From Sai Kung to the UK, environmental activist Tori Tsui is raising awareness of how climate change affects every aspect of our lives – including mental health
As a child living in the coastal town of Sai Kung in Hong Kong’s New Territories, Tori Tsui remembers watching in horror as typhoons swept in from across the sea. Waves battered the shore, sometimes flinging boats onto roads and pavements, where they would be left marooned as the storm subsided. Occasionally, leaving home after a typhoon felt like stepping into a post-apocalyptic world.
These early experiences of extreme weather made Tsui hyper-aware of the growing climate crisis. By the time she was a teenager, she was campaigning in school for a variety of environmental initiatives, work that she continued when she moved to the UK to study environmental sciences and ecology at university. Now Tsui is one of the world’s most visible climate activists. She has appeared in a campaign for luxury brand Stella McCartney, which has positioned itself as an industry leader in sustainable fashion; spoken at climate conferences alongside Greta Thunberg and actor Emma Watson; and was recently one of the stars of Overheated, a documentary about the climate crisis produced by singer Billie Eilish. This August, Tsui is publishing her first book, It’s Not Just You, a deep dive into how climate change is contributing to a global mental health crisis.
Like many activists in their teens or 20s, Tsui first attracted attention on social media, which a new generation of campaigners are using to build networks of like-minded individuals – and to mobilise people to take action in the face of slow or non-existent governmental responses to climate change. These Gen Z and millennial activists are acutely aware that inaction today will define the rest of their lives and social media has given them an unprecedented opportunity to have their voices heard. A handful of them, including Tsui, have generated such traction online that they have, perhaps unintentionally, become faces of the global climate movement: they are now sought after to speak at conferences alongside world leaders and appear in traditional media.
Tsui was thrust into the public eye in 2019. She was pursuing wildlife filmmaking at the time and posting clips on Instagram, which caught the attention of fashion designer Stella McCartney’s team. “They’d seen my work on social media, then they saw me at a march in London and said they’d like me to be part of a campaign,” says Tsui, who admits she didn’t know what she was getting herself in for. On the day of the shoot, Tsui was driven to a remote corner of Wales, where she was confronted by a production far bigger than what she’d expected. “There were trucks everywhere and loads of cameras,” she says. The resulting video features a script written by celebrated novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, which is narrated by the primatologist Jane Goodall over a series of vignettes of Tsui, three other activists, and a cast of models including Amber Valletta posing along the Welsh coastline.
The campaign — which was featured in print and digital media, on social media, and on all of the brand’s digital platforms — made plenty of noise, not all of it positive. The Daily Mail wrote a hit piece on Tsui and the other activists featured, labelling them hypocrites for campaigning for the environment while still flying. Although Tsui does fly when it is strictly necessary, such as to see her family in Hong Kong, many of the claims made in the story were false and the newspaper was forced to issue a correction.
There was plenty of good that came from the campaign, too: it drew attention to the work of Tsui and the other activists featured, and was the start of a relationship between Tsui and McCartney that continues to this day. “I think that was the first time she worked with activists, and that’s something she has continued,” says Tsui. Along with avoiding the use of any animal products in her brand’s products, as well as PVC, McCartney has collaborated with biotechnology start-up Bolt Threads to create new eco-friendly materials, such as Mylo, a leather alternative made from mushrooms. Hers is also the first luxury brand to publish an annual environmental profit and loss report, which places a monetary value on the company’s impact on nature. In 2021, its environmental impact was estimated at €3.1 million (about HK$26 million) – down from €5.3 million euros in 2020 and €8.2 million in 2019.
This year Tsui has been back in the spotlight since she appeared in January in a series of articles, videos and social media posts for American Vogue alongside Billie Eilish, whom Tsui has known since 2021. “I’m part of a charity called EarthPercent, which was founded by Brian Eno,” says Tsui. The charity asks musicians to donate a small percentage of their income — as little as one percent — to EarthPercent, which then gives grants to environmental organisations selected by an expert advisory panel that includes authorities such as Tamsin Edwards, a climate scientist and lecturer at King’s College London, and Delara Burkhardt, an Iranian-German politician currently serving as a Member of the European Parliament who has worked on climate protection policy. Musicians who are working with EarthPercent include Coldplay, Nile Rodgers and Michael Stipe. The charity is aiming to raise US$100 million (HK$576 million) for environmental causes by 2030.
Through Tsui’s work with EarthPercent, she met Kurt Langer, a climate activist who previously worked with the Beastie Boys to organise the Tibetan Freedom Concert festivals that took place across Europe and the US in the late 1990s. “He’s been a big supporter of my work and he connected me to Maggie Baird, who is Billie’s mum,” says Tsui. “We had a call and they were talking about producing a documentary.”
That documentary was Overheated, a nearly 40-minute-long film that is free to watch on YouTube. The film features Baird, Eilish and Eilish’s brother Finneas, as well as a handful of activists selected by the family, including Tsui. It was released in June 2022 as part of a conference, also titled Overheated, hosted by Eilish at London’s O2 Arena. At night, Eilish used the venue for a series of concerts. During the day, she turned it into a space for climate activism. Overheated lasted six days and brought together musicians, activists, designers and more for a series of talks and panel discussions about the climate crisis and how to tackle it
All proceeds from the Overheated conference were donated to Support + Feed, a charity founded by Baird that provides plant-based meals to people in need, and Reverb, an organisation that helps musicians reduce their carbon footprint. Eilish worked with Reverb on her Happier Than Ever tour, during which Reverb eliminated the use of more than 100,000 plastic bottles, saved 33 million litres of water and engaged with more than 130,000 fans, raising nearly US$1 million (HK$7.8 million) for climate causes. “What I’ve learnt from Billie and Maggie is the power of pop culture,” says Tsui. At the time of writing, Vogue’s Instagram reel promoting the story on Eilish and the activists who appeared in Overheated has been viewed more than 8.7 million times.
In Overheated, Tsui discusses eco-anxiety, which she defines in the documentary as “a fear of the future owed to the physical and social manifestations of the climate crisis.” Climate anxiety is particularly acute among younger generations. Last year, leading science journal The Lancet published the largest-ever study of climate anxiety in teenagers and young adults. Researchers canvassed 10,000 people aged between 16 and 25 across all continents and discovered that 84 percent of respondents described themselves as worried about climate change. More than 45 percent said their feelings about climate change negatively impacted their daily lives.
Tsui says she has suffered from climate anxiety ever since she was a child. “It manifested as sleepless nights. It would consume my thoughts. I became obsessed with switching off the lights and the air con,” she says. Eco-anxiety was originally the focus of Tsui’s upcoming book, It’s Not Just You, but as Tsui’s research progressed, she realised it was impossible to separate eco-anxiety from the many other challenges that are affecting young people’s mental health, such as sexism, racism and ableism. Ultimately, Tsui argues that many of these issues are the result of — or are at least exacerbated by — capitalism. It’s Not Just You explores how all these things intersect and analyses how forces that harm young people’s mental health often harm the climate, too.
“As I was writing [in 2022], there was a cost-of-living crisis here in the UK,” says Tsui. “Some gas bills went up more than 120 percent. So the cost of living crisis, which impacts our day to day life, is severely impacting our mental health. And it’s also a climate justice issue.” In 2022, oil and gas giant BP reported record profits while thousands of Brits were struggling to pay their energy bills – and at the same time the company scaled back its plans to cut carbon emissions. “It’s all interconnected. So the way in which I approach this conversation around mental health and climate change in the book really tries to tackle systemic issues. Mental health is a political issue, much like how climate change is political, and we need to find solutions that account for that.”
It’s Not Just You features interviews with 16 activists from around the world, including Greta Thunberg. Everyone featured is a vocal campaigner under the age of 35, many of them with hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of social media followers. Including such a diversity of voices reveals how different cultures value the environment – and how cultures might learn from each other. Among the activists in the book are Mitzi Jonelle Tan from the Philippines, who has worked extensively with Lumad indigenous leaders and leads a coalition of youth activists in the country, and Ati Gunnawu Viviam Villafaña, who draws on the knowledge of her community, the indigenous Arhuaco People of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in Colombia in her work campaigning for the protection of the mountains and for the rights of indigenous people.
“In the West, we have specific knowledge systems which see us as separate from nature,” says Tsui. “And in the climate movement, we have a saying: we are not defending nature, we are nature defending itself. If you start to see the Earth as very much intrinsic to your own health, maybe even your mental health, then we can begin to appreciate that the system that we live in is not going to bring us the mental health justice that we need.”
Tsui is launching It’s Not Just You with a talk at the Southbank Centre in London in August, when she’ll be interviewed by Hong Kong actress Jessie Mei Lee, the star of the Netflix series Shadow and Bone. Separately, Stella McCartney will host a celebratory event in her London store. Tsui already has several other projects lined up over the summer — including her ongoing work with Hero Circle, a start-up that funds stable income for activists, and an awareness-raising concert — but she is determined to take a moment to enjoy the release of It’s Not Just You into the world. “Out of all the things I’ve done over the past few years, the book is the thing I’m proudest of,” says Tsui. “Writing it was deeply meditative. It feels like a beautiful way to talk about all the things I really care about—and to honour the climate justice movement.”
It’s Not Just You is being published on August 13, 2023. Pre-order a copy here and watch Overheated on YouTube here.