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Australian actress Nathalie Kelley on her pivot to climate change activism

Photography By Nathalie Kelley
Published 23.07.21

In 2019, Peruvian-born, Australian-raised actress Nathalie Kelley was weeks away from attending Burning Man, an annual arts and music festival in the Nevada desert, when fires were devastating the Amazon, and large swathes of California and Australia.

In that year alone, 7,860 fires burned across California, 76,000 fires were burning across the Brazilian Amazon and more than 12.6 million hectares burned across Australia. In this moment, the irony and privilege of Kelley’s life choices were not lost on her. “I started to see things through a different lens,” Kelley says.

Confronted by the environmental crises that were impacting her home countries, Nathalie Kelley describes a 180 life-transformation, sparked by what she feared was becoming the “new normal” for the climate. It might seem like a giant leap – from starring in the bling TV series Dynasty to climate activism – but Kelley’s redirection was a return to her pure self: “Who I am, my essence, my heart, is an immigrant woman to Australia,” she explains.

In the years that followed, Kelley dramatically altered her lifestyle, downsizing her home, swapping her car for a bike and pledging to buy no new clothes. She describes these commitments as a series of “environmental checks and balances”.

In late 2020, Kelley embarked on a conservation mission to Alaska where she was part of a team attempting to retire 11,000 acres of wilderness from coal mining to return the land to its Indigenous stewards, the Eyak people. She was not prepared for the existence of a lake, the result of climate change, in a landscape of sky-scraping glaciers, where the ice was meant to tower 20 feet above the group’s heads.

“To see that rate of melting of our glaciers, these are things that weigh on me now. I cannot unlearn them, I cannot unsee them,” she says.

For Kelley, aiming for net zero carbon emissions or carbon neutrality is not enough: “We’ve got to go a step further to regenerate and that’s why regenerative agriculture is so exciting to me.” A regenerative mindset, rooted in indigenous knowledge and practice, is where she finds true optimism for the planet’s future. “This is how my ancestors were farming and caring for the land on this continent. In Australia, Indigenous communities have been practising regenerative farming methods for millennia.”

@natkelley

As one of the biggest emitters of CO2, combined with forestry and other land use, agriculture plays a complex role in reversing the effects of the climate crisis. In short, regenerative agriculture promotes farming principles that are geared towards rehabilitation and the enhancement of farming ecosystems, by placing a greater value on soil health, water management and fertiliser use. “Unless we have healthy soil to grow our food [in] then we’re not going to have a planet, we’re not going to have an economy.”

Kelley points to the harmonious and balanced state of the earth centuries before Western colonialism, citing examples of Indigenous land stewardship in Australia and the Americas. But she asserts “the colonial mindset” led to exploitation of our natural resources. “And now we’re living with the consequences,” she says. “I think the way out is to learn how to harness the power of nature without destroying her and to listen to Indigenous wisdom.”

As she navigated the shift between acting and activism, Kelley took a break from social media to escape some of the negative aspects of the platform. She returned with a renewed outlook and a desire to foster conversations around climate action and advocacy, and, importantly, amplify the voices of Indigenous women.

“Humans have the potential to be a keystone species in the ecosystem,” she continues. “But that is why we need to learn from Indigenous people. We need them to teach us about subsistence, how to live off the land, how to live according [to] the seasons, and in harmony with that ecosystem.”

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