Believing Cassandra

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).]

58 thoughts on “Believing Cassandra”

  1. “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.”
    Please give one example of a once-poor country that is currently developing rapidly on top of an energy economy dominated by solar panels and windmills.

    1. Steve, Atkisson is talking about a plan developed under UN auspices which could, if put into action, achieve the result he speaks of. You can see it here if you’re interested. It will need investment and no poor country alone can implement what the plan envisages.

      1. The fact that a “plan” has a stamp from the New York Paper Factory is neither here nor there. And no amount of “investment” of non-existent funds from bankrupt 1st world welfare states to corrupt kleptocracies will change fundamental facts of poor energy density and intermittancy that require backup from real energy sources.

            1. Fixed: Market forces at the time will go “whoops” and leave to governments to fix at massive taxpayer expense

            1. Hi bill,

              This is a 6♣ “Competition is Magic

              A denialist does not soft pedal competition. It is a religious term. It is frequently employed, because any market can be described as competitive, regardless of the facts or the myriad factors that practically limit choice.

              Competition solves all problems. Period. If competition doesn’t solve the problem at issue, then it isn’t a problem

              Cheers, mate!

            2. Love the ‘If competition doesn’t solve the problem at issue, then it isn’t a problem’! I’ll remember that one!

  2. Steve

    You might also say
    “name one poor country that will do well in the future, following non sustainable practices”.

    Fossil fuels will only get more expensive. Solar and wind etc will get cheaper. Not to mention that fossil fuel prices don’t reflect anything remotely close to their actual costs.

    Solar and wind and other alternatives give countries, that have to import fossil fuels, some energy independence.

      1. Qatar is recently-poor, whose development has been built on non-sustainable oil. In no way is my pointing this out an endorsement of every use to which they may put this wealth. To suggest that any poor country that is in the same position as they were, would forgo developing FF resources and remain poor and infested with NGO advice-givers and a few solar panels is delusional.

        1. Ah, but the question was about the future, Steve! What will happen to Qatar after the oil runs out? The Qatari Emir seems more far-seeing than most, but one remembers neighbouring Emir Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum’s famous –

          “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel”

          (Also Syriana is no doubt available at your local DVD shop)

          And clearly the majority of poor nations are not sitting on a sea of oil. So it’s just sweatshops and imported oil for them, then?

          There’s a reason why actual development organizations doing real things on the ground for real people endorse these kinds of plans, you know. As opposed to the arrogant armchair pontifications of comfortably-off Free Marketâ„¢ zealots…

          1. “the majority of poor nations are not sitting on a sea of oil. So it’s just sweatshops and imported oil for them, then?”
            China has not been sitting on a (per capita) sea of oil, but has managed to pull 100s of millions into comfortably-off status, by becoming the world’s workshop, and burning its FF.
            If the warmist had had their way they’d still be following buffalos around the rice field every day (when they’re not working on the NGO sponsored “sustainable community irrigation initiative”).

            At the moment they, and Aussie (itself held up by Chinese raw material demands) are all that are stopping NZ’s economy sinking even faster. The ETS-swaddled EU certainly isn’t much chop.

            1. Wrathall Endorses Communist Chinese Development Model Shock!

              (They just keep coming!)

              …and here we see China using exactly the same internal development/protectionist principles that made all first-world economies rich in the first place to develop its own internal solar market, because they understand the science of AGW and can realistically foresee an oil-straitened world.

              Not to mention their wind turbine market.

              That’s a grand total of one more country, one that is arguably now ‘post-poor”! Perhaps if more nations adopted the Communist policies you’re apparently endorsing they could all hope to prosper similarly?

              And we’re to understand that the EU is part of the great ‘broke’ first-world? And its economic problems are caused by being ‘ETS swaddled’ and being welfare states rather than the machinations of greedy, short-sighted hyper-capitalists and the fanciful baroque pseudo-markets in ‘financial products’ that actually triggered the GFC, we gather?

              Ridiculous strawman arguments about water buffalo aside, you don’t really have much to offer here, do you?

              (Note the ideologue’s consistent disdain for the NGO’s that actually get out there and work to improve the lives of poor people, all of them meriting only contempt for failing to grasp the malthusian beauty of The One True Path!)

        2. Steve: Market Forces out of principle ignore so called externalities. Market Forces work within an unlimited environment (unlimited in its ability to supply resources and unlimited in its ability to absorb the detritus of the Market: pollution).
          Also, let loose within such an idealized unrealistic environment Market Forces produce exponential growth, a fact that was could observe over the past century and a lethal habit for any real life system bound by external limits. (Yeast in the brewing vet as an example. Name one system in nature that is able to sustain exponential growth, just one!!!!)
          We live however in the real world. So we must: Live sustainably or crash. We must regulate the use of limited resources and we must regulate the emissions of pollution. Free Market mechanisms won’t do any of this. But most of all, Free Market systems will not self limit to a zero growth status.
          The current financial melt-down is a clear sign of total failure of the so called Free Market system within a resource constrained world.

          1. But the emission of a few parts per 10,000 of CO2 is an externality that the warmists have manifestly failed to show has any catastrophic effect, despite being given billion$$ to show just that.

            As for the global economic crisis being caused by a “free-market”- please explain how Clintonian laws forcing banks to give home loans to hobos is a “free market”.

            1. Sorry Steve, you have been manifestly asleep then at your computer, stuck in a self made world of mirrors and no law forced banks to invent the COD mayhem. No, all this was the work of bonus hungry Wallstreet bankers thinking that they could get away with the biggest theft in history. They were right, they got away with it, got bailed out and now their gain and unmeasurable wealth stands against the socialized cost of all this: Trillions in public debt. Great Free Market!

            2. Oh as you are stuck in this “a few parts per million” nonsense:
              The CO2 in the atmosphere, if we brought it all down to Earth level would have been a 2m layer (approximately) before the industrial revolution and a 3m layer today. We added another meter of a gas that is extremely effective as an IR absorber.

              Now have a look at a typical pair of mirrored sunglasses. The mirror layer is just a few atoms thick, yet how much is this affecting the interaction of light with these glasses?

              As a lab chemist (I think you said you worked as one) I thought you would have a better comprehension of these matters.

            3. 40% more CO2 Steve, 40%. And fundamental physics says its causing warming; it’s only people wearing blinkers (ignoring the manifest evidence) who claim it isn’t.

              So, go on Steve, make my day. Demonstrate, with reference to the scientific literature, why we should not take action to reduce emissions.

              I’ll wait, shall I?

            4. As usual, you resort to the strawman of implying that I deny that CO2 causes any warming. I never have.
              Even if you assume that all of the last century’s warming is due to this extra 40% of CO2 (and not even the IPCC does), that’s less than 1 dec C. So how do we get to catastrophic warming even if we burn every scrap of FF that can be extracted at positive EROI?

              And Thomas, as for your:
              -Oh as you are stuck in this “a few parts per million” nonsense:

              When what I said was:
              -the emission of a few parts per 10,000 of CO2

              Making up quotations and adding arbitrary orders of magnitude is very poor netiquette, even for warmists.

            5. At least self-proclaimed ‘statistical whiz kid’ Grant had the decency to run away and never return when it became blatantly obvious that these ‘but it’s just tiny volumes’ arguments were asinine. As I’ve said before; tell it to the police officer who pulls you over at the breathalyzer and\or tell it to the Ozone layer. Or are you a denier on that one, too?

            6. Steve you are the one who made a horrendous error of judgment crossing magnitudes. You said we added a few parts per 10.000 of CO2. Fact: We added about 40% of CO2.

              CO2 is measured in parts per million in the Atmosphere and what you and other deniers suggest (and you implicitly did just that) is that this is so little that will not matter much. This is complete nonsense indeed. CO2 is a very potent IR absorber and adding 40% more to the atmosphere has already given us close to 1Deg warming today, we are committed to probably another 1Deg already unless we cut to very low emissions immediately and once the large thermal mass of the oceans catches up and if we carry on rising the CO2 levels much further we will with a reasonable likelihood to reach 4Deg warming (global average) perhaps as early as this century.




              What more do you need?

              And remember the 2Deg or 4Deg figures are averages, taking the thermally slow oceans into account. This means that many places on land will see catastrophic climate changes, temperature changes up to two digit territory and massive changes in humidity and rainfall disrupting growing cycles in a world already stretched for food.

              Say no more….

            7. The amount of CO2 we have added to the atm IS slightly over one part per 10,000 of the atmosphere (~100 ppm). Its potency is highly logrithmic, with half the warming you could possibly get is in the 1st 20 ppm. At 390 ppm we are on the very flat part of the diminishing return curve.

              “…once the large thermal mass of the oceans catches up…”
              It won’t. There is simply no way that 1.3 billion cubic km of water with its high specific heat capacity of 4.2 J/ cm3/ dec C will have any measurable response to even a few degrees of atmospheric warming, except over thousands of years.

              “many places on land will see catastrophic climate changes, temperature changes up to two digit territory”

              But you’re not prepared to say where or by when, just retrospectively cherry-pick them when they have a heatwave and imply its due to AGHG.

              ” and massive changes in humidity and rainfall disrupting growing cycles…”
              Ohhh , good lad. You’ve got the memo. Its CLIMATE DISRUPTION now.

            8. Steve embraces Libertarian Physicsâ„¢ . It’s a Fox News / Epistemic Closure sort of thing. The Nobel awaits, but he ‘ll have to hold off until Fox starts issuing their own… can’t be too far away now…

            9. Hi Thomas,

              This is a 9♥ “Muddy the Waters

              A variation on the 8 of Clubs (Red Herring) is “Muddying the Waters.” This is where the denialist brings forth any information, whether specious or not, to confuse the issues.

  3. Nature Bats Last: Perspective on Sustainable Land Development

    “…Having taken an early environmentally defensive position on land development issues in the past, I now find myself in the position of defending our industry in the face of recent publicly reported criticism and dire predictions which have outlined a very bleak future for humanity as a consequence of the collective eco-sins of present and preceding generations. While the consequences of bad environmental practices are now evident and obvious to any rational observer, I now offer an opinion contrary to the current hysteria-media-driven fear of a coming ‘Dark Age’ for civilization…”

    1. So it has come to this… my above hopeful contribution to this thread has been “Hidden due to low comment rating.” The official explanation reads, “If you’re tired of moderating readers’ comments on your blog, stop doing that and let your readers decide which comment deserves to be shown.”

      Sounds like a good blog policy, however, the mob has now effectively closed their door of understanding on those who actually have the capacity to develop a future sustainable civilization –

      The past is repeating itself…

        1. Thanks for the encouragement Neven, however, the fact remains that this is another sure sign that it remains easier for our species to continue to throw bricks at each other rather than to roll up our sleeves and collectively get to work…

  4. Thanks for an interesting read. I had never heard of Alan Atkisson before. It’s amazing to see how many people on the internet and beyond are grasping the simple fact that infinite growth is not possible in a finite system (and for such a long time, considering the fact that it was all laid out in Limits to Growth almost 40 years ago), but somehow is farther away from mainstream thinking than ever before.

    I have just written an article on this subject called Infinite Growth and the Crisis Cocktail, and Michael Tobis from In It For the Gold has been so gracious as to accept it as a guest blog. In the article I first give an overview of all the limits human civilisation is increasingly bumping into, ecological limits outside of society, and socio-economical limits within it. After that I try to explain how all these global problems are actually symptoms of a root cause: the economic concept of infinite growth (which is impossible), and how it has formed a synergy with our culture.

    Now I very strongly believe none of these problems can be solved comprehensively unless the root cause is tackled as well, in other words: only when the economic concept of infinite growth, the belief that growth can and should be infinite, is replaced by something more in sync with biophysical laws, can humankind truly start to transition towards a more sustainable, healthy and equitable society.

    Many people in the AGW corner post-Cancunhagen are currently frustrated and asking themselves if there is a tactic that doesn’t fail or backfire to get people to proactively change their lifestyle. To be frank, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Psychological, conditioned resistance is just to big to get people to wake up. This is of course a sad and confronting thought, but has certain advantages as well.

    I believe there will be no big enough shift in awareness until we get different kinds of Pearl Harbours (global economic recessions, massive heatwaves, melting Arctic ice, diabetes epidemic) happening in people’s backyards. I believe the best way to prepare for when that moment happens, is by shifting focus from just one particular global problem and extend it to other global problems, their synergistic interrelations and how all these symptoms stem from this concept of infinite growth, which to the masses (and I mean you and me) has become as natural and vital as oxygen and water, in the sense that we don’t even think about it anymore.

    If this fact keeps getting pounded and the global problems become even more obvious then they already are, you have a good chance that people make the right association when the Pearl Harbours hit. “Yeah, of course growth can’t be infinite. That’s nuts.” And not blame the bankers, the government, the muslims, the republicans, but the system itself that causes all the behaviour.

    It’s strange how all these global problems seem to be competing with each other for attention (with AGW being the big winner, and solutions revolving around CO2 mitigation, but not really tackling the elephant in the room) and you see the Lomborg stepping in and making lists of which problems are more important than others, which is actually nothing less that a divide & conquer tactic. So, in a way all global problems need to team up, because as a synergistic group they are even harder to deny than they are one by one. Retreat, regroup, punch holes.

    This is where I’m currently at in my thinking process: Always end your message with the conclusion that the economic concept of infinite growth is at the root of most, if not all global problems, and that only when this concept is replaced by something more rational, can there be a true transition towards a more sustainable, healthy and equitable society.

    If this resonates and you’d like to know more about what comes after this first step, check out the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, or CASSE, and their blog. If you like what they do, you can become a member. I think this organisation is very much on the ball when it comes to real solutions.

    1. Neven, you employ the analogy of Retreat. This phase of battle is often the most risky, as a disorganized Retreat quickly turns into a Rout. In the context of economic contraction, we risk rapid collapse. But it is a false equivalence to say our options are either Expand or Contract. It is more fair to say our real options are Contract or Collapse.

      The longer Society listens to the siren song of the Climate Cranks, the greater the likelihood of collapse.

      To the good folk of the Shire, please don’t waste your time in endless sparring with the local Trolls. They will never change their opinions. Their victory is to create the false appearance of a legitimate debate. It is not. Don’t feed them.

      Instead, Gareth has provided the little red button to let the Trolls just fade away… Why not use your time, energy, and intelligence to propose and discuss real ways that everyday people can prepare and adapt while preserving our core values. I look forward to your thoughts!

      1. Lodger, thanks for your comment.

        Yes, I did mention Retreat, but perhaps I should point out that there actually has been a Retreat already that has led to this disorganized Rout we are currently experiencing (with skeptics dominating the debate and nothing much happening top-down as well as bottom-up).

        You see, in the 70’s people were very much on the ball. That’s when the first Limits to Growth report came out, and everything I’m saying in my guest blog on In It For the Gold is already in there. I’m not saying anything new in that respect. Almost 4 decades ago it already was pointed out that the economic concept of infinite growth would eventually lead to destruction and misery.

        The Retreat is that this message has become fragmented, and the emphasis is laid on the symptoms by environmental organisations (that have become corporations themselves, but that’s another aspect I won’t be discussing here). They probably did this because the problems weren’t as obvious as they were back when the message of Limits to Growth was first issued, and started concentrating on individual global problems and thus lost the big view.

        So now I’m advocating a Regroupment of all global problems by tying them to the root cause: the economic concept of infinite growth. And I’m not just talking global environmental problems that are outside of society, but the even more tangible socio-economic problems within society, such as the financial meltdown, increasing health problems such as diabetes and obesity, violence emanating from the people who have been conditioned to hate themselves, etc.

        There can only be a potential solution if there is a shift in awareness. There can only be a shift in awareness if enough people make the right associations when they become convinced the problems are real. For instance, you don’t want to tie the financial meltdown to greedy bankers, because the bankers act as they do because that’s what the system demands of them (they are rewarded if they follow short-term interests to maximize profits for their shareholders). And the system demands it because the economy must grow forever.

        So everyone who is working hard to get attention for one (global) problem or another have to continue what they do, but must add to their story that their (global) problem is a symptom, a limit that is emerging to tell us that the economic concept of infinite growth needs to be replaced by something more rational. That’s the Regroupment to halt the Rout.

        The continuing emergence of the problems will do the rest. In theory. The risk is that it will be too late by then. Perhaps it already is. But I don’t think there is any other way.

  5. Instead, Gareth has provided the little red button to let the Trolls just fade away…

    The only thing that is going to fade away is this CAGW death cult.

    [Snipped: Extremely distasteful comment, JD, any more like that and you’ll be on moderation. GR]

    1. I saw your pre-snipped version, you obnoxious ignorant troll. Future generations (and plenty of the presnet one as well) will despise the memory of the likes of you for a very long time.

          1. “There are two reliable ways of telling if you have won an argument. The first is if your disputants switch from discussion of the facts to accusations about motives; the second, more obviously, is if they descend to mere abuse.” (Dominic Lawson, The. Dominion Post, pg C5, 12.8.09 )
            Proven true most days on this forum, usually by the same few ‘guests’.

  6. Cassandra and the bookshelves:

    The other day I tried to purchase another copy of “The Merchants of Doubt” in the major book sellers (Whitcoulls, Borders etc. ) in Auckland Malls. None of them knew about it or had it even in their catalog. While Ian Pilmer’s missive and other climate science misrepresentation works loom large on the shelves. I wonder if Cassandra will fair any better on our mass market book shelves…

    What good is the truth if its hidden under a heavy rock. Seems like Oreskes book shares the fate with the honest subjects she is talking about in her book.

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