Elena Doms is a great activist and influencer who knows that the Arctic is at the forefront of climate change. TiME had the chance to talk to her about the Artic, the current state of NGOs and the transformative power of arts.
We are thrilled to have this chat with you, Elena. Can you please introduce yourself to the TiME community?
I can do that! My name is Elena. I was born in the Arctic. I come from a city very close to the polar circle. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m very passionate about sustainability and restoring our nature because I could see the changes first-hand, what’s happening there, and how the Arctic transformation impacts all of us around the world. For me, protecting the Arctic is a pressing challenge. I’m working on an exciting project to launch a global cleanup of soils through nature-based solutions and to create circular-economy materials.
I am also an artist. I want to inspire love for the Arctic region. I work for an NGO in Belgium called Habitats. So through my art, I restore. Through the sales of my art, I help Habitats restore biodiversity worldwide.
Can you tell us a moment of revelation when you were a child or teenager in which you realized that nature really needs to be taken care of?
Well, it’s a very good question because I lived in the Arctic. My parents had land in a risky agricultural area in terms of ecosystems. I was a little kid and I learned the importance of nature.
Seeing what my parents did and learned — how to grow food, how to grow flowers, how to grow vegetables, even in very harsh conditions, where you never know what you’re going to get — made me build this connection with nature.
I used to walk to school and went back home along the river. And I watched seasons change. So, for example, in winter the river would freeze and there would be this frozen road that connects several villages.
In spring the river would isolate these villages, but in winter they would be connected through ice.
And some people who live in these villages need to go every morning to work and every evening… back home or to go to school using the frozen river paths.
Usually, the ice is thick enough to build this road in early December, but the ice wasn’t coming during the pandemic. That shows how the Arctic is at the forefront of climate change.
Authorities had to call small aviation or other types of boats so that people could go to the hospital. That struck me.
If this road cannot be in place, if people are isolated and can’t get food, or go to the hospital, or go to work or to school, this means that something is not right.
Nature is changing. That infrastructure is based on ice, and people’s life depends on it.
But it is not there anymore. That was a very deep revelation because I lived along this river, and I always looked at it.
I was always very excited when this road was in place. To me the absence of this road means that nature really needs to be restored and protected and that we are not separate from nature — we are nature.
Have you seen other scenes that outraged you? In terms of nature, I mean?
You can see these kind of scenes everywhere. I’m based in Belgium, and in recent years summers are getting hotter and drier. I was recently in Serbia, and the artificial lakes were almost empty.
It’s really difficult not to see the impact of climate change on nature. It’s everywhere. It’s not just in the Arctic, but in the Arctic climate is changing faster.
When I was a kid, we would easily reach minus 30 degrees Celsius, minus 35. Now it is minus 10, or even above 0.
Every continent is facing climate disasters, floods, and biodiversity loss.
We had the privilege to interview Tony Hiss. His book takes the reader from the cities to the boreal forests. Did you ever have the chance to visit one of these regions? And what can this kind of untouched nature teach us in the 21st century?
I had a chance to visit a boreal forest during my 18 years in the Arctic. Boreal forests were also part of my life, because we often went there in summer together, to look for mushrooms and berries.
As a family, we had a lot of fun doing that. I cannot say that it’s fully untouched. I think very rarely on Earth now do we have untouched nature, but what it probably can teach us is about being respectful.
These very old forests are not totally our home, we are guests and should behave as such.
How can we do that?
First, we should acknowledge what is going on. The Arctic is at the forefront of climate change and we should heal our relationship with it.
For example, my dad would pick berries and go into the boreal forests. But he would leave really early from our summer house — from that piece of land we used to grow food on — and he would go and get mushrooms alone. And one afternoon he came back and said he saw a bear.
He literally saw a bear one meter away from him, which was rather unusual. But in the end, there are bears in these forests, so it makes sense.
He had to roar. He had to make himself look bigger so that the bear would turn around and go away. The bear turned around and went away and my dad has been my forever hero since then.
What I mean by this story is that this is a place of nature. The boreal forests are full of animals and very interesting plants.
And I think we need to learn from them how they make their existence work and how our respect towards them can help them. We have to make sure that we leave them enough space to thrive.
Not a lot of people know about the value of the boreal forests. It was more evident during the World Economic Forum, with the speech of Johan Rockström, in which he explained these ecosystems’ tipping points.
Because the Arctic is at the forefront of climate change, because it’s warming up four times faster than the rest of the planet, it triggers tipping points all around the world.
But if you look at the map of where these tipping points are located, they are related mostly to the polar regions.
The more the sea ice melts, the more the Earth is exposed to extreme temperatures. We hear a lot about the Amazon, and the Amazon is indeed vital as it is the lungs of our planet. But boreal forests are essential carbon sinks and function differently from the Amazon.
Boreal forests have been storing carbon for thousands of years.
With climate change, they are drying up, and that means that there can be many forest fires, and all that carbon that was stored in the soils will be released in the atmosphere.
Then we also have the Greenland ice sheets, the currents that are very close to the Arctic regions and the Antarctica ice sheets.
But the majority of the tipping points are actually located in the polar regions very, very far away from those wild zones.
And for me, that’s fascinating.
Sadly, polar regions are now considered the next big opportunity region because they contain many minerals, oil, and gas. The Arctic is at the forefront of climate change.
Nowadays, 25 percent of the gold, oil, and gas we consume comes from the polar regions.
With the ice melting, more chunks are given out for exploration. More shipping routes are being opened up in these regions because of their economic opportunities.
These regions are so important, they trigger all the tipping points that impact billions of people around the world.
Polar regions are extremely powerful in stabilizing our ecosystem, but they’re also very fragile.
What is the political response from institutions such as the European Commission? Can we be satisfied with what’s being done?
We are definitely not doing enough, neither in Europe nor worldwide. However, I think Europe is doing lots of good things. Europe wants to establish leadership in that.
We see good things everywhere, all around the world. They are just not enough compared to the pace of changes we are facing and the emissions.
They need to be cut down by 50 percent globally by 2030. That’s in seven years. Do you see that happening?
And in 2022 we were still increasing our emissions globally! We need to cut by 50 percent in seven years! That’s insane.
Change should be a lot faster. And it’s not just politicians that have to work on that. Everyone does: the individuals, the companies, the politicians — altogether. I think now it’s time when we have to try to leave our competition and our differences aside.
We have to collaborate to restore nature everywhere in the world, to cut emissions everywhere in the world. I don’t like to go into shame and blame.
What about your work at the Burgundia think tank?
We started during the pandemic, although we have stopped for a while now. We felt like we could give many inputs to the politicians and, you know, to companies. And that’s how it all started.
I think if you watch the first interview that I did with the founder of Burgundia, Nick Doms, you can see the many inputs we could give to the politicians and companies. And that’s how it all started.
We were looking into different topics including sustainability, geopolitics, circle economy…
I interviewed a lot of interesting experts from the policymaking side… like start-ups that are working on sustainability solutions. You can still find it online on my YouTube channel. And yeah, that’s how I wanted to showcase what are the good things that are happening out there, what are the things that we need to do.
One of your goals was to drive the sustainable-business transition and educate people on sustainability. If you were coaching us as an NGO, what would you do to help us continue to succeed?
I think a lot of people that work in sustainability and a lot of NGOs want to do… good things, and they don’t often put themselves in the spotlight. They instead focus on action. But they are very, very humble.
I think that NGOs working on restoring nature need to have a lot of innovative communication models, a lot of PR, and a lot of branding. Let’s make nature conservation sexy globally and invest in this positive image.
You guys already do a lot of great stuff on social media and content-wise. Congratulations!
What can people learn in your course “Get into sustainability within two weeks”?
We want to help a lot of passionate people get jobs in sustainability. It’s based on my personal experience and how I struggled to get into the field, and from what I learned from a lot of people that I talked to, from a lot of messages that I received.
There are a lot of people that want to take action but they don’t know how, and the idea of this course is to help them.
How can people position themselves and use the skills they already have to transition into a full-time career in sustainability? Our goal is to answer this question.
Food systems management and sustainable food production are some of the main topics of current global debates. What is your approach to that?
We need more seasonal and more localized food systems. We don’t need to ship things all around the world. And, of course, we don’t need to pack them in plastic so that we have them in the shop.
We have to support local farmers, to eat locally, and to transition to a more plant-based diet.
When we look at the land being used globally for agriculture and the emissions from the meat industry, we can see that leaving aside more land for nature restoration is necessary. Scientists have shown in the IPCC report that we need all the solutions.
When I was pregnant, I got diabetes and that was the first time I started learning about nutrition.
I’ve realized how little we know about food. We need to understand what we eat, what ends up on our plates, and how to cook it in healthy and good ways.
What is your favorite podcast?
Here are two of my favorite ones: the one from the National Geographic; I think it’s called Overheard. I remember one episode about tornadoes that was really fascinating. And then the second one is from Simon Senik called A Bit of Optimism.
As a mother, how do you cope with eco-anxiety?
I’m doing many things to cope with eco-anxiety, mainly because I’m always in the news and on the cloud.
I try not to check other news too much because that would be overwhelming. So, for example, if you’re talking about geopolitics, that’s my husband’s part. He updates me on the most important developments.
I try to focus on action. I’m very passionate about doing different things and scaling different solutions.
I am also doing sports and meditation. So there are many things that I’m doing to… try to be at peace and focus on action rather than anxiety, but it’s not easy at all times.
It’s sometimes in contradiction with this very high-speed level of life that we all have.
Finally, nature is one of the best ways… to cope with eco-anxiety.
What is your message to the TiME community?
You say you are small, but changes start with individuals.
I was feeling small until I read a book by Dr. Christian Busch on connecting the dots in The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck. All big changes started with individuals. So we shouldn’t feel powerless, we should feel powerful.
What you’re doing is amazing. Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t consider yourself small. You’re extremely important. You’re incredibly significant. What you’re doing is fantastic. And keep it up. Scale it up as much as you can.