Season 3

Episode 2 – Sustainability – A Mindset for the Anthropocene ft. Dr. Thomas Bruhn

Episode 1 Episodes list Episode 3

The Anthropocene is the current epoch in human history, proposed as a time period, during which human activities produced enough impact to constitute a distinct change on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, for example, climate change.
In this episode, Srinath and Leonie talk to Dr. Thomas Bruhn, a research group leader at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, where his projects focus on how cultivating mental qualities, such as mindfulness, can contribute to sustainability.
Our hosts and Thomas discuss the difference between simply generating knowledge and integrating the already existing forms of knowledge into the society outside academia. Thomas talks about the importance of sustainability in relationships and how the larger systemic change happens through the emergence of relationship patterns that manifest in small changes in every one of us.
Thomas talks about the role of meaningful conversations in generating new insights, using constructive conflicts as a way to grow, and the challenge of establishing such connections. They also discuss the lack of motivating utopian outlooks for the future that people could get excited about.

Dr. Bruhn’s book: “Mehr sein, weniger brauchen – Was Nachhaltigkeit mit unseren Beziehungen zu tun hat“ (Bruhn, T. & Böhme, J., 2021).
How to experiment with different forms of communication in a scientific context: Creating space for reflection and dialogue: Examples of new modes of communication for empowering climate action (Fraude et al., 2021).
Dr. Bruhn’s research at the climate negotiations: Enabling new mindsets and transformative skills for negotiating and activating climate action. Lessons from UNFCCC conferences of the parties. (Wamsler et al., 2020)

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Srinath: Hello and welcome to Offspring Magazine the Podcast! I’m your host, Srinath Ramkumar. I know you have missed this silky voice but we’re back. Season 3, episode 2 already. And this week we have an excellent, excellent episode. We have Dr. Thomas Bruhn, from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies. And he is the group leader for a group known to research a mindset for the Anthropocene. Have you ever thought about what a mindset for the Anthropocene in terms of sustainability is? Well no further, do you have to wait. I discuss all of this and much more about sustainability, and about how we need to think about what we said, how we set our goals, and what goals we set, and many such things. It’s going to be a real, real interesting episode so stay with us and see you on the other side of this music.

S: So, Dr. Thomas Bruhn, thanks a lot for joining us today. It’s an absolute pleasure to have you with us and please, could you please introduce yourself and give us a brief introduction to what you’re currently doing?

Dr. Thomas Bruhn: Yeah, hello, Leonie! Hello, Srinath. It’s a pleasure for me to be in the conversation with you today. Introducing myself is always a little bit of a challenge because I combine various backgrounds. I’m a physicist. Originally, I started with Astrophysics and then ended up doing my PhD in Nanophysics, about the interface formation between organic molecules and semiconductor surfaces. It’s nice, I don’t have to hold back some natural science terms with you. And now, since 10 years ago, I’m with theInstitute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, which is a hybrid between research institute and think-tank/platform on sustainability. And here, at the institute, since six years ago, I’m leading a small research group called a Mindset for the Anthropocene. And that is a research group that focuses essentially on the synergies between social transformation to sustainability, on the one hand. And all aspects that have to do with human subjectivity like personality development, consciousness, and the so-called, more softer, often fluffy aspects of human life, and how they are part of social transformation.

Leonie: Yeah, that sounds very interesting. And I was wondering, like, how does your everyday work look? How does your daily work look like in this research group? What do you do?

TB: Fortunately, it’s not the same every day. it’s quite diverse. I should say a few words about the ambition of the research group and that covers a bit what we’re doing. Because we have started from the observation that many people, among our peers and sustainability, seem to care about aspects of consciousness. But they said three things to us. The first thing is that it’s very difficult for them to talk about it, they are often lacking a robust language, how to talk about consciousness and sustainability. Many of them said, they feel alone, they feel like nobody else is interested in this synergy, so who are the others out there? And the third one is, they said, even if I care about it personally, I really don’t know how to practically implement that in my everyday work, say, as a researcher or as a policy advisor etc. So what I’m doing now in my everyday work is: I am connecting people, very often I just forward contacts to other people and say, “by the way, this is someone you really should talk to. You are like-minded, you share this interest and I think you can trust each other”. Because often this topic is something that involves also the person itself, you know, and it’s often challenging, how to talk to each other in a way that opens the vulnerability of these aspects. So knowing somebody who, you know, you can trust is key part of what I try to do. The other thing is, of course, I do academic work. I read papers and I write papers or book chapters and that stuff. And that’s part of my clarification of the insights that I gained through the research project. And the third part that… Yeah, I should admit, I may be most passionate about is facilitating group processes: I really like to just support either small or larger groups of people in reflection and empowerment processes that combine, on the one hand, efforts for more effective action for sustainability and, on the other hand, reflection of one’s own mental models, mindsets, personality conditionings etc. And then of course I’m writing lots of emails and I have to take care of some administration stuff but I don’t want to bother you with that…

S: I mean, yeah, of course. I think certain things are definitely bread and butter of, you know, any organization.

TB: Exactly.

S: But you actually mentioned that you’re at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, so can you elaborate a bit more on that? So what is Advanced Sustainability Studies all about?

TB: So I should say that this institute is a super fascinating place. And when I did my PhD, I couldn’t have imagined that such a place existed. It’s an experiment or, I should say it has been an experiment for 10 years, and now we are moving into the Helmholtz Association, we are becoming institutionalized, leaving this experimental status. Basically, it was a space created in response to a symposium of Nobel Laureates in 2007, where this group of Nobel Laureates came together and found out two things: they said, “it’s strange that we generate so much academic knowledge, and we are praised for all that amazing knowledge that we generate but, honestly, it doesn’t reach the places or the people in society where this knowledge is really needed”, right.

S: Yeah.

TB: And this is not just a question of disseminating knowledge, like, through, let’s say, journalists, etc. But often we are talking a different language, or we are maybe even missing out, what’s the real problem of the people who are taking decisions in society. So how can we not only generate knowledge but also integrate the forms of knowledge that are present in society outside academia? Because practitioners have knowledge that is relevant to know about, but that’s not written up in peer-reviewed papers. We acknowledge it’s important, but how do we integrate it? And out of that came the impulse to create a space where these forms of integration in, so-called, transdisciplinary research processes, should be conducted and that’s what the IASS became. And we have been experimenting with how to do that for the last 10 years.

L: That’s super interesting because, actually, I came across it like several times already, that scientists say, “right, like, I would like to actually see an impact of what I’m doing,” right. So “if I can somehow contribute to society by it, like, that’s nice”. And I was also curious, so you were mentioning this concept of how consciousness can contribute to sustainability, right? I find it’s quite interesting, I mean, I think also in your book, which is, I think, it’s only available in German or is it?

TB: Yeah, now it’s only available in German.

L: But so, basically, the title is, when I can translate it to English…

S: Maybe we mention the German title first?

L: Yeah, “Mehr Sein, Weniger Brauchen”. So maybe it can be translated with “ Be More, Need Less”, something like that. And can you explain this a little? Like, as far as I understood, it’s more about, for example, also sustainability in relationships, in the way we interact with other humans, can be a way to for purposeful or sustainable life. And that the condition of the world mirrors our society. I mean, I find it’s a very interesting approach, or a way to look at things, can you explain this maybe a little bit more to other English speakers who also cannot read the book?

TB: Yeah, thanks for asking, Leonie. Maybe I want to add the subtitle of the book, like, on the one hand, the being more, needing less, and then, what we added, was what sustainability has to do with our relationships. Like, what you explained in your comment. And somehow, you know, the book is kind of the transition between my natural scientific interest in sustainability and my psychological interest in sustainability. Early on, I was very much influenced by Erich Fromm, and there was one of his books that very much influenced me: “Haben oder Sein?”, “To Have or To Be?”. And somehow, the being more, needing less is also a bit making a reference to Erich Fromm’sinfluence, I would say. But what’s the background of it? In a few words, you know, as a physicist, I know that there are certain technologies that we need, or also governmental decisions or governance routines, that we need to set in place to guide societal development. But what I realized in my practical work, just facilitating these stakeholder processes, I realized a lot of that doesn’t work if it’s not grounded in the way how humans think about this. Like, the way we think about the world influences how we believe we should interact with the world. And these fundamental mindsets are often not reflected, we just reproduce the patterns that we grew up in. And my assumption is these very patterns are part of the problem itself. And if you kind of develop solutions to a problem out of the same mindset that created this problem you just perpetuate what was.

S: Yeah.

TB: And so, on the one hand, that is pretty straightforward and obvious. On the other hand, it’s super challenging because of the urgency of sustainability. Everybody feels we need to do something. We need to do something, we have no time. And the space for reflecting one’s own mental paradigms, as part of the way of relating with the world, gets squeezed and has too little emphasis. Everybody’s pushing for more acceleration and then people wonder how come that we are exploiting the Earth ever faster.

S: Yeah.

TB: So I am arguing for integrating that reflection of one’s own state of being, in the further sense, like, one’s own thinking patterns and so forth, and now the twist to the more being and needing less is, from a systems science perspective, I would say there are fundamental patterns that run all through the relationships in our systems. And one of those patterns is, you could say, anthropocentric exploitation of environment. And that is something that we can observe in, like, the transgression of the planetary boundaries but we can also observe it in inter-human relationships.

S: Yeah.

TB: Or even in the relationship to myself, when I’m exploiting myself and run into burnout because I believe I’m only a function for achieving a certain goal etc. So that paradigm shift is kind of focused in the formulation – being more and needing less – instead of accumulating everything self-centered. Rest in a state of being you overcome that pattern of relationships.

S: Yeah. 

L: It also, maybe, can one put it in a way like, small changes compared to small, like, in the intra-, like, with other people around you, right, can lead to also bigger changes on the global scale? If everyone makes small changes in their own micro-environment? Can one put it that way? Yeah.

TB: Yes and, at the same time, I notice when you say that, it triggers the question in me, whether I assume that my change is only like a means to achieve a larger goal. So, on the one hand, I fully agree with you. I believe yes, the larger systemic change happens through the emergence of relationship patterns that manifest in small changes in every one of us. And, at the same time, I don’t want to fall into that trap of, like, believing, I have to change the world, you know. But that’s what often happens in response. Because we are aware of how big the challenge is. So yes, and, at the same time, it triggers some caution in me. But I see in your way of responding that you sense that as well.

L: Right. And it shouldn’t be a means to an end also?

TB: Exactly right.

L: Right, because, again, then we would repeat the same thing, right.

TB: Yeah, but that’s so challenging, I must say. Because it requires a lot of trust that none of us, kind of, has to save the world, but our contribution is sufficient as part of the bigger whole that is changing.

L: Interesting. So I was thinking, as the leader of this research group, right, which is about the Mindset for the Anthropocene, I was wondering, like, in a best case scenario, what would you like to achieve with your work? Or, I mean, if you’re thinking, like…

S: I mean, it’s also, I feel this question is kind of the antithesis of what Thomas has been doing. But yeah, I mean also it’s a very difficult thing to…

L: Maybe it’s not about achieving, it’s about change? What you would like to change? Oh, I don’t know. Yeah, the right word would be…

TB: I love it, no, totally. Like you say, it’s in the question itself is the whole challenge of the situation, isn’t it? On the one hand, yes, like, I mean, you sent me that question in advance and I was wondering, “hmm, I’m curious what I will say to that question,” because obviously I have an intention and I do have hopes for certain forms of impact and change etc. And, at the same time, like, you also say it’s very challenging for me to think in this, in terms of, like, clear goals that I want to achieve.

L: Right.

TB: They are part of it but I, essentially, let go of feeling attached too closely to specific goals.

S: Yeah.

TB: I don’t wanna kind of go into the nitty-gritty details. Of course, there are small goals, like, I want to publish a certain paper, etc. But the main contribution that I hope to generate through my work is… Yeah, I should just say, name the child as clearly, it’s trusting relationships. I feel that’s the most, the scarcest resource in our society, it’s mutual trust. And I hope that, through my work, people get into a conversation, where they can put their guards down, say, “we can really talk essence here”. And not get lost in this competitive argumentation, where we cannot listen to what somebody else really has to contribute, but we are mainly busy with defending and attacking for our stakes. So I am happy, after my work, if I feel after a workshop, for example, that I conducted, there are people who realize, “okay, there is a bigger whole, of which we are part of, and we are really joining forces,” and that is something very invisible often. And sometimes only years later, I hear about the real impact of what we catalyzed. But for me, that works, you know. I have experienced many of those stories, where through our work something became catalyzed and somehow played out. And I was just a little contribution to it but I feel that was meaningful. Yeah. 

L: Interesting, maybe I was just rethinking, maybe one could, rather than goal, one could say purpose, right?

TB: Yes.

L: Would that be fitting? Yeah.

TB: And, at the same time, I mean, you know, that as well as I do, I mean, you’re in your PhDs, you know, and, of course, on the one hand, it should all be embedded in a larger purpose, but in everyday work, it also plays out as concrete goals. And you can’t fully escape from them. And there is also meaning in those concrete goals because, sometimes, making something tangible helps you to navigate through this world.

L: Right, interesting. And I was wondering, like, where do you see the big challenges? I mean, you already mentioned it a bit in the introduction, like, where you see challenges, right, in this predominant mindsets, maybe. But, like, when you say, like, “I would like to make meaningful conversations where people can exchange,” where do you see the greatest obstacles or challenges?

TB: Now, that’s something where I’m also curious about your perspective. Because you touched on this issue of researchers who want to make an impact on society, early on. And one of the biggest challenges that I see is that there seems to be a mode, where we are stuck in generating new knowledge, technologies. etc. But once something is generated, it is not kind of fed into a larger stream of work, so to say. So many projects, once they are finished, the funding runs out, and the results just stay there, and nothing happens with them. The real challenge for me is not in generating those insights, we have the insights. As a society, I feel we have the capacities. What is lacking is to connect the huge diversity of capacities that are present in society, meaningfully, around concrete tasks of action where the researcher sees, “aha, the results that I have collected in these and those observations are immediately relevant for somebody who takes action on the ground, here, and I’m doing my research in a way, so that it addresses the problem, in a way that’s feasible also for a political decision-making process, etc.” But that takes communication between these different perspectives. That kind of connection is what I see is the biggest challenge, what’s lacking at the moment.

L: And are we talking mostly, now, about, like, people who are doing research somewhere in the area of sustainability? Because I’m, or not necessarily, right, sometimes maybe also there can be connections that are not intuitive in the beginning. But so I was just wondering if we talk about, right, this research results that are there, we don’t know exactly, which one, which areas will be relevant maybe, for example, to change, like, to improve sustainability, right?

TB: Yeah, that’s… Yeah that’s kind of an eternal question about transdisciplinarity at the moment. Because, I mean, the research I originally did as a physicist, I thought it was part of something that I found also socially meaningful. But in the end, it was curiosity-driven experimental research. And I see a lot of meaning in that. To me, that’s part of the human endeavor in this world, you know, and I find it super important that we protect these spaces for just curiosity-driven research. On the other hand, also all research that is going on is taking place in the context of social development, it’s not disconnected from it. So science, as a whole, has to justify, what is the contribution that scientists make for the greater good, for the society that funds science etc. And to me, that’s more than just disseminating knowledge on a kind of public research day, etc. But it is about generating knowledge that helps society address the challenges that it’s facing. And that’s not only applied science, it’s more a continuous flow of knowledge and learning between these different perspectives and society. That’s how I feel. So not everything has to do with society with sustainability Yeah, so I also kind of feel that might become too narrow. And just because I personally care very much about sustainability, I’m happy that we have something like research on the Higgs boson, etc. 

L: And, you know, as you just mentioned, also your previous research in physics, right, can you remember, like, what was the trigger for you to say, “okay, and for now, I leave the space of pure physics, basically, and try to transfer into other spheres”?

TB: I think I cannot identify, like, the one trigger. It was, like, for several years, it was just a tension in me that I was doing my research, first in my diploma thesis and then PhD thesis, and, like, in my free time, I was engaging in certain student networks around raising awareness on sustainability. It was the time of when Muhammad Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize for micro-financing, etc. And I was super fascinated. I felt, I care about the well-being of human and non-human life, and how do I combine that with my natural scientific passion, on the other hand? So that tension was just bubbling for several years and I remember at one party I was sharing with a friend that I thought, you know, I dream of a place, where I could still kind of bring my natural scientific mind into a work, that is relevant for social change, and where my communicative skills are beneficial for people to listen to each other more deeply and understand each other beyond apparent boundaries of disciplines. Then, he just said to me, “you know what, right now, there is this new place being established, it’s right around your corner. you haven’t heard of it yet? I think you should get in touch with him.” And that was the IASS. And I thought, like, it’s impossible, how could this place exist? And yeah…

L: Nice. Yeah, sometimes these chances, opportunities open up, right. One needs to just stay open for it.

TB: In hindsight, that’s how it feels. Yeah, during that time I felt, honestly, quite lost because, do you know, doing your research in your laboratory, you can also feel quite isolated. And then, you go to the conference with peers from a similar field, and you’re just talking within your bubble, and you’re citing each other within that bubble, and that just didn’t feel super satisfying to me. I felt I’m part of something larger and I want to make a meaningful contribution to that.

S: I mean, this is actually something that I completely resonate with, I mean, at the moment, I think we’re both close to finishing our doctoral times, and, like, you know, more often than not, like, you get this feeling, that, “okay, I’m doing all this research, all this, you know, studies on these proteins, on these genes”, whatever. And then, yeah, what’s the use of all of it? And, like, you know, I mean, of course, like, you publish your paper, you publish your thesis. Yeah, that’s fine. But, on the whole, I mean, of course, we’ve done this research based on our curiosities, it’s a curiosity-driven work. But it leaves you with this feeling of, “okay, so now what?” You know. So now, we’ve done this, so now what? What is, in the grand scheme of things, how much does this little protein, how much does it actually matter for the society? I mean not just for the society but also for, like, understanding: yeah, it does this one, and we also use model organisms, right, we’re doing developmental studies. So it works in this model organism, but, you know, what about the other ones? What about this? So, you know, it makes you ask a lot of these “what about” questions.

TB: Yes.

S: Now, what questions, and this is something that I find, like, in this very moment, very very, you know, sort of resonatable point, I guess…

TB: So how do you deal with that challenge, with that tension, I mean?

S: I don’t know. In this very moment, it’s more like, “okay, so yeah…”, you know, like I just started to think, “okay, it just goes systematically,” right. Like, you know, historically, how things been done, you know, you have your results, you have your data, you try to make a story out of it, or you try to fit it into an existing story, trying to, you know, fill the pieces of the puzzle, so to speak. But on top of all of this, like, it’s about trying to find the right, you know, mental space to sort of, you know, or, in the right sphere, where I say, “okay, my research is trying to do this aspect of this bubble”. But, of course, there are multiple bubbles around, and we’re all inside one big bubble, and then, there’s another bubble around it, so, you know, it’s like a fractal design. So you zoom more in and in and in, and the more complex it keeps getting so this… I think it just has to sink in a little bit more and, you know, eventually, you’d get to terms with I would imagine. Yeah. I mean, on top of that, like you said, like, during your PhDs, you said, you were doing other things, right, other tasks. So we’re also doing this podcast. And, like, you know, other such activities. Like, so we also have a Magazine, which we publish articles in it, we write articles for it as well. So it’s like doing these other things as well, somehow brings you into a different sort of mind-frame: you meet different people, you meet people with different varying perspectives and ideologies.

TB: Yeah.

S: And you find, I guess, you find your match, in the sense that you try to identify whose ideology you resonate with better and who can you, sort of, gauge, your, sort of, radar to, you know. So you, sort of, widen your spectrum of trying to understand, who you can sort of work more easily with, who it’s a bit more difficult, you need to put a bit more effort in this direction. So it’s quite fascinating actually. So there’s a lot of psychology aspect involved in all of these things, definitely. Yeah.

TB: And also there’s a lot of, well ,it takes a lot of curiosity about oneself in a way, right? Like who am I beyond the researcher?

S: Yeah.

L:  Right.

TB: And I love, the researcher in me, that there are so many aspects of my person, of my being that want to be integrated. And I think maybe that never stops, you know. But I feel it’s crucial to have also like-minded people who support each other in that exploration process. And not shying away from admitting, yeah there are several facets that want to be lived.

L: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I understand this, right, it needs this curiosity and this willingness, okay, to ask this question, right. What do I actually want to pursue? What is important for me, right? Apart from what I’m already following. I was just wondering, I don’t know if it’s too much into this read out or result-based reputation, but I was wondering, are there examples, where consciousness was contributing to a small change, like, to improve a situation or to trigger change? You have some examples in mind?

TB: On what kind of scale do you think of an example?

L: Can be minuscule. I mean, like, can be small but to make it a bit more concrete for our listeners…

TB: Yeah, okay. Let’s start with a very small example. Like, I remember very clearly from one of our events that we were running here two years ago, we were inviting, we were around 50 people, and we were inviting some of them, who were in charge of, it was a CEO of a small NGO, and one other company, and so forth. And they were facing specific challenges and how to address sustainability in their particular context. And as part of that event, we gave them the opportunity to host small working groups, where the group was listening to them, a bit like in a coaching format. But it was a specially designed format for this kind of event so that they could listen to the story of this person, like, what exactly is your challenge? And they were kind of giving feedback of what they heard, helping the person to understand, how is the way how you as a person are part of your organization, part of the challenge you’re facing. And how good could we learn about overcoming how your conditioning is part of the blockage you’re facing. And I remember, at that event, there were two stories. And one of them, he was really facing a very controversial and problematic situation in his organization. Yeah. And through the event, at some point, he realized, he is actually waiting for the others to make the first move. And he was not daring to step up for his values because he still felt, you know, there are these big authorities and they are my board of trustees, etc., and, actually, they should know, they are like 20 years older, and I’m just just in charge of managing the stuff. But making that move towards understanding: no, I can actually step up for my values here, even though my values may not exactly reproduce the values of the people who have established this organization. But now I am in charge: I’m sitting in the car in front of the steering wheel. What does it mean if I am true to my values? And in the way how he shared his story and how it was reflected to him, he became aware how his way of responding is not true to his own values and not true to the values of his organization. It’s nice to share it with you because I remember what a moment it was when, at the end of these three days, he was sharing a clarity and also strength, that he said, “I see how I am in a different position than what I thought I would be”. This moment of empowerment and clarity about his values is something that I feel was condensed in these three days. And another colleague experienced a similar transition. And that was super rewarding for me and for everybody else to witness, you know, and I’m in continuous exchange with him so I know how this really changed the course of his action, of becoming more effective in his role in his organization.

L: That’s interesting because, I was just wondering, that probably there are these institutional rigidity sometimes?

TB: Yeah.

L: And then, there’s then the individual who wants to change something. And I mean, of course, it helps, like, when the individual has the formal power, right, to change something. But so, I can imagine that this sometimes clashes, right. Yeah, but I also can imagine that each individual in their own also formal, let’s say, formal power, right, can change something. And even by the attitude that the people bring up, they can change something already.

TB: And that’s exactly the point, Leonie. You know, you say the individual, and by now I’m at a point that I try to avoid even that word, and I want to explain a little bit why. When I came to this Institute and I started relating with people here, at these workshops, where I thought, “wow, he or she, he’s really in a position where he can really do something”. And for years, I, basically, got the feedback saying, “no, you know, I can’t do anything. I have my board of trustees,” or “no, there are these other colleagues, or these regulations, no”. And so you hear lots of explanations, why people cannot do what they actually would like to do. And, to say it bluntly, often what then comes out of it is that people write wish-lists to Santa Clau,s you know. They say, “somebody should do this”, and they write a sophisticated report and say, “somebody should…” What this is from a psychological perspective, it’s basically outsourcing responsibility to somebody else. And that was super frustrating for me. And at the same time, I witnessed myself reproducing that, as I felt, I believe that somebody else who has more power than me should do something. And I feel that’s part of the whole situation here. We are complaining that the world is as it is and, at the same time, we are hoping that somebody else takes care. So for me, it’s about an emancipation process to say, “I’m just one small human being and I can make my contribution,” but, and that’s why I’m a bit triggered by the word individual, I have realized, as soon as I address the individual in me or in others, I reproduce experiences of being overwhelmed. It’s never an individual. So that’s why I emphasize relationship. And why our work is not individual coaching but it’s always fields of people, when you understand, “no, I am part of a maybe distributed, maybe dispersed, whatever, but I’m part of a community of people that wants to grow into the capacity to relate differently with myself with each other, with non-human life, with technology”. Not along the paradigm that brought us into un-sustainability. And then support each other, small, step by step, in that change. That is what I find hopeful and that is what motivates me to do what I’m doing. And not outsource the responsibility to some perceived authority that can change the world, you know.

L: I can imagine. I mean, I think this sense of feeling to be, or to be part of a bigger, right, bigger community, basically, can also help you to maybe counteract movements that try to stop you, right? Because I guess, also humans, they don’t like to change…

TB: Sure.

L: …easily, right? Institutions don’t like to change. So, I guess, you need some resilience to make change, right, so I guess it really helps to have a community.

TB: Absolutely. You need good company, good fellows to not give in to those resistances, which are natural and human, you know. It’s clear that, sure, systems don’t want to change just by itself. And, at the same time, change is part of human nature, you know, humans are incredibly adaptive, yeah. So that, I also see a lot of hope in that capacity to change. But all by yourself, no.

S: I mean, just as a side note, like, on a follow-up, so because you mentioned that finding one’s conscious approach to what one is doing has had huge impacts on, basically, what one does or how one approaches doing whatever they’re doing, right. So, like, the, you know, your own approach to what you’re doing changes based on multiple factors, which are also stimulated by what people around you are doing. For example, you know, people have, let’s say, your boss comes and says, “no, you should do this this way,” so you can approach a topic in a certain way. But you can also approach the idea of, let’s say, you know, doing some, a specific type of experiment, or a specific type of social experiment even, in that aspect. So how do you balance how, you know, what level of external influence one can, so you know what one can take on? As well as what type of internal influence one can have on the process that one does. Because I feel like sometimes, more often than not, these two are, like, sort of bumping heads with each other.

TB: Yeah, totally. I would say, it’s an everyday dance, continuously. And mostly, I feel it’s about developing my capacity to just sit with that tension and acknowledge it, not be naive about the conditions that I’m part of and, at the same time, not overburden myself, you know. And just believe ,I have to do all that but feel okay. I am in touch with a certain context and these and those challenges are part of that context. So that is my work now, to relate with it and embrace it as just part of my reality in a way. I’m tempted to say love it, you know, that’s my life, in this moment, and I’m not a fan of acknowledging that okay, there are like adversarial conditions around me so I go to another context. I believe more from a psychological perspective, we take our issues with us wherever we go.

S: Yeah, so the baggage.

TB: Yeah, exactly. So I don’t want to move around and just find out I’m fighting the same windmills just in another country, you know. So yeah, I want to embrace that as constructively as I can, as what my journey is about in this very moment. And, at the same time, I have both witnessed around me and also within myself, how my conscious development of myself is part of how I perceive these challenges and how I deal with them. I can’t even put them as external and internal influences, like I said, it’s so entangled, I feel like I am just embodying certain relationship patterns and they manifest in my relationship with myself but also in the relationship with my institution or around me.

S: Yeah.

TB: Yeah. I hope that that’s an adequate response to your…

S: No, I mean, I kind of believe some questions like this don’t generally tend to have answers that one can, you know, give out as well. But I mean, it’s just I guess, you know, as people would say food for thought.

TB: Yeah.

S: Or, you know, so I, and it’s actually very nice because this discussion is also raising these questions in me, which, I mean, I gues,s intellectual stimulation is what we’re all about as, you know, scientists. Be it in terms of you know scientific intellect or also in terms of interpersonal or personal, you know, intellect.

TB: You say something that triggers me to add some thoughts here. You say “as a scientist” and I think that’s quite important because my understanding of being a scientist has gone through certain changes in the last years. And, I would say, 10 years ago, coming from my physics studies, I had the assumption there was an objective reality that I was to deal with somehow.

S: Yeah.

TB: But throughout the last 10 years, I have become deeper and deeper into and come deeper and deeper into an understanding of how I am entangled in the very way, how I perceive that reality as something objective, which may only partly be objective, you know.

S: Yeah.

TB: And that is super challenging. And just sitting with that tension and continuously asking myself the reality that I experience, how is it telling me something about the way my mind is constructed, the way how I perceive it, and what elements do I have to grow deeper into, what I really care about. And my way of perceiving might be part of what I care about. And that doesn’t change the reality but it often changes my relationship with what I perceived to be objective and fixed. That’s super fascinating. And I very much encourage everyone to have the courage to sit with that question, like, what does it tell me about myself and my way of being entangled? And not take ourselves out of the equation. And I believe we had the dominance of a certain scientific paradigm that used to take the observer out of the equation. Several, like anthropology and ethnology, other disciplines don’t have that assumption. They clearly say, as soon as I observe, I interfere, you know, I am part of it. And that’s a huge challenge I feel for our scientific paradigm and, in this cultural context, in Europe and America, at least. And this, we have exported that scientific paradigm throughout the world, based on the assumption that we could understand reality as something objective. My understanding is, in the Anthropocene, we have to acknowledge how deeply we are entangled with all our presence, with not only our actions but also our way of thinking and our mindsets, etc. And we are just beginning in understanding how deep that entanglement goes.

L: This just makes me think, I mean, I could totally agree with this, right, I think we cannot put ourselves out of the equation. I was just wondering what happens, I mean,what about conflict? What is when people, right, have different, in their individual view, have very different approaches on what is what should be done or… Yeah, I mean, I guess, there’s no easy easy answer to this question, right?

TB: No and ah, the trouble is, I think, originally, I was a rather conflict-avoiding person. And now I’m at a point where I feel, well, essentially everything is about conflict but engaging in conflict in a way that is respectful and constructive and, at the same time, profound. Not just a superficial competition and then saying, I have to win or somebody has to win and somebody else loses. But seeing conflict as something, as a friction, where both, or however many who are engaged in the conflict, can grow, as a resource for growth of each other. But that really raises the question: what are the conditions under which such kind of constructive conflict take place? And one of the conditions is: I cannot start the whole process with the assumption that, in the end, there is one truth.

L: Right.

TB: As soon as you start the whole thing with, like, we have to come to one consensus, and somehow I get to decide what somebody in Indonesia should do about sustainability, then we really have a conflict around dominance and oppression.

S: Yeah.

TB: It’s the opposite. It’s based on the assumption, how can we support each other in doing our best, in our particular context, that we feel responsible for? And now we engage in conflict, and friction, and contradictions and maybe we don’t agree on many things but, in the end, it’s not like we have to agree. But this whole process should empower you and me to do something more meaningful, more informed, more holistic for the purpose of the common good.

S: Yeah.

TB: And that is often, of course, not guaranteed that everybody who’s in the room starts from the assumption: we are here in service of an overarching common good and none of us has to know the truth for everyone else. But that’s the big paradigm to be overcome, also for scientists, because it’s very tempting to kind of come up with the truth. You are the expert, in the end, who knows better than everybody else. And my scientific career is based on proving everybody that I am the one who knows best. You know, that’s tricky.

L: So we had one question, which I always find interesting, because I mean, if I go through, I feel, culture or like media or something, there’s always a concentration on dystopia, right. Like on dystopian scenarios and what is going wrong in this world and everything. And what I’m sometimes also curious about is, like, utopia, where actually, what do we want to strive for, right? Like, what would be a wishful scenario? And I was wondering, when you think freely, like, what would be a desirable world to live in according to you? Like, do you have something like that?

TB: Oh, you’re bringing me in trouble, Leonie. I want to say why this is a troubling question for me. Yes, I agree there’s a lot of focus on dystopia and, I don’t know, there seems to be something very attractive about dystopian future visions.

S: I mean the reason that is, I would say, is because it sells well.

TB: Yeah, but why does it sell well? I’m so stunned, like, ah, okay, that’s…

S: I mean, just as a side note, like, it’s also the case of news: bad news sells best, you know, like…

TB: Yes.

S: And they always try to catch you on these, you know, off the mic moments or off camera, you know, like behaviors, which are, you know, triggering. But anyway, let’s get back to…

TB: I totally agree. And that’s part of, I would say, the mindset. The question is where do we guide our attention? And it’s one thing to acknowledge, like, to catch myself, “oh, I am attracted to a certain headline in Spiegel Online,” although I already smell that this is just bad news and it’s just feeding my perception of “oh, the world is going to hell”, you know. There is this momentum of attractivenes,s I can identify that in me. So I don’t want to blame that as something bad or anything, but it’s part of how we construct reality. That we are attracted, or dominantly attracted, to the negative news. But back to why I said it’s a tricky question for me. During my studies I was writing fantasy novels, and these fantasy novels were kind of utopian novels. They started just with a story about a wizard, you know, and his character development and some fantasy story, blah blah blah. But they became, until the third novel, kind of my reflections about what would be, in the furthest sense, a harmonious way of coexistence between human and non-human life. And a society that kind of has established a quite harmonious way, but then kind of starts getting off-track. And what is it that triggers humans to leave that harmony? And, of course, I mean they were very youthful, naive, blah blah blah, but they were my platform of reflecting, what could be a utopia? Now, I admit that I don’t have any clear future vision anymore. I’m increasingly letting go of any concrete projection into the future and that’s, on the one hand, part of my understanding of emergence in complex systems that I just see whatever the future is I cannot foresee it.

S: Yeah.

TB: I want to trust that through my contributions I’m part of something, that somehow figures out in the larger whole, and whatever I project into the future it may narrow down what I can do now. It’s challenging because it really requires a lot of trust. And, at the same time, I find it the most meaningful response at the moment. I don’t write fantasy novels anymore but there is an impulse in me, I would like to paint another utopian picture.

L: Yeah, I would like to read it. Some utopia.

TB: I never published them. I hope I will do it someday, but yeah, I’ll happily share one privately with you if you like?

L: Yeah, because, I mean, there are really not enough utopias. I would hope you, as I would say, or maybe I just don’t know…

TB: I agree. I agree and I fully agree we need somehow a picture of the future that motivates us to do something for the values we believe in.

L: Right.

TB: If we all believe it’s going down, then, why bother, you know?

L: Right, exactly. And I mean, also it can be different scenarios, right? I mean even if one cannot control, it can be still, I mean, some it’s, like, I guess to have a plan and then, you can, at least if things are different, at least you can react to it, right? But to have, like, some kind of spiritual guide. Yeah, this could be an option. Yeah.

TB: And, if I may add, and that’s exactly, again, why I want to refocus on relationship qualities. With our work, also for at the moment, I don’t have a plan for our research group for the next years. But we are constructing roles and relationships around the intention that the project pursues. And, I admit, I am curious, how will it look like from the outside, so to say? But I consciously let go of planning a certain form. I rather focus, it’s an organic growth and I want the nature of relationships within that organism to be sound. And, in a way conflict-loaden, such that it’s constructive and so forth, but I don’t have, kind of, the vision of “this is how it should look in the end”. Because I often believe, we sacrifice the deeper qualities of relationships for the sake of achieving a certain outcome. But what is resilient is the relationship qualities. And that kind of resilience is what I want to foster. And then, honestly, I don’t care what our society looks like in the future, as long as it is grounded in resilient relationships, where humans can live meaningfully with each other. And I have no clue how that looks, I have never experienced that. I don’t think our culture has experienced that ever but that’s the cool adventure!

L: It’s true. Essentially, we’re social beings, right. I mean, with how you call this reliable relationships, I think humans, like, it’s a very valuable net for human society, if the relationship between humans are valuable.

S: Or harmonious. Or with themselves. Or belastbar.

L: Or belastbar… I don’t know what the English word would be. We were also wondering, I mean, we touched this topic a little bit already, but how do you think each one of us is, I will spare the word individual now, but basically each little part of this whole…

S: Society.

L: Yeah, of the bigger thing.

S: Like, how do we contribute to some form of a positive, you know, change?

L:  Right, right. It can be just suggestions, I guess, right? There’s no…

S: Because, you know, like something is, I want to add on to this as well, so one question is how do we contribute to a positive change? And the other one is how do we shift our frame of mind to thinking in a different way, rather than the established, you know, the styles of thinking?

L: Coming into the reflection mode I guess, right?

TB: So, of course, I have tons of thought on that and, at the same time, it’s part of my conviction that I cannot tell you what would be your way of pursuing this. I want to share a few of my experiences so far. So the first thing is, I’m quite convinced and my experience confirms that, that humans feel when they are off track. Humans feel when they are not true to themselves, when they are not resonant with their own aliveness, so to say. And I have seen people develop all sorts of compensation mechanisms to cope with that distance from their own resonance, so to say. And one of the most researched is material consumption. You know, when people feel not in line with their purpose, you know. “Yeah, let’s buy a fast car, whatever,” you know. Or “let’s build up some sort of social status that shows I’m super cool or important,” or whatever. Yeah, you name it. Lots of psychological studies that one could quote, but I think we know it from personal experience. So, but below all that, I’m sure humans feel, whether they are in line with their nature or not. And this is a deep hope that I have because, essentially, for me, it’s about becoming sensitive to that feeling of dis-ease of, like, there is something really not sound here. And not being afraid of it.

S: Yeah.

TB: This, not being afraid of it is really a social challenge for each one personally. And feel like okay, I don’t have to push it away, but who are the ones to whom I could expose the vulnerability that lies in admitting, you know, something here feels really not sound. I don’t know why and I don’t know what exactly it is. But it, you know, and I’m surprised how many people have this question mark in themselves and don’t follow it. And somehow it seems that, in the processes that we run here, many people open up to me and say, you know, “what can I do? I feel that I’m just reproducing the patterns of a machinery. I don’t want to do that, it doesn’t make sense. But I also can’t change the machinery. What could I do? How could I be more in line?” And there is no answer to everyone individually of that. But the encouragement that I hold is: be sensitive to it, have the courage to confront it, and, to the extent possible for you, speak up for it among people that you trust enough. And then support each other. It’s for me, it’s very much about forming these supportive communities that allow each other to kind of grapple with that dis-ease. And then there are lots of approaches that could result from it. And one key aspect like, returning to the book, is for me to emancipate ourselves from these compensation mechanisms. Realizing that “oh, actually, there are a lot of things that I believe I need but I don’t need them”. It is very fulfilling to be in resonance with myself and be true to my values. And there are many compensation mechanisms that actually don’t make me really happy, but they helped me to do more of what I really want to do. And that is super inspiring to witness. So that encouragement is the main thing. And then a process comes from that, where you might realize, some people might want to quit their jobs, others might realize, “wow, I’m in such a cool position, I could actually do some things here that I don’t dare to do”. Yeah, let’s go. You know, so there’s no answer to that. But for me, it’s about being sensitive to that feeling and allowing it to be a source of inspiration and growth. Not be scared of it.

L: It reminds me a bit of meditation, right, because like it’s a bit like: feel what is and be mindful of that, right, and don’t let yourself distracted by things. But yeah, like, feel what is and be mindful to that.

TB: I would say meditation can be one approach to that sensitivity, yes. For some other people, it might be a walk in the forest in a contemplative way. For some others, it might be artistic practice. And others may experience that kind of contact with themselves as part of a psychotherapeutic process. I think there is a huge spectrum of approaches. The main thing that I feel is, in the society that we live in, there is a huge lack of sense of meaning and belonging.

S: Yeah.

TB: And if we have the courage to sit with that feeling and allow it to be a source of transformation, I’m inspired, what can happen with it. In various ways.

S: I mean, I just wanna add on a little bit to the word “meditation” because anything can be meditative in my mind. At least the way I feel it, like, I don’t know, I mean I think Leonie and I have these, we have some differences. For example when Leonie gets lost in a book, I would imagine that that is a form of meditation: you’re in that mental space with that book. And for me, it’s football, for example, I get lost in the game and, you know, like, I just get drawn into it. So I guess, there’s also the frame, in which one can let the, you know, like, these, I don’t know, mental barriers down and, sort of, be more in tune with what one is doing. I guess that would be, you know, like a way to become a bit more, I don’t know, I don’t want to say mentally healthy, but yeah. But yeah, I cannot find a better word for it.

TB: So I agree with you that there are lots of things that could bring you into a contemplative state of being. The one thing that I often like to emphasize is the awareness for our body. Particularly as scientists, I feel I have been trained very much to work with my head. And it may bring me to a point that I am not sensitive anymore to the impulses of my body. And often I feel the body can be a very helpful channel to get in touch with these senses of like, am I really in line with my nature or not? And sometimes distractions can bring me maybe into a flow state but they might also bring me away from the connection with my body. So I don’t know if there’s one approach but I personally, and people may have different biases, you know, but I need a connection to the sensations and experiences of my body for that alignment, so to say. Can be meditative, can be other approaches.

L: Yeah, I agree. Cool, so we have one last question here that we would like to ask.

TB: Now I’m curious.

L: It’s very open actually, like, so do you have something in your mind that you would like to share with our audience? I mean something that you have on your heart, that you feel that would be important for people to know?

TB: So first thing, now relating to our audience, your PhD network, somehow it makes me go back to my own PhD and I feel that excitement of that final phase of a PhD, after going through so many challenges and crises and whatever. So I think I just want to share the appreciation and also a certain admiration for those of you who are in that process of doing a PhD. And I find it beautiful that you all went through, or are going through, that kind of process. And I hope that it will be a rewarding and resourceful experience for you and that you keep it going until the end. I think it can be very valuable to really pull through. So I wish you that endurance and the good nerves that it takes when the experiments are going wrong or the software collapses, and all that stuff. I wish you good energy for that. And the other thing, I think is something that I said already, I wish you the courage and strength to sit with the unresolved questions, you know. At the end of a PhD, you have been on one track for three or four or five years, and that is a beautiful experience – to go deep in something. And, at the same time, I wish you the courage to lift your head, look around, look inside, like, what do you really care about, what is the larger whole that you feel belonging into, and how are you part of that story? And continuing your scientific career may very well be exactly that. And, at the same time, the more you are receptive to your deeper questions and concerns, you may be able to contextualize your scientific work in a way that is beneficial for something else that you also care about. And that would, for me, that would be a hope about the reconciliation between science and all the non-scientific aspects of our society. Which I think can benefit a lot from the capacities that the scientific system can provide. So I wish you that courage and the frustration tolerance to sit with the fact that these questions cannot easily be answered, but they make very happy, I would say.

L: Yeah, thank you very much! Yeah, these were very inspirational words right we definitely resonate with that!

S: Really, thanks a lot for joining us, it’s been an absolute pleasure! And we really hope we, I mean, if it’s possible are you planning to translate the book into English at some time? Because I’m sure there would be a lot of new readers for this one.

TB: I, personally, would like to. We have to talk with the publisher, how that’s possible. But there are also some other articles of some key thoughts of the book that are available in English. I admit, I couldn’t take care of it yet but I hope it would be available in English, yes.

S: Yeah, but I mean, if you could find these and share it with us, we would be very happy to put them in the shownotes down below.

TB: Yeah, definitely, sure.

S: So that people should be able to find them. And just maybe, one last thing, if people want to get in touch with you, how do they do that? Are you on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or any of these social medias? Or is it just, they mentally connect with you somehow?

TB: I’m a terribly old-fashioned person in this sense, and I’m not a digital native. Email is the way to reach me.

S: Okay.

TB: I am on Facebook but I don’t think it really counts. I’m like every couple of weeks. And I sometimes, I would say, I’m kind of over-related. I care about quality and depth of relationships, and sometimes that means cherishing less relationships and focusing. But people can get in touch with me very gladly. My email address is public and I do respond, also if it does take some time sometimes. But if I respond, it comes from the heart and it’s meant serious.

S: That’s fantastic to hear. It’s been an absolute absolute pleasure talking to you!

L: Thanks a lot for your time and effort and insight that we got! Thanks a lot!

TB: Thank you so much for the invitation! It was really also very nice for me to chat with you. And I find it really cool, what you’re doing with this podcast, and also for your personal PhD.s I just wish you a very good ending of the efforts that you are facing at the moment!

S: All right. That’s the end of the interview. Thanks a lot to Dr. Thomas Bruhn for giving us his time and also letting us pick his brain a little bit on some of these topics. We hope you enjoyed it. We really enjoyed doing that interview. And if you’re looking for the links that Dr. Bruhn said he would send us, they are down in the shownotes, so please feel free to check them out. I’m sure, if you’re interested in this topic, you would find something quite fascinating for you in there. Anyway, I think that’s the end of this episode. We really thank you all for sticking along till here. And hope to see you all next week. And until then!

Offspring Magazine the Podcast is brought to you by the Max Planck PhDnet Science Communication Working Group, known as Offspring Magazine. The intro and outro music is composed by Gustavo Carizo. If you’d like to leave with any feedback, comments, suggestions, please feel free to write to us at offspring You can also follow us on Twitter @MPPhdnetPodcast, on Instagram @offspringmagazine_thepodcast, and on LinkedIn at Offspring Magazine the Podcast. See you all next week. Bye!
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