Una Jefferson: Tell us a little bit about your book Forces of Nature and why you wanted to write it?
Chúk Odenigbo: I was in a city park in Montreal at midnight one night and I just had this flashing moment where I was like, this is exactly what needs to happen. It was at the peak of the superhero craze, there were all these different movies from both DC and Marvel and everyone was talking about superheroes and I too am super into superheroes and very much an urbanite, a city person. I enjoy social media, I enjoy dressing nicely. And what I find is that when we talk about outdoors and talk about nature and talk about getting active, we exclude a lot of people, including people like myself who love nature, who love the environment, love the outdoors, but exclude them because we set expectations on how you’re supposed to behave, how you’re supposed to dress, what you’re supposed to care about. It’s almost like we take nature and we attribute certain characteristics that the person must have to properly interact with nature. And I really dislike that. Me and my close friend therefore decided that we would speak to that. A fun fact is that in Canada, not only do we have one of the highest rates of sedentary lifestyle for teenagers, we have some of the most inactive young people in the world, we are ranked top five, we also have a declining number of people visiting our national parks. This was a study done at the federal level. What they’re finding is that people who are still visiting the federal parks are white men between the ages of 35 to 45. So we are seeing very low numbers of autonomous youth, young people that bring themselves to parks. There are young people that come with their parents, but much fewer autonomous youth and very few visible minorities visiting parks. And as a nation that is made up of about 25% youth that’s concerning, especially because the next generation is supposed to be the stewards of the environment yet if they’re not going out to enjoy nature how can they become stewards of the nature? They have to develop that connection to love nature and fight for it. Right? And so this book was essentially about that love for nature, where I wanted to show that absolutely everyone, it doesn’t matter who you are, how you are, what your interests are, what your background is, can connect with nature in their own individual way and create an authentic connection. That’s why we have a group of 14 superheroes of different ethnic backgrounds in different provinces who each connects with nature in their own individual way. And something that I focused on in the book is how they see nature. So in the book we have nature personified as a physical entity and each character sees nature in a different way. We have characters that see nature as a man, as a fairy, as an animal, as a woman to emphasize that everyone has a different viewpoint and a different way of connecting, but they’re all equally valid and they’re all equally important and it’s important to find your own way.
Una Jefferson: Who are these superheroes based on?
Chúk Odenigbo: A couple of years ago I got involved with the project for the Canadian Parks Council and together created a major playbook, which was an attempt to rebrand nature as being for everyone. And the nature playbook suggested different ways to interact with nature outside of the standard hiking and camping. So it offers ideas like geocaching, jumping in puddles, going on a walk with an older. So they are trying to show that nature is multifaceted, there are different ways of doing things and hopefully inspire people to find their own way. We were a pretty diverse group, intergenerational, multiethnic from different provinces and I wanted the characters to be based on real people because I wanted that if someone connected to one of the characters, it wasn’t just a fictional character but a real life person doing work for the environment and really trying to sort of help nature and love nature in their very own way.
Una Jefferson: Are there any initiatives that are doing a good job at this inclusive, broad minded environmental outreach?
Chúk Odenigbo: I know Mac is trying. They got called out, I believe last year where a black person sent them a message saying I buy your products, I go hiking, I go doors, why is it that in none of the magazines in none of your ads are there any people of color? Any? And so Mac was like, that doesn’t sound right now. They then did a study and they looked at all of the previous marketing and they found that not a single one of their marketing or their brochures or their images online had non-white people. And so they went like, oh no, we need to change this. So Mac is definitely making a concerted effort. I know parks Canada recently started a program to try and get new Canadians into the outdoors through teaching them how to camp, when they first come to Canada in hopes that they then develop an interest and try do it themselves. I know Citizenship and Immigration Canada offers a free parks pass for one year to all new citizens of Canada. So there’s definitely attempts, but they don’t go far enough as you can’t get to the park because it’s super far away and there’s no public transit to get there. They’re definitely not doing a good job in connecting with young people. I know certain municipal parks are doing a good job, like municipal parks are very aware of their citizens, but the provincial and the national parks are a little bit more disconnected and you can see the disconnect in the way that they choose to advertise, in the way they choose to talk about parks because they always make it seem like a competition between technology and nature. Recently they released an ad where it’s like put down your video game and head on outside. And I’m like, that’s not a good ad because it is saying to people to choose either technology or nature. We live in a generation where we are part of technology, we’ve grown up with technology, a lot of us have technology embedded in us, it’s a huge part of who we are. So saying drop your phone, which has now become an extension of a person, and go to the nature, it makes no sense. It’s should be more like, take your phone with you to the outdoors, not pick one or the other. So there’s that disconnect that I’m seeing that’s unattractive to young people, right?
Una Jefferson: Would you recommend these organizations to be less opposed to technology to engage youth better?
Chúk Odenigbo: I would say that a lot of these groups need to learn how to talk to youth and find out what youth are interested in, to truly engage youth. Because it is entirely possible to get youth to connect but you have to know what it is they’re looking for. A lot of youth are looking for something meaningful. They are looking for adventure. So you tell them I’m giving you an adventure to this really amazing place, but there’s no Wifi. They’ll still go, they’ll go very happily. They will toss aside their phones and go with excitement. If you tell them I’m providing you with cheap transport to this national park and this bus leaves every hour so that you’re able to come and go when you feel like it, you’ve already got a lot of people that are interested. If you’re like, hey, this park has a section for grilling meat so come with your food that will attract a lot of people. In Montreal they allow you to drink in city parks in summer. That’s connecting with your people, that’s knowing who your people are and knowing how to get them outdoors.
Una Jefferson: You were just at the nature champion summit organized by the government. What did you learn there?
Chúk Odenigbo: The nature champion summit was very powerful. It brought together ministers of the environment from over 15 countries, CEOs from multinational corporations and leaders of large and impressive NGOs. We got to listen to incredible first nation speakers, Ministers of Environment from Uganda and Costa Rica. And what I learned is how important political will is in creating change. So Minister of Costa Rica, for example, told us about how his country has 100% renewable energy, has protected all of the forest land, not just a part of it, all of the forest land and has doubled the economy. So people are making money and people are content financially even though they have doubled in size and population. He said it’s possible to have a great economy, protect nature, be sustainable, all it takes is people wanting to do that. If Costa Rica, which, a couple of years ago was the second poorest country in America after Haiti can rise to the success it has right now while being fully environmental just speaks volumes. She basically called out everyone in the room, she said, if my country can do it, no one else has any excuse. That was very, very powerful. So it was a very good conference with a lot of exchange of knowledge, of strategies, of things that are currently going on. I learned about some really interesting technologies that are being used to monitor illegal deforestation for example, where they have satellites that are monitoring the forest and they’ve learned to look for streaks that show illegal roads being built where people are trying to get into deep forests to illegally cut trees.
Una Jefferson: Cool. I just did a great podcast episode before this about using drones for environmental monitoring, some really interesting stuff happening.
Chúk Odenigbo: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely
Una Jefferson: I also wanted to talk a little bit about your PhD because it has to do with this question of environmental outreach. So you’ve shifted gears a little bit from your toxicology Masters. You’re now doing a PhD in medical geography. Could you tell me a little bit about what you’re researching?
Chúk Odenigbo: Absolutely. So my research in general is looking at ways on how we can incorporate nature into the healthcare system. So more specifically I’m looking at Malawi, the country Malawi, and I’m looking at cervical cancer in woman in Malawi. I’m looking at both the traditional and conventional healthcare system and looking at the patients who have cervical cancer, how they’re being treated and ways in which nature is being incorporated into the treatment. So in terms of the more Western system, thinking about whether they are able to see a tree from hospital, or whether they have a bed being based outside or whether they have access to the outside, or locked up in a windowless room. My aim isn’t necessarily to see the physical efficacy of the treatment, but more to see how it helps at the psycho emotional level because I would love to extrapolate that and see ways to learn how nature can be helpful in the healing practices that we have in our country.
Una Jefferson: Why did you choose this particular case study of cervical cancer in Malawi?
Chúk Odenigbo: Well, I chose it for two reasons. The first reason is because in Sub-Saharan Africa people have a tendency of focusing on communicable diseases, malaria, HIV etc. and they forget about cancers. But cancer still affects people. And then the second reason is because I read this very fascinating study that shows that with environmental degradation comes increased sexual behavior. I wanted to look how the environment affects the rate at which we’re seeing levels of cervical cancer and take that into the study as well.
Una Jefferson: Are you going to be doing field work?
Chúk Odenigbo: Yes, I will be doing fieldwork.
Una Jefferson: But no results yet, I guess. I guess it’s early days.
Chúk Odenigbo: I am still in the first year, still putting plans to paper and trying to get ethical approval.