Europe, the Environment and Social Movements: What Response do Europeans have for the Climate Emergency?

, by Sarah Bronsard, translated by Felicity Hemming

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Europe, the Environment and Social Movements: What Response do Europeans have for the Climate Emergency?

In the face of the threat of global warming, numerous environmental-movements are emerging in Europe calling for governments to take immediate action. Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion (XR) – the numbers of activists involved continue to grow. Are we witnessing an awakening of environmental awareness in Europe?

Extinction Rebellion and their impact

Since the series of protests in early October, Extinction Rebellion activists have not allowed themselves to drop out of the public dialogue. Their trademark? The use of non-violent civil disobedience to strike out against “ecological collapse and climate change’’. Despite being a very new movement (established in the UK, October 2018) the movement has already attracted many activists. Resonating on an international scale, protesters have been particularly active throughout Europe’s capital cities. Whether in Berlin, Paris, Prague, Brussels or London, the movement brings together great numbers of European citizens in the street each week to spread a powerful message. The presence of social movements may be growing, but how much of a political impact will they have on Europe? Are there any initial proposals to meet the movement’s demands?

To answer these questions, Sarah Bronsard met with 38-year-old Mathieu, a French activist for Extinction Rebellion since May 2019.

Mathieu, you joined the movement not long after its official launch in France in March 2019. What was it that motivated you to make this decision?

I joined Extinction Rebellion in May. Like many in the movement, I am new to activism and had never protested for a particular cause before. It was the first time that I had really wanted to get involved. I felt that something wasn’t right, so I started to educate myself, reading articles and watching videos, particularly those of Pablo Servigne, a French specialist in ‘collapsology’. Thanks to him, I discovered XR and became equally interested in the reports by the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) which have become more and more alarming.

Was there any specific event that inspired this reaction for you?

It wasn’t one event in particular, but more an accumulation of the facts making me aware of the climate emergency and collapse of societies. Deforestation, the disappearance of animal species, the melting of the ice caps, monocultural farming, the widespread use of fertilisers and pesticides have all alarmed the scientists. This isn’t just my opinion; it’s clear that we have a real problem. Some years ago perhaps we could deny climate change, however, today, this minority of climate-sceptics has become ridiculous. The vast majority of scientists unanimously agree that humans are the root of the problem. Human activities are well on their way to destroying the planet.

The movement is characterised by the absence of leaders. Do you know if national or European representatives have any form of contact with you?

Effectively, we function without a spokesperson. The movement is independent, decentralised and made up of local groups. In France, there are about sixty groups. Each local group, XR Nice, XR Oslo, XR London host discussions with their local politicians. I do not know what happens within each local group, but in London, for example, the representatives of XR communicate with London authorities, which lead to a climate emergency being declared. This was not a politically binding measure, but simply a declaration, to raise consciousness perhaps, and not, however, followed by any concrete action. In general, we try to avoid politics. Why? Well, we are not here to negotiate, or to argue with politicians. It is true: everything is political, our actions are political, but we do not ‘do’ politics. This is why we have not made contact with the European commission to directly address our demands. We want one thing: that they finally listen to what the scientists have to say and that they act accordingly. Hence the message you see on our signs: “Say the truth, act now!”

After taking action, do you feel your voices have been heard?

I met with the mayor’s deputy who is responsible for environmental issues and she was very attentive, and understanding towards us. But most of the time we just hear that the policy-making processes are long, that regional and town meetings are required which could take two or three years. But we don’t have that time anymore! So yes, we discuss but the responses aren’t acceptable, and don’t align with reality. The council does take some action, to be honest. But this is not even a tenth of what we would have to do to avoid disaster. It’s heading in the right direction, which is better than nothing, yet it is so small, that we cannot possibly be satisfied by so little.

Even if responses seem minimal, have any of your demands, or values been taken on board by Europe?

On a personal level, our demands have clearly not been taken into account enough. We want politicians to state the truth, which is our core value. Here, we have seen some progress as it has more coverage in the media. Our second demand concerns ending the destruction of ecosystems. The government seems to be doing the opposite, as they continue to build new shopping centres on agricultural land, for example. Overall, we can’t say that XR’s demands are really being taken on board by Europe.

Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the European Commission, pledged to prioritise the climate emergency, before being elected. Amongst the proposals is a drive to make the EU a climate-neutral continent by 2050. This target shows an ambitious environmental orientation for coming years.

Essentially, it’s a positive sign, but ideally, we would reach this target before 2025. We are all conscious that making such huge change in such a short space of time seems almost impossible, but even to do so by 2050 will be challenging.

What political action do you think will be sufficient to allow us to reach this goal? Wouldn’t it also take a drastic change in society’s attitudes?

Everyone wants a better environment; however, people aren’t prepared to make an effort to achieve it. It’s acceptable to heat our houses to 25 degrees, to ride around in our SUVs and travel by plane. Humans aren’t ready to abandon their comforts so easily. This is why we must implement restrictive measures, such as a carbon tax. The problem is that these policies are not popular. This is where politicians must step in.

You lead debates within XR to promote dialogue on these types of issues, for instance, a potential restructuring of society. In your opinion, is the survival of the planet only attainable if the EU and political leaders explore an alternative method of growth or indeed ‘de-growth’?

First of all, the concept of encouraging debate links to our 4th demand: the citizens’ assembly for the climate. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has already created a similar assembly made up of 150 people representative of the country based on their location and socio-professional category. Over four months they have been supervised by experts, helping them to formulate proposals in various different fields. It’s a great idea and we hope for something similar for the environment.

Personally, I think that a change in the system is inevitable. Throughout the years, growth and capitalism have worked well, especially over the last century or so. However today, we have reached the end of an era. We are contributing to the appropriation of wealth amongst the few, at the expense of the many, in a way which will only lead to the destruction of our planet. Society as a whole is based on growth; we always want more. More happiness, more jobs, more consumption of resources. Resources which, we should not forget, are very finite.

Are these two issues therefore incompatible?

No, in fact many experts think that it is possible to have a form of growth which does not damage the planet. The only way to decrease the consumption of raw materials is to reduce: to consume less, to produce less. I do not have the answer to attain a perfect world, but I do wonder.

Do you have concrete examples of alternative growth?

I believe that we must really push for local-level action. Food autonomy is one example. Cities today have to have their food imported, however models already exist of populations where locals produce their own food, which is also a way of promoting social cohesion. Instead of spraying our fields with pesticides and relying on monocultures which damage the soil and biodiversity, we should reinstate the importance of agricultural and artisanal work on a local level. We are Europeans, but at the same time we can say that it’s better to produce some things in France, without undermining the importance of the common market.

Do you think that in the future, movements such as Extinction Rebellion will attract more and more activists, and will allow for real influence over political decisions?

At the start of October, we witnessed something never seen before in Europe: an increasing number of public demonstrations across European town and capitals, and even beyond. The ‘gilets-jaunes’ in France, the protests against the Hong Kong government, for independence in Catalonia in Spain, in Lebanon, in Sudan… not forgetting the wave of outrage in Chile. Whatever their culture, people are rebelling against growing social injustice or for environmental issues. I think that the increasing discontent reveals something important; everything is connected. And at the heart of the system are social and ecological issues. The EU should encourage energy transition and reconcile more policies with these two elements at their centre.

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