by Wendy Hapgood for Columbia University Women & Sustainability
Asher Jay is a National Geographic emerging explorer and self-described “creative conservationist”. She uses art, poetry, sculpture, animation, online media, and her sheer force of personality to help save the planet. She has dedicated her career to raising awareness of biodiversity loss and the importance of sustainable development. Her art has been used in conservation campaigns for rhinos, elephants, lions, tigers, sea turtles and more.
I met Asher at her favourite neighbourhood cafe, LA Burdick hot chocolate, in Flatiron Manhattan. It’s a high-end cafe, filled with handmade chocolates including in the shape of adorable bite-sized penguins, rabbits, and elephants. With her hurried entrance, a ball of frenetic energy enters the room.
Asher has a unique talent for connecting people visually and emotionally to the tragedy of our planet’s dwindling biodiversity. She begins by telling me passionately about the challenges of our crowded planet and our disconnection from nature, “there’s 7 billion of us, going to be 9 billion soon. And to me, that is staggering. Do we not understand how that is basically to our own detriment? We can’t live independent of the fabric of life. We are not disparate from life and yet we’ve come to think of it as separate.”
We spoke on two occasions over our rich hot chocolates. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
When did you know that wildlife conservation was your calling?
“When I was really young, growing up between India and England, I brought anything that fell out of a tree back home. I think it came from my Mum who would go on long walks thru parks and constantly bringing wildlife back home. Together, we’d fill up my Granddad’s empty pill bottles with different millets, grains, insects and seeds, so that when we rescued an animal, we’d be ready to feed it it’s precise natural diet. I think this early passion bled into everything I did thereafter.”
She says that growing up, she truly believed she was part of the animal kingdom, and imagined that she was raised by wolves or part of the bat world. “I really did believe I was a bat”, she explains. “And I had fangs. These are actually veneers”, Asher points to her front teeth, “I was missing my two incisors at birth so my fangs were right up front”
Asher Jay sees herself as a part of the natural world – at one with nature. She feels connected to nature “at a cellular level”, as an extension of herself. “I do feel mountain when I’m with mountain. I feel rhino when I’m with rhino. I don’t see the difference. How can I not protect that part of me that is out there?”
In a world that is rapidly urbanizing, with more than 50% of the global population now living in cities, how do people connect with nature?
“I think early education needs to emphasize why and how we are dependent on ecosystem services and biodiversity. It’s great that we’re moving into urban areas and ‘verticalizing’ our systems. When you’re vertical, your entire impact on the planet is building upon itself. We’re rewilding areas that were once suburban sprawl. I think we need to keep moving in that direction, but with a conscious understanding of why so that when the baseline has shifted, and all we are experiencing is a human-curated area in our lives, we know that we’ve consciously chosen that path for a reason.
We have a huge surge of shows that are currently focused on survival behavior, but we have done a masterful job of surviving. We are literally the most dominant species on the planet. We have an impact on every system of the world, every species has been eclipsed by us. We literally consume everything. We take everything. And then we market it. We scale it up. We take for the possibility of making more than we need so we can make an extra buck out of it. It’s a bizarre appropriation mentality. We are voracious consumers.”
What species do you work with?
“I work with different species every day. Take elephants for example, whose population count is now estimated at between 350,000 to 400,000 elephants in Africa. This sounds like a lot given that we are working with a species that is critically endangered, on the brink of extinction. But we need to look at that number in relation to the fact that we’re losing an elephant every 15 minutes, close to the count of 35,000 to 50,000 elephants every year. That’s a six year timeline to losing elephants as we know it. And then there are the ones that are not loved, the ones that aren’t often spoken about: amphibians, reptiles even insects. 400,000 insects can be killed in a single column of the Amazon rainforest each time we cut down the rainforest. I think it’s tremendous that we are killing so much life on a daily basis. Our entire way of life is basically tethered to a system of death. We’ve perpetuated life at the cost of other lives, which is not natural at all. It’s not cradle to cradle. It doesn’t bring life back into a moment of death, that cycles back into life. Death is somehow separate and we’re feeding life with it. The planet’s bearing the cost.”
How do we move away from our culture of consumption?
“It’s convenience. Our entire paradigm has to shift. Especially those of us who are in the know, it’s a privilege for us to spread the word, it’s our duty to act and shift our personal behaviors. Beyond that, you also have to come from a space of non-violence, of not being violent to yourself, to not hate yourself for being human, to not hate others for being human, because we are natural whether we like it or not. We’re just a really destructive, large-impact species that needs to figure it out.
We don’t see the systems connecting anymore. We don’t see our effluent treatment, dumping raw sewage into the rivers. We don’t see our plastic lids going down the gutters or flying around as trash and then ending up on the shoreside, ending up in the oceans, ending up in the rivers. We don’t realize the global impact of our local choices because we are not even localizing those choices anymore. What we source is from the world, and then we throw it wherever we want. It’s the tragedy of the commons.”
How do you define sustainability?
“The idea of sustainability is constantly being tweaked. Personally, I believe the term should encompass the welfare of as many living things as possible: both human, wild and domestic animals, and plants. Everything you do, if you think about the ripples it has, and how many lives it intersects with, and how far can you reduce that impact, then it becomes better.”
What is your advice for women in sustainability?
“People grow up thinking they can only be one thing, and place limits on themselves. But why? You have one life. You have 80-100 years on Earth. Do whatever you want. Do as much as you can. Live as big a life as possible because you’re not going to get out of it alive. You get one shot at it. Who says you can’t, other than you? You’re the only person dissuading you from doing what you want with your life.”
Later that week, I visit the United Nations to watch Asher Jay in action as a keynote speaker for the 2016 Winter Youth Assembly, on the theme “Transforming our World: The Role of Youth in the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals”. Asher on stage is a bright flash of color and enthusiasm, dressed in a colorful Hermes scarf, zebra print tights, and animal-themed stick on nails. The young audience loves her. Combined with the visual impact of her art, projected up high in the grand general assembly hall, her words bring energy and inspiration to the youth assembly. That’s where Asher’s talent lies. She reaches people through her art, reconnecting them with a wilder world.