“What Are Governments For If Not To Preserve Human Life?”

Scientist and social entrepreneur Phoebe Tickell is part of a new wave of climate activists applying a natural systems perspective to social change work.

On her most recent birthday, Phoebe Tickell asked a friend and mentor what he would have wanted to know about the world when he was turning 27. 

“I wish I’d understood then that life is cyclical,” he replied. “When you’re young you think you’re on this linear path but as you get older you realise that everything repeats itself like the seasons, and then it’s your job to make sure the younger generations learn from past mistakes.” 

This advice won’t have been lost on the scientist, facilitator and serial entrepreneur who has already spent a large portion of her adult life thinking about how to learn from life’s oldest teacher, the natural world. Since graduating in Natural Sciences five years ago, Phoebe has applied her understanding of biological networks and systems to co-found several start-ups across the education, food, sustainability and technology sectors, looking for new ways to transform these heavily regulated and institutionalised fields into something more sustainable for people and planet. 

“What I’ve realised is that the angle I’m always bringing to everything is about complex systems,” she says, sitting on a sofa at Newspeak house in East London, a residential college for ‘political technologists’, where she is currently a visiting fellow. “How do we build education models that allow for the complexity of the individual? How do we build food systems that allow for the complexity of life? The way I see it is our current systems aren’t doing this, and this can be directly linked to many of the societal problems we’re experiencing now, from climate change to the mental health crisis.” 

Phoebe is part of a new wave of emergent thinkers who are applying a systems perspective to social change work — including environmental activism. ‘System Change, Not Climate Change’ has become a rallying cry for both the Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future movements. At the core of Systems Theory is an understanding of how the structures that shape our world, like politics or the economy, are not ‘natural’, but are actually based on a set of norms and beliefs that get ingrained by being reproduced again and again. ‘System change’ is only possible when enough people begin to examine these assumptions and question the status quo. In the case of climate change, activists calling for system change believe that rather than simply focusing on incremental or individual efforts we need to drastically reform the economic and political machines that are fuelling the problem. 
“If we know that we need to eat less meat in order to protect the planet then we can’t just put the onus on the individual to change their behaviour.”
“If we know that we need to eat less meat in order to protect the planet then we can’t just put the onus on the individual to change their behaviour,” Phoebe says. “What are governments for if not to preserve human life?”

Phoebe first began thinking about systems as an undergraduate at Cambridge University. “It was fascinating to me to to be able to compare a plant nervous system to a human nervous system and tease out the patterns between them,” she says. Through identifying these patterns between different life forms she began to understand that every living being - plant or animal - was comprised of interrelated parts working together for the whole. Outside of the lab, the high levels of stress and unhealthy competition amongst her peers left her “feeling like an alien” as she questioned why it was almost normal for bright and driven young people to leave university on antidepressants. “Everyone around me was just resigned to it,” she says. “I just thought if this is supposed to be one of the best institutions of education in the world - I think it should be better.” 

After graduation she began working at Imperial College London, researching into algae as a potential biofuel for the future, whilst at the same time applying her passion for transformative education into co-founding a training academy to run courses for young people. Having previously focused on science, she began to see how lessons from nature could be applied to human organisations too.  Things like invisible power structures and lack of transparency created what in biological sciences is known as ‘blocked feedback loops,’ where organisations - and the people in them - were obstructed from co-operating effectively, thereby affecting the functioning of the entire system. This was especially relevant to the social change field, where despite years of activism and charity work many of the same problems still persist. A self-proclaimed ‘utopian at heart’, Phoebe believed that humans are not naturally apathetic, the problem was that if larger systems exist to inhibit change from happening then apathy against this more powerful force was often the consequence.

Around 2016 Phoebe became aware of the work of Joanna Macy, a now 90 years old environmental activist and Buddhist scholar who has spent the last five decades devising a methodology for ‘despair empowerment work’ that applies the concepts and insights of Systems Theory and aligns them with the lessons of Buddhism. Having discovered Buddhism whilst travelling around Thailand in her early 20s, Phoebe was drawn to Joanna’s method as it brought a spiritual dimension to climate activism by encouraging people to see emotions like grief and sadness as a consequence of being part of a wider web of life. With the encouragement of her best friend, climate activist Morgan Curtis, she applied for a training course in Joanna’s method called ‘Work that Reconnects’ thinking that, as a British scientist, she would be an odd choice for the competitive US-based programme that sounded to all intents and purposes like “a hippy thing.” When she discovered that she had been accepted on the course she handed in her notice to Imperial College and flew out to California the day after her 24th birthday.
Experiencing grief due to the destruction of our planet is not something which should be medicated or ‘talked away,’ but a consequence of being part of a system where something is deeply wrong.
This past summer, while back home Londoners sweltered in 38 degree heat, Phoebe was in Estonia running a workshop for a group of 25 climate activists. At the core of the Work that Reconnects method is the belief that by suppressing ‘negative’ emotions like grief, fear and guilt we are blocking our own innate ‘feedback loops’ and inhibiting our capacity to do good in the world around us, specifically when it comes to protecting our planet. As awareness around climate change grows, so does the phenomena of ‘eco-grief’ which is linked to mental health illnesses like depression and anxiety. In Joanna’s many years of work she has argued that experiencing grief due to the destruction of our planet is not something which should be medicated or ‘talked away,’ but a consequence of being part of a system where something is deeply wrong. “Like the impulses of pain in any ailing organism, they serve a positive purpose,” Joanna writes in an article for Ecopsychology magazine. “These impulses of pain are warning signals.” 

Key to it all of this is the conviction that although unpleasant emotions are typically seen as something to be resolved or repressed, allowing space for them can be transformative. After her workshop in Estonia, Phoebe talked about a “deep sense of shared solidarity” between the participants. “People talked about seeing the world with ‘new eyes’ and having a grounded sense of meaning and rightful sadness for what is dying or ending,” she says.

When it comes to a cyclical understanding of life Phoebe recognises the parallels between this more holistic approach to climate activism and the much maligned ‘flower power’ era of the 1960s and 70s. “A lot of people think we’re entering this new era of ‘love is the answer’ but we already went through this and it didn’t work,” she says. “Given the current state of decline and rapid destruction of ecosystems, shifting individual consciousness alone will not be enough.” Instead, she says, the individual must be empowered by a systems perspective. “We need to unblock our feedback loops and allow action to come from really feeling, seeing and acknowledging what is happening in our world, only then will we have the strength, courage and awareness to face what’s really happening.”

Words by Tarn Rodgers Johns
Tarn is the Lead Editor of Emerge. Raised in the UK and based in Berlin, she is driven by curiosity and an incessant but largely unsatisfied desire to get to the bottom of everything. She is interested in psychology, human creativity and the changing world around us.
Photos by Harry Mitchell
Harry Mitchell is a London-based photographer whose work has been featured in GQ, Telegraph Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, 11Freunde and The Financial Times.