by Eilidh Roberts (she/her)
Photo credit to World Bank Group
Hope, optimism and brightness are not words one would often associate with the climate crisis.
However, Emmanuella Onyeka, an active and forward-thinking Nigerian understands that to garner real change, climate-optimism is the only way forward. Emmanuella became involved in climate action through her university’s Society of Petroleum Engineers (for which she was general secretary) and was a finalist in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in ‘Good Health and Well-being’ and ‘Affordable and Clean Energy’ (goals 3 and 7 respectively), in which she developed a project which plants carbon-storing (sequestering) trees which would also improve food security, reduce coastal flooding and provide health benefits.
Equally energising are sisters Gauri and Purvika Awasthi, born in Kanpur, India but having also studied and lived in the US and the Netherlands. In 2016, when there were few sustainable fashion options, and those available were very expensive, they founded ‘The Vegan Wardrobe’ which focuses on sustainable, ethical and cruelty-free fashion through a number of intersectional projects, from clothes recycling to fighting against child labour exploitation and working in collaboration with organisations and universities.
Talking to both Emmanuella and the Awasthi sisters, one is struck by their energy and positivity as well as their achievements, inspiring in their scale and ambition. One thing ties all three individuals together – a hope to inspire and to show others possibilities for a better world – both in terms of climate, and other socio-economic issues.
Inspiration forms an important part of Emmanuella’s story. She first became committed to climate action after volunteering in sustainability projects, where she met others who also wanted to make a difference, it is this mutually energising community which seemed to propel Emmanuella. Her passion opened doors into the world of environmental action –as she worked in various projects as general secretary of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, she was given opportunities to further delve into sustainability-oriented projects when people recognised how interested she was.
Not only is it evident that passion propelled Emmanuella in her own work, but she also emphasises that how she lives and the environmental work she does is oriented towards inspiring others too. In fact, she insists on the importance of individual climate action – although large-scale impact is important, you must ‘practise what you preach’. Especially because if those around you see you take more sustainable action in your personal life, she says, they will be more likely to take sustainability seriously and also make these changes in their own lives. Clearly, whilst broad-scale change is important, inspiring others on a personal level is also powerful. The Awasthi sisters take a similar approach, emphasising the individual actions we can all take to influence people who we are in contact with, and, despite the small impact of everyday changes, they garner support and attention for larger-impact actions.
Still, it can be difficult to even convince people of the reality of climate change, let alone to take sustainable action. As Emmanuella expresses, it is “frustrating to talk passionately about something and not have people believe that it even exists”.
Gauri, who holds a graduate teaching scholarship at McNeese State University, in the US faced a similar problem, with little belief in the reality of climate change from students on her course. Yet, she found that after their state (Louisiana) was hit by ferocious hurricanes, the students were much more whole-heartedly committed to climate action. Therefore, Gauri advocates for personal relevance, like that made possible through individual action, to push climate change to the forefront of people’s minds
Still, in locations which, and for individuals who are already struggling to meet their basic needs, it can be (understandably) difficult for climate change, as intangible and global as it is, to be prioritised. Yet the interconnectedness of climate-related issues with other societal problems means that as one issue is tackled, the other is also confronted. This is exactly what The Vegan Wardrobe has done – in the case of fast fashion, the tangible problem of unethical labour practises can be tackled as well as unsustainable environmental practices. For example, the Awasthi sisters are looking into opening thrift stores in India (which are uncommon due to the social taboo against buying second-hand clothes if one can afford not to).
In Nigeria, where there has recently been an economic downturn and food insecurity is an important issue, climate change is also easily overlooked. Yet, as Emmanuella suggests, if tree-planting is prioritised (in the way her above-mentioned UN project advocated for), then not only is the agricultural sector positively impacted, but positive climate action is also undertaken.
Throughout my conversation with Emmanuella, as well as with Gauri and Purvika, the importance of multiply-impactful actions were clearly emphasised. Ultimately, the stories of these three inspirational women are steeped in hope. Their passion and drive and the far-reaching impacts of their achievements and goals are an inspiration to all of us. It is through these communities of energised people that we can truly build a global movement for positive climate action – whether these actions be big or small.