The Brick Project Conversations, Part Fifteen: Annie and Carsten


The Brick Project Conversations, Part Fifteen: Annie and Carsten

Introduction by Annie McLeod

In two previous interviews, one with Cambridge University economist Sir Partha Dasgupta (Karim and Sir Partha), and one with Stanford University ecologist Paul Ehrlich (Karim and Paul), we see how a long-term friendship between two complimentary skills can result in a valuable synergy.

In the case of Professor Dasgupta and Professor Ehrlich, their work resulted in bringing economists and ecologists together and pioneering the work of generations of ecological economists.

Carsten Henningsen, founder of Sri Lanka-focused non-profit Community Friends, has navigated his career with a keen awareness of ecological economics. My interview with Carsten below, focuses on this core theme of finding the balance between economic and ecological interests.

Carsten and Brick Project founder Karim, have been friends for over 30 years.

They attended a university junior year abroad business program together at Nyenrode (The Netherlands School of Business). The program required a work-study period during the summer. Karim’s work-study was in Kenya, where he worked with anthropologist Richard Leakey, teaching wildlife conservation curriculum to the grandchildren of wise and insightful Maasai and Kikuyu tribal elders.

The gentle and profound tradition of Elder Wisdom that Karim learned in the ‘local villages’ in Kenya, is a tradition that is now cultivated in the ‘global village’ that is The Brick Project, with Global Elders interviewed on this site.

In describing the 4 curriculum subjects of The Brick Project, Karim says this:

History, Ecology, Art and Literature are the 4 Brick Project curriculum subjects. With regard to ‘Ecology’ there are two main components: Wildlife Conservation and Environmental Conservation. Regarding Wildlife Conservation, I am building an educational alliance with Samburu elephant conservationists in northern Kenya and working with GoPro to supply them with cameras to document their conservation methodology. Regarding Environmental Conservation, I’m strengthening my learning curve by learning from my expert friends, such as Carsten.

— Karim

Here is what Carsten says when speaking to me about my generation of college-aged students as well as to the future Brick Project middle school-aged students:

My hope is that each one of you, the future generation, will join us and learn from Sir Partha Dasgupta, Paul Ehrlich and so many others who have paved the way forward with their pioneering work in ecological economics. I hope that each of you will ask yourself the question that I asked myself 30 years ago. What can I do in this lifetime to help make the world a better place? We need as many of you as possible to help and we need you now.

— Carsten

Annie’s interview with Carsten

Could you tell us about the meeting points of Environment and Economics in your own career and how these fields can work together better in future?


Carsten Henningsen

Until recently, the impacts of ecological limits on economic growth have been considered largely irrelevant.

Those who questioned the earth’s capacity to provide infinite, or at least plentiful, amounts of natural resources and ecosystem services were dismissed as extremists or reactionaries.

Today, traditional economic theory (which is based on neo-classical economics) assumes that natural resources and services are abundant and free (or very cheap), and the assumption is that any problems posed by the limited supply of natural resources will be solved by the ingenuity of modern science and technology.

In macroeconomics, there is an implicit assumption that the economy is a complete system unto itself that functions independently of the natural environment rather than as a subset of the earth, its atmosphere, and its ecosystems.

This failure to anchor the economy within the earth and its systems facilitates a fallacy: the belief that the economy can grow infinitely, regardless of the planet’s physical limits.

This failure to anchor the economy within the earth and its systems facilitates a fallacy: the belief that the economy can grow infinitely, regardless of the planet’s physical limits.

In microeconomics, individual units (e.g., people, households, businesses, and governments) are subsets of the macroeconomy. As such, they must deal with limits as well as the relative opportunity costs and benefits of their decisions.  Similar to the way that the microeconomy is constrained to function within the macroeconomy, the macroeconomy is constrained to function within the ecosystem.

The stark and fairly recent truth is that our economic system has become so large that it is overpowering and threatening the natural systems that support it.

The term “natural resources” refers to the materials and substances that are located in our ecosystem and that are extracted, harvested, or depleted for use in productive (but not necessarily positive) activities.

In general, we can preserve or conserve natural resources.  Some can be replaced or renewed, such as trees and arable land.  Others, such as fossil fuels, metals, and minerals, cannot.

To make a financial analogy, natural resources are principal; the use of natural resources is withdrawal of principal, or capital.

The stark and fairly recent truth is that our economic system has become so large that it is overpowering and threatening the natural systems that support it.

The earth supports human well-being not only through a multitude of natural resources (“natural capital”) but also through a variety of essential ecosystem services. Examples include climate regulation, the filtration and supply of fresh water, the moderation of flooding, the productivity of fertile land, pollination, and many others.

To further the financial analogy: ecosystem services can be thought of as the earnings, or yield, of our natural resources.  These ecological yields are critical to our survival.  To the extent that we deplete natural resources, we are also reducing the capacity of our ecosystem to provide life-sustaining services, much as the continued withdrawal of financial capital reduces the capacity of our savings to provide interest earnings.

An “ecological footprint” measures the total area of biologically productive land and water required to provide the biological resources an individual, business, country, or other population uses.  It also includes the resources necessary to process the population’s waste.  This measurement is a way to relate personal, business, or national activities to productive capacity limits. Since the 1980s, the global economy has been in an overuse, or “overshoot,” situation, meaning that our usage exceeds the amount that the earth can regenerate.

Unfortunately, there is no Federal Reserve or lender of last resort for natural resources or ecosystem services.

This overshoot has been increasing every year, with global demand exceeding supply by about 50% today. This means that it takes about 18 months for the earth to produce the ecological resources we use in a year. To put this into economic perspective, consider a company that takes 18 months to generate the revenue it needs to pay its annual expenses. The only way this company could survive would be to borrow. Unfortunately, there is no Federal Reserve or lender of last resort for natural resources or ecosystem services.

When we are in overshoot, we are using our natural capital and depleting its ability to replenish itself in the future. We have been able to keep growing and consuming because we are liquidating ecological capital rather than living on annual yields. The business and investment case for environmental sustainability has become increasingly clear:

We must continue to question assumptions about economic growth, globalization, and historical risk/return patterns, as well as historical trends of global trade and capital flows. We must consider the riskiness of the global growth economy itself. Even if markets decline as a whole, certain companies–those that help society adapt to and solve the problems of resource limitations–are strategically positioned for leadership, innovation, and competitive advantage. It is possible to identify companies that have a higher probability of adaptation in the context of ecological limits, making them better positioned over the long term.

What are your concerns and your hopes for future generations, such as The Brick Project middle school students (9 to 13 years of age) who will have to continue to navigate the pathway between ecology and environment that pioneers such as Sir Partha Dasgupta, Paul Ehrlich and yourself have already paved forward? 

Are you optimistic about their future?

Many years ago when I was in my 20s I sat down with Ernest Callenbach, the author of Ecotopia. We talked about the world’s environmental challenges.


At one point in the conversation, I asked him if he was optimistic about our future and I asked him to attach a probability to the chance that we will succeed. His response has stayed with me for decades and inspired my work.

He said that even if we have a one-percent chance of succeeding, then we should work as hard as we possibly can to give that one percent the best chance possible. In part, this is the reason that I have dedicated my vocation and the last 30 years of my life to addressing our environmental challenges through the investment process.

My hope is that each one of you, the future generation, will join us and learn from Sir Partha Dasgupta, Paul Ehrlich and so many others who have paved the way forward with their pioneering work in ecological economics.

I hope that each of you will ask yourself the question that I asked myself 30 years ago. What can I do in this lifetime to help make the world a better place? We need as many of you as possible to help and we need you now. You don’t need to wait until you graduate from school, you can start now. There are many youth groups working on our environmental challenges and now is the time to start building your resume.

I hope that each of you will ask yourself the question that I asked myself 30 years ago. What can I do in this lifetime to help make the world a better place? 

There are future scenarios that we can map:

The most popular is “technology saves the day” where we learn how to absorb carbon concentrations, solve inequalities and end terrorism. Everyone likes this scenario because those of us who are economically advantaged don’t have to change our standard of living. Another scenario is “ecosystem collapse” where the priceless ecosystem services that the planet provides begin to fail. Then there is “fortress world” where some countries build their walls higher and use their military power to secure their resource needs.

Finally, there is “ecotopia” where we all share and achieve equality.

I mentioned these as future scenarios but actually they are all happening at some level somewhere in the world today. It is just a matter of how these scenarios will be weighted going forward. We can use your help now to influence these scenarios during your lifetime.

I understand from Karim that you have created a school program called The Carbon Game, and that you are now expanding this program to reach out to other countries beyond the USA. I also know that Karim is interested in incorporating generic aspects of your ideas and methodology for The Carbon Game into the future Brick Project curriculum. This is because Ecology is one of the 4 core subjects of The Brick Project, the other 3 subjects being History, Art and Literature.

How does this program currently operate within schools and what are your aspirations for the future educational reach of The Carbon Game?

The Carbon Game is an engaging way to teach children about carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere and ways they can help through conservation, mitigation, and education. The program teaches students about climate change and the important task of measuring carbon emissions.

The Carbon Game

Teaching the Carbon Game school program in Sri Lanka

The game begins with an interactive slide show presentation in a classroom or school’s multipurpose room, continues by engaging students in data collection at home, and concludes with a presentation and exercises that measure the carbon footprint used by student households over a 30-day period.

Students are educated on conservation and mitigation strategies. The game moves the notion of carbon use and climate change from being conceptual to actions that can be easily imaged and understood. Most importantly, students play the game open to the possibilities of how they may participate in lowering carbon concentrations during their lifetime.

The Carbon Game takes as little or as much classroom time as teachers require. The minimum classroom time is two presentations lasting about 20 minutes each plus discussion. Teachers can integrate the game into existing math and science curriculum and the game is adaptable for any grade with fourth grade being the youngest tried so far. There are six stages:

Stage 1:

Engaging with Students’ Families –Letter home to parents. It is important to engage parents because the data collection takes place in the home with parent involvement. Often there is rich discussion around the dinner table as families measure their carbon use during the month. Changes in family patterns and behavior about energy use are noted during the game.

Stage 2:

The initial presentation to students includes a slide show and script that can be presented by a teacher, volunteer or students. The presentation focuses on understanding carbon concentrations in the atmosphere with source material from NASA and the United Nations.

Stage 3:

Gathering Data – Students collect data on carbon use at home including car miles, air miles (if any), electricity and natural gas use.

Stage 4:

Students calculate all of the households’ data collected to the convert energy use into pounds or kilos of carbon dioxide.

Stage 5:

Second presentation – The total carbon footprint of all student households is revealed and compared with data from other schools. Methods to lower carbon concentrations: conservation, renewable energy, and carbon mitigation are discussed.

Stage 6:

Follow-ups – Students may pledge to educate five people outside of their household about the program experience and results; plant trees in collaboration with a local organization; develop a presentation to the entire school assembly; or select a neighboring school and teach the game to others.

We’d like to create a cross-cultural exchange among students from different countries.

Over 1,200 students and their families have participated in our programs. Now that the pilot program has been proven as a viable model, we are bringing the program to as many schools as possible in as many countries as possible. We would like to create a cross-cultural exchange among students from different countries.

I believe that educating the next generation about CO2 concentrations, conservation and mitigation is one of the greatest impacts I can have in my work.

The following parents, teachers and students have written about the program’s results and outcomes.

I’ll wrap up with their words as they best describe the project:

“It was interesting to look at the mileage driven – to actually measure it (and Owen loved being able to go out to the cars and write down the numbers). Before we never really thought about it because we need to drive for work. But we try not to drive on the weekends, to ride bikes or walk instead.  Although we were already cognizant of our mileage we weren’t as aware of our power usage. We had many revealing conversations about conservation with our boys and it definitely changed our use of power. Although it was a bit difficult for my son to understand the significance of the measurements used, I think the Carbon Game lent itself nicely to talking with our kids.”   

— Cathie, mom to Owen

“My husband pays the bills so I never really looked at our use of gas and electricity. When I did to participate in the Carbon Game I was surprised to see we used more power than I thought.We were always pretty good about turning lights off when not needed but after the Carbon Game my son became much more aware of the power being on. He really tracked things and helped remind us all the time when something could be turned off. He sort of became our “energy police.”  He even told people at church about what he had learned and been doing with the Carbon Game at school. We have always been aware of the problems facing the earth but the Carbon Game reinforced our concern for the planet and knowledge that we have an impact.  I am grateful for the Carbon Game – for the opportunity to present kids with the information while their minds are open to the message. (ie before middle school)”  

— Laurie, mom to Aaron

“It was great to see my 4th grader talking to her younger brother about the Carbon Game and what it meant for our family. It definitely sparked conversation in our family about our habits and made my kids say “we should ride our bikes there instead of driving.” 

— Rebecca, mom to Annika

“The Carbon Game was not difficult to participate in.  It is very user friendly.  My son really noticed mileage after writing down the number on the odometer. We talked about why one car has so many miles and the other not as many, how we use our cars and where we go.  I also appreciated that kids are the teachers with the Carbon Game. My boys (4th and 2nd grades) liked the experience and I think the Carbon Game really complements what is done at school.” 

— Korinna, mom to Jackson

“We thought we were doing well and then my husband had to go on a business trip to the East Coast. The Carbon Game made us recognize the impact of flying on carbon emissions. It also got us thinking about how we use resources.   The Carbon Game made my daughter realize there is a real reason behind turning off the light when you leave a room besides me just nagging her. She now knows that her actions have a real impact.”  

— Kirsten, mom to Edith

“I appreciated the kid-focused approach to the topic of carbon emissions and climate change. It was easy for my child to look at and write down the numbers from the car odometers and looking at our power and natural gas bills together to find the numbers needed was another great lesson and launch pad for discussion. My son came to understand the importance of carbon and the role it plays in our atmosphere. All in all this was a great experience for our entire family. “

— Michael, dad to Griffin

“The Carbon Game uses a hands-on, real-life teaching and learning model that speaks to both students and teachers. Today, most kids know that we are in an energy crisis. For them to have an opportunity to investigate this global issue from a personal and practical vantage point, one where they can investigate their own reliance upon and use of fossil fuel, is the most powerful, meaningful and memorable of all. The Carbon Game gives kids the opportunity to see exactly how they and their family purchase and consume fossil fuel. Likewise, students have an opportunity to study other energy resources and practice how to transition to other, more sustainable ways of consuming. At Stafford Primary School, where Carsten Henningsen first trialed the Carbon Game, fourth grade students, enjoyed the opportunity to actively investigate through individual data collection and collective analysis, just exactly how energy is consumed in their own homes and in their community.  This hands-on, minds-on experience built awareness that will stay with them for the duration.  And it is this awareness of the leaders of tomorrow we must count on to inspire and implement more sustainable changes in our energy choices of the future. The Carbon Game is a powerful, relevant tool for helping children understand how much of our lives revolve around the consumption of energy, the many ways we can reduce this consumption, and the alternative energy sources available today and possible in the near future.

— Shelly Buchanan, 4th grade teacher, Stafford Primary, West Linn, OR

“Participating in the Carbon Game was a fun and informative way for my students to learn about carbon emissions. The Powerpoint materials were visually interesting and generated some wonderful conversations. Tracking auto and air mileage, and looking at electricity and natural gas usage made families more aware of their own carbon footprint. My students created their own Powerpoint and presented to the entire school during two assemblies. They presented some of our class data, and shared ideas for how they would help the environment and reduce their own carbon footprints.”

— Christy Caton, 4th grade teacher, Alameda Elementary, Portland, OR

“The Carbon game kick off presentation was very engaging to students. Having a student peer present the information was a change from the usual method and the students who presented really learned a lot. Preparing for the first assembly involved time in getting the student presenters well prepared and confident in the information. The carbon dioxide cycle is part of our curriculum and fit in nicely with what the students are learning. The data collection has gone smoothly in having students track air and car miles.”

 — Katherine Miller, middle school teacher, St. Andrew Nativity Sch., Portland, OR

From students who participated in The Carbon Game program

“I learned that carbon is causing global warming and polar ice melting. Also, trees can cancel about 40 pounds of carbon per year. Isn’t that amazing? I think so. I love trees, they are awesome.”

“Now my Mom drives for shortcuts to save gas and get places fast. Also, I get outside and play baseball a lot.”

“The main thing that changed in my family is biking and walking more.”

“I learned that instead of using coal for energy there are different kinds of power like solar power, wind power, and hydro power.”

“Trees are a great way to help our planet.”

“I got my Dad to walk to New Seasons! Now I almost never watch T.V. And I walk to school.”

“My family now uses less water and turns off the lights.”

“I learned that 11 balloons represent the space of about one pound of carbon.”

“For my family, less screen time and more time outside.”

“I learned that carbon is really bad. Because of global warming the ice is melting and that’s bad for animals like polar bears. And I care about animals.”

“Carbon is polluting and causing global warming and we can change that.”

click here to learn more about the carbon game