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Finn Harries: changing the climate narrative

Finn Harries has come a long way since the days of uploading videos with his identical twin on the YouTube channel JacksGap. An architecture graduate from Parson’s School of Design, a Ted Talk and UN speechmaker, and most recently a student at Cambridge, Harries has made a deserving name for himself in the world of climate activism.

YouTubers have often receive a bad reputation – mostly, but not always, undeservedly. Accusations of needing a ‘real job’ or lacking talent have been thrown at the YouTube space for years. I was a little guilty of falling into this trap myself, thinking of the site as the realm of the chubby bunny challenge and controversy, and forgetting its possibility to empower young people with the skills necessary to enact change in their adult lives.

Finn and Jack have arguably been some of the most successful in evolving away from this type of YouTube content. This is not to say that their time on the platform in this capacity was unimportant; in fact, the opposite is true. Speaking to Harries, it was easy to see how he had transferred the charisma and presence which made the JacksGap channel so warm and authentic into powerful discussions about the climate crisis. Likewise, both brothers have used their design and video editing skills across a number of years as a powerful activism tool.

It was obvious as soon as he began to talk that Harries has been and continues to be on a consistent mission to educate himself about the climate. He spoke to me about one of his earliest exposure to the subject as an adult, while studying as an undergraduate at Parson’s School of Design, part of the “New School” in New York.

“When I first arrived in New York to study architecture I had somehow managed to put climate change, like most of us, to the back of my mind. However, as soon as I got there, I was exposed through my first class to literature on climate change. And it became personal, and for me this is the key. In the class I took in literally my second week, we were asked to think about designing a flood barrier for a city with rising sea levels.

“That to me was totally daunting and terrifying. If before this, climate was something that was abstract, that had something to do with polar bears and glaciers, it suddenly became tangible and real.”

After four years in New York, Harries moved back to London to study a postgraduate degree at the Architectural Association. However, compared to in Parson’s, he found little commitment to sustainability-minded projects: “What I experienced at the AA, and what I have little interest in doing, is fighting against the institution you’re paying to study at.

“At the AA, I would have one on one meetings with the director where I would have to push the agenda of climate, and it would often be debated and argued about, and to me this is just – we don’t have time to do that. We shouldn’t have to, especially in institutions of higher learning.

“I would go as far as to say it’s like trying to debate gravity – its just a fact right now.”

Harries left the AA, and is now in his first year studying an MPhil at Cambridge. The course has allowed him freedom to choose his own research proposal, and although he focuses specifically on design, he moves seamlessly across disciplines in our conversation.

“It starts with the understanding that humans are really good at creating stories. Perhaps the first person that exposed me to this was Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian who wrote Sapiens and Homo Deus. He argues that the success of humans to collaborate at such a large scale is the power of good stories. We can think of borders, nations, money, religion, time, even… all just stories that we tell ourselves which allow us to collaborate.

“If you start with Descartes, he says in his Methods on Discourse that humans are the masters and possessors of nature. He is one of the many people, Francis Bacon included, that started to think of humans as fundamentally separate from nature, intrinsically of a higher divinity than other natural beings.

“And in a way this is simplifying a very complex history, but if we bring it down to the foundational ideas that shaped our lives over the last couple of hundred years, then we can perhaps start to understand why we are at this point of severe crisis.

“The hypothesis is, in the research that I’m doing, if you can start to shift that story… because the other thing is, we can all agree in a way that it’s a false story – as in, we are nature, there is no reason or explanation to suggest that we are not nature, when we fundamentally are, and therefore we’re deeply interconnected in this web of natural ecosystems.”

Storytelling is central to Harries’ vision of climate activism, both in his research at Cambridge and in his latest digital project, Earthrise Studio. Finn acts as co-founder, along with brother Jack and his partner, Alice Aedy. Founded in July 2020, Finn tells me it wasn’t a lockdown project, however it seems it could not have come at a better time. Using seductive graphic design, something Jack and Finn have long been proficient at, Earthrise Studio’s Instagram aims to tackle in bitesize chunks some of the biggest questions our planet is faced with. Educational tools on social media, when we spend so much time indoors and online, have never had more of an impact on the kind of self-reflection and improvement that Earthrise encourages.

Image: Lily Betrand-Webb. Earthrise Studio founders: Jack Harries [left], Alice Aedy [centre], and Finn Harries [right].

The project places a large emphasis on tackling climate anxiety. When I asked Harries about dealing with climate anxiety, he described the issue as threefold. The first is acceptance: “We should absolutely have a sense of anxiety about the state of our future, because a. that shows we care, and b. it’s from that point that we can start to take action.”

His second point is one of self-care, and he emphasises that he can only speak from his personal experience: “These start to sound like clichés, but they’re not. Meditation and exercise and therapy are all three tools that I’ve actively used to allow me to work in this space without, you know, falling into a deep depression. I practice meditation every day and it’s the only reason I can, sort of, stay present and focus on what I’m doing. Self-care is 100% part of this work – you have to look after yourself.”

His final point about climate anxiety is much more conceptual: “It is a concept which I want to mention because it is the reason I applied for Cambridge, and it’s called the adaptive cycle, which is the name of my project currently. It’s an idea that’s really simple, but really profound, if you dwell on it.”

“So the best way to explain it is, before I came across this concept, if you asked me what the future looked like, I imagined a line, we were somewhere along the line, and at the end it was a really bleak fiery ball of hell, and it was daunting, you know, to be heading towards this future. In the concept which is called the adaptive cycle, it tries to create a theory of all natural ecosystems and civilisation as a series of growth and collapses, and it’s an infinite loop.

“And this is not the exception, it’s a rule, and this is what we see throughout history, throughout antiquity, is cultures, ecosystems, establish themselves, they grow rapidly, they use their resources, they conserve (something) and then they crash, they collapse – it’s a little bit scary, but they collapse, and then they have this amazing opportunity where they reorganise themselves, and they reinvent the way they work – Romans, Greeks, pine forests after a forest fire, there are a multitude of different examples.”

Harries describes Earthrise as a way to change the story of climate change, a story which has been skewed by certain corporate interests which benefit from the production of fossil fuels, and who have “actively worked to decrease the understanding of scientific literature to destabilise the trust in scientific bodies and to lessen the perception of danger.” Harries says: “Jack and I had previously built JacksGap and so we had learnt the power of engaging people and building a platform on social media – we had learnt the ups and downs of that – and we were really hungry to create a new one that was dedicated to this topic that we were really interested in.”

“The simple question posed by Earthrise, and one we are asking ourselves everyday, is how we tell a new story on the climate crisis that creates a sense of optimism, because we need optimism, we need hope, and imagination – to tackle this crisis and to not fall into apathy and despair.

“It’s this ongoing experiment, and we fail often at our own mission, because we get so caught up still in the data that can be so bleak, and you’re trying to find a balance between communicating the reality, and giving people all the information they need to understand the severity of the issue, and giving people hope and optimism, but not too much hope where people think ‘oh, it’s fine, we dont’ need to worry about it!’ – so it’s this strange balance.”

Harries was keen to emphasise a strong commitment on behalf of Earthrise to representation and truth: “Earthrise is an ongoing experiment to tell a better story around climate, one that’s specifically led by young people, by a diverse group of young people. So although it’s run by three white, privilieged individuals, it’s critical to us that we’re platforming different backgrounds and cultures, and we strive our best to do that. We’re self-improving, and self-checking on that.

“It’s important to us that the information we’re putting out there is fact-checked and well-sourced, so we have a team of people helping us with that, we have a researcher who’s on the project, and I think in this world of misinformation and post-truth, it’s super important to try to validate the information you’re putting out, especially on the web.”

We also spoke about the problems facing climate activism, especially on social media. Climate activists are often held to a kind-of all-or-nothing standard, evidenced by the public outcry whenever Greta Thunberg is pictured within two metres of a piece of plastic. I asked Harries how Earthrise aims to change this discourse.

“One of the early ‘stories’ that we would tell is that we’re all hypocrites, and we should and must start by accepting that. We find ourselves in a system in which we are all complicit in the destruction of our natural environment – it’s just our reality – so when we come to terms with that, it’s from there that we can start to take action.”

“If we had to have a movement of perfect environmentalists, who never sinned, we’d have a very small movement.”

“It’s a tricky narrative – to what extent can we use the excuse of hypocrisy to get away with our actions – and so there also must be a constant holding each other to account and checking back on yourself – could I have done that differently, is that in line with what I am preaching, so again it’s this ongoing process.”

“But I fundamentally believe it’s okay to be a hypocrite, because this is a systemic issue.”

Harries never saw the discussion around climate change as a binary, and throughout our conversation it was clear that he is constantly engaged in a self-dialogue about how best to tackle the climate crisis. He sat somewhere in the middle on most of the questions I asked, but not as someone who was uninformed or unwilling to come to a conclusion, but as someone who is – as we all are when it comes to climate change – grappling with a topic that is far beyond the scope of one individual. His ability to recognise this and yet not become overwhelmed or despairing is a testament to the time and dedication he has put into working in the climate industry.

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