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Karishma, Creator of @_makeearthgreatagain

Karishma is a climate activist who recently graduated from Western University. She now runs @_makeearthgreatagain, her Instagram page about living a low-impact lifestyle.

Can you tell me a little bit about you, and how ‘Climate Girl’ has become part of your identity?

Hi! I’m Karishma and I’m 23 years old. It’s hard to articulate where I’m from because I’ve lived in so many places, but I’m of Indian origin. I was born in India and we moved to the Middle East for a while, and then lived in the United Kingdom, and then we moved here to Canada in 2014. That whole journey is part of how, as you said, ‘Climate Girl’ became part of my identity. 

In moving around so much, one effect that it has on you is that you lose friends a lot, especially when you’re a kid and you’re getting close to people and getting into friend groups. Then suddenly you move and you’re in a whole new place. I never had many friends growing up, and that’s honestly the truth. Even today, I would say I don’t have that many friends. I have a close circle of people who mean a lot to me, but I’m not that kind of person who has a lot of friends and is ‘popular,’ whatever that means to people. 

But I guess what started to happen was my family became something that was really constant to me throughout my life, and also nature and being outdoors. I’ve always been an outdoorsy person, and every time we moved, everything would change… except for the fact that I could always go outdoors and be happy. I could always be in nature and enjoy it, and that was one constant. In India, it would have been the monsoon season, and [in] the Middle East there were deserts. I’m fortunate to have seen so much of the world, and it also forged this connection with nature and inanimate things in the natural world. It started to become a source of comfort and a source of familiarity to me, and so I have always been close to nature. 

When I was going into high school, it was the age where everyone wants to be cool, wants to have friends, wants to fit in, likes the things that everybody else likes. I think it’s one of the really shitty parts of the high school and middle school system, the fact that you feel pressure to fit in. So I started letting go of those things that made me happy, and I started acting in what I thought was the ‘right’ way to act. Going to the mall with my friends because that’s what everyone did, or wanting to go to the movies. And if that’s what makes you happy then you should do it. But that just wasn’t what made me happy, and I started to not feel like myself. I knew I was suppressing the things I really cared about to fit in. For a lot of people, you can get really sad and feel detached from yourself when you do things you don’t like, and then you don’t feel like yourself. 

So when I joined university, it was a whole new experience of meeting people that had a lot of different likes and interests, as opposed to my small-town high school, where everybody was kind of trying to be each other. In my fourth year, I was lucky enough to go visit my boyfriend, who was working in Vancouver at the time. I honestly experienced nature and the outdoors in a way that I’ve never experienced before. Everyone knows that the West Coast is beautiful. Even I knew that before going, but it wasn’t until I got there that I was just in awe. I felt so, so happy being there and being outside. I didn’t know anyone there except for Karna, my boyfriend, who was working during the day. When he would work I would spend time outside, and I had no one to put a face on for, no one to prove anything to. I was just there for me. We’d go on hikes, we’d bike around outside, and I was starting to feel like myself.

And then when I came back, I felt like everyday life jaded me a little bit, and like the things I was doing — going out, partying — were fun, but weren’t what I really liked. There was just a moment in time where I was posting on Instagram, and it was a picture of me going to a party or something. I just remember feeling like, ‘everyone else is posting this too,’ and I knew it wasn’t bringing me happiness or a sense of purpose. I thought about the time I was in Vancouver, and I was thinking, ‘the world is so beautiful, I want more people to see this and to stand up for this’. At the time the climate movement was growing really strong. It was the end of 2019 when Greta and her movement were at a peak, and that was also on my mind. I just thought, ‘this is the day I’m going to change, and this is the day I’m going to start being myself and talking about the things that make me happy, regardless of whether other people care about them or not. Because I’m not doing it for other people, I’m doing it for me.’ 

I kind of just dove in headfirst. I know a lot of people don’t use their personal account as their ‘business,’ or creator or blog account, but I fully went in and switched my personal account to that. I didn’t want there to be more than one version of me or more than one identity of who I am because I’ve lived life like that for so long. So I changed everything completely, and since then I’ve been laser-focused on climate. It was like hopping on a train: there was no stopping and there was no looking back, and I felt like me. And on that journey, I met so many people — virtually and in-person — that shared the same passions as me. I think it helped me realize that once you start owning who you are, and once you start being shameless about it, you realize that people actually love that about you. And you meet people who might think the same way as you, and you start to feel less alone and more empowered. 

Your Instagram handle is @_makeearthgreatagain. Is there a particular reason why you chose to use this phrase in your social media?

It started off as a play on ‘Make America Great Again.’ It’s not an association, or a direct diss at Trump or Republicans. I think after recent events, the world was so laser-focused on American politics. I know this was before the American election, but @_makeearthgreatagain was kind of a statement to say that the world, and its people and its problems, are so much bigger than the dichotomy – and the reality TV show – that is American politics. I wanted to make it a little bit more accessible because the earth is the one thing that we all have in common, and it’s in everyone’s best interests to protect it. So I just wanted to take an idea that stood for something exclusive, like ‘make America great again,’ and turn it into something that we can all get on board with. ‘Everyone’s welcome, you can sit with us, you can join our movement, no matter who you are.’ That was kind of the idea behind my Instagram handle.

How do sustainability and mindfulness go hand-in-hand? In other words, what would you say are the connections between the environment and mental health?

Obviously, I can only speak for myself, but I think of the basics of mental [health] as somebody who only knows myself and nothing about how the brain works. But I think of mental health as identifying the things that make me happy. The way I identify this is by thinking about two buckets: there are things that make you happy for a long time, and there are things that bring you temporary happiness. So lasting happiness versus short-lived happiness. For example, I might think of having a new shirt as something that brings me happiness. But that’s temporary because the shirt after some time will no longer be new. Or my family and I when we recently got a new TV. Yes, it’s awesome watching movies on it because it’s crisper and it’s brighter. And then a few months later, it’s just a TV again. So again, short-lived happiness. 

And then I think about what brings me long-lasting happiness, and I think back to things that I can’t ever forget. You know those memories that just stay in your mind forever? It’s just like a simple trail walk with my mom and my dog because there will be no screens, no responsibilities, nothing involved that can distract us. So we’ll have conversations that I’ll never forget, where we open up to each other. Or, for example, when I was in Vancouver with my boyfriend, we were literally just cooking pasta together. We were trying a recipe we had never tried before, and to me, that was fun and happiness that lasted. It put me in a good mood for the whole day and every time I look back on that memory, it makes me happy. I think making those two buckets made me realize that the things that bring me that long-lasting happiness aren’t actually things. They’re activities, and it’s who you’re with and what you’re doing, as opposed to the item that’s in focus. 

What I also learned from that is that advertisements, social media, corporations, even the government, tell you that you need to consume to be happy a lot of the time. You need to go to the mall, you need to buy yourself some new clothes, you need to shop on Black Friday, get that deal you’ve been waiting for all year… and then you’ll be happy. We go to work, we work our butts off, we come home, we go on Instagram or watch TV, we see commercials and sponsored ads, and then we’re told that if we buy this, we’ll feel happy. And then we pay for it with the money we just made at work, and then we go back to work to make more money to spend it again. It’s just a cycle that makes you believe that you need to spend money to be happy. 

Even the fact that we’re referred to as consumers, to me, doesn’t sit right. The fact that our social media front page is called a ‘feed,’ as if we’re farm animals when they’re fed corn. It’s kind of degrading and grotesque, and as people, we’re more than that. We’re more than consumers that need to have a ‘feed.’ We’re intellectual, loving people, with hobbies, passions, ambitions, and I think distilling us down to a ‘consumer’ strips us away of so many of the things that make us human. Breaking away from consumer culture is also kind to the planet, because once you buy less and feel like you need less material things in your life, obviously there’s a smaller strain on resources, labour exploitation, and waste associated with that. 

So as soon as you start consuming less, you’re automatically being more sustainable, but I think you’re also becoming happier. When you’re doing things like gardening, walking, making, creating, meditating, working out, whatever it is, you’re engaging your brain and you’re engaging others around you. In my opinion, you’re creating lasting happiness that you’re never going to forget. Not to say that capitalism needs to go, per se. Right now, if anybody as an individual tries to renounce it, you’re going to end up not being able to put food on the table, and nobody wants that. But I think there are ways to break away from that system that can bring you innate happiness.

Many of us feel discouraged because large corporations are contributing to the climate crisis more than individual people ever will. What would you say to them?

First of all, I would say you’re not alone. I feel that way too, and I think the entire world can make you feel really small. You feel like you’re this cog in a machine, and I know that. You can make individual choices, but it’s like ‘what am I compared to large corporations?’ But I think one thing to keep in mind is that you’re only a cog in that machine because the machine only works if everyone participates. As soon as people start to defect, large corporations and the government start to notice that. They don’t want you to break free in any way. They want you to keep buying into fast fashion, or disposable plastic because it keeps the world moving at a faster pace. That’s how we measure success: at a country level at least, we measure success in terms of GDP and growth, and they want you to keep buying to stimulate those. 

I was thinking about this the other day, and why is there no high-speed rail system in Canada? If you go to Europe — which I will say is light-years ahead of us in terms of development from a climate perspective and a mental health perspective — there are high-speed rail systems connecting country to country. And we don’t even have one from London to Toronto, and we don’t have one in our province. If you think about why it’s because the auto industry benefits from there not being one. Because if there was, then people wouldn’t drive as much. And I just think that they — and when I say they, I do mean big corporations and the government — set up the system such that it’s hard for you to defect.

But more and more people are defecting. Think about the fact that Forever 21 went bankrupt. How did they go bankrupt? Because people like you and I, everyday people decided to make the choice to say, ‘You know what? It’s cheap clothes and a good bargain, but I don’t stand for what they put into their supply chain and what they pay their labourers. I don’t care how cheap the clothes are, I’m not going to go there.’ That was millions of individuals making that choice, and they brought an organization down to its knees. So I think it’s important to remember that while it might feel like your choices don’t mean anything, there are tons of examples of how they do. We have immense power in numbers, because all of these organizations, and their dollars and stock prices, all come from us making individual purchases. We drive them, as a collective. So I think what’s really important is that if enough of us do something — or don’t do something — they’ll listen.

And companies are listening. Why do you think they want all your data? All the shopping data on your phone? Or what you’re Googling? Because they want to know your behaviour and how to capture you. Just like they want to know how to capture you, they want to know how not to lose you. So start voting with your vote and with your dollar, and speaking out on Twitter and Instagram. Just today I posted something about Charmin toilet paper on my Instagram story. I learned that they’ve been using virgin Canadian wood for their toilet paper. So I posted and said, “I’m not buying Charmin anymore until you make moves toward recycled fibres”. They listen to that and see it when you tag them. And when you share it on your story, your community sees it too, and some of them might share it. Companies are listening because they want to know. Like I said, just as much as they want to know how to capture you, they want to know how not to lose you. 

I think you need to focus on what you have in common with people and not your differences. And don’t be quiet about the things you like. If you’re full-steam ahead with a zero-waste lifestyle, and you’re able to do that, tell people about it. I think people get scared about doing this whole sustainability thing because they think they’ll get judged for it if they don’t do it properly. It can be a toxic part of sustainability culture, but I think do the best you can, and tell people that you’re doing it. 

For me, I get a lot of happiness from the fact that I’m defecting. I’m doing exactly what they don’t want me to do. Every time I buy something second-hand, or sell something on Facebook marketplace, or compost my food scraps, or decide not to get a disposable water bottle, I get happy. Because it’s exactly what they don’t want us to do, and if enough of us do it, then they have to change. I get a lot of empowerment from that fact, for standing up for something that I believe in, even if it’s in my own sphere or realm. It’s still something that I have control over.

This past year has been unimaginable in so many ways. Can you talk about the impact 2020 has had on environmental activism?

I think 2020, unfortunately, divided us in many ways but also brought us together in many ways too. American politics, like I was saying before, was a real shitshow for the country. I think it divided them more than any election we’ve seen before, and even with the most recent one, there are still a lot of people that ‘hate’ the other side, whether it be Democrat or Republican. 

But, at the same time, the pandemic proved to us that we all have the same basic emotions and the same basic struggles. We want to see our loved ones and stay healthy, and I think when most of us came together, we were looking out for each other, our frontline workers, everyone out there. Even if you’re someone who’s low-risk to COVID-19, and you’re still doing your part by wearing a mask and staying home, it proves that we as humans have the capability to look after other people. We have the innate ability, and even if it means making small sacrifices in our own lives, we’re willing to stand for the greater good. That’s a huge realization that we needed to have as humans, especially because capitalism makes you believe in the power of the individual. As a social species, I think we forgot how to come together for some things, and COVID-19 proved that we can actually do that. I think that’s one of the biggest impacts 2020 had on activism, that we can still come together. 

I think what’s also important to remember is that a win for any marginalized group, in any area, is really a win for the earth and a win for us all. Like I said earlier, the earth is a common denominator for everyone, and we all live on it. It is in all of our best interests to protect it. Whether it be protecting the arctic refuge, or farmers’ rights in India, yes it’s a Canadian issue. Because guess what? If anything ever happens here that’s a huge social injustice, you’re going to want other people to stand up for you and put pressure on your government. So I think a win for anyone, anywhere, is a win for us all. 

There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to everyday people, and if anything, there’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’ with people and large corporations. I don’t believe that they act in our interests, but when it comes to me and you, or me and a factory worker working in Bangladesh who I’ve never met, we all have the same basic emotions and human needs. 2020 proved that we’re all beautifully connected and that we can all fight for each other because we know what’s best for the greater good.

I think also that 2020 proved the power of social media. Protests are important, but of course, because of social distancing, we had to think about new ways to be activists and new ways to force people to think about something they’ve never thought about. For example, Black Lives Matter was a huge thing that swept through social media in a way that’s never been done before. We came together for that, and we were virtual activists in that sense. I think the fact that we had our parents and grandparents talking about BLM at the dinner table, at least for me, was unbelievable. I never thought we would have that conversation we were having, and I think that’s the most important part. Because what came out of it were changed views. A lot of people got more educated, and were able to see ‘the other side,’ and then changed their way of thinking. 

It’s important to be loud on social media and with your voice. I am that person that will walk into a party and talk about the climate because it’s important. And it’s important to keep talking and spreading the message. In short, those are my thoughts on 2020. 

On a similar note, what are you hoping to see more of as we head into 2021?

A lot of media and sentiment that I’m seeing surrounding 2020 is people dismissing it as a ‘one-off,’ or just a really bad year in history, and they can’t wait for it to be over. But really, from a climate perspective at least, 2021 is not going to be any better. We didn’t make any significant changes to address the climate in 2020. Yes, it was a bad year because of COVID, and maybe COVID will be better next year, but in terms of the climate and a lot of other social justice issues, we can’t expect 2021 to be better without making any changes. That’s a big mentality to adopt, and I think it’s a good first step for the new year: realizing that there’s work to be done and it’s not some magic year that’s going to make everything better. 

What’s important to do in 2021, for anybody that wants to make a difference, is to first focus inward and on what makes you happy. And then we need to focus [on] how we can make a lasting future that fosters that happiness, and allows us to stay happy in the sense that we’re mentally happy, we’re physically healthy, and we’re not worried about our rights, or whether this is a planet we’re going to be able to continue living on. I think once you realize that those things can be the path forward, then we can work towards it. 

When you give kindness, you get it back like ten times more, whether it be in the form of other people being kind to you, or self-fulfillment, or feeling like you made a difference. That’s an important mantra to go into 2021 with. Where do you find happiness, and how can you spread that kindness? How can you spread action and energy to make a difference, such that it will end up enhancing your life back? That’s what happened [to] me because I feel like I make a difference with my work on social media, and I feel happier and more of a sense of purpose for it. I feel like I’ve met more people that feel the same way, and every day when I wake up, I feel like there’s something to do that will make a difference. Once you realize what that is for you, 2021 can be such a pivotal year. In an ideal world, imagine everyone realizing what makes them happy, and not deciding to focus on what they’re told makes them happy, and then changing the world with their own little ways and passions. Just imagine what a world that would be. 

Finally, where can people go to learn more about you and keep up with your work?

My Instagram is usually where I post most of my thoughts, and it’s @_makeearthgreatagain. My YouTube is just my name, which is Karishma Porwal. I haven’t posted on YouTube that much lately because I’ve been focusing on a lot of holiday content on Instagram, but I will be soon. Both of those places are where you can find me. 

I also get a lot of messages on Instagram from people, just about personal things in terms of climate activism. Like, ‘hey Karishma, what’s a more sustainable way of doing this?’ and I’m happy to answer those questions every time I get them, so feel free to give me a shout. I look forward to those conversations. 

Photo from Instagram @_makeearthgreatagain