Letting India Breathe: Eco-anxiety and the Politics of Hope


INTERVIEW WITH ADITYA S SAHDEVAN, MOCK COP INDIA DELEGATE & CLIMATE ACTIVIST (FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE + BRING BACK GREEN + CLIMATE FRONT INDIA)


Q. The protests in Mollem, Goa were on your mind when we spoke. Can you explain what is at stake here and have the protests been successful?


Yes, my exams are in few days but my mind is wholly occupied with the Mollem Goa protest. Both Goa and Greenery are synonymous with each other, but now the government has granted approval for the double tracking of railways, 4 lane roads and other developmental projects in order to turn Goa into a coal hub.


These projects also run through Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park. These are protected areas in eco-sensitive zones which are home to many endemic species. It is unforgivable that a staggering 50,000 trees will be razed for this project. The most ridiculous part of all of this is that the approval of these projects has been granted by the Board of Wildlife, the watchdogs responsible for protecting the environment. They are instead orchestrating grave injustices.


EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) has allowed projects like this to acquire approval effortlessly by loosening the law. Under the EIA draft notification 2020, the people's representation was intentionally slackened by the government, shortening the notification period from 30 to 20 days. Earlier, the people could file complaints against the polluters, but now only polluters can complain. It is hard to digest how much things have changed for the worse. Many new local organisations in Goa have mushroomed and people have been detained for protesting. But despite the strong will of the people to protest the government, many red category and toxic industries are being given green lights to continue.


It is usually a common practice by governments displacing indigenous forests or people to announce replantation and relocation drives. For example, if the government has acquired an indigenous forest for infrastructural projects requiring the razing of thousands of trees & displacing not only flora and fauna, but protected tribal communities, when protests arise the normal response of the government is to announce the replantation of 100,000 trees. This is unfair, done just to quell the protest, and it is not a viable nor responsible solution. The replantation scheme of thousands of trees cannot substitute what is lost to deforestation, since these traditional and indigenous forests have their own riches and diversity. In addition to this, many species cannot simply adjust if they become homeless. Jeopardizing the ecological imbalance also means these species might become endangered or worse go extinct. I'm not condemning replantation entirely, but the carbon sequestration of these mature forests are so high, replanted trees or Miyawaki forests simply cannot regenerate fast enough to fill the void caused by deforestation. So we should be protecting these forests at all costs.


Q. You are pursuing a career in environmental law and have talked about how that was a difficult decision for you to make. Why is that?


Yes, let me explain how difficult it was to make this decision. I wanted very much to become a civil servant. Since the 9th grade I was so determined, and even went to the training academy. My family was supportive as well. I chose this route for my personal growth, but also because it is a profession of service and administration. But after observing the conditions and certain factors and events, I began to get disheartened and demotivated. Due to political pressure, politicians won't allow civil servants to implement green policies, and if civil servants don’t acquiesce to the commands of politicians like puppets on a string, civil servants will either be sacked, degraded to a subordinate post, or eventually corrupted like the politicians, resolved to the life of a silent spectator.


On seeing this cruel truth, I became disillusioned because I had lost trust in the system, and my gut feeling was at its zenith. I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to work with the commitment and conviction that I had if I become a civil servant. My eco-anxiety coaxed me to the difficult decision to drop this plan. It was hard to give up. I was also concerned about how my parents would react, and whether they would be irritated or sad.

So I took up law to become an environmental lawyer, hoping to question the injustice by delivering justice, to protect the planet through legislation, and to become the voice of the voiceless. This decision was made in the interest of giving back to society, and not taken in the interest of personal growth.


I believe that I have the potential to do many things, and I don't want to be termed one amongst a herd of sheep. I don't want politics in my arena. I want to work devotedly, and with sheer freedom.


Q. You have had to make so many personal sacrifices to pursue your climate ambition. How have these sacrifices informed or impacted the lives of those close to you?


I disagree with calling them sacrifices since this is our collective obligation to protect the planet, no one is sacrificing. We are protecting our home. Some of my eco-challenges which I have committed to making to cut short my carbon emissions include the following:


i) Music streaming and OTT Platforms: I have altered the usage of both these streaming cloud services. This is literally steaming the environment. Watching Netflix emits 0.6 kg of carbon emissions per hour. I use streaming services only to look out for new songs. If the song is already on your favourite playlist, I would staunchly recommend downloading the songs because every time we replay the songs or stream online, it creates carbon emissions. So it is better to download and listen offline.


ii) Screen time: When I watch or read anything on the internet or on the phone, I make sure that I am not watching it just to pass my time. I will make sure that I will use it for productive purposes only. The bigger the size of the screen and the quality of the video or content resolution, the more the carbon emissions. I also make sure that I do not leave my phone with the screen on. Energy saved is energy produced.


iii) Food Waste: I won't waste food or buy excess food, and any waste I do have will be disposed of properly so that it won't result in the release of methane emissions. The amount of labour and precious resources used for food production should also not be wasted. Considering human population growth and increased poverty, we should be more conservative.


iv) Dish Washing: Inappropriate dishwashing emits about 500 grams to 8 Kilogram of carbon emissions. So I prefer washing the dishes in cold water, and never letting the tap run unnecessarily.


v) Walking: I always prefer to walk, even if it's quite a long distance. I use a step counting app which has motivated me to walk more. Walking also emits carbon, but that depends upon one’s diet, and regardless it is much lower in emissions than using a vehicle.


vi) E-mails: A sound e-mail system (keeping a spam-less inbox) can reduce about 20 million tons of carbon emissions. An e-mail emits about 10 grams of CO². Most of our mails are junk or spam mail, so by unsubscribing from them one can cut short your carbon emissions significantly. Even deleting spam mails emits CO², so it is better to unsubscribe.


vii) Shampoo Bottles : Shampoos contain toxic micro plastics, and are also sold in plastic bottles, most of which will end up in landfills or in the ocean. I prefer to use toxic free natural shampoo, which is home-made. A shampoo bottle emits about 16 kg of carbon emissions.


viii) Diet: Eco-anxiety had coaxed me to make changes in my diet as well. I no longer consume soft drinks or snack packets. I also always carry a steel straw with me.


ix) Text Messages: A text message emits about 0.07 grams of carbon dioxide. It is a small amount but I have made sure never to spam text. I also leave Whatsapp groups, which I find futile, since it is totally pointless if you don't read them, and just being a part of the group can harm the environment. Every time we send and receive messages, they emit CO² whether you open the group or not.


Q. Activism has a long history in India, but how does climate activism fit into modern day India? How effective is it? How do the police treat climate activists?


India has seen a sea of protests. The reason we are living here freely is because of some of the protest and activism which has brought fundamental changes in social, economic & political spectrums. I have much gratitude to all those who fought selflessly.


Climate activism is not new here. But there has been a surge in the number of climate activists. In modern India, most of the climate activism is driven by the young. Many take to the streets to protest against governments and corporates to withdraw bills or any anti-environment policies. There is also a sudden spike in the sprouting of international environmental organisations and many other regional environment organisations as well. This is a great way to connect and keep things updated and share ideas.


There is public acceptance, and many organisations, companies and citizens join hands with these climate activists.


It is effective, but police treat climate activists the same as terrorists. I recall the EIA protest during the months of May to August where many youth-led organisations and individuals were combating collectively to repeal this unconstitutional, undemocratic and anti-environmental EIA draft notification 2020. Communities fighting on the frontlines were censored or blocked from social media, including high-profile organisations like 'Let India Breathe' & 'Fridays for Future'. The government invited objections to EIA draft notifications 2020, but they removed the e-mail petition links from the sites of these environmental organisations and they made it inaccessible. The reason for the removal of the links was not provided either. This made it easier for the government since they could execute this draconian law without informing many people. When questioned, the government said the activity of these environmental organisations would lead to terrorist activity. This was the clarification given by the government in response to making the sites inaccessible.


Recently, two minors were detained in Delhi for protesting against air pollution. The situation and treatment is at its absolute worst.


Q.What are your plans for the future?


Fixing green resolutions & goals was my mantra from a very young age, and I have decided to devote my whole life towards the environment by becoming a full time lawyer, activist and writer.


Climate activism and awareness is my purpose in life, every time I have severe climate depression, I say to myself, 'Aditya, God had sent you for a purpose, fulfil it.’ I have a lot of things to do before I leave the planet. I believe in the power of individual action and that each person has the power to lead and create change.


After graduating I want to pursue my passion of practicing as an environmental lawyer. I have an interest in politics and hope to become an environment minister, so that I can inform, inspire and implement green policies. I'm not lured by power or prestige, but I believe if a person like me takes charge as an environment minister, I can do so many things to protect the earth and to reform the corrupt system. The office holds a lot of power, but it needs to be exercised by someone with passion & knowledge, not someone who is a climate change denier.


I wish to inspire people to get involved and fight for this cause. I have talked with my family about my plan to become a climate change writer. It is especially difficult in Indian society to convince parents sometimes, but my family was supportive of my endeavour to empower people through my words.


I hope to fund green projects and eco-preneurship. I have plans to bring lab, plant based meat & vegan cafe chains in India, because it is ethical and much needed. As the number of meat eaters increase, so do the carbon emissions.


I also want to ensure that climate education is included in the school curriculum.


Q. A lot of young people in India share your sense of purpose when it comes to the environment which is admirable. Do young people within your community consider climate activism to be a choice or is it more of an obligation?


According to my analysis, more people should consider climate activism to be sheer obligation. Passion and factors like eco-anxiety play a significant role in shaping one's perspective about climate change and activism.


There are a few people who chose eco-preneurship or litigation in environmental law because they see the scope of this field. However, even if their motivations are different to mine, I can still appreciate there should be more people and organisations in this sector who are fighting for climate justice.


It is mostly people my age (21) or under who are suffering most from eco-anxiety, or have experienced eco-injustices and are automatically propelled to fight this cause. I have gone through a lot of phases of burnout because I exhaust myself with activism, sometimes forgetting my surroundings and even my own health. There are many like me who can't concentrate on their academics because of this. I exhaust myself with tight schedules. This is all done to secure and restore the planet to top condition, bringing back a pristine environment.


This is an endless fight, there are no heroes.


Q. Kerala where you live is known as 'God's own country'. How has climate change impacted the state and your local region in recent years and what has it been like for you as someone living on the frontlines?


Kerala has experienced and is experiencing the impacts of climate change on a serious scale. The 2018 and 2019 floods devastated the state, but if the government had taken the Gadgil Report into consideration, this loss could have been avoided or reduced. In these recent two years, Kerala has witnessed more protests in the name of religion than for the environment, or any other issue. There are thousands to march for the protection of religious freedoms and other societal norms, but sadly not even a quarter of the populace will raise their voice for the environment. The most vocal and effective activists are either fired or sidelined. Clearances to build in eco-sensitive or CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) areas are granted to fulfil the government's only agenda- to secure votes by flaunting development, none of which is sustainable development. I personally no longer feel that I'm living in God's own country. The people and the government are not at all concerned about the environment.


Another incident here which was totally avoidable was the illicit construction of 5 high tower water front apartments. The Supreme Court ordered for the demolition of these 5 high tower complexes for being in direct violation of CRZ rules. The local authority had flouted the rules and given permission to the builders to begin construction. This has resulted in split support for and against the builders. Even the subsequent demolition has resulted in massive environmental destruction because the towers were placed in an environmentally fragile area. Had it not been for corruption, the construction, demolition and destruction would not have happened. This has resulted in the negligent wastage of power, labour, resources & life. For money and short term interests, people and authorities are manipulating the system.


Q. As an outspoken sufferer of eco-anxiety, describe your experiences as someone who counts emissions down to each 10 gram email. How do you manage your anxiety?


I write. Not to instil panic, but to call on others to combat climate change collectively. I communicate and convert my eco-anxiety into eco-activism through my writing. Having high eco-anxiety is a stressful and​ strenuous existence. This motivates me to write and research more about climate change.


The psychological impact it has is mammoth. Eco-anxiety is all about a sense of insecurity, doubt and hopelessness. It clouds my mind with a thousand questions like, "is time running out? Am I doing enough? Is my activism having an impact on people?” There comes a time where you even lose trust in the system, like when authorities are making environment laws looser and less powerful, instead of tightening restrictions. Every time I witness climate insecurity I feel so sensitive and so emotional, it makes me feel numb.


India's most recently released environment impact assessment draft notification 2020 was the cause of a big breakdown. I was depressed and it was a stressful time which really affected my academics. I threw myself completely into my activism. My friends were very supportive, they even did my homework to help me, knowing that I wouldn’t do it because I was feeling pressured to completely dedicate my time to activism instead.


Because the EIA draft 2020 was a bad environmental policy, we have had to send thousands of research reports and objection e-mails to the government to convince them that this was not good for the planet. It was doubly frustrating that the government then declared that they will only read 100 emails out of 1,700,000 emails they received. Then I do some fast math. I know that the only way is to strike digitally during the Covid-19 pandemic. 1 email emits about 10 grams of carbon dioxide, so this is 1.7 million e-mails multiplied by 10 grams of carbon dioxide.


Even climate change conferences emit thousands of kilograms of carbon dioxide. We access this through our digital devices which are powered by non-renewable sources, emitting carbon, albeit for a good cause - to create awareness. But digital conferences emit only a small fraction of the carbon footprint emitted at live ones.


My anxiety attack advances when I calculate these stats.


Then I realised the power of individual action. Garnering this knowledge, I was driven to reach more people to neutralise and combat this cause. We have so much power but people underestimate the power of individual action. Had people understood how much one person can make an impact, maybe our oceans wouldn't have been polluted and filled with 8 trillion tons of plastic products. Every time someone throws a plastic bottle and thinks it is just one bottle, they create a negative impact. Sadly, this was the thought 7 billion people had when they threw a bottle away.


We must reverse the mindset here. Individual actions can create a positive or negative impact. Let's make sure it's a positive one.