Flourishing Diversity’s Jessica Sweidan: Why A Variety Of Life on Earth Is Essential To Sustainability

Image: Jessica collaborating with colleagues at Amazon Watch, at the IUCN Conservation Congress, Hawaii, 2016.



In an exploration of what sustainable living truly means, Nathalie Joel-Smith speaks to Jessica Sweidan – founder of Synchonicity Earth and co-creator of Flourishing Diversity – about why creative and diverse approaches are needed to address the pressing environmental challenges we face at this time.

“The one thing I have always known is that everything is rooted in the environment, but that we have either forgotten how, or have been choosing not to look at the connections.” – Jessica Sweidan

The natural world is the foundation of absolutely everything, yet the environmental sector remains one of the most under-supported and misunderstood. As the founder of Synchronicity Earth, which supports underfunded and overlooked species and ecosystems across the globe, Jessica Sweidan’s life’s mission is to break through barriers and place the environmental space at the heart of everything.

In 2019, Jessica co-created Flourishing Diversity, which amplifies and explores ways to restore our relationship with Earth by listening to and learning from all life.  She is also a Patron of Nature for the IUCN, which is the world’s largest and most diverse environmental network.

Through weaving together art, philosophy, philanthropy and conservation, Jessica’s work challenges accepted approaches to protecting the natural world. Here she explains how this has shaped her understanding of what it means to cultivate sustainable and regenerative living.

Image: "I refuse to accept that humans aren’t capable of caretaking the earth and each other at the same time." - Jessica Sweidan
Image: Jessica visited Malaysian Borneo in 2015 to visit HUTAN, an organisation supported by Synchronicity Earth

What does sustainability mean to you?

 When we think about sustainability, it’s often in regard to how we can be more discerning and thoughtful about what we purchase. But we need to look deeper than this, at why we need to live sustainably in the first place.

Sustainability is one of many actions we need to take in order to be better citizens, but it’s not the goal itself. It gives us another approach to purchasing, which is better, but doesn’t address the root causes of the environmental challenges we face. The fact is, we should be purchasing far less of everything, whether it’s sustainable or not. If we stop at sustainability, we’re still in trouble. The deeper consideration is how we directly contribute to the regeneration and ultimately, the flourishing of the planet. 

You have an art and philosophy background. How do these fields apply to your work in protecting the natural world?

Through art and philosophy, I learned to keep an open mind and think creatively. I’ve applied these principles to my work in the environmental sector – a space that has been dominated by science and data.

We need to move beyond pie charts and graphs, to embrace stories and narratives that create access points people can relate to. Given the scale of the ecological crisis we are in, we want to invite everyone to apply themselves in some way towards finding solutions and halting it.  So, it’s essential that we look to the humanities to help us use our hearts and feel our way in this complex sector.

Historically, the arts hold a special place in society where it is OK to present challenging ideas, push buttons and be emotional.

What have your biggest challenges been in entering the environmental space?

Generally, I was received really well, I think mostly because I never have a shortage of creative ideas. But there were many moments that were hugely intimidating – which typically involved rooms of scientists and conservation biologists! It took a while for me to feel valued and relevant.

Understanding the complexities of the threats facing the natural world also took time. But when I got it, it suddenly seemed obvious. For example, in the back of our minds we might know that deforestation is taking place in the Amazon or in Borneo, but do we recognise that we are directly connected to deforestation through our clothes and food choices, and that we therefore have a role to play in stopping it? The lesson here is, you don’t need to be an expert in something to make significant changes. You have a role to play and you have purchase power. Every human being is linked to the environment. Indigenous Peoples inherently know this, and live from this perspective, and that’s something we can learn from in the West.

Image: Naba Sipa Melo, Emuko Miwu and Jibi Pulu - representatives from the Idu Mishmi community of Northeast India - travelled to the UK for the first time in September 2019 to take part in the Flourishing Diversity Series.

Both Synchronicity Earth and Flourishing Diversity value and support the work of Indigenous Peoples. Can you talk about why this is so important?

Our western hunger for resources has placed many Indigenous communities under threat. These communities protect around 80% of the world’s abundant flora and fauna. This biodiversity (the variety of all life on Earth) is one of the best mitigators we have against climate change.

Typical western thinking imposes scientific methodologies and targets as an approach to protecting the natural world, but we need to listen to Indigenous Peoples across the globe, who have been living truly sustainably for hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years, in a harmonious give and take relationship with the land, rivers and ocean.

Take the example of the Idu Mishmi, from the Dibang Valley in the Eastern Himalayas, which illustrates this beautifully…

The Dibang Valley is known as a biodiversity hotspot. There are over 500 species of birds, several of which are not found anywhere else. Recent research has also found a scientifically unknown population of tigers, which has survived largely due to the protection offered by Idu culture. In a world searching for solutions, there is much we can learn by listening to a culture that has protected thousands of hectares of primary forest and one of the world’s most iconic and threatened predators, the tiger.

In the face of complex climate issues, do you ever get overwhelmed?  What motivates you to keep going? How do you focus on where you can make a difference?

I don’t get overwhelmed, because I know in my heart and in my bones that we can do better. I refuse to accept that humans aren’t capable of caretaking the earth and each other at the same time.

Nature is disappearing at an alarming rate, and humans are responsible. This alone moves me to act. I cannot sit around in the face of such injustice. As an individual I try to place the environment at the heart of every decision I make. I can do better – we can all do better – we are all learning. I learn by being open. I make myself available for any conversation where I can potentially have an impact, and where I can engage in a collaborative process. Even when – especially when – the conversations are intimidating or difficult.

Synchronicity Earth has supported Hutan since 2014 in its mission to conserve the Bornean orangutan through a holistic, multi-faceted approach." Image credit: HUTAN-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project
The Idu Mishmi cultural practices have allowed their community forests to support more tigers and other endangered species than in the regional tiger reserves and protected areas

Flourishing Diversity invites us to consider how we contribute to a vibrant and healthy planet. What advice would you give to someone about how they can do this?

Start by moving beyond quick fixes, and the linear mindset that tells us ‘If I do A then B will happen’. Instead, try engaging with lots of different ideas and interventions all at the same time. Some will work and some won’t, but it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re coming to it with an open hearted approach and fearless mindset. You might have 10 ideas and 1 of them bears fruit, and that’s fine! That is success.

It’s ok to try things out and make mistakes. We’ve become so solutions-centric, which is great, we want solutions – but sometimes the ‘right’ solutions will only emerge through the process of care, nurturing, time and cultivation. I suppose it is a much more ecological approach.

If you’re wondering where to look for ideas, bear in mind that actions come in many different forms. For example, conversations we have, our working lives, creative endeavours, hobbies and community activities, are all places of action. Everything is an interwoven web and has an impact in some way. Trust the process and allow your imagination to run wild. Beyond recycling and buying more sustainable products, consider what your unique gifts are. What are your passions and concerns? What interests you and what are you curious to learn more about? What brings you joy? What would living well feel like to you? If you instinctively start to explore these questions and play with ideas, then you are adopting a flourishing mindset, which is far more full-bodied and from the heart.

What resources would you point people towards if they want to diversify the voices they’re listening to and engage with different perspectives regarding the environmental challenges we are facing?

There are many things out there, and it’s always best to absorb a range of different voices in order to have a good healthy diet! Here’s a few places you could start – see what rabbit holes these lead you down:

  • Nemonte Nenquimo Article – A potent letter to Western Civilization from this Indigenous woman, who is one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.
  • Who Cares Wins – This is Lily Cole’s new podcast. She does a terrific job of creating a forum for diverse voices to tackle different topics.
  • Mongabay – Articles about biodiversity, conservation and environmental issues happening globally. 
  • APIB – Follow the work of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil, which is a vital portal into the plights of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, and how we can support them.
  • Outrage & Optimism – A global climate change podcast with leading experts, that explores how we can channel our care and outrage into ambition and action.