Blurred lines – good or bad?

Beggar-hatNon-governmental organizations* have long been funded by membership fees and donations, by public grants, and to some extent (particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world) by grants from private foundations.

Now things are rapidly shifting.

Lifelong members are becoming a thing of the past. Those membership fees that roll in, year after year, are dwindling. We tend to engage for shorter times, in things closer to ourselves. More time spent in the parents’ association, less money for big, anonymous charities? Public funding is also dwindling. As economic recession sets in, in country after country, funds for the third sector are among the first to be cut.

So many NGOs are looking for new income streams – some through crowdfunding, others through contracts that look more and more like commercial consultancy services.

There is certainly a good side to this. For both crowdfunding and contracts you need to make a very clear case for what you want to do. No vague ‘do-good’ missions are likely to succeed.

On the other hand: you are ‘selling’ to the funders, whose interests may not be aligned with those you propose to serve, the beneficiaries of your programs. Well, this is nothing new. All of us in this NGO world have struggled to balance the demands of funders with the needs of our constituencies.

The basic dilemma is unchanged: in order to get funding to support our constituencies, we need to portray them as somehow ‘lacking’. Or, as someone from an association for the disabled put it: “If we portray our members as fully capable citizens, no-one wants to fund us or them.” So the ‘poor me’ or ‘poor them’ syndrome takes over, and we are flooded with (for example) tear-jerking photos of impoverished Africans, instead of being shown the poor but dynamic current reality of most of that continent.

Will the new hybrid NGO-consultancies be able to manage this balance better than before? Or do we risk losing our footing entirely?

* NGOs, or ‘charitable associations’

Awareness is in the balance

Curious fact no. 1:

It’s always someone else who needs to have their awareness raised.

“We urgently need to raise public awareness of the consequences of western lifestyle.” Said, often, by the very people who underpin the financial systems that make ‘our’ unsustainable lifestyle almost inevitable. Some of us would like to raise their awareness…

Curious fact no. 2:

It’s mostly unpleasant things that ‘we’ need to be made aware of.

If the purpose of awareness-raising is to bring about behaviour change, most awareness-raising campaigns could learn from a study of how change actually happens.

There are many theories of change, but most agree on one point: change is not something that can be brought about by nagging or planning. It’s something that happens when the conditions are right. As expressed by Warren Ziegler:

“Change happens when there is a reasonable balance between dissatisfaction and hope.”

If I’m not yet ‘aware’ of climate change, or child labour, or the dangers of tobacco, it’s hardly for lack of information. Pushing more information at me will not change things. What is lacking is the ‘hope’ side of the equation: the feeling that I could in fact do something, make a difference.

So tell me how I can contribute. Show me how to adapt to climate change, support poor families to send their children to school, or wean myself off tobacco. Help me understand how and why my contribution is meaningful. First comes the hope, then the action; the awareness is a bonus, a product of the balance between dissatisfaction (or fear) and hope.

Does this sound back-to-front? Take a reality check: consult your own experience. How did your awareness most lately increase? When did you have one of those ‘Aha!’ moments?

How natural are you?

“In 50 years, we will have exhausted all sources of xxx, and industry will need to look for a replacement.”

“The planet’s ecosystems supply us with services whose annual value is estimated at xxx trillion USD.”

“Industry should be made to pay for externalities” like clean air and water.

Take some deep breaths and think about it. As you breathe in, picture the air (and all it carries) on its way around your body, literally keeping you alive. As you breathe out, feel that a part of yourself goes with your breath.

Now try to convince yourself that air is an ‘externality’.

Am I the only one to be disturbed by some of the strange ideas that seem to be taken for granted? – myths like

  • Nature exists to serve us
  • Natural resources are there for us to ‘exhaust’ as we please
  • It’s normal to behave in ways that poison the air, water and soil
  • Nature is not us

“Polluter pays” is giving way to the concept of payment for ecosystem services – well, it’s an improvement. But isn’t there a risk that it’s actually just perpetuating the idea that ‘we’ are the centre of the universe, and separate from nature?

Maybe what we need most is a new economic system based on valuing what is actually of value. If we value life.

Myths about money are killing us

Myths – the old ones – are wonderful sources of inspiration. But some modern myths bind us to a repetitive wheel, so that we consistently fall short of our own ambitions – do you recognize this? It seems to be particularly true of work for sustainability.

So I wonder: what are these myths, and how can we break free of them?

One pervasive myth seems to be: “We’ll get around to saving the environment when we’ve saved enough money.” This is equivalent to saying: “I know I’m sawing off the branch I’m sitting on, but I can’t stop just yet.” Clearly mad, yet it persists… not least because there is a grain of reality in it. It’s not very sustainable to go bankrupt. The conclusion must be that there is something wrong with the money system, if it forces us to choose between

  • going bankrupt now
  • killing human civilization later


Is there an underlying myth? Yes! It’s: “Money obeys economic laws (and there’s nothing we can do about it)”. This is nonsense. Money is a human invention, and it obeys the rules and regulations that we humans have agreed upon. The rules currently in force are driving us farther from sustainability. If we’re serious about sustainable development, we need to reinvent money.

The good news is that many people and communities have already started. In Brazil, for instance, 63 communities have successfully introduced local currencies that flourish alongside the national currency.

More encouragement comes from the “Occupy…” movement. Will the movement bring about the inventive transformation that will enable real sustainable development? Depends on how its organization evolves… but that’s another story.

Confession of a heretic

FlatearthAt the World Resources Forum in Davos this week I made a shocking confession: I no longer believe the earth is flat. This is, I know, heretical. Our entire, flat-earth society is built on the principle that we can pull resources from ‘somewhere’ onto our linear earth; use and abuse them; and then throw them ‘away’.

But have you noticed? – there is no ‘somewhere’ and there is no ‘away’. Everything is here, and (except for the great gift of in-pouring sunlight, and the occasional meteor) always has been. So what do flat-earthers mean when they talk about resources, and even ‘renewable resources’? More importantly, what might a round-earth view look like?

Even in the run-up to the global environmental summit in Rio next year, the talk about ‘green economics’ generally presupposes a flat earth – just using up stuff at a slower rate.

But on a round earth we understand that literally everything – every atom, including those in our bodies – is a resource. Everything is input to a future process. And everything is output from an earlier process. There is no such thing as waste. Everything is renewed – in time. Even coal, oil: if we stop (ab)using them and wait for a hundred million years or so, they too will renew themselves.

Time is the essence. On a round earth we understand that we humans can only safely make use of (other) resources at a rate at which they can and will renew themselves. The mines and wells of the future are in our garbage dumps, or already dispersed in the air and water.

Round-earthers unite! The flat-earthers will destroy our habitat, if we let them. Let’s help them think ‘round’. Please share your most heretical thoughts here!

Illustration by Klaus Elle


Utopia and human nature


Huge amounts of time, talent and money are now being invested in sustainable development, yet the results are still negative: human societies are becoming less and less sustainable, year by year. Progress is made, but overall we are eroding our natural capital, and our economies are in disarray.

Clearly the causes, and the answers, need to be sought in ourselves. Neither nature nor money are creating our situation: we are. The future of humankind hangs upon our ability, individually and collectively, to begin to think and act differently.  This is the dream of many utopians: that human behaviour should make it possible to create a society that works – for everyone.

Why should we believe we can create such a society now, when it seems all attempts so far have foundered?

Well, necessity is a tough teacher. And perhaps the convergence of rising populations with dwindling resources, creating a ‘tipping point’ beyond which human societies simply cannot be maintained, will prove a sufficient incentive.

Maybe this time Utopia has a chance. Not, of course, if we humans are (as some still believe) incorrigibly selfish, greedy, violent – in short, ineducable. We are talking about changing behaviour, not changing human nature. Fortunately there are signs that human nature is reasonably benevolent: that inside most of us is a loving, social being just aching to be released into a Utopian world.

Guess we need to stop aching and get out there. If there ever was a time to ‘be the change’, this is it. Be it, do it – show it!


Lurching towards the next crisis

Financial crises come quicker and quicker – and will continue to do so; this is one of the only two valid ‘economic laws’.

Do we want something different? More sustainable? Think before you answer, because the entire economic system on which our societies are built is both unsustainable and irrational. Few disciplines are as shrouded in mist and myths as economics. In fact the underlying idea – often taken for granted – that there are immutable economic ‘laws’ is a dangerous myth.

  • A myth, because after all, people invented money. WE invented money, and it obeys only the ‘laws’ we invent for it; or, rather, it follows the rules we jointly agree upon.
  • Dangerous, because it leads us to accept unquestioningly the extraordinary idea that we cannot ‘afford’ to remedy what is obviously wrong, like extreme poverty, environmental destruction, and inadequate health and education services; while we somehow, mysteriously, can ‘afford’ a life of unparalleled luxury for a small minority.

In my opinion we not only can but must de-mythify money, and re-invent it, now that it no longer serves us in its present form.

“Imagine a heating system in which the thermostat, sensing a rise in temperature, calls for more heat instead of less. Such is the nature of the debt-money system. The imposition of interest on the debt by which money is created, demands that more debt be created. [This] gives rise to a growth imperative.” – Thomas H. Greco, Jr.

A debt-fuelled money system is not a ‘law of nature’ (or even of economics). But when allowed to flourish unchallenged, it does inevitably lead to greater and greater differences between rich and poor. This is the second valid economic law under the present system – and no doubt you’ve seen the signs that this differential is widening, almost globally.

Once again: money is a human invention. It’s been re-invented countless times in history. Now it’s time for debt money to go; what comes next? What are your best stories, ideas, innovations, examples?

If I tolerate you, will you tolerate me?

There are some words that are easy to use (in English). Tolerance is one of them. Sounds good? I just read a translated text from a colleague saying ‘Tolerance is the key to a successful life…’

But surely if you tolerate me, it means you feel superior to me? As witness also ‘zero tolerance’, meaning if I do something you don’t like you will punish me immediately.

So how about ‘respect’, is that better? Not for me. 1) I’m allergic to being told I ‘should show respect’ for one thing or another – respect needs to be earned, doesn’t it? 2) It’s increasingly used to justify violence. If in your opinion I don’t demonstrate respect, you feel justified in hitting me.

What, actually, does my colleague mean? Are we talking about ‘acceptance’? If we are all able to accept each other’s personal, ethnic etc. cultures, then peace-building becomes easier? Maybe. But then we come up against the question of values. If my culture decrees that girl-babies should be killed, you may have some difficulties with acceptance – no?

The recent tragic events in Norway underscore this point. Mao Tse Tung and St Matthew had similar recommendations: ‘Criticize the action, not the person’. The Norwegians seem to be rising magnificently to this challenge.

In less clear-cut cases we come back, as usual, to self-awareness: willingness to work with my own preconceived ideas: to examine how far they stem from deeply-held values, and be prepared to let go of them or hold on to them accordingly.

Hmm. But it’s a much harder sell than ‘tolerance is the key to a successful life’…

Spectacle without spectators: on the brink

3 July is Independence Day – in Belarus. It was heralded in the capital, Minsk, by intensive military activity. Policemen and soldiers posted every 50 metres along some streets, tanks keeping us awake as they rolled by at night for ’rehearsals’.

The actual celebrations came as a surprise. Yes, the first part was traditional Soviet-style military stuff. But later it was more cultural than military: lots of singing, dancing, athletics; thousands of performers parading in a brilliantly well-organized spectacle. The president, in marshal’s uniform, his little son in miniature copy of the uniform, and a handful of other uniforms on a podium clapping politely every few minutes.

But no other spectators. Well, hardly any. Belarusian press said there were ‘thousands’. A Dutch visitor found only a handful of pensioners in front of him. On TV the same handful of pensioners recurred from time to time. Where was everybody?

From experience I know many of the Belarusian people are doing wonderful things. I’ve met teachers passionate about their pupils, and about sustainable development; avant-garde journalists; officials doggedly working for improvements; youth leaders any child would LOVE to go to summer camp with, in landscape beautiful with lakes, rivers, trees.

On the one hand, spectacle with no contact with reality. On the other, passionate people doggedly working for what they believe in. Meanwhile the entire society heading towards the twin precipices of economic and political bankruptcy.

Madness? Well yes. But is it so different from the rest of us?

For spectacle without contact with reality, see almost any major international conference – it seems, sadly, that Rio+20 could be heading down that route. For passionate people, just look around. Meanwhile human civilization teeters on the brink of the ‘unsustainability’ precipice.

Fred Branfman writes in a recent newsletter: “What seems obvious, starting with myself, is that we are in emotional denial of the implications of climate change for our lives… I feel certain that if I could break through my own emotional denial about our present path to species-suicide, that I would live very differently than I do right now.”

Do you agree? What changes would you make, for yourself?


Are you some kinda optimist?

”Are you some kinda optimist?” Question from audience at a Stockholm lecture by Robert Gilman.

”Well I can look around and see a million reasons to be a pessimist,” replied Robert. ”And I can change my lenses and see a million reasons to be an optimist. All of the reasons are true and valid. So: it’s clearly a matter of choice.

”I’ve made my choice. I think I do more good as an optimist. Besides, optimists have more fun.”

Another valued colleague, Warren Ziegler, used to say ”Change happens when there is a reasonable balance between disappointment (or fear) and hope.” We need both, in order to create the tension and energy needed to bring about change. Simple formula:

All hopes and no fears = no need to change.
All fears and no hopes = no energy for change.

So here’s a challenge. It seems that mass media, politicians and (some) NGOs (to name but a few) focus more on the fears than the hopes. Feed on them, even. They drain us of vital energy, if we let them.

Resist! The planet needs lotsa kinda optimists! Are you one of them? How do you do it?

PS After a week with youth teams in Kosova I’ve had my hope-store refilled. Big thanks, all of you!