l just got back from a walk in Hyde Park, headphones in, playing Max Richter, after a blistering 30C day in London. I stopped halfway to take off my sneakers and put 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 geek ever since I made mud pies (and grass next to them), put up rocks to see worms and woodlice, and forage blackberries with the other kids in the village, often to make some sort of inedible fruity soup.
When I think of this special time in my youth, I feel a visceral jerk, like I’m missing someone. When I was five I found out that 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 often been described as “humble”, and it was. I often fled my home for the tranquility of the greenery around it. Me and my friend Niall walked for hours, hoping to get lost, and as buses seldom came, we eventually managed to cut shortcuts through every field and hedge. Like Kerry and Kurtan often hang out in a field in [the BBC comedy] This country sings with me.
Although I don’t come from a “privileged” upbringing, knowing the landscape so well gave me a connection that is a kind of wealth. From an early age I knew instinctively that my fate on this planet is inextricably linked with that of nature – with the fate of flora and fauna and fungi.
I felt it in my bones, and the era of the “tree hugger” or “eco-warrior” is definitely over now, as we are all in this ecological mess together, whether we feel a connection to nature or not. We are 100% dependent on these incredible natural systems in this biosphere. We know that for clean water you need healthy forests; to balance carbon you need healthy seas and peatlands, mangroves and seagrass. Nature is not just a beautiful landscape. We to be nature – and we depend on it.
It felt natural for me to start talking about the destruction of nature and, more generally, my fears and hopes for this amazing planet: asking questions, holding people accountable, trying to open the conversation. I named the crisis out loud – the climate and wildlife crisis – as many others did, but nobody in my industry was talking about it. The greatest threat to humanity… and it was business as usual! It was totally bizarre.
I just wanted it to be the headlines like it always should have been. Now we’re in a pretty tough place.
I noticed that anything I said that had to do with nature or the climate had consequences for me. Apparently it was a big deal to say out loud that I feared for our future. Our pleas to keep forests intact, for example, were treated as if I had made a huge political statement, and I quickly began to lose followers on social media. To really engage (rather than scare) young people, I had to change the story from panic and anger to ambition and optimism. Hopelessness got me nowhere. My followers have increased again recently. Since I haven’t released any music in a while, there might be something going on!
In 2017, I became an environmental ambassador to the UN, which meant going to scary conferences and giving speeches to scientists and world leaders. Horrible. 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 could have done it. My passion also stems from how much it saved me and was there for me when poor mental health took me to a dark place. That alone gave me a kind of legitimacy to speak out and make my way into discussions, largely between politicians who decide our future and that of our children.
I traveled with the WWF (since I am a WWF Ambassador) to the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland. Seeing the sheer size and enormity of the glaciers and hearing the ice cracking was a huge sensory overload and soberly tuned me into the climate crisis.
What we are doing to the planet is essentially the equivalent of pointing a hair dryer at an ice cube 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, interweave, relate, empathize.
I was lucky enough to meet the scientists – who have only the science and the data and nothing more, no metaphors or puns, just facts – and I really felt their annoyance. They are on the front lines, providing evidence to our politicians, who then try to negotiate with it, rather than actually act.
My tactic now is to show up as often as possible, armed with posts from scientists and opinions and questions from people who follow me on social media. I am always aware of who is not in the room, but who is. For us nature geeks, things are finally changing for the better. The official climate process has stopped treating nature and climate as two different issues.
At Cop26 in Glasgow last year, I had the opportunity to speak and meet a network of incredible environment ministers from around the world, from Kenya, Costa Rica and Ecuador, who are turning the tide of destruction, sometimes in very dangerous circumstances. They support nature in a way we haven’t seen before. Canadian Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has been in and out of prison for eco-activism. A sweet guy! I’m not saying this is happening everywhere, but we shouldn’t write off dedicated, talented policymakers who can change the system from endorsing the destruction of the natural world to protecting it.
As uncomfortable as I feel, that’s nothing compared to the risks taken by indigenous communities who do most of the work and bear the bulk of the risk. When I go to a summit or conference, I try to catch up with young activists from all over the world. At Stockholm+50, I met young climate and environmental leaders who had escaped war zones and persecution to attend these meetings. Among them were people from rainforest areas who had traveled for days – including by canoe – 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. It breaks my heart to think that young people, a demographic that includes my one-year-old son, could grow up without the kind of relationship with nature I was lucky enough to have. It is for this reason that I am so relieved to see that rewilding is back on the radar. The idea that we can reverse the loss of biodiversity, provide the ecological functions we all rely on, and create resilient local economies for us and for our children – just by letting things take their natural course every once in a while – is damn cool .
Nature can heal itself, if we allow it. At the same time, if we really commit to immersing ourselves in it, it can do wonders for mental health.
I would like to say to everyone that there is one you-shaped hole in ecological activism. It is not separate from you, it is a part of you. You really do have a lot more power than you realize, and there’s no better time to seize it.
Be aware of your daily actions to be as kind to the earth as possible. Talk to your friends, start groups, join local environmental communities, plan nature walks, get stuck in. But above all, stay in active hope.
There is still so much we can turn around. We just have to keep fighting and standing up for this incredible planet we can call home.