Dia Mirza tells Outlook on how climate change is a humanitarian crisis, her passion for wildlife and earth, her advice to the next generation on environmental choices and the changes that she has made in her lifestyle by completely banishing plastic bottles, travelling with her own cutlery and water bottle and not consuming fast fashion. She also talks about the gap that exists between climate science and the inadequate education we impart to our children. Excerpts:
How is climate change a humanitarian crisis?
While championing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, I have become even more acutely aware of the urgent need to address climate change. This is a very critical decade for us to take decisive action and mitigate the harm that has been already done and turn the clock back. This is the moment when all stakeholders, individuals, governments, collectives and policymakers must come together to make the final push for the SDGs. We are now facing not just imminent and far-reaching impacts of the climate crisis but also the COVID-19 pandemic that has deepened pre-existing social and economic fractures. We must interlink social, economic and environmental issues because we cannot leave anyone behind as we try to nurse back the planet to health and recovery.
The pandemic has exposed the gaps in global climate action and COVID 19 is just one of the millions of zoonotic pathogens that come into human populations because of our unsustainable relationship with nature. Even outside this pandemic, natural disasters force 26 million people into poverty each year and claim millions of lives. if this is not a humanitarian crisis then what is?
Your social media feeds are always brimming with messages urging people to rethink environmental choices. What is your advice to the next generation?
Well, young people across the world are speaking up against policy inaction and taking even world leaders to task but when I address the youth, my advice to them is to read up on climate change, and not be overwhelmed by data. I remind them that individual action can stem the biggest of tides because each little action we take today has an impact on tomorrow. Just small steps like refusing single-use plastics can cumulatively add to a hugely positive movement to protect our oceans and pristine environs. I ask them to learn about where things come from and where they go after being tossed away and become more mindful of consumption patterns. The next step would be to demand climate action from leaders and legislators. Not littering, planting trees, greening urban spaces, conserving water and energy. Every small step makes a big difference to mother earth. We also need to rediscover the joy of slow living, of not being in a hurry all the time. There is a lot of wisdom in pausing to smell the roses but of course, we must plant the roses first.
When did you discover your passion for wildlife and the earth?
I was raised to be sensitive to the environment and had a beautiful school where we often studied under big trees. We spent a lot of time working with grass root communities and discussed the first scientific reports about climate change. We had conversations about consumerism and our own choices and patterns of consumption. I became aware that everything that we use and throw comes from the earth and goes back to it. I learnt that human activity is changing the temperatures of the planet. When I watched the documentary, ‘The Inconvenient Truth’, my awareness about climate issues deepened even more.
A few years ago, when I visited a tiger habitat in Madhya Pradesh, I understood the challenges of ecology conservation and the dangers that forest rangers face while dealing with poachers and encroachers. I also went on to associate with people like Bittu Sahgal who runs the Sanctuary Nature Foundation and Vivek Menon who is the CEO of the Wildlife Trust of India. I increasingly became aware of the gap that exists between climate science and the inadequate education we impart to our children. Add to this, inadequate coverage in the media and we could be dealing with a crisis of ignorance. That is when I decided to use my voice to reach out to as many people as possible with information that would sensitise them to the environment. Even my series ‘Ganga, The Soul Of India’, highlighted the link between human survival and the condition of our rivers and forests. As a UNEP Goodwill Ambassador, I also had the privilege to work on a powerful global campaign against plastic pollution.
What are your views on conscious consumption - from living to dressing to eating? What are the conscious choices that you have made in your life?
I have more or less switched to a plant-based diet and I edit every impulse to buy something new. I do not consume fast fashion, have completely banished plastic from my life, travel with my own cutlery and water bottle and choose things for my home and myself that are sustainable. My own wedding showcased this credo by being totally zero-waste and sustainable in every aspect, down to the outfits Vaibhav and I wore.
What is your advice to people so that we can live in harmony with nature?
We must reconfigure the meaning of development. Can we thrive in an unhealthy ecosystem? Can we survive without a harmonious relationship with our flora and fauna, our biodiversity, food security, clean air and water? These are simple questions to answer and yet, we see so much harm done to Nature in the name of progress. Climate action is primarily about harmony between mother earth and humanity. It recognises that rainforests are our lungs and coastlines are our livelihoods. We must at least now understand that our own health and planetary health are intertwined. And that development cannot just be GDP – it must mean natural capital. To achieve this balance, we must encourage sustainable practices, teach our kids about the environment and meet renewable energy targets, collectively.
Are there any lessons that you learnt from the pandemic?
Personally, I learnt to focus on the present more mindfully and while observing the pandemic, I saw how it devastated the socially and economically vulnerable sections. I learnt that a healthy environment, social equity and human rights are interconnected. The biggest lesson was and is that we must protect those who are the most vulnerable in any crisis. Especially women who were in the front-lines of pandemic response and are also the first to be impacted by any global shock. We also must work towards providing clean water to billions around the world who dealt with the pandemic without any access to even quality sanitation. Finally, we must protect the livelihoods and lives of the marginalised because unless all of us are healthy and safe, none of us really are.