Eco-Stories: Mel Smith – Activism in England

Eco-Stories: Mel Smith – Activism in England

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. See the full interview below.

Mel lives in Somerset UK with her husband and 2 young children. After graduating from the University of Sussex with a BA in Social Anthropology and Spanish, Mel pursued a career based on her passion for social justice and equality. Her work experience includes working for an NGO supporting victims of racial harassment and violence, race equality in mental health, and public health specialising in health inequalities and education. Mel continues to work in this sector as a ‘Community Engagement Network Lead’ for a Devon-based health and well-being service.

Mel first became interested in the environment and sustainability in October 2018 following the release of the IPCC report. As the mother of two young children, she felt compelled to action and co-founded the Facebook group “Taunton Green Parents”. It began as a group to support families to live in a more sustainable way, but quickly gained momentum and now boasts over 800 members. With a self-organized group of 4 admins, Mel finds herself and colleagues lobbying, giving media interviews, , organizing a march in solidarity with the Mothers Rise Up movement, and promoting nature and sustainability events for parents and children. Taunton Green Parents also worked with the climate psychology alliance to set up a support group for people experiencing eco-anxiety  On top of all of this, Mel is now studying for an MSc in Sustainable Development in Practice at the University of the West of England.

This interview was recorded on December 12, 2019.

Fiona Martin (FM): Mel. Welcome to The Eco-Interviews! I’m super excited to speak to you. Mel Smith is an activist in Somerset in England. Mel and I actually know each other from way back when we were both ERASMUS students in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria back in 2002, 2003 and so I’ve been watching her from afar on social media. She is a climate activist over in the UK and I’m just super impressed with what she’s been doing, so I’m very excited to have her with us today. So thanks for joining us, Mel! It’s great to connect with you. So a little intro to what Mel has been up to. Mel is a wife and she has two children. She studied at the University of Sussex for a BA in Social Anthropology and Spanish.


And after that she worked for an NGO supporting victims of racial harassment and violence, race equality and mental health, and public health, specializing in health inequalities and education. She first became interested in the environmental and sustainability aspect of life in October 2018 following the release of the IPCC report and she felt compelled to action. A lot of the great work she’s been doing is by starting a Facebook group called the Taunton Green Parents. That group has over 800 members now and it’s super active. And I see advocacy, I see politicians reaching out to you to try and get your support. I see media interviews, marches, so lots and lots of stuff going on. But to get started Mel, how about, well first of all, I’m just going to say superhero, cause I don’t know how you do all of this, you know, mother, wife, activist, working, also studying for her MSC in Sustainable Development in Practice at the University of the West of England. So she’s juggling a lot of things and certainly working hard, but I mean, seriously, you’re a superhero. So to get started, can you tell us about this “eco-awakening” that you had after the IPCC report came out in 2018? 


Mel Smith (MS): Yeah. So I, you know, I wasn’t, just over a year ago, I wasn’t actually particularly engaged in environmental issues. Interestingly as a young child I was, and I remember reading about climate change and feeling really passionate about it. And when I was seven, I decided to become a vegetarian for environmental reasons after reading about deforestation in the  Amazon caused by McDonald’s, perhaps there was always the seeds there, but I hadn’t really explored that. I’d become much more interested in sort of social justice issues, human rights working around basic quality and those sorts of issues. But I hadn’t really made the wider connection with environmental issues. And now I can see that through the two kind of sit very closely together.

And so for me, I was on maternity leave and my daughter Florence was horrendous at sleeping. So I was up in the night and often on my phone, which is always a really bad idea in the night. Anyway, breastfeeding and trying to keep myself awake and sane. Then I came across them. It was just a BBC article actually around the IPCC report. I read that and that was the first time it really hit home to me actually how critical the situation was. So obviously I’d heard about climate change and I had some friends at universities who, who were engaged with sustainability, but I myself would not really fully engage with it. And I think that was the first time that the penny really dropped. Actually, you know, this is really going to affect us in this lifetime and also my children. I think that being a mother, you know, I have this strong urge to protect my children and it’s kind of coming to terms with the fact that actually, you know, I can’t fully protect them.

The report was saying that we really have this next decade, and it’s really, really critical. So if we were going to stay within a 1.5 degrees (Celsius) of warming, we’d have to cut our emissions by 50% by 2030. So that would be 7% emissions cut year on year against the backdrop of the fact that actually emissions are still continuing to rise. The IPCC’s report was saying that we need a radical and far-reaching change in order to meet any of these targets and have any hope of staying within a 1.5 degree limit.

Then I also opened my eyes to a lot of the weird weather that we’d been having. So we had like snow in March in our spring, and we had boiling a couple of summers, which was, you know, had its benefits around having lots of barbecues, but actually we were in a drought. And that’s not normal for the UK as you well know. So there’s those things that really triggered me to think, okay, I need to educate myself more about this and then work out what my contribution can be. And initially it was very much about, quite naively really, just thinking about my own personal habits and what switches I can make in my own life to reduce my carbon footprint. And it kind of spiraled from there. 


FM: I imagine, especially having children, and seeing that report just as you mentioned that this is going to impact not only us. I mean we are in our, I’m going to say mid-30s, late-30s. But you know, you have children who you want to live full lives up until their 80s or their 90s. Right? So you’re looking much further into the future. 


MS: Yeah. I mean that’s always, that’s what we’ve come to expect as the norm. And you know, after I read the IPCC’s report, I went to see a climate change talk by a scientist from Bristol University and you know, she really set out that we’re on the pathway for us to meet 4 degrees rise and actually what that would look like. And for me, that was shocking when she actually said that a lot of the planet wouldn’t be habitable at a 4 degrees rise by the end of the century. That really made me think like, this is my children, if they want to have children, you know, what are we leaving them?


FM: Right. And did you experience like anxiety around that? Like, you know, there’s this term now out there called eco-anxiety because there seems to be a global awakening that’s happening. Well, let’s just say in the Western world, right? Greta Thurnberg was just named Person of the Year on Time. So we have this global scale messenger of what scientists have been saying for decades. But, I know through my own sort of awakening and my husband’s, that there was anxiety involved in that. Did you experience that and how do you address that?


MS: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. So I think it’s something which is ongoing for me. So definitely, it felt like a massive shock just the information, which I guess it shouldn’t have been because we’ve known about some things for a long time, but I really hadn’t made that connection. And we have a lot of grief, a lot of grief. It’s really important that we reconnect ourselves with nature and that’s a vital part of actually how we overcome some of these issues. If we don’t feel an attachment to nature, then we were not in a position to actually try to work to better the planet and be connected to it. But once you develop that connection, it also means that opens you up to a lot of emotion and a lot of loss because what we’re seeing is the loss of the natural world.

We’re seeing like 1 million species at risk of extinction and an uncertain future, and grief for the future that I imagined for my children. Obviously we don’t know what that future’s going to be. It’s not set in stone. We know that there’s locked in emission so it’s definitely going to get worse,  but how worse depends on what action is taken now. So I don’t believe we have a predetermined destiny. It’s not helpful to think that way actually. We need to think more positively about what solutions we can bring forward and work towards those. But yeah, definitely it’s a level of uncertainty that we have to sit with and it definitely fits into the stages of grief as well. I think although the situation is slightly different because it’s ongoing and once you start engaging with it, it’s easy to get really overwhelmed. Every time I look at my phone there are news reports about something terrible that’s happening somewhere around the world like burnt koalas in Australia or reindeer who don’t have enough food, or the Antarctic and the melting ice sheets, that sort of thing.

So yeah, I think it’s really, once you open yourself up to it, then it’s natural. I would say. I don’t think eco-anxiety as a mental health condition per se. But I think it’s a natural reaction to some information, which is really difficult to process. But it’s also really important that we, as I said, that we feel a bit of that anxiety because anxiety can also lead to action. So we need to stay in a space that we acknowledge those feelings, but actually also use that to motivate us into action. If we sit in that despair, give up hope, there’s no point, it’s too late kind of head space, then actually we’re not ever going to find a way out of this situation. So, yeah. The best thing, you asked about kind of solutions. And I think definitely action, with boundaries, is helpful.

So it’s not like in our current situation, everything’s perfect. We have a lot of problems in our society including inequality, people work crazy hours, people are sometimes working three jobs to have a roof over their children’s heads. There’s a lot of child poverty, you know, we don’t live in a perfect society. There is potential if we can rebuild our society to actually create something much better where we have more time to spend with our families, we have a better relationship with nature and all those sorts of things. Rather, it’s not just daydreaming. It has to be based on things that could actually happen. But we do need to hold those positive visions as well.


FM: Yeah. I mean I think with the eco-anxiety, you do find people who wallow in the doom and gloom. They like to call this sort of positive stuff “hopium”. I don’t know if you’ve come across that. And I understand that, but at least for me, I feel like I’ve been through “The Great Grief”, I looked that up. That is a thing. The grieving for the reality of what is going on with our greatest habitat and it might not be habitable. But for me, and it sounds like for you, action, it was a positive way through that. So was creating the Taunton Green Parents group part of your action? 


MS: Yeah, I guess so. I mean initially it was because I actually wanted information myself, so it was like, how do I switch to reusable nappies? And I realized that there was no Google information about that. So I thought, I’ll set up my own group and just invite some of my friends, but I had it as an open group to get those answers. And so I could find out more about how I could make some behavior changes myself. But then what happened is it just snowballed really fast and it’s something that got really, really big and became more than that. But yeah, no, definitely I think action is really helpful, but sometimes it can also lead to overexposure. That’s what I found, so I feel like sometimes I’m quite weighed down with, especially with the studying as well, and like being exposed to lots of awful things that are happening around the world and it’s difficult to cope with that sometimes as well.


FM: Yeah, I’ve certainly looked at information about supporting activists and advocates and that is very interesting. As I have my advocacy journey with the environmental stuff, but also I’m a sort of bicycle and pedestrian advocate as well, and it is important for advocates to take care of themselves and have the support. There’s no way to do it on your own. It’s good that those resources are out there, and finding support like you have in the Taunton Green Parents group and having it snowball like that. I mean, you guys are almost 850 people, which is amazing! And I’m privileged enough to be allowed in the group even though I don’t live there and I’m not a mom, but the conversations are great! That’s something I think  is tough in our society. 

We’re very segregated and, at least in the States, you know, we get in our cars and we go to work and then we come home and we just don’t talk to anyone. And I find myself craving the experience of just talking with people, listening to people, which is a big reason I’m doing this is to try and talk to people. And I guess that with our generation, we do it with social media. But in terms of that momentum you experienced with the Taunton Green Parents group, can you talk a little bit about that? You started with, like you said, trying to find more sustainable products, especially for parents, but it’s turned into something different now.


MS: Yeah, it’s more than that, which is, you know, it needs to be. So initially I kind of picked that with a friend. Anthony took classes with someone who I knew who also shared similar anxieties as me around the environment. And then I met someone at the climate change talks who had just done a Masters in Climate Change Policy up at the university. And we also recruited Mark who has a lot of knowledge around politics and also works in the digital sector. So between us we have really good skills.

So initially one of the first things we did last year was arrange a meeting with our an MP around all our concerns around the environment. We did a face-to-face meeting with her. She’s definitely sort of acknowledged, you know, she knows who we are, she knows what we want. And interestingly, in a lot of the election stuff, Taunton Green Parents has been mentioned, so clearly we have had some impact although that would always be limited. Um, yeah. 

And I would also mention that we’re not affiliated with any type of political party, although obviously I may express my own political opinions during an interview setting. But you know, I think it can only go so far. You know, she’s conservative. She has been an advocate in some ways for the environment, but there are huge limitations on what she does. We knew that that route would only go so far. But she did come forward and pull our request for climate emergency support letters. 

So I don’t know if you had the same so much in the States, but in the UK, loads of local authorities have declared climate emergencies, and announced that they will become carbon neutral by 2030. There have been public meetings that people can go and speak at. So I went and spoke there in front of all the councilors, and our MP has written a letter in support of the climate emergency declaration. So that was some sort of positive outcome from the advocacy.

So in addition, we linked up with Mothers Rise Up, which started in London with a group of mothers, much like myself, who woke up to the climate crisis and wanted to act. They organized quite high profile march in London on international Mother’s Day. And we organized similar event in Taunton. We had hundreds of people. It was a really good turnout and the idea was really to have fun, family friendly activism. We had a big meetup in the park afterwards and everyone brought a picnic and they had different activities for the kids and it was really kind of positive event.They had a banner relay I’m going across the UK, which was a banner which says “for the love of our children, act now”. It was touring different kinds of groups across the UK. We did a protest with that as well just with a small group of people.

Coming back to the eco-anxiety point, we recognize that this was increasingly an issue for people so we actually did a short support group over six weeks, last spring with two psychologists from the Climate Psychology Alliance who volunteered their time for free to do a series of workshops. So that’s starting with “what is the crisis?” and looking at resilience and grief and how we move into action as well. So we had that support group.

We’ve also done different kinds of events just engaging with people around sustainability. We’ve done planting days with our nature reserve just in the village where I live. So involving children and planting wildflower seeds and hedges.

As you mentioned we’ve done quite a lot of media work as well. So it just kind of snowballed, really, in various ways – in radio interviews, and we’re in the Wildlife Trust magazine, and in October this year we met with our local paper. I kind of suggested that maybe, given the increased interest and momentum around environmental issues, that they’d like to have an environmental page. I think they suggested the idea, actually. We were talking about how we could work more closely together and the editor said he was really happy to have an environment page, that it’s something that he’d been thinking about for awhile. So I coordinate the columns. There’s a green focus column every week. I’ve got like a database of all the different environmental groups in Taunton and we kind of rotate it and decide who’s going to do which articles every week. So that’s also really good for networking.


FM: Yeah, that’s awesome. It’s really great that your local paper is open to that. So talking about local media specifically – I mean, weekly environmental pages is great! I’m trying to work with local media here on cycling and pedestrian advocacy and uh, I don’t know if there’s a positive thing to say about it. So I’m super impressed that your area was very open to this. […] The newspaper editor, it sounds like he was driven a little bit, he had some motivation, and then obviously your group has that motivation and that came together. So what is the public awareness around where you live, and the sort of public reception to these environmental issues? I’m sure you get positive and I’m sure you get negative. So how does that work?


MS: I think globally, things are starting to shift a bit and people are much more aware and engaged with the issues. And I think where I live isn’t an exception, so I would say traditionally like Taunton isn’t a particularly physically active place like that, There were some environmental groups that have been working for years, like working so hard, and I have a lot of respect them working in such a difficult environment when no one was really engaged with issues, but it has really hugely taken off. […] We’ve had the Climate Strike kids and we had about 3000 people marching on the climate strikes, which is quite unprecedented. It was really moving to be of. So I’d feel like loads more people are engaging and generally there’s a lot of support and a lot of interest, and sympathy, and goodwill to work towards change.

Just last week we had two different environmental events happening in Taunton on the same night. One was a talk by Rob Hopkins who founded the Transition movement, and the other was hustings (an event where potential parliamentary candidates are asked questions by the public pre-election), for the potential parliamentary candidates. Both of the venues were pretty full. So I think that’s a good sign that there is a lot of interest and things have shifted a lot just in the last year. Obviously, there’s also a lot of people with either no awareness about the situation or who are openly hostile. So our environment page is only in print, as far as I’m aware. I haven’t seen it online so I haven’t had huge amounts of feedback regarding that particular page, although people I’ve spoken to said that they think it’s really, really great.

But online, so when we had the various protests like Extinction Rebellion protest, there were lots of people trolling on social media. So, yeah, I’ve been through it with all the comments. If you’re a parent, you get comments of people saying you know the best thing to do is not have children and all their parents drive their kids to school… It always comes back to the individual lifestyle. Criticizing the young people having mobile phones, like why are they protesting? You’re always going to have some of that but overall, I’d say Yeah. Loads of people I come across, like my peers or people I know, are really engaging with sustainability on the whole. So I think definitely things have changed, but they’re still always a long way to go.


FM: I mean it sounds mostly positive. There’s always going to be the trolls no matter what. But I’m interested especially… well today is election day in the UK, so we cannot go by without speaking about UK politics. And while there is an awakening in the U.S., unfortunately our environmental crisis has been co-opted by political parties, which I think part of it was due to The Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore, and Al Gore being a Democratic presidential candidate and the former vice president. This has somehow muddied the waters in the U.S. that one side believes in climate change and other side doesn’t. Now I think there is some change. I know of a young Republicans group that’s coming out and saying no, climate change is what it is. This shouldn’t be on party lines. So with the UK having its election today, how were the parties following? Are they all saying, “yeah, this is an issue”. Is someone bringing it to the forefront? What’s going on with that? 


MS: Yeah, so that’s an interesting question. So what I would say is that more than any other election, climate change and the environment have featured in all of the manifestos and they have been talked about quite widely. So a lot on Question Time and at hustings and a lot of them are focused on the environment and climate change. There are some stronger policies. So Labour, obviously the Green Party would have one of the strongest environmental policies as you would expect. Also looking at social inequality, and like Labour, who have strong decarbonization targets and huge investment in green infrastructure and so on. As do the Lib Dems and their dates for carbon neutrality kind of vary. […] The Lib Dems, I think is 2045. The Conservatives have included the environment in their manifesto, but in the comparisons I’ve seen, it is weaker than some of the other parties’.

But equally there are some kind of plans for environmental policy post-Brexit as well. I have heard from some conservationists and environmentalists that there has been a bit of a shift. So they’ll be looking actually at the restoration of nature rather than just protecting what we have left. Even with the Conservative party, and they would be the most reactionary and the least progressive, there has been some progress but most people would argue that it’s not going far enough. So I think it’s definitely been viewed as an issue that’s going on in a lot of voters minds, there’s been a lot of coverage around it. So yeah, that in itself is a big shift from where we’ve been in previous elections for a lot of the major parties where it hasn’t been one of their key issues. The trouble is we have Brexit of obscuring everything as well. 


FM: Yes. Brexit anxiety is felt even over here. I don’t even know what it means, but I mean, I do know what it means, but at the same time, nobody knows what it means. Right. 


MS: I don’t know what it means either. I think it’s taking up so much time that actually, it means that politicians have got to focus on the most important issues as well. I have my own preferences about which parties are actually going to drive forward those more radical policies that we need. And underpinning all of this is the issue that is actually difficult to address, you know, by political parties around the fact that actually the problem is economic growth and the impact that has on the environment. Which party is going to stand up there and say they don’t support economic growth? So the trouble is that a lot of the policies and a lot of the driver for the government is around our economy, and actually it can’t be the ongoing focus because it’s not possible to continually grow our economy on a planet with finite resources. And ultimately, it will damage the economy because we can’t continue. You know, the more environmental degradation there is, the larger impact that will have on the economy. So we have to find the best sort of balance. 


FM: Yeah. Eternal growth is not possible yet, our economies have all been set up under that premise that it will be. I mean, everything needs to shift. What the answer is, that I have no idea, but I’m also not an elected official. Certainly I think we all need to look at what our candidates are proposing and use our vote in the best way possible in hopes that, you know, that’s gonna change things. Because, as you mentioned, I think the first reaction is this sort of “what can I do as an individual?” And sure, I can reduce my emissions and I can use reusable items instead of disposable items, but that is a tiny, tiny grain of sand and a huge desert of what needs to be done. So we have to get the movers and shakers to actually move and shake things up. One thing I wanted to ask you about, you said you were involved in the Divest Parliament campaign. Can you talk about that? 


MS: Yeah. So this is a national campaign outside of Taunton Green Parents, run by an NGO called and it is to encourage Parliament to divest their pension funds from fossil fuel companies. The campaign lobbied to get pledges from from different MPs, cross-party pledges, to encourage the board which manage the pensions to completely divest. It was partly financial, to remove that money from the fossil fuel companies, but also a lot of it is around, engaging MPs in these issues, but also around discrediting the fossil fuel industry. And we got over, I was in a very small part of the campaign, but there were over 300 pledges from cross-party MPs. The board were due for meeting in November where they would decide what the ongoing strategy was around the climate strategy, which would include the divestment, but because of the general election, everything was put on hold. We’re still waiting to hear when it will be rescheduled, but that was really inspiring to be a very small part of the campaign. So I just secured a few pledges, local MPs and different areas and help with networking. So linking the national campaigns up with people in the Southwest that could then lobby their MPs to obtain the pledges.

So the campaign team, got it trending for one day on Twitter, #divestparliament. So it’s interesting to see how those campaigns work and it’s definitely got a lot of momentum and they got a lot national media coverage as well, and support. Because the divestment movement internationally is really huge. It started in the States, in the universities, and tens of billions of dollars have been divested from fossil fuel. 


FM: That’s amazing.


MS: Another way that we can try to bring about change, really.


FM: Yeah, definitely. I do subscribe to I need to read more of their newsletters, but the Divest Parliament campaign is super interesting. In the States, I think on our end, we still supply subsidies to fossil fuels so I’m sure a big part of that is trying to stop subsidizing fossil fuel companies. I don’t know if that will ever happen. Fingers crossed! And the Green New Deal should be taking care of that, if that ever comes into place. 


MS: Yeah, that’s interesting. So I heard yesterday, I don’t know if you’ve been following the COP25 negotiations in Madrid. So the EU is trying to push for a Green New Deal. There’s been some resistance from some members, but they’re hoping that we’ll be kind of encourage more countries to increase their pledges. I think that’s a good start. It’s not enough. Like even if they do agree that it, nothing is ever enough in this situation. But I do think it’s important to recognize that the ground is starting to shift a little bit. Even a few months ago that wouldn’t have been on the table.

It just goes to show that all of the protests, all of the media coverage has started, that we’re on the upward curve of it becoming more mainstream, and things are starting to change even though there’s a really long way to go. That’s a positive. I think it’s easy just to feel totally overwhelmed by the situation. Like nothing’s ever going to change, but actually these things weren’t being talked about a year ago. And even when I first went to that climate change talk last October, I almost felt like this was some secret information that I’d have – the world could end! And to have people talking about it in the mainstream, and that’s also helped relieve some of the pressure. I think it was the fact that like, it’s a shared issue, of course, with everybody in the world and the more people that know about it, the more likely we are to be able to address some of those issues. 


FM: I totally agree with you. We definitely weren’t having these conversations a year ago. I know in my household at least, my brother-in-law has been up on this stuff for at least a decade. And in turn, you know, my husband has been reading up for the past six years and so I’ve been hearing about it, but we certainly almost felt like… Well, I did feel like I couldn’t talk about any of this stuff. Like having a normal conversation and it’d be like, “Oh, by the way, we’re destroying the planet. We’re all going to die.” It’s not really something you can talk about. So having it in the mainstream is massive and it has happened in the last 12 months. I think we do need to acknowledge that and the momentum and keep it going because, like you said, you can get into the doldrums and be upset about it. But I mean, we put ourselves in this position, it’s our responsibility to try and get ourselves out of it as much as possible. 


MS: That’s interesting. I think actually also it’s given me a lot of compassion for those people that have been activists the last 30 years. 


FM: Yes, 100%.


MS: How do you manage to stay sane in that setting? So, you know, I feel actually a bit of guilty. It hasn’t really been on my radar before and I think that’s also guilt, coming back to the emotions around it. I think another difficult thing when you start talking about this is that we’re all complicit in this system. I’m not perfect in my private life. And ultimately, every aspect of our society is underpinned by fossil fuels. Our economy, our food, our transport, everything. You know, even our phones, like everything has an environmental impact. And I think there is a balance between being aware of your actions, and it becoming something that can just make you feel incredibly stressed because actually, it’s really hard to live a perfect, zero carbon lifestyle. It’s pretty much impossible. 


FM: Yeah, it is impossible.


MS: We need the environment to change, the infrastructure has to change so it’s much easier to do that. And it becomes a normal, natural thing to do.


FM: Yeah, exactly. I have had backlash from people who say unless you don’t heat your home, and you don’t drive a car, and you don’t use a phone, I don’t want to listen to you. And I think that’s an ignorant view. And ignorant in the sense that you’re ignoring the actual facts of the situation of like, our society is built around this. You cannot unplug from society. I legally can’t unhook my house from electricity. There are laws, and nor would I want to. And it’s not about going back to mud huts. It’s about, you know, if we are this smart, if we put people on the moon, we should be able to figure out what we can do to do better. We’re always trying to do better. Right. That’s why we need to talk and figure this stuff out. Right?


MS: I totally agree. Yeah. It’s about finding your way to do that. It’s not simple. It’s really complex and then there’s different layers to it as well to find your way through it. Really.


FM: Yeah. So another thing that you’ve taken on, on top of everything else that you’re doing, is you’re studying for the MSc in Sustainable Development in Practice at the University of the West of England. So tell me what that’s about and what you’re learning. 


MS: Yeah, so I started in September and I think it was after a year of doing the Taunton Green Parents and working in a voluntary capacity around sustainability, and I just thought you know this is something that I’m really interested in and I’d like to take further and maybe look at how I can incorporate that in a career, but also to actually really understand the theory behind it. It’s brilliant because it’s really practice based so we have lots of  people from different professions. We’ve had lawyers that are working on global biodiversity agreements. A lot of our lecturers have worked on UN projects, and we have people from local businesses that come in and talk to us. So it kind of hits all the different levels of sustainability.

The first one was I did within sort of sustainable development theory and practice. And now I’m doing a module on sustainable organizations. So a lot of that is about the economies and critiquing different models like the green economy, looking at whether the market forces can make the changes that we need. And they’re looking at more radical approaches, which is kind of the way that we need to be moving in the future, really, if we’re going to find a solution, that really supports nature and protects biodiversity. Ultimately, what I’ve learned from the course is, that actually what’s really needed, in addition to all of the greening of technology and energy systems and all that sort of thing, is like a change in values. So we need to move from an individualistic, consumer-based culture to one where we can cooperate better, that we have less inequality, where we can use resources better, but where wealth is shared. 

So that’s really difficult. How do we make that happen? So a lot of it is looking at how these more radical transformations could take place. But I guess it made me realize how interconnected everything is. So looking at one of the top solutions for climate change is around gender equality, on educating women because we need to stabilize the population and reduce birth rates in the global South where there’s so much poverty and lack of opportunity. And actually, the best thing we can do, as soon as we start to improve people’s economic wellbeing and their opportunity, then we see a drop in birth rate. So yeah, that’s one of the best solutions. We can’t just take climate action and do look at that in isolation. We have to look at the whole picture. We have to look at biodiversity, equality, and all of those issues like reducing poverty because those issues are interconnected. So we have to have solutions which encompass all of those areas.


FM: Ah, so interesting. Like everything is interconnected. And then with your previous job experience being in reducing inequality and mental health and marginalized populations, you must feel like this is all coming together for you. Do you feel like has that started?


MS: You know, I do, actually. I hadn’t seen it as a whole before until this year, really. But something which I haven’t talked much about is that obviously, we know people in the global South, they’re already on the front line of climate change and already suffering greatly. And there’s a huge amount of environmental injustice and human rights issues. And I was also really interested in indigenous rights in university. We’ve got so much we can learn from indigenous communities, but they’re mostly on the frontline of climate change and environmental destruction as well. Although it will affect all of us, in countries where there’s less infrastructure, the impacts are much greater. So yeah, it definitely brings everything that I’ve worked on in different parts of my life together really, which is unexpected. I haven’t planned any of that. 


FM: Yeah, it is incredibly interesting. I just watched a video yesterday from a National Geographic photographer who was talking exactly about learning from indigenous people. That we’re losing the languages, and when you lose the language, you lose the knowledge that went with it. And, you know, they’re up in the Andes in Colombia and I’m thinking, God, I worked in Venezuela and I was there. And it’s just like, it’s all starts coming together. It’s incredibly interesting. And I love exploring that. I’m excited for you with degree that you’re going to be learning more and sharing that with people. Like you said, talking about the economy, changing this sort of, you know, forever growth on a finite resource planet is not possible. We had a shift from feudalism to capitalism. What is going to be the next shift? You know, this is not set in stone that we need to stay this way, no matter how many times people say that. We have shifted, within recorded human history, many times. So, you know, it feels like we’re on the precipice. 


MS: Yeah. So it feels like it’s impossible because of the status quo, maintaining the power and it’s in their interest to try and retain the power and retain things as they are. You’re absolutely right. If you look throughout history, then humans do have amazing, innovative resolve to make it work. We’re constantly transforming and cultures are constantly changing. Even if you think of the last 20 years, we probably last sat on a beach drinking beer together. I think we didn’t even have the internet then. 


FM: We had internet cafes, man.


MS: Yeah, things change quickly, but we don’t notice because it’s happening underneath us.


FM: Yeah. Well I know that we’re going to have to let you go so you can pick up your kids, but I wanted to just wrap it up with one final question. What can an individual do today to reduce their impact on the environment and what advice do you offer people in regards to engaging in environmental action? 


MS: Yeah. Well I think the individual changes are good sort of starting points, you know, so there’s lots that we can do. We’ve kind of know what those things are, a lot of the time around kind of, you know, about the way that we travel, thinking about what we eat. Actually I’m vegetarian and have been for a long time. I know there’s a lot of debates on that. Another thing that I’ve learned is that nothing’s really black and white on lots of these issues. So, you know, there’s different farming methods, such as agro-ecology and regenerative farming and buying local meats and that sort of thing. And you’ve got the vegan option. A lot of it depends on how you source your food. I think it’s individual choice as well. And what works for you and what you have, what foods do you have available. But we’ve done stuff like growing our own veggies where we can, which is fun as well as stuff to do with the kids, planting trees. I think one thing that’s shifted to me is that the thinking that we constantly have to have a bigger house, a bigger car. We’re conditioned to think that we need more, to consume more. And it’s actually made me think too, actually we’ve got quite a small house, but that’s okay.It’s not really, massive, it’s quite energy efficient. We don’t need to constantly be looking to earn more money and spend more money all the time, which is kind of how society works. We’re conditioned to think in those ways, aren’t we? So I think there’s all of those individual changes we can make. We can think about things like flying and all those different options. There’s decisions you make on a personal basis, energy saving, all that sort of thing. But the best thing that we can do with it is to engage in some form of activism, lobby your MP, join a local group in your area, whatever that is, and work with others. I think that’s a lot more powerful than just making those individual changes. 


FM: I mean, Mel, you’re certainly an example, I think for people who are following you. And is there a way for people to follow you? Do you have a public sort of way that you want people to keep in touch? 


MS: Anyone from all over the world is welcome to join Taunton Green Parents. Some of it is local information, but a lot of it can be applied to other settings, too.


FM: All right, well I’ll definitely put a link in the notes for this if people want to join that, and we’ll be following you.


MS: My email address is obviously fine as well. (

FM: Okay. Awesome. Well Mel, I really appreciate it. This is fun. And let’s not wait like 15 or 17 years to chat again! I’m sure there are so many things that we can talk about, and I certainly want to follow your progress and maybe catch you on here again to talk more about development and economies as you are going down that path and learning about it. I would certainly be interested. I’m sending good vibes to the UK right now that this election process settles the dust a little bit. It probably won’t. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of “settling of the dust” anywhere right now. But goodness, let’s see what happens, right? Do you guys get the results quickly or is it going to take a week? 


MS: The results will be coming in overnight but Friday morning. I won’t be staying awake to see Boris. Yeah, I’ll check in the morning. Well, I want to say, Fiona, like well done for doing this as well. I think this is a really perfect example of using your skills and your sphere of influence. I know you also have marketing skills and you have good contacts, right? So use whatever setting you’re working in to try and make change. And that’s a brilliant thing to be doing as well. 


FM: Oh, I appreciate it, Mel. You know, I’ve felt compelled to action like you have been. So I’m trying to find out what that path is, and I very strongly feel that conversations need to happen, right? And I hope that this is a platform to be able to start conversations, so I appreciate it. Well, Mel, thank you. It’s been great speaking to you and we’ll be in touch.