tiramisu and social change

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If you are an economist, you are not going to like this post, but you will find it interesting anyways.

In the last two weeks I did a couple of things that are completely irrational, from an economic perspective. They both make sense against my values though, and against my agenda to build a small community around me here in Karlskrona, Sweden, where I live now. The first was to pay a fine that no one asked me to pay for. The second was to give a gift to two ladies I don’t remember the name of.

Fine, then. I was in the public library downtown to give back two books that I had borrowed and kept with me for too long. When I tried to renew my booking, to keep them for a few more weeks, the lady at the library prints a receipt with my status and gives me the books with it. The receipt says that I have to pay a fine for having kept them for too long. The equivalent of less than five dollars, no big deal. But the lady doesn’t notice the fine and gives me the books anyway. I make her notice that I have to pay the fine, and give her the money. I could have easily not paid, but I really wanted to. The lending system at that library is already quite generous: you can keep up to three books for quite a long time, and the fine if you give them back is negligible. As a person who has grown up in a culture in Italy where people tend to bend (or dodge) the rules any time they can (sorry for the generalization, my fellow citizens!) I am always amazed by the level of mutual trust in Swedish society and how trusting people are. I also acknowledge that such system relies on a balance. If a considerable amount of people would start taking advantage of how trusting people are, the trust could get lost easily within the system. Vice-versa, every time an action is intentional in strengthening that trust, the system gets more solid and robust.

Tiramisu for social change.
There is an adorable café here in town where wonderful and caring ladies work to make the atmosphere lovely, calm and welcoming. Their kindness is the real trademark of the café for me and many other guests who come. One day I sat on a small table by myself at ground floor when a group of customers came in, and one of them was on a wheelchair. It took me a minute to realize that they were looking at my table since it was the most apt to sit on because of the space the wheelchair needs. As I noticed they were looking, I stood up and told me I was very glad to give my table to them, and I went upstairs. The lady at the café thanks me very kindly. A minute later, without saying anything, she comes at my table and brings me a cookie with a big smile. I found it such an act of care and out of pure kindness, it really made my day. Out of that sentiment of gratitude towards them, I have been thinking for a while of building some bridges with them in a more intentional way. So I thought about making a cake for them. Since the best one I can make is the tiramisu, I made them a tiramisu for them this morning and brought to them this afternoon. I explained that it is a simple act of gratitude for them and their kindness, and if they like it enough I would be happy to teach them how I make it and they might add it to their dessert menu. They seemed very happy for the gift and are going to try it this afternoon when they close.

I hope this is the start of a connection about hosting dinners and building bridges with the community in Karlskrona and with them especially. Before going to them to give the cake, I wrote on my journal “I am not bringing you a tiramisu, I am bringing you a social experiment!”

Coincidence, probably: last night I started reading “Getting to Maybe”, a book about how society is changed, and so far I find it quite interesting so far. A simple concept put clearly in the first chapter of the book is about complexity of social systems and the value of intentionality in the game of social change. Social systems are per definition complex, and when we are operating for change in them there is no guarantee to success. Still,
“If you intend to do something you make a deliberate commitment to act to bring about change”.
When you do so, you are always dealing with the emerging factors that are beyond your control. (Which to me makes even a stronger case for being intentional about the changes you intend to make,  BTW!)

The game of social change is on.


my comment on Peter Senge’s post on his blog on SoL

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This is my comment on Peter Senge’s blog post. He wrote a letter to mr. Obama suggesting a new and cooperative approach with the world for the most fundamental decision, starting with cooperation with China. Here is my comment. Further below, Senge’s original post.

Dear Peter,
Thank you for your beautiful article.
I have some reflections, for which I ask your pardon for some errors since I am not a native speaker.
Obama knew that the world was waiting for a change. The Bush era has been in some ways a perfect example of what international politics should NOT do and should NOT be. Arrogant, distant from citizens, influenced by lobbies, oblivious of the environment and the human rights. A change was desperately needed.
It is also true that almost EVERYBODY would have been hailed as a great President: everybody can do better than the previous president. But that era also generated a counterpart that didn’t want to spur out of fear and frustration – but out of hope. Is some ways Obama knew that a new era was trying to emerge from dust. He has been audacious enough to think that he could embody not only the America’s secret hopes for a new leadership, but also the change that world was waiting for.
I know that who reads these lines, as a leader, doesn’t like the expression “waiting for a new era”, because it is not about luck, it’s about our actions and commitment. True. What Obama represents to the world is also an era of participation and new, shared accountability. Several times mr Obama has been pointing out “I need your help”, “I need your cooperation”, and the like. He has also launched amazing projects to gather ideas for change throughout America. For thinkers and doers like you and SoL members, this should be considered a great approach. You have often said that a key capacity of a leader is to “hold the space”, ie not only decide FOR others, but create and host the space for deciding along with others.
It seems to me that for some key issues like tackling global warming the ability to “hold the space” and co-create solutions will end up being crucial. At the end we shall re-define our way of life and our lifestyle if we want to be serious about climate change and the environmental challenges that the whole world is to face now. The old generation of leaders has been giving us good answers to not-so-relevant questions. The new generation of leaders has to start lying on the table the most important questions, and help us come up together with the answers. This will also spur a new and re-energized sense of citizenship, that our western societies desperately need. I think is the only way forward.
Best Regards,
marco valente


A Letter to Mr. Obama from China
January 12, 2009

On the eve of your inauguration, the world, not just the US is attending to this historic day, perhaps unlike any before in history.

The expectations awaiting you are daunting.

Just last week I received a letter from Andre Beukes, recently retired Commissioner of the South African Police Service. Having lived through another historic transition, he saw powerful parallels between your inauguration and Mr. Mandela coming to office 14 years ago – except that now, “When President Obama moves into the Oval office, he will have to address the incredible task of giving hope to the whole world.”

In a world of unprecedented interdependence, we may continue the conceit that we elect a president of a country. But, in fact, for the U.S. or China or India or Russia, the impacts of our leadership choices reach far beyond our borders. I am sure I do not have to remind you of The Economist magazine’s global internet poll that showed that, although you captured 53% of the US popular vote, you captured over 80 % of their global vote. At no time in history has one country’s presidential election held such meaning for so many.

This seems to me to have one clear implication.

You do not need take on the burden of fixing America’s problems in isolation. Indeed the U.S.’ problems are the world’s problems. The U.S. did not weave the global financial web that shapes investment, and speculation, alone. It did not shape the rules that govern international trade, and massive misallocation of resources toward the wealthy, alone. It did not mold the norms of global consumerism alone. In each of these, U.S. institutions and culture have played a major hand, but hardly left the only handprint. We are not destroying the world’s tropical forests by ourselves, nor species and ecosystems, nor operating unilaterally to steadily worsen the gap between rich and poor. These are the side effects of global industrial expansion driven by systems of investment and commerce that transcend national borders and policies, and these systems will only change through levels of cooperative effort that will be unprecedented.

If ever there was a time for such cooperation it is at hand, not because it is a lofty ideal but an inescapable necessity.

Case in point: climate change, perhaps the archetypal global challenge, also offers a unique opportunity to do just this. Though there are obviously more pressing issues, there are no more important ones. Climate change and the host of related ‘sustainability challenges’ will shape the context for viable economic policies. In countries around the world, people’s views are shifting to no longer passively accept environmental destruction as the inevitable by-product of economic progress. Instead, people are seeing social and environmental damage as the consequences of the wrong products, powered by the wrong energy system, guided by the wrong economic policies. With the Copenhagen climate negotiations looming in December 2009, this year will likely be seen by our children as a turning point in cooperation and collaborative innovation, or a tragically missed opportunity to foster both.

Start with China. I have the good fortune of spending some part of every year in China, and I firmly believe that now is the time for working together on key global challenges like accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels.

Last year, China passed the US as the number one emitter of carbon dioxide. But China’s (gross) manufacturing export flow is over thirty percent of its GDP, almost half of which go to the U.S. So, a large share of China’s greenhouse gas emissions are really contributions to greenhouse gases driven by U.S. businesses and consumer demand. That the emissions are generated outside our boundaries hardly absolves us of responsibility in the matter. Who should be accountable for reducing these emissions when it comes time to commit to global emissions reductions targets in December? Is it the producers alone or the producers and their customers together? (Obviously, a similar argument applies to many other countries who purchase products produced in China, or who purchase services produced India)

So it is disingenuous at the least to point the finger at China and not recognize the three other fingers pointing back at ourselves.

If we approach climate change as a problem created by us all, very different approaches could be devised that would drive collaborative innovation – such as an agreed upon system of carbon labeling that would inform all regarding the embedded carbon in all products. Combined with effective mechanisms for pricing carbon emissions (such as in emerging cap and trade schemes), this could create consistent economic signals linking carbon producers and customers in reducing emissions.

Similarly, both our countries face powerful entrenched political interests aligned behind keeping fossil fuel energy prices artificially low. But businesses and customers alike are awakening to the foolhardiness of these policies. Just as the price of cigarettes hardly reflect their true cost, no one today can think that the low Chinese or US prices of gasoline at the pump or electricity at the socket reflect true cost – neither the costs of US troops in the Middle East nor those, current or prospective, of climate change, which the UK’s Stern report predicted could be comparable to the costs of WWII in the coming decades. Committing to higher fossil energy prices would take immense political courage, but it would create the consistent signals needed to drive innovation in alternatives. (This could be done, for example, by setting a floor under effective prices and taxing the difference if global market prices for fossil fuel energy fall below that floor, using revenues so generated to support investment in energy efficiency, alternative energy, and assisting the poor in adjusting to higher costs.)

And it is the pace and scale of this innovation that will tell the tale – and it is hard to imagine two countries better positioned to co-create this innovation. Together, the markets of these two countries combined for both energy efficiency and alternative energy dwarf the rest of the world. Rising environmentalism is one of the most powerful political forces in China. Rising green entrepreneurialism is one of the most powerful economic forces in the US. (“Cleantech” investment in green energy is already among the largest venture capital flows in the US – some say the largest). No country is better positioned than China to ramp up manufacture of alternative energy, and come down the corresponding cost curves – because of the enormous scale of future energy demand and its equally enormous need for distributed energy production that can slow the tide of mass urbanization (and Westernization) in favor of more balanced and distributed economic development. Just as the U.S. will need to create millions of Greentech jobs to reduce the carbon footprint of our urban and suburban population, almost three quarters of China’s population is still rural and will never be efficiently well served by centralized coal fired power plants.

In a nutshell, there is immense potential for partnerships between our two countries to accelerate the inevitable transition to a regenerative economy. This is what the Chinese call the “circular economy,” one modeled on the principles of the larger living world, versus the linear “take-make-waste” industrial-age paradigm.

It is understandable at times like this for a new President to call upon Americans to step forward and contribute to solving the problems we face. But, I also believe it is a time to reach out to other nations and say that now is the time when we must all step forward to solve the problems that we have all created.

The world has gotten used to an arrogant America. Rather than a sign of weakness, asking for help and partnership might just be the signal of hope that the world is looking for.