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What could possibly go right? Phoebe Barnard talks with Vicki Robin, episode 87

Updated: May 15, 2023

This conversation was published as Episode 87 of What Could Possibly Go Right? Conversations with Cultural Scouts, hosted by Vicki Robin, in December 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 University of Washington. 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

Website:, and

Connect with Vicki Robin

[Transcript Intro]

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.

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.

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