A collage of photographs of Claire Ratinon, Mya-Rose Craig, Ed Winters and Sam Lee and David Attenborough
Features

Tomorrow’s voices for change answer David Attenborough’s biggest environmental question

Claire Ratinon, Sam Lee, Ed Winters and Mya-Rose Craig share their thoughts on a planet dangerously on the cusp of irreversible change.

With each passing Earth Day there’s a fresh sense of urgency: another brutal IPCC report, more stark warnings, more people taking to the streets in a battle against fossil fuels. We’ve never had less time to act, but we’ve also never had as many brilliant and insightful voices to galvanise and inspire us. This year, we invited a new generation of thinkers, activists and writers to share their thoughts to a question that feels both familiar and daunting: With so many things going wrong, what can we do?

It's a question taken from A Life on Our Planet, David Attenborough’s remarkable memoir-cum-manifesto, which takes the reader through nine decades of life spent looking closely at the earth – and mankind’s footsteps upon it. As these four authors – Claire RatinonSam LeeEd Winters and Mya-Rose Craig – respond to Attenborough’s question, it feels as though a torch is being passed between the generations, of ideas, of expertise and, crucially, of hope.

Claire Ratinon, author of Unearthed

We live in overwhelming times, with a seemingly endless flow of information and communication. The cacophony of rolling news, social media feeds and ceaseless debate and commentary may appear to be a manifestation of connection but, in reality, it often leaves us feeling weary and hopeless. Between reckoning with our collective history, trying to lessen our impact on the environment and our fellow humans in the present, and then worrying about what the future might hold, it’s no wonder we sometimes feel as though there’s nothing we can do about the things going wrong in the world.

A decade or so ago, I was taught about the notion of interdependence by a Buddhist teacher in New York City. It is a word that describes the truth of the many complex and divine ways in which we are connected to one another, to the natural world, and to all things. I leant on this understanding during a lonely time but it wasn’t until a few years later, once I’d turned my life towards the work of growing plants, that I came to truly comprehend its truthfulness and profundity.

Ed Winters, author of This Is Vegan Propaganda

The climate crisis is a terrifying crisis, not just because of the destructive threat that it poses, but also because it reveals the shortsightedness of humanity and our inability to act beyond our own short-term interests.

As citizens of the world, it’s easy to listen to the stark and numerous warnings from the scientific community and then feel exasperated by the inaction of those in power. From our reliance on fossil fuels to the obscenely detrimental subsidisation of animal farming, it feels like our species couldn’t be doing a worse job of trying to prevent this crisis.

However, while we can look across the world and feel disempowered by our inability to change the many wrongdoings that currently exist, there is at least one choice that we can make daily that has the power to radically alter our world for the better and make a huge impact in averting the climate crisis: food.

There is an ever-growing understanding that our consumption of animal products has a huge environmental cost, but even as far back as 2006 we were being warned about the need to change our agricultural system, with the United Nations stating that:

The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.

Mya-Rose Craig, author of Birdgirl

I think one of the reasons life is so stressful for young people is that there are so many things going wrong with the world – in terms of the environment but also with war, famine, and beyond – that the world feels overwhelming. On my most recent nature camp, while I was doing a bird ring demonstration, a nine-year-old asked me why Russia had attacked Ukraine. It was something that clearly had been on her mind, causing her anxiety, but she felt able to ask me as a young person.

I have known lots of young environmental activists over the last ten years, and so many have burned out. As well as having their own focus, lots of organisations ask them for help, and the pressure can become too much. Katie Hodgetts has set up The Resilience Project to help support young activists after she became burnt out as a young climate activist. I think it is essential to look after your own mental health first, and say no to anything that isn’t within your core area. You can not resolve it all.

When I was 13 years old I realised that visible minority ethnic (VME) people were almost completely absent from the outdoors – especially the countryside. At that time, I didn’t really understand the reasons for this, but organised a nature camp to be part of the solution.

Reaching out, I came to realise that there was an enormously ingrained belief, on the part of VME teenagers, in the narrative that they were urbanites and not the type of people who should go out into nature. In the end I used my contacts who worked with VME communities to find five boys who could be persuaded to come out to the countryside and get them connected with nature. What I realised was that it wasn’t the fault of VME communities, but the structural racism that made them feel excluded from the outdoors.

Sam Lee, author of The Nightingale

This has been a winter of great discontent. An interconnected maelstrom of so many catastrophes; wars, storms, sickness, ecological breakdown… the list goes on, suggesting no signs of a letting off from the troubles of the world. This has been a test of our individual resilience and tenacity to cope in times marked by such wreckage.

How does one find emotional solace when confronted with such complex issues? Let’s take a few notes from nature; it usually provides an answer or two. This is the most profound time of year when against all odds (and the thermometer), life seems to resurrect itself, penetrating through hard soil, exploding twig ends into blossom and revealing a thrilling array of beings determined to be back in the picture and living their brightest lives.

What an utter inspiration to behold, and testament to the spirit of resilience the spring return is. However, it’s more than just a flower arrangement competition: this is an act of reciprocal honouring of the great bargain agreed upon to exist in your flowerhood or beedom. What goes on below and above ground is a lesson for us all regarding our own rootedness and awareness of all that has happened in this world the last few months.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more