By Jen Wang – Jan 04, 2023 – Vogue
My cmnt: I publish this nonsense because my readers need to be aware of the blatant hypocrisy of so-called “climate activists” who tend to be very wealthy, jet-flying, partyers who make little attempt to hide nor address their hypocritical lifestyles of extravagant, ostentatious displays of wealth and luxury in food, clothing, housing and travel.
You may have heard by now that Billie Eilish is in a relationship. It’s a few days ahead of Thanksgiving, in a cramped recording studio in LA’s industrial Frogtown—an Eastside neighborhood built over marshland, from which the frogs disappeared decades ago—and Eilish seems eager to pour her heart out.
“Once I realized we were in it together, my life just got a lot better, you know?” she says, completely unguarded thanks, in no small part, to the presence of her mother, Maggie Baird, to whom Billie is extremely close. Baird, a russet-haired former actor, has a gentle, nurturing demeanor that’s a natural complement to her daughter’s brass. Eilish’s look today is a study in exaggerated contrasts—porcelain skin swathed in dark tones, black turtleneck, gray thermal, and long cargo skirt; blunt, jet-black bangs framing doleful, pale blue eyes—like the anime heroine from her “My Future” music video come to life.
The first single from Eilish’s genre-defying second album, Happier Than Ever, “My Future” is about self-love but lends itself to broader interpretation—I’m in love with my future / can’t wait to meet her, goes the chorus. When we sit down, Eilish has just finished pre-recording a performance of the track with her older brother, Finneas O’Connell, for the Earthshot Prize telecast the following week—an environmental honor, conceived by Prince William and Sir David Attenborough, given annually to five innovators who are working to “repair and regenerate our planet.”
The song’s dual meaning also describes where Eilish finds herself this November afternoon, a month before her 21st birthday. Case in point: The relationship Eilish wants to discuss isn’t the one with Jesse Rutherford—the frontman of indie-pop outfit the Neighbourhood whom she introduced as her boyfriend last October—but with herself.
Specifically, her new connection to her body. “Going through my teenage years of hating myself and all that stupid shit,” the native Angeleno says, “a lot of it came from my anger toward my body, and how mad I was at how much pain it’s caused me, and how much I’ve lost because of things that happened to it.” The most significant loss resulted from a growth plate injury in her hip, dashing her dance ambitions at age 13.
“I got injured right after we made ‘Ocean Eyes’”—the song Eilish uploaded to SoundCloud in 2015 that, as anyone who’s vaguely followed her career knows, started it all—“so, music kind of replaced dancing,” she says. Years of subsequent lower body injuries, and just as many misdiagnoses, increased the alienation Eilish felt in her own skin before she discovered, through her movement coach, Kristina Cañizares, that she has a condition called hypermobility.
“Stuff that you and I could do that would help us,” Baird explains, bundled in a black parka in this tiny, cold room lined with guitars and speakers, “like, certain kinds of massage or chiropractors, could actually hurt her.”
“I felt like my body was gaslighting me for years,” Eilish says. “I had to go through a process of being like, My body is actually me. And it’s not out to get me.”
Billie wears this newfound self-acceptance lightly, projecting not so much the emo angst of her early career as a kind of childlike joy. “I love you!” she tells 17,000 screaming fans over and over—many of them young women who see themselves in Eilish—at the first of her sold-out end-of-year performances in Los Angeles. It so happens that this mood shift comes as the seven-time Grammy winner has set her sights forward—on the greater goal of saving the planet.
“I’ve spent all of my effort trying not to be in people’s faces about it,” she says, her speaking voice assertive and unwavering. “Because people don’t respond well to that. It makes the causes that you believe in look bad, because you’re, like, annoying the shit out of everybody.” But she has tried to educate people. During 2022’s Happier Than Ever world tour, Eilish set up Eco-Villages at her concert venues in partnership with Reverb, a nonprofit that has “greened” the tours of other acts and artists like Maroon 5 and Harry Styles. Inside those spaces, fans could fill their water bottles for free, register to vote, and learn about environmental nonprofits, with an emphasis on BIPOC- and women-led organizations. “I’m still not shoving information down people’s throats,” she says. “I’m more like, I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m just going to tell you why I do this.” She pauses, then offers a staccato laugh. “But you’re also a bad person if you don’t do it.”
“I’ve spent all of my effort trying not to be in people’s faces about it,” Eilish says, her speaking voice assertive and unwavering. “Because people don’t respond well to that”
Eilish hasn’t limited her commitment to the environment to her live shows. She famously secured a guarantee from Oscar de la Renta’s creative directors, Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim, to stop selling fur when she wore their design, a voluminous tulle Old Hollywood gown with a 15-foot train, to her first Met Gala in 2021, which she co-chaired with fellow Gen Z stars Timothée Chalamet, Naomi Osaka, and Amanda Gorman. “What was most inspiring to me from the creative side was to see this 19-year-old powerhouse look us in the eye and say, ‘I want to do something that scares me,’” Garcia recalls, referring to Eilish’s decision to wear a dress with pronounced corseting. “She inspired me to think outside the box and do things that scare me, too, because it usually means we’ll grow from it.” To last year’s Met Gala, Eilish wore upcycled Gucci, with whom she collaborated to make a limited edition of Happier Than Ever out of vinyl scraps from the original pressing, packaged in a box designed by former creative director Alessandro Michele.
“I don’t want to be parading around like, Look at me! I’m making a difference,” she says, sipping from a reusable blue water bottle. “I just want to be making the difference and shutting the fuck up about it.” Despite her good works, Eilish will be the first to tell you how unimpressed she is with herself. “I shouldn’t be making any products. I shouldn’t be selling anything. It’s just more shit to go into the landfill one day. I know that.” She shakes her head. “But no one’s going to stop wearing clothes. No one’s going to stop making stuff. So I just do it in the best way I possibly can.”
True to her word, Eilish used a series of concert dates last year at London’s O2 arena to stage a simultaneous six-day climate-awareness event called Overheated, named after another song from her last album. (A track that’s also about one thing—body-shaming—but can signify so many others.) Although Eilish and Finneas hosted the conference, which included a Youth Activist Zone and screenings of an Overheated documentary, the brother-and-sister team let other musicians, sustainable fashion designers, and activists take center stage. Hong Kong native and Overheated speaker Tori Tsui, 29, likens what Eilish did in London to a Trojan horse. “I’m sure the majority would rather have seen Billie speak,” says Tsui, who has been featured in a Stella McCartney campaign and whose book on the climate crisis and mental health, It’s Not Just You, will be published later this year by Simon & Schuster. “But can you imagine how powerful it is to use your platform to draw an audience who knows about the climate crisis but isn’t yet fully engaged? And then use that to shed light on some of the issues that don’t get as much attention?”
Eilish was eager to organize an event like Overheated for Vogue’s January cover, inviting Tsui and a group of young activists and organizers to join her in conversation about the climate, filmed by Academy Award–nominated writer-director Mike Mills (20th Century Women, C’mon C’mon). This mini climate summit takes place a few days before our interview, inside a soundstage in another industrial Eastside pocket of the city, where the Los Angeles River, the 5 freeway, and the Amtrak-Metrolink train tracks almost converge. It’s worth mentioning that the 51-mile-long LA River was covered over with concrete after a disastrous 1938 flood and has come to symbolize the myriad and interconnected consequences of climate change: flood risk, community displacement, social inequity, extinguished ecosystems, pollution, and drought—essentially the same issues Eilish’s assembled group has sought to remediate.
All of the activists are under 30—the youngest, Ryan Berberet, who led a climate strike at her high school and has been part of a campaign to pressure California governor Gavin Newsom to declare a climate emergency, is 16 and accompanied by her mother to the shoot. In addition to Berberet and Tsui, the other climate warriors present include environmental educator Isaias Hernandez, known to his followers as Queer Brown Vegan; model and Indigenous rights activist Quannah Chasinghorse; Fridays for Future organizer and Re-Earth Initiative cofounder Xiye Bastida; sustainable clothing designer and animator Maya Penn; Nalleli Cobo, who helped pressure Big Oil to close down a toxic well in her neighborhood; and Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, a Rhodes Scholar and the founder of Black Girl Environmentalist.
Most of the group began organizing in their teens, if not earlier, and if they seem precocious, it’s only because there’s a prevailing sense among them that they’re running out of time. “Our lives are on the line,” says Cobo, 22, cofounder of the grassroots organization People Not Pozos (People Not Oil Wells). “I remember a reporter asking me, ‘How does it feel to be an activist?’ I was 11. I had to stop the interview and ask, ‘Can you tell me what an activist is before I answer your question?’”
The jolt of attention 20-year-old Greta Thunberg brought to the issue certainly helped mobilize her peers. Thunberg made headlines for skipping COP27 late last year, describing the United Nations’ climate conference in Egypt as “greenwashing,” the kind of performative event that so many in this generation refuse to take part of.
Though COP27 resulted in wealthy nations, the worst polluters, pledging reparations to developing nations, nothing concrete was established to halt fossil fuel emissions. “It feels like a Band-Aid solution,” the whispery-voiced Berberet says. “But they didn’t address the problem of the bleeding, or how to solve it.”
As for COP15, a separate UN meeting on biodiversity held in late December, Tsui offers a slightly more optimistic take. “COP15 showed that the biodiversity crisis is inseparable from the climate crisis,” says Tsui, an advisory board member of EarthPercent, an environmental music industry charity. “We need to ensure that climate justice encompasses the natural world, on which all life depends.”
Maya Penn, who at age eight started a sustainable clothing line, Maya’s Ideas, and wears her own upcycled wrap-blouse design on the shoot, has this to say about Gen Z’s sense of urgency around climate change: “So many people feel like our generation is the last one with a real shot to turn things around.” Penn makes it clear that she doesn’t feel at odds with older climate activists. “Intergenerational collaboration is at the center of my activism. It’s lived experience passed down,” she says.
“It’s not adults who stole our future,” Cobo adds. “It’s very specific interests.”
The daughter of Mexican and Colombian immigrants, Cobo and her three older siblings were raised by their mother in a South LA neighborhood squeezed between gleaming downtown skyscrapers and the ivory tower of USC, with a toxic oil well 30 feet away from their apartment. She gave her first public speech at age nine, describing the chemical-polluted air in her community that caused her chronic nosebleeds, heart palpitations, and asthma. At 19, she was diagnosed with reproductive cancer and had to undergo multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation that have left her unable to bear children.
Cobo played Eilish’s music continuously during her cancer treatment. “I listened to ‘Everything I Wanted’ on repeat while filling out my pre-op paperwork,” she says. “Something about her music brings me peace.”
“So many people feel like our generation is the last one with a real shot to turn things around,” says Maya Penn
There’s only one truly famous person in the room, but Eilish insists she feels unworthy of the company she’s in. “I feel like I don’t deserve to be here,” she says at the start of filming. “I don’t know much. I’m just learning.” She’s dressed in a matching Balmain baggy tee and pants, printed with what looks like cherubs floating in a blue sky, and immediately takes a seat on the floor for the first conversation, pulling her knees to her chest. Save for the presence of her hair stylist, Benjamin Mohapi, a burly man with prominent forearm tattoos who fluffs her bangs with a brush between takes, Eilish blends right in with her peers.
Wawa Gatheru, 24, another Overheated speaker, believes Eilish’s realness is her greatest strength. “Billie is really good at encouraging people to be their authentic selves. She’s comfortable with letting people know the things she knows and the things she doesn’t. She shows it’s okay not to know everything, but it shouldn’t stop you from wanting to get involved.”
Echoing that sentiment, Penn, who made the drop earrings Gatheru is wearing for the shoot, says, “Billie’s excited to take her fans on the journey with her, which is something I feel a lot of pop culture figures are afraid to do. And she really pushes hard for something that I’ve always believed in, which is that it’s cool to care.”
As the group gets used to talking in front of the camera, and the mood on set assumes a collegial levity, conversation quickly turns to the influence of their mothers. “My whole existence is based around family, but especially my mom,” says Eilish, who was homeschooled by her parents. “My mom is the most determined and most passionate person. It’s thanks to her that I know anything.”
Baird has, in her own words, “worn many hats”—actor, screenwriter, improv instructor, music teacher—and currently heads Support + Feed, a nonprofit she founded during the pandemic that provides plant-based meals to food-insecure communities. She’s also been her daughter’s biggest inspiration in the climate fight. From raising her children vegetarian, and then vegan, to leading the charge on making Eilish’s tour sustainable, to her own work with Support + Feed, which has expanded to 10 cities in a few short years, Baird has remained, in spite of her many career changes, an activist to the core.
The mother-daughter duo also share an appetite for learning. “When I started getting an education about the world of food insecurity, it was wildly eye-opening,” Baird tells me. “I knew about food deserts, but I didn’t know the extent of it. I didn’t have that kinesthetic experience of, like, can you even get to a grocery store where you live? And does your grocery store have anything fresh? And is it affordable? Food apartheid is a more accurate term, because access to food is really determined by systemic racism in our society.”
Isaias Hernandez, whose parents immigrated from Mexico to Los Angeles undocumented, has been helping Baird’s organization develop a public school curriculum and feels a personal connection to its mission. “Seeing how Support + Feed serves the Los Angeles community really meant a lot, because I was one of those kids who went to churches or food pantries or food banks to get free food with my family,” the UC Berkeley graduate explains.
While Support + Feed grows and diversifies its outreach, Baird still finds time to traverse Los Angeles in the family’s old Toyota minivan with an ACLU bumper sticker on the back to deliver food with staff and volunteers. She’s also a pretty mean cook. “I’m so lucky, my mom can cook anything,” Eilish tells the group when she explains why she’s never eaten meat.
Mothers on the front lines of climate activism, Gatheru believes, deserve more credit, particularly those who don’t always get the same recognition as their white counterparts. “Black and brown mothers have held up so many social movements and nurtured future generations in the face of colonization, imperialism, mass death, everything—and they still push forward,” she says. At one of her first environmental jobs, the Kenyan American scholar-activist was told by her then-boss that “Black people don’t care about the environment.”
Eilish surveys the room to find out how each person copes with their climate anxiety, or “feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration,” as researchers described it in a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica. “How do you deal or not deal? How are you guys, just, okay?” she asks, now sitting cross-legged and visibly more relaxed. “Because it makes me want to barf all over the floor.”
“My mom is the most determined and most passionate person,” says Eilish of Maggie Baird, who leads the nonprofit Support + Feed. “It’s thanks to her that I know anything”
“I don’t think any of us is okay,” Quannah Chasinghorse says. Although the 20-year-old model and member of the Hän Gwich’in and Sičangu/Oglala Lakota tribes made her Met Gala debut in 2021 and can often be seen, with her traditional Yidįįłtoo face tattoos, in the pages of this and other fashion magazines leading what looks like a glamorous life, the reality of her community back home in Alaska is dire. “Food insecurity isn’t just affecting us as people, it’s affecting our animal relatives,” says Chasinghorse, who was taught how to hunt and fish by her single mother, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge protector Jody Potts-Joseph. “Our dog teams”—a mode of transportation when temperatures dip so low that car engines freeze—“eat salmon and get treated with the same love and care as we do,” she says. But warming waters have created a salmon crisis that threatens the way of life of the Hän Gwich’in, one of the northernmost Indigenous tribes in North America. “We had an elderly couple lose half their dog team to starvation because they weren’t able to feed them and keep them warm last winter.”
Chasinghorse has collaborated with brands like Mackage and Ugg on sustainable products, but she names the fashion industry as “one of the leading causes of the climate crisis.” She acknowledges feeling guilty about being part of it at times. “It’s very unbalancing,” she says.
Eilish nods in agreement. “I have to take planes. I hate it,” she says of touring’s environmental impact. Unlike other musicians of her stature, Eilish refuses to fly private and is committed to finding unusual workarounds for travel. Her determination to reduce her carbon footprint resulted in 8.8 million gallons of water saved, and 15,000-plus tonnes of CO2 neutralized, which Reverb’s recently released tour impact report says is “equivalent to taking 3,000 homes off the electric grid for a year.” Close to a million dollars were raised when Eilish engaged thousands of her fans to support climate and other social justice causes.
Hernandez and Cobo describe how insulating with close family members keeps their climate anxiety at bay, and Tsui takes that idea one step further. “I feel solidarity from knowing we’re going through the same thing,” she says. “Community”—a more global sense of family—“holds you.” Tsui then turns the tables on Eilish, asking how she deals with the weight of millions of people’s expectations—107 million, actually, if the metric is Instagram.
“It’s wild,” Eilish says. “In my head, nobody knows who I am. Nobody knows what I look like. I was 13 when I put stuff out for the first time. I look back at who I was, when fewer eyes were on me. I grieve that. I strive to be that kid again.” A recurring theme of the morning’s conversations has been loss, and, in particular, a loss of innocence. If it seems like they’re growing up too fast, it’s because they’ve had to. With climate change, mental health challenges, financial instability, health care costs, racial injustice, and a long list of other inequities, today’s youth have inherited a future more precarious than that of previous generations.
And yet, somehow, they cling to visions of a better future. Which is Eilish’s unique gift, according to Adam Gardner, cofounder of Reverb and a musician himself. “Her fans relate to her in such a personal way. And she gives them ways to participate that are real and measurable and can help allay their anxiety around the climate crisis, or even be part of the solution. Giving them hope is her superpower.”
At the recording studio a few days later, Eilish reflects on her own aspirations. “I’ve really never gotten to talk to a group of people, especially my age, that I agree with on so many things,” she says, her eyes lit with excitement. “It was so thrilling to talk to people who share my beliefs and are so smart, you know? They’re my age and they’re doing so much. It made me really, really, really hopeful.”
And what is it that Eilish hopes for?
“We all wish that we could just do it ourselves. I wish I could just make changes in my life and save the world alone,” she says, laughing at her own grandiosity. “Grow my own food and live off the grid. Erase my carbon footprint.
“But all that does is erase me. When really, if every single person just did half of what they should do, we could fix this.”
In this story:
Billie Eilish wears Balmain, Collina Strada, and Pamela Love.
Activists and organizers wear a selection of sustainable fashion from Bode, Botter, Chopova Lowena, Collina Strada, Jamie Okuma, Mahdiyyah, Mara Hoffman, Maya’s Ideas, Pangaia, Reformation, Stella McCartney, and The Jean of Tomorrow by AG.