As Bella Lack sits in her family’s garden, birdsong punctuates our phone conversation — a fitting soundtrack for a teenager on the frontlines of a burgeoning UK climate movement.
The 17-year-old environmental activist is spending lockdown in Sussex with her dad, their dog, and a kit of wood pigeons. After years of noise in the limelight, the pandemic brings with it an uncharacteristic quiet.
Like the rest of the world, large-scale climate protests have had to hit pause.
While there’s now finally time for her to binge shows like Normal People and Tiger King — “I thought it would be a great thing so people are more aware of how horrific that industry is. But I don’t think it does it justice: in a way, it romanticises it,” she says — Lack is still finding ways to be productive: like taking daily French lessons. She wants to learn the language in a few months for a voiceover she’ll be doing for a documentary.
Like her peer in climate activism, Greta Thunberg, Lack took a year off school to focus on campaigning and to shoot the documentary, which will feature Dame Jane Goodall, the world’s most treasured nature matriarch. But while the film is being edited in Paris, she’s found herself with space to reflect.
Lack grew up in the outdoors. She wrote letters to Sir David Attenborough as a kid and, when she was 11, watched a video about how the palm oil industry has decimated orangutan populations. Her horror was a gateway to other issues: deforestation, extinction, and how it all connects to the climate crisis. As such, she now works a lot on biodiversity and wildlife.
Six years on, the long list of environmental organisations Lack now works with is impressive: she’s a youth ambassador for the Born Free Foundation, the RSPCA, the Jane Goodall Institute, and Save the Asian Elephants; a youth director for Reserva: Youth Land Trust; a youth voice for Heal Rewilding; and a member of the Foreign Office’s Ivory Alliance 24 campaign.
She’s written for the Ecologist and British Vogue, delivered a TEDx talk, worked with Chris Packham to co-write A People’s Manifesto For Wildlife, and shares her takes on the latest climate news to almost 150,000 Twitter followers.
In August 2018, she set up a petition to ban wild animals in British circuses. It earned 200,000 signatures — and in July 2019, the ban was passed into UK law.
But while Lack describes her mission as an “obligation,” her parents have occasionally disagreed with her chosen path.
“At times they’ve tried to convince me to stop — especially during my GCSEs,” she told Global Citizen. “The night before my English exam, I was at a panel and a protest. I had it at 8.30 a.m. the next morning. That night, my mum said: ‘That’s the end, you’re stopping now.’ But the fact I’ve taken a year off school to focus on the documentary has become such a big, defining part of my life. I don’t think I ever would, or ever could, stop.”
For the documentary, Goodall sent Lack on a mission around the world to discover how humans can coexist peacefully alongside other species.
The teenager visited countries like Kenya and Costa Rica — and in the latter, met people from an indigenous group called the Térraba, who have attempted to reforest swathes of their mountainous homes. Just a few weeks after filming in February, some from the tribe were murdered after attempting to protect their land from an armed mob. It’s indicative of a tragic larger trend of ecological terrorism.
Throughout the past couple of years, the youth climate movement has been defined by its continuous propulsion, by the sheer determination of the environmental activists that drive it.
From Thunberg’s first solitary protest outside the Swedish Riksdag to the millions that stood with her in the global climate strike in September 2019, it looked like nothing could stop the movement. Then COVID-19 happened, and large-scale marches and demonstrations have, by necessity, been put on hold.
This graph shows the price of oil over the past 70 years. The sharp, vertical drop at the end... that’s today. We’re living through historic times in more ways than we think. pic.twitter.com/qZVqw0rGs1— Bella Lack (@BellaLack) April 20, 2020
“Just before the pandemic… we were seeing unprecedented levels of mobilisation of young people being engaged in the environmental movement,” Lack said. “And suddenly now everyone’s had to take a step back. But the important thing, which many young activists are saying at the moment, is that this is a crisis — and just as we would expect anyone to act in the climate crisis, we’re going to listen to the scientists now and put the activism on hold.”
“When this is over, we expect the majority of people to listen to the climate scientists,” she added.
As a result of measures to limit the impact of COVID-19, like lockdowns, there have been improvements in environmental issues. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that 6% less energy will be used in 2020, compared to 2019; while cities have seen signficant improvements in air quality, such as Paris, which saw a 72% drop in carbon dioxide levels in March.
“We have to remember that the movement more generally never wanted the transformation to come from a place of human suffering,” Lack said. “But it has given us a moment to just reflect on how nature can thrive when we stop exploiting it — in Mumbai and New Delhi, there’s been a 60% reduction in pollution … It gives us a glimpse into how quickly it can happen.”
“The biggest danger right now is lapsing back into what we call ‘normal’,” she added. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we really have to use it as a springboard for the change we’ve been asking for for so long.”
Lack’s easy grasp of science, her ability to casually reference statistics, and an eloquence well beyond her years — many have already drawn comparisons to Greta Thunberg. But Lack would rather the media focus more on reporting the facts.
“The movement isn’t about focusing on any individual or any leader — it’s primarily about the message,” she said.
While at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in October 2019, Lack said that “young people entrust adults with the responsibility to make mature and effective decisions”, but that “trust is being betrayed.” Now, she says the best way to restore it is to ensure that the world we rebuild after the pandemic is sustainable.
Lack references how some cities, most recently Amsterdam, are planning to rebuild their economy with what's known as the “donut model”, an economic theory she says was proposed by Kate Raworth from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. It focuses on meeting the human needs set out by the UN’s Global Goals, while easing the pressure currently placed on our planet.
“A 2050 success would be a world where the environment is at the heart of how the government acts,” Lack said. “Because fundamentally it’s the cornerstone of everything we do and we wouldn’t be able to survive without it.”