Act: Inspiration

What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 87 Phoebe Barnard

October 11, 2022




Phoebe Barnard is an environmental and societal futures analyst, sustainability strategist, global change ecologist, biodiversity conservation biologist, climate risk and resilience specialist, policy wonk, and film co-producer. She is the chief executive officer at the Stable Planet Alliance and an affiliate professor at UW Bothell and UW Seattle. Phoebe works at the intersection of science, society, sustainability, policy, planning, and media storytelling.

She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:

  • “Soldiering on through times of profound ecological angst” to make our positive contributions
  • The importance of surrounding ourselves with “wonderful people… that are like-minded in their determination to make that positive future, that kinder, wiser, more humble, more sustainable civilization ahead happen.”
  • That “these times call upon us to be the best kind of person that we can be” and “to  bring out our most profound humanity”.

Connect with Phoebe Barnard




Phoebe Barnard: What I found is necessary to help us all make progress is to have a sense of profound opportunity and radical transformation, and also just to surround ourselves with wonderful people that help fill our sails, that help collaborate, that are like-minded in their determination to make that positive future.

Vicki Robin: Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? A project of the Post Carbon Institute in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good and social artists, people who care deeply and create on behalf of humanity.

My guest today is the wonderful Phoebe Barnard. Phoebe’s vision is of a wiser, kinder, diverse civilization and a still diverse planet supporting it, a global change and biodiversity scientist with 34 years working on the African national development. She’s also a team builder, conflict resolver, women’s leadership, mentor and policy strategist.

She founded and led science based national policy and strategy programs: Biodiversity. Climate Change and Environmental Futures in Namibia and South Africa since 1994 and is now working as the Stable Planet Alliances CEO, full professor at the University of Washington’s Center for Environmental Politics and School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and is an associate researcher at the Fitzpatrick Institute, an African climate and development initiative of the University of Cape Town. And now here’s Phoebe.

Okay, welcome Phoebe Barnard to What Could Possibly Go Right? You know, I’m starting our conversation a bit differently from my usual on ramp, and it’s with two images and then one question.

So, The first image, perhaps you could call me a social naturalist, observing people in their habitat of other people and intuiting who they are by how they behave. And since meeting you a few years ago, I’ve been drawn to the song you sing in the morning chorus of activists, thinkers, and leaders. In this time of unraveling, you have sort of a lilting positivity in the treetops calling people.

To look up to flutter up off the ground of despondency to join in. It’s not the kind of shallow positivity that ignores the dire warnings from scientists. In fact, one of your hats is representing the scientists warning to humanity into action. So, and then now, so the second image, and it’s that I am in a large foreign city and somber people are scurrying in and out of the metro and along the streets.

And, I feel lost and I’m looking for someone I might tag along with who both knows the score and seems to know her way. And to me, you’ve been that spotlighted person in the somber busy head down crowd of sustainability. All this to say that I am curious what you see from your treetop or from your eyes raised above the fray, not simply your six key actions for climate remediation, or three novel technologies that can pull our chestnuts out of the climate fire, but what light you are seeing on the horizon that keeps you joyfully engaged.

So with that introduction, here is the question of the hour. In the midst of all that seems to be going awry, Phoebe, what could possibly go right?

Phoebe Barnard: Vicki, I absolutely love just the fundamental question that you pose to all of us that you’ve interviewed and your incredible, vibrant approach and determination to look for that in, in everybody and in everything and in our future.

Thank you for saying those kinds of things. It is a weird tightrope that we all walk in these times of dizzying change this crossroads for civilization. And I, I do feel just lucky through chance to have the kind of DNA that I inherited from my parents, especially my mother, who was a kind of 1950s housewife, but determined to find the happy medium and the commonalities in everybody.

My father, of course, was much quieter and more cerebral, but my mum, bless her heart. didn’t have a great deal to worry about in life, and so she somehow gave me that DNA that enabled me to work on biodiversity loss and climate change in Africa at times of wars and famine and poverty and illiteracy and rape and climate migration and everything else, and still manage to keep on track.

And so a lot of that treetop, I don’t know, lilting this or whatever you said is, just my jackpot of DNA for which I’m profoundly grateful. I inherited my stumpy legs from my mom too, but you know, I used to remember her for her cheerfulness and, and yet she was also a woman who would cry at sad news on the news in the sixties, and I remember that.

So I can be profoundly emotional about the challenges that we face but, taking that personality, this uncomfortable but interesting and, and kind of happy blend of personality into a life as a career, as a, a biodiversity scientist, a climate change scientist, a policy strategist working on national development in Africa and globally.

It enabled me to soldier through times of profound ecological angst, times of profound social distress, and know that at some level my contribution was at least significant in some small place and for some small duration of time, and that I could make an impact of some degree just by keeping focused on the good.

And I still feel that way.

Vicki Robin: I almost feel like you gave me, us, a prescription for sanity in an insane world. You know, because it’s not just your mom, but you said that you’re blessed with good work, that you actually believe that in some small way can make an impact if only a small way and only for a period of time.

I mean, I wonder if, if that which has a certain level of faith in it, rather than the level of certainty like, here’s my hammer, there’s the nail. I’m gonna pound it and it’s all gonna be, it’s all gonna hang together. It’s this feeling of being engaged in work that you recognize is good work that maybe has some small influence for some small period of time.

I mean, I don’t know how to formulate this question. Is it that the, the work itself absent, you know, a driving anxiety for success, is the work itself a salve for your soul?

Phoebe Barnard: Without a doubt. I mean, I’m not so much focused on success, although of course we all have to have goals in what we do. I was profoundly lucky to almost fall into some incredible pots of career privilege.

And by that I mean it in its most humble estimation I was incredibly privileged to be able to work in these two countries. At the crossroad, at their own social and political crossroads, Namibia at the dawn of its independence from colonial rule by South Africa and England and Germany before that, and South Africa at the dawn of its democratic transition, away from a apartheid.

And both of those opportunities were incredibly lovely and I was very conscious of myself as an outsider originally, although three years turned into 34 that ultimately I came from outside and was able to dive in and be embraced by both of those countries to be able to play a role, you know, however small, in their short and medium term evolution in Namibia.

I was able to set up and run that country’s first national programs on biodiversity and climate change, for example. And, you know, not many young outside women get those chances. And I realized how wonderful it was, partly because I was able also to do a lot of mentorship and teaching and so on along the way.

I had academic jobs that could feed into my government policy and planning and strategic national development work, but also just because you realize that so few countries are as mindful as those two countries could be at those times in asking themselves, Where do we wanna go now as a society? And how are we gonna get there from here?

And the more I have moved back to the States and you know, find myself as with all of us observing the kind of horror of lurching social change in, in the US and it almost feels like deja vu with post apartheid South Africa in many ways, the more I realize what a privilege it was to be surrounded by people in a blank slate moment.

Where do we wanna go from here? How do we design that society? Where do we wanna be in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years? How often do most older countries do that? That, that gave me enormous wind in my sails and also just working with wonderful people. And so as we go forward into the future, I think that’s what I found is necessary to help us all make progress is to have a sense of profound opportunity and radical transformation, and also just to surround ourselves with wonderful people that help fill our sail, that help collaborate, that are like-minded in their determination to make that positive future, that kinder, wiser, more humble, more sustainable civilization ahead happen.

Vicki Robin: Yeah, I feel like I have had similar opportunities. It wasn’t Namibia or South Africa, but you know, I’m a boomer and I fledged into a time when it, you know, some of us caught the wind of we can change the world and I really, I drank the Kool-Aid on that one. I really, I really thought that we could, we could swing the mindset, you know, sort of, we could swing it pretty far, that, that things had loosened up and so, It’s been, it’s taken a lot to accept that  now we’re in a different time.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

Young people who are activists are fledging into a different time where it feels like the opportunity, you know, the, the openings are less and the burden is greater. But so I think that’s another key for me that I’m taking away, is that I’ve had the privilege, you know, and to really consider it a privilege to have operated in, in times when it really did look like, you know, major change was afoot and that  individuals could participate and really make a difference. That’s a very heady and exciting experience. So, so now here we are. I’m a little larger than you, but we’re women of a certain age, you know, having many years behind us and we’re looking ahead.

So, I think that you work a lot at the level of policy of trying to intervene in the United Nations systems, the SDGs, you know, like you’re working at the global policy level, in that. Where are you pressing on the systems with the anticipation that the system is gonna like yield something?

Phoebe Barnard: Yeah, so I, I think the last few years have really shown us quite a lot of interesting stuff about the relevant scales to intervene on certain things. And I’ve always been someone who’s by nature been interested in ping ponging between local and global issues. You know that I’m involved in Transition Movement just as you have been about community cohesion and resilience to shocks and I always get engaged wherever I live in terms of setting up community structures and nonprofits and initiatives and projects. And sometimes that takes off really well because the community is just there and the protons and electrons just combined nicely, and sometimes it just falls flat. But I’ve always had an interest in that and as a scientist, I always had a certain level of real interest in the fine grained mechanisms that make change happen, whether it was evolution and behavior, because I started my life as an ornithologist working on  birds or, or whether it had to, had to do with societal change.

I’ve always been interested in looking at the fine grain, but I always had a bigger picture perspective and determination to, to drive change. And so for years I worked at the global level on, you know, negotiating the Convention on Biological Diversity, being on the board of the Millennium Ecosystem assessment, the Global Invasive Species Program, things like that.

And yet there are a whole bunch of levels in between. I worked very much at the national level in Namibia and South Africa and at the bioregional level also during that time and, and even since I’ve come back to the US. But there are also levels of governance and community between the very local and the very global.

And so part of the reason that we wrote that paper last year for Cop 26 World Scientists, Warnings Into Action, Local to Global was trying to give some a) momentum and b), guidance about what could be done at different levels to really tip the balance of action into a more coherent process of change.

And of course, that was one paper out of a number, but very few scientists papers, and ours was authored by scientists, economists, and governance people, but very few of those kinds of papers are really getting stuck into the kind of action that they wanna see happen and where are the pivot points. And ours was really just a start on that, but that for me reflected my interest in different scales.

And that’s also something I guess that we picked up in the Millennium Ecosystem assessment, which was this multi-scaler assessment of the status and trends of ecosystems around the world and their capacity to support human health, human economies, human wellbeing.

Vicki Robin: I worked in the nineties during the Clinton administration, when they, Oh God, I can’t even remember what they called it, but you know, he had an initiative around sustainable development, and I worked on the Population and Consumption Task Force.

Phoebe Barnard: Yes. I wish I’d known you then.

Vicki Robin: I was more of, I was a little more severe, but I think even with Neva Goodwin, who I think she was part of that, you know, and I think she works with you as well. Anyway, I mean, worked, worked, worked, you know, down to like the, you know, like the present tense or past tense, where’s the comma, where’s the period? You know, like these negotiations, UN documents in the nineties, there was so many, there’s the Population Conference, you know there’s the population conference, Tim Wirth. We influenced that. My little team tried to do that, so I was in that system where it felt like you could, you could produce a document and it would make a difference. And I don’t wanna be cynical, but I just do recognize that we pour our hearts and souls and education and everything into those documents and they don’t seem to do anything.

Phoebe Barnard: It’s true. They don’t, and that’s part of the long process of getting me to sort of detach myself from science and public policy and get more into the filmmaking and activism.

And that’s a long walk, and particularly in government science, because I’ve worked in governance for most of my career with one leg in academia, particularly for government scientists, that is a huge no-no. You’re meant to be policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive. That’s the favorite phrase of my dear friend, Sir Bob Watson, who chaired all of these relevant panels, the IPCC and the Intergovernmental Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems, etcetera, et cetera.

And so we were really supposed to sit in that good little box of scientists, but fundamentally we know how ineffective that’s been and whatever we write, it doesn’t stir people where our primate brains need to be stirred and where our hearts and our guts need to be stirred. Now, I’ve always had a real love for the power of film.

I think many of us picked that up as a kid, but I think the stars started to align when I left a long marriage to a scientist and met my new husband, a filmmaker. And so that has allowed me to, I guess, detach from the things that I felt weren’t working so much. Still doing a little bit of that because it is helpful to have some credentials or at least some vague value as a scientist to be able to inform choices ahead.

There is definitely a place for science in the future. It’s just that we have been shouting louder you know, in bigger font, and it hasn’t really had the impact on people because we haven’t been getting to the fundamental root causes, human behavior, human numbers, and human appetites.

And so now I’ve worked on humans. And it’s exasperating. Of course, humans are complex, messy, incredibly contrary creatures, but this is where we have to focus our energies in the future. Many of us know that. It just took me a long time to jump ship.

Vicki Robin: I think we’ve all been, you know, swimming in our lanes thinking we were getting somewhere.

We were just doing laps in a pool that way. So, there’s this, like a sense now and it’s a little bit exciting and also dangerous. I mean, there’s a sense of like, where now, how we had our comfortable theories of change mm-hmm. and we applied ourselves to that.

But in the meantime, it seems that the game board is a little bit different. And I appreciate what you’re saying, that it’s time for the artists. It’s time for the magicians. It’s time for the soul workers. It’s time to bring a lot more intelligences to bear on this somehow.

I wonder if, since I’m sort of embedded, I’m stuck in this like in the United States, for better or worse, I’m formed in this mentality of being an American. Do you sense that these same forces, human behavior, human appetites and beliefs, I am not sure what the third one was. Do you feel like these are pretty universal, that they’re operating in China, and India and Africa and or are we sort of uniquely affected by our cowboy mentality?

Phoebe Barnard: Tribalism is everywhere, and entitlement is not everywhere, but it grows quickly.

And that’s the degree to which the USA at the moment seems to me to be out on one edge of a continuum. But we’ve never been what’s that word exceptional, American exceptionalism. Sadly, the US lost decades in its own self-satisfaction and complacency that it could not learn from other regions or countries.

And therefore we’ve really slipped behind quite a few decades in many areas, and in fact, in my humble opinion, Africa and many indigenous societies around the world have a great deal to teach to the US. However, I do think that humanity is full of universals and that offers us all kinds of hope, and it  also creates an incredibly steep hill.

So, you know, the very premise of your podcast, What can possibly go right?, is for me the kind of thing that you answer after you take a deep kind of stomach breath, what could possibly go right? We have an incredible challenge, the scale of the challenge and the number of dimensions of the really radical transformative change that’s needed over the next decade or two, is truly daunting.

We all know that it’s political, it’s economic, it’s social and cultural and religious. It’s behavioral, psychological, and even it’s it, it’s even technological. And for each of those things, you know, we can think of a million things that the elements of that are daunting. In our economy for example, you can’t just pull the global economy over to the pit stop and transform it without a lot of people losing their jobs and dying and not being fed.

So how do we tinker with it while the car is driving? This is John, my husband’s, constant refrain, Phoebe, you’ve got, you’ve gotta think of ways to, you know, make this radical transformation happen without the system collapsing into disarray, which will cause a great deal of misery and of course, these days, we’re all understanding the magnitude of the challenge, that trying to find stability for our climate and stability for our planet also definitely is about civilizational stability as well, and when one of those things, the golden thread gets pulled out the tapestry becomes destabilized. Not to mix my metaphors, but we have to think in these societal and civilizational terms, our global economy has profound vested interests. The 1%, even the 10%, and you know, the 50% given the middle class, which is burgeoning now, there are huge vested interests.

There’s a lot at stake. People do not go willingly into a future that might leave them in a scary place that they don’t yet understand. So how do we help people understand that, you know sometimes being risk-embracing is the only way to survive, and that a change of our economy could bring amazingly beneficial things in so many ways that we’ve been lacking.

You know, look at our society and our economy and, and what it’s doing to our stress levels. Road rage, opioid addiction, all these kind of social ills that we know about. So on, on the, you know, what could possibly go wrong side, there’s no shortage of things to list, but what could possibly go right? I think it’s a matter of messaging and visioning and I guess visualizing for people about the alternatives that can come from a post growth mentality. So each of these levels of change, economic, political, social, cultural, social, cultural, religious spiritual, psychological, and technological and more, each of those things has daunting challenges, but also immense opportunities.

So it’s those things that I see from the treetops, as you said, where, well, I’m singing my little song and really trying to help people kind of gird their loins and make peace with profound change and just try to be nimble and fleet footed as we go through a period of turbulence. Keeping people focused on the importance of community collaboration, universality, and I guess for many people, faith of some kind.

Because those things will see people through if we create that expectation. But look at what happens when people go to a movie. You know, most of the movies here are post-apocalyptic films or there planet saving films or there, you know, warrior films. Even Hollywood films tend to be relentless with this dystopian future, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

The world doesn’t have to end this way. You know, you always hear me saying, we can change it and we’ve gotta believe that we are changing it. Because history operates in these pendulum swings, and so we have to be mindful that we don’t end up as we’re seeing in the US right now, I think swinging wildly back towards the 1950s because some people felt alienated by power and autonomy and money perhaps being taken away from them. We’ve gotta be mindful about those pendulum swings. But the power of future can be messaged in a very much better way than we have been doing it. So a lot of people feeling extremely disconsulate about a dark future. It’s partly because they’ve been alienated by the thought that they can actually change that.

I’ve never been saddled by lack of confidence. Luckily, I’m convinced that we can change it and, you know, I’m not a Pollyanna. I know how daunting the situation is.

Vicki Robin: Yeah. Interesting. Listening to you and we should probably should start turning a corner to finishing this.

So, we’re fed dystopian stories and basically a lot of the data is dystopian. The IPCC, its reality is getting pretty dystopian when you come right down to a dystopian in relation to the world that we are accustomed to, I think part of what we’re starting to realize is that the planet has never been stable.

You know, the planet is always, it’s a dynamic system and that we’re part of a dynamic system that we have a such a little slice of the dynamism that we think, Oh, this is stability, this is reality.

Phoebe Barnard: We’ve had 10,000 years of that Holocene stability. Yeah. And that’s all that we’ve ever known as a civilized species.

And we don’t know how we’ll cope with anything else.

Vicki Robin: And the opposite side, I find that there are people trying to offer utopian narratives, you know, sort of like normative visions of, you know, humanity on its best behavior in partnership with our higher angels, or, you know, like, like things that, that seem like a big leap given the complexity of what we’re in.

But there’s something there, in what you’re talking about, which is utopia or something. Being in relationship with reality as it unfolds, holding the most generous and positive intent. And anticipation one can, there’s something about that.

I’ve often said that if I’m gonna have something in my tombstone, which I will not have a tombstone because I can have a green burial and I’m just gonna have a bench. But or maybe something else will happen. I’ll die at sea or something. But my tagline is it’s a relational world.

We treat the world as subject, object, world of things. We ourselves are things, but it’s that relational field, which is reality. And I think that for me, that’s my, you know, Rosetta Stone, if you will. That’s sort of the thing that I touch when I’m trying to orient toward, what am I trying to say with my life, Not necessarily even my words, but with my life.

So I’m gonna invite you to just give us your Rosetta stone, your one liner, not the thing, that touchstone, that thing you have in your pocket that you rub when you try to find your way in the thicket

Phoebe Barnard: Look, I’ve said before that I think these times call upon us to be the best kind of person that we can be.

But many people will not feel called. They’ll be reactive, they will be violent, they will be fearful. With 8 billion people on this planet, we need to expect that it will be messy. But I do believe that there are a lot of people who will pull themselves into that better place. I don’t think that we can have any kind of happy camper ideas about the society of the future without being fundamentally grounded in the idea that it will be significantly smaller human enterprise than we have now.

We can not succeed at any of the things that we’re doing to stabilize climate change, to slow and then reverse the extinction of species and the degradation of ecosystems, the rate of plastics, pollution, the unemployment rate, food and water insecurity, any of those things. We will not succeed with any of those until we can draw down and stabilize and then decrease our numbers and our appetites.

And anyone who feels that we can get by without that is living in cloud cuckoo land. We all know that. But they don’t know it. That’s the problem. They don’t know it. And so I, my little Rosetta touchstone is that the people who are clinging on to the ways of our present civilization, will come round in most cases, as reality becomes increasingly clear.

We know this about human behavior. Very few people scan the horizon, see what’s coming up ahead, and adapt ahead of time. Most people just think, Oh shit, this is really they weren’t joking, right. So I think most people will come around. The people that are scanning the horizon are either a bunch of us or they are the 10th of 1% building bunkers or flying off to Mars.

Well, good luck to them for that. I think a significant number of the rest of us adapt. But it is very much the arena of injustice and privilege and geography and aridity that determines all of these things. So as we prepare for hundreds of millions of climate migrants, we have to be very intentional about how will we respond to that.

So when Ron DeSantis just tries to score political points by flying off a bunch of innocents to Martha’s Vineyard, and the community there responds bravely and beautifully to welcoming people despite no advance warning. Nonetheless, we’re all gonna be called to bring out our most profound humanity.

And that’s our choice. Reactive, proactive, human, subhuman. Thank you.

Vicki Robin: Phoebe, thanks so much for taking us sort of behind the scenes and how you think about things. It’s not just the what you’ve thought about and that you’d like us to think about, but you know, how you think about it and how you stay in your own humanity.

Phoebe Barnard: I love hearing others talk about this because we all learn from each other in those rounds. So I’ve learned so much from you on that line, Vicki.

Vicki Robin: Yeah, we do. We learn from one another. This is my secret agenda for my podcast, is I get to hang out with people who can help me, be as solid as I can.



Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in... Read more.

Tags: building resilient communities, social change