All posts by Alan AtKisson

Writer, songwriter, public servant, dedicated to advancing sustainable development, based in Stockholm

Coffee with Friedi: Relaunching Gaia’s Dreams

This is a post under the category “About the Book,” which includes writing that reflects on the book itself and the process of writing it. For a more general introduction to Gaia’s Dreams, see the Intro to this website.

I was drinking coffee in a classic old Stockholm cafe with my friend and former intern, Friederike May, who was working at Uppsala University.

“So, how’s the book going?” she asked. I confessed that I was a little stuck, and finding it hard to get going. Actually, I’m not sure what I said —  except that I wasn’t sure a normal “book” was the best way to tackle my ten-years-and-growing mountain of subject matter.

And Friedi (her nickname) started bouncing around ideas with me. Both of us, it turned out, were admirers of David Mitchell’s book “Cloud Atlas” (the movie version was not great), and the way it hops around between timelines. I started thinking of Theodore Gray’s classic book on The Elements, and the “Elements Vault” that followed: a collection of curiosities that helped to illustrate the core concepts and even the physical realities, including an actual piece of gold foil. We talked about a site that curated “artifacts”: videos, audio, imagery, the books I’ve been collecting on how we view the future, the old magazine covers that reveal how poorly we predict it, and whatever else seemed relevant (and fascinating).

And then I remembered this blog. As you can read here, I actually launched this book/website in 2009, and planned to write the whole book online, or at least to blog about the process. I wrote a couple of short, quirky essays.

Then I got sidetracked for about 9 years — working with the UN, promoting the SDGs, analyzing the economics of the oceans and seas, and many other projects. But during all that time, I kept clipping articles, saving links, and making notes about the third book in my “Optimist Trilogy,” Gaia’s Dreams.

And of course, the Internet changed during the last decade. “Blogging” is barely a “thing” anymore. The opportunities to approach a topic creatively, from many different angles, through many different forms of social and digital media, have exploded.

Coffee with Friedi helped me reconnect with my original intention around this book: to make it more than a book. To make something a bit more, shall we say, future-friendly.  (While still also resulting in a book. I love books! I predict books will be with us, in one form or another, for a long time to come.)

That’s how this new/old website came to be. That same afternoon, after coffee, I opened this site’s admin page, reorganized it, and started the process of relaunching Gaia’s Dreams. Why delay any further? The future can only wait so long, before it insists on becoming the present.

Thanks, Friedi!

Notes: The Everyday, Dreamlike Symbols in our Lives

Note that this was drafted in 2009, when this site was first created. The style of working for this book has changed since then.

Not the original T-shirt – this is a digital reconstruction. The real t-shirt fell apart and was recycled a few years after this post was written.

I have a black T-shirt, acquired in Tasmania, Australia, that depicts a Tasmanian Devil. Or rather, it used to depict the Devil, which is a very endangered species. The whole idea of the T-shirt was to show the Devil the way you might actually see it, if you came upon it at night, when it is out hunting. The shirt was black (now ten years old, the shirt itself has faded to dark gray), and the image of the Tasmanian Devil was very faintly imprinted, in white and gray. You could see it clearly, but you had to look carefully. It’s mouth was open, showing the array of very sharp teeth and the fierce demeanor that earned it the name “devil.” A little ruff of whitish fur on the throat was the brightest spot in the image.

The shirt has been a favorite, and I often wear it in winter, under my standard turtleneck. After so many washings, however, the Tasmanian Devil is no longer discernible. A tiny whitish spot is all that remains of this once subtle, yet ferocious image.

This is quite in parallel with what has happened to the Devil itself, which is on the verge of extinction owing to an epidemic that emerged in recent years and is wiping out the species, in a macabre fashion. The disease is a virus-born cancer that causes tumorous growths on the face of the Tasmanian Devil, turning its scary little face into a true horror of suffering for the animal.

When I look at my Tasmanian Devil T-shirt, I get a tiny feeling of vertigo. The history of the shirt is a history of the animal. The animal is fading, the image of the animal has faded. Of course, I do not mean to imply that there is any connection between them, other than the fact that I am projecting symbolic meaning onto this process. But that feeling of symbolic meaning that I get when thinking about my shirt is very close to the feeling of being in a dream. The imagery around one is loaded with symbolic potential. The events in the dream may roughly mirror the events of real life, but altered, translated into a different place, different people. The event in a dream may not be at all the same as the event it mirrors in real life, and yet one recognizes it immediately as “the same.” One feels the link.

Somehow, sitting with that odd parallel between Shirt and Animal, I feel the animal’s plight more keenly. Though the symbol is very much an abstraction — and a totally constructed one — it makes my relationship to the Tasmanian Devil somehow more tangible and concrete.

The notion that everyday occurrences could have symbolic meaning used to be a predominant human experience. Ancient Sumerian texts, written in cuneiform, include guidebooks to the interpretations of signs and symbols in everyday life — what it might mean, say, to encounter a snake in one’s path. These days, we call all such experiences of falsely mapping an everyday, natural, explainable occurrence over to a premonition of future events, or events happening somewhere distant, or anything like this, a “superstition.” Humans everywhere still struggle to free themselves from the oppressive nature of superstitious belief.

And yet … isn’t there something lost if we banish all sense of meaning from the everyday, dreamlike symbols of our lives?

Notes: Talking About Dreams, Sharing Dreams

Note that this was drafted in 2009, when this site was first created. The style of working for this book has changed since then.

People in the industrialized world — which is rapidly becoming the whole world — rarely talk about their dreams. Dreams are becoming a more and more marginalized part of the modern human experience. Dreams are generally discounted, and not taken seriously. They have become a kind of “brain noise,” explained away by vague references to emerging neuroscience; or, and perhaps this is more problematic, they have become “symptoms.” One talks seriously about dreams only in a psychotherapeutic environment. To talk about dreams at other times risks being psycho-analyzed by others, or even being stigmatized, in a minor sort of way, as a person with psychological “issues.” Revealing dreams to anyone other than, say, your bed-mate is somehow a breach of appropriate social boundaries. Talking about your dreams in other social contexts — at a party, at work, might just be taken as proof that you are a little less stable than you should be.

Very few people actively cultivate their capacity to remember dreams, to think about them, to talk about them with others. But the fact remains that we all dream, every night, four or five times. This is an undisputed scientific fact. We usually don’t remember all (or sometimes any) of these dreams in the morning, but if awakened in the midst of them by a researcher looking for the tell-tale signs of “Rapid Eye Movement” and certain brain wave patterns, we can nearly always describe them.

Dreams are therefore a central, universal part of human experience. And yet, no scientist can yet explain to us exactly why we dream, or how our dreams are put together, or why they often feel so vivid, so real.

Of course, in metaphorical terms, dreams are hugely celebrated: everyone should “have a dream,” the world debates the merits of the “American Dream,” many popular songs reference them (“Dream Weaver,” “Girl of my Dreams,” “Dream, Dream, Dream”). Critics have often noted that people going into a darkened movie theater are essentially having a shared, dream-like experience. And yet … dreams still remain something close to a taboo topic in ordinary conversation.

This is the background for my own reluctance to write about my dreams on the World Wide Web. It feels almost like an act of personal courage, or foolhardiness, to do so. But it would be inauthentic to write a book about dreams — as concept, as metaphor, as phenomenon, as synonym for visions— and not say something about my own, actual night dreams.

Night dreams have in fact been a rich and wonderful part of the experience I call “my life,” for all of my fifty years of cycling between wakefulness and sleep. As I child, I dreamt intensively, and eventually lucidly — “awakening” within a dream and then directing it in ways I found pleasant or comforting or exciting. This was a necessary skill, too, because of trouble with recurring nightmares: lucid dreaming, the practice of becoming aware that you are dreaming and then choosing whether to wake up or continue in some new direction, became part of a solution to a childhood fear of night and of the dark. The habit of attending to my dreams — which were usually not lucid, but were always intense and vivid — followed me through my teen years and into adulthood.

My first professional jobs were in social work and counseling, so naturally dreams became even more interesting then. Encouraged by professional dream therapists and Native American ceremonialists — with whom I was working side-by-side, as part of an experimental treatment program for mentally disturbed young people — I began writing down my dreams, a practice I still maintain. My growing capacity to remember my dreams in vivid detail came in hand when, in New York during my 20s, I saw a Jungian analyst for a couple of years. This experience contributed both to my own understanding of my dreams, but also to the feeling that dreams were somehow private and overly revealing, something one should not talk freely about. Sometimes thinking about my dreams helped me sort out truly difficult problems from my early family life; and sometimes, they provided me inspiration and clarity about my waking dreams, that is to say, my ambitions and aspirations in life. For example, I made the decision to go to New York and try my hand at music and songwriting partly because of a very powerful dream, which came to me while camping in the great redwood forests of Northern California. The central image of that dream — a guitar, spinning ten meters above the ground, on a beautiful fountain of light — moves and inspires me to this day.

These days, I do not write down every night’s harvest of dreams, only those that seem to cry out for more reflection, or that stir me in some way. For example, while at a recent colloquium in France, I had a long, detailed dream about running a different seminar, that was in turn visited by a different teacher. He was showing the participants how to do different yoga-like positions that were “new equilibrium points,” new ways of balancing on the Earth. These positions were so specific that I drew them as pictures in my journal. I could only laugh at the close link between what I was hearing about every day (in French) and what my brain was doing with the inputs, in a “mash-up” with my own personal and professional life, my history, etc.

In this dream, one of the “equilibrium positions” was remarkable, for it involved floating a few centimeters over the Earth. Here is how it worked. You lay on your belly, and took hold of a pair soft cloth handles that looked very much like rabbit ears. These were fastened to the floor. Then you slowly stretched out your legs, lifted your hips, and rose up on your elbows, seeking the “equilibrium point.” When you found it, you could raise your elbows … and you would find yourself floating. It worked, explained the man leading this seminar, because one was in a sort of “mini-orbit” position, a point where gravity and the centrifugal forces were in balance (equilibrium). It required physical precision as well as mental calm and clarity, and he spoke of both angular momentum and personal equanimity. The experience of floating like that, ten centimeters above the ground, holding on to a pair of soft rabbit ears, was both exhilarating and a bit funny, and when one achieved it, one laughed in delight.

In the dream, it all seemed strangely plausible — “Why haven’t physicists thought of this before?” — and of course very vivid and real; but of course it’s nonsense in physics terms, just a confused jumble of concepts. It’s the image, the multi-layered metaphor that’s most intriguing: finding equilibrium, floating above the Earth …

I told this dream to my daughters, aged 5 (nearly 6) and 7, because we talk about our dreams once in a while, over the breakfast table. A day or two later, the 5-year-old said, “Daddy, you know that dream you had about holding onto rabbit ears and flying? I have that picture in my mind now all the time. It’s really fun!” Somehow, sharing my dream with her was a way of sharing a little bit of mental delight.

I wonder what modern life would be like if we talked more regularly, and more freely, about our dreams?

Book: The World in Six Songs (Levitin)

Image resultNote that this was drafted in 2009, when this site was first created. The style of working for this book has changed since then.

Daniel J. Levitin’s book The World in Six Songs scratches an intellectual itch that I didn’t know I had.  As a singer and songwriter who also works on sustainable development theory, practice, policy, data, etc., I resonate strongly with his combination pop music producer and neuroscience.  I’m only 25 pages into the book, but it is compulsive reading for me, as it opens up one of several new topics in this research that have only occurred to me since starting this blog — in this case, the role of the arts, poetry, music generally in framing our capacity to envision the future.

Levitin writes about six kinds of songs — friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, love.  I wonder if I will agree with him, by the time I’ve finished reading, that these categories are comprehensive?  Where do songs of longing, hope, and wonder fit in, for example?  I just wrote one of those recently (called “Set the World Right Again”) and can’t imagine that fitting easily into one of those six categories.

On the other hand, I write a lot of “knowledge” songs, that is, songs that try to make ideas more memorable.  These have fallen out of fashion in the modern world, says Levitin; we have only the ABC’s and number songs and the like to remind us of how central such songs were in earlier eras.  So perhaps my own “Exponential Growth,” or the new little ditty on the weird economics of discounting the present value of natural resources (“Damn the Discount Rate”), are actually old-fashioned.

Levitin’s central thesis appears to be that music and poetry — and their union in song — is at the very heart of human cultural and even recent biological (in the case of the brain) evolution.  Not, “I think therefore I am,” but “I create, therefore I am human“.  An interesting thesis, easy to accept if one is of a creative temperament.  And a great starting point for the question:  to what extent is our ability to imagine and create better futures dependent on our capacity to create, for example, songs as well?

An Experiment in Book-Writing

Update note, 1 Feb 2018:

This post, the original intro to this website, was drafted in September 2009. Many things have changed since then. For one, I changed the name of my second book, “The ISIS Agreement”, and everything associated with ISIS (including our sustainable development planning methodology, now called VISIS). My second book is now called The Sustainability Transformation — but I have left the original text below just as it was drafted, in 2009. Also: Smartphones were not ubiquitous yet. Twitter was a curiosity. Kindle was still pretty new. In other words: this text is a time capsule. When I wrote it, what we now think of as the take-it-for-granted past was still the soon-to-be-amazing (and worrying) future.

Original post, 27 Sep 2009:

As readers of my new book The ISIS Agreement will know, for the past fifteen years or so I have been working on a three-volume series on sustainability, beginning with Believing Cassandra (1999), and following up with ISIS. The series has the temporal structure Past-Present-Future, and all three have mythological goddess-figures in the title. I tend to call the books by those names.

Cassandra focuses on the past, and on how we muddled our way into this mess that the intellectuals of the 1970s called the “global problematique,” and which we now call the global sustainability crisis, or even just the climate crisis (since climate is the headline issue of the day). Cassandra looked at these developments through the lens of the classic global study from 1972, The Limits to Growth, and it introduced the concept of a “sustainability change agent,” someone who works to spread ideas and innovations. I am happy to report that the book is still being used in university courses, ten years later; and it will get updated in a revised edition soon.

The ISIS Agreement is about the present: what we do, today, to practice sustainable development. “ISIS” stands for “Indicators, Systems, Innovations, and Strategy, in addition to echoing the name of Egypt’s ancient goddess. ISIS is a book about tactics and empowerment, tools and methods, breakthroughs and power battles and codes of ethics. It is designed for a general readership, but one that is interested in (or even already committed to) making change for sustainability. It stands alone, while also picking up where Cassandra left off. Like that first volume, ISIS offers a message of hope, one that is grounded in observations and experience about how hopes become strategies and actions.

The final book in the series is tentatively titled Gaia’s Dreams, and is about the future: what we imagine, and how we imagine it. It intends to cover the biology, sociology, politics, even the natural history of our capacity to dream up the future and then try to realize it. I am still early in the process of writing this book, but I am already actively writing it.

The ISIS book is starting to gain the readership I had hoped for: a broad base of professionals, amateurs, and students who are working for sustainability. That book was built on the input of many colleagues and friends with whom I have been working over the past decade or more to develop the “ISIS Method” and “ISIS Accelerator” tools. Both the tools and the book should properly be seen as the product of collaboration, rather than solitary authorship.

For Gaia, the traditional archetype of the solitary author seems even less appropriate. I am attempting a very broad-brush picture of a very complex topic, while maintaining the high degree of readability that people liked about Cassandra and ISIS.

Hence this blog: an experiment in writing more publicly — or at least, thinking about the writing (notes, links, research, etc.) more publicly.

Welcome to the process of dreaming up Gaia’s Dreams