Paris on Two Wheels: Leading the Race?

Since the first lockdown, Paris has become the test site for an ambitious cycling project, rolling out new infrastructure and remapping its transport routes. It is not the only European city where pop-up cycle paths have appeared, almost overnight, but in some cases they have not remained in place for long. Prospects for the changes to become permanent features are threatened by competing interests, however, calling into question whether the city will succeed in generating a long-term shift in transport habits.

There was a time when cycling was considered an adventure sport in Paris. Cyclists meandered through gaps in between cars, past stinking exhaust pipes, crowded against the narrow pavement until the next traffic light.

Leo, 23, had long scorned the bicycle in Paris. The young professional lives in a suburb. For his first job, he cycles daily across the French capital. He manages the 30 kilometer route in 45 minutes.

For many years, Leo only used his bike during holidays. On two wheels he toured from Paris to Amsterdam and the Atlantic. For a good two years now, he has also completely renounced the train and the car in Paris. On the first few kilometers of his daily route, in the south of Paris, he is still one of the few on a bicycle: “At the city limits, the bicycle lane disappears for a while. The Coronapiste starts at the Luxembourg Garden. This is what we call the new cycle track in Paris”.

Paris is unrecognisable. Those who still leave home for work during lockdown these days meet commuters everywhere in their jackets on two wheels. The urban rental bikes in striking green mingle with silver city bikes.

650 kilometres of new cycleways

After the lockdown, in the city centre, 16 000 people used bicycles daily in both directions. Within a year, the number of cyclists in Paris has risen by two thirds. It was only in March and April that these new cycle paths were created. They also run along the main metro axes. In many cases, a bicycle lane was simply laid on the asphalt. Since mid-August, the whole city has been subject to strict obligation to wear masks in the streets. The only exception is cyclists.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, re-elected for a second term last year, promoted the bicycle as a means of transport to work or university following lockdown. Hidalgo heads a coalition consisting of representatives from the Socialist and other left-wing parties, in which the French Greens (Europe Ecologie – Les Verts) also participate with 24 councillors.

No other city in Europe is as densely populated as Paris. At rush hour, commuters clog the wide boulevards with cars for several hours every day. Now the traffic jams at the traffic lights are even longer. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hidalgo has redivided the space in many places, reallocating car lanes to cyclists. On some streets, cars have completely disappeared. And the city continues to invest: 50 million euros have been earmarked for new cycle paths.

A long overdue reform

The plans for new cycle lanes had been on the table for a long time. Implementation has so far failed due to fierce political opposition. Leo is enthusiastic about the so-called Coronapistes: “During the shutdown the paths were completed and existing routes were made wider for cyclists. The prefecture had always vehemently blocked this. Because in each section a different mayor decides. That is really crazy. Suddenly the decision-makers have all given the go-ahead to new cycle paths – even where it previously seemed impossible”. Some sections were created overnight: “I was totally perplexed. In just a few hours they created a wide bicycle lane”.

Thanks to the new routes, more people in Paris now dare to cycle: “There are many who were afraid of the traffic. Now I even see many children riding bikes – even without their parents. That is definitely new. For me, this is the best proof that the Coronapistes are a success”.

Mayor Hidalgo has extended the cycle paths until next year and has already sent signals that the paths could become a permanent solution in many places.

Maximilian Gawlik, an urban planner who has been conducting research on cycling mobility, is not surprised that the new cycle paths are so well received: “There are many public transport users who now use bicycles because they did not want to expose themselves to the risk of infection on buses and trains. Of course, you don’t know what will remain of the pop-up cycle paths at the end of the day”. The outlook is promising. Hidalgo has extended the cycle paths until next year and has already sent signals that the paths could become a permanent solution in many places.

Dilemmas for cycling policies

The facts are clear: 50 kilometres of roads in Paris now have permanent new, wide cycle paths. The car lobby in Paris has criticised these changes as unnecessary and argued that traffic jams have increased dramatically as a result. Francois Vallin, the president of the motorists’ association Rouler libre, accuses the city of Paris of arbitrariness: “This was a unilateral decision by the city. We, the commuters, and the local residents were not consulted.”

Local transport in Paris remains heavily used, even though many in the city centre are switching to bicycles. This affects commuters and delivery services from the Paris suburbs, who cannot simply park their car on the outskirts of the city and switch to public transport to enter the city. The new cycle lanes that are taking up space for cars could further increase the disparities between Paris and its suburbs. Already, social and economic inequalities within the metropolitan region are more pronounced than anywhere else in France.

Melody L Hoffmann has conducted research on inequalities stemming from urban policies. In her scientific paper “Bike Lanes are white lanes” she writes: “[…] a discussion is warranted about how bicycle infrastructure can reaffirm existing societal inequalities because of the subtle, problematic impacts the bicycle has had on various communities”. And long-term empirical studies suggest that only certain population groups in urban areas primarily use the bicycle: “Transportation injustice is also evident in bicycle infrastructure when analysing who utilizes bike lanes and bike paths”, says Hoffmann.

“The popularity of cycling can influence the construction of beautiful paths and trails, but it can also be a signifier of gentrification’’. – Melody L Hoffmann

She warns that cycling policy could deepen the differences between urban and suburban areas: “By governments focusing on bicycle infrastructure that will please an already privileged demographic, many marginalised cyclists will inevitably remain in the margins. The popularity of cycling can influence the construction of beautiful paths and trails, but it can also be a signifier of gentrification’’.

In all their green ideas, urban planners must also keep an eye on social tensions. Most workers who enter Paris to supply the shops in the city centre or because they work there belong to the lower and middle classes. They live in the suburbs of Paris because they cannot afford the rents within the metropolis. They depend on the car for their daily mileage. For them, a change to the bicycle makes no sense in terms of time – in contrast to the young professionals within Paris, who cycle only a few kilometres between home, work, and leisure locations.

A U-turn in Berlin

In Berlin, the critics of pop-up paths have prevailed. At the beginning of September 2020, the administrative court granted an urgent appeal and stopped the bicycle project. In its reasoning, it spoke of “serious doubts about the legality”. A heavy blow for Regine Günther, the Green Senator for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection in Berlin’s state government. On 25 March, Günther pledged to build a total of 14 pop-up cycle paths.

In Berlin, many people commute daily: around two thirds of these 320 000 commuters use their cars. This is precisely the target group represented by the Association of Business Associations, an influential lobby in Berlin-Brandeburg. Its chairman, Sven Weickert, has his office on the top floor of an office building in Charlottenburg. From his window, he looks out over a broad traffic axis linking West Berlin with the huge Tiergarten. Cars have several lanes here on both sides. Weickert welcomes these boulevards: “These cycle paths are not justified because the danger situation has not been analysed. The Senate Administration must now make up for this. Cycling must become safe in this city”. Weickert calls for a long-term transport policy and advocates extensive data collection: “So far there is no current traffic analysis in Berlin: How many cyclists are there on which roads? Which roads are danger points for road users?”

Weickert warns that commercial traffic was not taken into account when the Senate took short-term political action in spring. The Mobility Act, which is unique in Germany in this form, formulated goals for cycling but  considerations about how to simultaneously guarantee the mobility of truck suppliers for supermarkets and craftsmen were not made. “If you restructure traffic and redistribute the road, you must also consider commercial traffic. The Mobility Act is a bicycle law”, he argues. “We want to have industry further into the city – everything efficient and low in emissions, but then we also need deliveries by car in the city”. Weickert admits, however, that some services can also work on two wheels: “With care services and courier services, you can think about cargo bikes and shorter delivery distances”. The case now goes one level higher.

A European trend

In the early days of the pandemic, Berlin and Paris took similar decisions: “In Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg there were also new cycle paths on the main transport axes”, says Gawlik. But unlike in Berlin, no court in Paris took possession of the temporary routes at the beginning of September.

New cycle paths are also a permanent feature in other European cities. In Budapest, the city has already announced that pop-up cycle paths from April will remain after the end of the pandemic. In Rome, 150 km of new cycle paths are joining the Urban Mobility Plan, which aims to make the Italian capital more sustainable. The European Cyclists’ Federation in Brussels estimates that 2300 kilometres of new cycle paths have been constructed since the onset of the pandemic, half of which are still in place.

Towards tactical urbanism

The right bank of the Seine has been reserved for cyclists rather than cars for the last three years, after Hidalgo banished the four-wheeled vehicles. It was the first bang of Paris’s new cycling policy. While the decision met fierce opposition early on, today the banks of the Seine are widely celebrated as the first step of a major transformation of the centre. “This was a first milestone, a new car-free zone. There used to be roads there. Today there are kilometres of cycle paths along the Seine”, says Gawlik.

“This is a bottom-up movement. Better air, better neighbourhoods are things that count.” – Maximilian Gawlik

Long dismissed in Paris as utopian future painting, the idea of tactical urbanism has set a precedent in some, generally small areas of the city: streets free of traffic, the transformation of motorways into play areas for children, urban city gardens and wide terraces for restaurants, cafés and bars on former car parks next to the often narrow pavements give Parisian city life an unusual, new flair. When the second lockdown ends, they will reopen.

Most district initiatives come from the Parisians themselves: “This is a bottom-up movement. Better air, better neighbourhoods are things that count. In North American cities, this movement has begun”, says Gawlik. On Sundays, some areas like the Marais have been completely closed to car traffic for several years now. “This is politically desired in Paris. Mayor Anne Hidalgo is stepping on the gas,” says Gawlik.

Leo is optimistic that the new bicycle axes will become the norm, just like car-free Sundays: “Of course, not everything will remain the same. There will still be a few changes. But the cycle paths themselves will remain. Paris cannot sell anything else politically. And that alone is a big step for all cyclists in this cosmopolitan city”. 

Consensus over opportunism

In the end, the rapid implementation of cycle paths that revolutionise the transport system remains a challenge, as all interests must be represented. And without a joint discussion, a communication problem can arise. This seems to have happened in Paris. There are parties that feel betrayed. The ideas for new cycle paths within the city have long been visible in the five-year cycle plan. However, this transparency makes it necessary, in light of the rapid and unpredictable implementation in spring, to set up new consultations. These talks between all parties are a pre-requisite for a consensus about how the road can be divided up both fairly and sustainably.

A more cautious communication of the supporters of temporary cycle paths would certainly have helped: if there had been more communication that this was a test phase with a clearly defined end, the opponents would have been less frightened. After a test phase, new consultations could have been planned and the test phase could have been extended if the response was positive.

The opportunity for a large round table was missed, hosted by the City of Paris, where all parties could voice their concerns and reach consensus decisions. Now it is above all motorised commercial traffic which must adapt to narrower car routes, new urban congestion and longer delivery times, which new cycle paths will inevitably bring about while commercial traffic within the city will remain important. And yet the question of the future of urban public transport is not even asked: how much space will be given to buses? In Paris, the solution suggests that buses along with taxis will be given exclusive lanes.

On the road to becoming a cycling city

In Paris, the city planners admit that despite significant progress, problems still exist. Bicycle parking is lacking, cycle paths sometimes end abruptly, and traffic jams remain a problem, particularly on bridges. “You also have to make sure that the main traffic routes work for motorists,” says Gawlik. “But overall things look good. In Paris, a cycling culture is on the rise”. 

Despite all the obstacles, the search for sustainability remains a primary goal. Paris has staked its claim to becoming a pioneer in Europe. In recent years, much has been announced and not everything has been implemented. City planners look closely at the success of cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

“Maybe in five years’ time you’ll look to Paris and say: This is a positive example of what is possible in a few years”, says Gawlik. The city planners will soon be taking part in a master class. The title sounds promising: How Copenhagen is Paris?

Revolution in Belarus: Surprisingly Female?

Inspiring images of the Belarusian revolutionary female trio of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Maria Kalesnikava and Veranika Tsapkala, as well as the numerous images of women peacefully protesting after the falsified August 2020 election, seem to have reached every corner of the globe. Their strength and courage, but also humour and creativity, resonated with many Belarusians, suggesting that much of the society has moved beyond archaic patriarchal values, and that women will be at the forefront in the country’s ongoing struggle for democracy.

Statistically speaking, Belarus does well when it comes to gender equality. The Global Gender Gap Report 2020 places Belarus in 29th place (out of 153), while in the section titled ‘economic participation and opportunity’ for women, Belarus performs better than all European states, except for Iceland. Its rankings in women’s political empowerment, however, are below the world average (81st place).

In 2018, the share of seats occupied in the Belarusian parliament by women was 33 per cent – twice as high as Russia and higher than Germany, the UK and the US. This has not changed much over time: a 30 per cent quota for female MPs was declared by Alyaksandr Lukashenka back in 2004. Obviously, the Belarusian parliament cannot be treated in the same way that this institution is treated in democratic systems; but, in theory, Belarusian women are represented in politics. Furthermore, the Belarusian National Report on Sustainable Development for the period until 2030 mentions that 70 per cent of civil servants and 68 per cent of judiciary sector employees are women.

The picture changes abruptly when we look at high government positions, where only one woman is currently in charge out of the 24 ministries in Belarus. The position of Natallya Kachanava, who is the head of the presidential administration, is an exception. Neither woman has had the chance to build an independent political group with their own agenda in Belarus. On the opposition side, however, there have been quite a few female politicians. Back in 2016, out of 110 candidates, two independents – Hanna Kanapackaya and Alena Anisim – unexpectedly entered the House of Representatives (the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament). The authorities allowed them to be ‘elected’ so that the West could see a degree of liberalisation taking place in Belarus. However, these women did not gain much popularity among the public.

One female candidate who became truly popular during the 2015 election was Tatsiana Karatkevich, the first female presidential candidate in Belarus. She was co-head of the Tell the Truth movement and, according to independent polls, received about 20 per cent of the vote (about one million votes). In her campaign, Karatkevich emphasised the peaceful nature of change and gained popularity by travelling to the regions and talking to people about their problems. Most importantly, her popularity contradicted the popular belief that Belarusians are not ready for a female leader.

Such messages are commonly expressed by state authorities. Lidziya Yarmoshyna, the head of the Central Election Commission, has reportedly said that she did not see a place for women in politics, despite herself holding a high position for over 20 years. In the past, she has said that ‘women would be better off cooking soup then going to protests’ (2010); ‘women are not as creative as men and thus cannot make unexpected and brave decisions’ (2015); and that ‘women are apolitical by nature’ (2016).

Lukashenka has often praised women as ‘the great creation of nature’, ‘the beautiful half of humanity’ and the ‘custodians of family values’. In his view, ‘a woman’s vocation is to decorate the world, while a man’s is to protect the world and women’. However, his statements uttered in May this year that the ‘Belarusian constitution is not written for a woman’ and that, ‘if this burden (of power) is placed on a woman, she will collapse, poor thing’ were truly scandalous. These words generated huge anger among many Belarusian women, who filed complaints to the prosecutor’s office against the president.

Even though it is clear that the views of the president have not changed, it is likely that Belarusian society has. In 2011, similar remarks made by the president did not generate much reaction. He was able, with ease, to say things like: ‘I would not give up the presidential chair to a representative of the ‘weaker sex’. Yet patriarchal hierarchies and sexism – in public spaces, workplaces and at home – are still present in Belarus. Women who are successful in their professional careers often face inequality in their families. As a result, women continue to be subject to gender-based stereotyping and discrimination.

How did Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a housewife who has spent the last few years taking care of her children, become the only registered ‘candidate of hope’ among the five presidential candidates?

At the same time, Belarusian women seemed to have less patriarchal views than men: research by IPM (2018) showed that women disagreed more than men with the idea that men are better political leaders, directors and businesspersons. However, before the last presidential election these issues were on the margins of debate: as much as 70 per cent of Belarusians did not know that the phrase ‘gender inequality’ existed or understand what it meant. The same research, conducted by Pact in 2019, showed that only 3.9 per cent of men and 6.9 per cent of women admitted having experienced gender inequality personally. Such low figures suggest that gender issues were not mainstreamed in Belarus.

Political reality show

What was named by many as a ‘female revolution’, was not originally planned as such. All the women of the revolutionary ‘female trio’ were, in a way, representing three non-registered male presidential candidates: YouTube blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski; Valery Tsapkala, the former head of the Berlarus High-Tech Park; and Viktar Babaryka, the former head of Belgazprombank. So how did Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a housewife who has spent the last few years taking care of her children, become the only registered ‘candidate of hope’ among the five candidates?

Her decision in May to submit documents for registration to collect signatures, after her husband was arrested, was spontaneous. It was an act of despair and solidarity. Unexpectedly, the following weeks turned into a kind of political ‘reality show’, with thousands of people from different social backgrounds lining up to voice their support for ‘anybody but Lukashenka’. This was the case both in the Belarusian capital and in the regions. Although people did not always know her name or profession, the massive support for Tsikhanouskaya was evident. Despite arrests of members of her initiative and anonymous personal threats, she managed to gather the required 100,000 signatures and was registered as a presidential candidate. This is evidence that the authorities did not recognise her potential and were calmed by the fact that popular male figures had either been deprived of registration and/or arrested.

Allegedly, it took only 15 minutes for the team of three women, representing the non-registered male candidates, to agree on a united front, showing that ‘women can agree faster than men’. During their first press conference, they talked not about their political ambitions but about the common good of society. The main points of their campaign included the release of political prisoners and the organisation of free and fair elections after a possible victory of Tsikhanouskaya.

The spontaneous symbol of their election campaign – a heart (Babaryka), a fist (Tsikhanouskaya) and a victory-sign (Tsapkala) – went viral and inspired women’s rights advocates in Belarus and around the world. In their campaigns, the three women presented themselves through a combination of traditional values and female leadership. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya primarily focussed on family values. In her speeches, she always referred to her husband’s arrest as the main reason for her political activity. With time, she stood not only for his freedom, but for the freedom of all Belarusians. She saw herself as a weak and ‘plain’ woman, who got stronger after meeting thousands of people during the three weeks of pre-election rallies. As a registered candidate, she admitted to not being interested in continuing her political career, even were she to be elected. Her views did not change much after the election when she was forced to leave Belarus and became an internationally known opposition figure.

The public turned into a protest electorate which was ready to vote for any strong figure opposing the incumbent president.

Marya Kalesnikava looked like the opposite of Tsikhanouskaya. She saw herself as a free global citizen and talked about feminism in her interviews. She forged a successful career in the arts and worked as a musician and art director before the election. Born in Belarus, she lived and worked in Germany and other European countries for a long time. She became visible while being a part of Babaryka’s team. Her empowering and empathetic messages (‘We are legitimate!’, ‘Belarusians, you are incredible!’) reached the broader public. Out of the three women, she was the only one who stayed in Belarus after the election and even tore up her passport during an attempt by the security services to transport her outside Belarus, which led to her arrest.

Veranika Tsapkala was a combination of both Tsikhanouskaya and Kalesnikava: a self-confident successful manager working for Microsoft and a loving wife and mother. During their first press conference, she made it clear that the Belarusian constitution was written for women as well (contradicting Lukashenka) and that the women of Belarus are equal to men. At the same time, she supported Tsikhanouskaya as a mother and wife – that was what ‘women’s solidarity’ meant for her. Finally, she stressed during interviews that ‘there is only one politician in our family, and that is my husband’. She said these words despite being an excellent public speaker. After the election, when she joined her husband and children abroad, she accompanied him to political meetings as a wife, although she was among those who contributed to the popular uprising.

Last hope for change

The three women had just three weeks to reach voters before election day. In an unprecedented way, and against the overwhelming time pressure, they became extremely popular both in Belarus and abroad. Never has a presidential candidate in Belarus received so much international attention. The story of the ‘three women fighting against the dictator’ turned out to be a perfect political strategy. During the campaign, they visited 13 cities in three weeks and attracted up to five per cent of locals to their rallies in the regions. This was remarkable for the traditionally passive Belarusian electorate. They were being treated like rock stars.

How was this all possible? It would be incorrect to say that the fact the candidates were females was the only thing that mobilised the public. Belarusians were already politicised before the election. The economic stagnation, inadequate state reactions to the pandemic, and a tiredness of the same face for 26 years radicalised people and united them against Lukashenka. In this sense, the public turned into a protest electorate which was ready to vote for any strong figure opposing the incumbent president.

Still, the unexpected female dimension made the campaign very fresh, emotional, and empowering. The reasons behind it were, first, that the three women did not give up after the most popular candidates were eliminated from the election, and thus gave people a ‘last hope for change’. Their campaign was very emotional. They were authentic, they told personal stories, they talked about love and asked people to believe in themselves. As a result, the traditional slogan of the opposition ‘We believe – We can – We will win’ was turned into a female version: ‘We love – We can – We will win’.

Second, they mobilised people for election observation and election participation. The results of that were massive queues outside polling stations on election day and thousands deprived of the right to observe the counting of votes. Electoral fraud thus became a prevalent issue. Additionally, 500,000 Belarusians sent pictures of their voting ballots to a newly developed online platform, which made it easier to identify falsifications. Even their ‘appeals of consciousness’ addressed to members of election commissions worked in about 100 polling stations: votes were counted there, protocols showing the victory of Tsikhanouskaya were made public (something like this never has happened in Belarus before).

To be fair, both strategies (empathy and mobilisation) came originally from Babaryka’s team. The heart was the symbol of his campaign. Opinion polls showed that Belarusians did not believe their actions would result in any change. Babaryka’s team addressed this issue and changed the narrative from the ‘authorities are bad’ to ‘people are good’. After his arrest, Kalesnikava went on to push this message further.

Finally, the combination of traditional and feminist values in the women’s speeches seems to have played a crucial role for their popularity among the broader public. Feministic and empowering messages from Kalesnikava and Tsapkala won admiration by adherents of women’s power, while the shy and loving Tsikhanouskaya was a perfect prototype for the traditional part of Belarusian society, which is significant. According to IPM research (2018), nothing was more important for a vast majority of Belarusians than motherhood (84.8 per cent) and fatherhood (77.4 per cent). The fact that Tsikhanouskaya did not want to stay in power for long persuaded those who were still not ready to vote for a housewife. Their percentage was probably considerable – even local well-known male experts reacted dismissively towards the female trio. ‘What can three beautiful women do?’, ‘The political part of the campaign is over now’ – to give just a few examples of first reactions.

The popular trust put into Tsikhanouskaya, who became a kind of a ‘political Cinderella’, was unbeatably high. People supported her out of solidarity, compassion and admiration for her courage. Reports of independent election observers suggested she may even have received a majority. For many voters, supporting her meant supporting new fair elections. Despite her statements about lacking political ambitions, she has turned out to be an extremely important political actor. 

The female face of the protests

A second wave of women’s activities started two days after the election, or on the fourth day of protests against electoral fraud. The scale of the repression was shocking. The police used stun grenades and rubber bullets against protesters. Information about the first deaths and the hundreds of others injured or tortured quickly reached the public. Clashes with police took place mostly in the evenings or at night. On 12 and 13 August, several hundred women built solidarity chains in Minsk in protest against police violence. The first group wore white clothes and held flowers, while the second group was dressed in white, barefoot and sang the Belarusian lullaby ‘Kalyhanka’. Within hours, reports about these ‘white women chains’ spread across the country and other cities joined in. The main cause for these actions was the inhumane violence carried out by riot police – women wanted to show this was not a ‘Belarusian way’ of transformation. The message of non-violence contrasted with the reports of night battles with ‘terrorists’ on state television.

The ‘white protests’ added a whole new dimension to the protest movement, which generated the largest political rallies in the history of independent Belarus.

Another aim of the protests was to make them appealing to large numbers of people, especially women. Solidarity chains, which were organised during the daytime, were viewed as safer civic actions than night-time confrontations with police. Men joined the chains, which were followed by solidarity chains and rallies of other social and professional groups: doctors, students and the elderly. These new forms of non-violent protest thus found fertile ground. Through these protest chains, women also wanted to express their solidarity with those protesting at night. Finally, many called for the release of political prisoners, the prosecution of those responsible for election fraud and violence, as well as new elections.

Interestingly, the first initiatives in Minsk did not have a political centre. Women organised themselves through their own contacts and social networks (especially Telegram-chats). They were not connected to other groups, but surprisingly came with a similar protest idea that used the colour white as a symbol. Similar actions, which were later organised nationwide, were grassroots, spontaneous and decentralised. They were often thinking outside of the box. One of the first women’s actions was conceptualised and organised by an event-manager without any political experience: she perceived the opposition as customers and a political action as an event.

The peaceful female ‘white protests’ had a number of very important functions: they stressed the non-violent nature of protesters and as such preserved people’s motivation for protest (the post-election rallies were peaceful initially, but when the women came out, it became even more obvious); they made protests accessible to broader social groups; they introduced new protest forms; they made the movement highly visible in Belarus and abroad; they helped stop police violence for some time; they decentralised the movement; and, of course, they added a new dynamic to the female dimension from the election campaign. Women were thus not only led by women politicians, but started to self-organise for political purposes. With time they even discovered new female heroes, such as the 73-year-old Nina Bahinskaya, who has become famous for her own personal protests against Lukashenka, which she has been doing for over 20 years.

Humour, openness and a positive attitude were some of the most significant features of these marches.

Without any doubt, the ‘white protests’ added a whole new dimension to the protest movement, which generated the largest political rallies in the history of independent Belarus. They began on 16 August and continue to take place every Sunday. Additionally, women’s marches were organised every Saturday between 29 August and September 26th. After that, the female protesters changed their tactics to avoid mass detentions, which were becoming increasingly common.

The five big Saturday women’s marches in Minsk, with up to 10,000 participants of all ages, were very diverse in their messages. The white colour and flowers helped build an image of innocent, fragile and loving women, which fit well with the traditional perception of women in Belarusian society. Many women went out on the streets to protect their husbands and sons, which was expressed on their banners and posters. This femininity has become a new female ‘soft-power’. Consider the poster depicting Tsikhanouskaya as ‘Motherland’ (Russian: Rodina Mat), based on the image used to mobilise the Soviet people during the Second World War. During this year’s protest, women literally protected men from the police.

At the same time, many poster messages were creative and humorous reactions to the sexist statements of the president and emphasised that women were political subjects: ‘Fight like a (Belarusian) girl’; ‘Patriarchy, you are fucked up’; ‘I am not afraid – I was in labour’; ‘Make way for a woman’; ‘Belarus is female, I voted for a woman’, ‘Sasha, NO means NO’ and ‘Your beloved one does not want you’  (the last two a reaction to Lukashenka’s comment that ‘Belarus is a beloved one, and you do not give your beloved one to anybody’).

Humour, openness and a positive attitude were some of the most significant features of these marches. Their participants tried to start conversations with the police, smiled at them, gave them flowers, sang and danced. They spontaneously changed the rallies’ routes, or screamed loudly when the police approached them. There was a certain confidence, or rather hope, that the police would not be violent. Beating women can, of course, evoke a negative reaction from society. This logic seemed to have prevailed for several weeks, until the authorities realised that these women have become a political force.

Lukashenka totally underestimated women and their power, and in doing so has inadvertently contributed to the development of feminism in Belarus – just like he has contributed to the unity of Belarusians who have rallied against him.

Final straw

For a long time, women have been Lukashenka’s core electorate. However, after many years in power, he has lost both his political intuition and his personal charisma. The 2020 election year was not the most women-friendly on the part of the administration. Lukashenka showed arrogance and a lack of empathy during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, which led to concern among women about the health and lives of their families. Female employees dominate the health and education sectors, which were hit the hardest. The brutal repressions which took place after the election proved to be the final straw. Lukashenka totally underestimated women and their power, and in doing so has inadvertently contributed to the development of feminism in Belarus – just like he has contributed to the unity of Belarusians who have rallied against him. Patriarchal values seem to have become archaic to a large section of the Belarusian public. ‘Sasha, sexism has destroyed you’ – was written on one of the women’s posters during a rally.

The political crisis in Belarus is ongoing. It is difficult to make any long-term forecasts about how it will develop. Nevertheless, it is clear that a qualitatively different public picture has emerged of the role of women in Belarus. Until summer 2020, feminism and political participation seemed incompatible with femininity – now women’s political participation is becoming fashionable. ‘Belarusian women explore themselves and their strength anew, without any background knowledge about feministic theories,’ said one of the participants of the first women’s chains.

Stereotypes and clichés associated with women in politics and society are being overcome. This process will develop in the coming years. Internationally, the stage has been reached where the first association of ‘Belarusian women’ is no longer an attractive or sexy female, but a brave and responsible citizen.

This article was originally published by New Eastern Europe in its 66-67 issue, and subsequently republished by Eurozine.

Pixelated Truth: Covid-19 and the Battle for Reason

The Coronavirus pandemic has been a battleground over reason, as evidenced by anti-lockdown protests and the worries around vaccines. While dominated by the far right, movements against government measures have brought together people from across the political spectrum, leading some conservative commentators to argue that ecological thinking, with its nuanced understanding of science and technology, might have even helped seed them. In this long read, philosopher Reinhard Olschanski rebuffs these claims, arguing that the same irrationality that is behind denial of Corona is driving the zombie industrialism pushing our planet to the brink. As part of the Enlightenment tradition, ecological thinking is about recognising crises and overcoming them.

Covid-19, or the Coronavirus, is a natural disaster. It reminds people that they are natural beings and remain bound to nature. It reminds them how much this relationship with nature has been suppressed and forgotten. Science and technology have considerably expanded our freedom within and from nature. But they have also ultimately resulted in an obliviousness to nature in how the world is perceived, not only by an obsolete industrialism but also by the political and social system. With the pandemic, however, people now see themselves forcibly returned to what might be called a Socratic state: dependent on nature and on a political system that takes this dependence into account, dependent also on the insights of science, and recognisant of the limits of our knowledge and capabilities.

The decisions that policymakers are taking at present are as far-reaching as they could possibly be. In the pandemic, they extend to massive restrictions on civil liberties and thus to the core values of democracy. They are precarious choices between uncomfortable alternatives: a strict lockdown? The Swedish model of voluntary self-imposed restrictions – which proved insufficient? Or flirting with herd immunity – which was how Boris Johnson gambled away crucial days in Britain? One thing is clear: deafness to the warnings of science leads straight to disaster. But even a purely technocratic or scientistic approach to politics is not sufficient under conditions of limited predictability. The uncertain knowledge base is anything but a comfortable foundation upon which responsible politicians can take action. 

One thing is clear: deafness to the warnings of science leads straight to disaster. But even a purely technocratic or scientistic approach to politics is not sufficient under conditions of limited predictability.

Researchers are already studying the results of the measures that were taken, paying particular attention to those countries that initially got off relatively lightly. The interim results show that the relative successes were not just down to chance but were also the result of good interaction between politics and science – in spite or even because of the uncertain facts and knowledge base. It remains important to learn quickly from the experience of other countries and continually review and evaluate the situation – driving carefully with one’s eyes wide open, constantly adapting the protection guidelines to the changing conditions. And, of course, taking appropriate and consistent action – the opposite of too little, too late. However, the findings with regard to the measures taken also provide good grounds for humility in our ongoing handling of Corona as the lethal resurgence in infection rates in autumn and winter 2020 shows only too clearly.

 “Corona critique

In Germany, the measures were supported by the vast majority of citizens. Over 80 per cent were in agreement with what was happening, or would have liked to see even stricter measures. Only a little over 10 per cent of the population thought the measures went too far. One might think that this represents a remarkable degree of unanimity in a democracy, and that people just have to live with the fact that a few might see things differently. But is that a sufficient answer?  That kind of answer is not far-fetched. After all, the right-wing populist

Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) currently polls at around 10 per cent of the votes and was happy to join the camp of the “Corona critics”. To do so, it had to rein in its authoritarian reflex, always its first response, at least as far as appearances were concerned. This is because in the beginning it demanded even stricter Corona measures, but then quickly turned 180 degrees in order to project itself as the spearhead of a supposed battle for freedom against the Corona restrictions and the “enemies of liberty”. 

Many right-wing extremists, a group well represented in the AfD, stuck to this line and cast themselves as the champions of liberal freedoms. However, they understood this to mean a refusal to wear masks, revealing a threadbare understanding of freedom. This “battle for freedom” was based on a purely self-referential idea of freedom, a freedom of the ego without regard to social costs. In many classics of liberal thought, such an understanding would have been defined as arbitrariness. The freedom to endanger others as one pleases is not a normatively responsible principle. It means a regression to might is right.

Among the Corona critics were the self-proclaimed Reichsbürger (“citizens of the Reich”). This group which does not recognise the existence of the Federal Republic and instead cultivates the myth of a continuing German Reich, untouched by the achievements of liberal democracy. Their attempt, during an anti-Corona demonstration at the end of August, to symbolically storm the Reichstag in Berlin, the seat of the German Bundestag, the democratically elected legislature, attracted much media attention. However, the idea that “Corona critique” is limited to the far right is contradicted by the experience of many people in Germany. Many people who consider themselves part of a social-liberal and cosmopolitan-ecological camp witnessed how people from their wider circle of acquaintances mentally checked out and joined in propounding more or less openly anti-scientific conspiracy theories. On social media and in personal conversations, people spread fantastical conspiracies started by YouTubers, by anti-vaxxers, or by some obscure vegan cook, pop musician or former radio announcer. At the demonstrations, they formed a colourful blue-brown motley crew with populists and neo-Nazis – a political colour combination not seen before. 

Does the “Corona critique” reveal the flipside of an originally progressive and emancipatory body of thought – a slumbering reactionary subsoil?

This in turn prompted the right-wing conservative media to diagnose the emergence of a strain of “irrationalism” supposedly sown by naïve do-gooders, multiculturalists, and ecologists. Disregarding for a moment the fact that the media putting forward this argument have not always shown themselves the most reliable friends of the Enlightenment knowledge and reason, what is to be made of such a thesis? Is this accusation of irrationalism anything more than just a rehash of the old, anti-liberal and anti-ecological diatribes of the 1980s and 1990s? Is there a spark of truth in it? Does the “Corona critique” reveal the flipside of an originally progressive and emancipatory body of thought – a slumbering reactionary subsoil? Are these the sparks that could set off an irrationalist conflagration in the centre of society? Or are the flames of irrationalism emanating from the right wing now moving closer to the liberal-ecological mainstream?

Ecology and the Enlightenment

The vast majority of people in the political centre ground in Germany – and also those in the centre-left, including ecologists and the Green Party – are fundamentally committed to the modern understanding of science. It is an understanding which, in contrast to that of the medieval period, does not recognise statements that cannot be contested. All claims to scientific validity must be subject to review by a scientific community. Claims to validity in modern science are not hard currency that can be immediately banked. They are only verified or falsified via processes of criticism and counter-criticism. Even then, subsequent corrections are always possible, as are paradigm shifts, which involve extensive specifications and limitations of the applicability of scientific statements initially regarded as valid. Indeed, the Greens and the ecology movement are particularly aware of the possibility of such paradigm shifts because the ecological paradigm they promulgate was itself initially only a minority opinion. The knowledge that science can be wrong and that technology can cause significant harm has been absorbed by the vast majority of ecologically-minded people, together with a scepticism towards technocratic politics that places a blind faith in science.

The Greens and the ecology movement are particularly aware of the possibility of such paradigm shifts because the ecological paradigm they promulgate was itself initially only a minority opinion

The ecological perspective implies a deeper insight into the manifold and by no means exclusively positive and reasonable consequences of the Enlightenment process of rationalisation and disenchantment of the world. In their influential text The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno saw that the rule of an instrumentally truncated rationality contains within itself new varieties of irrationalism and undreamt-of potential for destruction. And also new forms of manipulation, mystification, suppression and technocratic rule, and even the possibility of fascism. Only with ecological understanding does this observation reaches its conclusion. For unbridled instrumental rationality not only creates weapons with the potential to destroy the world. Nor is its pollution of the environment merely an incidental side-effect. No, the ecological crises of today, the unbridled CO2 emissions and the deforestation of the rainforests that are among the causes of the climate crisis, or the use of pesticides and the homogenisation and sealing over of landscapes leading to the extinction of species, show how instrumental rationality, in the form of an industrial system that destroys nature, undermines the ecological foundations of human life, driven as it is by an internal logic which is oblivious to nature. This is the core message of The Dialectic of Enlightenment. With the pandemic, reality has exceeded its authors’ worst fears.

The potential for destruction visible in climate change and species extinction is so massive that an ecological critique of instrumental reason cannot be limited to the sending of intellectual messages in a bottle to future generations – as Adorno and Horkheimer still thought. Rather, it is first and foremost a matter of securing the essential foundations for life for future generations. The need to act is so urgent that we cannot allow ourselves to be satisfied with a heightened sensitivity to what is wrong with instrumentally rationalised modernity and its cultural-industrial delusions. A common enterprise is needed, action on a global scale. This is exactly the kind of politics that the ecological critique seeks to put into action today. Such a critique must make clear that nature is not a block of dead matter that can be handed over unconditionally for industrial exploitation. A deeper engagement with the dialectic of the history of the modern Enlightenment reveals ecologism itself as an extension and practical-critical updating of Enlightenment.

Because ecologism is an agent of such an expanded Enlightenment, it also entails an awareness that the irrationality of our times does not originate in its critique of the old industrialism – as is still claimed – but that this irrationality is to be found where man-made climate change is still denied and the unchecked use of pesticides, the progressive landscapes and crazy programmes of deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture are causing the greatest extinction of species since the end of the dinosaurs.

The way science and technology are understood in political ecology is not irrational, but different from the old, ecology-oblivious industrialism, and different in its adherence to reason. It stands for an ecologically responsible relationship between humans and nature. However, it is also different from the old industrialism in that it has left the path of unilateral technological determinism, according to which the development of science and technology would always follow a linear and more or less unalterable path – a path that everyone would have to follow. Instead, an alternative, ecological way of thinking leads to the development of alternative technologies, such as the alternative energy system, based on renewable energy sources, which is currently conquering the world. It puts on the agenda the project of a comprehensive transformation of the economy on the basis of ecologically responsible technologies. 

Zombie industrialism and the re-enchantment of the world

Ecological thinking reflects science and technology from a critical angle. It does so from the perspective of ecological Enlightenment, which is a dual one. Its critique of technology is directed against an unscientific, almost religious veneration of science and technology as “the saviours of humankind” that suppresses all the dangers that can lie within them. On the other hand, its critique does not lead to a fundamental hostility towards science and technology or even to a reinterpretation of Corona as a man-made conspiracy rather than a natural catastrophe. This is where it differs profoundly from the kind of irrationalism that is visible in the “Corona critique”. And when the ecological critical perspective reveals that the natural context and processes that form the basis of human life are infinitely more complex than the image of nature that underlies the industrial system, then it neither sinks into melancholy because of the aporias of modernity, nor sets out on the path towards a re-enchantment of the world. It has no need to conjure up evil wizards or a universal conspiracy of the political and economic elites to pursue its practical objectives.

At the same time, it has to acknowledge that a further and even more acute loss of rationality can currently be observed on the part of the old instrumental reason, which has long since been disavowed by its own logic. This loss of rationality no longer consists of a mere passive blindness to the consequences of one’s own actions. It is turning instead into active repression and the formation of a large-scale anti-ecological ideology. The Trumps and Bolsonaros of this world can only maintain the old system at the price of obvious untruths and a veritable zombie industrialism, an industrialism which has to disregard not just some marginal collateral damage but facts and evidence attested by science and visible to all. It has long since adopted the stance of erratic and argumentation-free denial with which Trump, for example, rejects the scientifically proven connections between climate change and the devastating forest fires in California: “I don’t think science knows.“

Zombie industrialism is in league with other anti-scientific tendencies. For example, with religious right-wingers and evangelicals who reject modern science and Enlightenment by having recourse to medieval forms of thought. They want to wind back the scientific knowledge of modernity using a revival of creationism and a biblical apocalypticism. They believe the crisis of our times is based not on man-made facts such as climate change, but on an Armageddon long since decided upon by God’s decree and now expected very soon. Religious fundamentalisms have as their goal a magical-religious re-enchantment of the world. 

But we are also seeing secular forms of magical-mythical thinking. Including in the blame games of a supposed Corona conspiracy. Conspiracy myths of various forms are making the rounds today. For example, governments are supposedly using chemtrails to sedate and poison their populations. And Corona is said to be a trick being used by Bill Gates to implant the entire world population with microchips. Paranoid thinking is not only being used to identify enemies, but to weave complex stories intended to provide a coherent, underlying narrative for a diffuse course of global events perceived as threatening. In QAnon, this even takes the form of a digital paper chase. The followers of Q, supposedly a high-ranking official from the departing US President’s entourage, receive messages in cryptic Internet posts about the superhero Trump and his battle against the Deep State and a cabal of child molesters and US Democrats. Q encourages his followers to decipher and elaborate the messages like detectives so that they can contribute to the screenplay of the mythical battle between good and evil allegedly underway. A third of Trump’s followers are said to believe in this story, which follows the pattern of superhero comics.

Pixelating truth  

The breeding ground for this kind of paper chase is not just an overflowing paranoid imagination. In many countries, elites have contributed to the erosion of trust through lobbying, divisive politics and some degree of political arrogance. There are many other reasons, not least the erosion of the governability of nation states through the processes of globalisation. But deep upheavals in the media landscape and political communication also play a role. This can be seen in a pixelation of truth that is increasingly becoming a defining feature of the epoch. Reality appears here as if on a low-resolution screen when you are sitting too close and have to create a coherent picture out of scattered pixels. In contrast to science or detective work, which also deduce larger connections from individual clues, the search for evidence here does not proceed in all directions and does not focus equally on the verification or falsification of assumptions, but seeks only the confirmation of a pre-existing and usually unfounded and unsubstantiated suspicion. Since the links between the individual traces and clues are missing, “proof” for the Q-detectives follows the pattern of magical analogies familiar from archaic thinking: like causes like. And opposites – i.e. the pre-existing poles of good and evil in the world – are in conflict. The tracking instincts of the conspiracy mystagogues are not guided by thought processes that are rational-critical, but magical-intuitive. Exculpatory evidence that conflicts with magical intuition is only allowed for the sake of appearance. It serves at best as a fig leaf to conceal the underlying pre-judgement. And even those under suspicion can do no more than implicate themselves ever further. So Hillary Clinton and the performer Marina Abramović look like witches in a show trial – battered by a profound hatred and malice that reveals itself more and more with every word and gesture. However, where “evidence” can subsequently be subjected to fact-checking – as in the case of the supposed miracle drug adenochrome, which Trump’s opponents are supposed to siphon off from the children they have kidnapped – it quickly collapses. 


Yet we are not only confronted with the magical-intuitive construction of the world from a pixelated picture surface, but also with a more profound dereliction of reason preceding it. This arises not least through a splitting and disintegration of shared public discourse. And it concludes in a kind of pandemic of the mind – an “infodemic” created not least by flooding the public sphere with bullshit. Bullshit requires – as Harry G. Frankfurt demonstrated – less skill than lying, because unlike lying it does not seek to plant itself quietly into a shared horizon of truth on a permanent basis. The “bullshitter” bends the facts and contexts fairly crudely and according to immediate needs and then quickly forgets what was said and claimed. The point is for the trickster to opportunistically bullshit his or her way through on a wave of hot air. Likewise the twittering away of truth through countless tweets, filling the air of evanescent public attention like colourful balloons, only to disappear quickly into nowhere leaving no time for fact-checking, deeper investigation, or debate.

Bullshit requires less skill than lying, because unlike lying it does not seek to plant itself quietly into a shared horizon of truth on a permanent basis.

The all-powerful network of delusion that Horkheimer and Adorno thought to discern in a 1940s US entertainment industry dominated by Hollywood and radio shows, and even in the jazz music of their day, now seems quite harmless in comparison. In fact, it is only today, in the pixelated and mis-tweeted public sphere of our days, that such a concerted delusion can be found – in a mediated reality in which everything dissolves into scattered pixels, which in turn are then handed over to a magical-intuitive constructivism that reassembles it as it pleases. Here, too, Horkheimer and Adorno – as with the ecological question – only described the initial conditions and symptoms of something that would eventually grow much larger and more serious than the original diagnosis. 

For a new Enlightenment

There is good reason to fear that even today we cannot yet see the final stages of this development. What we are seeing in many Western countries is the destruction of a common, a shared public sphere, wherein debate functions as a rational, structural element of liberal-democratic self-governance. Instead, politician-clowns like Trump and Johnson – and before them Berlusconi and Sarkozy – occupy the stage. They are the manifestation of a process which they are themselves simultaneously intensifying. Each in their own way, they are using the opportunities for power that arise during the current upheavals – regardless of the fact that they are destroying not only rationality and norms of truth, but also parts of the political system and of the fourth estate, the independent media. In consequence, media quality standards which focus on the critical examination of factual statements and arguments, and thereby also counteract the formation of media bubbles and the tribalisation of the public sphere, are pushed into the background.  

It was Hannah Arendt who pointed out that the real enemies of democracy are not those who simply tell lies, but those who simultaneously destroy the factual basis and the collectively acknowledged reality – that is, the reality in which we can talk about problems in a common language. Roger Berkowitz of New York’s Hannah Arendt Centre is right when he describes the long-term danger posed by politics of the kind pursued by Trump: “The danger we face is Trump’s total indifference to reality and the meaning of words. He may say something today and then say something completely different tomorrow, while at the same time denying what he said yesterday. This creates the risk of a cynical attitude towards public discourse and a shared public sphere. It is quite possible that after Trump someone much worse than Trump will appear.”

After Sarkozy and Berlusconi, the centre-right in France and Italy is either in serious decline or has disappeared from the picture altogether. Right-wing extremists and fascists have taken over the space previously occupied by the bourgeois right. And the Conservatives in Great Britain and the USA are no longer recognisable either. The remaining liberal public is not paying enough attention to this epochal crisis of the traditional centre-right of the spectrum, even though – in terms of democratic politics – it is this part of the spectrum which ought to serve as a crucial bulwark against anti-democratic right-wing populism and extremism.

The two-fold dereliction of reason with which we are confronted today, namely the deliberate erosion of the norms of communicative rationality and the refusal and rejection of ecological reason in our dealings with nature, holds the potential for a new totalitarianism that would replace the bullshit and multiple untruths of the politician-clowns with one single great and overpowering untruth. What is needed is a new Enlightenment that recognises these dangers and counters them effectively – not least with a well-developed sense of where the democratically important borderline runs between the centre-right and right-wing extremism.

Orbán Viktor, a nemzeti tőke és a felhalmozó állam

Bár kifelé a gazdasági nacionalizmus a hangadó, a színfalak mögött Magyarország inkább a neoliberalizmus egyik friss megtestesülésének látszik. Legalábbis így látja Scheiring Gábor szociológus, a magyarországi Lehet Más a Politika (LMP) zöld párt alapítója és volt országgyűlési képviselője, akivel az autoriter kapitalizmusról és a felhalmozó állam felemelkedéséről beszélgettünk.

A rendszerváltást követően Magyarországot sok éven át a térség éltanulójának tekintették – már ami a demokratikus intézmények és a piacgazdaság létrehozását célzó fáradozásokat illette. Gazdasági és politikai átalakulásának második évtizedében azonban nyilvánvalóvá vált, hogy a sikernarratíva mögött egy nagyon törékeny rendszer húzódik meg. A rendszerváltással teljes iparágak omlottak össze, és a társadalom jelentős részei tekintettek magukra az új rendszer veszteseiként. Az országot 2002 óta irányító szocialista-liberális koalíció a választók nagy részét idegenítette magától azzal, hogy 2006-ban megszorításokat, majd 2007-ben egy rendkívül népszerűtlen egészségügyi privatizációs programot indított útjára.

Külső szemlélők számára a problémák 2008-ban váltak igazán láthatóvá, amikor az egykori sikergazdaságot csak a Nemzetközi Valutaalap, az Európai Unió és a Világbank által biztosított mentőcsomag révén lehetett megmenteni az államcsődtől – a segítség feltételeként persze újabb megszorító intézkedéseket kellett hozni. Ebben a kontextusban került 2010-ben hatalomra Orbán Viktor, az ország „illiberális” miniszterelnöke. Az ezt követő évtizedben Magyarország azzal került a nemzetközi figyelem középpontjába, hogy Orbán több alkalommal is megtámadta a demokratikus intézményrendszert, visszaélt az uniós forrásokkal, és egyre inkább magáévá tette a szélsőjobboldal retorikáját.

Green European Journal: A friss könyvedben (Egy demokrácia halála. Az autoriter kapitalizmus és a felhalmozó állam felemelkedése Magyarországon) meglehetősen kritikusan viszonyulsz a demokrácia leépülését magyarázó elméletekhez. Mégis mi a baj velük?

Gábor Scheiring: A többséggel inkább hangsúlyprobléma van – azaz nem az a baj, amit mondanak, hanem az, amit nem. Ez félrevezeti mind a diskurzust, mind a politikai és közpolitikai stratégiákat. Egy részük azt állítja, hogy a demokrácia hanyatlásának fő magyarázata a politikai elitek normaszegése. Erre jó példa Francis Fukuyama vagy Jan-Werner Müller pár írása. A populizmus keresőszóra kidobott, Magyarországgal foglalkozó tanulmányok kilencven százaléka például nagy valószínűséggel arról fog szólni, hogy Orbán Viktor és a holdudvara milyen szerepet játszott a demokrácia hanyatlásában. Elismerem, hogy ők is fontos részei a folyamatnak. Tényleg szerepet játszanak azok a politikai elit szereplők, amelyek szakítani akarnak a liberális demokrácia normáival. Viszont ez az érvelés eltereli a figyelmet arról, hogy ezek a politikusok nem a semmiből jönnek. Önmaguktól nem tudnák mindazt megtenni, amit az elmúlt években tapasztaltunk.

A másik fele a problémának a kulturalista irodalom, melynek egy része arról beszél, hogy a kultúrának és az örökségnek – azaz Kelet-Európában a nemzetállam gyengeségével összefonódó nacionalizmusoknak – milyen szerepük van a politika formálásában, ezeket a politikai elitek hogyan mobilizálják, és hogyan alakulnak ki ebből nacionalista diskurzusok. Ezzel sincsen még feltétlenül probléma – már ha a gazdasági és politikai folyamatokkal összefüggésben vizsgálják őket. Viszont vannak, akik arról beszélnek, hogy Magyarországon mindent meghatároz a jobbágymentalitás, azaz Orbán Viktor illiberális populizmusa fejezi ki a magyar néplelket. Ez az érvelés félrevezető, elitista és lekezelő. Arról nem is beszélve, hogy nincs is valóságalapja, és politikailag kontraproduktív. Ha ezt a politika magáévá teszi, azzal teljesen elidegeníti magától a saját bázisát, anélkül, hogy meg akarná érteni, hogy miért alakul ki kereslet egy olyan politikára, amellyel nem értünk egyet.

Nálad a gazdasági folyamatokon van a hangsúly?

Ahhoz képest, hogy milyen ma a politikai diskurzus, én a gazdasági struktúrákat hangsúlyozom. Azt gondolom ugyanis, hogy – a Magyarországról és Kelet-Európáról szóló, demokrácia hanyatlását vagy a populizmus erősödését vizsgáló diskurzusok tekintetében –  hatalmas hiány van a gazdasági magyarázatokból. De a teljes képet nézve nem vagyok gazdasági determinista. Nem gondolom, hogy a kapitalista világrendszerben elfoglalt pozíció meghatároz minden kimenetelt. A politikának és egy szociológiai, antropológiai kultúrafogalomnak is abszolút szerepe van benne. Sőt, a földrajzi tényezőknek is.

A könyvedben azt írod, hogy a kétezres évekre a magyar nemzeti tőke jórészt elpártolt a magyar baloldaltól, és a Fidesz mellé állt. Miben gyökereznek azok a feszültségek, amelyek az Orbán-rezsim kialakulásához vezettek?

A strukturális feszültségek gyökere a rosszul menedzselt függő fejlődés. Magyarország a rendszerváltást követően egy függő pozícióban újraintegrálódott a globális kapitalizmusba, ennek a globális integrációnak pedig egy sajátos formáját választotta. Ez sok tekintetben egy avantgarde neoliberális közpolitikai mix volt, kiegészítve bizonyos szociálpolitikai megbékítő programokkal – mint a korengedményes nyugdíjazás. És azok a politikák, iparpolitikák és társadalompolitikák, amelyekkel a rendszerváltó elit a globális kapitalizmuson belüli függő integrációt kormányozta, nem volt alkalmas arra, hogy a függőségből fakadó belső dezintegrációs folyamatokat ellentételezze.

Másfélmillió munkahely veszett el a rendszerváltás első éveiben, és csupán 400 ezer újat sikerült létrehozni. A nemzeti jövedelmen belül a bérek aránya 57,2-ről 47,3 százalékra esett az új rendszer első két évtizede alatt. Az átlagos reáljövedelem 2009-ben alig tíz százalékkal volt magasabb, mint a nyolcvanas évek elején. Ezzel egyidőben rohamosan nőttek az egyenlőtlenségek, a szociális bérlakásrendszert pedig privatizálták. Szóval a társadalmi fejlődés terén három elveszett évtizedről beszélhetünk.

Az, hogy ennek a folyamatnak a vége egy szélsőséges társadalmi és gazdasági dezintegráció lett, nem következik törvényszerűen abból, hogy függő integrációban volt a magyar gazdaság.

Ez abból következik, hogy a „függő fejlődés” elképesztő nyomásokat helyez az országra és generál bizonyos tendenciákat. De a helyi eliteknek még így is lenne mozgásterük arra, hogy irányítsák és tereljék ezeket. Vannak olyan országok, amelyek ebben sikeresebbek voltak, mint Magyarország. Magyarországon a liberális demokráciát alkotó osztálykoalíció azért is tudott felrobbanni, mert egy nagyon világos politikai polarizáció alakult ki azzal kapcsolatban, hogy ezt a függő integrációt a transznacionális tőke és a (Magyarországon elsősorban a baloldallal összefonódott) technokrata réteg menedzselte.

Persze a Fidesz világa se nagyon különbözött ettől a kétezres évek elejéig – még ha mindig is egy picit nyitottabb volt a gazdasági nacionalizmusra. Az ellenzéki éveiben viszont végrehajtott egy gazdasági nacionalista fordulatot.

Alapvetően lehet azt mondani, hogy egy liberális, baloldali értelmiségi a nemzetközi tőke érdekeit a saját érdekeként fogta fel?

Igen. A szlogen úgy szólt: a jó iparpolitika az, hogy nincs iparpolitika. Ez egy neoliberális duma, amit más országokban is lehetett hallani, de a cseh vagy a szlovén kormányok ettől függetlenül egy sokkal erősebb iparpolitikát folytattak.

Hatalmas probléma, hogy ezt Magyarországon nem lépték meg. Rádásul Magyarországon kizárólag a jobboldal tematizálta ezt a problémát – így ez a mai napig egy jobboldali, nacionalista toposzként él. A baloldalon ugyanis – leszámítva a progresszív, újbaloldali köröket – az a meghatározó narratíva, hogy nem illik a multikat kritizálni. Pedig létezne baloldali iparpolitika, és létezik olyan iparpolitika is, ami észreveszi, hogy a globális értékláncokba való beépülést csak úgy lehet hosszú távon és fenntartható módon intézni, ha közben helyi értékláncok is kialakulnak.

A magyar gazdasággal az a baj, hogy kettészakadt. Hiába versenyképes az export szektor, ha az ott előállított értékek kizárólag a globális értékláncokon belül maradnak – gyakorlatilag a bevétel nagyrésze áramlik vissza Németországba vagy más nyugati államokba az anyavállalathoz. Egy olyan iparpolitikára lenne szükség, ami azt mondja, hogy ebből elég: a külföldi tőke fontos, hogy egy ilyen ország fejlődni tudjon, de csak úgy, ha az iparpolitikával el tudjuk érni, hogy az a működőtőke ne egy „katedrális legyen a sivatagban”.

Emiatt erőteljes kiábrándultság volt a nemzeti tőkén belül, amelynek képviselői régóta lobbiztak mindkét oldalon, hogy kevésbé szélső-neoliberális iparpolitikát űzzön az ország. De csak a jobboldalon találtak nyitott fülekre. Ezért van az, hogy a kétezres évek közepére a gazdasági elit nagyrésze a Fidesszel szimpatizált. Vagy legalábbis – az akkor még ellenzéki – Fideszhez kötődött.

2010-től teljesen új gazdaságpolitika kezdte jellemezni Magyarországot. Te is említed a könyvedben, hogy emiatt a jobboldalon sokan szeretik – szerinted helytelenül – fejlesztő államnak tekinteni a mai Magyarországot. Nem lehet egy tökéletlen vagy félkész fejlesztő államnak sem tekinteni?

Egy nagyon tökéletlen fejlesztő államnak. Már ha nagyon jóindulatúak akarunk lenni. Annyira tökéletlen, hogy én nem is nevezném fejlesztő államnak.

Azt látjuk ugyanis, hogy az elmúlt évtizedekben végbement egy nagyon komoly társadalmi dezintegráció: a dezindusztrializált térségekben a baloldal elveszítette a vidéki bázisát, a helyi munkásosztályt, és ezt a kiábrándultságot használta ki Orbán Viktor arra, hogy a nemzeti tőkét úgymond emancipálja, és kössön egy új hatalmi alkut a transznacionális tőkével.

Tehát a gazdaság egy részéből – ahol ezt meg lehetett tenni – elkezdte kiszorítani a transznacionális tőkét. A nem-export ágazatokban (mint az energetika, a bankrendszer vagy a kiskereskedelem) van egy egyértelmű átrendeződés.

Látni kell, hogy ez a nemzeti tőke egy sokkal tágabb kör, mint amit általában a rendszer liberális kritikusai ki szoktak emelni. Ezek nem csak a barátok meg családtagok. Persze, vannak azok, akiket a könyvben politikai kapitalistáknak nevezek – ők a leglátványosabb és legfelháborítóbb esetek, mint például Mészáros Lőrinc, de ők csak egy kisebbséget alkotnak azon a gazdasági eliten belül, amelyik Orbánt támogatja.

De ettől az átalakulástól függetlenül még összességében megmaradt a transznacionális tőke dominanciája a Fidesz rendszerben is. Sőt, bizonyos értelemben fokozódott is, és még kiszolgáltatottabbá vált a politika a technológiai exportágazatokban működő multinacionális cégek felé – hiszen a mostani kormány még több pénzt költ el a támogatásukra, mit a korábbiak. Az új kilenc százalékos társasági adó a legalacsonyabb Európában, de bizonyos engedmények miatt a legnagyobb cégek még ennél is kevesebbet fizetnek. A harminc legnagyobb Magyarországon jelenlévő cég ténylegesen fizetett adója 2017-ben (az adózás előtti bevételeikhez mérten) mindössze 3,6 százalék volt.

Akkor mégis honnan jön a fejlesztő állam párhuzam?

Ez azzal magyarázhaztó, hogy annak igenis lenne értelme, hogy egy olyan fejlesztő állam alakuljon ki Magyarországon, amely képes az ország gazdasági kettészakítottságát csökkenteni, és képes Magyarországot kivezetni a közepes jövedelem csapdájából – amelybe a kétezres évekre beleragadt.

Ebből az igényből valamit Orbán Viktorék is érzékeltek – de az az államszervezet, amit ők kialakítottak, teljességgel alkalmatlan arra, hogy fejlesztő államként működjön. Egy fejlesztő állam ugyanis képes hosszútávú logikák alapján működni, képes valamennyire fenntartani a szakmai, technokrata testületeket, ahol szakmai alapú tervezés zajlik, és fenntart egy olyan bürokráciát is, amelyik valamennyire független a hatalmi viszonyoktól. Ezen felül a fejlesztő állam képes szembe menni a gazdasági elittel – és a gazdasági elit rövidtávú érdekeivel szemben hosszútávú fejlesztési célokat megfogalmazni.

Magyarországon van ugyan egy erős állam, de azt a politikai és gazdasági elit arra használja, hogy amit tud, azt azon keresztül megszerezze, és a saját pozícióit a rövidtávú érdekek mentén bebetonozza. Nincsen hosszútávú szempont ebben a rendszerben. Sőt, azokat a rendszereket, amelyek ehhez szükségesek lennének, a kormányzat teljesen leépítette – ilyen a kutatásfejlesztés, a felsőoktatás, a humántőkepolitika vagy az egészségügy (a 21. századi fejlesztő államnak ugyanis ökoszociális fejlesztőállamnak kell lennie). Ezért hívom a mai Magyarországot felhalmozó államnak.

Mivel legitimálja a vezetés ezt a rendszert?

Orbánnak van egy víziója, és ezzel beleültet a szövetségesei fejébe egy identitást. Ez az identitás arról szól, hogy meg kell teremteni az ország gazdasági függetlenségét, és muszáj csökkenteni a multikkal szembeni kiszolgáltatottságot. A korrupció ebben egy megfizethető ár, egy gyerekbetegség, hiszen a felemelkedő vállalkozók fogják alkotni hosszabb távon a magyar gazdasági elitet. És hozzátehetjük, hogy nyugaton sem úgy született a kapitalizmus, hogy minden szempontból szent szereplők kemény munkájával csodát alkottak volna, hanem ott is bűnben fogant a rendszer –rabszolgákkal, gyarmatosítással, a parasztok földekről való elűzésével teremtették meg a rendszer alapjait.

Azt is hozzátenném még ehhez, hogy Orbán rendszere annyira a gazdasági elit kiszolgálásáról szól, hogy már 2014-ben kevesebb szavazatot kapott, mint 2006-ban, pedig akkor elvesztette a választást. Szóval nem igaz, hogy valami elsöprő népszerűségnek örvendene. Ezek a felfele újraosztó politikák nem elképesztően népszerűek – de elég népszerűek ahhoz, hogy autoriter és populista fixekkel együtt a rendszer működni tudjon. Viszont ezekre a fixekre szükség van ahhoz, hogy ez a jól szervezett kisebbség hatalmon maradjon.

Ezen a gazdasági eliten belül mennyire van lehetőség arra, hogy valaki kormánykritikus véleményt fogalmazzon meg? Vagy ez a kérdés fel sem merül, mert a gazdasági érdekeik egybecsengenek azzal, amit a kormányzat csinál?

A kilencven százalékára az utóbbi igaz. Ha nem is tetszik nekik minden – és azt gondolják, hogy talán kevésbé kellene durvának lenniük, meg nem kellene állandóan ellenéget gyártaniuk – összességében mégis érzékelik, hogy a kormány kedvezményeinek köszönhetően tartanak ott, ahol tartanak.

Persze van egy abszolút kisebbség, amely nem kerül összetűzésbe a kormánnyal, még akár profitál is a kormány intézkedéseiből, de abszolút ideológiai alapon ellenzi. Illetve van néhány olyan szereplő, amely olyan profillal rendelkezik, amelyhez képzett, kooperatív, egészséges munkaerő kell. Ehhez szükséges lenne az oktatásba és kutatásba való befektetés. Ez nem kompatibilis a magyar gazdasági elit többségével, mert a magyar gazdasági elit termelési módja a könnyen kizsákmányolható, olcsó, alapvetően képzettséget nem igénylő munkaerőre épít. A nagytőkések nagyrésze olyan területeken aktív, mint az ingatlanbiznisz, az élelmiszeripar, a mezőgazdaság, vagy az alapanyagipar.

Nemzetközi szinten növelheti a kormány versenyképességét ez a gazdaságpolitika?

Hosszabb távon nem. Rövidtávon ugyanakkor voltak sikerek: amikor Orbán hatalomra került, akkor relatív béke volt a globális gazdaságban, amiből elsősorban a kelet-európai félperiféria jól tudott profitálni. A nyugat-európai cégek ugyanis azzal fokozták a versenyképességüket, hogy még több termelést vittek Magyarországra, Romániába, Lengyelországba vagy Szlovákiába. Éppen ezért egy elég látványos növekedési cikluson vannak túl ezek az országok. A gazdasági növekedés másik meghatározó tényezője Magyarországon az EU-s támogatás.

Mivel a külföldi tőke beáramlása látványosan lassult Magyarországon, ennek hiányát az EU-s források váltották ki, amit Orbánék nagyon hatékonyan lehívtak – hiszen tudták, hogy így tudnak Mészáros Lőrinceket építeni, illetve így tudták pörgeti a gazdaságot.

A könyvedben számos olyan munkással készítettél interjút, aki már felnőtt fejjel élte meg a rendszerváltást. A tapasztalataik alapján elmondható, hogy túlzottak voltak a munkásosztály elvárásai és túlzottak voltak a politika nekik tett ígéretei?

Biztosan voltak túlzott elvárások is. De összességében szerintem az életben maradás, a tisztességes megélhetés, a biztos anyagi háttér nem túlzó elvárások. A legtöbb embernek ez hiányzott. Olyan alapvető dolgok is hiánycikké váltak, amelyek a kommunizmus idején még megvoltak. Persze, voltak irreális elvárások is, de ez mellékes, amikor olyan alapvető tényezők nem teljesültek, amelyek jobb politikák esetén teljesülhettek volna.

Közben persze volt egy hamis politikai illúzió is, hogy rövid időn belül felzárkózunk, és ehhez éppen elég kiszolgálni a multikat. Ez az elképzelés nem állt távol a politikai elittől sem. Legalábbis annak egy részétől. Közgazdászok olyan hülyeségeket írtak, hogy a multinacionális tőke egy civilizációs hajtóerő, amely kulturálisan és anyagilag is gyökeresen megváltoztatja az országot – persze, voltak jó hatásai, de azért közel nem tud megoldást kínálni minden problémára az, hogy van Magyarországon gyára az Audinak meg az Opelnek. Ezek mellett ugyanis ott van az ország nagyobbik része, ahol nincsenek autógyárak – az embereknek ott is meg kell élniük valamiből.

Milyen következtetéseket vonhat le a progresszív ellenzék az elemzésedből?

Egyrészt azt, hogy a populisták néven nevezésének és megszégyenítésének klasszikus kozmopolita-liberális stratégiája nem lesz elegendő ahhoz, hogy megakadályozza az Orbán-féle neo-illiberális politikai szereplők felemelkedését. Jelenleg Orbán a hazai vállalkozások egyedüli politikai hangjaként pozícionálja magát. Szerintem a baloldalnak nyíltabban kellene beszélnie a gazdasági dualizmus problémájáról, és fel kellene hagynia a külföldi befektetők egyoldalú kiszolgálásával. Ahhoz, hogy Magyarország kiszabaduljon a jelenlegi közepes jövedelem csapdájából, a gazdaságpolitikának csökkentenie kell a transznacionális vállalatok és a hazai vállalkozások közötti termelékenységbeli különbségeket. A progresszív baloldalnak a neoliberalizmus kudarcos modelljének támogatása helyett, gazdasági aktorként kell tekintenie az államra, amely elő tudja segíti a hazai értékláncok erősödését. A progresszív, demokratikus fejlesztő állam segítheti a hazai vállalatokat abban, hogy áttérjenek olyan, magasabb hozzáadott értéket képviselő termelési módokra, amelyek nem támaszkodnak a munkavállalók és a környezet kizsákmányolására.

De, ami a legfontosabb: a progresszív politikai pártoknak vissza kell szerezniük az elégedetlen munkavállalók bizalmát, és el kell fogadniuk, hogy az állam a társadalmi kohézió előmozdítója is lehet. A nacionalista populizmusra adott válasz nem lehet még több neoliberalizmus. A válasz a baloldal újrapozicionálása – egyfajta progresszív populizmus, ha úgy tetszik. Az identitás és a narratíva megváltoztatása persze csak az első lépés. A jelenlegi ellenzék beágyazottsága rendkívül gyenge a kis- és közepes méretű városokban – azaz azokban a dezindusztrializált régiókban, amelyek régen még a baloldal regionális fellegvárai voltak. Stratégiai hiba lenne, ha a baloldal elfogadná, hogy a szerepe csupán a nagyobb városokra korlátozódik. A progresszíveknek több szervezőmunkát kellene végezniük, hogy ezáltal megágyazhassanak a stabil többséghez szükséges társadalmi koalíciónak. Csak a tömegek szervezett hatalma képes ugyanis korlátozni az elit hatalmát.

L’écocide: vers une reconnaissance internationale

La thématique de l’écocide a enfin fait sa véritable entrée au sein du débat public français et européen. Les de la Convention citoyenne sur le climat ont voté à 99% en faveur d’un référendum pour « adopter une loi qui pénalise le crime d’écocide dans le cadre des 9 limites planétaires ».

Un mois plus tard, Greta Thunberg, 150 scientifiques de renom et près de 3 000 signataires en appelaient, dans une lettre ouverte adressée aux 27 dirigeant.e.s des États membres de l’Union européenne, à porter le combat pour la reconnaissance et la condamnation des écocides en droit international.

Comme l’illustre bien l’étymologie de cette notion, originaire du grec οikos – « la maison » – et du latin occidere – « tuer » –, il s’agit littéralement de la destruction de notre maison, de nos écosystèmes. Si les discussions juridiques se poursuivent actuellement quant aux contours de la notion, il est capital d’avancer vers sa reconnaissance à tous les niveaux normatifs. Au-delà des hésitations sémantiques, l’objectif est clair, partagé et urgent : il faut faire cesser ces écocides qui menacent directement la pérennité de nos écosystèmes et des populations qui en dépendent. Cette urgence est visible quotidiennement, aux quatre coins du monde.

La genèse de l’écocide : le Vietnam et l’agent orange

Dès 1966, on emploie le terme « écocide » pour désigner ce que ces scientifiques identifient comme la destruction d’environnements naturels entiers, ainsi que ses conséquences sur la santé humaine. La notion remonte à la guerre du Vietnam : au cours de « la plus importante guerre chimique du XXe siècle », les bombardiers américains ont déversé sur le Vietnam des dizaines de millions de litres de « l’agent orange ». Cet herbicide extrêmement toxique a détruit environ cinq millions d’hectares de forêt. Outre la prolifération de maladies liées à la multiplication des moutisques, ces herbicides occasionnent également cancers et malformations congénitales. En 1972, le Premier ministre suédois Olof Palme ouvre la Conférence des Nations unies en qualifiant d’écocide la guerre du Vietnam.

Cinq décennies plus tard, les conséquences juridiques des dommages écologiques et sanitaires résultant de l’usage de l’agent orange sont toujours en cours. La militante vietnamienne Tran To Nga, touchée directement par un épandage, a attaqué en 2014 26 multinationales qui produisent de l’agent orange, comme Monsanto et Dow Chemical[1], devant les tribunaux français. Quatre ans plus tard les plaidoiries du procès intenté par Tran To Nga étaient prévues à Paris pour le 12 octobre 2020, pour obtenir enfin une reconnaissance de la responsabilité des industriels. En raison de la pandémie, mais aussi du fait des demandes répétées de report de la part des multinationales, le procès a été repoussé et est prévu pour le 25 janvier 2021.

La multiplication des écocides

Depuis les années 1970, la bataille s’est déplacée, elle ne se joue plus uniquement dans les prétoires, mais aussi sur le plan législatif, afin de voir marquée dans le marbre juridique l’interdiction des écocides, au niveau national, international et, plus récemment, européen.

En 1984, à Bhopal en Inde, une fuite chimique de l’usine de fabrication de pesticides d’Union Carbide – désormais contrôlée par… Dow Chemicals – tue 20 000 personnes. Aujourd’hui encore, plus de 100 000 autres habitant.e.s continue de souffrir de graves problèmes de santé, à cause de l’eau, qui contient plusieurs millions de fois les niveaux naturels de métaux lourds.

En Équateur, entre 1965 et 1992, l’industriel pétrolier américain Chevron Texaco a dévasté les territoires indigènes de l’Amazonie et empoisonné plus de 30 000 de ses habitant.e.s, qui vivent désormais dans la zone au taux de cancer le plus élevé d’Amérique latine. La firme a toujours réussi à échapper à la mise en œuvre de sa condamnation.

En avril 2010 explose la plateforme pétrolière offshore DeepWater Horizon, exploitée par le groupe britannique BP dans le golfe du Mexique. En quelques mois, près de 800 millions de litres de pétrole brut se répandent dans la zone, menaçant environ 400 espèces animales et s’échouant sur plus de 2 100 km de côtes[2].

Monsanto est quant à elle le producteur de l’herbicide le plus utilisé au monde, le très toxique Roundup. Outre sa contribution majeure à l’épuisement des sols et des ressources en eau, à l’extinction de certaines espèces et au déclin de la biodiversité, Monsanto a aussi été condamnée par le tribunal fédéral de San Francisco à indemniser un citoyen qui, manipulateur régulier de leurs produits pendant près de trente ans, était atteint du cancer. En 2017, les juges du tribunal citoyen Monsanto ont appelé à introduire dans le droit pénal international le crime d’écocide. En effet, il existe malheureusement de nombreux autres exemples d’écocides plus ou moins récents, partout sur la planète.

Criminalité et justice environnementale à l’heure de l’Anthropocène

Le plus grand des écocides est cependant beaucoup plus discret : les pollutions diffuses, et en particulier l’émission de gaz à effet de serre par les « carbon majors ». Ces 25 multinationales des énergies fossiles sont à l’origine de 51 % des émissions de gaz à effet de serre entre 1988 et 2015. Ce sont bien ces acteurs que le crime d’écocide entend viser, et non pas les

Les exemples cités ont montré que, par leurs choix ou leurs négligences conscientes, elles ont créé des écocides « ponctuels » ou diffus qui, irrémédiablement, détruisent des écosystèmes entiers et bouleversent, ad vitam aeternam, la vie des habitant.e.s qui en dépendent. En ce sens, la lutte contre les écocides n’est pas étrangère aux combats sociaux historiques qu’ont connus nos sociétés. L’ennemi n’a pas changé : il s’agit d’un nombre limité d’acteurs industriels et, plus largement, du système productiviste qu’ils maintiennent. La lutte des exploités contre les exploiteurs se confond désormais avec celle des pollués contre les pollueurs : car si le déclin de l’humanité consécutif à la destruction des écosystèmes concerne potentiellement tout le monde, les plus pauvres sont les premiers et les plus touchés.

En ce sens, la pandémie qui frappe actuellement l’ensemble de nos sociétés illustre bien le ciment commun des différentes luttes. La Covid-19 est en effet une zoonose, c’est-à-dire un virus transmis à l’être humain par un animal, vraisemblablement un pangolin, espèce menacée d’extinction en raison de l’activité humaine même si les scientifiques cherchent encore l’élément causal précis. De fait, la destruction des écosystèmes favorise la mise en contact des êtres humains avec les animaux sauvages qui portent les maladies infectieuses, comme la malaria ou Ebola. Les personnes les plus défavorisées sont les premières victimes de la prolifération de maladies. On estime en outre que près d’un demi-milliard de à travers le monde pourraient sombrer dans la grande pauvreté au cours de ce qui pourrait être la plus grande crise sociale de l’histoire. Les « gagnants » de la pandémie sont en revanche les mêmes acteurs qui, par leurs stratégies de profit actionnarial de court terme, favorisent les activités destructrices de l’environnement et fragilisent la structure même de l’économie : le dernier rapport d’OXFAM souligne ainsi comment, au cours des derniers mois, alors que 400 millions de perdaient leur emploi, les 500 sociétés les plus riches du monde ont vu leurs bénéfices augmenter de 156 %. Ceci, sans même parler d’Amazon : la fortune de son patron Jeff Bezos se serait accrue de 11 milliards d’euros sur la seule journée du 20 juillet 2020.

Ces acteurs ont par ailleurs bien été identifiés par les, comme le montrent les conclusions de la Convention citoyenne pour le climat (CCC).  En effet, le critère moral retenu à l’issue de la CCC pour la caractérisation du crime d’écocide est celui de la connaissance des conséquences de leurs activités par les pollueurs majeurs, et non l’intention de nuire, qui permettrait à la majorité d’entre eux d’échapper à toute poursuite. Bien que cette approche doive être travaillée pour être traduite en termes juridiques, il s’agit là d’une requête légitime. En effet, ces multinationales agissent par appât du gain et ne peuvent nier leur connaissance de l’effrayante trajectoire prise par le climat, ni la sixième extinction de masse dans laquelle nous sommes engagés.

Les conclusions de la CCC constituent également un pas important vers une redéfinition de la place de l’humain au sein de son environnement, comme en témoigne l’accent posé sur la notion de « limites planétaires ». Les limites planétaires sont des seuils scientifiquement chiffrés depuis 2009 par le Stockholm Resilience Center : l’humanité ne doit pas les franchir, sous peine de basculer dans un état qui menace directement la survie humaine. Il s’agit donc d’une remise en question frontale de la doxa économique actuelle, fondée sur l’exploitation et la détérioration des ressources naturelles, perçues comme illimitées. Le crime d’écocide s’entend, selon la CCC, comme « toute action ayant causé un dommage écologique grave en participant au dépassement manifeste et non négligeable des limites planétaires, commise en connaissance des conséquences qui allaient en résulter et qui ne pouvaient être ignorées ». Si ces limites ne font pas encore l’objet de définitions suffisamment précises et partagées sur le plan scientifique pour être utilisées comme principes directeurs de politiques publiques, le travail se poursuit en ce sens, notamment au Parlement européen.

Nous pouvons agir

Depuis les années 1970, la bataille s’est déplacée des prétoires vers le plan législatif, afin que soit marquée dans le marbre juridique l’interdiction des écocides, au niveau national, international et, plus récemment, européen. Pour des raisons juridiques et opérationnelles autant que philosophiques et adaptées à l’ampleur de la dégradation de la Terre, le combat s’est jusqu’à présent concentré sur l’échelle internationale. Si l’option d’une Convention internationale, portée par exemple par les Nations unies, semble trop longue pour prévenir la catastrophe en cours, celle de l’inscription du crime d’écocide dans le Statut de Rome fondant la compétence de la Cour pénale internationale (CPI), au même titre que les crimes contre l’humanité, est aujourd’hui sur la table.

L’idée n’est pas neuve : dès 1985, le rapport Whitaker, présenté à la Commission des droits de l’homme de l’ONU, recommande d’inclure l’écocide en tant que crime autonome, aux côtés du génocide, de l’ethnocide ou du génocide culturel. Entre 1991 et 1996, sous l’impulsion de la Commission du droit international – l’organe de codification de l’ONU –, il est question d’inclure un crime international autonome pour les dommages graves causés à l’environnement. Ce projet d’incrimination de l’écocide en temps de paix fut cependant écarté. À l’heure actuelle, seul l’article 8(b)(iv) du Statut de Rome inclut, dans la notion de crime de guerre, la possibilité d’une responsabilité des auteurs de dommages environnementaux. En 2016, la procureure de la CPI Fatou Bensouda a annoncé vouloir s’intéresser particulièrement « aux crimes visés au Statut de Rome impliquant ou entraînant, entre autres, des ravages écologiques, l’exploitation illicite de ressources naturelles ou l’expropriation illicite de terrains ». Pour la première fois, l’institution fait donc un lien entre crime contre l’humanité et crime contre l’environnement. Et, en septembre 2019, les Républiques insulaires des Vanuatu et des Maldives, dont la survie même est menacée par la montée des eaux, ont fait usage de cette faculté. Emmanuel Macron lui-même s’est engagé, à l’issue de la CCC, à faire « inscrire ce crime (d’écocide) dans le droit international ». Il reste toutefois à joindre le geste à la parole : en effet, la Procureure de la CPI ne peut rien faire de plus sans l’appui des États. Une dizaine d’entre eux a déjà fait inscrire le crime d’écocide dans leur droit : le Vietnam, la Russie, le Kazakhstan, le Kirghizistan, le Tadjikistan, la Géorgie, la Biélorussie, l’Ukraine, la Moldavie et l’Arménie.

Au Brésil, suite à la catastrophe du barrage de Brumadinho en janvier 2019, la Chambre des représentants brésilienne a adopté une série de textes (qui doivent toutefois être approuvés par le Sénat et sanctionnés par le président Bolsonaro), dont l’un contient une incrimination de l’écocide, entendu comme la provocation intentionnelle ou non d’un désastre environnemental, avec une destruction importante de la flore ou la mort d’animaux. Des développements similaires sont en cours en Argentine et dans certains États mexicains.

Au sein de l’Union européenne, l’Italie est la première à franchir le pas d’une incrimination des atteintes autonomes aux écosystèmes. Depuis 2015, son code pénal punit de prison ferme les « désastres environnementaux », définis comme « les changements irréversibles infligés à l’équilibre d’un écosystème, ou une altération de l’équilibre d’un écosystème dont l’élimination a des conséquences particulièrement sérieuses pour une communauté ».

En France, en 2019, le Sénat a rejeté une proposition d’incrimination de l’écocide dans le code pénal français, qui visait à punir « les crimes environnementaux d’une particulière gravité », puis une nouvelle proposition a été rejetée par l’Assemblée nationale. Fort heureusement, suite aux conclusions de la CCC, Macron s’est engagé à « étudier » la possibilité d’une reconnaissance de l’écocide en droit français. Il s’agira néanmoins d’être vigilant.e.s pour qu’une réforme minimaliste des instruments actuels ne se substitue pas à une réflexion ambitieuse autour de la notion d’écocide. Lors des Journées d’été 2020 d’Europe Écologie-Les Verts, le Garde des Sceaux a en effet indiqué qu’il comptait intégrer au sein du projet de loi sur le parquet européen la création d’un « délit d’atteinte aux sols, à l’eau et à l’air », alors que cette transposition d’une directive européenne aurait dû être inscrite dans le droit français depuis 2010.

L’espoir réside donc aussi au niveau européen. La question de l’écocide y a été évoquée dès 2012, avec un projet d’initiative citoyenne européenne (ICE) pour la reconnaissance de l’écocide. Ce mécanisme, que l’on peut décrire comme une pétition pan-européenne, peut aboutir à une obligation pour la Commission de soumettre une proposition de législation, à condition de réunir un total d’un million de signatures, obtenues dans au moins un quart des États membres de l’UE. Malheureusement, cette ICE n’y est pas parvenue.

En 2008, le Parlement européen a remporté une bataille juridique en faisant adopter une directive d’harmonisation pénale sur la criminalité environnementale. Elle impose aux États membres de prévoir des sanctions pénales effectives pour certains comportements dangereux tels que le rejet illégal de substances dans l’air, l’eau ou le sol, le commerce illégal d’espèces sauvages ou le transport illicite de déchets. Cette avancée souffre cependant de lacunes importantes : les infractions pénales ne prennent pas en compte les atteintes à la nature en tant que telles, et sont encore mal appliquées par les autorités publiques nationales. Les écologistes se battent au Parlement européen pour une révision ambitieuse de ces instruments. Le risque est grand, toutefois, que cette volonté se heurte à de fortes résistances de la droite, qui invoque les conséquences judiciaires lourdes de ce changement de paradigme pour les multinationales, ces mêmes firmes (Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total et BP) qui, entre 2010 et 2018, ont ainsi dépensé ensemble pas moins de 251 millions d’euros en stratégies d’influence à Bruxelles.

Des mots à l’action 

Depuis la guerre du Vietnam, les exemples d’écocides se sont multipliés partout sur la planète, des plus spectaculaires et ponctuels aux plus diffus, avec quelques caractéristiques communes cependant : l’identité des auteurs – les multinationales exploitant et/ou dépendant des énergies fossiles, mais parfois aussi des États ou chef.fe.s d’État, ainsi que celle des victimes – souvent les plus pauvres, les précaires, les habitant.e.s autochtones des écosystèmes dévastés,  et, bien entendu, la nature elle-même.

Aujourd’hui, le combat pour la reconnaissance et la condamnation des écocides est à un moment charnière. Jamais les mobilisations citoyennes pour le climat n’ont été si fortes qu’au cours des derniers mois et dernières années ; jamais la planète n’a été plongée dans une crise environnementale et socio-économique aussi profonde ; et pourtant jamais tant de fenêtres d’opportunités n’ont été ouvertes pour porter la voie du changement.

Si, au niveau de la révision du droit international, l’on attend désormais que les mots, ceux d’Emmanuel Macron en premier lieu, soient suivis d’actes, les choses se mettent déjà en mouvement à d’autres niveaux.

Des avancées importantes semblent possibles à court terme dans de nombreux pays, y compris parmi les États membres de l’Union européenne. Le Parlement fédéral belge étudie ainsi en ce moment même la possibilité d’intégrer l’écocide à son code pénal, et de demander la révision du Statut de Rome du même coup. En Suède, une motion a été présentée par plusieurs groupes politiques majoritaires, notamment sur l’impulsion de l’écologiste Rebecka Le Moine, et une demande a été formulée au collectif Stop Ecocide pour apporter son concours à la reconnaissance de l’écocide au niveau international : un panel d’expert.e.s a été mis en place, et une pétition mondiale a été lancée en soutien. En France, le gouvernement a tenté une opération de communication, en proposant un délit de pollution généralisée qui a été habilement nommé « délit d’écocide » ; mais les défenseur.e.s de l’écocide ne s’y trompent pas, et une bataille sera menée pour ne pas vider le terme de sa substance. Les choses bougent aussi au niveau européen, avec l’adoption d’un amendement demandant la reconnaissance de l’écocide au niveau international au sein de la commission développement, et où la révision de la législation pénale environnementale offre la possibilité de développements encourageants. J’ai également mobilisé neuf autres parlementaires du monde entier pour lancer, en octobre dernier, l’Alliance internationale des parlementaires pour la reconnaissance de l’écocide :

Le combat est essentiel, et urgent : la lutte contre les écocides, celle de la masse des pollué.e.s contre un nombre limité de, est un impératif de justice environnementale intrinsèquement lié aux combats sociaux historiques de nos sociétés. C’est ce combat dont nous devons désormais nous emparer ensemble.

Les deux pétitions (France et CPI) sont à retrouver sur : ;  


[1] La liste des sociétés concernées inclut notamment Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Thompson-Hayward, Diamond Shamrock, Hercules, Uniroyal, Thompson Chemicals, US Rubber, Agrisect, Hoffman-Taft Inc.

[2] Jonny Beye, Hilde C.Trannum, Torgeir Bakke, Peter V. Hodson, Tracy K. Collier, « Environmental effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill : A review », 2016, Marine Pollution Bulletin 110(1), p. 28-51.

Ecocide: Towards International Recognition

The fight to have ecocide recognised as a crime against humanity in both international and national law has spanned multiple decades. During this time, countless crimes against ecosystems and their inhabitants – human and animal – have been carried out with devastating effects. Now ecocide has finally made it onto the political agenda in Europe and around the world. But the battle to ensure that legislation means perpetrators will be brought to justice is far from won.  

In June 2020, members of France’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate voted 99% in favour of holding a referendum on “adopting a law that punishes the crime of ecocide in the context of the nine planetary boundaries”. A month later, in an open letter to leaders of the 27 EU member states, Greta Thunberg, 150 prominent scientists and almost 3,000 other signatories called on the EU to help make ecocide a crime under international law.

As implied by its etymology, which derives from the Greek οikos, “home”, and the Latin occidere, “to kill”, ecocide is literally the destruction of our home, our ecosystems. Although there continues to be legal debate around the concept’s exact definition, it is vital that we move towards its recognition at every normative level. Semantics aside, the goal is clear, shared and urgent: to stop the ecocides that directly threaten our ecosystems and the people that depend on them. This emergency is plain to across the world, day in, day out.

The origins of ecocide: Vietnam and Agent Orange

Since 1966, the term “ecocide” has been used to describe what scientists consider the destruction of entire natural environments and the resulting impact on human health. The concept dates back to the Vietnam War; during the “the greatest chemical war of the 20th century“, American aircraft sprayed tens of millions of litres of Agent Orange on Vietnam. This extremely toxic herbicide destroyed around 5 million hectares of forest. As well as an increase in diseases associated with a proliferation of mosquitoes, these herbicides also cause cancers and birth defects. In 1972, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme opened the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment by calling the Vietnam War an ecocide.

Five decades later, the legal ramifications of the damage to human health and the environment caused by the use of Agent Orange are still playing out. In 2014, Vietnamese activist Tran To Nga, who was directly impacted by the herbicide, sued 26 multinationals who produced Agent Orange, including Monsanto and Dow Chemical[1], in the French courts. Four years later, the hearings in Tran To Nga’s lawsuit were set to be held in Paris on 12 October 2020, promising a chance to hold the corporations involved to account at long last. But due to the pandemic, as well as repeated requests for postponement by the multinationals, the hearings were pushed back to 25 January 2021.

The proliferation of ecocides

Since the 1970s, new fronts have opened up in the battle against ecocide: it is no longer just being fought in courts, but in legislatures too. The goal is to outlaw ecocide at a national, European and international level.

In 1984, in Bhopal, India, a chemical leak from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide – now part of Dow Chemicals – killed 20,000 people. Still today, over 100,000 other inhabitants continue to suffer from serious health problems caused by the city’s water supply, which contains levels of heavy metals several million times higher than normal. In Ecuador, between 1965 and 1992, American oil company Chevron Texaco devastated indigenous territories in the Amazon and poisoned over 30,000 of its inhabitants, who now live in the area with the highest cancer rate in Latin America. The firm has so far managed to escape punishment. In April 2010, Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig operated by British oil company BP in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded. Over a couple of months, more than 800 million litres of crude oil spilled into the area, threatening around 400 species of animal and polluting over 2,100 km of coastline[2].

Monsanto manufactures the world’s most widely used herbicide, the highly toxic Roundup. Not only has Monsanto played a major role in soil and water depletion, the extinction of certain species of wildlife and the decline in biodiversity, the company has also been ordered by a San Francisco federal court to pay damages to a man with cancer who had regularly used its products for over 30 years. In 2017, the judges sitting on the International Monsanto Tribunal called for ecocide to be made a crime under international law. There are, unfortunately, numerous other past and recent examples of ecocide all over the world, such as the harmful impacts of chlordécone in the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique – an ecocide through pesticide use.

Environmental crime and justice in the Anthropocene

The greatest ecocide of all is, however, much less visible: diffuse pollution, especially greenhouse gas emissions by the “carbon majors”. These 25 fossil fuel multinationals were responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2015. It is they who are responsible for the crime of ecocide, not ordinary citizens.

The examples above show that, by choice or by conscious negligence, these companies have perpetrated ecocides, whether diffuse in nature or arising from a single act or accident, that have irreparably damaged entire ecosystems and forever devastated the lives of the people who depend on them. In this sense, the fight against ecocide has much in common with the historic struggle for social justice in our societies. The enemy is the same: a small number of industrial giants and, more broadly, the productivist system that they help to maintain. The struggle of the exploited against the exploiters has now become the struggle of the polluted against the polluters, because while the human impact of ecosystem destruction potentially affects everyone, it is the poor who will be hit first – and hardest.

The pandemic that is currently raging across virtually every society clearly shows us the common thread between different struggles. Covid-19 is a zoonosis, a virus passed to humans by an animal; this animal was very likely a pangolin, an endangered species, but scientists have yet to determine the precise cause. Indeed, the destruction of ecosystems encourages contact between humans and wild animals that carry infectious diseases, such as malaria or Ebola. The most deprived people are the first victims of disease outbreaks. It is estimated that almost half a billion people worldwide could be pushed into poverty over the course of what may be the greatest social crisis in history. The “winners” of the pandemic are, however, the same companies who, through their pursuit of short-term shareholder value, promote activities that destroy the environment and undermine the very structure of the economy. The latest Oxfam report underlines how, while 400 million workers were losing their jobs over the past few months, the world’s 500 most valuable companies saw their profits increase by 156%.

The public clearly knows who these companies are, as the conclusions of Citizens’ Convention on Climate (CCC) show.  The moral yardstick adopted by the CCC in defining the crime of ecocide is major polluters’ knowledge of the consequences of their activities, and not intent to harm, which would allow most of them to escape any prosecution. This approach may require more work before it can be translated into legal terms, but it is a legitimate request. Indeed, these multinationals are driven by greed, and cannot deny their knowledge of the terrifying trajectory the climate is on, nor the sixth mass extinction event that we are causing.

The CCC’s conclusions also mark an important step towards redefining the role of human beings in their environment, as the emphasis placed on “planetary boundaries” clearly shows. Planetary boundaries are the thresholds that have been scientifically calculated since 2009 by the Stockholm Resilience Centre: if we cross these boundaries, we risk entering a planetary state that directly threatens human survival. So, it’s about challenging the current economic consensus that is founded on the exploitation and degradation of natural resources, which are perceived as limitless. The CCC defines the crime of ecocide as: “any action that has caused serious ecological damage by contributing to a clear and significant breach of planetary boundaries, taken with undeniable awareness of the consequences that would result.” While these boundaries do not yet have sufficiently precise and scientifically agreed definitions that can be used as guiding principles for public policy, work continues in this direction, notably in the European Parliament.

Building a basis for action in international law

Since the 1970s, the fight against ecocide has moved from courts to legislatures, with the goal being to outlaw ecocide at a national, European and international level. For legal and operational reasons as much as philosophical ones, and simply the scale of damage inflicted on the planet, the battle has been fought at an international level. While the prospect of an international convention on ecocide, sponsored by the United Nations for example, seems too far off to prevent the catastrophe currently unfolding, adding the crime of ecocide – alongside crimes against humanity – to the Rome Statute that underpins the International Criminal Court (ICC) is now on the table.

The idea isn’t new: as early as 1985, the Whitaker report, submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, recommended making ecocide a separate international crime, alongside genocide, ethnocide and cultural genocide. Between 1991 and 1996, under the impetus of the International Law Commission, the UN’s law codification body, real consideration was given to making causing serious damage to the environment an international crime in its own right. However, plans to make ecocide a crime in peacetime were eventually abandoned.

In 2016, the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced her intention to prioritise “prosecuting Rome Statute crimes that are committed by means of, or that result in, inter alia, the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land.” In so doing, the institution was for the first time drawing a connection between crimes against humanity and crimes against the environment. Following the CCC, Emmanuel Macron also committed himself to “enshrining this crime [of ecocide] in international law”. But these words have yet to be matched with actions: the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC can do nothing more without the support of member states. A dozen of them have already made ecocide a crime under their national law: Vietnam, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia.

In Brazil, following the Brumadinho dam disaster of January 2019, the country’s Chamber of Deputies adopted a series of bills (still pending approval), one of which criminalises ecocide, which it defines as causing – intentionally or not – an environmental disaster resulting in significant destruction of flora or deaths of animals. Similar developments are underway in Argentina and certain Mexican states.

Europe: Following not leading

In the EU, Italy is the first country to have made damaging ecosystems a separate crime. Since 2015, its criminal code has made it an imprisonable offence to cause “environmental disasters”, which are defined as “irreversible changes inflicted on the balance of an ecosystem, or a change to the balance of an ecosystem, the rectification of which has particularly serious consequences for a community”.

In France, in 2019, the Senate rejected a proposal to make ecocide a crime under French law by punishing “particularly serious environmental crimes”; a new proposal was also then rejected by the National Assembly. Fortunately, in light of the CCC’s conclusions, Macron has promised to “examine” the possibility of recognising ecocide under French law. Nevertheless, we will need to remain vigilant to ensure that ambitious reflection on the concept of ecocide is not replaced by minimalist reform of current legislation. At the Europe Écologie-Les Verts 2020 summer conference, France’s Minister of Justice announced he would be including an “offence of harm to soil, water and air” in the draft bill on the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, although this EU directive should have been transposed into French law since 2010.

There are encouraging signs at the European level too. The issue of ecocide was raised as far back as 2012, with a European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI) proposing to recognise the crime of ecocide. This mechanism, which is a sort of pan-European petition, can require the Commission to submit a proposal for legislation, so long as it can gather at least one million signatures from citizens residing in at least a quarter of EU member states. Unfortunately, the ECI was unsuccessful.

In 2008, the European Parliament won a key legal battle with the adoption of the Environmental Crime Directive, which harmonised criminal law on environmental protection. It requires member states to implement effective criminal sanctions for certain harmful actions, such as illegally releasing substances into the air, water or soil, illegally trading in wildlife or illegally transporting waste. However, the directive suffers from major shortcomings: criminal offences do not account for harm caused to nature in its own right and are still not properly enforced by domestic public authorities. Greens in the European Parliament are fighting for an ambitious revision of this legislation. However, this will likely meet fierce resistance from the Right, who will point to the serious legal consequences of this paradigm shift for multinationals, companies (such as Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total and BP) who, between 2010 and 2018, spent no less than €251 million on lobbying in Brussels.

Fighting to turn words into action

Since the Vietnam War, there have been countless ecocides across the planet, from the most spectacular point-source examples to the most egregious diffuse instances. However, they all have characteristics in common: the perpetrators – not just multinationals extracting and/or dependent on fossil fuels, but sometimes states or heads of state too; and the victims – often the very poorest, precarious workers, the indigenous inhabitants of the ecosystems devastated. And, of course, nature itself.

Today, the fight for the recognition and punishment of ecocide has reached a pivotal moment. Never before have citizen climate movements been so strong; never before has the planet been plunged into such a deep environmental and socio-economic crisis; and never before have so many windows of opportunity for change been open.

In the short term, major breakthroughs seem possible in many countries, including EU member states. The Belgian Federal Parliament is currently considering whether to add the crime of ecocide to the country’s criminal code and to propose a similar amendment to the Rome Statute. In Sweden, several mainstream political parties have supported a parliamentary motion sponsored by Green MP Rebecka Le Moine calling for the criminalisation of ecocide. In France, the government has embarked on a spin campaign by proposing a new offence of causing widespread pollution, which it has craftily called the “offence of ecocide”; but ecocide campaigners aren’t fooled, and will fight to ensure the term is not rendered meaningless. There is progress at European level too, with the EU Parliament’s Committee on Development adopting an amendment calling for ecocide to be recognised internationally, and encouraging developments in the revision of environmental criminal law. Last October, I also brought together nine fellow parliamentarians from around the world to launch the International Parliamentary Alliance for the Recognition of Ecocide:

This fight is vital and urgent: the struggle against ecocide, the struggle of the polluted many against the polluting few, is a priority for environmental justice, one that is intrinsically linked to historic struggles for social justice in our societies. It is this battle that we must now fight together.


[1] The list of companies involved includes Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Thompson-Hayward, Diamond Shamrock, Hercules, Uniroyal, Thompson Chemicals, US Rubber, Agrisect and Hoffman-Taft Inc.

[2] Jonny Beye, Hilde C.Trannum, Torgeir Bakke, Peter V. Hodson, Tracy K. Collier, “Environmental effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: A review”, 2016, Marine Pollution Bulletin 110(1), p. 28-51.

Comment l’agriculture peut devenir une partie de la solution au changement climatique

Alors que les solutions naturelles au changement climatique, comme la plantation d’arbres ou la création de marais et de tourbières, font débat, il en est une actuellement à l’étude dans un gros projet de recherche européen, encore peu pratiquée de par le monde : la séquestration du carbone dans les sols agricoles. L’agriculture pourrait ainsi devenir une des solutions au changement climatique plutôt que d’en être une partie du problème. L’application de cette solution entraînerait par la même occasion la diffusion des principes de l’agroécologie tout en apportant de la résilience aux aléas climatiques et aux maladies dans les champs.

La professeure et chercheuse Claire Chenu, d’INRAE, était une des porte-paroles de l’initiative française « 4 pour 1000 » présentée lors de la COP 21 fin 2015 à Paris, elle explique son fondement : « L’idée principale de l’initiative 4 pour 1000 est de gérer les sols durablement de façon à ce qu’ils puissent remplir les multiples fonctions qu’on attend d’eux. Principalement un support à la production et à la sécurité alimentaire, mais aussi un rôle dans l’adaptation de l’agriculture au changement climatique et dans l’atténuation de celui-ci. » Accroître la quantité de carbone stockée dans les sols via la photosynthèse pourrait ainsi contribuer à diminuer le CO2 atmosphérique. La chercheuse précise : « Il y a tellement de carbone dans les sols du monde que si on augmentait de 4 pour 1000, donc de 0,4 % chaque année la quantité de carbone qu’il y a dans les sols agricoles du monde, on récupérerait l’équivalent de ce qui va annuellement de notre planète vers l’atmosphère, toutes origines confondues. »

Constat impressionnant : c’est donc bien le total des émissions qui pourrait théoriquement être compensé ! La clé de ce phénomène : la photosynthèse qui fait des agriculteurs des acteurs essentiels pour stocker le carbone. Car ils ont à leur disposition des milliards d’usines qui travaillent gratuitement pour eux : les chloroplastes, mini organites sièges de la photosynthèse. La photosynthèse est ce processus unique qui permet aux plantes de synthétiser leurs tissus (de la matière organique) grâce à l’énergie lumineuse, en absorbant le gaz carbonique de l’air (CO2). La partie de la plante que nous consommons sera retransformée en CO2 sans contribuer au stockage du carbone, mais les végétaux qui restent sur le champ (tiges, racines, couvertures de sol) contribuent à augmenter la matière organique du sol et à séquestrer du carbone. En outre, au cours de leur croissance, les végétaux injectent via leurs racines, des sucres (du carbone) dans le sol afin de nourrir la micro-faune du sol et les champignons qui lui rendent de nombreux services (nutrition, résistance aux maladies).

Et en pratique, comment peut-on y arriver ? Le Green European Journal est parti en reportage chez un agriculteur pratiquant une agriculture climato-intelligente.Luc Joris est agriculteur à Chastre, en Belgique, où il gère une ferme de 225 hectares de cultures. Betteraves, chicorées, endives, pommes de terre, pois, céréales, maïs et prairies. Ça fait longtemps qu’il réfléchit, qu’il discute avec des collègues agriculteurs, qu’il lit des revues agricoles spécialisées dans le but de diminuer le travail du sol, les pesticides et les engrais synthétiques. Son objectif initial : améliorer sa rentabilité. Il est suivi par des agronomes indépendants qui lui ont calculé son bilan gaz à effet de serre. Pour le calcul, c’est le Cool Farm Tool qui a été utilisé, un modèle américain en cours d’adaptation pour les conditions européennes. Sont pris en compte pour calculer le bilan des gaz à effets de serre es parcelles : les apports d’engrais et de produits phytopharmaceutiques, les opérations aux cultures (types de travail du sol), les rendements obtenus, les couverts végétaux, les arbres plantés au sein des parcelles, … Le bilan continue d’être amélioré afin de prendre en compte les améliorations des pratiques culturales. Le bilan net de la ferme de Luc Joris est positif : en 2020 elle a séquestré 80 tonnes de plus que ce qu’elle n’a consommé. Luc Joris estime avoir encore des marges de progression sur la séquestration : « stocker du carbone, ce sont deux actions : d’abord arrêter la dégradation du stock d’humus, car c’est là qu’est le carbone et ensuite nourrir le sol grâce à des couvertures de sol variées et des cultures performantes, le tout sans injecter trop de chimie, car la chimie, c’est du carbone qui vient d’ailleurs ».

Les secrets d’un bilan séquestrateur de carbone

Luc Joris avait déjà compris que son sol ne devait jamais rester nu et qu’il fallait le couvrir en permanence pour y injecter du carbone grâce à la photosynthèse des plantes. Une couverture permanente des sols avec des espèces multiples dont celles de la famille des légumineuses qui apportent gratuitement de l’azote grâce à la fixation symbiotique. 

Il y avait moyen de faire mieux : il fallait arrêter, à chaque fois qu’il travaillait le sol, de déstocker le carbone durement gagné. Il y a trois ans, il fait le grand saut et arrête le labour profond. Ce changement de pratique lui apporte en outre une économie de gasoil non négligeable. Retourner la terre sur une profondeur de 30 cm est un poste très consommateur sur une ferme.

L’utilisation de compost et de fumier permet de diminuer les apports d’engrais minéral fabriqué par les usines d’engrais très énergivores en pétrole. C’est tout gain pour le bilan carbone global de la ferme.

Luc Joris a également planté des haies, éléments favorables à son bilan carbone. Il disposait d’une grande parcelle de 45 hectares d’un seul tenant qu’il n’a pas hésité à couper en trois avec des haies multi-espèces jouxtées de bandes d’herbes diverses destinées à fournir le gîte et le couvert aux insectes auxiliaires qui diminuent la pression des maladies.

Grâce à l’ensemble de ces actions, il améliore son revenu financier tout en ayant des pratiques positives pour l’environnement. En effet, en économisant des intrants (gasoil, engrais synthétiques), il diminue les rejets de CO2 issus de la fabrication et de l’utilisation de ceux-ci. En plus, il augmente le contenu en matière organique de ses sols (le carbone) et obtient des terres plus fertiles, plus résilientes face à la sécheresse, aux inondations et aux maladies.

Dans quel jeu économique joue-t-on

Si Luc Joris est devenu agriculteur, ce n’est pas pour rien. Il aime travailler dur et voir le résultat de son travail. La mécanique, il apprécie également. Et travailler avec du vivant, à l’extérieur, quel bonheur. Par contre, passer du temps à expliquer son métier à des gens qui n’y connaissent rien et qui ont des idées reçues sur sa profession, désolé, ce n’est pas son truc. Chacun son métier. Donc la vente directe à la ferme, comme pour beaucoup d’agriculteurs, n’est pas une solution qu’il envisage de mettre en place. Les quantités à écouler sont énormes et de toute façon, à part les pommes de terre et les petits pois, tout ce qu’il produit doit d’abord être transformé. On ne trempe pas une betterave dans son café.

Comme la plupart des agriculteurs, Luc Joris vend les produits de sa ferme via des négociants ou des industries. Pour les céréales, les cours sont fixés par les bourses de Chicago ou de Paris. Pour les pommes de terre, les pois, les betteraves et la chicorée, il signe des contrats avec les usines de transformation. « On te propose un prix, c’est oui ou c’est non, mais on n’a pas de marge de manœuvre. Et ils imposent de grands lots parfaitement uniformes pour assurer un produit identique en sortie d’usine. A partir du moment où on a centralisé, dans les années ’50, les collecteurs, les transformateurs et la distribution, on a détricoté l’artisanat et la petite industrie locale. Pourtant c’est ce savoir-faire qui permet aux petites entreprises de s’adapter aux caractéristiques de la récolte pour, au final, valoriser le produit au mieux ». Séquestrer du carbone dans les sols et obtenir un certificat « bas carbone » sur les produits agricoles est aussi un levier à faire valoir auprès des revendeurs et des transformateurs pour obtenir un meilleur prix d’une production différenciée qui améliore l’environnement. Localement, ce genre d’initiative commence mais nécessite que l’agriculteur s’allie avec un transformateur local qui peut communiquer sur la plus-value de son produit (boulanger, brasseur, …). Valoriser le carbone, devient une forme de circuit court.

Les freins au changement

Luc Joris sourit quand on lui demande pourquoi il n’y a pas davantage d’agriculteurs qui cultivent comme lui : « C’est le poids des habitudes, le labour est tellement ancré. Arrêter le labour pour les céréales, ça va, mais pour les cultures racines, comme la betterave, la chicorée ou la pomme de terre, c’est plus compliqué. Elles ont besoin d’un sol bien émietté. Pour y parvenir sans labour, il faut connaître la technique de A à Z. Et si tu rates ta culture, tu diras « c’est parce-que je n’ai pas labouré ». C’est un raccourci fréquent. Pour réussir d’abord il faut le vouloir, ensuite il faut se former. Il ne faut pas essayer non plus ce que les autres ont déjà tenté et qu’ils ont raté. Discuter avec d’autres agriculteurs et écouter leurs conseils est important. Faire des essais, c’est bien, mais au final tu dois gagner ta vie. Il faut arriver à prendre des risques mesurés. La plupart des agriculteurs ne veulent plus prendre de risques, et je les comprends. Ils voudraient une recette pour tout, qui au final assure le résultat. Il faut pouvoir se rassurer avec un plan B. Et même plus, il faut aussi les plans, C, D, E, F, G. Par exemple, quand on modifie une rotation, si la culture rate, il faut toujours avoir sous la main de quoi resemer sans être dépendant de son fournisseur de semences. Donc je produits mes graines. Pour autant que je les sème chez moi, je suis dans la légalité. Je ne désinfecte pas mes semences, c’est encore une économie, et c’est mieux pour l’environnement. Ce n’est qu’à partir du moment où tu gagnes ta vie que tu peux prendre des risques.

Les deux solutions pour favoriser la séquestration du carbone sont soit la certification soit la réglementation européenne au travers de la PAC

Aujourd’hui être certifié « bas carbone » c’est une opportunité. On a la chance aujourd’hui de pouvoir prendre le train en marche et d’en sortir un revenu. Demain ce sera peut-être une contrainte, ce sera rendu obligatoire et c’est très bien pour l’environnement, même si je ne plaide pas pour ma cause en disant cela. »

Luc Joris le résume bien lui-même : les deux solutions pour favoriser la séquestration du carbone sont soit la certification soit la réglementation européenne au travers de la PAC. Pour ce qui est de la première solution, de nombreuses initiatives émergent en Europe. Certaines basées sur des cahiers de charges, d’autres sur des analyses de sol, d’autres encore sur des bilans carbone. Mais de nombreuses questions persistent pour généraliser la séquestration du carbone en agriculture à l’échelle européenne.

Claire Chenu est la coordinatrice d’un nouveau programme de recherche européen qui a débuté en février 2020, le projet « EJP SOIL». 24 pays européens vont harmoniser leurs recherches sur les sols agricoles. Elle explique la genèse de ce projet. « L’Europe a une politique très ambitieuse en terme de climat. Les Etats membres ont besoin de savoir dans quelle mesure la gestion des sols agricoles peut y contribuer. L’Europe a par ailleurs l’intention de rénover la PAC en tenant mieux compte des sols. » Alors que les législateurs de la Commission peuvent être disposés à introduire des nouvelles politiques afin de soutenir la séquestration du carbone par le biais de financements et d’incitations, il reste un manque de clarté sur la science quant à la mesure du carbone dans le sol. Il reste donc un point d’interrogation sur la possibilité d’une vraie politique de résultats. Selon Chenu : « Pour les sols ce n’est pas évident. Comment mesurer des changements de qualité des sols ? Pourrait-on mettre en place des mesures PAC basées sur la mesure de qualité des sols (et non pas sur des pratiques) ? (…) On va inventorier ce qui existe dans les différents pays comme étant des pratiques climato-intelligentes qui maintiennent la qualité des sols et la biodiversité. Ensuite on priorisera les sujets de recherche sur des systèmes où les sols sont multi-fonctionnels. Derrières ces solutions, les options en vue sont les pratiques de l’agroécologie, l’agriculture régénérative, l’agriculture de conservation des sols, l’agroforesterie et l’agriculture biologique. »

Back in the Ground: Capturing Carbon through Farming

While the merits of natural solutions to climate change, like planting trees or restoring peatland, are hotly debated, one such idea currently part of a major European research project is still little used around the world: carbon sequestration by agricultural soil. Agriculture could become a solution to climate change, rather than being part of the problem. This would involve spreading the principles of agroecology while building resilience to climate variations and crop disease. 

Claire Chenu, a professor at France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE), was a spokesperson for the “4 per 1000” initiative launched by the French at COP21 held at the end of 2015 in Paris. As she explains: “The main idea behind the “4 per 1000″ initiative is to manage soils sustainably so that they can fulfil the many functions that we expect of them. This is above all to support food production and security, but to also to mitigate climate change and help agriculture to adapt to it.” So, increasing the amount of carbon stored in the soil through photosynthesis could also help reduce atmospheric CO2. She continues: “There is so much carbon in the world’s soils that, if we increased the amount of carbon in agricultural soils by 4 per 1000 – or 0.4 % – each year, we would capture the equivalent of what is emitted by our planet into the atmosphere annually from all sources.” 

It’s an incredible figure, and represents the total carbon emissions that could theoretically be offset. The key to this phenomenon is photosynthesis, which means farmers have a vital role to play in storing carbon because they have billions of factories working for them for free: chloroplasts, the organelles in which photosynthesis takes place. Photosynthesis is the unique process that enables plants to synthesise their tissues (organic matter) using light energy and carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbed from the air. The parts of crops that we use are turned back into COwithout storing any carbon, but what is left in the field (stems, roots, soil cover) helps to increase the organic matter in the soil and capture carbon. Furthermore, as they grow, plants inject sugars (containing carbon) through their roots into the soil, nourishing microfauna and fungi that benefit them (nutrition, resistance to diseases). 

The seed of an idea 

This may sound like a sustainable solution but to better understand the process and challenges of rolling it out on the ground, we need to hear from farmers themselves. Luc Joris is farmer in Chastre, Belgium, where he has a 225-hectare growing beat, chicory, endives, potatoes, peas, cereals, maize and pastures. He has long been thinking, talking to fellow farmers and reading specialist agricultural journals about reducing tillage, pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. His initial goal was to improve profitability. He is monitored by independent agronomists who calculate his net carbon account. These calculations are made using the Cool Farm Tool, an American model that has been adapted for European conditions. In calculating the carbon footprint of his land, a range of factors are taken into consideration, including use of fertilisers and plant protection products, crop management (types of tillage), yields obtained, vegetation, and trees planted. The carbon account is regularly updated to factor in improvements in farming practices. The net carbon account for Joris’s farm is positive: in 2020 it captured 80 more tonnes of CO2 than it produced. But Joris believes there’s still room for improvement in sequestration: “Storing carbon means doing two things: first, stopping the degradation of soil humus content, because that’s where the carbon is; and second, nourishing the soil with a variety of high-quality cover and crops without injecting too many chemicals, because the production of chemicals adds carbon from elsewhere”. 

The secrets to carbon capture 

Joris already knew that his soil should never be left bare and always needed cover to inject carbon into it through plant photosynthesis. Permanent soil cover using a variety of plant species, including legumes, which fix nitrogen in the soil through their symbiotic relationship with soil-dwelling bacteria.  

But he could do better: he had to stop tilling the soil, which releases hard-earned carbon stores. Three years ago, he took the plunge and stopped deep ploughing. This change in practice also brought him significant diesel savings: turning the soil to a depth of 30 cm uses a lot of fuel on a farm. Moreover, using compost and manure reduces the need for mineral fertilisers made in oil-guzzling factories. This all adds up to a net gain for the farm’s overall carbon account. Joris has also planted hedgerows to improve this further. He previously had one large 45-hectare plot that he has now split into three with multi-species hedgerows bordered by strips of mixed grasses. These provide shelter and cover for auxiliary insects, which reduce disease pressure. 

Through all of these actions, Joris has improved his revenues while adopting practices that are positive for the environment. Indeed, by cutting back on inputs, (diesel, synthetic fertilisers), he reduces the CO2 emissions created by their manufacture and use. What’s more, he increases the organic matter (carbon) in his soil, which makes his land more fertile and more resilient to drought, floods and disease. 

Making it all add up 

There’s a reason why Joris became a farmer. He enjoys working hard and seeing the fruits of his labour. He is practically minded and enjoys engineering and working outdoors with living things. But explaining his job to people who know nothing about it beyond a few misconceptions is a challenge. So, as is the case for many farmers, selling direct from the farm isn’t something he’s thinking about doing. The amounts he would need to sell are huge and, in any case, apart from potatoes and peas, everything he produces must be processed first. You can’t dip a beetroot in your tea. 

The two solutions for encouraging carbon sequestration are either certification or European regulation through the CAP.

Like most farmers, Joris sells his products through traders or direct to industry. For cereals, the price is set by the exchanges in Chicago or Paris. For potatoes, peas, beet and chicory, he signs contracts with processing plants. “They offer you a price, and it’s take it or leave it; there’s no room for negotiation. And they insist on large, perfectly uniform batches to ensure that every product leaving the factory is identical. Since they centralised collection, processing and distribution in the 1950s, artisans and small-scale local industry have been in decline. But it’s their know-how that allows small businesses to adapt to the harvest’s characteristics and get the most out of the product.” Capturing carbon in the soil and obtaining a “low carbon” certificate for agricultural produce is also a way of persuading traders and processors to pay a better price for a differentiated product that improves the environment. Locally, we are starting to see these types of initiative but, to succeed, they need farmers to work with local processors (such as bakeries, breweries) who can promote the added value of their products. Carbon certification is a way of doing this. 

Obstacles to change 

Joris smiles when asked why more farmers don’t farm like him: “It’s force of habit: ploughing is so engrained. Stopping ploughing for cereals isn’t a problem, but for root crops like beet, chicory or potatoes it’s more complicated. They need soil that is very crumbly. To manage this without ploughing, you need to know the technique inside out. And if your crop fails, you’ll say: ‘it’s because I didn’t plough’. It’s a common mental shortcut. But you won’t succeed unless you first want to and then learn how, and it’s futile to do what others have tried and failed. Talking to other farmers and listening to their advice is important. Experimenting is fine but, at the end of the day, you have to earn a living. You have to take reasonable risks. Most farmers don’t want to take risks anymore, which I can understand. They would like a formula for everything that guarantees results. But in reality you need a plan B. And even plans C, D, E, F, G. For example, when you change a rotation, if the crop fails, you should always have something else ready to re-sow without relying on your seed supplier. So, I produce my own seeds. As long as I just sow them on my farm, I’m not breaking any seed patent laws. I don’t disinfect my seeds, which is one more saving and better for the environment too. It’s only once you are earning a living that you can take risks. “ 

“Today, being ‘low carbon’ certified is an opportunity. We have the chance to jump on the bandwagon and earn income from it. In future, it may well be made mandatory and become an obligation. That would be very good for the environment but it might be harder for certified farmers to make money from it.” 

Joris sums it up well: the two solutions for encouraging carbon sequestration are either certification or European regulation through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). As far as the first is concerned, many initiatives are emerging in Europe. Some are based on specifications, others on soil analyses or carbon accounts. But lots of questions must first be resolved before carbon sequestration through agriculture can become widespread at a European level. 

“Europe has a very ambitious climate policy. Member states need to know how management of agricultural soils can play a part in this.”

Chenu is the coordinator of EJP SOIL, a new European research programme launched in February 2020. Its 24 member countries aim to pool their research into agricultural soils, to promote a better understanding of the role of farming in carbon capture through soil. Chenu explains the idea behind the project: “Europe has a very ambitious climate policy. Member states need to know how management of agricultural soils can play a part in this. What’s more, the EU plans to update the CAP to take better account of soil.” While policy-makers at the Commission may be open to bringing in additional legislation to support carbon sequestration through funding and incentives, there remains a lack of a clarity about the science for measuring carbon in the soil, raising questions around the feasibility of a results-based policy. “For soils, it isn’t clear,” explains Chenu. “How do you measure changes in soil quality? Could we put in place CAP systems based on measuring soil quality, rather than on practices? (…) We’re going to take an inventory of climate-smart practices that maintain soil quality and biodiversity in different countries. Then we’ll prioritise research into systems in which soils are multi-functional. The options being examined involve practices from agroecology, regenerative agriculture, conservation agriculture, agroforestry, and organic agriculture.” 

Antispécisme, écologie, comment en finir avec ce Carnage ?

Alors qu’en cet automne 2020, nous subissons la deuxième vague de Covid 19, une enquête de l’IPBES publiée fin octobre vient démontrer que prévenir les pandémies coûterait nettement moins cher que de tenter de limiter leurs ravages en attendant un vaccin. Pour cela, les scientifiques de l’IPBES en appellent à transformer radicalement nos modèles économiques, agricoles et financiers, en réduisant notamment drastiquement l’élevage, et donc notre consommation de viande. Ce qui vient donner du grain à moudre aux mouvements véganes et végétariens en plein essor, pourtant encore souvent caricaturés soit comme de doux dingues, soit comme de dangereux activistes radicalisés et voulant imposer leur mode de vie.  

C’est dans ce contexte que nous avons voulu interroger l’auteur et activiste de la cause animale Jean-Marc Gancille, dont le dernier ouvrage, Carnage, qui vient d’être publié en septembre 2020, jette un regard factuel sans aucune concession sur l’état du massacre du vivant à l’échelle du globe et en appelle à la fin de l’exploitation animale par des solutions concrètes radicales.  

Benjamin Joyeux: Votre livre Carnage s’inscrit logiquement dans votre parcours professionnel et personnel. Mais pourquoi ce livre maintenant, alors que de nombreux ouvrages traitent d’ores et déjà de la question ? Il manquait des informations scientifiques qui justifiaient d’un livre supplémentaire ? 

Jean-Marc Gancille: Il y a énormément d’arguments susceptibles de convaincre la majorité que nous sommes dans une société d’oppression et d’asservissement des animaux à tous les niveaux, mais ces niveaux ne sont pas perçus dans leur globalité. Chacun les voit séparément et les considère sous l’angle du divertissement, du monde sauvage, de l’alimentaire, de la captivité… Je trouve que nous manquons d’un tableau général de ce « carnage » mettant en perspective toutes ces multiples façons que nous avons de massacrer et de soumettre les animaux dans l’espace et dans le temps. Ce tout en niant leurs facultés cognitives et leur sentience, encore trop peu connues, avec beaucoup de dénis et de contrevérités qui circulent.  

J’ai ainsi essayé de dresser à la fois un constat implacable sur la situation et sur le fait qu’un certain nombre de postures sont aujourd’hui intenables dans tous les domaines pour démontrer, dans la lignée de mon précédent livre Ne plus se mentir, l’urgente nécessité de solutions radicales. Nous avons besoin d’ouvrir une fenêtre d’Overton sur la question animale, pour arrêter les petits pas et effectuer un grand saut dans un nouveau paradigme, celui de la considération totale envers ceux qui ont comme nous le droit d’exister. Ce livre est une tentative d’entrer dans ce nouveau paradigme, avec des idées et des mots à la fois grand public et sans concession, pour provoquer un déclic.  

Pour en finir avec l’anthropocentrisme ? Est-ce que les arguments rationnels en la matière sont suffisants ou ne faut-il pas envisager par exemple une nouvelle sacralité par rapport au vivant, quelque chose de plus spirituel ? 

Pour prendre conscience de l’importance de ces questions, tout le monde ne fonctionne pas de la même façon. Certains vont être beaucoup plus ouverts et réceptifs aux arguments spirituels, aux émotions… et d’autres comme moi vont être beaucoup plus attentifs aux arguments rationnels. Personnellement, j’ai besoin d’aller au fonds des sujets et de ce que la science dit aujourd’hui, comme sur la sentience animale ou sur les données statistiques quant à l’étendue des massacres à l’échelle globale.  

Il existe aujourd’hui toute une palette d’actions en faveur de la cause animale : végétarisme et véganisme, boycott, actions de libération, essais politiques ou philosophiques comme ceux de Corinne Pelluchon, etc. Cela permet déjà de se maintenir dans une sorte de dignité, à défaut de parvenir à l’objectif de mettre fin à ce carnage, parce que l’on estime en son for intérieur que c’est juste, dans le plus grand respect possible du vivant.  

En même temps, comme beaucoup de gens qui militent depuis longtemps pour la cause animale, je mesure à quel point les résistances sont fortes. Mais paradoxalement, c’est un domaine dans lequel les prises de conscience opèrent plus rapidement qu’ailleurs. Par exemple, au sein des jeunes générations, l’éthique animale semble progresser encore plus vite que l’éthique écologique, même si l’on met en avant en permanence Greta Thunberg et la « génération climat » et que la cause animale continue de susciter par ailleurs énormément de railleries. 

Si l’on fait la symétrie avec la lutte pour le climat, dont les précurseurs parlaient déjà dans les années 60, la prise de conscience semble désormais réelle. Alors que se déclarer végane aujourd’hui au nom de l’éthique animale reste un point de vue marginalisé. Comment expliquer ce différentiel entre la cause climatique d’un côté et la cause animale de l’autre ? Est-ce juste une question de temps ? 

Pourtant nous pouvons beaucoup plus concrètement et efficacement mettre en œuvre à l’échelle individuelle des convictions animalistes que pour répondre aux enjeux du carbone et de la crise climatique : rien ne nous oblige aujourd’hui à manger des animaux ou leurs sous-produits, alors que nous n’avons pas tellement les moyens de travailler et de vivre sans se chauffer, sans se déplacer, sans consommer un minimum…  Il me paraît plus facile de s’extraire d’une attitude oppressive par rapport aux animaux que de quitter du jour au lendemain un mode de vie fortement émetteur en CO2.  

Nous pouvons beaucoup plus concrètement et efficacement mettre en œuvre à l’échelle individuelle des convictions animalistes que pour répondre aux enjeux du carbone et de la crise climatique

La 6e extinction de masse des espèces serait plus facile à résoudre que la crise climatique ? 

Oui, paradoxalement ça pourrait aller plus vite, bien que ces deux crises soient intimement liées. Je reste assez sombre quant à notre avenir et notre destinée commune, mais si j’ai des motifs de satisfaction, c’est de voir à quel point les idées animalistes et antispécistes se propagent et ont des impacts infiniment plus élevés à l’échelle individuelle comparativement à la cause climatique, où pourtant on ne cesse par ailleurs d’appeler à la mobilisation.  

Une critique revient régulièrement à l’encontre des véganes et des antispécistes qui seraient les « idiots utiles du capitalisme », en permettant à l’agro-industrie de faire main basse sur la viande synthétique. Qu’en pensez-vous ? 

Ce sont des discussions que j’ai régulièrement avec des écologistes « mainstream », comme par exemple avec Benoît Biteau, paysan agronome et eurodéputé écologiste. Pour moi c’est un argument fallacieux, dans la logique de Jocelyne Porcher, de Paul Ariès et consorts.  

D’une part, je conteste formellement la contribution du petit élevage à la biodiversité, qu’il a à mon avis bien plus ruinée qu’autre chose. D’autre part, je pense que la question de la séquestration du carbone dans les prairies est très discutable : il y a beaucoup de controverses quant à la contribution de l’élevage, même dit « responsable », sur ces questions.  

Par ailleurs, je constate régulièrement que l’immense majorité des véganes ou des végétariens autour de moi ne consomment en général que très peu de produits industrialisés. Il y a donc un discours dominant qui ne colle pas avec la réalité que je peux empiriquement observer. En cherchant à en savoir plus, je suis tombé sur quelques articles particulièrement éclairants (quelques liens sont dans Carnage) : les fabricants de viande synthétique admettent eux-mêmes très clairement que leur marché cible, ce sont les omnivores qui par mauvaise conscience ont envie de trouver des substituts ponctuels à la viande. Car généralement, quand on fait définitivement une croix sur la viande, ce n’est pas pour la retrouver dans son assiette sous une apparence différente.  

En plus, ce discours des « véganes faisant le jeu de l’industrie » nourrit le paradigme dominant selon lequel il peut y avoir un élevage « responsable ». Cela déculpabilise l’immense majorité qui continue à manger de la viande et qui, comme tout le monde le sait, s’approvisionne toujours chez un « petit boucher local qui fait de la viande bio et qui est très sympa ». C’est hypocrite et porteur d’une bonne conscience séparant les « méchants » industriels des « gentils » petits éleveurs qui tuent « dignement ». Or on ne peut pas tuer « dignement ».  

Rappelons-le, ce n’est plus une nécessité vitale dans nos pays occidentaux de manger de la viande. Cela me désole d’avoir à batailler sur ce sujet avec des écologistes, comme à la commission animale d’Europe Ecologie Les Verts par exemple, qui a réussi à promouvoir le concept d’« élevage éthique » pendant la dernière campagne des municipales.  

Ces fortes résistances dans les milieux écolos, en ne considérant toujours pas le droit à vivre des animaux non-humains, dessert à mon sens au-delà de la cause animale toute la cause de l’écologie.   

Du coup, des divisions idéologiques se creusent au sein de l’écologie politique. Or tout le monde ne devrait-il pas essayer de s’entendre pour faire cause commune, étant donné l’état actuel du vivant sur la planète ? Comment faire convergence ?  

J’ai été très longtemps partisan d’une forme d’alliance entre ceux qui sont sensibles à l’éthique animale et le mouvement paysan anti-industrialisation, persuadé que l’on pouvait à minima se rejoindre sur cette cause première. Mais tandis que L214 par exemple a initié des tribunes pour appeler à cette forme de convergence dans une logique progressiste pour arriver à régler à minima un certain nombre de situations indécentes, beaucoup d’écologistes n’étaient même pas en capacité d’entendre ce discours-là, ayant encore en tête l’idée que tuer un animal sans nécessité peut être tolérable et se justifier. On ne peut pas cadencer ou morceler cette lutte de l’éthique animale en partant d’un présupposé si différent.   

N’y a-t-il pas également un prisme français autour de la culture de la viande qui fait que même chez les écologistes, il y a une plus grande difficulté à faire entendre la cause animale, notamment par rapport aux pays scandinaves ou anglo-saxons ?  

J’ai de la famille en Allemagne et je constate en effet qu’il y a là-bas une propension plus grande d’écologistes qui sont simultanément véganes ou végétariens. Dans les pays scandinaves également, quand on rencontre des écologistes, ils sont la plupart du temps partisans de la végétalisation de leur alimentation. Pour eux, c’est une évidence ! Il y a donc c’est vrai un contexte français particulier lié à ce patrimoine culinaire mythifié autour de ses paysans qui provoque des résistances et des clivages irrémédiables. Plus largement, c’est sans doute plus difficile de convaincre dans les pays latins qui se targuent d’un certain « art de vivre ». Ce qui me laisse pantois, c’est que ce sont ces soi-disant « bons vivants » qui sont quand même ceux qui tuent le plus. 

Je voudrais également ne pas oublier la pêche, car il y aurait là-aussi une petite pêche « vertueuse » face aux « méchants industriels qui videraient les océans». C’est en grande partie vrai sur les méchants industriels, mais il faut également déconstruire l’idée selon laquelle la petite pêche serait vertueuse. Des militants écologistes revendiquent une pêche durable et responsable, en s’appuyant notamment sur des associations comme BloomCharles Braine par exemple, petit pêcheur de son état et militant à Place Publique, en est un bon exemple. On peut très bien discuter avec lui, mais il reste dans le refus de creuser la question philosophique du fait de tuer sans nécessité. Alors que l’on sait désormais, statistiques à l’appui (auxquelles je fais référence dans le livre), que la petite pêche et la pêche industrielle prélèvent autant de tonnages de poissons pour l’alimentation humaine. Il n’y a donc pas à mythifier une petite pêche vertueuse, finalement aussi délétère pour l’effondrement des écosystèmes marins, ou ce qu’il en reste. C’est un autre combat moins médiatisé, mais parfois tout aussi désespérant quand on voit les résistances et les niveaux d’argumentation.  

En gros pour vous, c’est le discours welfariste et utilitariste qui serait le discours le plus « idiot utile du capitalisme » ? 

Absolument ! On peut le dire comme ça.  

En page 165, vous parlez pourtant de réconcilier écologie et animalisme. Alors que faire ? 

C’est un paragraphe que j’aurais voulu fouiller encore davantage. Il y a toute la réflexion de Thomas Lepeltier, très intéressante sur le sujet. Celui-ci pointe notamment toutes ces contradictions qui font qu’aujourd’hui, il y a un mouvement écologiste globalement en résistance face aux idées antispécistes, campant sur des positions utilitaristes dans une sorte de déni de la souffrance. Un discours se développe dangereusement sur la possibilité de continuer à massacrer les animaux, mais de façon « écolo », avec des pseudos solutions : des petits éleveurs qui prétendent contribuer à la sauvegarde de la biodiversité et à la réduction des émissions de CO2 et des petits pêcheurs qui prétendent que les prélèvements qu’ils occasionnent dans les océans n’ont pas d’impact sur la chaîne trophique et sur l’effondrement des systèmes marins. Or ce discours permet surtout de ne rien changer. 

Un discours se développe dangereusement sur la possibilité de continuer à massacrer les animaux, mais de façon « écolo »

N’allons-nous pas nous retrouver dans une injonction contradictoire totale ? Car les jeunes générations sont de plus en plus attachées à l’éthique animale, et on le voit dans les sondagesfinissent par voter pour les écologistes officiels. Certes il y a des tensions permanentes, mais comment aujourd’hui espérer quand même pouvoir faire convergence ? 

Il y a deux choses : est-ce qu’on va pouvoir convertir les écologistes à l’animalisme ? Si j’en juge par un certain nombre de groupes sur les réseaux sociaux réceptifs à des arguments comme le groupe Transition 2030, composé de collapsologistes, d’écologistes radicaux… on y observe de plus en plus d’intérêt pour l’animalisme et une remise en cause des idées reçues qui donne de l’espoir. Mais des résistances phénoménales et un clivage profond demeure entre ceux qui n’ont que le carbone en tête et tous ceux qui se préoccupent davantage des questions éthiques de souffrance animale. Cet antagonisme est difficilement réconciliable.  

En France, on ne pourra sans doute pas rendre Europe Ecologie Les Verts antispéciste et il y aura de plus en plus de mouvements qui porteront ces idées (Parti animalisteREV…) et grignoteront sur l’électorat écologiste majoritaire. Même si ce mouvement reste marginal, il n’est plus anodin.  

Je souhaiterais vraiment que les écologistes se retrouvent sur l’essentiel, mais malheureusement l’essentiel n’est pas là. On ne peut pas mettre de côté ce carnage animal actuel au nom du rassemblement, c’est de plus en plus clivant.  

Pour en finir avec l’anthropocentrisme, comme vous en appelez dans votre livrecomment faire alors, à l’échelle individuelle comme collective ? 

La solution première la plus évidente est de cesser immédiatement toute consommation de chaire animale et de sous-produits issus des animaux. Il s’agit ensuite de refuser de cautionner tout ce qui va dans le sens de l’asservissement et de la domination des animaux, comme par exemple boycotter absolument les zoos, les delphinariums, tous les parcs d’attraction dans lesquels des animaux sont maintenus en captivité la plupart du temps dans des conditions indignes et martyrisés pour obéir. On peut également s’engager dans tous les combats s’inscrivant dans ces idées, sans endosser pour autant un costume de guérillero. Il y a beaucoup de possibilités d’agir auprès d’associations comme L214Sea Shepherd269 Life libération animale… Nous avons par exemple créer avec plusieurs associations le collectif Rewild de lutte contre la captivité afin de racheter le zoo de Pont-Scorff en Bretagne pour en faire un centre d’accueil et de sauvegarde des animaux sauvages (Rewild Rescue Center). C’est une action qui suscite beaucoup d’adhésion populaire et qui remet en cause un certain nombre de fondements de l’industrie du divertissement et de la captivité.  

Il faut évidemment refuser la chasse et la corrida. Il ne faut rien lâcher et continuer de tenir tête en argumentant rationnellement sur des faits avérés, comme le fait très bien par exemple par son travail l’autrice et illustratrice Florence Dellerie.  

Il est également nécessaire autant que faire se peut de limiter les interactions avec les animaux sauvages pour leur permettre de retrouver leur souveraineté, car on ne cesse d’empiéter sur leurs espaces. Il y a par exemple une recherche effrénée d’interactions avec les animaux sauvages pour des selfies qui est non seulement grotesque mais avant tout préjudiciable. Les animaux ont surtout besoin qu’on leur fiche la paix. 

Interview réalisée par téléphone en août 2020 

How Do We End This Carnage?

Anti-speciesism posits that it is unethical to exploit or harm animals simply because they belong to a different species than our own. In his latest book, animal rights activist Jean-Marc Gancille defends this position, arguing that ethical farming will always be a contradiction in terms, and denounces a failure on the part of many environmentalists to connect the dots between the climate cause and the subjugation of animals.  

As a second wave of Covid-19 sweeps across Europe this autumn, a study published by IPBES at the end of October shows that preventing pandemics would cost significantly less than trying to limit their devasting impact before an effective vaccine can be produced. IPBES scientists are calling for a radical transformation of our economic, financial, and agricultural models, including a drastic reduction in livestock rearing and with it our meat consumption. This is grist to the mill of the fast-growing vegan and vegetarian movements, which are still too often caricatured as either a bunch of harmless crackpots, or a group of dangerous radicals who want to impose their way of life on everybody else.

In this context, Benjamin Joyeux speaks to author and animal rights activist Jean-Marc Gancille, whose latest book Carnage, published in September 2020, takes an uncompromising look at the massacre of animals globally today and calls for the end of animal exploitation through a series of radical, concrete solutions.

Benjamin Joyeux: Why publish this book now, when there are already plenty of others out there on the subject? Was it the lack of scientific evidence that warranted another book?

Jean-Marc Gancille: There are a great many arguments likely to convince most people that we live in a society that oppresses and enslaves animals at every level, but these levels are not perceived together as a whole. Each person sees the levels separately, viewing them through the lens of entertainment, the natural world, food, captivity… I think that we lack an overall picture of this “carnage”, one that provides an overview of the myriad ways in which we massacre and subjugate animals in space and time. As we do so, we deny their cognitive faculties and sentience – still not widely understood.

So I’ve tried to provide an uncompromising assessment of the situation and of the fact that some positions are untenable today, to show that there is an urgent need for radical solutions. We need to shift the Overton window on animal rights, to stop the small steps and take a giant leap into a new paradigm, one that gives full consideration towards those who, like us, have the right to exist.

Are scientific arguments enough to end anthropocentrism? Or do we need to endow living beings with a new sacredness, something more spiritual?

When it comes to understanding the importance of these questions, not everyone works in the same way. Some will be much more open and receptive to spiritual arguments, to emotions, while others, like me, will be much more sympathetic to rational arguments. Personally, I need to explore issues in depth and see what the science says today about things such as animal sentience or data on the extent of massacres globally.

Today, we are seeing a whole range of actions in favour of animal rights: vegetarianism and veganism, boycotts, liberation actions, political or philosophical essays like those by Corinne Pelluchon. At the same time, like many people who have long been fighting for animal rights, I am aware of just how strong the resistance is. But, paradoxically, it’s an area in which awareness is growing more quickly than others. For example, among younger generations, animal ethics seem to be gaining ground even faster than environmental ethics, despite the latter being constantly highlighted by Greta Thunberg and the “climate generation”, and animal rights continuing to be the object of much mockery.

We can act much more concretely and effectively on our convictions at an individual level when it comes to animals rights than we can on the question of carbon and the climate crisis.

The pioneers of fighting climate change were speaking out as early as the 1960s, and there now seems to be a real awareness. Yet declaring yourself a vegan in the name of animal ethics remains a fringe position. How can we explain this gap between the issue of climate, on the one hand, and animal rights, on the other? Is it just a matter of time?

We can act much more concretely and effectively on our convictions at an individual level when it comes to animals rights than we can on the question of carbon and the climate crisis. Today, there’s nothing forcing us to eat animals or their by-products, whereas we can’t really work or live without heating our homes, travelling, consuming a bare minimum… It appears that it’s easier to leave behind an oppressive attitude towards animals overnight than it is an extremely carbon-intensive way of life.

Will the sixth mass extinction event be easier to resolve than the climate crisis?

Yes, paradoxically, this may be quicker to resolve, even though the two crises are intimately linked. I remain fairly pessimistic about our future and our common destiny, but if I have any cause for satisfaction, it’s to see the extent to which animal rights and anti-speciesist ideas are spreading and having a much greater impact at an individual level compared to those around the climate crisis, about which there are continuing calls for collective action.

One criticism regularly levelled at vegans and anti-speciesists is that they’re serving as “capitalism’s useful idiots” by enabling agro-industry to gain a stranglehold on synthetic meat production. What do you think?

These are the sorts of debates that I regularly have with mainstream environmentalists such as Benoît Biteau, the agronomist farmer and Green MEP. For me, it’s a spurious argument.

I vehemently disagree that small-scale livestock farming contributes to biodiversity, which, in my opinion, it has ruined more than anything else

On the one hand, I vehemently disagree that small-scale livestock farming contributes to biodiversity, which, in my opinion, it has ruined more than anything else. On the other hand, I think that the idea of carbon sequestration by pasture is very debatable: there’s a lot of controversy around the contribution of livestock, even if “responsibly” farmed.

What’s more, I regularly notice that the vast majority of vegans and vegetarians around me generally eat very little industrially produced food. So there’s a prevailing view that doesn’t match the reality that I can empirically observe. When I looked into it further, I came across some particularly illuminating articles (some links can be found in Carnage): manufacturers of synthetic meat themselves admit that their target market is omnivores who, out of a feeling of guilt, want to find occasional substitutes to meat. Because generally, when you give up meat, it’s not to see it back on your plate in a different guise.

Furthermore, this idea of “vegans pandering to industry” feeds the dominant narrative that “responsible” livestock farming is possible. This absolves the guilt of the vast majority who continue to eat meat and who, as everybody knows, always shop at a “local independent butcher who’s very nice and does organic meat”. It’s hypocritical and lets people off the hook to separate “bad” factory farmers from “good” small farmers who kill “with dignity”. But you can’t kill “with dignity”.

Remember, in Western countries, eating meat is no longer a vital necessity. It saddens me to have to fight about this with Greens, like on the animal welfare committee of Europe Ecologie Les Verts (EELV), for example, which managed to promote the concept of “ethical livestock farming” during the last local election campaign.

By continuing to ignore the right to life of non-human animals, I believe this fierce resistance among Greens not only harms animal rights but the whole environmental movement. 

As a result, ideological divides are opening up in political ecology. Yet, given the current state of the natural world, shouldn’t everyone be trying to get along and make common cause? How can we bring people together?

I have long been in favour of an alliance between those who are concerned about animal ethics and farmers opposed to factory farming, convinced that at the very least we could agree on the first issue. But while, for example, [animal rights organisation] L214 set up forums to try and find common ground on a progressive approach to tackling a minimum number of shameful situations, many Greens could not even bring themselves to hear what was said, still holding on to the idea that killing an animal unnecessarily can be acceptable and justified. We can’t move forward in the fight for animal ethics by starting from such a different presupposition.  

Isn’t there also a French meat culture which means that, even among environmentalists, it’s harder for arguments about animal rights to cut through, compared to, say, Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon countries?

I’ve got family in Germany and I have indeed noticed that there’s a greater tendency for environmentalists to also be vegan or vegetarian over there. In Scandinavian countries too, when you meet environmentalists, most of the time they’re proponents of moving towards a plant-based diet. For them, it’s a no-brainer! So it’s true, there is a specific French context linked to this culinary heritage that has been mythologised around its farmers, which results in resistance and irreconcilable differences. More broadly speaking, it’s undoubtedly harder to convince people in Latin countries that pride themselves in a certain art de vivre. What flabbergasts me is that it’s these so-called bons viveurs who kill the most.

I don’t want to forget fishing, either, because here too there seems to be a “virtuous” small-scale fishing up against “evil industrial fishing that is emptying the oceans”. The bit about evil industrial fishing is largely true, but we also need to debunk the idea that small-scale fishing is virtuous. Environmentalists call for sustainable and responsible fishing through organisations like Bloom. Yet, from the statistics (which I reference in the book), we now know that small-scale fishing and industrial fishing catch the same tonnage of fish for human consumption. So, we shouldn’t mythologise “virtuous” small-scale fishing which, at the end of the day, is just as harmful and just as responsible for the collapse of marine ecosystems, or what’s left of them. It’s a battle that gets less media coverage, but is often just as dispiriting when you see the amount of resistance and levels of argument.

We shouldn’t mythologise “virtuous” small-scale fishing which, at the end of the day, is just as harmful and just as responsible for the collapse of marine ecosystems

Basically, for you it’s the welfarist and utilitarian narrative that most serves as “capitalism’s useful idiot”?

Absolutely! You can put it like that.

In the book you also discuss prospects for reconciling environmentalism and animal rights. How can this be done?

Thomas Lepeltier highlights all the contradictions which mean that, today, there’s an environmentalist movement that is resistant to anti-speciesist ideas, taking up utilitarian positions in a sort of denial of suffering. A dangerous narrative is developing around the possibility of continuing to massacre animals, but in a “green” way, with pseudo solutions: small livestock farmers who claim that they are contributing to biodiversity and reducing CO2 emissions, and small fishermen who claim that their catches have no impact on the food chain and the collapse of marine systems. Yet this narrative means that nothing has to change.

Aren’t we going to find ourselves in a completely contradictory situation? Because younger generations, who surveys show are increasingly attached to animal ethics, will end up voting for mainstream Greens. Of course, there will always be tensions, but what hope is there for finding common ground?

There are two things: are we going to be able to convert environmentalists to the animal rights cause? Judging by a number of groups on social media that are receptive to the these arguments, like Transition 2030, which includes collapsologists and radical environmentalists among others, there is more and more interest in animal rights and a questioning of received opinion, which gives reason for hope. But incredible resistance and a deep divide remain between those who only think about carbon and those who are more concerned with the ethics of animal suffering. This antagonism is hard to reconcile.

In France, we won’t be able to make EELV anti-speciesist and there will be more and more movements advocating these ideas such as the Parti animaliste and REV and nibbling away at the mainstream Green electorate. Although this movement remains fringe, it’s no longer trivial.

I’d really like to see Greens agree on the fundamentals, but unfortunately the fundamentals aren’t there. We can’t ignore this current animal carnage in the name of unity, it’s ever more divisive.

To end anthropocentrism, as you put it in your book, what do we need to do both individually and collectively?

The first and most obvious solution is to immediately stop all consumption of animal flesh and by-products. Then it’s a question of refusing to support anything that leads to the enslavement and domination of animals by, for example, boycotting zoos, dolphinariums, and any theme parks where animals are kept in captivity for most of the time in disgraceful conditions and tormented to obey. We can also get involved in every fight for these ideas, without putting on a guerrilla uniform.

We must obviously oppose hunting and bullfighting. As far as possible, we must also limit our interactions with wild animals and allow them to regain their sovereignty, because we continue to encroach upon their space. For example, there is a frenzied pursuit of interactions with wild animals for selfies that is not just grotesque but above all harmful. Animals just need us to leave them in peace.

Interview conducted over the phone in August 2020

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