On the occasion of World Earth Day, ETimes sat down with the actress for a freewheeling chat where she opened up about what prompted her to become a warrior for Mother Earth, her idea behind opting for a sustainable wedding, setting the right example for her children and more. Excerpts…
We have gone from celebrating Mother Nature on Earth Day to trying to sustain and protect her. What are your thoughts regarding this?
The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, which was released in March, makes it very clear why we must reevaluate our relationship with Mother Earth. It says very clearly that human-caused climate change is intensifying and that extreme climate events such as heat waves, floods, droughts, and tropical cyclones will impact the most vulnerable among us to begin with and then all of us eventually. If we don’t make course corrections now, we will have an irreversible climate crisis on our hands. We are already at around 1.1°C of average global warming, but we still have time to stop this clock, halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and invest resources and collective action in sustainable development as well as social and economic equity. As many experts have pointed out, this is the defining decade in our fight against climate change, and we must do all we can to protect and restore our forests, switch to climate-friendly food systems, and become more energy efficient by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. It is heartening to see so many people and organisations working towards this goal, but a lot more needs to be done on a global scale by world leaders and big businesses. I am looking forward to seeing what kind of decisions are taken at the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai.
You participated in a beach clean-up campaign last year. What are your plans this year?
As a UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador and United Nations Secretary-General Advocate for Sustainable Development Goals, I have the responsibility to disseminate information about SDGs and raise global awareness about climate issues, and this year too, I will continue to do the same. The UNEP Tide Turners Plastic Campaign, which tackles the plastic pollution in our oceans, lakes, and rivers by engaging the young population, is one such initiative that I am proud to be a part of. I also connect with climate champions to learn about their work, and whether this is on ground with inspiring people like Dr Chetan Solanki and Dr Anil Prakash Joshi, or via virtual conversations with a multitude of environmentalists and changemakers through my Instagram series #DownToEarthWithDee. Joining the beach clean-up event last year was one of these many activities I participated in, and it was overwhelming in so many ways. Seeing intention in action inspires me, and I hope to be a part of many such campaigns this year as well, whether self-started or supported in any way I can.
As someone who believes in the need for climate preservation, what are the changes you have made in your life to ensure sustainable development?
I have spoken very often about this to communicate how every little choice we make impacts the Earth in some way. Carrying my own shopping bag, water bottle, coffee mug, and cutlery, using a bamboo toothbrush, refusing single-use plastic, buying organic cleaning products and even investing in a company that makes them, segregating waste, creating a biodiverse balcony that attracts butterflies and birds are just some of the things I do in my own life to be a responsible earth citizen. I also do composting, have switched to a largely plant-based diet, and try to shop mindfully and only choose labels that promote sustainability. It’s these little things that can add up to create the better future we all envision and hope for.
You are someone who is not only practicing what you are preaching but also making sure your children follow the same path. How easy or difficult is that?
You teach best when you embody your values and live by them. I grew up in an environment that was eco-sensitive, and I am trying my best to create a similar environment for my son and daughter. I take Avyaan to the garden at least once a day, and he has been to a forest and a beach with me. He loves to explore his environment. He can see birds and butterflies from his room and is already bonding with nature very organically. My older one, Samaira, loves the travelling experiences we curate for her and Avyaan. Both of them are learning to live respectfully with nature and Vaibhav and I will continue to do our best to ensure that this sentiment never gets diluted. This is a journey and a process, and I am committed to supporting them in making conscious choices that will benefit them and the planet.
Contrary to what we see around you, you opted for a sustainable and eco-friendly wedding ceremony despite being a celebrity. Did it take special effort to convince your husband or your family for it or was everyone on board with the idea?
When Vaibhav and I were planning our wedding, we were clear that our special day had to reflect our values and beliefs. We did not have to brainstorm too much because we were on the same page and decided to get married in the garden that I have loved spending time in since I was 19. Our families were very supportive too, and we got married very simply, in the presence of our closest friends and loved ones. Our wedding was consciously designed to be zero waste, and every single decor element was sustainable. It turned out to be the most beautiful day of our lives.
How do you ensure energy conservation and low wastage on the sets?
I try to take my SDG practises to work, and as a producer, I aim to create sets that are energy efficient, sensitive to water usage and waste generation, and free from single-use plastics. But I am aware that a larger conversation must be had because sustainability is an issue that is much bigger than what I can achieve single-handedly. We must collectively discuss how we can incorporate the SDGs into the way we make films and bring about a change in our methods. Making more sustainable sets and reusing props wherever we can are just some of the steps we can take towards that goal.
What prompted you to become a warrior for Mother Earth?
I believe my upbringing and formative years majorly contributed to this. I grew up in Hyderabad amid nature, and my home and school were like green sanctuaries where I interacted with butterflies, birds, and squirrels in the most organic way. My mother loved gardening, and at my school, I learned about sustainability and the impact of human consumption patterns on the planet. Later, while shooting for my travel series ‘Ganga: The Soul of India’ in 2016, I was shocked and dismayed by the amount of plastic I saw strewn around the valleys, glades, meadows, and in our rivers. That, I think, was the turning point. Meeting environmental activist, writer, and founder of Sanctuary Nature Foundation, Bittu Sahgal, was another transformative moment. It was then that I decided to use my voice and my platform for climate advocacy. My mission now is to bridge the knowledge gap between experts in climate science and those who don’t have access to vitally important information.
There have been many cases of wild animals being spotted across the urban cities. While everyone focuses on the harm done by the animal, very few realize the cause. What are your thoughts regarding this?
When I travel to forests, I can see firsthand how fires, encroachments, and unsustainable land-use have fragmented animal corridors and impacted biodiversity. Relentless deforestation, urbanisation, and industrialization have devastated the delicate ecological systems in forests, wetlands, and other natural habitats, leaving animals without a safe space to call home. We do not just need to protect biodiversity for the sake of animal species; we need it for our own survival. We depend on biodiversity for the food we eat, the water we drink, and for medicines, and according to a UN report, over half of global GDP is dependent on nature. More than 1 billion people rely on forests for their livelihoods. So yes, of course, it is our responsibility to create more green spaces, protect wildlife corridors, and promote sustainable practices to minimise our impact on the environment. A deep respect for wildlife must be inculcated right from childhood, and we must learn how to coexist with it. This includes solving the issues that create human-animal confrontations and cause wild animals to stray into fields and even urban areas. Most importantly, we need to shift the focus from the harm caused by the animals to the underlying causes of the problem. Only then can they be addressed and ultimately solved.
Young environmental activists like Greta Thunberg are trying to make a difference globally. Do you think we need more young people to come forward in India to create awareness?
India has the youngest population in the world, and as a country of an estimated 1.43 billion people today, we have the power to change the future of our planet. What young Indians do today is very much the key to a sustainable future, and I feel very happy when I meet warriors who are working towards changing the pessimistic discourse around climate change with positive action. Climate champions like Aman Sharma, Sneha Shahi, Sagarika Sriram, Sarath KR, and others are paving the way for many more changemakers. However, the onus to protect the planet is not just on the young but on each and every one of us.
What is your message for the people on this Earth Day?
I think it is very important to not take climate change lightly or think of it as a distant event that may never unfold. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study tells us, governments, independent organisations, corporations, global bodies, and citizens must work in tandem to keep the world from warming by more than 1.5 °C. We cannot afford to breach this threshold, and my message is that we must educate ourselves about what we can do in our individual capacities to help the planet. I recently read that we could cut 40 to 70% of projected 2050 emissions with end-use measures like shifting to a plant-based diet and changing the way we travel and commute. Which means taking fewer flights, carpooling, using public transport, walking and biking as much as possible, etc. What we do now and in the next few years could impact our social and ecological systems forever. For better or for worse.