The Psychology of Sustainability and Travel (Interview with an Environmental Scientist)

I’m back with an interview I’m so excited to share. I met Teja on the Horizon through the internet, which seems an increasingly common statement of mine since I started blogging. I’ve been following Teja on twitter for a while and saw so many tweets that really resonated with me. I knew I wanted to try and share that with my audience through this interview series.

I’ll let Teja tell you about the perspectives she holds. I’ll just say that her background in environmental science and her belief in the psychology of how humans change behaviors has really made me stop and think about sustainability. What it means, what our role as individuals really is, and how we change our behaviors or help influence others to change theirs.

Please enjoy this interview!

a sandy beach gives way to a small, tree covered island in the distance
Blue Lagoon, Polynesia

Bio

Age: 41

Hometown I don’t have one. I was born in an old city, had my childhood in a new city, grew up in a new suburb that turned into a town, moved to a less new town – none of which are places either of my parents grew up in. However, I do have a home country – Malaysia.

Residence: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Current Job: Environmental scientist

Place You’d Visit Again: French Polynesia, and Australia

Destination on your Bucket List: Ok, so my bucket list is mostly ecosystems and events, rather than places per se. For example, one of the top ones is the monarch butterfly migration; at the moment it would probably be the site in Mexico – so Mexico, but only at the right time for the butterfly migration.

Tell Us About Yourself.

When I think about this, in my mind it feels tricky. Because I’m Asian, but at the same time I have a lot of cultural values that are western; for example, egalitarianism and Cartesian logic. Like many urban Malaysians, I am western-influenced, but unlike many, it never became westernisation for me. I am a scientist, but I am also self-educated in arts – history, literature, philosophy, theology, sociology, politics. 

It feels tricky because for most of my life, conventional wisdom is that you must choose a side. Now, if it doesn’t feel tricky to you, that’s because the world has changed. Today, a new generation of travellers who (b/v)log have created a new wisdom where you can stay in this bridging space, and tell the stories that connect the tribes.

Tell us about your travel history! 

My early travel history is fairly conventional for an Asian, always with family, generally visiting relatives across the country and the occasional holiday spot, and once we got a rare chance to go abroad to Denmark and the UK. A major highlight was the first time I was allowed to go to Langkawi with my BFF, just the two of us. And then, when we all got jobs, I went for my first (and for a long time, only) backpacking trip with 3 friends. It was to New Zealand, because there were cheap tickets at a travel fair. There was no Skyscanner back then.

After that, my corporate job consumed my life, and for a long time it was only business trips. It felt too hard to combine it with exploratory days, especially since I would be doing it solo. When I married, my ex-husband was often uncomfortable when travelling, so our choices were limited to his tolerance.

The breakaway moment was when I got divorced. After that, I decided to do things the way it ‘didn’t make sense’. I decided to do things alone. I started going on road trips alone, added personal days to business trips to explore the location alone, I took my dive license, went on volunteering trips, and I began doing my travel list backwards, i.e. instead of visiting nearby ASEAN countries like I initially planned, I went for the most difficult locations, like North India and Easter Island. Easter Island was when I fell for the Pacific. I suspect I’ll be writing about the Pacific for a long time.

photo of the water along a lush, green coastline
Vava’u, Tonga

What was your motivation for starting Teja on the Horizon? 

I believe that when you start something difficult, it helps if it gives you multiple different things. That way, it’s bound to succeed in something

Teja on the Horizon is my platform to advocate for sustainable travel, but less about sustainable habits and places, and more about being sustainable in your self. I think this is essential if we are to break free from merely being incrementally more sustainable within an inherently unsustainable linear consumerist model. Circularity has to be something within us, if we want to change the systems in that direction.

I chose travel as the niche, because it has the highest number of young people participating in it, writing about it, and collaborating. It also is (or was, before COVID19) the fastest-growing carbon emissions category. I wanted to support the sustainable travel advocates with the element that they’re missing, i.e. life experience and hindsight. However, to be a credible influencer of influencers, I understood that in the millennial age I have to earn it. So I created Teja on the Horizon, and spent two years on a very steep learning curve, before the blog and its channels got more or less clear on its voice. From then on, I’ve tried to learn the issues that are top of mind in the travel sphere, and began looking for the right communities to join.

I also have more personal motivations for Teja on the Horizon. When I chose a STEM corporate job, I neglected my arts side. In the old world, you can’t have both. I didn’t notice what it did to me, being cut off from beauty and the creation of beauty. But when I took back one day a week to spend on projects like Teja on the Horizon, it was like finding my long-lost twin. Writing made me feel whole again. Being able to process my experience, and having the time to communicate that to others, is a pleasure that is sought in middle age, especially if you don’t have children. 

What is your current job?

I am a contaminated land scientist. 

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

I would typically be peer reviewing a consultant’s report for my employer, to assure that it’s in fact what they asked for. I might be coaching consultants in Asia on how to use environmental data to solve problems. 

How do you balance work and travel? 

Before I was blogging, I travelled on long weekends and as extensions of business trips. After I began blogging, I took a 4-day week working arrangement, which gave me more flexibility. I think I travelled less actually, but I was writing more.

Your background in environmental science obviously influences your perspectives on sustainable travel, but you’ve mentioned that isn’t the only factor. Can you speak to some of the other frameworks that shape your views on sustainability? 

The environmental science enabled me to understand what is happening in the natural world, and the trajectory that we’re on. But because the change that needs to happen is not just in the economy, but in people, you have to understand people to be successful. So it’s my arts side that gives me that. Understanding how and why people change, understanding the positive and negative role of emotion, understanding structures that govern us like law and bureaucracy, why they exist and what happens if you remove it, group dynamics – all of these influence how fast we can possibly change.

You’re pretty outspoken about the necessities of incremental change in regards to sustainability. Can you share a bit of your thoughts on this?

Systemic change is important and the goal. However, it’s not separate from incremental change and doesn’t happen correctly when pursued single-mindedly. Change is iterative. Some of us iterate bigger steps than others, and so certain changes seem small to us, and by comparison we don’t notice that we, too, change in an iterative way. But if you keep at it, you will grow, and then you can take bigger steps. Then you realise that what you were so proud of, from this vantage, was actually just small steps too. 

What we see as the ‘choice’ between large, system-wide changes, and small, personal or neighbourhood changes, is an illusion. The one doesn’t happen without the other, and there’s a feedback loop between them. All of it matters. And what matters the most is the wisdom that they’re not separate, that one is not ‘better’. When you get this, you would have left behind the linear mindset, and entered circularity.

By the way, this knowledge I didn’t learn from environmental science. It is basic knowledge in religion; in the relationship between ritual and values, practice and conversion. 

photo of a tent pitched in the mountains along a rocky, grassy path.
Naranag, Kashmir

What do you see as the way your average citizen can make the biggest impact in protecting our planet?

Share. So much destruction came from the Industrial Age. I don’t just mean manufacturing and fossil fuels; those are just tools that have had massive benefits in spite of the destruction they also brought. I mean the specialisation of people into single, full-time jobs. I mean the expectation to personally own amenities that you don’t use all the time. I mean the changing investment of allegiance to your job instead of the neighbourhood you live in. Social changes, that are unnatural to the way humans evolved to be. Not sharing separates people, and consumes a lot more resources. One thing that everybody can do to reverse this, no matter which end you’re at in the global inequality, is to start sharing, as much as you can. Share to strangers. Share when you can’t get credit for it. 

What’s one thing you think people get wrong about sustainability?

That you can solve it by fixing systems without fixing people.

What message do you really want to get out there with Teja on the Horizon? 

That travel is a valuable privilege that takes you beyond more borders than the obvious. It makes it easier to look back at yourself. Don’t waste it by not giving yourself time for those insights to come. Reflect deeply, and always revisit your beliefs. We are entering a world where we must change more quickly than we ever have before. We need to have as few things in the way of learning as possible. Use your travels to do that.

a sandy beach gives way to a small, tree covered island in the distance
Blue Lagoon, Polynesia

Get in touch with Teja!

I don’t know about you, but I felt reassured and reinvigorated after reading Teja’s answers. I have often felt frustrated by the pressures on individuals to save the planet, when I feel like the systematic change needs to be the focus. But this has really shown me that individual action helps CREATE systemic changes and that neither can happen alone.

What we do and the choices we make do matter, every day, no matter how small. They may not save the world on their own, but they might just fuel the bigger changes that can.

And the reminder that we need time to reflect on what our travels bring us? That’s one I think we could all benefit from. The next time I travel, I intend to schedule some time when I get home to process all that I experienced and what I want to take with me into my daily life.

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The Psychology of Sustainability and Travel (Interview with an Environmental Scientist)

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