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Nearly a decade ago I made the conscious decision to focus my professional self on the biggest problem I saw facing humanity. Working towards any other goal seemed selfish and inconsequential in comparison. At the time, I didn’t anticipate how emotionally draining this work would be, or how I would become incapable of maintaining separation between my professional and personal selves. Over the course of my career within the sustainability and climate sectors, I have become increasingly burdened by the weight of what the future might hold and disheartened by the prospect of what we might lose. If Zeus had sought to truly punish Sisyphus, he would have given him the task of resolving global warming: A rock would now be a welcome reprieve.

Atmos recently had the opportunity to work with Ellie Sharpe, Nicola White and India Rose Matharu-Daley (Class of 2021) as part of an experiential learning (EL) project, one of the hallmarks of a Presidio Graduate School education. The most surprising outcome for me was not the work product itself, which was top-notch, but my reclaimed optimism and hopefulness in our ability to meet the challenges ahead, grounded in the knowledge that a wave of changemakers like these are now on the case.

I recently had an opportunity to share some extra time with Ellie, Nicola, and India to talk about their experience at Presidio, with Atmos within the EL program, and their plans for the future.

PH:  What brought you to Presidio versus another graduate school?

Ellie:  Sustainability is the foundation of every course at Presidio Graduate School. It’s not a slice of a greater curriculum, it is the curriculum. Presidio pushes its students to understand how products impact the world and how greater systems interact with each other. And, at Presidio, we’re surrounded by people with different backgrounds and perspectives, all with a shared passion for creating positive change. We’re not trying to change careers simply to land higher paying jobs—Presidio students are determined to build a better world. It’s a community.

PH: Since your time at Presidio, have your interests and passions within the sustainability sector evolved? 

Nicola:  I was really interested in waste when I started at Presidio. I had a more limited worldview at that time. Since then, I’ve come to understand how many of these systems are linked and my own areas of interest have expanded as a result. The areas to work in this sector are limitless because the intersections of climate, social justice and economic factors are inextricably linked and there is so much that needs to be done. One of my biggest areas of interest now is water and watershed management in the American West. Water is connected to everything and is needed for everything, yet traditional supply is dropping and not sustainably used or managed. Equitable access to clean water is not just an overseas issue.

PH:  What is something that you believe or know to be true now that you didn’t realize before you started at Presidio? 

India:  I’ve come to appreciate the complexity of the climate crisis and I’ve come to see how fragile our economic and social systems are. It’s not that I still don’t desperately want radical change, but I understand why things move slowly. So many things are intertwined, so we need to be watchful of the unintended consequences that our proposed changes might create.

Nicola:  We can’t solve problems that we don’t understand. This may sound trivial, but it’s not, and it applies across all contexts. At Presidio we are guided to analyze and map a problem from top to bottom. Many climate issues, for example, are incredibly complicated and have entrenched stakeholders. Without understanding the goals and needs of each stakeholder, proposed solutions will most likely just fall flat.

PH:  What areas of the sustainability sector are among the most impactful and interesting for you? 

Ellie:  The impact of multi-sector strategic partnerships is incredibly powerful. Individually companies can make meaningful changes, but networked across industries and stakeholders the impacts can be profound.

PH:  Are we all doing enough? What is one thing people can do to take action on climate right now? 

Nicola:  Not everyone can or will dedicate their lives to this work, but more people should. Awareness is a meaningful step that many people still need to take. The most meaningful thing we can do is to start with ourselves. We can eat a little less meat, shop locally, change where you bank… and then tell people. Create intentional space to highlight climate forward choices so that others may follow.

Ellie:  Many of us are doing everything we can. We’ve dedicated our education to it with Presidio and are trying to join the workforce in the most highly impactful roles that we can. For so many people though, sustainability isn’t on their radar, and that is just the reality. My goal is to find systemic levers so that we have to rely less on seeking out sustainable options individually. Making climate smart choices the default will move the needle much faster.

India:  Considering how urgent the problem is, nobody is doing enough. That said, we’ve come a long way as a society over the past decade and that’s incredibly encouraging. More people than ever are giving up meat, shifting away from a culture of consumerism, and generally seeking out ways to align their lives with their values. We should talk about it more and share what we’ve learned. Bringing the issues and solutions we’ve found into regular conversation will help those around us become better informed. We also need to have these conversations with compassion for each other and for the circumstances that drive our decisions.

PH:  How can we move faster towards climate solutions as a society? 

India:  On an individual level, it comes down to behavioral change driven by education and accessibility. Many people still aren’t aware of how they fit into the larger system or how their choices actually impact their community and the economy. In addition, smarter options need to be obtainable and affordable to enable the adoption of sustainable alternatives. I want people to see how their choices make change in the world, whether positive or negative. A feedback loop can help nudge that behavioral change in the right direction. And, ultimately, we need our governments and corporations to take more responsibility and action.

PH:  You elected to work with Atmos for your EL project. Why Atmos and what did you take away from this experience? 

Nicola: I wanted to dive into something that required me to stretch and think about an industry [financial] in a new way. Atmos is looking to tackle a huge global issue that relates to everyone on a very personal level. The vast majority of people interact with a bank, but they aren’t aware about how it works or why it’s important. Atmos is looking to disrupt a field of giants and is one of the most effective ways to take personal climate action.

PH:  What is something about Presidio that we might not know? 

Ellie:  There is a very strong dance culture that runs deep.

Atmos offers digital, FDIC-insured bank accounts that simplify and reward saving, giving and spending, and where every dollar deposited is used to reduce global warming. Join Atmos now! Atmos makes a donation to Presidio Graduate School when you open an account through this link.

About the Author / Peter Hellwig

Pete Hellwig is co-founder of Atmos Financial, PBC, a climate fintech engaging with the the banking sector to accelerate the transition to a clean, fair and transformed economy. Pete serves on the board of San Francisco Baykeeper, a non-profit focused on the conservation of the Bay Area waterways by holding polluters accountable, and serves in a financial consulting capacity to various values-aligned companies. Pete earned a BA in Financial Economics & Accounting from Claremont McKenna College.

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