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Q&A: Change the System to Save the Planet

Marcela Valente interviews environmental journalist and author HERVÉ KEMPF * -Tierramérica

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 28 2011 (IPS) - To save the planet from climate change and the loss of biodiversity, we must leave capitalism behind and seek out a less consumerist, more socially just system, insists French environmental journalist Hervé Kempf.

"The countries of the North have the responsibility to change the economic model," says Kempf.  Credit: Courtesy Hervé Kempf

"The countries of the North have the responsibility to change the economic model," says Kempf. Credit: Courtesy Hervé Kempf

This message underlies all of Kempf’s work, which includes a column in the French daily Le Monde and a number of books, including “How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth”. His latest book, “L’oligarchie ça suffit, vive la démocratie” (Enough With Oligarchy, Long Live Democracy), has just been published in France.

An active participant in the debate on “degrowth”, which challenges the use of GDP growth as the primary indicator of the success of a country or society, Kempf questions the viability of societies guided by consumerism and the search for profit.

The world’s political leaders “continue defending the capitalist system, which I call the oligarchic system,” but they “have to change, and so does the system,” said Kempf in an interview with Tierramérica during a recent visit to Argentina.

Q: Is it possible to reverse the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases that are responsible for climate change? A: Yes. But at the moment we don’t seem to be headed in that direction. Europe has changed its trajectory and managed to reduce them slightly, and the United States has set a ceiling, but globally, emissions are increasing in the countries of the South.

We must continue pressuring the North, but the big countries of the South, particularly China, which plays a leadership role, should modify their conduct. They want to achieve maximum growth but they are aware of the ecological crisis and that awareness will penetrate increasingly deeper in the countries of the South.

Q: Are you optimistic about the climate change conference beginning at the end of November in South Africa? A: No, unfortunately. The preparations demonstrate that the situation is rather full of obstacles.

Q: Is the political leadership up to the task? A: No. Many leaders continue defending the capitalist system, which I call the oligarchic system, and defending interests that run counter to the demands imposed by the ecological crisis. The political leaders have to change, and so does the system.

Q: But there are countries, like Venezuela, that speak out against capitalism, but don’t demonstrate a great deal of environmental awareness. A: My work is geared more to the countries of the North, which have the responsibility to change the economic model. For the last 15 to 20 years, Latin America has had to become independent from the United States, and adopt more democratic ways and social policies that benefit the poor. Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina are part of this trend. But it is true: they also need to acknowledge the environmental crisis.

Q: Do you think that Rio+20, the United Nations conference to be held in June 2012, will be able to revive the spirit of hope of the 1992 Earth Summit? A: For the moment it doesn’t look very promising. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has just issued a communiqué on Rio+20 that appears very much aimed at saying, “Development, development, and then we’ll deal with the environment.” It seems like a bad sign to me.

Q: But that’s a statement for the region. A: Yes, but what I see in Europe and the United States is even worse. There is a total lack of political and media interest in Rio+20. Everyone’s attention is focused on the financial crisis.

Q: What do you think about the concept of the “green economy”? A: It’s very vague. It appears to be the continuation of capitalism geared more to the environment. But without changing the power of corporations, without reducing energy consumption or confronting social inequality. It’s a new form of capitalism. Moreover, why this new concept, instead of continuing to work on sustainable development, which has the advantage of emphasising social concerns?

Q: Do you think it is a step back? A: It is a sign that what is viewed as a priority is the economy, when in fact, the economy is not a priority when it comes to the environment. What is most important is to ensure harmony among people and with the environment. The economy isn’t everything.

Q: You did research on the impact of the nuclear accident in Chernobyl (1986). Do you think that what happened on March 11 at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima could help discourage the use of nuclear energy? A: Fukushima demonstrated that nuclear energy is extremely dangerous, even in a country that is a technology giant like Japan.

Q: In your book you express skepticism about the contribution of wind power… A: I did it with the North in mind. It seems they are using wind power as an alibi to avoid conserving energy. In the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan, they should reduce energy consumption first and then deal with how to produce it.

Q: What do you recommend for living on a sustainable planet? A: Establishing the question of social justice as a priority. In a world that is extraordinarily rich from a material perspective, this is key.

Q: And in terms of consumption? A: Stop watching television.

Q: Can these ideas be promoted in countries where there is still a part of the population with unmet basic needs? A: Absolutely. I speak as a European, but I believe that in the countries of the South, the challenge could be to reduce inequality.

Q: What do you say to the skeptics who claim that what you propose means going back to the Stone Age? A: I say that if we continue with this economy that destroys social ties, justice and the environment, then we really will go back to the Stone Age, because social and environmental destruction will expose us to a great deal of violence.

Q: You say in your book that we don’t need to invent anything new, that alternatives already exist. A: In all areas, local communities create models that fall outside of capitalism. Farming cooperatives, organic agriculture, alternative currencies, renewable energies. There are thousands of experiences that could be linked together in a network.

Q: So you don’t envision a violent transformation. A: By definition, political ecology envisions a non-violent world. Environmentalists don’t want violence, they want other playing rules. You cannot use means that are contrary to the goal you are pursuing.

* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent. This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.

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