Spotlight Series: Q&A with Zion Lights, Founder of Emergency Reactor

We caught up with Founder of Emergency Reactor, Author of ‘The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting’ and Science Communicator, Zion Lights about her journey from climate activism to action.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background? 

I’m British Indian. My parents migrated to the UK in the late 60s and 70s from the Punjab in India. I am an environmental journalist and science communicator with a long history of climate activism. I have an undergraduate degree and a Masters of Science.

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share? 

I’ve been involved in many different environmental groups over the years and I think the general lack of scientifically-led thinking and decision-making of some of these groups is actually doing more harm than good to the planet. I had a wake up call in this regard when I was a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion – they want system change more than they want to tackle climate change, and the issues have now become muddled up. As well, many green groups don’t consider social justice issues to be part of environmentalism – in fact they see people as the problem. They therefore do not care about impacts of climate change on people, whereas to me

climate action for the planet is inseparable from action for helping people too.

What is Emergency Reactor, how did it come about and what are your values as an organisation? 

Traditional environmentalism has long excluded social justice issues. It is more about saving land and trees than about people. At ER we believe that people are good. We believe in leading young people away from the doom and gloom messaging of climate change, and toward positive, evidence-based solutions instead.

We believe that everybody should be able to have a high quality of life, and that this can be done in harmony with the planet we inhabit.

We can also see that the same old green groups have been throwing the same old arguments out there relating to climate change for decades, and things have not actually gotten better.

We need to do something different instead of expecting different outcomes through the same methods. We don’t have more time to waste – lives are being lost due to misguided attempts at climate action.

Being South Asian, did you face any backlash about this career choice from family, friends or society at large? How did you overcome it? 

I bucked a lot of trends from early on. I was the first in my family to go to university, which was all the more surprising because I’m female and come from a very traditional Indian family. I was told I couldn’t go, but I went anyway. I was also the first to obtain an MSc, and the first of a large extended family to get involved with environmental work. I come from a culture where the women keep their heads down and their voices low – and I chose to do the opposite. 

I have carved a voice for myself in a green movement that doesn’t have a lot of spokespeople who look like me. I have organised and spoken at rallies, written countless articles and a book, and been on television for my work multiple times – insisting on having a voice. It has certainly upset people along the way, but I’ve won a lot of people over too, and my family are proud of me and the work I do. In the back of my mind I’ve always hoped that by doing these things I have made it easier for younger generations to do the same. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been worth it.

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable? 

I went vegan in 2002 before most people knew what being vegan meant. I never learned to drive and have never owned a car, for environmental reasons. I gave up flying in 2008, and have always been very conscious of my carbon footprint, to the extent that I authored a book on it in 2015 (called The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting). I have pretty much walked the walk on sustainability for most of my life – but in recent years have come to realise that it makes very little difference to the problems the world faces today.

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis among South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues? 

I think there’s a misconception that SA communities don’t care about environmental issues. In my experience, many South Asians I speak to and my own family are highly concerned about poverty, and therefore social justice issues, usually stemming from their experiences in the countries they grew up in. For those of us who have never experienced poverty, it’s a difficult thing to translate. 

The wake up call came for me when I went to India with my parents and spent time in the village they grew up in and met other members of my family, who are mostly rice farmers. I came to understand the deep care my parents, aunts and uncles have for the people there and the land – and also their sadness about it all. It’s not that they don’t know or worry about the impacts of climate change, but they care first about the impacts on the people living in conditions of the poverty that they escaped. It’s a difficult burden to carry and difficult also to communicate to wealthy westerners.

In contrast, my experience of environmentalism in the west has been that it focuses mostly on endangered species and saving trees and land, rather than on people – in fact many of the groups I have been part of only mention people by way of blaming them for the state of the planet. Some environmental groups go further and imply that humans are *the* problem and should be reduced in number. 

I find this appalling and deeply saddening, as well as arrogant. After all, if you have a home, and access to reliable electricity, and material goods and so on, you already have a larger carbon footprint than most and in order to have those things, environmental damage was done to the land and accompanying species. The entire planet was once forested. We cut it back in order to build our homes on it. Can we now deny other people the right to do the same?

Humans are after all a part of nature and any environmental group that rejects this idea has a narrow, completely unjust point of view, which needs a reality check.

What have been your greatest successes and learnings? 

There are probably too many to list! I left home at 18 determined to carve my own path, and I did. It wasn’t easy and my life has been full of challenges. I’ve worked hard to support myself, and to be true to myself, while trying to do some good in the world. I have two beautiful daughters who never want for anything, but I am also a single parent juggling work and motherhood and managing a household and everything else. 

Life has taught me many things but above all it has taught me again and again to speak the truth, to call out injustice wherever I see it, to stay humble through it all, and to try to do some good during my short stint on this planet. I have learned to forgive, to let go, and to be grateful for every day I get to spend on this Earth with my loved ones. And I’m sure I still have much more to learn.

We noted you founded ‘The Hourglass’ for Extinction Rebellion and must have had some really interesting insights speaking at a TEDx event. What has been a highlight for you personally in your career so far? 

I founded a newspaper that we built from scratch, which was quite a challenge! and was also very fun. I did a TED talk on stargazing which really helped me to overcome anxiety about public speaking. But the highlight for me has been the many, many incredible souls I have met along the way on this journey. Truly, humans continue to astound me, and I can’t wait to see who I connect with next.

What pushed you to write your book about Green Parenting? 

I have always had a very low carbon footprint, and I didn’t want that to change too much when I had a baby. So, I started to research how to be a green parent, but none of the books on the market at the time appealed to me. I found them to be dogmatic, or inaccurate, or simply confusing in the advice they gave. So I decided to write a manual for low carbon living as a parent, as that was what I needed for myself at the time so it seemed like other parents might also be seeking evidence-based ways to live ethically. At the time it was the first book of its kind.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? Why is it important for them and their future? 

We messed up. Don’t make the mistakes that we made, by falling for fear-based arguments.

Don’t fall for the doom and gloom. Don’t give up. A beautiful world is possible and it is around the corner if you want it. Don’t let anyone take that hope away from you. 

A world of information is at your fingertips – read the IPCC report and call for evidence-led solutions when you rally for climate action. And ensure that people are integral to your activism rather than on the outside of it. Two billion of our fellow humans already live in poverty akin to western visions of societal collapse. They suffer from energy injustice. Help to make it right. Take up the fight. Join my new nonprofit!

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you? 

When I went to India with my parents in my late teens, we travelled from village to village visiting family members. When we’d arrive the young people would usually get ushered outside or into another room if there was one, so that the adults could talk. On one visit I got talking to a young woman who was a little younger than me, 15 or 16. She was full of life and struck me as extremely bright. She got excited about the fact that I was studying, and told me that she wished she could study and become a doctor. Although the village had no teacher or school, and none of her siblings could read or write, she had taught herself to do both through a stack of children’s books that my parents had brought to the village the last time they had visited. 

She was proud of this and insisted that she read to me, that I correct her pronunciation, and tell her everything I could about life in England in the few hours we had together. I felt a strong urge to help her to study somehow, so I asked her what it would cost to put her through medical school. A stupid question – the nearest school was hours away and even if I were to pay her fees (which would be very little translated from pounds to rupees), there was no way for her to get there and back to study, so she’d have to move which wasn’t an option for a girl her age. Besides, she also had family members to help care for, and she would be married in a matter of years. 

Her talk of becoming a doctor was only a dream. “It’s not real for me,” she told me, and I have never forgotten the look on her face when she said it. The acceptance of fate. The helplessness I felt at her sadness, and the real, fierce intelligence in her eyes. This girl was meant to achieve things.

She reminded me of myself, and I wondered what my life would have been like if I’d been raised as she was rather than in England. 

Frequently she comes to my mind, because hers is the fate of so many women around the world – and actually she has a family that treats her well, so she is one of the better off. But, she is not free to follow her dreams – never that. This memory underpins all of the work I do today. It’s how I weather the attacks from traditional environmentalists. It’s why I work so hard and am determined to do the right thing.

I couldn’t help to change her fate, but maybe in some small way I can help others in similar situations, by carving out a space for this new kind of people-centred environmentalism.

www.zionlights.co.uk

Founder of Emergency Reactor 

Author of The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting

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