Yayo Herrero, Anthropologist and ecofeminist; Unai Pascual, ecological economist
THE SURPRISE FACTOR OF THE PANDEMIC
The start of the pandemic took us all (or almost all) by surprise. What was your experience? Had you spotted any signs, or read any scientific papers, for example, which gave you an inkling that something like this could happen? Or did your intuition give you any indication of what was about to occur? Did it take you by surprise?
Yayo: Well, I had read some documents published by the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) about climate change and health, some papers about biodiversity loss ('Global Environmental Outlook') and a book by Mike Davis on SARS-CoV-2. I mean, in the academic world, we were aware that this was one of the possibilities linked to the environmental and social crisis. We knew it could definitely happen. But nevertheless, it took us by surprise. I had accepted and rationalised the fact that it could happen, but I was still surprised by the swiftness and brutality with which it spread. You think you know what a pandemic is, but it's impossible to imagine being locked down in your own home, or not being able to go and visit your grandmother who's alone in a nursing home. It's impossible to get your head round the fact that someone may die without their loved ones near because of the situation. Even though all this was well within the realms of possibility, the way our lives changed so completely took me by surprise.
Unai: I agree with Yayo. At a scientific level, I have talked to many scientists who analyse the relationship between different dimensions of human wellbeing, such as interactions between biodiversity and health, for example, with biodiversity understood here as the variability of everything which exists in nature (in terms of genes, species, habitats, ecosystems, etc.). For many years now, we have been listening carefully to people who work in the tropics, the region of the world with the most biodiversity, and where the greatest scientific effort is being made to understand the functions of those ecosystems which are most vulnerable to the effects of human action. Some of the elements they talk about include health, food security, water flows, access to resources, and how all this is connected to the climate crisis, which has been aggravated by the loss of biodiversity. Another variable they have talked about often are zoonotic diseases (diseases which are transmitted from animals to humans and are caused by viruses, parasites, fungi or bacteria). This is something often mentioned by biologists who have experience with the Ebola virus in Africa and other localised pandemics in very specific regions of the Global South. So you know this happens and that there is evidence to prove it, but as Yayo says, when a virus lands on your doorstep, everything you've read in the scientific literature takes on new meaning and starts to have a personal dimension. It affects your everyday life. And looking ahead, we know what's going to happen, but we can't really imagine the reality of it. We need to become more resilient in this current era of pandemics, just as in the era of the climate crisis. Discourses shift and change and from a scientific perspective, we have tried to adapt, tried to convey the message that this is not just a problem of the Global South, that the fundamental variables (economic, social, environment and health-related) are all interconnected. What happens in one place affects all others. In some ways, it's an educational example. We need to decide whether to opt for being proactive or reactive in the face of a problem that seems to be here to stay unless we transform the entire system. But now that the vaccine is on its way, it looks like we're going to forget again. Because politicians are focusing only on short-term technical solutions, like the vaccine, conveniently overlooking the fact that all these vectors are interconnected.
Over the last two months, a new concept has emerged in certain academic and political sectors: syndemic. A syndemic is a set of accumulated epidemics or pandemics that may be viral, but may also include those linked to the environment, precariousness and world famine. Do you think this term provides a more accurate description of the current situation?
Y. I have never heard of that term before. I don't know whether the care crisis qualifies as a pandemic; or climate change for that matter. It's true we are living in a period characterised by multiple interconnected crises. In her book In Catastrophic Times (Open Humanities Press 2015.), Isabelle Stengers talks about 'Gaia's intrusion', not from a mystic viewpoint, but rather in reference to the boundaries of nature, ecosystem processes, homoeostasis, environmental imbalances and forced changes in natural cycles. All this has become a political agent devoid of intentionality. One cannot negotiate with 'it'. This does not, of course, mean that her outlook on the planet is a mystic one. Not at all. It means that many of the problems we are facing today: the care crisis, the migratory crisis, precariousness, etc., are all connected to this crisis of the living. This in turn highlights the tensions which exist between the physical boundaries of nature and the biosphere and our social organisations. There is a systemic, global crisis, which some have called the 'crisis of civilisation'. Whether we use the term syndemic or pandemic doesn't really matter. What I'm trying to say is that calling redistribution and poverty problems a 'pandemic' may end up naturalising processes which have clear political and structural causes, and this is not the way forward, particularly if we want to fight against cultural hegemony and draw attention to the need for structural change. Because that is where the problem truly lies.
“In the academic world, we were aware that this was one of the possibilities linked to the environmental and social crisis. We knew it could definitely happen. But nevertheless, it took us by surprise” YAYO HERRERO
ECOFEMINISM AND ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS
Both of you have underscored the fact that biodiversity and ecosystems are being lost at an alarming rate, and this has a direct impact on pandemics such as the one we are currently in. Unai has even stated that biodiversity is the best vaccine against pandemics. What is the relationship between biodiversity and pandemics?
U. We have to be careful what words we use, because we don't want to oversimplify something that is inherently complex. We need appropriate communicative metaphors to get the message out to people. These metaphors should help identify and clearly visualise the structural drivers and underlying problems responsible for biodiversity loss. Because there is a strong tendency among the economic and political elite to talk only about those things that can be easily seen, such as poverty or demographic pressure. However, they are much less willing to talk about what underlies these direct drivers, such as trade relations, land rights and financial deregulation, etc., and therefore pay no attention to the true Gordian knot: the unequal power relations between both individuals and peoples. Moreover, biodiversity as a concept is not intuitive. Its meaning does not jump out at you. People don't easily understand how we, as humans, are linked to biodiversity. It's a scientific term; but we can change the name and use 'nature' instead, which, like all concepts, is socially constructed, meaning that each individual will interpret it differently within their own culture. A Mayan farmer in Yucatán would say that he is part of nature; we, on the other hand, from a Western perspective, have placed ourselves (conceptually) outside nature. We objectify it and this enables us to justify our belief that we have the obligation to use and exploit it, as if it belonged to us by virtue of some kind of divine right. This conviction regarding the dominance of humans is also part of the problem. If we are truly concerned about nature, beyond its instrumental value (for our own benefit), then we must change the paradigm of our own position in and in relationship with nature. We will never be able to move on from the era of pandemics unless we combine science with philosophy.
We need what are known as 'boundary concepts', namely concepts that everyone can understand and interpret, although we should also be very careful not to let them become devoid of meaning. Take, for example, the concept of sustainable development, or resilience. They are concepts that suddenly became buzzwords, and while they have the virtue of identifying new social goals, they run the risk of distorting the original meaning. Everyone these days talks about sustainable development, but often based on conflicting interpretations. The same care needs to be taken with concepts such as biodiversity and nature. It may be that, in the not too distant future, the elite will try to gain political domination 'on behalf of' nature. It's the same with the term 'emergency' (which is now, for example, linked to climate). There is always the danger that the elite will use these terms as instruments of social domination.
But returning to the term 'biodiversity', I particularly like the metaphor of a tapestry. Imagine a dense, closely-woven tapestry which, little by little and over time, due to neglect and lack of care, becomes threadbare and riddled with holes. And although, at first, you can still make out the picture or the pattern, there comes a point at which there are so many holes, or they are so big, that this is not possible any more, and the tapestry no longer fulfils its purpose. The tapestry is the interconnection between all species, all ecosystems, and their networked functions. Biodiversity is this tapestry that is beginning to grow rather threadbare and loose. It's beginning to no longer be a tapestry, it's beginning to lose its basic environmental value as the foundation of nature itself, as well as, anthropocentrically speaking, its value as the pillar of our wellbeing and the source of countless benefits for our species. The simple idea is that, as the tapestry loses its threads, as the knots come loose, as these connections between the existing variety of genes, species and habitats vanish, then the distance between people and virus vectors (viruses have always been present in nature without this posing a threat to us) shrinks and the probability of zoonoses emerging increases exponentially.
According to the latest report by the IPBES, there are between 540,000 and 850,000 unknown viruses in nature which may potentially infect humans. If we continue unpicking the knots of the biodiversity tapestry, then we will be destroying our own health. In other words, biodiversity is our shield against pandemics. Protecting biodiversity is our life insurance at a planet-wide level.
You have both mentioned the importance of concepts and metaphors. There is one association we would particularly like to ask you about: nature versus humans/society. The former has traditionally been viewed as something outside us; something external. Do you think it is important to change this paradigm? What can ecofeminism contribute in this sense?
Y. This isn’t just something pertaining to modern times. In Western culture, the dichotomy and dualism between society and nature can be found as far back as Plato, who talked about the differences between things and ideas. This dualism later crystallised in Athenian democracy, with the political subject deliberating and debating in the public sphere, while the work of sustaining life and that carried out by slaves remained in the domestic sphere. After this, Judeo-Christian mythology, alongside St. Augustine's scholasticism and, later on, some schools of modernist thought (although we should not forget the dissident voice of the Romantics), such as those espoused by Decartes, Newton, Bacon and Galileo, were also deeply rooted in these dualisms. When industrial civilisation was born and fossil fuels became available, and with the advent of capitalism, everything remained based on this previous dualism, and as a result, we view nature from the standpoint of superiority, exteriority and instrumentality. It is a characteristic of our culture. Therefore, the answer is yes, it is vital to overcome the 'society versus nature' dualism, because it implies other kinds of dualism also.
Over recent weeks, we have witnessed an underscoring of the opposition between nature and the economy, as if they were two totally juxtaposed elements. This dualism also emerges between the economy and health. To a certain extent, this dual, hierarchical way of thinking generates this idea of superiority and a violent relationship with the land, other people and subordinate sectors. Therefore, overcoming dualism is an important step forward in the required paradigm shift. As Unai said, the key lies with boundary concepts or empty signifiers, which each person can fill as they like and which often become perverted. I feel comfortable with the perspectives that have been generated from the ecofeminist viewpoints. They haven't sprung up overnight, but rather stem from previous feminist outlooks, as well as from the Romantics as dissidents from Modernism, from anti-colonial and de-colonial perspectives, and even from an important part of science (from the birth of ecology, thermodynamics, the theory of relativity, the uncertainty principle, etc.). They have demonstrated the blurriness of the boundaries between human creations and the natural environment of which we form part, in which we are immersed, and which suffuses us. From the ecofeminist viewpoints, the approach based on sustaining life helps me in my teaching, but I'm also open to other outlooks. There may be many valid theories and we have to make use of as many as possible. All will help us realise that we are interdependent, that everything is connected, that life cannot exist alone; I think they are all necessary. I believe that ecofeminist outlooks offer a series of very useful tools for reflection.
«It is vital to overcome the 'society versus nature' dualism, because it implies other kinds of dualism also.» YAYO HERRERO
Unai Pascual. Photos / FOKU
From ecofeminism we now turn to ecological economics. This year, the Basque scientific community presented a manifesto entitled 'Post-Covid 19 Basque Country', in which it proposed that we address the debate on climate change by fostering a transition based on ecological economics. What exactly is ecological economics? Does it have anything to do with the need for this paradigm shift?
U. It's fairly simple. It's basically a branch of economics that arose some decades ago in response to a perverse way of understanding economics from a neoliberal perspective. As in all schools of thought, in economics also there are many different stances, outlooks and even ideologies. We economists are a species with a high degree of ideological variability. Ideology is a fundamental part of economics. Therefore, the term ‘economic sciences’ is an oxymoron. One of the debates currently under way among economists addresses the most basic of all issues: how does the economy work? And what is the role of nature in economics? Although classical economists referred to land as a resource, they also engaged in a moral debate about the need for nature conservation. In its eagerness to present itself as a Newtonian science with universal laws, neoclassical economics sought to remove all moral thinking, reducing nature to an object that needed to be optimised in accordance with the drive to maximise economic benefits for both the producer and the consumer. It was this perversion that triggered the emergence of ecological economics, which posits that the economy is a subsystem of society, and society a subsystem of nature. This totally disrupts the neoclassical paradigm of economics, which is the formal apparatus which bestows legitimacy (if indeed we can use that term) on the current neoliberal economic system.
Ecological economics is, therefore, a discipline of economics; but it goes beyond this. By viewing social, economic and environmental issues as inseparable, it addresses economic knowledge and its relationship with ecology from a transdisciplinary perspective. This means that it emphasises the importance of society and seeks to engage it in the construction of knowledge. It does not aim to offer universal solutions under the guise of absolute, unchanging truth, as Newton's laws do. Rather, it accepts and enriches knowledge about the economy by analysing diverse socio-ecological realities. In this sense, it is less arrogant than economics as it is still taught today in university faculties almost all over the world. It contrasts sharply with the hegemonic academic discipline of economics, which is not at all modest. I would even go so far as to say that, due to its unbridled arrogance, several structural crises down the line, hegemonic economics is probably one of the few branches of knowledge that has not changed one bit. Ecological economics strives to highlight this fact and change it.
Ecological economics helps discover new ways of understanding complexity in this relationship between nature and humans, from an economic perspective, and offers tools for its analysis. But above all, it views humans as eco-dependent beings. Ecological economics aims to make things, relationships, principles and values once again part of what we understand by ‘looking after our house', which is the true meaning of the word economy in Greek: the management of a household–a household which covers everything from our small community to the entire planet. Ecological economics offers an alternative way of understanding the economy, in which humans and nature coexist and co-evolve as harmoniously as possible: living as nature, living in nature, living with nature and living from nature. Trying to combine all these ways of living with, from, in, for ... nature. Unless we analyse and understand eco-dependency, we will never understand or achieve a true ecological and socially-inclusive transition (with all its associated adjectives). We can talk about the green economy and the energy transition from the perspective of neoliberal economics, but this type of economics will never be a transformative tool. And it is precisely a transformative tool that we need in order to develop a comprehensive response to a systemic problem: the eco-social crisis (and the situation of climate crisis or the loss of biodiversity as just another reflection of this).
«I particularly like the metaphor of a tapestry. Imagine a dense, closely-woven tapestry which, little by little and over time, due to neglect and lack of care, becomes threadbare and riddled with holes.» UNAI PASCUAL
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CULTURAL BATTLE
In the manifesto, you suggest abandoning the development model based on the aggregate growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
U. There is a very long tradition (encompassing several Nobel laureates in Economics) that argues that the GDP indicator stems from the very specific post-World War II context, in which the economies of Europe had been completely destroyed and the entire productive fabric of the continent needed to be rebuilt. In this context, new indicators were required to understand how the social metabolism of those devastated countries could recover. Hence, the GDP was designed as a macroeconomic indicator; and it worked, since it offered an overview of the aggregate value of the products and services passing through the market, generating exchange value. So, for that purpose and in that context, it was a good indicator. The perversion came later. The perversion came when this context no longer existed, but the indicator continued to be used as if it were the only one capable of measuring human wellbeing. Intellectually, this is utter nonsense. Even economists who have not strayed far from orthodox economics are aware of this fact. But this is not an academic problem; it is a political one. The powers that be prefer this indicator because it promotes the role of the market.
What ecological economics says is that we must dethrone GDP and use other indicators instead–indicators that better reflect true human wellbeing. In the manifesto, we underscore this point, namely the need to stop using GDP as a measure of wellbeing, because basically, it is simply not suited to the task. There are endless examples. For instance, 18 years ago when the Prestige sunk, a huge amount of public money was spent trying to mitigate the impact of the resulting oil slick. This prompted the wheel of the market to turn faster, which, from the perspective of GDP, is a positive outcome, but in reality is a contradiction in terms. Are we really saying that the problem generated by the Prestige gave rise to a situation which boosted social wellbeing? In reality, the opposite is true. The type of wellbeing we want, which is based on fossil fuels, generates an environmental problem, which in turn creates a social problem, which creates an economic problem: we had to spend €400 million remedying the environmental problem, yet the GDP mentality views this as a fantastic outcome. It's madness. But this is just one example. Let's look at it from the perspective of the climate crisis. Let's forget the name Prestige and use ‘climate crisis’ in its stead. Continuing to analyse the global economy from the perspective of its GDP to offer an overview of the evolution of human wellbeing is simply absurd.
The debate should focus instead on determining the best way of measuring human wellbeing. What values (or indicators) are important, over and above those which reflect the movement of the cogs and gears of the market machinery? As an indicator, GDP is a fundamental semantic element. People have incorporated the term GDP into their everyday vocabulary. But what they are not aware of is that using this semantic element incorrectly leads to erroneous and contradictory decisions (if what we want is to increase human wellbeing). In this sense, the majority of social stakeholders (trade unions, political parties, the media, etc.) have still not come to the realisation that we need to renew our semantics. And unfortunately, there does not seem to be a majority group among existing social stakeholders capable of addressing this problem. They believe it is a minor problem, a secondary issue. But it isn't.
You also talk about implementing a progressive environmental tax system.
U. The idea behind green taxation is simple: human behaviour is governed by many drivers, one of which is closely linked to money. When we levy taxes or subsidise certain types of consumption or production, people change their behaviour. As economics has shown for many years now, behaviours which are harmful for the environment and human health should be taxed in order to discourage them, providing what we are striving for is the common good. Taxation is a key instrument for promoting a just socio-ecological (and energy) transition. A huge amount of private and public money is required for this, and money doesn't grow on trees. For example, one way of providing the resources needed for a fast energy transition is to tax the use of fossil fuels. People in high income brackets (who are also those who consume the most fossil fuels, both directly and indirectly) have a greater responsibility to help mitigate the effects of climate change. Therefore, by taxing the use of fossil fuels, you are effectively taxing those in high income brackets more than those who are not so well off. This means that those with less purchasing power will not only pay fewer (green) taxes, they will also increase their income level. The benefits are twofold: environmental and social. This is a just transition. This idea has been implemented in Switzerland, Canada and other places also. What I'm trying to say is that it’s a feasible, fair and necessary tax system in the current situation of climate and social crisis. And if we don't implement it, it’s simply due to manifest political interests.
As well as political stakeholders and the economic elite, certain religious sectors also play an important role in this debate. In 2015, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known now as Pope Francis, published his second encyclical, Laudato si, which caused a huge stir in the Catholic Church and intensified the debate on climate change. Earlier this year, he published another encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, in which (among other things) he adopts a critical view and offers a re-conceptualisation of the concept of poverty, emphasising that indicators change with context, as do people's needs. What is the role of the Catholic Church in this whole debate?
Y. In my opinion, the encyclical Laudato si was tremendously important. I'm an atheist, I'm not a believer, but I do accept that the Pope is a moral reference point and a leader for many people in the world. As an ecofeminist, I have to admit that the publication of Laudato si was an important event, especially now, at a time in which cultural hegemony is being disputed. It is true that, from a purely feminist perspective, its contribution was insignificant; but from the viewpoint of its analysis of the environmental crisis and how it is linked to poverty, etc., it was extraordinarily important. The encyclical calls for radical approaches to analysing both the economy and the actions of multinationals, which put many backs up. For those of us working in environmental movements, it was amazing to see how, thanks to this encyclical, all of a sudden we were working in parish churches, convents and all kinds of religious institutions, in which the Pope had opened up a window many of those inside were eager to poke their heads out of. For many people, it was an invitation to look at the Earth and our relationship with it in a different light. I also think it is important that Laudato Si was based on a wide variety of different references from both within the Catholic Church itself, drawing heavily from liberation theology, for example, and thinkers from other cultures and other religions. There is no doubt in my mind that it was very important.
Yayo Herrero. Photos / FOKU
NEW PROPOSALS FOR A NEW GREEN DEAL
Over recent years, several macro proposals have been developed for a new green deal. The European Commission has established its Green Deal with the aim of, in President Ursula von der Leyen's own words, creating a ‘climate-neutral continent’. Under the overarching aim of halting climate change, a number of goals have been established. For example, a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030. Then there is the North American Green New Deal, proposed by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Edward Markey, which envisages a transition for the United States of North America aimed at ensuring 100% renewable energy use and zero emissions within the space of 10 years. Within the same timeframe, the Green New Deal also aims to increase investment in electric vehicles, address the problem of poverty and vulnerable sectors, ensure universal healthcare, increase the minimum wage and prevent monopolies. What is your opinion of these two proposals? Green capitalism? Necessary transition?
Y. The term Green New Deal provokes the same reaction in me as the boundary concepts Unai was talking about earlier: its effectiveness depends greatly on what lies behind it. It is important to explain these terms, so that their meaning is clear right from the beginning. According to what I’ve read about the EU proposal, as well as those made in the Spanish State, particularly in terms of how the money is going to be distributed between the different countries, the feeling I get is that it's more a case of green capitalism than anything else. In other words, it's an attempt to redirect or generate economic growth without really tackling the core issues identified by ecological economics, such as planetary boundaries and transboundary situations, etc. It seems to me that it fails to question the basic notion of development, the basic notion of traditional production and, above all, the mythology of growth. One thing about the so-called green energy transition and resilience that concerns me is this: Who is going to lead it? Who is going to monitor it?
The whole thing requires enormous investment and part of the money will necessarily have to come from the private sector. It is one thing to enter into a Green New Deal or undertake a green transition that puts wellbeing centre stage and aims to ensure decent living conditions for everyone, including those who are currently being expelled from their native regions due to climate problems or extractionist dynamics. It is quite a different matter to engage in an energy transition that simply seeks to replace fossil fuels with renewable energies, without thinking about the minerals, the energy and the means of support that will be used to do this. What is lacking, therefore, is a more comprehensive material analysis; an analysis in terms of energy flows, mineral stocks and natural processes. What is also lacking is a complete material analysis of the precariousness, poverty and inequalities that are so prevalent in the world in which we live, and which are structural, not temporary, in nature.
If we turn to the US, although I have the same material concerns with this approach as with the previous one, I get the feeling that what Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is proposing is, at least, more radical, particularly in the American context. In what sense? Well, given that, despite being a Democrat, President Joe Biden had trouble talking about universal healthcare during the last elections, I have a feeling that the challenge of disputing political and cultural hegemony in that country is enormous and very different from here in Europe. So, I believe that the efforts made by people like Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow crusaders (Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, known as the 'Squad'), who have the strength to propose things that may be uncomfortable, but are nevertheless vital if we are to change the current models, are particularly laudable. As a proposal, it is more challenging. So, in sum, whatever may be behind the Green New Deal, any proposal that contemplates a material decrease in the field of economics, a fairer distribution of wealth and a redistribution of access to everything necessary for life, and makes an effort to align economics and wellbeing with the needs of a planet in crisis, whose boundaries are being transgressed, is more than welcome. If we choose the alternative path, with actions that do not seek to redistribute wealth and justice, but rather focus only on taking advantage of the crisis, then, even with the best of intentions and without meaning to, we may well find ourselves on the slippery slope to ecofascist situations or solutions.
What stance should the pro-independent Left adopt in relation to these proposals?
U. I agree 100% with Yayo's analysis. As I've already said, semantics is not a trivial issue. I prefer to talk about a socio-ecological transition rather than a green transition or simply an energy transition. This idea of a trade-off or a compromise solution, this idea that it's always going to be win-win, is a dangerous fallacy. Win-win situations simply don’t exist. If you take only two variables into account, then yes, I guess you can have a win-win situation; but when you start putting others, that were concealed or rendered invisible, on the table, and carry out a kaleidoscopic analysis, that's when things get complicated. And an uncomfortable reality emerges: win-win solutions are practically non-existent. There are always winners and losers. The question is, whose side are we on? The answer to this question will determine the type of interventions we are prepared to carry out in the economic field to move society towards a just socio-ecological transition.
Let's set ourselves a goal. For example, to reduce CO2 emissions. That's the goal. So we are going to do whatever is necessary; for example, invest in new technology. Even though it may be difficult, the target set by the EU can be met. Theoretically it's perfectly possible. The problem is that we are only intervening on one variable (CO2), and by doing so, we will generate side effects (whether we want to acknowledge them or not). If we don't bear in mind the connection between CO2 with other variables, such as biodiversity and income distribution, etc., then we may simply be exacerbating existing inequality problems, or even creating new ones. What I'm trying to say is that it's dangerous to view the climate crisis from any single perspective alone, or to take into account only a few variables. The climate crisis is an overarching issue encompassing many problems that are interwoven with our social metabolism, which is based on a predatory economic model. If we reduce it to a mere problem of optimising the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, then we are likely to generate a wealth of associated problems, both environmental and social. There are some very powerful economic sectors, such as those grouped under the general label 'gas & oil', which boast about being the world's largest investors in the effort to reduce CO2 emissions. But they are the first to foster the use of fossil fuels. And now they want to convince us that they are leading the charge to save the planet, so they come up with the idea of planting millions of trees. But what is really needed is to stop deforestation and restore degraded areas. Planting saplings is nothing more than blatant 'greenwashing'. But it won't wash. This ties in with what Yayo was saying earlier: who controls this type of economic activity, and therefore these investments? At the moment, it is a group of huge companies with tremendous lobbying power that decide how public policies are going to develop and how public resources are going to be distributed.
Here in the Basque Country we have experienced a crisis in the primary sector which was caused by the erroneous decision to foster monoculture pine plantations. The homogenisation of landscapes on and around the Cantabrian coastline, due to mass planting of Pinus Radiata, is extraordinary. This all happened in a specific historical context, characterised by a boom in the paper industry. It was decided that the best use that could be made of the land was to plant fast-growing tree species that adapted well to the region's agro-ecological conditions. But at what environmental cost to biodiversity? And what about the cost of creating an industry that would have a hard time surviving a recession? We have since realised that the sector has undermined its own resilience. One clear example of this is the brown spot needle blight which recently caused thousands of hectares of pine trees to be lost, wreaking a huge amount of both economic and ecological damage and resulting in the stagnation of an entire social sector. And what did we do? Some landowners had the bright idea of planting eucalyptus instead. So basically, we have fallen once again into the trap of fast economic growth, although now, of course, we try to greenwash it. In other words, we use something that is environmentally unsustainable (eucalyptus) and socially harmful to dig ourselves deeper into the hole we began gouging out decades ago. Have we learned nothing? If anyone tries to convince me that this is all part of some kind of New Green Deal, and if the local administrations, the provincial councils or the Basque or Navarre Governments see this as a normal reaction that will generate employment and economic dynamism, making the industry greener within a Basque-style Green Deal, then I can only assume they are suffering from a severe case of the collective short-sightedness we have managed to create in our society. It denotes an alarming lack of strategic vision regarding how best to use our land, which is the principal resource we have and is linked to water, biodiversity and people, in terms of their sense of belonging and identity, etc. If we are unable to change this attitude in a country as small as ours, in which the interests at play are minuscule in comparison with the interests of huge multinationals, then it is easy to understand why the public authorities are opting for a simplistic outlook on what the term Green Deal actually means in terms of emission reductions, and are presenting themselves as 'leaders in mitigation'. But this is not going to bring about the transformation required to carry out the socio-ecological transition.
Given that ours is a small country with an extremely strong social capital, the Basque pro-independent Left is in a privileged position to lead this vision, this collective imaginary, from the perspective of ecological economics. I believe that it has the responsibility to trigger a social debate regarding what capabilities we have as a people, what we need to develop and what alternatives can be generated, with special emphasis on those that are socio-ecologically sustainable and fair.
THE RESPONSE OF THE GLOBAL AND LOCAL LEFT TO GLOBAL CHALLENGES
We live in complex times, not only because of what you have both explained regarding climate change and biodiversity loss, but also due to the current tensions and debates within the political Left, the rise of the Far-right and other factors which have been accelerated over the past year. In the political debate, a heterogeneous school of thought that seeks to deny the current situation has become increasingly popular. This movement encompasses a wide range of stances, from neoliberal libertarian individualism to explicit social Darwinism, and accuses the Left of buying into the official discourse. Then there are certain sectors within the political Left itself that claim that the Left has been in a soporific trance since the start of the pandemic and has failed to protest, failed to mobilise. Taking all these factors into account, how would you interpret the current moment, Yayo?
Y. In relation to the Left, there has been a tremendous community upturn. Most people I know have been working in networks that have solved many vital problems for people who had literally been abandoned by the government. There are many people who have been cared for by organised groups. At the core of things, there have been many organised groups. And then, at the beginning, when negotiations were under way in the Spanish Central Government regarding the so-called 'social shield' measures, and we were getting information about what was happening in the government, there was a movement which took place under very difficult circumstances. It was difficult because it was organised solely through the social media and under tremendous pressure, but it nevertheless played a key role in the approval of certain measures that, while still insufficient, would have been unthinkable at any other moment. For example, the way utility companies were forbidden from cutting off people's electricity, the whole way the furlough system was established, and many other similar measures also.
But yes, I do believe that, right now, social movements and left-wing movements are in a kind of stupor; but I don't think it's due to the pandemic, because they were already half asleep before it started. If you look at mobilisation cycles over recent years, you realise that (perhaps not from your perspective, but certainly in Madrid, in the broader context) people were utterly dispirited even before the pandemic. After all the effort made to get elected to local councils, the fact that traditional political parties had squandered our existing social foundations, had failed to strengthen any organisation at the grassroots level and had simply replicated many of the processes of the old Left was a harsh blow for many. Now the time has come to pick up the pieces and carry on.
For its part, the feminist movement has gained a lot of momentum over recent years, and this has prompted the Far-right to react very violently. This is the situation of polarisation we are in now.
How do you interpret denialist responses?
Y. Denialism is a fairly common response to things we don't like or which change dominant models. There was a movement which denied the existence of climate change, and before that, there was another one which denied the harmful effects of smoking. People have also denied the existence of acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. Denial is a basic element of human reaction. What concerns me about the current strain of denialism is that, due to the influence of the social media and the role played by certain media outlets, which often focus more on speculation than on providing reliable information, the opinion of scientific experts are being placed at the same level as things that simply occur to people on the spur of the moment. This is very worrying. It's like shooting at the heart of democracy. There will always be ideological differences, but at the moment it's impossible even to deliberate and reach some kind of common ground regarding the basic facts. What is happening at the moment is that this ground is being blown to smithereens. Whether we're talking about the pandemic, climate change or victims of gender-based violence, when denials of the data, crazy ideas and non-expert opinions are placed on a par with rigorous studies, this undermines and dismantles one of the few institutions that used to have a certain degree of legitimacy (albeit with doubts regarding the role of multinationals and lobbies, etc.) for establishing a reliable discourse, namely science. It's very worrying. Because it makes it impossible to deliberate and reach a consensus, which is what we need to do when faced with deep-rooted crises.
U. I agree with Yayo. In relation to denialism, I think it is related to the role of the Left and its inability to offer people a powerful imaginary capable of generating enough energy to create feasible alternative. There’s too much alternativism, i.e., the idea that you have to be against the Establishment, no matter what. It's socially cool to be alternative. But alternative to what? Someone, I can't remember who, once said that transformation is not based so much on struggle, but rather on the power of imagination; the future we imagine needs to run through our veins, we need to truly believe in it. This is probably the most revolutionary thing of all; the most transformative. And I think the Left has lost its way in this respect. It doesn't seem to be able to find the right formula. The way I see it, the danger is that alternative movements, which require new outlooks for understanding a complex reality, are using overly simple discourses. And this is something that the Far-right is capitalising on everywhere. The global insurgency led by the Far-right is a network of very clear and common strategies that take advantage of the current situation of uncertainty and the collapse of the imaginary regarding the linear progress to which society was accustomed.
I believe that the denialist movements we are seeing now in certain segments of society (and which range in focus from the climate crisis to vaccination) are due to the fact that we have lost sight of complexity and the interrelations linking social, economic and environmental issues. Parts of our society feel very lost and are searching for scapegoats. People are looking for simple solutions to a complex problem. The Left has to try to combat this with clear discourses based on the findings of a responsible scientific community. I believe we have to make an effort to shake up people's awareness in order to move away from a situation in which the comfort (associated with consumerism) of the middle (affluent) classes is paramount. We need to instil enthusiasm once again by conveying the need to make sacrifices (understood in the proper sense). In other words, we need to reward effort. We have to break away from a situation which leads to the perception that no one has time to help their community, with only urgent issues being prioritised. The Basque pro-independent Left has a role to play in igniting this spark, in collaboration with left-wing movements in both the Spanish State and Europe.
Your analyses seem to suggest fairly clearly that the next large-scale mobilisation will be the environmental one, which will, at some point, radically impact political outlooks and debates from top to bottom, right across the political spectrum. The movement in defence of one model is already taking shape at an international scale (the Far-right), and while an alternative is emerging, it is still fairly weak. How do you view the Emancipatory Left in relation to this major challenge?
U. This reminds me of something Iñaki Antigüedad once said: we can either be passive optimists or active pessimists. I think this polarisation may well occur. In fact, I believe it's already occurring. This is what is happening in the Global South: there are very intense, large-scale conflicts due to land grabbing and a failure to respect the basic rights of native peoples, etc. The driving forces behind this type of confrontation are the same at a global level (the predatory nature of the capitalist system), even though it may seem on the surface that the problems faced by these communities and fact that they are suffering from these confrontations are unrelated. The driving forces behind these socio-ecological conflicts are common, although they give rise to different problems, such as land grabbing, which extends the boundaries of the appropriation of capital to the natural system, where the limits on growth are clearly visible.
There may also be another scale of confrontation, although it may not be any more violent or direct. But stances at an explicit level, at least, are much clearer. The rising far-right movement has no qualms publicly admitting that it does not believe in science, because it's not in its own interest to do so; before, no one dared say this, although some people must have thought it. The fragile balance between the scientific world, which depends on public authorities, and those same public authorities, which depend on science to justify many of the policies they implement, has been upset. This balance can be broken. This concerns me because it reflects what is happening with the Far-right. The rise of the Far-right may upset this balance. Simply because science gets in their way. This is not a minor issue. The emboldening of the Far-right, which appears to still be garnering substantial social support (Trump got more votes than ever, for example), has taken us to, I don't know if it's a point of no return, but it is at least a turning point which should prompt those of us from the Left to have a long, hard think about things and start to mobilise. There is already a clash between different ways of understanding the issue of protecting life. I believe that the Left should get over its qualms and start learning from environmentalism and ecofeminism.
But is the Left ready for this? I don't know. For some things it has more than enough political and social capital. But for others, such as the whole issue of the environment, I think we've been caught off guard. The left is going to have to adapt very quickly, overcoming the complexes of the old Left and working in collaboration with these empowered social movements at an international level. It’s going to be a sharp learning curve.
Y. Polarisation is happening and it's only going to get worse. And I'm not sure that the Left is really aware of the situation. At least, if the institutional Left is aware of it, then it certainly doesn't show in their discourse. The Left maintains the same discourse on justice and precariousness. And human rights, of course. As in the US with the Democrats, here in Europe what is happening is that left-wing political movements never deviate from the established discourse, and when they get into power, all they end up doing is implementing progressive neoliberal practices. I’m talking about policies that do not affect people's material living conditions, the redistribution of wealth, the eradication of structural racism, the structural patriarchy. They don't talk structurally about environmentalism, but rather about green capitalism. The problem is that this spineless discourse fails to stimulate that imagination that Unai mentioned, and which is so important. It seems that the moment Bruno Latour talked about once in an interview has finally arrived, namely the moment at which the Left itself finds it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It's a problem. We need political organisations with people that tell the truth. We need left-wing politicians to tell the truth. But there's a lot of fear. The truth will not emerge from the mainstream discourse, from the structurally green discourse. It will come from this new wave, which I hope will encompass environmentalist, working-class and feminist viewpoints, and will be a wave that will enable us to understand that the act of juxtaposing employment and nature, or the economy and nature, only serves to pit poor people against each other. There are things that will happen no matter what we do, and the sooner we face them and try to deal with them structurally, the better. The role of economists in all this is vital. I have had the opportunity to get to know Carlos Sanchez-Mato, an economist and the Councillor for the Economy and Taxation at the Madrid City Council. He was obsessed with developing a plan spanning several years which would incorporate all these dynamics. We need self-organisation and movements, but we also need economic planning which overcomes the limits of the GDP and monetary aggregates, and incorporates instead other indicators and organises the budget in a different way. The challenge lies in guaranteeing that fair living conditions go hand in hand with environmental sustainability. Both have to happen at once, because if you make headway only in the field of green policies and leave people behind, you end up adopting almost ecofascist stances. On the other hand, if you make headway only in social issues, you will end up totally collapsing our environmental systems, which will expel a whole load of people from their homes. The main challenge is to ensure that the necessary social and political movements are in place, and that the four-year election cycle doesn't end up censuring our actions and making us think 'I can’t say that' to the extent that we end up saying nothing. Because if we do that, we will end up draining all who strive for emancipation of all creativity and possibility for movement. We will end up taking away our chance to articulate all that imagination, which we undoubtedly have, to build utopias that are compatible with the material reality of our modern world. The challenge is a stiff one.