Resilience: An Interview with Laurel Hanscom, Global Footprint Network

by | Apr 20, 2021 | Environment, Voices

Flower growing in desert

Laurel Hanscom is the CEO of the Global Footprint Network and a mentor within the Turning Green community. Through the Global Footprint Network, Laurel works towards a more sustainable world by making ecological limits central to decision-making.

Laurel has an education based in the sciences, holding a BA and MA in geology. Before joining the Global Footprint Network, Laurel worked for the Peace Corps where her time included volunteering in the Ecuadorian Amazon. 

As we celebrate Earth Day during unprecedented times, it is important that we delve deeper into the true meaning of resiliency and the development of our own resilient practices. I recently sat down with Laurel to discuss how resiliency has been a common theme woven throughout her life, and what young people can do to cultivate a resilient mindset. Laurel embodies resiliency, and her message and story are truly inspiring.   

Laurel Hanscom, CEO of Global Footprint Network

Laurel Hanscom, CEO of Global Footprint Network

What does the word resilience mean to you?

Resilience is a muscle, right? Resilience is this ability, this muscle that we develop, it can grow over time. It’s our ability to absorb the things that are coming our way, and our ability to persevere. I say it’s a muscle because I think there’s this sort of mistaken understanding that you show up with a certain amount of resilience, or it’s a personality trait. It’s not a personality trait, it’s something that you can work on. And that grows as you grow and grows as you’re faced with more challenges in your life. Resilience can be empowering, because it means even though things are hard now, it doesn’t mean that same thing is going to be hard in the future. Understanding resilience can lead to the feelings of hope.

In a previous conversation, you mentioned that you had read a certain book about resilience, can you talk about how it helped you develop your own understanding of resilience? 

Yes, it’s called Option B by Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook. It was co-written with Adam Grant, who’s just an amazing author. Essentially, Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died very unexpectedly from a heart attack while they were on vacation. There was nothing anyone could have done, and they had two small children. So she wrote this book as a response to her experiences, talking about what it means to be resilient in the face of a big, deep tragedy. 

I think for me, it opened my eyes to how much resilience is something that we actually have control over, that it’s not just something you somehow get a little share of in your personality. There are so many things that we can do, and that we can do not just for ourselves, but for each other, in terms of building our own resilience and building the resilience of our communities.

Can you talk about your understanding of resilience from your scientific background? 

I’m a scientist by trade, before I was in nonprofit management. I started out as a research scientist. So often in biology or ecology, when we talk about resilience, we’re actually talking about resilience of ecosystems, or how resilient is an ecosystem to a given change or fluctuation in temperature or whatever it is. And so, in that sense, the first thing I think of when somebody says resilience is actually ecosystem resilience, which I think is a great parallel for talking about resilience within each of us. Ecosystems are not just a single species, or a single animal, or a single plant… It’s all of the species that live together in a biome. Ecosystems show how resilience grows and increases. And when that happens, it’s through evolution and change and symbiotic relationships amongst different species. And in ourselves, it’s the same, right? We grow, we change, we go to different communities, we find the communities that help support us and lift each other up. And those are all really key aspects of resilience. We build our own resilience by relying on our communities, and our communities become more resilient by us participating in them.

Was there a certain moment in your own life that you reflect back on now where you can really see yourself building your own resiliency muscle?

On my 30th birthday, I found out that my best friend from childhood who I met the first day of kindergarten had breast cancer. It was relatively advanced, and she was 6 months pregnant. It hit me like a ton of bricks. The weight of our own mortality hit me. You know… you feel like, you’re 30 years old, everything’s laid out in front of you, you’ve had enough experience that you don’t feel like you’re just a total newbie all the time. But there’s so much career and life ahead of you at that point. And at that very moment, I’m finding out that someone that I had known my entire life was in this situation, it just hit me really hard. I just took stock of my life, and I actually came out of the closet. I started a completely different path. It was hard because some people didn’t understand. And it was also hard because I had to learn at the same time how to deal with someone who was going through something life threatening. Having to navigate just how to support someone while you’re going through something hard, that really grew my resilience muscle. 

I now know I can do something that was so hard, it never crossed my mind to be able to do it. When I think about hard decisions that I have now, or challenging things that are in front of me, there’s very little that rattles me because I know that I made it through. And I screwed up a lot through that time period, and I hurt feelings, and I had a really challenging couple of years. At this point, I think I can look back and say, I grew so much, not just in embracing my authentic self, but understanding how to support someone through tragedy and, and real trauma.

And now I know that as things come my way, that I have the tools and the resources within myself, or I know where to find them in my community. I know how to ask for help and reach out as I need it. Without that experience I wouldn’t have the amazing life that I have today. I wouldn’t have the amazing kid that I have today. I wouldn’t give it up, I wouldn’t go back and undo any of it. 

Looking back, what do you think is a moment in your professional career, being an environmental activist, that really built your resiliency? How do you keep this resiliency up considering how taxing it is to get up every morning and fight climate change?

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I lived in that Ecuadorian Amazon. During my two years in Ecuador, I spent a lot of time seeing firsthand the incredible impact that climate change was already having on people’s lives. One night in our town, there was a flash flooding event that was so large that the river rose 12 or 15 meters overnight. My apartment was up high enough that it didn’t actually hit me, but it took out this giant concrete bridge in the middle of town. It just cracked in half. I watched it from my balcony.

I think a big point of reference for me in terms of being able to do this work every day is remembering that this isn’t about two degrees, this isn’t about parts per million. This isn’t about gigatons of CO2, or even global Hector’s of ecological footprint. It’s about people. Data helps us support better decision making, it helps us inform policy, it helps us understand the magnitude of the challenge that we’re facing. But the numbers aren’t the reason. The reason is all of these people in the world who are facing an existential threat from climate change or biodiversity loss or other threats to our sustainability as a species on this planet. And recognizing that we all have a vested interest in changing our communities, changing our countries, to support living within the means of our one planet. 

And there are also things I do to keep my energy and resilience up. I think we all have our different things. For me, I make sure I’m drinking plenty of water and going outside and doing these little things that feel small but if I forget to do them it makes everything harder. I connect with other people who are doing this kind of work. Not just from a professional standpoint, but from like a “Hey, how are you doing? Are you okay?” Kind of standpoint, because I know I get energy not just from being able to vent about something but also from being able to be there for someone else. I also take time to disconnect and read silly sci-fi, and hang out with my toddler. We can’t all be all doom all the time. Finding joy both in work and out of work is a really big thing. 

For young people like me, as we’re growing up and going through these tough times to build our own resiliency, do you think that there’s a certain recipe to building your resilience during these tough times? 

Gratitude and joy are huge, right? If we’re not coming at our work from a joyful place, or a grateful place, then it’s unsustainable. When we talk about sustainability, we’re not just talking about whether we are using less, or are we consuming less than what the planet is able to provide. We’re also talking about, can we keep this up? There are little things that you can do every day to find joy and to express gratitude. They can be as little as just jotting down one thing that you’re grateful for when you wake up in the morning or before you go to bed at night. It can be something small, like sunny days, the ability to walk outside, or the fact that there are more people who are vaccinated today than there were yesterday.

Do you have anything else that you would like to touch on in regards to resilience? 

If there’s anything, it’s that change can be scary. And just because we can grow our resilience and that we do as we’re presented with hard things, doesn’t mean it’s not going to be hard for a while. I don’t want to sugarcoat that. But human beings as a species have an unbelievable capacity for change, for growth, for resilience. That facet of who we are as a species is actually one of the things that brings me a lot of hope. It’s something that I’m grateful for. Which, in turn, increases my own resilience as I take steps in my work and my day to day.

Humans are amazing. We can figure out anything, and I think we can figure our current situation [the pandemic], too. 

Ella Fesler

Ella Fesler

Ella is a second year at the University of Virginia studying Global Environments and Sustainability with a minor in Public Policy. Her interest in sustainability took off when she was a finalist for Turning Green's Project Green Challenge in 2017. At the moment, Ella is particularly interested in creating sustainable and equitable food systems for all.