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An Interview with Dia Mirza, Bollywood Movie Star & Environmental Activist

Dia Mirza is an actor/producer at One India Stories LLP, as well as an Advocate for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Program.

An average working person may not be able to shop in an organic grocery store or buy an electric car. What are meaningful things they can do to help the environment?

I agree! But when 1.3 billion people take mindful steps in their consumption habits – recycling, conserving energy/resources, cycling, managing waste better, wasting less, eating a mostly plant-based diet, refusing single-use plastics by carrying our own reusable water bottles, mugs, cutlery – we can generate significant collective change.  

As a family, for instance, we thrive on organic/naturally farmed local/seasonal fruit and vegetable produce. We segregate waste, do composting, and manage e-waste, paper waste, and plastic waste efficiently. When we go out or travel, we do not use single-use plastics; we carry our own water bottles, cloth shopping bags, mugs, cutlery, etc. We conserve water by taking shorter showers and fixing all drips promptly. We use LED bulbs instead of CFLs. We have so far grown over 9,000 trees to celebrate special occasions instead of buying gifts, and we support organizations that work for the protection of nature. The triple planetary crises of biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change also require each of us to do our best to ensure that policymakers, governments, and industries make the necessary changes to achieve sustainable development goals by 2030.

Do you think mankind’s encroachment on the natural world is fueling pandemic disease?

COVID-19 is just one example of the rising trend of diseases – from Ebola to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) to West Nile and Rift Valley fevers – caused by viruses that have jumped from animal hosts into the human population. The root cause behind the rise of zoonotic diseases is the destruction of our natural environment – land degradation, wildlife exploitation, resource extraction, climate change, and other stresses – which are driving humans and wild animals into closer contact.

Does factory farming exacerbate climate change?

Efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and avoid the most disastrous impacts of climate change will not be possible without significant changes in how we use land and practice agriculture. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report tells us that rich countries consuming less meat could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, curb deforestation and lead to better health outcomes. Large-scale deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is driven by agriculture and animal husbandry. A balanced diet with sustainably produced animal products presents a major opportunity for climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.

Microplastics have been found near the peak of Mount Everest and in the Mariana Trench, in baby poop, and in human blood. The future of plastics production is estimated to double in the next 20 years. How do you stay optimistic when facing this kind of prediction, and what can we do to fight this?

The Government of India’s plan to ban the sale and manufacture of single-use plastics is a step in the right direction. The challenge is, however, global and requires global solutions. In March this year, the UN Environment Assembly forged the first-ever international, legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design, and disposal. This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris Agreement. An effective extended producer’s responsibility needs to be legislated and every country must have a legally binding policy that makes the producers responsible for the plastic they package so many of our products in.

Do you recommend any green products to replace chemical cleaning or beauty/health products?

I have personally invested in Beco (https://letsbeco.com), a company that has made it possible for me to switch to sustainable cleaning agents. This is just one example of a brand that offers natural options that don’t harm human health or the environment. Clean and eco-sensitive beauty products are still few and far between, but more and more startups are beginning to bridge this gap. An online search would easily help us find the ones that resonate with the ethical standards we are looking for.

What advice would you give to the younger generation? Are you hopeful about the future of this planet?

Young people aren’t just the “victims” of the triple planetary crisis – they are the answer. Young people have been heroes of this pandemic — community volunteers and helpers. And they have shown time and again, through marches and positive action around the world, that they will be the heroes of the climate crisis as well. COVID-19 has shown us that we need to act now to prevent the next pandemic. It showed us how much worse the impact of illness is when most of us live in areas with polluted air. But it is also giving us a chance to redesign the future – and this is where young people’s ideas come in.

I am inspired by stories like Hina Saifi, who at the age of 19, is educating people about clean air through public meetings and door-to-door visits. Young Archana Soreng is serving on the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on climate change. 18-year-old Aditya Mukarji is getting restaurants to give up plastic straws. Sanju Soman was a teenager when he co-founded his own environmental NGO. Vinisha Umashanker won the Earth Shot Prize this year for her innovation to replace coal irons with irons powered by solar energy. There are so many young people in India now demanding action, innovating, participating in lifestyle change and leading awareness programs. We need to ensure that young people are heard, given representation, and empowered. The only advice I would give to young people would be to replace anger with action. What motivates me is the energy and participation of young people who are driving change. Also, every win we achieve together is a reminder that we can make a difference.

What inspired your interest in the preservation of wildlife?

I grew up in an environment that fostered the understanding that all life on earth was inter-connected. The alarm bells for climate change had started to sound in the year of my birth (1981). My school, Vidyaranya (which means forest of education) ensured we learned and practiced environmental consciousness. We were taught the importance of conscious consumerism well before this term became popular. My parents were avid nature lovers, and very early in life, I was made aware of how human activity was causing climate change and how individual choices could truly make a difference. Interestingly, I was in my twenties when I first visited a national park, but that experience forged an even deeper and more meaningful relationship with nature. I was completely enchanted by a female tiger on the hunt and vowed to do all I could to protect nature.

Bittu Sahgal, who is an environmental activist, writer, and the founder of Sanctuary Nature Foundation, also helped me understand the challenges of conservation. He made me aware that environmental action and wildlife protection must become a part of mainstream discourse. He got me involved with the ‘Kids for Tigers’ program run by Sanctuary Asia that engages with over 1 million school children across India. Many of these children today are leading environmental and wildlife protection work in India. I started spending more time in India’s forests, understanding and learning all of the things that would help me communicate effectively through columns, and participation in news programs and via my social media. As the Ambassador of the Wildlife Trust of India, I am very proud of the incredible work they do! It is also a privilege to have access to and engage with the brightest and best minds on the planet because of my association with the United Nations Environment Program and as an Advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals. This journey has taught me that if more people restored their relationship with nature, we would all be able to respect the earth more. In a planet that is driven by hyper-consumerism and is being plundered by over-exploitation by a burgeoning human population, it’s time each of us went into the wild. Nature is humbling, energizing, restorative and healing. We need to restore the balance of the natural world for the sake of our own health, well-being and survival.

As Bittu Sahgal once said, “My advice to people who want to help protect nature has always been, be who you are and do what you do best. If you’re a poet, write poetry. If you’re a journalist, write reports. If you’re a celebrity, use your credibility and reach. If you’re a politician, use your influence. If you’re a businessperson, use your organization skills.”

Truly, when many of us do a little bit, a lot gets done.