Climate Communication, with activist and author Suzie Hicks
Ever wondered how you can inform and mobilize others to take action for the environment? The Young Person’s Guide to Saving the Environment podcast is about how youth can tackle today’s most pressing environmental issues.
Hi! Welcome to The Young Person’s Guide to Saving the Environment. These days, environmental issues have become more prevalent than ever, but fighting these huge problems is daunting. So, how can we take action? On this show, I interview people who are taking action to save the environment, tackle climate change, and help the ocean, so that the rest of us can do the same.
Today, we are talking about climate communication and using storytelling and creativity to educate youth.
In this episode, I’m so excited to interview Suzie Hicks, an environmental activist and the author of the children’s book Zaynab the Great and the Giant Plastic Monster.
Tell me a bit about yourself as an environmental advocate.
So my name is Suzie. I’m originally from New Jersey, and I have been working in the environmental advocacy space for about seven years. I grew up in the Arts actually, I didn’t really grow up in hard sciences very much, but I always was a huge nature kid. My dad and I used to spend a lot of time out in nature and in the mud and in the water, and both of my parents were huge peace activists so, I grew up with a mindset that it is possible to use your voice to make the world a better place, but I never really merged my two interests until I got to college. When I was in college, I was working mostly in entertainment and film and theater, but I also worked at the aquarium over the summer during an internship and that’s when I realized that the two actually had a massive connection to each other.
Once that door was opened, it never really closed, and I’ve just found so many opportunities from it. So, my work that I do as an advocate is through storytelling through education and through kids media and TV. I’ve been working for the past couple of years in kids TV, kids books, working in music, and all the really fun expression things to bring about really awesome change and teach kids that A.) it’s not their fault, and B.) they can do something about it in terms of environmental action and policy change.
That’s awesome. What motivated you to take action? Was there any specific aha moment?
Yeah, I think the two big words I would use are frustration and curiosity. I grew up in the era of individual action where everyone was like, if you eight-year-old recycle one battery, climate change will be over and I was that eight-year-old that was doing battery drives and changing screensavers and taking shorter showers and nothing was happening, and everything was getting progressively worse and that made me so angry. And once I did a little bit more research, I realized that it really is going to take a mixture of individual and collective action.
So I felt the pressure to tell other people about it too, because still to this day, so many people see that I’m a climate activist, and they say, oh, I recycled yesterday, are you proud of me? And I feel the need to help them make the connection between all of the ways that climate change and water action and ocean action intersect with our daily lives beyond just one blue bin.
When I was working at the aquarium, I saw the amount of curiosity that kids had about the natural world and about the solutions that were presented to them and because there isn’t any centralized climate education or any centralized curriculum, all over the country and all over the world about climate change and environmental action, I know that there are opportunities for us to create that narrative and create those storylines for kids to engage and so it’s something that hasn’t been tapped into as much as it should and I really felt the call to, you know, change my career and dedicate my life to that kind of storytelling.
That’s awesome. So you do a lot of educational stuff for kids about climate change and plastic pollution and those kinds of issues. What is the process like producing media for children about those issues?
So, the way that I’ve broken it down is that there are two elements to telling a story to kids about climate change and about plastic pollution and about really any environmental issue. There is the science aspect, and then there’s the social emotional aspect. So, it’s: what’s happening? How do we feel about it?
For example in my kids book that I wrote, Zaynab the Great and the Giant Plastic Monster, the science aspect is plastic pollution in the ocean, so we talk about bioaccumulation, biomagnification, the way that plastic builds up in fish and how when we eat those fish, we interact with the oceans. There’s also the aspect of plastic being transferred back to us and also talking about the science inquiry process of I’m curious about this topic and so I’m going to experiment and I’m going to research and I’m going to learn more, but there’s also the deeply emotional aspect of it of no one’s listening to me. I feel really frustrated that people are making the world worse, and I feel like I can do something about it, but no one’s giving me the tools to, and so throughout the story, we talked about how friendship is a really powerful tool for organizing massive change because you can’t do everything by yourself, and also that if you relate to people on a person-to-person level, and you really see what their priorities are and educate them about where your priorities are, you can work together instead of just fighting each other good versus evil in order to make real change.
So that was that book, and in the kids show that I worked on, it’s all about how a lot of eco-anxiety comes from feeling like nobody’s doing anything about it and feeling like you’re the only person that cares and that you’re alone and there’s so much weight on your shoulders, but once you realize that there are other people that are willing to help the world and help you, it feels a little bit less scary. So the social emotional impact of the kid show that I’m working on is that the line is “Nothing’s too heavy if we lift together.” Focusing on community and togetherness is a great way to say, not only are we going to get collective action done, but you’re going to feel like you’re a part of something, and you’re going to feel a lot better, and then the science aspects are breaking down what climate change is and how communities are doing local solutions to fight it. And so, figuring out how to communicate carbon dioxide to an eight-year-old, figuring out how to understand the greenhouse effect, and why fossil fuels are causing climate change and then breaking that down to a local level.
Something you also do that I’ve noticed is you use a lot of humor in your work. How do you address climate anxiety and taking action with humor?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, that’s how I cope with everything as a person has anxiety. And I also think that so many of the narratives of climate change are doom and gloom, like, because you had fun, the world is dying and everything is terrible, and there’s no good at all. When I was in undergrad, I wrote my honors thesis about environmental communication for kids and this actually brings forward something called eco-phobia where you feel like something is so big, and this problem is so large that you can’t solve it, and no one’s doing anything to solve it, and there’s nothing good coming out of it, you’re not going to want to engage.
There’s so much that’s taking up our attention and so much that’s taking up the ways that we think about the world right now that if there’s something that scares you, if there’s no solution, you can absolutely just look away, if you have the privilege, but a lot of people don’t! For me it’s really important to see that humor brings us together. Humor makes us laugh together and in a moment when we’re feeling so isolated, we need as much as we can to come together, so humor for me, makes me feel better about it and I know that if it’s making me feel better, it must make other people feel better too.
Yes, I think humor is awesome. Humor also makes scientific issues accessible, and science can be so complicated. Why is it important for scientific issues to be accessible?
If we are going to get everyone to mobilize to fight this issue, we need everyone to understand why it’s important. And if we continue to gatekeep the information to intellectuals and scientists, then obviously, the only people that are going to understand why we need to take action are intellectuals and scientists, and that’s completely inaccessible. So, it’s our job as science communicators to build that bridge. So we don’t see five scientists freaking out all the time, and everyone else going well, why does this even matter? And in order for everyone to engage, we have to make it relevant to everyone, which means it’s going to take a very large team of communicators to see people where they are at and understand how it all connects. I think that’s one of the biggest issues is that people aren’t connecting it to why they’re struggling with XYZ, and I think creating a really intersectional way of communicating climate change is going to be so important, which hasn’t really happened yet. It’s the job of climate communicators to make it relevant to people that they’re working on.
What advice do you have for young people who want to take action for the environment, but they don’t know what to do?
So there are a couple words that come to mind with that. It is connection and solidarity. So the first one is connecting with people that are doing the work because every single person has a role to play in these movements, and I feel like doing beach cleanups and being in places where you’re actually touching the ocean is only the tip of the iceberg of what the action is.
For example, in my kids book, only one of the actions that they take to shrink this giant plastic monster that’s living in the ocean is cleaning up the beach and actually Zaynab, the main character at the beginning, thinks that the only thing she needs to do is to clean up the beach and then she cleans up the beach and then she comes back and the monster is bigger, and she’s like, wait, what? But I was told that all I had to do is clean up the beach and then it’ll be fine.
However, at the end of the book, the way that they actually get the collective action to shrink the monster, is that one person meets with the local officials, one person meets with local business owners, one person leaves a protest, and the other people clean up the beach, so no matter where you are in the United States, no matter where you are in the world, you can play a role. If you are someone who likes to do graphic design, there are so many organizations that need graphics to tell people that they’re doing protests. If you are a person who is good at talking to other people, there are local chapters of environmental organizations that always need people to lead training. If you’re good at coding, people need web design. If you’re good at music—the Extinction Rebellion group I’m in right now is writing a bunch of different songs about climate change. So the first thing I would say is to recognize that the unique talents and the space that can take up in the world are necessary to the movement, whether or not you’re near the ocean.
The other thing is working in solidarity. So if you are not in a place where you’re near the ocean, you could do the research to see what people are doing near the ocean and how you can plug in to help. Seeing what people are already doing in the areas and then seeing how you can support are a great way to get in touch and after COVID, doing completely digital advocacy has become really popular. And so I know that I’ve produced podcasts, I’ve produced documentaries with people who are not even in the same country with, who we’re not even in the same state with, but it’s about finding the people that you want to help or that can be help you and so connection and solidarity are there really, really big ones. But also, understanding that your local environment is connected to the greater local or the greater global environment as well.
What advice do you have for people who do have skills in communications, and they want to produce content like books and shows? What advice do you have for people who want to create those for the environment?
My first piece of advice is do it! Don’t let yourself tell yourself no. Just do it because there are not enough climate stories being told.
My second piece of advice is to really solidify your science communication in terms of what you are claiming and what you’re saying because there’s already so much misinformation about climate out there that is being skewed in support of fossil fuels and in support of business as usual. So if we are fighting for climate action and against fossil fuels, we want to make sure our information is solid and make sure that we are not spreading anymore disinformation.
Another one is to really connect with your audience. Something that’s been really helpful for me as a communicator is being like I don’t have all the answers. Number one, I don’t know everything about everything. You were going to ask me a question about something like an offshore wind policy in Norway, and I’m going to say I have no idea what you’re talking about because it’s impossible to know everything about everything, but it’s the most important part is that we’re all learning and we’re all trying to do something in our own worlds. And so not trying to be like I’m the authority on all things climate, but like, I’m a person that’s really passionate about this, and I just hope that you’ll join me.
Huge climate communication, don’t that I have is, don’t guilt people, don’t make them feel bad unless they’re like, you know, Elon Musk or the CEO of Exxon, you can make them feel bad but like they’re just a normal person trying to survive in patriarchal colonialist capitalism, like they probably have good intentions, and they want to help and so inviting them to the party rather than sending them to detention is important when talking about bringing them into the environmental movement.
Also, there are a ton of resources that are free for creating things. YouTube is my best friend. Free podcast apps like Anchor are great. It is more possible to make low-budget media than you think. I wouldn’t let budget be something that stops you from making it because my budget is like four dollars in a dream, and I’m still making stuff, so do it!
You mentioned climate storytelling as a very important part of environmental advocacy. What is so important about storytelling in tackling climate issues?
Storytelling connects people through time, through place, through culture, through gender, through everything. We connect over stories and have for millennia, and it for me is the most powerful way I receive information. If you’re just going to tell me a fact, I’ll be like, Alright, cool. But if you tell me a story about why the fact is relevant and how it connects, I will be much more likely to not only internalize it, but spread it with people in general.
I think a huge part of the climate crisis is an issue of A.) imagination and B.) connection. We feel so isolated and feel like there’s nothing that can be done, but through the power of storytelling, we can break the mold of reality if we want to go into fiction, and we can imagine the future that we want to see, even if it’s not happening right now, but that can also inspire real life solutions. And we can also connect with people across the world and into the future when we tell these stories to say, we see you, we are fighting for you and you’re not alone. I think it brings a lot of magic into something. That’s really hard to understand and hard to grasp as a person.
Do you want to talk about your book, Zaynab the Great?
Yeah, absolutely! So, right before the pandemic, I was working as a preschool teacher in Los Angeles and one of my students told me that she was the queen of nature, and I had had a kids book like living inside me, but I didn’t know who the protagonist was going to be your really, what was it was going to be about, but when she said that, a light bulb just went off in my head, and I collaborated with the head of the preschool, Zaynab, who’s my student, and her mom. And together, we came up with Zaynab the Great and the Giant Plastic Monster, and initially, it was just a story about out overarching, environmentalism for kids and then it narrowed down to okay, how can I tell one really good story and that turned into plastic pollution and this giant anthropomorphised monster that’s in the ocean that’s tangling up all the fish, that’s getting into local waterways, and how the voice of one kid grew into an entire movement to get her town to mobilize to make this monster go away.
So Zaynab is awesome, she thinks she can do everything by herself, she tries to do everything by herself, turns out that doesn’t work. So eventually she ends up having to ask her friends for help and together through all of these different actions of collective action, they are able to get the monster to shrink, but at the end of the book, we say:
Although we succeeded in defeating the beast,
all the plastic we use has just barely decreased.
So together we’ll team up both grownups and kids.
so that what has been done, slowly can be un-did.
And there are days when it feels like no one gives a hoot
and that nature’s ignored by those dudes wearing suits.
But have faith! We’ve got voices, so don’t lose your grip.
If you want to help out, turn the page for some tips.
And so, then we have real life tips of how students can get involved in their schools, how parents and teachers can get involved in their organizations.
Right now, I’m developing a five-day curriculum to go with it, where students will learn about plastic pollution and bioaccumulation, but that’s only the beginning, and I feel like so many people try to tell the story of plastic pollution and then stop when they say how bad it is. They’re really bad, here’s all the science about how it’s bad, the end. But the curriculum that I’m developing, and really the story of Zaynab the Great, is that plastic pollution is really bad, yes, we did it, and here’s all of the things that we need to do in order to stop it, and you can be a part of it too.
What’s the best thing about living life as an environmental activist? What are the highlights?
My anxiety levels have gone down so much since joining the movement because so much of my anxiety was, oh no one’s doing anything about this, the world is just falling apart. But once I started getting involved, I said, oh actually, there are so many people doing things about it, and I get to be a part of it, and we’re all making the world a better place. And so, a lot of my anxiety and a lot of people that I’ve talked to are like, Oh, we are careening off this cliff and no one’s pumping the brakes. But then you look, and there’s actually lots of people that are building a really awesome braking system, but we just need more power.
I think about when I have kids, and they’re like well what did you do to help protect our future? I want to be able to say everything that I could.
Is there anything you wished I had asked you that you want to talk about?
I think the one thing I would say is a lot of people are hesitant to talk to kids about climate change. They’re really hesitant, like, oh, no, they’re too young. We don’t want to freak them out a lot. And the answer that I usually have to that is, Number one: kids are experiencing climate change already. They’re already experiencing the effects.
Number two, even if they’re not experiencing the effects, they are hearing about it. There is no padded earmuff that we can put on a child’s head to make them not hear about the things that are going on in the environment, but there isn’t a solidified intervention point yet. So people are hearing about it on the news, they’re seeing catastrophe everywhere, all of the different videos of all of the natural disasters that are happening. Or they’re hearing people talk about it, you know, in hushed tones around the dinner table or just angry, angry voices.
When I do educational workshops, I usually ask adults how old they were when they first learned about climate change and how it made them feel. And there’s a range from, I was six to I was twenty-five and that was the first time I got introduced to climate change, and almost everyone said, it made me feel terrible. I felt terrible and small and alone and scared and guilty. And I think that there is a huge opportunity right now for kids media to be a healthy intervention point to say, we are going to introduce you to this big scary topic, and we are going to support you in all of the big feelings that you’re feeling about it, and then that can help grow the paradigm shift that we’re looking for because we give people the literacy that they need to walk into adulthood as people who are going to make those decisions for the environment.
Yes, I agree. It’s so important to let kids know at an early age about climate change and those issues, so when they grow up, they become seasoned and knowledgeable about these issues. Thank you so much for joining me. You’re a really great person, and thank you for all that you do for the environment!
Oh my gosh, you are the best. Truly if you need absolutely anything Lauren, I’m happy to help support anything that you’re doing because we’re all in this together.
And that was Suzie Hicks. You can find her at her website, suziehicks.com You have been listening to The Young Person’s Guide to Saving the Environment where we discuss mobilizing youth to take action for our planet. Thank you to Suzie Hicks for joining me, and thank you for listening.
As a young environmental activist, I want to encourage other youth to take action for the environment as well. I was looking to interview environmental activists for my book about ocean conservation on what they do for ideas on how we can take action. My mentor, Jana, suggested doing a podcast project, and we married the two ideas together to create The Young Person’s Guide to Saving the Environment podcast!
I conducted a Zoom interview with Suzie Hicks, who kindly agreed to join me for this episode on climate communication. My mentor, Jana, taught me how to edit audio, and I used a clip from a recording of myself performing Claude Debussy’s Arabesque No. 2 on the piano for the music. Thus, we created a podcast!
Lauren Hacke is a high school junior in Colorado. She enjoys writing novels, poetry, and short stories, and she loves exploring all kinds of creative expression. Lauren enjoys reading, archery, and fossil hunting in her spare time.