Elizabeth Sawin

Elizabeth Sawin is a mother, biologist, and systems analyst. A member of Cobb Hill Cohousing, she lives on an organic farm in Hartland, Vt. She works at the Sustainability Institute, a think-do tank founded by Donella Meadows.

Price tags don’t tell the full story

I have a young friend who, I think, will never eat another banana without thinking a great deal about its history. Going bananas. On a trip to Belize, Hannah and other home-schooled teenagers saw monkeys, the rainforest, and Mayan villages. But the memory that seems to stand out most vividly is of a banana plantation. The workers at the plantation Hannah visited do not wear protective clothing. When planes fly overhead to spray pesticide, the workers take shelter under the nearest banana leaf. “They say the chemicals make their chests hurt,” Hannah told me. Hannah reported that mothers bathe their …

Taking on the erosive cycle of contemporary politics

Every day I try to protect my children from problems I didn’t create and cannot solve alone. I spread cream on their skin to shield them from the ultraviolet radiation that sneaks through our thinning ozone layer. I try to feed them food free of pesticides and hormones, but I know their bodies are exposed to a cocktail of toxic chemicals every day, despite my efforts. I give money and time to environmental initiatives and help care for a few hundred acres of land. Tread lightly on the bike path of life. I do what I can, but really keeping …

Humans are gobbling up too much of the sun’s energy

The energy of the sun, captured by plants and passed on to animals, powers everything in our world — dolphins leaping out of the ocean, geese moving across the sky, people stirring their morning oatmeal. Set in our ways. Photo: Art Wolfe, Inc. This truth contains beautiful poetry: It teaches us that in our children’s laughter, we can hear sunlight laugh with joy. There are days when that simple thought can make the whole world feel like a cathedral to me. But this truth also contains an unalterable rule: There is only so much energy on Earth, and all the …

Now that's a reason to be jolly

This holiday season, we’re bombing Afghanistan, and perhaps contributing to mass starvation there. We stand apart from the rest of the world on climate change, ignoring the melting ice at the North Pole and rising global temperatures. As if the killing and bombing and starving weren’t bad enough, we’re not just at war with other people: We’re trying to fight the entire biosphere. A light message. Photo: ArtToday. This season, as never before, I am cringing at the holiday cheer. I grew up in the Christian tradition, and while it has always taken some effort to find reflections of the …

How the bear inside you could save the world

“Sobs racked the body of a middle-aged man as he cradled the head of his baby, its dust-covered body dressed only in a blue diaper, lying beside the bodies of three other children, their colorful clothes layered with debris from their shattered homes.” I held this sentence, from a Reuters report on the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, in my head all day long. By the time my girls were in bed I was storming around the house, slamming cupboard doors, and sending the day’s accumulation of Legos and crayons clattering into bins. Fight and flight. Photo: ArtToday. I’ve had more …

Survival sometimes calls for cooperation, not competition

“Human beings will never cooperate. War and fighting are part of our very make-up. We’re competitive, violent animals.” That’s what the cynics say, and sometimes it seems as though there is plenty of evidence to support their case. The recent attacks on New York and Washington. Bosnia. Rwanda. Over-fished oceans and over-harvested forests. Fights over water-use rights. Energy production in one region that leads to acid rain in another. You can add to the list. Let’s face it. Cooperation just isn’t our strength. This is a depressing message, at a time when we are probably going to have to cooperate …