UvA Alumni Portraits: 'Metabolic' with Roos Bernson
Alumni Portraits, where we interview UvA alumni who are pursuing sustainable careers in order to inspire you to do the same!
Roos Bernson works at Metabolic, a sustainability consulting firm in HR and operations. She completed her Bachelor’s at Amsterdam University College, and she is currently completing a Master’s in Urban Sociology at the UvA. Her interdisciplinary background helped her better understand the complex issue of climate change. She explained to us what Metabolic does, how it uses ‘systems thinking’, and ways to change people’s mindset by reminding them of the importance of nature at a very young age, yet considering the fact that some people have less privilege to do something about it. If you want to find out more, read the whole interview!
Roos Bernson - Metabolic
Let's start with a little introduction!
My name is Rose Bernson, I am 27, and I've been working with Metabolic for over two years now. I did a liberal arts and sciences programme at AUC where I focused mostly on cultural analysis and film studies. But I've always been really interested in the way in which we live on this planet. So through a friend, I ended up at Metabolic where I’ve been working in HR and operations. What I've been focusing on the past years is - how do we live on this planet? And how can we make it so that we can live here longer? And, not just those specific people that have the privilege of living in a Western society, but all of us.
Could you tell us a little bit more about Metabolic itself? What does it stand for and what is it trying to achieve?
Metabolic is a sustainability consulting firm. But it also consists of the Metabolic Institute, a knowledge generator. They're doing long term research focused on the transition, also of the global economy, towards a sustainable world. We work with many different clients like local authorities, national governments, a lot of different companies, and NGO’s. So, a lot of consulting work and research.
Metabolic focuses on Systems Thinking. Could you elaborate on what that means for you guys, and how you think that this might be a solution to the climate emergency that we're facing?
Yeah, of course. So what we really believe in with this system thinking lens, is that you cannot look at climate change, as the sum of all these smaller things. It's really more of a network, or an ecosystem. You have all these different actors, and aspects and factors that are part of this whole ecosystem that we live in.
We mostly focus on cities, because we expect to have over 75% of the human population living in cities soon. Of course, cities are major hubs, where you have a lot of consumption, transportation, you need to have food coming in for all the people and waste coming out - so how do you manage that? And how do you make sure that we really minimise the resources needed and required for those processes?. So Systems Thinking is really just seeing something like climate change as a big puzzle that has all these different pieces that work together to make a larger picture.
Can you tell us a little more about how you're connected to the University of Amsterdam, and how it's helped you shape the career that you've chosen today?
So I obtained my bachelor's degree at University College which was a joint degree between the Vrije Universiteit and the UvA. I'm now doing a Masters degree in Urban Sociology at the UVA.
For me, interdisciplinary programmes such as the one at AUC are really important to be able to act in his world. With so many different people, different teams, and different interests, you need to understand each other's language. Rather than being a specialist, it's really important to understand where people are coming from, to consider different perspectives - especially when looking at the really complex issue of climate change.
And now I'm really focusing on cities and the sociological parts, because I find that sustainability has a lot of different sides to it. A lot of people focus on technology, which is really interesting and essential to make the transition towards a sustainable world, but a lot of people forget about the social side of sustainability: How to really implement all those technologies, how to create policies and have everyone on board in a bottom-up manner. That's why I then moved into sociology and connected my previous studies and cultural analysis with the degree I'm doing now.
Metabolic is a very technical company, so having a technical degree in for example engineering or Earth Sciences is useful here. What are some other social skills that are useful to have for Metabolic, but also in the general field of sustainability for future changemakers?
That's a good question. As I mentioned earlier, sustainability has a lot of stages, or levels at which you can act. At the bottom level, we just need a lot of people that are eager and motivated to help others transition and to make mindsets changes. As long as you're a good communicator, then I think that's already a great step forward. And there's a lot of people that actually already have that quite naturally, of course, because we're social beings - everybody loves chatting with people and connecting. But it’s also about researching, asking questions about the world around you, and being critical. And knowing why you want to join such a movement, knowing why you are against climate change. For a lot of people it seems like an easy question, but it's too easy to say, “I'm against climate change!”. Yeah, of course you are, a lot of people are, but why are you? Why is it important to you? And what can you and your own talents and skills add to it?
We wanted to know if you thought the best way forward was to raise awareness about the topic, or to find ways to involve or engage the population. And how do you think we should do that?
I think informing and raising awareness is really the first step. Because if you don't know about it, then you won’t be motivated to join any movement relating to the cause. That's also why I believe sustainability education or just nature education is so important. We have to learn how the world around us works. How valuable are these two birds that are flying around? How is everyone connected to nature in a way? Why do we tend to feel relaxed when going for a walk outside? In nature is where you feel how valuable nature can truly be.
And we then see that the way our society is structured now really impacts the nature around us, and how it’s really disappearing because of that. Once you know that it’s easier to think: Okay, so what am I then going to do? You already see a lot of individuals starting a plastic free week, or doing things like beach clean-up sessions, or kids growing their own vegetable gardens. A lot of people feel the need to maintain and safeguard the beautiful natural areas that we have around the world, and the need to also bring that into the city. It also just makes us happy human beings, because we need to be relaxed and healthy and get our oxygen.
So, raising awareness often straightaway activates people to start thinking about it, and if you then from a policy perspective, for example, start brainstorming about programmes to really engage people, to have them all in one movement and have that energy coming from that group and create something more concretely, then that's what will bring about change. Fortunately, a lot of people are already doing this.
Yeah, it is slowly picking up speed.
Exactly. But it's still a difficult struggle. It's easy to forget about the larger story - if you have a family to feed, you don't always have the time or the means to think about how to save the world. Not a lot of people have the income to actually do that, they have other priorities. So also on that level, we need to make sure that sustainable lives are something that's reachable for a lot of families, and not only the ones that are privileged enough to worry about these kinds of things.
For example, the Northeast of Amsterdam used to be a former shipyard where there was a lot of heavy industry, and a lot of laborers came in to move closer to their jobs. They didn’t have a lot of money, so they were just so used to repairing their own bikes. So you really saw this natural sustainable community coming up, because there was a need for it, a need for just a usable bike.
One thing that you mentioned stood out to me - we recognise that those who have the economic privilege to worry about sustainability, and maybe even spend a bit more on products that are a bit more sustainable, are also often those who have this mindset of overconsumption. Because they have the resources, they can just buy a new thing whenever something breaks, and those who perhaps don't have the resources already inadvertently have this mindset of reusing and circularity. I think that's a very interesting paradox that you pointed out and yeah, hopefully we can continue to change this mindset.
Yeah, I even recognize that in myself! That after a long day of work you think, “let me just get some take-out”. Or, “I'll just quickly go to the grocery store and get all these plastic packaged ready made meals because I don't feel like cooking” - and then I'll just spend all night looking at Netflix. I think a lot of people know that sentiment, but if you just do your groceries once a week and have food at home already that you can cook straight away, it gets a lot easier. But going to the farmers market, and planning ahead are things that indeed take time. And a lot of people don't don't have the energy nor the resources to do so. So from a municipality or policy perspective, if you can make this more accessible that already helps a bunch.
So you think the issue could be solved on an individual level, but also on a city level. We were wondering what you might think about the debate about overpopulation, and how today we’re at 7.7 billion people, in 80 years it’s estimated we’ll be 11 billion people on the planet. And they think that that's gonna have a huge impact and climate change. What do you think?
I always find this a really difficult question. We actually discuss this a lot about this within Metabolic, but honestly, I don’t have the answer to it. In the Western world, you already see that population growth is slowing down. There’s of course, a lot of migration - that’s also more frequently because climate change has - but in specific areas, you have less growth. But on a global level it’s complex because you don't want to tell people to stop having babies. It's really hard to change that. I think for now, the most important thing is to make sure that our systems are capable of actually providing resources for a larger population: making sure that food production is more locally organised, and using less resources, so that people can actually take care of things themselves within their own communities. I think you can really scale that according to the population size. But there are so many aspects to this question, and that's, of course, why it's such a big debate. So many different people have different perspectives on this issue.
As a final question: What advice would you give to students that want to start working and having an impact on the environment, but are not sure where to start?
I would say connect with people around you that have that same feeling and motivation. Talk about it with people that you find interesting. Google, as always, is your great friend. So look at organisations, and just reach out to them, I think a lot of people like myself are really interested in talking to people about these issues and doing these types of interviews.
And if you don't know what interests you concretely, then start with that. Ask yourself what do I like doing? What am I good at? What are my skills? And how can I see that fit into the context of - in this case - climate change, but really any issues that you find important. There's so much to do, and as long as you are open to it and know what you can bring skillswise, I really believe that people with similar focuses and interests will come to you.
We would like to thank Roos Bernson for taking the time to have this interesting conversation with us!
To learn more about Metabolic, check out the following link:
And a massive thank you to our interviewers: Flavia Ginefra (left) & Evanna Corona (right)