Climate and Consciousness

Posted by: Sara on Monday, March 15, 2010.

Last fall I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Beth Sawin of give her most recent presentation of the Climate Change simulator she’s co-created with partners Drew Jones and Tom Fiddamin. I’ve known Beth for many years and have deep respect for her professional brilliance and personal integrity. Beth is a student of the late Donella Meadows, and like her mentor she is loath to get on a plane so as not to increase her contribution to Carbon footprint, even if the trip is for noble purpose like a Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen. She is the original “Walk the Talk” practitioner of Global healing working as mother, organic farmer and community member at Cobb Hill in Vermont while creating breakthrough systems simulations in the field of Climate Change. I knew that Beth and partners had been working on a Climate Change simulation for years, that they’d recently received much accolade for the current versions of the work, including an article in the Washington Post, consultating to members of the Obama administration, and perhaps most importantly the use of the tool to provide real time analysis for the country level negotiators at the upcoming Climate Change summit of the UN in Copenhagen in December. Having seen earlier versions of the simulator, I was excited to learn more.


Beth gave her presentation to an audience of Dana Meadows Sustainability Fellows, a group of activists from around the Globe working at the fore-front of ecological, social and economic sustainability. The Fellows had been through a 2-year training in Systems Thinking and Sustainability and were back for an alumni retreat to build their network with and learn more from each other. I was there as a guest presenter and friend of the network.

Beth began by showing us the current version of the simulator, “C-ROADS” which you can find a description of at As she writes in the introduction to the work on this site, “C-ROADS is a decision-maker-oriented simulation that helps users understand the long term climate impacts of scenarios to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It allows for the rapid summation of national greenhouse gas reduction pledges in order to show the long-term impact on the climate.” It is and will be used by negotiators in Copenhagen to give them immediate feedback on what their proposed positions will mean in terms of impact on the climate. For example, if the US agrees to decrease emissions by 20% by the year 2050, what will that mean in terms of degrees centigrade increase in temperature and parts per million (ppm) of Carbon in the atmosphere. You can see a picture and find a description of what this looks like in the following Washington Post article:

To illustrate the power of the tool, Beth had us role-play 7 of the major countries involved in the negotiations. These were the US, China, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Europe and “the other Developing Nations.” Each team made a proposal as to “X” percent reduction in Carbon emissions over “Y” years. Beth input this data and ran the simulation. We were able to witness in full color, the curves over time between now and 2050 showing degrees centigrade and ppm Carbon results.

I was “wowed” by the power of the tool and by Beth’s intention for it. As she explained to us, when she asks country level negotiators what data they are basing their positions on climate change on they reply, “We don’t, we’re just trying to get our guy elected.” The C-ROADS simulator would give negotiators real data to back up their positions. And perhaps more importantly, it could give advocates, policy makers, journalists and potentially, anyone with a computer, the power of data to put pressure on our governments to do the right thing.

According to a quote last weekend from Carol Browner, Obama’s #1 Climate advisor, it looks like the Climate Bill will NOT pass the senate this year. This is a big shame, given that other countries are rightfully waiting for us, the US, the biggest contributor to Carbon emissions on the planet (along with China) to take a stand. How much more powerful would pro-climate bill advocates be if we had the power of something like C-ROADS in our hands and minds to make our leaders accountable to us and future generations?

I thanked Dr. Beth Sawin for her phenomenal, groundbreaking work and for the integrity with which she conducts it. Here’s a woman to trust and I’m grateful that she is using her gifts so effectively, as she names it, on “Behalf of future generations." Yet as much as anything witnessing and participating in her climate simulation, I was struck by the sheer enormity, even impossibility of the situation. Even if all the players were to make herculean cuts in emissions that are much more radical than they’re now proposing, we’re looking at a 3, 4 or 6 degree centigrade rise in Global temperature by the year 2050. (By coincidence, that’s the year my twins will be 48, the age I am now. What legacy are we leaving them?) Scientists concur that if we can contain the rise in temperature to 2 degrees, we may be safe. Anything above that may be devastating for life as we know it. No one fully knows the impact, but we can presume that could mean millions or billions of people dying off from sea levels rising to flood coastal cities, massive drought to devastate food supply, wild fluctuations in weather patterns making the Tsunami of 2006 and Hurricane Katrina appear, species loss from habitat destruction, increase in violent conflict over increasingly scarce resources and on and on. We get the picture. It’s not pretty.

At the end of Beth’s presentation I hear myself saying, “It’s going to take a miracle.” Our mentor Dana Meadows and her co-authors warned us of this inevitability 39 years ago in their ground-breaking book Limits to Growth and again in its 1999 sequel, Beyond the Limits. But they were vilified by industry and ostracized as Cassandras. So we didn’t heed their call to stop our addiction to petroleum and start powering ourselves with the sun and its derivatives. And now we’re running out of time to shift trajectories that are speeding up and moving exponentially in the wrong direction. It’s going to take a miracle. Despite (or perhaps because of) her stellar credentials as a scientist Dana comes to pretty much to the same conclusion in the last Chapter, Chapter 8 of Beyond the Limits. It’s going to take a shift in consciousness in all of us to save our species and create a world that our children can thrive in. That’s why I asked if you can spell Einstein. He said, “A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive. (Albert Einstein, 1954)

The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty. . .
( Albert Einstein - The Merging of Spirit and Science)

All of the brilliant and visionary new energy technologies, all of the progressive policy, all of the new funding going to innovations in sustainability are absolutely essential to our survival. Yet they are not enough. We humans; all of us, you and me, Americans and Chinese, Brazilians and Indians, peoples spanning the Globe are going to have to wake up to the truth that we live or die together. That all life is a gift and all life is Sacred.

I’m looking out my window as I write this on an archetypal New England autumn day. The foliage is at its peak; blood reds, dark oranges, vibrant yellows. Rains have just cleared and winds are whipping through the canopy. With a touch of imagination, it is as if the trees are swaying with the breeze, dancing with each other, maple and birch and pine and oak and hemlock, each separate each completely connected. As I breathe out C02 from the respiration that keeps me cooking, they breathe in that C02 through photosynthesis, kindly sequestering from the atmosphere through their magic alchemistry with the sun, and turns what would be a global warming gas into the structures of wood and branches and leaves and fruits. Think about it. It is a miracle. As my friend Terri Nash says, only our brother plants can sit outside and soak lunch. We have to “buy” ours from them.

So my premise for this writing is that we environmental activists, soccer mothers, citizen shoppers, elected politicians, friends and neighbors and everyone have to treat that life as Sacred. The Earth is Sacred. All people are Sacred. And this moment is Sacred. We have to fall in love with Nature again, find our connection to land and sky, water and sun and literally re-member that our lives depend on these things. Get grateful. And then change. Everything. How we think, what we eat, where we travel, what we buy, how we engage with our neighbors, what our definition of success is, how much stuff is enough stuff, who we vote for, what we vote for, how we spend our time and how we give our love. What’s at risk? Life itself.

In Shadow Work, a practice of healing and transformation the individual going through the process is asked to look at the pattern of her life. And if by her own definition it’s broken – for example she’s addicted to abusive men – her facilitator will gently guide her to take a hard look at how she’s created this pattern and how it’s lead to the dysfunction she experiences day to day. Then the facilitator asks, “How’s it working for you so far?” The answer, usually accompanied by a smile of recognition is, “Not very well.” The next question is, “Are you willing to take the risk to change it?” What’s at risk if she does and what’s at risk if she doesn’t?

To the inevitable cynics who’ll read this argument and scoff at getting in touch with the Sacred as a strategy for change, I ask, “How’s it working for us so far?” In other words, is not finding reverence for life getting us the results we want on the planet? Or is it possible that our lack of reverence for the gifts of the earth and each other are a root cause of the epidemics of hunger, disease, conflict, abuse, and atmosphere that is literally heating up? What’s at risk if we don’t change? We get more of the same. What’s at risk if we do change? Perhaps miracles could happen.

After a few decades of working for ecological sustainability armed with my MBA and training as an international corporate consultant, followed by honorable work convening multiple stakeholders from business, government and NGOs to look at global issues together, I’m convinced that we have to do something as radical as fall in love with Nature and each other and practice a sacred reverence for life.

Mind you this is not the same as religion. It is not about coercion or power over others or making somebody follow my prescription of what is holy. It does embrace an infinite diversity of spiritual and soul practices. But it says choose to practice, shift your orientation, walk your talk.

This blog, from here forward is going to feature 8 themes, the “8S path to sustainability for healing our selves and our world.” I’m all for the practical so in addition to conceptual frameworks and inspiring stories for each of the Ss we’ll explore practices to go with it that you can do. So you embody the change. And make choices for life as a result. Stay tuned for what the “Ss” are. . . .

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