Interview: Climate Advocate and 5Gyres Ambassador Madeleine Wallace

By Nuri Max Steinmann.

Madeleine Wallace is a 23-year old artist and climate advocate, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She is a visual artist, a multi-instrumentalist, and a spirited environmental activist. In 2018, she completed her undergraduate degree at Barnard College, pursuing an Environmental Policy major. As an ambassador and advisory board member of the 5Gyres organization, she specializes in marine microplastic pollution research and legislation.

Hi Madeleine! At the UN Climate Action summit in New York, Greta Thunberg said that the world is waking up and change is coming. And yes, the outcome of the global climate strike on the 20th of September was incredible and very promising, but do you think we can win the fight against the industry and politics? What has to come next?

Greta is the perfect antidote to the Trump virus, but we all need to graciously absorb her frankness and steadfastness into ourselves to apply political pressure to our local and national governments. In other words, rather than solely supporting her as an idol, we should thank her and then become her! 

We need to continue voting politically and financially for politicians who support disruptive climate action, and for corporations and companies (banks, designers, food brands) who support circular production and financial systems, return-deposit consumer goods schemes, and regenerative agriculture. 

While the climate crisis has finally gained the interest of the broad public, the reality of our climate is worrying already. Especially 2019 hasn’t been a good year. The Amazon and the Alaskan permafrost are burning, droughts in Australia, and many other events around the world. How do you cope with anxiety and what is giving you hope?

Ah, what a good question. Well, my first answer is creativity — I paint, make music, work with my hands. Art is always therapy. But when the artists need more than art therapy, they create movements like the #GoodNewsGarden, which my friend Lukas Nelson started. Another friend, @LucyBiggers of Now This Media is also good at sharing positive climate news on her insta. And get your hands in some dirt on a community garden, farm, or just the park if that’s accessible to you — dirt microbes will chemically elevate your mood and for sure your outlook. Gratitude is also a potent pacifier!

Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be much interested in the climate crisis, and his politics are jeopardizing climate agreements. Yet, thousands of US people went demonstrating and you were there too. What does it do to the people and the movement in the US, knowing their president doesn’t give a damn about such an existential matter?

I think most of us have moved past viewing Donald Trump as a “president” and I, at least, view him instead as a physically adult, emotionally infantile person in a suit with a large amount of political power. Americans are compensating for our lack of president, and creating a counter political movement of people running for political office who are here to really be leaders. 

You are quite engaged with the NGO ‘5Gyres’. Can you tell us a bit more about it? 

Yes! The 5Gyres Institute is a global organization based out of Santa Monica, CA with a worldwide network of Ambassadors, educators, celebrities, and researchers all working toward the ultimate goal of a plastic free world. 5Gyres works to empower action against the global health crisis of plastic pollution through science, education, and adventure. This involves doing citizen science research on awesome, week-long annual expeditions and using those findings to write papers that drive legislation against plastic usage! I sailed with 5Gyres in 2015 in Bermuda and that inspired me to go into microplastics pollution. I have since sailed with them to the Arctic, Bali, and Galápagos. I highly recommend checking out and seeing how you can become an Ambassador and get involved!

Considering the urgent need for action, do you think society has to prioritize certain subjects? For instance, some people say that, despite the fact that it is a huge problem, too much attention and funding is spent on plastic pollution. 

I completely understand why many people think that focusing on plastic pollution is a diversion from the path of greater action, like completely halting our reliance on fossil fuels and protecting clean water access globally. However, I believe this topic is the most accessible central point for activism in almost every area of crisis. This is because: 1) Plastic is a petroleum product. It comes from fossil fuels. When renewable energy starts outpacing fossil fuel production, we will still be burning a catastrophic amount of carbon because fossil fuel companies are shifting their focus to plastics. 2) Plastic pollution is a global human health crisis. We are becoming aware, thanks to much of the research that 5 Gyres has done, of just how much microplastics are in our blood streams and how that can lead to major health problems. 3) The cure for plastic pollution is mostly in the consumer’s hands, so it’s one of the most fixable issues because it relies on how we live our lives, not some distant political problem that average laypeople cannot even try to fix. We can do this ourselves! 

What do you feel are the three most important things or habits we have to change to turn things around?

Reduce your single-use plastic usage so buy a reusable coffee mug and check out my dear friend Lauren’s company Second, reduce your intake of animal products. Industrial animal agriculture is the single highest contributor to fossil fuel emissions, deforestation, and water pollution globally (watch Cowspiracy). Third, check out and tell everyone you meet about it.  

In some parts of the world sustainable living has become kind of “trendy”. In a desperate effort to keep up with the times, companies and brands are promoting green products. However, often its greenwashing and products not as sustainable as they seem. In times where young people buy what influencers tell them; do you have any advice how to deal with this problem? Do you have experience with it? 

Yes! So much greenwashing! I’d say, if a company has a circular production chain, a carbon-offset program, and/or a return-deposit scheme, they’re the real deal. Also, I wrote an article for Better World Media about how to navigate the world of consumer goods re: composting and zero waste. 

What’s next for you? Any projects ahead? 

Always! I’m flying to Sydney in a couple weeks to deliver the keynote speech at a conference and share my story. I’m quite active in NYC and continue to appear on podcasts, write, do interviews like this one ! I’m also expanding my involvement in fashion from one of modeling that’s disjointed from activism, to engaging more as an ambassador to brands that are doing amazing work. And of course will continue my work with 5Gyres and start gearing up for the next expedition!

It is 2050 – What is Madeleine Wallace doing and how will the planet and the oceans look like?

In an ideal situation, we will have finally realized that indigenous wisdom contains guidelines for how to live sustainably and politicians and corporations have realized that we cannot eat money! I will still be a global Climate Advocate, will have sued countless corporations and governments, become President… and will have worked hard enough to protect the climate, to feel safe and environmentally accomplished enough to raise a kid! That is my hope for all of us!

Follow Madeleine Wallace and her projects, work and art:

And 5Gyres:

All photo credits belong to Madeleine Wallace.

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s