NOW's Jaiia Cerff Tells Us Why We Need 1 Trillion Trees
T he climate crisis cannot be ignored. Every Friday, Milk will be focusing on solutions and stories from the environment’s biggest supporters; through essays, photo stories, updates on the latest technologies, and tips to combat the climate crisis, we’ve got you covered. This week we speak with Jaiia Cerff, Youth Advisor at NOW,
Where are you from? Tell us a little bit about yourself.
So I was born in Australia, in this beautiful little town called Byron Bay on the East Coast. Growing up I traveled for the most part of my life, from the age of around 3-13. Since I graduated highschool I’ve been on the road for the last three years, between writing albums, touring, events, and conferences. I spend most of my time between the US, Central America, and Europe.
How did you get involved in the environmental advocacy world?
So ever since I was old enough to understand the impact humanity is having on our natural ecosystems, I felt immediately motivated to do whatever I could to protect our natural systems. I was privileged to see a lot of natural beauty growing up, and so I knew that there was a lot to stand for. From about the age of 11, I was engaged in local beach cleanups, transitioning our schools away from single-use plastics, speaking at rallies, and whatever else I could get my hands in. I connected with Xiuhtezcatl [Martinez] and Earth Guardians in Australia in 2012 and ended up starting an Earth Guardians Australia Crew. We were super active organizing youth camps out in the forest, supporting and participating in local civil disobedience actions, planning local events and hosting solidarity actions around our community. Xiuhtezcatl invited me to be a part of the EG delegation at the UNFCCC COP21 conference and I ended up going to the United Nations in Paris where we spent 3 weeks, performing, protesting and representing the youth’s voice. Since then, environmental work and systemic change have been a key part in everything I put my time and energy into.
Can you tell us a bit about Earth Guardians? Who are they and what’s their mission?
Earth Guardians are one of the world’s first youth-led environmental and social justice nonprofits. They inspire, galvanize, and train diverse youth to be effective leaders in the climate and social justice movement – using art, music, storytelling, civic engagement, legal and direct action to advance solutions to the critical issues we face as a global community.
What were some of your first memories noticing the impacts of climate change?
Traveling the world as a child the effects that I saw most evidently, initially, were things like plastic pollution, agricultural degradation of land and eutrophied or dead waterways. The amazing work of documentary and filmmakers who were able to transport me to the frontlines of ecological destruction like arctic melting or mass deforestation also helped me grasp the scope of the issues we face. These things were crucial in my activation.
How did you get involved with NOW?
I met Eric, one of the founders of NOW, through Xiuhtezcatl and Earth Guardians, and work that we were doing together within that community.
I got involved in NOW when I was in Los Angeles earlier this year. Eric and I met up for coffee. While we were chatting he invited me to San Diego. I thought he meant like maybe in two or three days so I was like, “Yeah, sounds fun.”
I headed back to where I was staying in Santa Monica and I got a message from Eric saying “Yo we’ll swing and pick you up in an hour”. So our spontaneous road trip began right there, which eventually took us to San diego, Santa Ana and Las Vegas following Xiuhtezcatl who was playing some shows with Trevor Hall. Evidently we had a bunch of time on the road during which Eric laid out the concept for NOW. I was pretty excited by the idea and he invited me to be part of the Youth Advisory Board which I was stoked to step into.
For people that don’t know what NOW is – how would you describe it?
NOW is on a mission to mobilize humanity to drive cultural change and reverse the climate crisis. We are a collective of creatives, entrepreneurs, scientists, entertainers, and leaders who want to mobilize the global community to exponentially grow the climate movement.
Let’s talk about your role within the organization – what do you do?
NOW really wanted to make sure that they were actively listening to young people, so they created a Youth Advisory Board, which I am a part of. Basically, it’s so the mission and execution are aligned with the worldview of the people inheriting this planet and these existential crises.
The youth’s voices have been included since the very beginning, which I think is really important, so that young people can help direct the messaging and make it culturally relevant, and allow us to really create and support positive global impact. I’ve specifically been involved in vetting some of our tree planting partners as well as innovating on the primary outreach mechanisms and general strategy.
It’s amazing that NOW gives these youth the resources and platform to help formulate and support their ideas.
Exactly, it creates a really beautiful platform for us to extend our creativity, and our inspiration into the movement, changing the way we relate with the planet, and with each other, and with ourselves.
Where do NOW’s resources come from? How do you get the information that supports NOW’s initiative and ideas?
The diverse people who make up our team include activists and researchers who’ve been in the environmental paradigm for a long time. They’re tapped into what the real and viable solutions are and also have an acute awareness of the things that aren’t. We’re excited to be guided by and collaborating with the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich, the world’s leading research lab on nature-based climate solutions.
Obviously, it changes based on the different projects that you’re working on, but what do you typically get done throughout the day?
There’s no such thing as a typical day with NOW. Depending on what project I’m helping with, I’ll be sitting in meetings, assisting with research and back-end processes, nerding out over emerging drone tech, as well as working on music and creative content.
Right now the best carbon capture solution is trees; nature’s been doing it best for the longest time. I’ve been looking into all of the tree planting initiatives and tree-planting organizations, and making sure that we are partnering with the most effective and responsible partners.
Let’s break it down. What factors have to be considered? What makes a “good” tree-planting initiative and who are the effective partners? Where do you plant these trees?
This year, we’re focusing on planting with Eden Reforestation Projects in Madagascar and Mozambique. They were highly recommended by our science advisors and have an amazing track record with rolling out widespread reforestation initiatives all around the world. These are super important points when looking for effective partners.
These two projects focus on planting Mangrove forests, which are among the most carbon-rich habitats in the world; they store three to five times more carbon than tropical forests, mostly sequestered in the soil, which is fantastic. That’s our focus right now, but we’ll diversify as the platform grows.
What does tree-planting actually entail? How quickly does the impact become realized?
There are three key components to planting: Number one, is research and surveying the land to make sure that it’s actually plantable, and that the ecosystem can support the native tree species that you want to grow there. This is when we refer to the Crowther Lab’s global maps, to ensure the geographical areas are deemed appropriate for tree restoration.
Two is actual planting, which can differ in method depending on the project, location, tree species and whether a tree nursery is needed to first grow the sapling from seed before it goes into the ground.
The third is maintenance and stewardship, so making sure the trees that are planted, aren’t just planted and then left unattended. We must ensure the tree has a high chance of surviving. As the trees grow they store CO2 in their biomass (the physical tree) and in the soil, this requires care and attention to make sure the trees are healthy and thriving.
There is a lot to the process, and I think something that’s really interesting is that drone tech really has a chance of improving the efficiency of a lot of these processes, in certain circumstances. That’s really exciting, and will help reach NOW’s goal of planting a trillion trees, as far as scaling up humanity’s capacity to reforest globally.
What would the drones do?
They can potentially improve all three of these key processes: the surveying, the planting, and the after-care and management.
The application of drones, for tree planting, has already been happening in retired mining sites in Australia. It’s not new. We want to bring that efficiency to areas with high restoration potential.
The planet is so beautiful and deserves to be saved for so many reasons, but is there a place in nature that really holds a special place in your heart?
I spent a lot of time in the jungles in Panama, sort of North East of Panama City, close to a little village called San Miguelito. The forest there has a really, really dear place in my heart. It’s one of the most beautiful and incredible places that I’ve ever spent time.
I also really love the mountains kind of to the west of Oslo in Norway. And of course, where I was born and where I grew up, Byron Bay in Australia. It’s one of the most beautiful little pockets of culture and community. And we just have the most beautiful beaches. It feels like a destination for me these days because I’m never there.
I think that oftentimes, the media can incorrectly portray what it means to be an activist – they’re quick to judge and forget that these are people, and oftentimes kids or young adults. What do you think of the current activist narrative?
I think that it’s really important that we reimagine the narrative around what, or who is an activist. Many young people have sacrificed a lot of their time, in some cases, to combat the systemic crises that we’re facing. Although these efforts can be rewarding, we also need to make sure that we cultivate meaningful and balanced lives, which means we need to be applying what we’re inspired by, and what we’re lit up by, to the movements which we seek to energize and uplift. It’s not about everyone dropping what they’re doing to become an activist. It’s about making becoming an activist accessible to everyone, a low barrier of entry, so that people can access impact within their everyday lives.
We need to be able to find ways that impact can be, not only accessible, but low friction, and scalable as well. And so that we don’t have to compromise so much. We need to understand that there are also things that we need to optimize within our behavior, but we need adaptation and mitigation, simultaneously, so that we can actually affect change. If we ask everyone to stop doing everything they love and go chain themselves to oil pipelines, or lobby politicians for just and sustainable policies it’s not gonna work.
What are the most accessible ways to get involved? Where should people start?
That’s kind of why NOW has been created. We understand that low barriers of entry and accessible solutions need to be implemented at scale. One of the easiest things you can do is purchase a subscription to plant trees every month, with NOW, that’s such a low barrier solution right there.
In addition to that, a thing that you can implement in your everyday life, Earth Guardians just released a really dope app called Earth Tracks, which helps you track and trace the impact that you’re making every day and take steps towards reducing that impact. You can download it for free. It’s a really good aggregate of some of the simplest things you can do in your life to effect a positive change. There is so much to an individual can do, and those two are a really powerful way to start.
You were just in New York for the UN Climate Action Summit – what were the standout moments for you?
As much as it was inspiring to see the collective energy that people are putting towards the most pressing issues of our time, I feel like throughout the years I’ve been involved I’ve become slightly jaded about a lot of the ways that people are trying to effect change. Right before New York, we were in DC, sitting with a bunch of politicians and doing press conferences. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff has its place. But to me, it no longer feels like the forefront of change. And I think what is really challenging is when we’re pouring time and energy into these stagnant spaces, where there isn’t necessarily a cohesive and accessible call to action or a clear path forward.
I think we’ve relied on such incredibly slow and bureaucratic processes, and we so often fail to understand how much power we have to effect change if we take the initiative in smart and innovative ways.
My most memorable moments were moments of creativity, like when Xiuhtezcatl, Tru and I were in the studio recording, or when we were rocking the stage at the Hip-Hop Caucus event. Those kinds of moments are much more fulfilling to me.
It sounds very cliche but it’s incredible the power that art has. It can really infiltrate the way that our brain works and can ignite long-lasting change.
We really stand up for what we love. Right now, we’re all so emotionally disconnected from ourselves, from each other, and from the planet, and art is a really powerful tool to rekindle that sense of connection, and that sense of responsibility to stand for the things that we love. It’s easy in a world where we’re so hyper-stimulated and overwhelmed to fall out of love with the planet, with each other, and with ourselves. And I think that music, art, photography, writing are such powerful tools to bring that back together. What’s beautiful is that NOW is really focused on creating art, whether it’s music, videos or campaigns. From what I’ve seen in the climate movement, thus far, NOW’s commitment to creating captivating art, and to being culturally engaged is so refreshing and exciting.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Juliet Wolf
PHOTO ASSISTANT: Kaia Miller
PHOTO ASSISTANT: Karlhens Pompilus
STYLIST: Talia Bella
STYLIST ASSISTANT: Angie Cabrera
Stay tuned to Milk for more climate crisis solutions.