Pip Wheaton: What’s the relationship between Covid-19 solutions and climate solutions?
Dr. Elizabeth Sawin: There’s not enough time to tackle both Covid-19 and climate separately. Right now, my colleagues and I are Climate Interactive are creating a database of ‘bright spots’ around the world: places that are investing their Covid-19 economic recovery funds in ways that increase equity and decarbonize the economy all at the same time. Places that are doing what we call ‘multi-solving’. Europe is doing the best at including decarbonisation. The estimates are about 30 percent of Europe’s Covid-19 recovery will also help towards climate goals. For the rest of the world it is much less than that, and even in Europe, the attention to aligning that investment to help those who have been most left out of economic opportunity is left to chance. They’re not opposed, but our findings are that if you don’t design for equity, it won’t happen. It’s not too late. But this window is closing as those funds become actual investments.
Wheaton: Do you see other opportunities where more than one problem can be addressed with a single solution?
Sawin: In 2018, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave us a grant to look at multi-solving for climate and health. They wanted us to look at bright spots around the world and then they wanted us to tell them how they could replicate those in the US. We found amazing examples. But what we found was, the point is not to replicate these projects, because each one of them is very site specific. They depend on the needs and the culture and what’s on the ground and what the past history has been. What you should replicate are the attitudes and approaches of the practitioners. That’s the unit that spreads. When we look across multisolving projects we see attention to relationships and a respect for diversity, we see a focus on optimizing for many goals rather than maximizing for one, and often see an approach that is iterative, where small experiments build upon themselves.
Wheaton: How do we build those attitudes and approaches?
Sawin: There are moments of opportunity to take actions that will shift systems. In the context of a city that might be a moment to make policy, or a moment to change how a budget is deployed. After many years of this work, what we see is that when those moments come, they’re short, and they’re fleeting. If people aren’t organized in a cross-sectoral way ahead of time, almost always those moments pass by before they can be seized. We’ve been working now for six years on building what we call multi-solving networks. We started this project before Trump won the election in the US, it will continue afterwards. You couldn’t have predicted the things that this project has had to respond to. But the no regrets investment is in building relationships.
Wheaton: What are the big changes you’re seeing?
Sawin: Look at our modern, industrial growth, capitalistic paradigm – our economic system. It is supposed to be improving our lives, and yet we see epidemics of disease caused by environmental degradation, climate change, a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Each of those is a data point, an anomaly, that we tend to reject, rather than rejecting the assumptions of capitalism and growth and domination that got us there. But as anomalies accumulate, some people’s confidence in the paradigm starts to fall. And when a person’s confidence in the paradigm falls, he or she is able to see even more anomalies, and then the confidence falls even more. That’s a feedback loop. So anytime you ask someone, “If we’re living in the best possible way, why is it that you’re so frazzled and exhausted all the time and haven’t been able to afford to put a down payment on a home at age 30?” or whatever it might be. Those are little moments that jiggle the confidence in a paradigm. And it starts to snowball if enough people start to have doubts about it.
Millennials, for instance, will say right out that they don’t have confidence in capitalism.
I think of us in our capitalistic societies, there’s so much visibility of Black Friday shopping and over-consuming, but how strong actually, is that confidence? And that’s the potential. When everyone’s lost confidence, but they think they’re the only one. Actions that create the space for people to realize they’re not the only one are critical right now.
Wheaton: How do these types of shifts happen?
Sawin: I’ve been thinking about paradigm shifts for my whole career. Over the last few years I’ve had an intuitive feeling of resonance across the different important movements that are happening right now. We have Water is Life, we have Black Lives Matter, we have #MeToo. Before I could put words to what I’m about to say — I had a feeling that there is something that’s the same about all of these, even though they’re in very different domains.
One paradigm I’m interested in is the ‘dominator’ paradigm, identified by Riane Eisler and others. In that paradigm, the way you are safe, the way that you meet your needs is by being stronger, by winning. And you see the world as organized in a pyramid that has white men at the top and then white women, etc. In contrast to that we have the partnership paradigm: the world is a web of interconnection. So if you now go back to Water is Life or #MeToo, or Keep it in the Ground, each of those is a battle of framing, and one is on the dominator side and one is on the partnership side. Part of what we are doing with these multi-solving networks, when we bring people together in these networks, as well as trying to shift how budgets are spent and how policy is made, we’re also creating these little bubbles of partnership culture as opposed to domination culture. We think that changes something about people.
Wheaton: How does this translate to the everyday?
Sawin: Thirty times a day in your marriage, in your parenting, in your food choices, in your staff meeting, in your work with partners, and then in that incredible high stakes meeting that comes up every now and then you have choice between these two patterns. Each one of those is an opportunity for your response to come out of one pattern or the other. Because systems are interconnected, that simple alignment with one pattern or the other sends out ripples of change far beyond the immediate moment.
Dr. Elizabeth Sawin is Co-Founder and Co-Director of Climate Interactive. Beth is an expert on solutions that address climate change while also improving health, well-being, equity, and economic vitality, and she is the originator of the term ‘multisolving’ to describe such win-win-win solutions. A biologist with a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Beth trained in system dynamics and sustainability with Donella Meadows and worked at Sustainability Institute, the research institute founded by Meadows, for 13 years.
Pip Wheaton leads the search for new Ashoka Fellows in Europe, looking for exceptional systems changing social entrepreneurs, and is co-lead of the Next Now/Planet & Climate team. Australian by birth, she has worked in social innovation and social finance in both Africa and Europe. Prior to joining Ashoka, Pip founded the South African youth-leadership organization, enke: Make Your Mark, for which she became an Ashoka Fellow in 2014.
Next Now: Ashoka is mobilizing the strength of its community on climate action. Next Now/Planet & Climate connects unlikely allies around shared visions of the future that bring people and planet to a new equilibrium. This Ashoka series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders guiding the field. Read Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 Part 8, Part 9, Part 10 and Part 11 of our series.