Ankur Shah was used to covering his nose and mouth long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Growing up in Mumbai, he had to limit his exposure to the often extreme air pollution in the densely populated Indian city. His lungs were especially sensitive — but even so, air pollution causes myriad health problems, impairs brain functioning, and shortens life spans.
From an early age, Shah recognized that humanity was failing to take care of the environment. Why else was it so hard to get a fresh breath of air? Why else was the Mithi river “completely dark, sewage filled, smelling of methane, with plastics on the surface”? And why was the government planning to build a metro building in the last unfragmented green space in the city?
That last source of confusion is what pushed Shah into climate activism. He joined a protest movement while in high school to protect the Aarey forest and learned the importance of people power. He remembers standing with protesters, arms linked, on the side of a road near the park. As the car of a prominent minister passed by, they did their best to grab his attention. Did they change the minister’s mind? Who knows, but the protest drew media attention and the government ultimately relented, agreeing to move the project somewhere else.
People coming together, articulating a clear position, and working to achieve a goal — that model of advocacy and activism became a template for Shah who resolved to dedicate his life to healing the human-environment relationship.
When it was time to go to college, he decided to study Earth system science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville “because I knew that I wanted to understand the science to help create solutions,” he told Global Citizen.
He took classes in environmental sociology, hydrology, climate science, pollution science, environmental policy, remote sensing, and atmospheric science.
He still uses a lot of what he learned in his work today as a geospatial data analyst, mapping urban landscapes and greenhouse gas emissions for the company Everimpact, and as the director of operations of the environmental nonprofit Mycelium, which seeks to use open-source technology to build circular food, waste, and housing systems.
One of Mycelium’s first projects was implementing a solar-powered FarmBot that monitors and waters raised garden beds, allowing people with little experience of farming to grow their own food sustainably.
“Technology is a double-edged sword,” Shah said. “We can use it for things like manipulating behavior, diverting attention, automatic drone strikes, all the bad purposes you can imagine. But we can also use drones for planting trees or satellites for monitoring environmental pollution. It really depends on human intent.”
Another formative experience came when he took a trip to the Amazon rainforest in the summer of 2017, splitting time between volunteering for biodiversity conservation in Peru and the Indigenous Secoya community in Ecuador.
“That was a very life-changing trip for me,” he said. “I learned a lot about tropical ecology and forest-based indigenous cultures. I learned how people can live calmly and gently on the earth, instead of changing it for the worse.”
When he got back, he delved into climate activism, initiating sustainability groups, events, and projects at school.
Toward the end of 2018, Shah went to Washington, DC, for a conference organized by the American Geophysical Union and learned that the youth climate group Sunrise Movement would be protesting at the Capitol that week. He joined an orientation with them on a Sunday and by Monday he was marching through the halls of Congress, speaking with legislators, and advocating for the Green New Deal.
The day culminated with Shah, along with dozens of other protesters, being detained after staging a sit-in in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The incident made national news and underscored the gulf that exists between climate activists and political leaders intent on maintaining the status quo.
“Seeing the Sunrise protest go viral was a ray of hope and it was incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by like minded young people demanding real change from politicians,” he said. ”I think direct action like this is most impactful when it has very specific end goals such as stopping a pipeline, coal plant construction, or deforestation in a protected area.”
Shah took the organizing lessons he learned in DC home with him to Huntsville, where he joined a local initiative to get the city council to adopt a sustainability charter that would enshrine various climate principles.
“We protested to have Huntsville lead the way in Alabama in making climate a priority and conserving land,” he said. “We had a sustainability ordinance written. After that initial protest, we went into the city council and we advocated for emissions reductions, a circular economy, and a local Green New Deal.”
The ordinance failed to garner a majority of “yes” votes from the five-member council, but the effort attracted the support of established nonprofits in the area, along with local businesses, that together will help bring it forward for another vote in the future.
“I do believe we need more advocacy for specific actions at state and city levels instead of only focusing on a Federal Green New Deal which may trickle down inefficiently or even ineffectively to state and city levels,” Shah said, pointing to a policy resource by the Environmental Law Institute. “Each area and community will have their own specific needs so climate policies need to be crafted according to those needs for climate mitigation and adaptation. Powerful local actions on a global scale will create lasting structural and organizational change.”
Around this time, Shah began working as a teacher’s assistant for an environmental course, developing lesson plans and helping students learn complex concepts. The experience left a deep impression, and Shah felt drawn to finding other outlets for breaking down challenging topics.
So he took a class in video editing and began making YouTube videos.
“If you watch my very first videos, they’re pretty horrible,” Shah said with a laugh. “It’s just embarrassing.”
But even in those early videos, his rigorous commitment to science, kind spirit, and passion for helping others and the planet shines through.
Since then, he’s made dozens of videos on topics such as plastic pollution, climate anxiety, water pollution, the Amazon rainforest, Bitcoin’s environmental impact, food systems — basically anything that catches his interest in his day-to-day life or in the many environmental books he reads. He said he jots down his ideas in a marble notebook, and there are currently more than 50 topics waiting to be explored.
The broad purview of his YouTube channel conveys the intersectional and multifaceted nature of climate change and biodiversity loss. Addressing the sources of environmental decline necessarily entails addressing other issues such as poverty, gender inequity, and racism.
In an era marked by climate breakdown, stifled politics, and fear of the future, Shah’s videos show that a better world can be built. He argues that we already have everything we need — the technology, resources, and knowledge — to prevent severe climate change, while also healing the global environment. Community organizers and Indigenous communities have been mapping out this better future for a long time, he says.
Watching Shah’s videos, you get the sense that not only is it possible to secure a better future, but that it’s waiting for us, a world alive with hope, opportunity, and collective liberation.
“My grounded optimism comes from knowing that ultimately whatever happens, we will make a change,” he said. “Whether it’s the hard way, or we choose to change now, we are going to have to change. So why not build circular and regenerative solutions right now?”