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Lily Cole: We need to switch the narrative from sacrifice to improvement

The environmental activist, model, actor, and filmmaker on imperfect environmentalism, the power of culture and shifting mindsets.

It feels like we're in the midst of a kind of collective insanity whereby we have everything at our disposal to transform our world for the better, and yet we're consistently missing opportunities to do so.

The energy crisis was an opportunity to rethink our energy systems. Covid was a chance to reset our relationship with nature, food, transport, and much more. But the responses to both crises have been knee-jerk, with little regard to the science and how we prevent future events of this magnitude.

We know we have solutions ripe for the taking. We could decarbonise our energy markets and overhaul our food systems. And yet, we find ourselves in a strange quagmire.

On the one side, there's been significant momentum in the environmental movement and conversation; on the other, a failure to rise to the challenge politically, economically and even individually. Many people, corporations and governments are aware of the climate and biodiversity crises but are still participating in the problem. We're on the brink of catastrophe, yet it's just not resonating.

How do I live with integrity and mindfulness and take small actions where I can but not self-flagellate in the process?

I became a vegetarian when I was 10. And I remember at the time being teased at school – not in a mean way, in a sweet way – by kids saying things like, "well, if you don't eat that burger, I will!" The logic was: "what difference does not eating one burger make?"

This is true. If you apply it to one individual, it will make a minor difference. But collectively, the fact that there are billions of vegans and vegetarians on this planet makes a big difference. And if every one of them tomorrow suddenly felt their choice didn't make a difference, then it would make a significant impact.

So, it's important not to underestimate the power of individual action. It's a tiny piece of the puzzle that adds up to momentum – to great things. Because it also influences political will, market forces, and many other things.

The other important aspect is integrity – that sense of well-being that comes from living with integrity is hugely influential. The challenge is, how do I live with integrity and mindfulness and take small actions where I can but not self-flagellate in the process? Because it's almost impossible to live a life of perfect integrity within the systems we currently have.

Part of the problem with individual action is that it's been marketed as a sacrifice – drive less, fly less, eat less meat, don't eat meat, recycle more, wear hemp! It feels like a denial of life's pleasures. We need to switch the narrative from sacrifice to improvement and sell the promise of a beautiful path to a higher quality of life.

We also need to focus more on the pleasures we can derive from having a relationship with nature, and we could even question whether we’re doing a job we love. What we might lose in earnings, we might make up for in having the luxury of choice and happiness in the knowledge that we are spending our time more meaningfully. The same goes for focusing more on relationships, community and hobbies – things that are not so material – to satisfy ourselves.

How do we embody environmentalism in a way that improves our quality of life rather than feels like a sacrifice?

We need to switch the mindset away from one of waste. Our economic system has encouraged us to be perpetually wasteful; it's ingrained into our consumption habits. We're in a system where buying most products is sometimes cheaper than repairing them. The message is to buy, buy, buy; throwaway, throwaway, throwaway. Through no fault of our own, many of us are caught up in this endless consumption cycle, but we've got to come to a point where we resist it and buy things that we love. We can learn a lot from the late Vivienne Westwood, whom I loved and adored, because her message simply was: buy less and buy better.

Something might cost more, but we'll repair it and look after it. Ultimately, this shift in mindset can make us happier. The by-product of this is that this is a more environmentally friendly way to live. The question, therefore, is: how do we embody environmentalism in a way that improves our quality of life rather than feels like a sacrifice?

In some ways, it's a cultural challenge to solve. In what's often called Western culture, there are many beautiful things worth celebrating and fighting to keep, but there are also profoundly problematic things.

The economic system has allowed this particular culture to normalise waste that's driving mass consumption. Other aspects of this culture have normalised a disconnect from nature and, in some cases, a lack of empathy for other species, generations and places in the world. The consequence is that there's been an emphasis on the individual that, ironically, has often failed to serve the individual. For instance, the number of people experiencing mental health problems has risen, and part of this, I believe, can be attributed to a lack of community, connection and meaning.

The anthropologist Wade Davis says, "The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit."

There are so many ways to live, behave and relate to each other; we don't have to fixate upon one way of doing things. The good news is that culture is shifting; it just might take a bit longer for politics to catch up.

This conversation took place on Monday, 6th February 2023. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Main image: Bart Kuykens.


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