Communicating our climate stories
We’re excited to share this collaboration with Doctors Without Border, a podcast devoted to stories about the overlaps between humanitarian work and climate impacts. How do we manage our fears, anxiety, and grief in the face of these intersecting issues?
Our second episode of the MSF Eco-Anxiety Podcast features host Rachel Malena-Chan and Faith Toran, the Communications Coordinator for Climate Smart MSF.
Faith tells us about how she found herself working at the intersection of climate action and humanitarian care, and the embodied experiences that motivate her on the hard days. Faith has a strong vision for how Communications Specialists and Climate Scientists can work together to prepare people most at risk of climate health impacts.
Faith weaves together local and global perspectives, and she gives us great tips for working through eco-anxiety and eco-anger.
EPISODE 2: Featuring Faith Toran
Faith Toran, MSF
I think we have to move people to act, not inform them. I mean, information is great, right? But information leading to action, that process is very long and very daunting. How do we build networks and relationships that lead to action? How do we tell stories that share solutions? What if we use communication, embody and experience and get people moving, motivated, acting?
Rachel Malena-Chan, EAS
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by your worry about climate change? This podcast is about making space for the stories that bring meaning to the climate crisis and reckoning with our personal and collective role in transforming the chapters to come. I’m your host, Rachel Malena-Chan, Story Strategist and Creator of Eco-Anxious Stories Join me and Doctors Without Borders in exploring our climate, emotions, the humanitarian and mental health impacts of climate change and the opportunities we have to care for each other in a changing world.
Please note that while we will be sharing mental health stories and insights, this episode is not professional medical advice. If you are seeking mental health support, please contact your local health provider with your questions and concerns. The leading theories on eco anxiety suggest that uncomfortable climate emotions just might be an essential component of mass mobilization for climate solutions, but only when we make space to acknowledge them and wrestle with the uncertainty that characterizes our collective climate future.
These feelings of anxiety or grief can be debilitating if they’re not acknowledged, and it’s important to reach out for help if you’re struggling to cope. But climate aware psychologists tell us that these feelings aren’t evidence of sickness. They’re proof of our sanity and our empathy. And they might be the key to motivating change. Faith Toran is the Communications Coordinator for Climate Smart MSF, a Doctors Without Borders project that brings climate action and humanitarian action together. With Climate Smart, Faith produces effective and engaging communications materials to help scale solutions.
Faith, thanks so much for joining us today.
Thank you, Rachel. Hi, I’m Faith. As Rachel mentioned, I am a communication specialist. I’ve worked in communication for the past 12 years in multiple capacities dealing with policy advocacy and now humanitarian action and aid.
Her passion for environmental justice and sustainability started when she was young, and as we explored Faith’s story, I asked her about how she connects the dots between climate change and humanitarian care.
Being in the humanitarian field, I’ve worked 12 years, and so since 2013 I’ve been in many different countries, many different contexts. Burkina Faso, India, south of India, Guinea, Haiti and Cameroon. And so for me, at the core, it’s a justice issue. I have the same lens or the same mind state when it comes to the climate crisis.
Doctors Without Borders Médecins Sans Frontieres is a global movement with 63,000 staff across more than 70 countries. MSF is responding to many drastic crises, conflicts, disasters and epidemics displacement in many instances as a direct consequence of the global climate crisis.
I consider myself first and foremost an environmentalist. I feel very connected to nature, to this earth. Within my role at Climate Smart, my work is within environmental sustainability. I love when we speak about like environmental sustainability, carbon measurement, carbon reductions. But I would even go a step further. I think my commitment to the work that I’m doing and to my lifestyle is more about environmental protection.
If we can sort of like get the mitigation right, get the adaptation right, get the environmental sustainability right. Environmental protection is I think that’s just like taking care of the earth. And that seems fun to me. That doesn’t seem like a job. It seems like what I naturally do. Connecting back to the Earth. Sometimes I’m like, Why did I choose this work?
But I think it chose me. I don’t think I actively yeah, I don’t think I actively decided, Oh, I want to work on these intersections of climate and environment and health. That sounds like great. No, definitely not.
Whether you’re talking about mental health, population health, planetary health, they all seem to bleed into each other. And I think that it can feel overwhelming and unproductive at an intuitive level to allow all of that to sort of seep together. You know, why would we want to start to see the overlaps if we can’t even figure out one one kind of corner of this?
More and more people are starting to relate to this emotion or this sense of discomfort or dread around the climate, but not really knowing necessarily what their place is in speaking to it or even finding help around it. And I think by identifying that our stories are sort of that like foundational level of meaning for us and how we frame something and what matters to us and what the stakes are from our perspective or our community’s perspective.
It’s such a valuable source of capacity, such a valuable compass as we’re trying to navigate different paths forward.
It’s interesting stumbling upon eco-anxiety and really starting to understand what that means because I think it’s something I feel daily. Basically, if we look at the IPCC report, it says things are bad now. They’re going to get worse. And so how do we reconcile working as humanitarians, as climate activists in this intersection of climate, environment and health?
How do we wake up every day knowing that inevitably there will be suffering? Suffering will continue. Yes. Maybe we can lessen the impact and maybe as many people will not suffer, but the fact that people still will suffer. That’s really something very difficult to reconcile with for me. And I think spending so much time in villages in rural contexts and just seeing every single day human suffering and mostly health, mostly health, and then trying to reconcile with the suffering, the health of our planet.
It just blows my mind completely.
In her book, Generation Dread on eco-anxiety and climate emotions, Dr. Britt Wray writes “A sense of realistic danger is what’s fueling the rise of eco-anxiety. It emerges when we feel our vulnerability and connection to what’s unraveling around us, and that becomes adaptive when we’re in touch with our capacity to care. In this sense, eco-anxiety works like an antidote to a culture of uncare.”
So how do we harness these uncomfortable climate emotions and transform them into global systems, global cultures of care? Hearing each other’s stories allows us to make a more personal connection to a complex and sometimes abstract problem. The more I talk to people about how they found themselves working on these kinds of issues, it tends to be an embracing of those overlaps and a real sense that we are all talking about the same issues and the same underlying causes of disconnection.
And as we try to repair our relationship with the climate, look, we also are needing to and are leading to repairing our relationship with each other, whether we’re talking about global crises, conflicts or just these deep inequities we have in how resources and wealth is distributed in our world. And so I agree with you that it’s hard to identify just with one corner of the issue or even to identify as a climate activist or a humanitarian when we see all of these sort of worlds colliding and some exciting opportunity in that not just in a sense of overwhelm, but actual opportunity.
I’m curious how you found your way to the work that you’re doing without that necessarily being, you know, a focus point.
I mean, being African-American or considering myself Black in the United States, the history is one of suffering. So I felt called to be a part of alleviating that suffering from a very young age. And so that led me to work on, like reproductive justice, racial inequality and discrimination, equal opportunity and access to education. And so I was sort of like all over the place, like putting my hat in every social justice issue that existed or that I could identify.
And so I think I before I even understood the climate crisis and became committed to this work that I’m doing, I could see very clearly its impacts.
In 2013, Faith joined the Peace Corps, a 27 month volunteer program that took her to a remote village in Burkina Faso. Her work, teaching 4 to 7 year olds, gave her an up close perspective on the intersections of health, environment and communication.
What I noticed was that my students would come and they would and they would be ill. Maybe they had malaria or malnourished, and so then we’d have to go to the health center. So then I started volunteering at the health center, and then I realized that, okay, there’s a food security issue here. So then I started volunteering with the Agricultural Committee.
And so what I understood at the intersection of all of this was climate. Really, embodied experience leads to action. And so I’m not sure if I just had information on the climate crisis or climate change if that would really lead me to any action. I felt something and I, I didn’t know what the road would look like to getting to the work that I’m doing now.
But it stuck with me. And when I looked at climate change, what I clearly could see from my experience of working in Burkina was that here were all of those different intersections health, women’s empowerment. Everything sort of fell under the umbrella of climate. Climate was a factor. And so I said, Why not? Why not tackle the biggest, the biggest existential crisis that we’re having in this time?
And why not look at it from each intersection, from each point?
I love how your story shows us that you can actually just dive in and and use that as permission to not have to sort of choose a lane. That in a way, that you get to, you get to make all these connection points and you don’t have to say, Oh, I just work on environmental issues or I’m just a doctor, or I’m just a communicator.
But that these are all important roles to play as we support each other in solidarity and make a difference. And I think that it’s just really cool to see how you took something that you were already really passionate about and great at in communication and found something meaningful to contribute in that space, because I think that’s something that a lot of people are looking for. That fun, joyful, sustainable thing that they could do to make a difference on all of these intersecting issues, including the climate crisis.
You’re speaking right to the essence and the core of why I do communication, because at first I mean, I was like, maybe I get a Master’s in environmental science, but then I realized our lives are guided, our interactions, our connections are built on communication networks. And so I saw that there wasn’t this much value in the role that communication does play.
Amplifying local voices. What does that lead to? Amplifying local solutions like what would the world look like? What would it look like? Us really addressing this climate crisis from a communication lens, like or incorporating that as just important as scientific data? Just as important as the early warning and early action tools. Just as important as innovation in terms of solar energy.
Communication has to have a seat at the table with everything that’s being done to address the climate crisis.
Faith told me about a recent Doctors Without Borders project that she was a part of in Cameroon. The team she was with was in charge of delivering vaccines in a village in northern Cameroon experiencing a cholera outbreak. Cholera can spread quickly in places with inadequate water treatment. In her communications role, Faith began listening to the local residents and asking them about their lives.
It’s going to be easy to communicate on how many people we vaccinated, but what’s the story underneath this story? An older gentleman, his name was Moses Naglo, and he gave me permission to share his story. In speaking with Mr. Moses, he said “Here in Nyenge the people we do not have access to good water. Our wells are not good.
We also do not have toilets. So people are using the toilet near the water where the fish are. This is no good. We used to be able to control this. However, since we do not have public toilets, things are going bad in the village. For about ten years now, many houses they have entered into the sea, fish nets and bottles, plastic bottles.
All of this in front of you, all of this dirty that you are seeing lying here on the shore. We are throwing these things on the ground to fill the place, to fill the place so that the water will not take our houses again. We are pleading with the authorities to give us clean drinking water and toilets so that this cholera epidemic will end.”
This particular conversation with Mr. Moses had a profound effect on Faith and her perspective on how health and environment are linked. The interconnection was personal, not just a statistic, but someone with a name and a face. Terms like eco-anxiety and eco-grief are popping up more and more, and they aren’t just a response to environmental harms, but to deep climate injustices.
As noted by eco-anxiety researcher Britt Wray, eco-anxiety is linked to perspectives of government betrayal and being lied to by leaders who are taking inadequate climate action while pretending otherwise. And environmental injustices are evident in every corner of the world.
I was there and I embodied that experience, but someone living in the United States, I don’t know if that’s going to motivate them to act, right? Mr. Moses is in Cameroon, but I think really, if we look around us, I mean, I’ve just returned back to the US after not really living here for nine years. And so I’ve been in many, many different contexts.
But when I return to the U.S., I have a sister that lives in Jackson, Mississippi. Water security issue there. Basically, there was flooding and a tank burst and contaminated the water. They were without clean drinking water. Could not bathe. It was horrific. It was unacceptable and very much environmental injustice and a lot of disinvestment prior to this happening.
So I don’t have to look far. I don’t have to look far at all. I can look right in the United States and water contamination, water issues in Flint, Michigan. And so I really think what we have to do is sort of look more regionally and get people to connect to where they’re at. I mean, the stories that we are telling from afar, those are amazing, too.
But I think in collaboration or in conjunction with those stories, we must tell the stories of our neighbor down the street. We must tell the stories of Jackson, Mississippi. We must tell the stories of Flint, Michigan. I think we have to move people to act, not inform them. I mean, information is great, right? But information leading to action, that process is very long and very daunting.
How do we build networks and relationships that lead to action? How do we tell stories that share solutions? What if we use communication, embody an experience and get people moving, motivated acting?
I love it. And I wonder if you look to the future of humanitarian work, the future of Doctors Without Borders, the future of our movements addressing the climate crisis. What do you imagine? Like what do you see as some of those exciting opportunities and what are some of those maybe new priorities or fresh approaches that you think should or could take the lead as we in our generation sort of move things perhaps more urgently in the direction that we know they need to go?
What is myself as a communication practitioner, had access to a climate scientist who could tell me, All right, here is this tool you can use about to predict early rains. So that way we could mobilize in the community to say, okay, the rains are coming earlier. This is what we need to do to avoid a malaria peak or a malnutrition peak.
You would have a group of climate scientists who agree to mentor those working on the frontlines, giving us the tools, training us, building our capacity on how to use them. So that way we feel better equipped to be in service and to be in community with others to find sustainable solutions. So it’s like really looking at the needs before they even manifest.
But more early action means more collaboration.
In that totality of us all kind of being in the story together. The work then isn’t like, how do I become an expert on climate? It becomes about how do I cultivate those really rich connections that actually get work done?
You’re completely right. Solidarity, solidarity, solidarity is the solution. I mean, if I’ve learned anything from over the nine years not living in the US and living in many different countries is that culture is so rich in it really adds to the possibility of sustainability. And I think we have to think more in a hybrid framework. It’s not just like solution in the US or the only solutions that could work in the US.
No. What if we adapted to more participatory, collaborative initiatives? What would that look like? Can we meet our climate targets at a faster rate if we just adjusted our ego and our bias and say – No, this solution involves us all. Thematically, it is about the climate crisis. But I think what the climate crisis might be trying to teach us is how to reconnect with each other.
Why wouldn’t it come from all of us? I don’t know. I think like that, like we are all a part of the puzzle. So let’s put the puzzle together.
The mental health impacts of climate change are valid no matter who or where you are, but there is inherent privilege in being able to work through these eco-feelings. Because my basic needs are met, I have the privilege to do this internal work, and so it’s my responsibility to harness my concerns, worries and fears and turn them into lasting change.
I want to finish by circling back to this question of finding that sense of capacity to continue to see these things, to continue to work on them amidst those feelings of anxiety or grief or discomfort. And I wonder if that term eco-anxiety resonates with you at all or something like it, what do you tend to do in those moments when it is feeling overwhelming?
And what advice might you have for people listening who really do want to get in on all that cool solution and community building stuff that you said but are currently feeling really alone or overwhelmed?
This term, eco-anxiety, this is very new to me, but when I am feeling angry, frustrated, first thing I usually do is sort of like grab a sheet of paper and I’m very solution oriented. So in an imagined future, what would this look like? Or if there were greater collaboration, there would be like early warning signs for all weather related events that are going to happen in the next six months in every local community and every neighborhood and every everyone would have access to information.
Everyone would have access to a secure and safe future. And so I start just mapping out things that feel good, the imagined future. Then sometimes I just play guitar because I’m just like, I don’t even know what to do anymore. I try to speak to like-minded people about what I’m feeling, so I really lean into community, all of us doing the work.
So my peers I really like lean into them, express my frustration. If it really does get too challenging, also seeking like mental health, mental health support. In Cameroon, I mean, working in a conflict zone, I think it’s really important to lean into the support systems that we do have here. And I always do that. That’s what I, I highly recommend that because reconciling with this truth, that suffering will continue,
I think we have to pull in the professionals.
I agree. And we need to ramp up that community level support. That’s linked in with those professionals. Just like linking in with climate scientists who can give us advance warning and help us understand what’s going on at the world, in the world at a physical level. I think tuning into communities of practice and group mental health support as well as individual therapy when that’s available to you is a great way to remember that we need to take care of ourselves on on every side of this of this issue and and re-imagine what those models look like so that we’re better equipped.
Sometimes I just think back to Mr. Moses and how willing he was to still survive regardless, despite the access to the scientific data, he was willing to survive despite. And so I honor being able to experience that or hear his words. And then I just feel motivated to do more. Because I’m sitting in New York. You know, I can come and go as I please, just really enjoy my life. There is access to happiness and joy and peace in my life daily.
And so, yeah, in my heart I am like I want that for others. And so it just keeps me balanced, I would say.
Faith, we’re so grateful that you were willing to share your story and your experiences with us today.
Thank you, Rachel. This was delightful. Yeah, I feel inspired and motivated and I think I did come in with a little bit of anxiety today, eco-anxiety, and I feel refreshed. So thank you also for being in community because I think it’s important.
As we conclude this episode, we invite you to reflect on your own worries and fears about the climate crisis. Sit with your discomfort and embrace the possibility within that uncertainty. As we say at Eco-Anxious Stories, eco-anxiety is just the beginning of the story and we all have a role to play in shaping what happens next. If you’d like to explore our resources, stories, tools and articles about eco-anxiety, or if you’d like to share your own story, visit ecoanxious.ca.
If this episode brought up uncomfortable emotions for you, please reach out for support. Note that this episode is not professional medical advice, and if you are seeking mental health support, please contact your local health provider with questions and concerns. To support and engage with the important humanitarian work being done every day by MSF, visit doctorswithoutborders.ca and find us on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Thank you so much to our guest for being here today and sharing their story and making this episode possible on behalf of Eco-Anxious Stories and Doctors Without Borders, thank you for joining us.
A note from Rachel
This project has been a lot of fun, and we’re always excited to collaborate with organizations who share our values. If you’d like to explore an audio, photo, video, or online learning project together, please let us know!