must accelerate.  The two concepts, Growth and Development, have always been joined. But now they must be separated. He defines the two terms carefully. By Growth he means the increase in human population, resource use, material and energy consumption, and the emission of waste. By Development he refers to advances in human technology and the human condition, including health, education, intelligence, wisdom, freedom and the capacity to love. Humanity’s fundamental project for the remainder of the 21st century is Development without Growth.

It’s a familiar enough picture, but one which the author paints with unusual flair and alertness. He illuminates the dynamics and interconnectedness of systems, both those of Nature and of the human-created World, explaining the concepts of stocks, flows and feedback loops, of sources and sinks. Nature and the World are not communicating at those critical points where they need to be. The feedback signals from Nature that sources are falling or sinks are filling are not being received or adequately heeded. What should be a complex and elegant marriage between the human World and the systems of Nature has become an estrangement, of which global warming is a clear example. Incidentally he mentions the use of his talent as songwriter and singer in the course of the book, and I came across this YouTube video clip showing him singing of the systems theory he writes about in the book. His explanations are aimed at better understanding what has brought us to such critical times rather than laying blame.

With understanding comes the responsibility to respond creatively to the warnings and avoid the disasters they presage. Encouraging positive response is Atkisson’s work. He runs an international sustainability consultancy to business and governments in which workshops and training programmes figure strongly. His key word is ‘sustainable’. It’s a much-used word, over-used some would say, these days. It seems casually appropriated by anyone who thinks it might give the right impression to citizens or consumers. But Atkisson was in on its early use and is not prepared to surrender the word, which when properly defined best represents what he seeks to further in society. ‘A sustainable society is one which can persist over generations,’ is his brief and best definition, though he also supplies an extended discussion in elaboration of that. His discussion is enlivened with examples of communities, companies, and even a country, which have worked successfully towards sustainability, overcoming obstacles in community perceptions along the way. The Brazilian city of Curitiba, the company Interface, the Netherlands green plan are among the ‘proofs of the possible’ he offers.

The diffusion of innovation is a central idea in his work. It’s to do with how a new idea or set of ideas gets adopted by a small number of people and through them is promoted to the wider world. The book describes a simulation game he uses in seminars in which community interactions are explored to suggest how such dissemination can proceed. Sustainability, or development without growth, is the cure to the diseases that afflict the planet, ranging from urban sprawl to global warming. But sustainability is a transformation requiring thousands of innovations which advance Development while slowing Growth. The rapid diffusion of those innovations is the key to transformation.

The hour is late, he says. By the best scientific assessments overshoot and collapse is already in process. If we can’t produce an explosion of innovation and change we will continue on our way toward a full, slow-motion smash into the evolutionary equivalent of a brick wall. However, he believes the necessary transformation can happen. This affirmation is repeated towards the end of the book, in a passage from which I took comfort. He points out that the transformation of social and economic systems is in fact old hat to humanity. We’ve done it numberless times. Even the global scale and the compressed timeline is not without precedent. During the Second World War we saw powerful nations reorganise their economies on very short notice and point them in radically new directions. Innovations occurred throughout society at breakneck speed, in every sphere of life. And after the war the Marshall Plan directed huge amounts of capital into the reconstruction effort in Europe and Japan. ’We know how to do very rapid economic transformation.’ And ’we also know how to do extremely rapid social and political transformation,’ he points out, instancing the fall of the Berlin Wall, the transition from apartheid in South Africa and the astonishing rise of China as an economic superpower.  He adds to this the fact that personal transformation, as many of us know, can be stunning in its suddenness.

Those of us who look with despair at the prospect of any fast transition to solar energy from fossil fuels he invites to consider the effect on the development of the first computer chips in the 1960s when the US government acting through NASA and the Department of Defence ordered mass quantities. It spurred extremely rapid innovation and a swift drop in prices. An intensive act of government purchasing made possible the arrival of the computer era years or decades ahead of when the market might have produced a transformation on its own.  He has worked with the UN on a plan to enable large-but-doable investments in the world’s poorest countries which could make wind, solar and other technologies the default option around the world in as little as ten years, while hastening the end of poverty along the way.

Atkisson’s optimism is not a light matter. He is fully aware of the gathering wave of catastrophe and by no means certain we will avoid it. But be believes we can and his lively book seeks to encourage its readers to similarly believe in and act to achieve a sustainable future.

[Purchase via Hot Topic affiliates Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK, with free shipping worldwide).]