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As part of a series highlighting the work of young people addressing the climate crisis, writer Patricia Lane interviews Leah Davidson, co-founder of a new program at the University of Pennsylvania called the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. Leah is co-author of an anthology used by the International Polar Foundation and co-designer of a program with DoorDash to divert food waste away from landfills.
The 1990s were personally tough for me. Motivated by climate catastrophe science, I spent the decade immersed in various kinds of activism, trying — and by all accounts failing — to stem the tide. Hardest of all, death and dementia came to my family.
As my awareness deepened about the growing divide between young and old and rich and poor, grief had become a pretty constant companion. I could choose to go further into the abyss of fear and loss, or choose the only thing stronger: love. To choose love is to hope. But I had forgotten how. So I made a resolution — one that could last a year or even a decade if need be. I chose to study hope.
Part of my journey is to seek out promising young people who are contending in evidence-based and impactful ways with the climate crisis and engage them in conversations about hope. I am grateful for Canada’s National Observer’s commitment to solutions journalism, which provides these determined, joyful and, yes, hopeful young people a voice.
In 2012, 18-year-old Leah Davidson left her small Quebec hometown for the first time to travel to Antarctica. Her mission? To understand why the environment made some people feel so strongly but did not inspire others. Her conclusion? Some of us fall in love.
Now 26, Leah has put her love into action in a mind-blowing variety of ways, in the intersections between climate change, economic empowerment and education. She has published a book, given hundreds of talks, founded an entirely new university studies program and diverted thousands of kilos of food out of landfills to feed the hungry. She is currently working inside Uber to increase sustainability in its supply chain.
Your first trip to Antarctica made a huge impression on you. Tell me what you discovered.
Don’t protect our planet because of charts you don’t understand that show the correlation between carbon dioxide emissions and warming. Don't protect it because you feel guilty or afraid. Come to Antarctica. Sit beside a penguin rookery and watch the mothers feed, reprimand and play with their chicks. See the seemingly endless icefields glisten. Feel your heart absorb this veritable heaven on earth. Fall in love. They say falling in love is a choice, and to a certain extent, that is true. Even if you cannot come to Antarctica, choose simply to step outside. If you make a choice to really watch a leaf fall, listen to a squirrel’s step, see each individual snowflake’s unique design, you will find yourself as I did, falling in love. The time has come when we must choose. If we choose love, we will build the relationships that allow us to work together to keep us safe, Antarctica alive and our planet home.
Tell us about your childhood.
I was adopted from China as a baby by Canadian Christian parents. I grew up in a small, relatively insular Quebec town, but was eager to see the world outside my surroundings. My passion for the environment stemmed largely from my faith background and desire to be an environmental steward taking care of the planet.
At 26, Leah Davidson has co-founded a course of study called environmental humanism, co-authored an anthology used by the International Polar Foundation and co-designed a program that helps divert food waste away from landfills.
Antarctica is not exactly the first place away from home students usually choose. Why did you want to go there?
It was so completely different and far away. And I wanted to find out why some people cared about it so much. Once I was there, I realized I had fallen in love. What could I do to protect it?
I drew together all the art, poetry and stories from the trip into an anthology, which is now used by the International Polar Foundation. And I began to give talks about climate change and Antarctica. Over 1,000 actions were linked to my talks. There were environmental art exhibits and days of picking up trash in the playground and documentary film screenings — anything to get audiences doing something. Because the community could see themselves in me, they could see my story as a pathway to change. Love, not fear, had motivated me. So I talked about the beauty and wonder and love that cannot be captured by the graphs and numbers of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. I invited people to share my experience of falling in love.
How did your degree in environmental humanities happen?
When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, I was fascinated by the interface between humans and sustainability, but we were expected to study in silos. So I spent a year working with a professor to create a multidisciplinary program in environmental humanities where arts, engineering, science, religious studies and humanities students learn to integrate climate change studies with their primary disciplines.
What is your current project?
I work at Uber, helping it to become a sustainability driver in the industry with reusable and recyclable packaging.
You have a strong social justice bent. How does working at Uber fit?
Every company has good and bad things. I try to ask, “Where can I have the greatest impact?” When I worked at DoorDash, I helped divert thousands of kilos of food away from the landfill to feed the hungry, so I know real change is possible in this industry. It might not be easy. I don't always look for the easy change — instead, I look for where my skills and expertise might allow me to make change when it's hard.
How can older people help and support you and people like you?
Often, it takes an older person believing in a young person, to see potential the young person does not know is there themselves.
What is your advice to younger people?
Find your passion and apply it outward, so it benefits others and not just you. See your connections to diverse landscapes. The places where your ancestors came from are also your places. See your children yet to be, and really notice the natural world in your present. And embrace the hope that comes with falling in love.