In my first job out of college, at Inland Steel, I was told during my first annual review that I needed to “balance my idealism with realism”.  At the time this seemed reasonable and I spent much time and energy in convincing myself of its truth.  But I always felt uneasy and disloyal to my Self in doing so.  In the business world, if only to maintain one’s patience, perhaps this is true. It kept me stuck in most of the jobs I had through my career for much longer than I should have stayed.  I eventually came back around to my idealistic roots and realized my dreams could come true!  I wonder what could have been if only I held firm and took steps toward my dreams all along.

In hindsight, I see the best plan is to remain idealistic, to hang on to those big dreams. How else can we continue to innovate, make progress and move forward into the future in a positive way?

This past week and a half has been full of challenge and inspiration.

  • On September 10th, Jay Coggins, University of Minnesota Professor of Economics, opened this year’s Alexandria Technical and Community College Senior College with his talk “Economics and Climate Change”.  His premise was that while fossil fuels are miraculous, our use of them is rendering our planet more and more unlivable. His contention is that, based on current rates, by the year 2100, our planet will be uninhabitable by mammals. That means that in about 85 years, ONE LIFESPAN, we will no longer have a home.
  • In my inbox, Yes Magazine directed me to George Price ( who writes that, at our current pace, we are on track to reach 2°C warming in 15 years.  So, forget our grandchildren; our kids may be screwed.  Well, maybe only if your kids live in Miami, which, with the melting of polar ice caps, will be underwater.  Can you imagine?  Miami undersea within a couple decades?  I wrote a Letter to the Editor on the above two items but unfortunately, this is what was published in the Echo Press this week:   This ongoing theme in the Echo’s LTEs that CO2 is good for plants so we should all be happy for the excess CO2 in the atmosphere, gives me little hope for the full and intelligent comprehension of facts in the community in which I currently reside.  I mean, water is crucial for the body’s survival but, if you drink too much in a short period of time, it’s fatal.  It’s fruitless to argue with the laws of physics.
  • My Non-Fiction Book Club began September 13th with a dozen community members discussing “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate” by Naomi Klein. While not everyone had finished the book and a couple had only started, we had a lively conversation about the book’s ideas that our extractive economy is not sustainable and the magical thinking that there will be a technical cure for repairing the climate in the nick of time is just that, magical.  We commiserated that, because we’re not among the extremely wealthy crowd buying our current politicians, there may be little we can do to change this with government action.  But we shared enthusiasm that the efforts of Blockadia, groups of everyday citizens ~ often teens with their grandparents, are succeeding in protecting our Mother Earth from new and potentially devastating extractive activities, at least in the short-term. And the work of Indigenous People, in sustaining their long-forgotten treaties, may give some legal basis for allowing continued preservation of the land so the Earth can have some chance at regeneration.  The Book Club was so excited that we ran over time and barely touched on what we thought our next read might be.  This week, excellent news was received that the planned Enbridge pipeline up north is back to square one as there will be a required Environmental Impact Study.  The environmental effort in MN is now among some of the most successful in the world with preventing fossil fuel companies from running roughshod over the citizens of our state.

This small group of readers took me from challenge to inspiration.  And an even larger group has made an even bigger impact in bringing my idealism back to the forefront.

On September 18th, along with Mom and Deb Trumm, I attended the Minneapolis Foundation’s Futurist Conference where some of the most forward thinking people of our time, some would call them idealists, were speaking on a variety of topics. From Education to Fundraising, from Health Care to the Environment, we gathered an overwhelming amount of information.

The day began with breakfast and keynote speaker Dan Pallotta who transformed our ways of thinking about charities.  His main points were that in worrying about overhead as a percentage of the group’s expenses, we lose sight of their overall impact; in criticizing for high salaries at non-profits as immoral, we limit the kind of talent these groups can attract (not to mention the exponentially higher for-profit CEO pay getting a pass with respect to immorality); and in chastising non-profits for failures, we prohibit future innovative practices.  Rather than asking what percentage of income goes to overhead, better questions are:

  • What are your goals and how do you measure progress in meeting them?
  • Who are your collaborators?
  • How are you growing your funding to support the cause?
  • What impacts are you making?

The cost of a bake sale involves almost no overhead but the results are minuscule, maybe making $71.  But with 40% “overhead”, a bigger pie of $710K can be raised to support your cause. Without proper marketing and talent, our favorite cause doesn’t get very far on making a difference.

Check out these ideas at

We then moved to the auditorium for a lively talk from Dr. Michio Kaku, Theoretical Physicist, Author and Professor who gave us a glimpse into the future after reviewing in brief our previous tech waves:

  • The Steam Engine gave us the start of the Industrial Revolution… and led to the Crash of 1850 which instigated Marxism.
  • The Electric and Atomic Age continued our advance… but led to the Crash of 1929 and resulting Depression and WWII.
  • Technology and Computers gave us amazing breakthroughs… but also contributed to the Crash of 2008 which has left many in economic crisis.

So what’s the next wave? The Nanotech and Biotech Age.  A world of Artificial Intelligence. A place where you-think-it-you-bought-it and where wallpaper can be changed like a desktop background and will include a mirror where you can access Robo-Docs that will revolutionize medical care and reduce costs.  We will move from Mass Production to Mass Customization where you can input  your measurements and receive clothes that fit perfectly.

9-18-15 Dr Michio Kaku

My disappointment grew as I noticed no factoring in of the fact that all this technology requires a planet from which we can operate and there was no talk of finding an alternate planet to populate. During the Q&A with Kerri Miller from MPR, Dr. Kaku was asked about Climate Change and he says this is for his next book… he has no deploy-able answers at present.  But he did reference fusion technology, which will reportedly be available from France by 2020.  He also discussed at length the inability of Americans to educate our people for post-graduate work.  The majority of our grad students today are foreigners, coming in via the Genius Visa (H1B); not one American born post-grad exists in his organization at the City College of New York.

I guess as a theoretical physicist, there may be no surprises for him in the recent developments of the world (because these guys think of all forms of outrageous possibility), but the practical application of physics may be outside the daily sphere.  He didn’t mention the next “Crash” but perhaps it will be our planet coming to its limit on how much carbon it can realistically absorb before it stops functioning to viably support human life.

A last minute change brought a new keynote speaker for lunch, Dan Beutnerr, who thrilled us with the optimism of Blue Zones:  His organization’s approach:

The Blue Zones Project is a systems approach in which citizens, schools, employers, restaurants, grocery stores and community leaders collaborate on policies and programs that move the community towards better health and well-being.

While they are working now throughout the US, they started with Albert Lea, MN.  By offering a menu of options, each community can focus on areas with high buy-in and work toward goals specific to their geography, infrastructure and people.  Basic principles for the original Blue Zones Dan discovered included:

  • Plant-based diets with minimized meat (maybe 5X per month, often with ritual/ceremonial aspects).
  • Eating to 80% capacity.  In other words, not over-eating.
  • Staying active, incorporating lots of natural movement each day.
  • Prioritizing family and friends.
  • Having a community of faith and one that respects and celebrates elders.
  • Drinking some red wine every day.  And some water too!

The specifics vary but the results make sense.  In the US, his group works with communities to increase incorporation of bike/pedestrian paths, healthy food availability/access and  while at the same time reducing smoking and the billboards for fast food.  The results are increased life expectancy along with reductions in obesity, smoking, absenteeism and health care claims.

The Breakouts came after lunch and I attended The Future of the Environment with Shalini Gupta, Patrick Hamilton, Winona LaDuke & Michael Noble.  The focus was on how the impacts of our energy systems often inequitably affect people based on race and class.

9-18-15 Winona LaDuke

Shalini opened with a review that explained with her fossil fuel usage graph from 1776 to 2011: the pre-Emancipation Proclamation era was largely flat due to the widespread use of the labor of black slaves; the implementation of power plants at the turn of the century occurred primarily in neighborhoods of color and poverty; the practices of mining for uranium in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana quietly grew when, in 1972, President Nixon signed a secret executive order declaring this four state region a “National Sacrifice Area”; and the petro-chemical industry devastated the town of Mossville, Louisiana, founded 225 years ago by ex-slaves and now referred to by some  as the poster child of environmental racism and injustice.

The panel then introduced themselves and fielded questions from the audience.

  • Bill Gates refused to support fossil fuel elimination stating that renewables were not ready.  What are your thoughts? Costs are down 80%, and infrastructure goes up 8-10% every year, deployment is way up with wind being the most economical.  With increased efficiency we reduce need and renewables will be adequate.
  • We have the possibility to mine for copper/nickel and more in Minnesota.  How can we develop this sustainably?  The materials remaining require huge removals of materials and destruction to the earth, let’s STOP DIGGING.  It’s too expensive.  How about we mine the landfills for copper?  It’s easier to find and ready for use.
  • Is 100% Renewable possible?  As we increase efficiency, we will get to a level of fossil fuel usage that is respectful.  Our food systems are full of fossil fuels so there is much to reduce in this arena.  The transition may still involve some fossil fuels but a focus on renewables is the only way to prevent catastrophe.

Overall, the message seems to be that we CAN get to better practices but it will take all of us making changes like eating more locally, using less electricity/gas and moving toward sustainable energy practices.

The final speaker was Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal and the reason I attended the conference.  He spoke with heart about the experiences of his mother and his friend’s father.  Both received some of the most unnecessary and irrelevant testing after having an experience with fainting.  His mother, in relative good health, luckily found out she didn’t need a scraping of her carotid artery or stints around her heart.  In fact, her whole issue was a new diuretic which caused dehydration so the solution, after travel across the state and all these expensive tests, was to advise her to drink more fluids.  His friend’s dad, in not as good health, ended up getting medical treatment that was not advisable… and his last 6 months of life were greatly debilitated.

9-18-15 Dr Atul Gawande

Atul spoke about how teams of doctors are better than individual doctors, especially when paid for outcomes, not treatments.  His previous book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, was implemented in 8 hospitals around the world and found a reduction in complications by 35% and a reduction in deaths by 47%.  Simple checklists improved medical care better than any pill or procedure.  We need to re-think our ideas around medical care.

His more recent book, Being Mortal, tells that we need to start having discussions about what people wish for their lives as they age and when they face terminal illness.  Perhaps chemo to the very end isn’t the best treatment if one would rather have time with family while feeling good, not debilitated by the treatment.  Perhaps surgery isn’t the best plan, if the risks outweigh the rewards in accordance with the patient’s goals. Sometimes treatment IS the best plan.  But in our current system, it seems to be the default plan.  Understanding what is important to our elders goes a long way in making the right decisions for their care.  And sometimes longevity isn’t the most important goal.

Would we rather live 2 months with pain management or 6 months with symptoms that prevent us from enjoying any time at all with family and friends?  How much change/treatment/pain are we willing to endure? And for what kinds of outcomes?  If we can enjoy football and eat ice cream, is that enough?  Or do we want to maintain an ability to travel?  These are the kinds of things we need to discuss to make the best decisions with our loved ones.  Rather than “medicalizing mortality” we need to use communication to share what kind of life we want to live, and for how long.

The conference, while challenging, was also full of hope.  The diversity in the room of 1700 people was astounding.  All ages, races, genders, sexual identities.  There are many groups taking action to improve health care, education, equality, justice, arts, civic engagement and other aspects of life that are critical to success and happiness.  And there are lots of people focused on ideas that are making a difference.  Now I need to focus on what I do to join them and make my own impact moving forward.