Being Earth Heroes: How we can ALL make a difference to our planet

Published on: 11 December 2019 Author: Lily Dyu

Lily Dyu's new book Earth Heroes celebrates the people - both famous and less well-known - who fight to protect our planet. She tells us how writing the book left her feeling inspired...

Lily Dyu

If you'd known me as a child, I'd be the last person you'd expect to become a mountain runner and outdoor junkie. My hard-working parents ran a Chinese takeaway and I often did my homework behind the counter. The outdoors was a scary, alien place to me, and not somewhere they ever took us.

But one day at university, I laced up my trainers and jogged my first mile. That run changed my life.

Road running evolved into cross-country races, whose muddy trails then led me to hills, forests, rivers, mountains, moorland and coast. There, I fell in love with the natural world. Being in nature felt like finding a place to call home.

Over the last 20 years I have been lucky enough to run, hike and bike all around the world. But spending so much time outdoors has shown me first-hand the human impact on our wild spaces.

Whether it's decades-old climbing routes becoming unsafe due to melting glaciers, riverbanks washed away by flooding, beach tidelines strewn with plastic or the ever-shrinking habitats of wildlife... if you love the natural world, then you cannot help but recognise that you inhabit a world of near-constant loss.

But over the last year, I have felt enormous hope seeing the impact of the youth climate movement and Extinction Rebellion. Thanks to them, it feels like people are waking up and taking the issue of climate change seriously. It's been incredible to see how the issue has risen up the public agenda. I hope that attention will translate into action.

As Greta Thunberg says, 'The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.'

Helping children to make a difference

Greta Thunberg in Earth Heroes

Illustration: Jackie Lay

I wrote Earth Heroes for environmentally aware children, to show that it is possible to make a difference with our individual and collective actions. I wanted to counter news headlines which usually focus on negative stories, so we rarely hear about any of the good things that are happening. As a result, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and wonder if there's any point in trying anything at all.

But there are in fact countless unsung Earth Heroes all around us - ordinary people doing extraordinary things to fight climate change, conserve nature and protect the environment, most of whom aren't looking for the spotlight.

In the book, readers will meet Earth Heroes from around the world and explore a range of environmental issues. I've covered well-known names, like Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, with fascinating information I discovered about their backgrounds and the pivotal moments that set them on their earth-saving quests, but there are also many others you may not have heard of before.

Celebrating unsung heroes

William Kamkwamba in Earth Heroes

Illustration: Jackie Lay

For the book, I had the privilege of interviewing Mohammed Rezwan, a humble and brilliant architect who has designed a fleet of floating schools, libraries, health clinics, playgrounds and even farms for flood-stricken communities in Bangladesh, the country often called the 'ground zero of climate change'.

Hearing his story brought to life in a visceral way the realities of climate justice - the fact that those who have contributed least to climate change are the worst affected by it.

This issue was also at the heart of William Kamkwamba's tale - he's a Malawian boy who, inspired by a picture in a library book, built his own wind turbine from bits of scrap and his dad's old bike. This not only provided electricity and light for his family home, but also allowed them to pump water for their crops, protecting them from devastating famine - an increasing occurrence there due to changing rainfall patterns.

In Bali, schoolgirl sisters Isabel and Melati Wijsen are saving their island from plastic pollution, while in Australia, ocean-loving surfers Pete Ceglinski and Andrew Turton have invented Seabins to suck floating rubbish out of marinas and harbours.

Closer to home, Isabel Soares in Portugal has pioneered a scheme to cut down on food waste ('beautiful people eat ugly fruit') and British fashion designer Stella McCartney is using scientific innovations, such as lab-spun silk made from yeast, to ensure her designs are cruelty-free and planet-friendly.

I also tell the story of Doug Smith, the biologist who led the project to re-introduce wolves in Yellowstone Park 25 years ago, a decision which has transformed its ecosystem and even the rivers and forests there.

Children are leading the calls for change

Sir David Attenborough in Earth Heroes

Illustration: Jackie Lay

It was hard to choose just 20, and there were many more I could have included, but I hope these Earth Heroes show children that they are not alone in caring passionately about the future of our planet, and that one person, no matter how small, really can change the world.

Children have grown up with the science and are leading the calls for change. They will inherit the planet and are the generation who will take on the new jobs needed for a sustainable world. From how we produce energy, manufacture things in a 'circular economy', grow food, and build our cities and houses to how we travel and what we teach in schools, so much needs to change and young people will be key in re-imagining and creating that future.

While I wrote this book for younger readers, I very much hope that grown-ups will enjoy these inspirational stories too. Right now, everyone is needed and all our actions count.

As Indian conservationist and tiger defender Bittu Sahgal says when asked what we can do to protect the planet, 'Be who you are and do what you do best ... when many of us do a little bit, a lot gets done.'

Earth Heroes: 20 Inspiring Stories of People Saving Our World by Lily Dyu and Jackie Lay is out now, published by Nosy Crow.

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