Coffee With: Rhian Berning

Next up in our ‘Coffee With’ series, wonderfully uplifting words from Rhian Berning, founder of Eco Atlas.


Rhian Berning pic

Why do you do what you do?
I am so in love with our small blue planet and the deeply interconnected life on it, from the praying mantis to the rolling whales, from rainstorms to mossy forest floors, and all the diverse people that together form part of the intricate web of life.

Yet I’ve had a deep feeling and knowing for as long as I can remember that we really can do better as a species, that we’ve taken a wrong turn down our evolutionary  pathway, based on greed and short term benefits, and we’re rapidly unravelling the very living systems on which we depend.

I find it exciting that there are better, more innovative ways of doing things, that there are people doing them and that their stories need to be told because, added together, all those positive actions become a powerful wave of change that can turn our current trajectory. That’s why I do what I do. Eco Atlas is all about telling the good news stories, empowering people with information and connecting active citizens with the businesses that meet their needs for a better future.

If you weren’t an environmental activist, what would you be?
President. Ha ha, just kidding, although I am itching to have the ability to create more proactive positive change and I think the world would do well with more of the incredible, inspiring women we know in positions of power.  But realistically….I love working with children – their interface with each other and the world around them, their purity, their curious minds, their sense of wonder for our complex world and their ability to find solutions is inspiring and needs to be nurtured and stimulated.

The 3 books that have had the biggest impact on you?
Revolution by Russell Brand
Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My Year of Meat by Ruth Ozeki
(okay that was 4)

A quote you love?
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” ― Arundhati Roy

Your perfect getaway – forest treehouse or beach shack?
Well we live on the edge of beautiful indigenous forest so I get my forest fix. Our ultimate getaway is most definitely a beach shack, we are all at our happiest when we are salty, sun kissed and barefoot.

Your favourite way to recharge?
Lying in a hammock with a good book at one of the many isolated cottages we love to frequent, with access to pure nature and no cell reception, watching my children soaking up the landscape.

Top of your bucket list?
When I had just finished varsity I headed up Africa on my own traveling by train, bus, minibus and boat and it was the freest and most connected to my continent I have ever felt. My time staying with the Masai as the only mzungu and experiencing the balanced rhythm of village life was especially formative. I would love to head off with my children and husband and explore our own beautiful country and continent slowly, slowly.

Advice you’d give your 16 year old self?
Follow your intuition, don’t worry about what other people think, remember to be here now and seize the day, do what makes you happy, a swim in the sea is a cure for many things, remember to breathe, treasure your children when they are young.

Your favourite ‘wild’ place in the city?
In the Mother City it would have to be in the dappled light of a Keurboom tree on the soft grassy banks of Silvermine Dam. In my hometown of Plett it would be any of my favourite wild hideouts in Nature’s Valley.

Humanity in a hundred years — where do you think we’ll be? 
That is a very topical question! Stephen Hawking reckons that if we have not found an alternative planet within the next 100 years it’s not looking so good for us humans here on Planet Earth. I am more hopeful that enough of us will swing the status quo and innovate, regenerate and grow a verdant, abundant,stronger and better system that is in sync with all life on Earth.

Your source of strength when the going gets tough?
The effervescent, contagious laughter of my children that gives our whole family a good belly laugh round the supper table.

For you, winning at life is ……….
Being happy and healthy, living simply and sustainably and having a positive impact on the world around you.

What you’d still love to accomplish in this life?
Inspire people to realize their own power to make better choices for people and planet until we reach a tipping point – a critical mass for enduring good with highly functioning regenerative systems that positively feedback into the interconnected web of life.

Why I quit Plastic Free July

Straws!
I flunked Plastic Free July. Quite spectacularly. I tripped up on the first morning (yep, didn’t even make it to lunch time), again in the afternoon and a few times soon after that.

I felt like a right tool as there’d been some build-up on my social media (a bolshy ‘Coming atcha Plastic Free July’ on my Instagram just a few days earlier). I picked myself up, dusted myself off and dived back in. Only to be scuppered by a wretched fizzer after my son’s swimming lesson and a moment of weakness, an inability to resist my favourite (plastic covered!) magazine.

More beating myself up. And a healthy dollop of apprehension about our upcoming holiday (one where we’ll be on the move, staying with people and completely out of our routine).

So I decided to throw in the towel. At first it felt like copping out; like I was diluting my efforts for the sake of convenience. But it just wasn’t working and it was time for a recalibration.

Challenges such as Plastic Free July are not meant to be easy. I guess that’s the point – to challenge and even frustrate you, and, in this case, to create awareness around just how pervasive plastic is. Some people get it right, not just in July but Every Damn Day (check out the Zero Waste Home and Trash is for Tossers sites). We need the trailblazers and the purists — they show us what’s possible; their invaluable tips and tricks pave the way for the rest of us.  We may not succeed in completely emulating them, but it’s somewhere to start and we can do what we can, when we can.

My strategy moving forward? Pick a thing – one thing – and hone in on it until it becomes ingrained. Plastic shopping bags – it was a process but now I’m done with them; it’s overs cadovers; the reusable bags are now an effortless part of my routine. Ditto the glass water bottles.

Next up – straws! Sometimes we get it right and remember to say those three magic words (‘No straws, please’), sometimes we don’t. We’ll just keep at it, until, eventually, we remember every (or most) times.

Plastic toothbrushes and cosmetic bottles? I’ll get round to ditching them too, eventually.

Also, it’s important to keep some perspective. Slip up? Move on quickly and focus on what you have done. I’d done some wonderful prepping in June — sourced and started using my closest bulk store, invested in reusable produce bags and stocked up on my glass jars, so, in a way, Plastic Free July did it’s thing on me. I just didn’t want to be lugging around all that guilt every time my kids asked for a mint.

I feel wonderfully unburdened. I can ditch the guilt — and the plastic!