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Chris Darwin is weeding. His lanky frame, clad in a white shirt, trousers and braces, is folded over the mossy pavers outside the back door of his Blue Mountains home, as he tries to lever out a botanical interloper with the help of a kitchen knife.

A flock of yellow-tailed black-cockatoos glides lazily overhead, screaming their pterodactyl calls as a brown goshawk drifts across the cloudy sky. From somewhere in the dense wet sclerophyll forest nearby comes the whip-crack shriek of a lyrebird. 

And yes, his surname hints to a profound legacy. His great-great-grandfather was Charles Darwin, the British naturalist who, in 1831 while in his early 20s, set sail aboard HMS Beagle on its mission to chart South America’s coastline. On the voyage Charles collected a dazzling array of fossils, specimens, data and thoughts about how the extraordinary diversity of life he saw on his travels fitted together. 

The result of his analysis was a theory that evolution by natural selection – survival of the “fittest” – was the driving force behind the diversity of life on Earth, from bivalve molluscs to finches, and that all this wonderfully rich, vibrant diversity stemmed from a single common ancestor. It was such a profound scientific theory, backed by the reams of evidence he’d collected, that it made him one of the most famous scientists in history. His remains are interred in Westminster Abbey, alongside those of Isaac Newton.

The move to Sydney

Back in the bushy urban fringe of Sydney, Chris wrestles with a particularly stubborn weed, but takes care to preserve the native seedling just next to it – a sort of unnatural selection in which the weed’s superior fitness is no match for a determined gardener.

It’s a long way from the manicured grounds of the Georgian manor in Kent, south of London, where his ancestor Charles lived out his days with his wife, Emma, and their children. Chris did grow up in London but showed far more affinity for the creative arts than scientific pursuits, famously failing a biology exam (much to everyone’s shock). 

He began his working life as a photographer but found it a lonely profession. On someone’s suggestion, he got into advertising, and he loved it. “It was creative and kooky, lots of action and difficulty and storytelling,” Chris recalls. It brought him to Australia through pure serendipity – the need for a hot location to shoot an advertisement during the middle of a British winter. He was sent here to scout it out and report back, and simply never left.

His career and life in Sydney were going well until fate threw him a curve ball, and Chris fell apart. He had, he says, a “resilience problem”. “Nothing had ever really gone badly wrong in my life,” he says, “then something pretty minor went wrong and I had a nervous breakdown.” Chris spiralled into depression, which led to a suicide attempt.

While in that dark, dark place, he found a psychologist who challenged him to think about his values and purpose in life, to find a philosophy and reason for existing. “We ended up, long story short, with the values of ‘love myself, others and the planet’,” Chris says. 

And his purpose? To stop the mass extinction of species by stopping habitat destruction.

“If you’re going to solve something, you might as well solve something big,” Chris reflects. His goal is to stop habitat destruction by 2040 – a deadline he picked so he would have a chance of being alive to see it happen.

Ambitious? For sure. Achievable? Chris is less sure, but he’s giving it all he’s got, and he’s bringing both his advertising nous and famous surname to help solve the problem. 

Step one was for him to be the change he wanted to see in the world. “I discovered my ecological footprint was six planets, so that means that if everybody lived like me, we would have to tether six planets together,” he says. The global average is 1.75 planets, the Australian average is 4.5 planets, and the USA’s average is 5.1. “There I was, trying to be an environmentalist, and I was actually the problem.” So he set about transforming his lifestyle to achieve an ecological footprint of less than one planet. Recognising that meat and dairy are a major cause of habitat destruction, he became vegan, and also now eschews sugar and alcohol. He doesn’t fly, and drives an electric car. He buys second-hand goods as much as possible, and his house is powered by renewable energy. “I’m now down at 0.8 of a planet [the equivalent of India’s average],” he says. “I’ve been there for seven years now.”

Chris Darwin sitting on a rock in the Blue Mountains
Chris Darwin is nourished by the beautiful natural landscape that he protects and nurtures in the backyard  of his Blue Mountains home. Image credit: Adam Ferguson/Australian Geographic

At the beginning, he thought it would make him miserable. Instead, it’s had the opposite effect. “It turned out that not only did I feel good about it, but actually I’m happier,” Chris says, “because suddenly I’m aligning what I say, what I do and what I think.”

Step two was to encourage others to undertake a similar, if less radical, transformation. Along with communications consultant Plamena Slavcheva, Chris co-founded the Darwin Challenge charity, with the aim of raising awareness of the massive impact that consumption of meat and dairy has on deforestation rates, and hopefully inspiring others to reduce their impact through dietary change. 

Chris is realistic about the enormous psychological barriers he’s trying to overcome – in particular, our deep-seated aversion to loss. “One of the things about behavioural change is that you’ve got to allow people to have small changes and huge celebration instantly – short-term reward,” he notes. He’s not trying to inspire people to go vegetarian or vegan – although that would be the ideal. His goal is to achieve “peak meat and dairy” – the long-term decline in meat and dairy consumption following their extended period of growth.

But given humanity’s recalcitrance when it comes to acting swiftly on the existential threat of climate change, Chris also has what he calls a “rear-guard strategy”. In partnership with not-for-profit Bush Heritage Australia (BHA), he and Jacqueline donated funds to buy 68,000ha of a former grazing property north-east of Perth, Western Australia, on the traditional lands of the Badimaya people, to restore it as a biodiversity hotspot. 

“When we went there originally, it just looked unbelievably awful because it had been trashed by a combination of overgrazing, fire and drought,” Chris recalls. 

Twenty years later, it’s the Charles Darwin Reserve and home to flourishing woodlands that nurture mallee fowl, pink cockatoos, dunnarts, skinks and numerous rare insect species, including a pseudoscorpion – a scorpion-like arachnid – named after him: Synsphyronus christopherdarwini. “As long as you give nature half a chance, she will come back,” he says. Chris is now working on BHA plans to help purchase an even larger tract of land in South Australia. “You’ve got to buy big,” he says. “You’ve got to buy very big.” 

The moral path

While he may not have followed professionally in the footsteps of his great-great-grandfather Charles, Chris has certainly done so in the spiritual and moral sense. “Late in life, he [Charles] said, ‘I feel no remorse for having committed any great sin, but I have often regretted that I haven’t done more for our fellow creatures’,” Chris says. “Even 150 years ago, he could see the natural world was in trouble.”

Chris has also inherited a deep appreciation for the importance of data and his ancestor’s unique method of thinking through a problem by using relevant facts. “It’s like a big machine; you pour facts in the front of this thinking system, and you get results at the far end,” he says. 

That hunger for data and knowledge and understanding permeates his life, and imbues him with a sense of restless energy, as if there aren’t enough hours in the day or years in a life to achieve what he wants to achieve. 

He knows it’s a race against time, against deforestation, against greenhouse gas emissions, against human fallibility, but it’s a race we can’t afford to lose. “I’m not going to stand still, I’m not going to rest, I’m just going to keep going,” he says. “This is my life purpose.”