Eco Atlas founder Rhian Berning lives lightly on the Garden Route: Green Route

Meet climate activist Rhian Berning who shares her passion for living a greener life

Rhian Berning in front of her off-grid house on the Garden Route, South Africa. Photo: Supplied

“It’s hard to say where my passion for the environment comes from, it’s a bit like breathing,” says Rhian Berning, an environmental scientist and founder of Eco Atlas, a search engine for eco-friendly accommodation, products and services in South Africa.

Berning, 42, lives in an off-grid house on the Garden Route with her husband, two children and a small menagerie of animals.

“I remember having a lot of empathy as a child, empathy for all life, for trapped insects, abused animals and bullied children. I think empathy and kindness are at the core of being ‘eco-conscious’,” says Berning.

Berning studied Environmental Science at UCT as well as a postgrad in Education, and for many years her focus was on environmental education with SEED, Nature Network and Eco-Schools.

Seven years ago she founded Eco Atlas, an online search engine for “places good for people and planet”.

“Eco Atlas was born of the premise that we can create a groundswell of positive change through our daily choices if where we shop, eat, stay and play is based on having positive social and environmental impacts,” says Berning.

“In other words our daily choices actually become good for both people and the planet if they are well informed and we vote with our wallets for the places actively water saving, upskilling staff, supporting local suppliers and working towards zero waste.

Off-grid, eco-accommodation on Numbi Valley Permaculture Farm near De Rust. Photo: Supplied

“Eco Atlas allows you to search, recommend and review places based on these criteria so you can actively play a part in creating a better world. We really can all be everyday activists in our own way,” adds Berning.

Berning and her family have embraced sustainable living in their self-build house near Plettenberg Bay. “We live in an off-grid home that we rebuilt after losing everything to the Garden Route fires. We run 100% on solar power and rainwater and we filter and recycle all of our waste-water into the growing of food.

“We live as low impact as we can with the principles of supporting local, creating minimal waste, growing organic food, protecting the biodiversity of our area by planting indigenous and leaving natural areas to be, well, natural.”

What has Rhian given up for the environment?

“I’m on a journey to give up all single-use plastics, and I think we need to see it like that, as a journey, because all the systems are not yet set up in our town (and many others) to be completely single-use plastic free, but I’m confident that that time will come.

“I always have my reusable water bottle, my reusable shopping bags and produce bags, my own container for takeaways, my glass straws for my children with me, as part of my survival kit for refusing single-use plastics.

“However, I’m not able to get all my food packaging-free and so those bits of packaging go into an EcoBrick which we will be using to build structures at schools.

“I’m surprised how quickly we as a family have slipped into these new habits and what was unusual simply becomes the new norm. My reasoning for going zero-waste is that in nature there is no concept of waste, it does not exist, one animal’s waste is another’s treasure, we need to see all our ‘waste’ as a resource.”

“Our home is vegan/vegetarian, but with my husband eating completely plant-based it is just easier to cook vegan meals for the whole family instead of cooking two different meals.

“Flying is not something I do regularly at all. However, if there is a conference or workshop I really need to attend I might do a short-haul flight once or twice a year because our public transport system in no way compares to that of Europe where the no-flying commitment has really taken off, inspired by Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot.”

Sunrise over Plettenberg Bay. Photo: Melanie Farrell

Rhian’s natural habitat

You’ll find Rhian in her veggie garden or on a beach along the Garden Route. “From Nature’s Valley to Robberg Peninsula we are blessed with some of the best beaches in the world, the sea is clean and just the right temperature, the beaches expansive and the coastal forest glints in the sunlight,” says Rhian.

When it comes to shopping Rhian tries to support local, eco-conscious brands. “We are lucky to have a travelling zero-waste store in the form of the Garden of Dee-Light, where you can bring your own containers and get all your staple grains and.”

My eco-crush? Wangari Maathai, although she is no longer with us, is definitely my biggest eco crush. She used the planting of trees as a powerful medium of political change, for women’s empowerment and the regeneration of the land that had been pillaged by colonialism. She was imprisoned and beaten and still she did not give up and the Green Belt movement went on to plant 30 million trees. She was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I also have a soft spot for Arundhati Roy and Barbara Kingsolver and of course Greta Thunberg, who is the eco crush of the moment!”

To read the full story on Daily Maverick read Meet your eco-heroes

Green Route ZA is the A-Z of eco-conscious living

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Published by Melanie Farrell

Founder of Green Route ZA - the path to eco-conscious living. I live in Cape Town, South Africa.

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