EAS Micro-Pod: Beth Sawin

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February 19th, 2020
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This five minute episode features Beth Sawin, a biologist and systems-thinker who crafts the best Twitter threads. Beth is a co-director of Climate Interactive, a think tank that models climate simulations to help people see a more interconnected picture of our ecosocial relationships. This interview was cut from Beth’s contribution to an upcoming Eco-Anxious Stories podcast looking at eco-anxiety through the lens of the enneagram where she discusses the pressure that many of us feel to “fix” the climate crisis. Have a listen (and see if you can guess Beth’s enneagram type)!

The weight on your shoulders

I can look back at that younger self and and see the the illusion a little bit, like if I make a tremendous impact on this massively important problem of global climate change, then I'll be good enough. I felt that weight on my shoulders, and it took me a while to understand - “No actually you have a very humble piece of this to do and rejoice in the millions of other people alive right now who are doing a piece.”

None of us [will be] the individual hero that solves climate change. It's got a part for everybody and the way those parts fit together is through the interactions of complex systems.

So that interplay of the whole and the part, and how essential it is that we each do our part - but also how much we can count on all the other parts of the complex system. That's the whole human race plus the ecology of the planet, all interacting.

The flip side of a diminished world

The level of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased every year that I've been working on it, you know in the absolute wrong opposite direction of the change that I'm trying to to see happen. That burden of, you know, “You're the person who's supposed to make the world perfect,” and in climate change we're not. In climate change, winning is still a diminished world at the end of the day because we're so far into it already, you know. That can crush me.

there's uncertainty, of course, in all of this, but every tenth of a degree of temperature rise that's prevented is some species that will survive

On the other hand, the other thing that's true is just the flip side of that, which is, as a result of what I do there is the potential for the world to be better than it otherwise would be. You don't exactly know what that is - there's uncertainty, of course, in all of this, but every tenth of a degree of temperature rise that's prevented is some species that will survive and some children that won't suffer in the way that they would have otherwise. I think staying away from the black and whites of succeed or fail - climate change doesn't allow us to do that anymore.

Showing up for each other

It's interesting to me that today I feel more optimistic and more relaxed, even though obviously our climate situation is more dire. And a big part of that is just the enormous numbers of people and different ideas and different approaches, and the ways that multiple sectors are now coming together to weave solutions.

It's that sort of humble and realistic attitude of service, like "I'm going to show up for this day after day after day for years, with my all, doing the best I possibly can." Not because I'm going to create perfection, and thereby prove that I'm a valuable person - that has brought me a lot of suffering, that attitude. But when I tap into, “I've been given such an opportunity, you know, honestly to be alive at this time to make my living working on this important problem to try to be of service with what's needed”, in a funny way, that more humble approach actually makes me more effective. I can sustain it,  and I don't I don't burn out when I see it in that way. I'm doing my part.

Living collaboratively into the future we want

I think about, to the best of my ability, trying to live in a way that we would be living once climate change has been addressed or solved, or something like that. That practice of carving out a way of living that feels internally consistent with what I think is needed for human life to continue on earth - there's a big satisfaction and in seeking that consistency.

And it took me a while to understand: 'No, actually you have a very humble piece of this to do'

To prove you're enough by virtue of making the world around you perfect, that's an insatiable thing, right? But there were times I felt that weight on my shoulders. And it took me a while to understand: “No, actually you have a very humble piece of this to do and do that piece as well as you possibly can and rejoice in them millions of other people alive right now who are doing a piece.”

We each are placed within these patterns that we can influence, and change, and steer, and at the end of the day, that's our most important contribution. There, where we touch into these patterns, we can influence them and we can try to move toward a healthier pattern. Which usually is a more collaborative pattern - either collaborative with the earth or collaborative with other people - and away from these other patterns that we're struggling with that are I would say are patterns of domination. Between people, or in how we treat the earth, do what you can where you are, trusting that other parts of the fractal are being influenced by other people - who I might never know or never meet.


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    In Closing

    This blog contains the transcript of an edited-down conversation I had with Beth about eco-anxiety and the enneagram, a personality model with nine types. The enneagram is based on core emotions and motivations, and it’s a useful tool for looking at the different ways people experience eco-anxiety. Beth is known for her ability to synthesize complex ideas, and throughout our chat, she offered so many nuggets of wisdom. I hope you enjoyed this five minute snapshot of our conversation. If you’re a Patreon subscriber, watch for previews of our Eco-Anxious Ennea-Nerds podcast!