Yo just got back from a walk in Hyde park, headphones in, Max Richter playing, after a sweltering 30C day in London. I stopped halfway to take my trainers off and pad my feet on the grass. This is where I often go when I need to breathe, and not to think.
I’ve been a nature nerd since the days of making mud pies (and grass on the side), turning up stones to see worms and woodlice, and foraging for blackberries with the other kids in the village, often to make some sort of inedible fruity soup.
When I think about this special time in my childhood, I feel a visceral tug, like missing someone. I found out, aged five, we were moving out of the city into the middle of rural Herefordshire, somewhere on the border of Wales and England. I remember hating the idea. But it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me.
My background has been described many times as “humble”, and it was. I often escaped my house for the calm of the green surrounding it. Me and my friend Niall would walk for hours, hoping to get lost, and with buses rarely appearing we ended up knowing shortcuts through every field and hedgerow. The way that Kerry and Kurtan are often hanging around in a field in [the BBC comedy] This Country chime with me
While I don’t come from a “privileged” upbringing, knowing the landscape so well gave me a connection that is a type of wealth. From a young age, I instinctively knew that my fate on this planet is inextricably entwined with that of nature – with the fate of flora and fauna and fungi.
I felt it in my bones, and surely the era of the “tree-hugger” or “eco warrior” has now gone because we are all in this ecological mess together, whether we feel a connection to nature or not. We are 100% reliant on these incredible natural systems provided in this biosphere. We know that for clean water, you need healthy forests; to balance carbon, you need healthy seas and peat bogs, mangroves and seagrass. Nature isn’t just nice scenery. We are nature – and we depend on it.
It felt natural to me to start speaking out about the destruction of nature and, more generally, about my fears and hopes for this amazing planet: asking questions, holding people to account, trying to open the conversation. I gave the crisis a name out loud – the climate and nature crisis – as many others were doing, but in my industry nobody was talking about it. The biggest threat to humanity… and it was business as usual! It was totally bizarre.
I just wanted it to be the headlines, as it always should have been. Now, we’re in a pretty dire place.
I noticed that anything I said that was nature- or climate-related had repercussions for me. Apparently saying out loud that I was frightened for our future was a big deal. Pleading for us to keep forests intact, for example, was treated as if I had made a huge political statement, and I started shedding followers on social media, fast. To really engage young people (rather than scare them off), I had to change the narrative from panic and anger to ambition and optimism. Hopelessness was getting me nowhere. My followers have gone up again recently. Given that I haven’t released music in a while, maybe something is catching on!
In 2017, I became an environment ambassador for the UN, meaning I had to go into scary conferences and make speeches to scientists and global leaders. Awful. As someone with a phobia of public speaking and chronic impostor syndrome, this was not a fun process.
If I hadn’t had such a strong connection with nature, I don’t think I would have been able to do it. My passion also comes from how much it has saved me and been there for me when bad mental health was taking me to a dark place. That alone gave me a sort of legitimacy to speak out and muscle my way into discussions, largely between politicians who are deciding our future and our children’s future.
I traveled with the WWF (I have since become a WWF ambassador) to Greenland’s Jakobshavn glacier. Witnessing the sheer size and enormity of the glaciers and hearing the ice crack was a huge sensory overload and tuned me soberly into the climate crisis.
Essentially, what we’re doing to the planet is the equivalent of pointing a hairdryer at an ice cube that’s sitting in warm water. But such analogies don’t seem to wash with people. As a songwriter and performer, I trade in emotion and feeling, so I get that. Telling stories is everything; how we connect, intertwine, relate, empathize.
I was lucky enough to meet the scientists – who only have the science and the data and nothing more, no metaphors or wordplay, just facts – and I really felt their exasperation. They are on the frontline, providing evidence to our politicians, who then try to negotiate with it, instead of really acting.
My tactic now is to show up as often as possible armed with messages from scientists, and views and questions crowdsourced from people who follow me on social media. I’m always aware of who isn’t in the room as much as who is. For us nature nerds, things are finally changing for the better. The official climate process has stopped treating nature and climate as two different problems.
At Cop26 in Glasgow last year, I got to speak, and met a network of incredible environment ministers from all over the world, from Kenya, Costa Rica and Ecuador, who are reversing the tide of destruction, sometimes in very dangerous circumstances. They’re backing nature in a way we haven’t seen before. The Canadian environment minister, Steven Guilbeault, has been in and out of jail for eco-activism. A lovely guy! I’m not saying this is happening everywhere, but we shouldn’t write off committed, talented policy people who can flip the system from underwriting the destruction of the natural world to protecting it.
However uncomfortable I am, that’s nothing compared to the risks that are being taken by Indigenous communities who do most of the work and shoulder most of the risk. Whenever I go to a summit or conference, I try to catch up with young activists from across the globe. At Stockholm+50, I met young climate and environment leaders who had escaped war zones and persecution to get to these meetings. They included people from rainforest regions who had traveled for days – including by canoe – just to be heard. That level of risk and sacrifice is mind-boggling.
These are my heroes and allies. They are the people I want to represent me. It breaks my heart to think young people, a demographic that includes my one-year-old son, could grow up without the kind of relationship with nature that I was lucky to have. It is for this reason that I am so relieved to see that rewilding is on the radar again. The idea that we can reverse biodiversity loss, provide the ecological functions we all rely on and create resilient local economies for us and for our children – just by letting everything take its natural course once in a while – is pretty damn cool.
Nature really can heal itself, if we let it. At the same time, if we really commit to immersing ourselves in it, it can work wonders for mental health.
I would say to anybody that, from supporting Global Witness, WWF, Unep and ambitious goals for rewilding Europe by 2030 and protecting 30% at least of the seasthere’s a you-shaped hole in ecological activism. It’s not separate from you, it’s part of you. You really do have much more power than you realize, and there is no better time to seize it.
Be aware of your day-to-day actions in how you can be as friendly to the Earth as possible. Talk to your friends, start groups, join local environmental communities, plan walks in nature, get stuck in. But, above all, stay in active hope.
There is still so much we can turn around. We just need to keep fighting, and to stick up for this incredible planet that we get to call home.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism