Ice against smoke

“Sustainability, to a certain extent, is to have ice in your stomach because you need to believe in the long-term effects of what you’re doing and not starting to doubt them too early.» This was the answer that Anders Tegnell (a man who, from the anonymity of ‘a low-profile bureaucrat’, ascended to one of Sweden’s most recognizable public figures) has given in an interview for the Financial Times. The question was whether he considered that Sweden had “ice in its stomach” whereas other nations had acted emotionally while managing the Covid19 crises.

Photo by AP/Noah Berger

The long-term vision and the determination based on scientific facts are expected from trustworthy institutions and the people who lead them. It is precisely what is needed to fight climate change. The ice in the stomach that Tegnell is talking about is badly needed in approaching the systemic nature of our increasing environmental footprint. These are systemic problems where aspects of behavior are complex and unpredictable and where causes are always multiple, as another famous Swede, Elinor Ostrom (2008), described it. These problems are non-linear in nature, cross-scale in time and in space, and have an evolutionary character. Therefore, “Moving beyond panaceas to develop cumulative capacities to diagnose the problems and potentialities of linked SESs requires serious study of complex, multivariable, non-linear, cross-scale, and changing systems“, the Nobel laureate advises. (Ostrom, 2007)

To do so, we need stronger institutions because they “give rise to social practices, assign roles to the participants in these practices, and govern the interactions among the occupants of the various roles” (Young et al., 2008). But we also need skilled, committed, and determined leaders to keep these institutions on the right path. These people need what Jonathan Rose defines as the long-term vision that comes from the system’s understanding, because the further one sees, the greater the perspective of the systems in action one gets, as Peter Senge conveyed to Daniel Goleman (2013).

We need people with ice in their stomach to fight the smoke in the air we breed. One good example is the former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg. And here is why:

«When I came into office in 2002, we quickly identified tobacco as the leading cause of death in our city – implicated in 10,000 completely preventable deaths every single year. So we made cutting down on smoking the city’s number one public health priority. In my first job on Wall Street many years ago, I learned that: «In God We Trust.  Everyone else: bring data.» And it’s true in high finance, but it’s also true in public health. And that’s why we began with collecting baseline data, and why we’ve followed that up with ongoing surveys of our city’s population. We know from science that second-hand smoke also kills, including second-hand smoke in workplaces such as restaurants and bars. So in 2002, we passed pioneering legislation outlawing smoking in the workplace. It wasn’t easy; there was a lot of opposition.  And I can tell you, marching in some neighborhoods on St. Patrick’s Day parades after we passed that legislation, I got a lot of one-fingered waves. And I don’t think they were telling me that I was number one in their books. But today, seriously, that law has become second-nature for New Yorkers.  And I can’t tell you how many times I go into restaurants and they thank me for what I did to protect them as well as increased their business.”

These are Bloomberg’s words from a speech delivered in 2008. In many ways, the environmental decisions that need to be made today are similar to the tobacco ban he imposed. Although the danger we are facing is greater and the complexity of the global systems that interact in this decision-making is far more complex, this same expert intuition manifested by Tegnell and Bloomberg has to steer the focus of environmental governance. It is upon this kind of institutional leadership that our survivor, as a species, relies upon.

However, having “ice in the stomach” does not mean being without emotions. One thing does not exclude the other. One can’t be rational without being emotional, as Lakoff well said. Emotions always stand behind our rational choices. We need people that know what they are doing, and they need to be constantly reminded why they are doing it, while leading our institutions. We need people with strong expert intuition, and good character traits focused on pursuing the greater common good.

Answering the following Dalai Lama’s[1] questions is an excellent test to guide their decisions:

  • Is it just good just for me, or is it also good for the others?
  • Is it good for many or few?
  • Is it good for the now or the future?


Financial Times (2020) Anders Tegnell and the Swedish Covid experiment.

The Official Website of the City of New York. (2008) Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg Delivers Keynote Address At World Science Summit.

Ostrom, E. (2007) A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. PNAS September 25, 2007 vol. 104 no. 39. 15181–15187

Young O.R. King L.A. Schroeder H. (2008) Institutions and Environmental change: Principal Findings, Applications, and Research Frontiers. Summary for policymakers. MIT Press

Goleman, D. (2013) Focus. The Hidden Driver of Excellence. HarperCollins

[1] Taken from Goleman, D. (2013) Focus. The Hidden Driver of Excellence. HarperCollins

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