Conserving Biodiversity, Preserving Mental Health
Activist Tori Tsui dismantles the euro-centricity and ableism of ‘eco-anxiety’ and outlines why mental health is planetary health.
I grew up in a fishing town in the northern territories of Hong Kong. It was a beautiful and tranquil place but, by virtue of being very densely populated, it also had a lot of environmental problems.
All of the land that is developed in Hong Kong is predominantly made up of high-rises. That essentially means filling pockets of sea with mud, cement, and dirt, which displaces much of our local sea fauna and flora. I spent much of my time on a boat with my dad; we used to sit and watch the waters for pink dolphins. As time went on, their numbers declined. So, my environmental endeavors were initially focused on biodiversity conservation.
When I first learned about climate change it was through ongoing typhoons in my homeland. I would come home from school and then the next day I wouldn’t be at school for a week because the typhoon would block roads and cause floods. That’s when I started becoming more engaged with the climate from an environmental standpoint. And then, when I moved to the U.K., I found that the environmental scene was quite different. There’s more direct action. It’s a huge liberty to be able to protest, which is in many ways illegal in Hong Kong where the political situation is so dire.
I was due to start a PhD the following year, but I made the impulsive decision to postpone it and to take some time out. And that’s when I got more directly involved with environmental work. So, I started working at a think tank that looked at how a country’s aviation industry contributes to climate breakdown for three months, focusing on what we call NDCs—Nationally Determined Contributions—that indicate how the industry is growing. The aviation industry accounts for 5% of carbon emissions, which might not sound like much to a lot of people. But when you think about the fact that 1% of people in the world account for 50% of carbon emissions from flying you begin to realize that the aviation industry is: firstly, projected to grow; and secondly, associated with a lot of privilege in the Global North.
It was my work at this think tank that led me to sail across the Atlantic as part of Sail to COP. I thought, I’ll reach out to someone I’ve worked with before—that was Stella McCartney—and see if they want to sponsor me to sail the distance, and they did. Having said that, the outcome wasn’t quite what we expected. COP25 was supposed to take place in Chile. But as there was a lot of civil unrest in Chile at the time, the conference relocated to Madrid. We were halfway across the Atlantic at this point, and there was a lot of debate within the team about, What is the actual purpose of us being there? It was a bit naive of us to think that, as folks who have come from Europe on a sailboat, that we need to be present at events like COP.
So, we made the decision to continue sailing to South America but to focus on a new project, one centered on Latin American and Caribbean youth. I ended up working in Colombia for three months, meeting lots of other climate activists and people who cared about climate justice who never had the same opportunities to do anything like sailing across the Atlantic. Some of the people we worked with weren’t even in the climate movement. They were Indigenous leaders who have done lots of environmental work within their communities, but they would never be considered climate activists because they didn’t ascribe to that notion of being part of those movements. We fundraised, we networked, we chartered the boat back and managed to get to Bermuda—and then the pandemic hit.
Maintaining my mental health is part of my activism because mental health is planetary health. It’s an intersection that is often overlooked.
The first set of lockdowns was the first time I was forced to sit down and reckon with the work that I had done, what I had participated in as well as the gaps in this movement and even in myself as a person. I sat down and I was like, Damn, I have a lot of trauma. Damn, I’ve ignored so much.
And I spent a lot of time being angry—whether it’s about the climate movement, whether it’s about my past, whether it’s about the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. I went through a transformative period of trying to get different diagnoses and coming to terms with PTSD, childhood trauma, and things that are really unpleasant. Having faced my inner demons and experienced this level of pain and trauma, I can’t imagine what it’s like for other people who are on the front lines or who are marginalized by virtue of their skin color or the place that they’re born in or the orientation that they ascribe to. The experience also made my activism come from a place of love for people. My work is carried out from a place of care, love, and honesty, if anything. And so, lockdown transformed the way that I see myself and therefore the work that I do.
Maintaining my mental health is part of my activism because mental health is planetary health. It’s an intersection that is often overlooked. For example: there’s a drug that I’ve been on for nine years—I’ve tried coming off it so many times but I can’t. Last summer I increased my dose of this medication and for the first time ever I couldn’t tolerate the heat. It was really hot in the U.K. and I was at home, absolutely uncomfortable. I got a heat stroke; I couldn’t think straight; I was chronically dehydrated. I couldn’t sleep more or less for the whole summer. It’s just one way of illustrating that disability justice is climate justice.
But more generally, it’s impossible to see mental health as separate from the climate crisis because of how widespread eco-anxiety is. I burn out incredibly easily. I find it very difficult to put my head down and not see the systemic injustice around me. Working endlessly is not something that I ascribe to. I don’t have a dream job. I don’t dream of labor. Capitalism is a huge aspect of my poor mental health and the climate crisis is a product of that. Our overuse of commodified care and our distance from community care is intentional and it is making us sick.
I’m writing a book at the moment called It’s Not Just You that reframes eco-anxiety as a mental health crisis that’s rooted in racism, sexism, ableism, and capitalism. I’ve seen environmental destruction since I was a child. Many of my friends who are from Indigenous communities have endured endless exploitation from the day they were born. Whereas the conversation about eco-anxiety—which routinely frames it as a problem of the future—that dominates the mainstream does a disservice to the experiences of those people. In reality, eco-anxiety spans all timeframes, it’s incredibly complex and nuanced. And, above all, it’s a symptom of climate doomism, this idea that we’re destined to fail, which is something that capitalistic systems want us to believe.
It’s important for us to take time away and try to cut through the noise. There are so many conversations going on simultaneously on social media and that’s not to say they don’t have validity, but often they are less about taking action and more about pointing fingers. That’s dangerous because we end up with a more divided society, and in-fighting between people who care about the planet distracts from the urgency of the bigger purpose. That’s why it’s so important to take a step back and live by the values that lead us in the movement for climate justice.
We should be encouraging people to slow down. We should be encouraging people to think more about disability justice. We should be working together and building foundations for advocacy based on love and not hate. There’s too much pressure in the way of perfection on individuals when we know this crisis was built by systems.