Gabby Tan, the story of the Malaysian teenager fighting for our oceans

Malaysian activist Gabby Tan’s mission is to raise awareness about the risks faced by our oceans, and the need to protect them. She spoke to us about her passions and what inspires her.

While we’ve been inflicting deep wounds on our planet’s ecosystems for hundreds of years, seas and oceans have experienced unparalleled destruction especially in the past thirty years. All are in grave danger, suffocated by a growing amount of plastic, plundered by unsustainable fishing and evermore acidic because of the toxic gases our species is pouring into the atmosphere. And yet we still seem to be indifferent to the plight of marine creatures, and we feel disconnected from the destruction of the underwater world. Not everyone, however, is ignoring this silent tragedy: some have decided to devote their existence to the protection of these mysterious, primordial ecosystems, where life originated billions of years ago. Among them is 18-year-old Gabby Tan from Malaysia, who has always been passionate about geography and the ocean.

Gabby Tan speaking at the fifth edition of TEDxVicenza
“If we keep going like this, by 2025 there will be over one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in our oceans – Gabby Tan warned on the TEDxVicenza stage –. In 2050, once we surpass the level of 12 billion tonnes worldwide, there will be more plastic than fish” © TEDxVicenza

A life for our oceans

Gabby Tan, a member of the Youth Council for World Oceans Day, held every year on the 8th of June, has very clear ideas about her future: she wants to devote her life to protecting the oceans. To do this, the young activist raises awareness by talking in schools about the importance of these ecosystems and the threats they face. Like Greta Thunberg, who started the largest global climate movement in history, the Malaysian activist, thanks to her enthusiasm and determination, aims to inspire young people worldwide, motivating them to take care of the planet that previous generations have left destitute.

Gabby Tan’s example

“Today we can’t let adults be the only ones with the power to decide on our future. The ecological disaster is urgent, it’s happening now, advancing inexorably and sparing no one. The efforts made up to this point haven’t been enough. We can no longer wait. From now on, we’ll have to accept the challenge and do our part. Fighting this emergency has to become a priority for each and every one of us. Let’s save the oceans and the planet!”. The Malaysian student is conscious that while political and structural interventions are essential, change has to begin from a grassroots level, from everyone altering their everyday behaviours.

Sounding the alarm on ocean plastic

Gabby Tan was in Italy for the fifth edition of TEDxVicenza, which took place on the 8th of June and was dedicated to making sense of the great changes of our time. From the stage, the teenager launched an appeal against the consumption of single-use plastics, which have already contaminated the marine food chain and threaten the survival of over 800 animal species. This is what Gabby told us on this occasion.

What pushed you to begin your fight in defence of the oceans?
Growing up just a short trip away from amazing beaches, some of my earliest memories are of playing in the sand and gathering seashells with my grandparents. My love for the ocean only grew from there. A few years down the line and my ocean advocacy journey began during a school trip to a Coral Reef Nursery where I was amazed by the resilience and biodiversity of our reefs, yet terrified after seeing firsthand the impact of plastic pollution and coral destruction.

It was the first time that the urgency to protect our oceans dawned on me. Ever since then I’ve been working to raise awareness and advocate for a healthy ocean in every way possible – whether through speaking at events, writing, campaigning or curating. After all, we depend on our oceans to sustain us, whether or not we live by the water, and it’s our responsibility to make sure they’re as healthy as they once were.

What do you think are the most urgent actions we need to be taking?
We need actions at every level, from individual lifestyle changes to policy changes that will ensure our whole society prioritises, rather than exploits, our oceans. Everyone needs to play their part. As empowered consumers, we can choose to source our seafood from sustainable fisheries, refuse unnecessary single-use plastic, make sure our plastic waste is being recycled and disposed of responsibly, and also minimise our carbon footprint as climate change is directly related to the health of our oceans.

Then we need to make sure changes occur throughout the supply chain and right at the top as well. Join a strike, vote wisely, tell businesses where they must improve and write to or make sure your government knows that we must protect our ocean. In this moment, changing our ways is absolutely necessary and inevitable if we want a good shot at saving our planet and lives, so we have to get used to the idea of changing our comfortable lifestyles.

Sea turtle swimming in the ocean
Plastic threatens a large number of animal species, including sea turtles, which mistake plastic fragments for jellyfish and swallow them © Jakob Owens/Unsplash

Greta Thunberg has been a sort of catalyst connecting young people from all over the world who are concerned about environmental issues. Do you think new generations are truly aware of what’s going on?
With facts, videos, news, images and even memes about environmental issues everywhere on social media and the news, my generation can’t help but be aware of and upset about the problems that continue plaguing our world. So when Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future strikes and speeches came to light, the School Strike 4 Climate grew extremely quickly, with over 1.5 million youth school-striking worldwide on Friday the 15th of March.

Greta inspired us with her bravery and catalysed the popularity of the climate action movement by showing us clearly that we could send a strong message to our governments.

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