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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Dickson

#018 Isaias Hernandez: on being a queer brown vegan activist, the scale of climate emotions

Have you suffered from eco-anxiety or grief? How can we be imperfect environmentalists? And how can we navigate the interconnectedness of injustice, veganism and zero-waste? Big questions that we are deep diving into with Isaias Hernandez—commonly known as Queer Brown Vegan, an environmental educator who loves (un)learning.

When you talk about accessible environmental education, Isaias Henandez, the mind behind QueerBrownVegan, is no doubt going to be your go-to Instagram account. Between colourful graphics, illustrations, videos, and simple but effective textual explanations, Isaias makes environmental education accessible and exciting. His account is mostly concerned with unpacking terminologies, posing questions or defining concepts. But perhaps more importantly, Isaias’s activism is now also focused on increasing the visibility of those who have not been as visible in the community, specifically queer/trans BIPOC folks, who have been at the forefront of environmental movements and yet are often erased from environmental narratives.

In this episode, we talk about the spectrum of climate emotions, how we can normalise being imperfect and making mistakes, and creating healthy boundaries and communities online. You can listen to the whole conversation on the Live Wide Awake podcast here or read the highlights below.

On things Isaias has unlearned along the way…

One of the biggest things for me is recognising who I’m centring in what I’m talking about. So when it comes to privilege, I am queer, yes. But I am also someone who’s male-identifying. And I’m able-bodied, so how do I uphold ableism, for example? So I ask myself, as someone who is able-bodied, how can I be providing more spaces for those who have disabilities? But without the saviour complex? How do I decentre myself? I went to read about how I was upholding ablesim, and reading articles online. It’s not about me asking disabled people. Rather, it’s me educating myself and doing the work to understand what ways I can become more accessible. Part of that, on social media, is adding closed captioning to a lot of my content. That was something that I didn’t think about—it was an afterthought. But now it’s at the forefront of my thoughts.

Another thing when thinking about who I’m centring is who I am talking about. Most of the time, those that are outside of the West don’t even have the right to advocate for what they’re thinking, or they don’t have the freedom to share it. So how do I decentre my platform, and allow others to use it? I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with other activists and organisations outside of the West. And so I’ve been able to share my platform, in that sense. There was Black History Month, and then Women’s History Month, and I think it’s important to think about how we can keep this a constant, active conversation. How do we make it not a one-time thing? How do we pass the mic and centre others consistently? You know, if you say you’re accessible if you say you’re creating equitable space… are you actually creating those spaces for people?

On how environmental justice, veganism and zero-waste intersect…

For me, veganism is more of a… circular relationship, and an ethical lifestyle. It advocates for both humans and non-humans. It’s about asking ourselves to be actively anti-racist and anti-speciest in this movement, and recognising the extractive systems of capitalism that have polluted and damaged our planet. I focus on this because, within environmental justice, we advocate for healthy communities, access to water, air, soil… A lot of times we focus on cities and communities, but we don’t make those connections to our food system. How do we reconcile with the fact that these industries are continuously harming Black, Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC), and also polluting the local communities, that are already being economically suppressed?

That kind of connection-making extends to how I see zero-waste. I don’t see zero-waste as reducing your plastic. I see it as a human rights issue, in the sense of the original definition of zero-waste. Which was to essentially look at how the petrochemical industry designs products that are not circular. And so if we want to create products that are circular, we need to think about how to prevent negative discharge into communities of colour, into living species. Part of my work, for example, is really about looking at plastic pollution, for example, and not just thinking about how it harms ecosystems and marine species… but also about how it poisons low-income, communities of colour. Especially in countries in Asia—which we blame for having plastic problems. When in reality it’s a lot of Western countries being responsible for shipping their plastic to these countries.

So for me, looking into all of these intertwined intersections, and bringing in people to understand that we can’t understand these as singular issues, but rather as multi-variable issues.

On how Isaias breaks down issues and brings people into the movement…

One of the biggest things I always advocate is to look into the history of movements. Look into the history of environmental justice, for example. We can look into how it started. Especially in the 1960s, with the civil rights movement here in the US… A lot of Black, Indigenous and Brown communities were advocating against using toxic pesticides in their farming practices. Because these pesticides were poisoning and hurting their communities. With zero-waste, as another example, I think it’s great to understand the history of plastics. Where do plastics originate from? What were they initially designed for? And why is it that recycling systems exist today? Finally, with veganism, we can’t just look at how in the 1940s, a white man coined this term. But we have to look at how different religious, cultures and spiritual practices practised veganism in different ways from how we understood it.

And I think that when you’re able to understand each of those histories, you can start understanding how these are all interconnected. So part of the work that I do is using that singular-topic understanding that people have to lure people in. In hopes that they continue that journey, to learn more about it. Once they’re here, they can ask themselves these types of questions. Their curiosity is activated, and this allows them to dig into doing more work. And once they do the work, they realise these connections. Sometimes I get messages from people saying that they didn’t understand what I said at first, but that they finally understand it after.

On how we can change the conversation around zero-waste…

When it comes to plastic-free living, there’s a lot of perfectionism, which upholds unrealistic standards. It’s unrealistic illusions of what we think we can be. And social media encourages this. It allows us to compare ourselves with celebrities, influencers, our friends… And with the zero-waste, plastic-free lifestyle, the media generally centres a lot of white voices. I’m not at all trying to hate on Bea Johnson, who’s known as the mother of zero-waste. She’s an amazing person. But there’s danger in ignoring the history of zero-waste. A lot of Indigenous cultures have (and have been having) very regenerative practices. They use natural resources in a way that’s circular. Even though it’s not packaged as a lifestyle, Indigenous cultures have been living what we call “conscious consumerism”.

And about plastic straws… yes, we want to ban plastic straws. But what really matters? What’s the bigger issue that we’re trying to tackle? The zero-waste lifestyle movement is limited in the sense that it sometimes doesn’t advocate for people to participate in local and systems change. It stops at individual change, and maybe signing petitions. Part of that is because people are white, and they don’t want to, or they’re uncomfortable with talking about race. Or maybe they don’t feel like they’re experts in the subject, so they shy away from these conversations. But we need to think about how we can advocate for both human and non-human lives.

My take is that the lifestyle movement can be very damaging and influential in shifting people’s mindsets from a community, justice-centred lens, to an individual, glamorous lifestyle one, that doesn’t really move forward the wider conversations that we need to be having.

On setting boundaries and creating a safe, online space…

For me, one of the things that I do is to take weekends off. I don’t post anything on weekends. I don’t read my emails. Because I realised I did that every day for seven times a week, back in 2020. And it was so toxic for my health. It was taking a toll on my body and my mind. Another thing I did is actually establish boundaries—that I wasn’t going to respond to emails. If I’m off work, I’m not going to respond to DMs within that hour. I established boundaries with clients, saying that they can’t text me and they have to email me if they want things.

And another thing is also really not shaming people in the comments. Instead of saying things like, “how dare you talk that way?” I’d rather try to see how not everyone understands it this way. We also need to acknowledge that it isn’t all about the US. I have people from different parts of the world following me. And so I don’t just scream at them, saying “how dare you”, because at one point, I was saying those things too. Avoiding doing that gets good, positive responses, of people saying “you’re right, I’m sorry about that”.

And also I think filtering your comments with spam trolls, that’s really helped. I don’t really read comments… I delete them if they really don’t have anything substantial to say about the content. If it’s critical, of course, leave it there. But if it’s something that’s just plain hate messages or death threats… those deserve to be deleted and blocked. Because I don’t really have the time and capacity to deal with that type of energy. Although I think that as environmentalists, we do need to take responsibility to deal with climate change deniers…

I created the Climate Scale framework when I was living in California. There was a lot of wildfires, and at one point it was so bad in Los Angeles that the whole sky was grey for a week. Growing up, I was close to wildfires too. But I hadn’t seen something that bad before. When I was 21, I witnessed a really bad wildfire that burned down cities. I remember being told that I still had to take my exams, even while a natural disaster was happening right in front of my eyes. And so the Climate Emotion Scale was kind of a way for me to organise these emotions for people who were experiencing losing their homes in wildfires.

I created this array of emotions that looked into different emotions. They encompass happiness, love, sadness, anger, shock, fear.

What I realised is that eco-anxiety is a fear… a fear for the future of the planet. But in reality, a lot of people don’t even experience anxiety. Some people are witnessing trauma. Some people are witnessing grieving. And these were things that I felt weren’t really being addressed. Another part of it for me when creating that Climate Emotion Scale was the importance of validating people’s experiences. I didn’t want them to think it’s just in their head, or that they’re wrong. Not everyone has mental health resources, access to climate therapists. So I saw this as a way to help people reckon with all of these emotions that we have. Because this is what makes us better environmentalists. Rather than shaming these emotions away.

On imperfect environmentalism…

I think being an imperfect environmentalist is what makes you a better environmentalist. Everyone has made mistakes. When people mess up, we should still allow them to be part of our communities. I want to disrupt that narrative, and normalise being imperfect. For our minds, for our communities. When you disrupt that narrative, it allows you to become more comfortable with yourself. Rather than having this illusion of yourself being a perfect environmentalist, versus who you really are. With that illusion, that gap is only going to increase. You don’t get to see who you are anymore.

Mistakes shouldn’t be seen as negative, but rather things that you can actively improve on. It doesn’t matter who you are: we’re always imperfect in our work. But that’s what makes us better at communicating with each other—normalising this behaviour. It reinforces the idea that environmentalism can look different, but it’s not “wrong”. Holding up standards that are unrealistic damages people’s mental and physical health. These repercussions really aren’t ideal for anyone in this society. And so I tell people that imperfections are organic, but perfectionism is not natural. And yes, if you do hurt someone, apologise, be accountable for that. Being better is not seeking validation from others. Rather, it’s a form of self-love, to undo all that harmful upholding of perfectionism.

Three things I’m taking away from this conversation with Isaias:

1. When wanting to understand the intersections of environmentalism, or deeply understand what we can do, go back to the history and understand how it evolved. 2. When it comes to the climate, there is a spectrum of emotions that we go through. It’s messy, non-linear and that’s okay. 3. Let’s normalise being imperfect, and realise that mistakes are something we can actively improve on to be better environmentalists.

Listen to the whole conversation with Isaias Hernandez on the Live Wide Awake podcast. Stay connected with Isaias, via their Instagram, or their website.

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