An interview with Dimitri Roussopoulos, co-founder of TRISE and Black Rose Books, by Thodoris Antonopoulos from the Greek journal Lifo. Translated from Greek for TRISE’s website.
I had prepared another question for the beginning, but the latest developments changed my mind… after the recent “superstorms” Harvey and Irma, combined with the accelerating melting of the polar ice and other extreme phenomena, seem to confirm that climate change is not just on our doorstep but have already passed it.
Unfortunately, this is true and this growing challenge is undoubtedly among the most critical, if not the most critical, before the human civilization today. Even climate change deniers are already being “bombarded” with scientific evidences that say yes, something is really going wrong. And, you know, nature itself can survive, it has done it under worst disasters. The question is if our specie will survive.
The deniers claim that climate change is a periodical natural phenomenon and that the human contribution to it is negligible…
This is of course absolutely false. The UN formed an international panel of scientists, the IPCC, in 1988 to systematically study the origin and importance of the current climate crisis. This research has resulted in three key contributions. The first two basically summed up all available data from various science stations across the globe. In the third, the link between the climate crisis and human activities was emphatically demonstrated and proved. So, there is a lot of pressure from various lobby interests directed at characterizing the researchers’ conclusion as “controversial”! But it is more than clear that the problem is not nature, but man and, more specifically, the economic and developmental model that has dominated the past centuries in various forms – something that social ecology has been claiming since the 1960s.
Among the “deniers” is also the American president Donald Trump.
That’s exactly what’s dangerous. He even assigned to his government other plutocrats with similar views. The worst man is in the most responsible position in such a critical period – and not only from an environmental point of view!
His election certainly worries every thinking man.
Undoubtedly, although I did not consider it a huge surprise. There are many things to be blamed, including the deficiencies and shortcomings of the American representative democracy. I know, of course, American academics who, when they learned about Trump’s election, were so shocked that they took sick leave, while others needed hospitalization because of nervous crises! At the same time, however, a mass protest movement came down the streets, a multiform movement, with protesters expressing solidarity with one another’s demands. Where it can lead remains open for discussion, but the pulse, the number and size of the demonstrations are impressive. The main cites of protest and resistance are the cities. Thinkers like Murray Bookchin, Jane Jacobs and Benjamin Barber predicted this development as progressive citizens use their institutional possibilities, city resources, lawyers, etc. to resist Trump and everything he represents. National governments today – and not just in the United States – are becoming more narrow-minded while cities are increasingly cosmopolitan, undertaking new role.
I had the fortune to attend your speech in the free social space Nosotros (Athens, Greece) on the occasion of the Greek edition of your book “Political Ecology: Beyond Environmentalism”, something interesting as I do not remember having seen another book of yours being translated into Greek.
It is a re-release – it was first published in 1995 by a publisher in Thessaloniki but was quickly sold-out. This is new Greek edition, with a new translation by Panayiotis Kalamaras. The problem is that, unlike the corresponding Turkish, Spanish, French and English versions, it had been published without the last chapter, which explains what happened in Paris at the World Climate Change Conference (COP 21, 30/11-10 / 12/15) and what conclusions came from there, which contributes to the understanding of the climate and ecological crisis as a whole. It is very important that the Greek readers and citizens are informed, and I focus briefly on three key points: The first concerns the negotiations between politicians and bureaucrats, with the US doing everything possible to avoid a specific agreement, while some troubled representatives of multinationals were selling “green” growth in the backstage. The second, the consultations between 2000 mayors from around the globe. This was because, as the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have said, the climate crisis is directly related to modern cities, their structure and their functions. Former US Vice-President Al Gore also said that it is more likely that cities will make progress, if of course such is the conscious choice of their citizens, rather than national governments. This is very important. I participated in many rounds of talks with the mayors of Barcelona, Madrid, Bogotá and other cities…
No, I did not see at this meeting either the mayor of Athens nor any other representative! The fact that Greek municipalities do not assume their role at national and international level is a serious disadvantage. In Greece, central government leaves little room for local governing, with the greatest weight given to the capital. In many European and American countries, several major cities have an equal or even more important role in some issues than national governments. I believe that the Greeks as the smart people they are (and who pride themselves at every opportunity!) will understand that this should change here as well. There is, however, a third point on COP 21: Would you believe that more than 3,500 international treaties / agreements on environmental issues have been signed since the late 19th century? The fact that all these attempts proved to be ineffective shows that some powers simply want them to fail, so it is expected the situation to worsen. We need to realize that there are specific causes for the ecological but also for the political, social and economic problems that we are facing today and how they are interrelated.
This is what you are referring to on the back cover of the English edition of Political Ecology: “We do not want climate change, we want a system change!”
Exactly! We cannot ignore the oppressive and repressive structures of our society, the hierarchical and classist concentration of power, as well as the systematic addiction to greed, since they all are key factors in the ecological and social crisis … Something that, fortunately, begins to become common knowledge: in the demonstrations that took place on the day after the COP21 meeting in Paris, which was under military law, the central demand was not focused on climate change but on changing the system, which has great importance.
You have said that while in the past the local was almost synonymous with the conservative and the narrow mindedness, this balance has now been reversed, with local communities undertaking progressive initiatives and actions outside and within cities.
Absolutely. I must first point out that it is difficult for the Greeks to understand this because of the traditional Athenian-centrism. Everything happens in and around Athens, and the media focuses almost exclusively on what happens in the parliament, unless a disaster occurs in another city. This has to be changed, and I will give you an example of what I mean: In 2004, an international umbrella organization of cities and municipalities, UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments) was created, something close to the confederations of ancient Greek cities. Its headquarters are in Barcelona, and I am a member of the Committee on Participatory Democracy and Social Inclusion, which focuses on human rights in cities and on citizens’ rights in relation to central governments. On a trip to Athens some years ago I found myself with some people responsible for the international relations of the capital at a meeting organized by the Consul General of Greece in Montreal. I told them that Athens and other Greek cities are also members of UCLG, so why its documents and regulations have not been understood by the people who work for Athens? The man across me at the table looked at me as if he was hearing about it for first time – proof that there is a difference in being just a member of an institution than understanding what is going on there and taking on a cooperative role within it… I wonder how much work is needed in this country to become part of this new reality!
You live in a developed country that is also renowned as one of the most progressive and sensitive to human rights and environmental issues. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself is new, popular, maintains a very modern and liberal public profile. In short, a “St. Peter” of an earthly paradise!
Certainly, Canada is not a paradise. It has undoubtedly some comparative advantages, but these have been exaggerated and overrated. The truth is that because of the evil that has happened to Washington since last November – the Trump election, that is – many Americans are turning to Canada, some are already migrating. One of the largest technological companies in Philadelphia, for example, declared a state of crisis and its employees said that they refuse to continue living in the US and will be forced to move to Vancouver! Yes, things are better in Canada, but not exactly rosy. Justin Trudeau, son of the well-known politician Pierre Elliot Trudeau, is one of the few intellectuals who have been elected to the highest rank, trying to politically differ, he is not entirely consistent and solvent. In the UN just a few months ago, a decision was taken against the production of nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament. Father Trudeau would certainly have been in favor of a decision that was supported by more than 100 countries, but the progressive government of the son Trudeau voted against it! Who would have expected it?
He is also accused of trading arms.
Canada is running a very active armament program and the previous conservative government has signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia, which today’s government does not cancel because it means a lot of lost money. A former prime-minister, Jean-Chretien, had promised in a pre-election campaign to stop the production of a new generation of helicopters and yes, he did so: The contract was canceled and the Canadian government was forced into a heavy fine. In the end, however, we saved our money and our reputation. Justin Trudeau is still growing up and fighting with his contradictions. He is not the white knight on the white horse, nor the “St. Peter”!
Of course, the main problem remains the nuclear weapons that came back to the news with Kim’s “detonations” two decades after a powerful anti-nuclear movement forced the two superpowers to negotiate disarmament agreements. Do you think that the nuclear threat is still up to date?
Of course. In my speech, I referred to the important scientific journal “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists”, whose website depicts the so-called “crisis watch” showing how many minutes remain until midnight, which of course means “judgment day” when the firing of nuclear bombs will begin: For 2017, the index went down to 2.5 ‘. It is not, of course, only North Korea, several countries have growing arsenal of destructive nuclear weapons. It is a threat that has been downgraded in the last two decades, but now it is returning, and the anti-war, ecological movement owes to – and does – raise public awareness.
Few people will be thinking of nuclear holocaust, while there are those who appreciate the benefits of peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Look, beyond the risks of major accidents (Three Mail Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima), many studies show that if nuclear energy is chosen as a counterweight to the energy crisis, then we need to take into account two issues: First of all, it is very expensive, degraded technology. Secondly, there is no 100% safe solution for nuclear waste. There are some crazy ideas like dumping it into space or burying it at 10 km depth, various proposals in general but not really serious and reliable ones. What I would like you to know, and from your own reality, is to present the many alternative renewable ways of energy production – like those used in the Greek island of Tilos, for example. I want to visit it at some point. Tilos has autonomous energy, coming from renewable sources. It is of course small scale, but starting with such projects we can face even bigger challenges. The US, e.g. were forced by the environmental movement to accept that any energy, imported from Canada for use in the northeastern states, should be clean. Most of it comes from three areas, mainly from Quebec, using hydro energy that is quite clean but not as required. Thus, the key energy-producing company in Quebec collaborated with local authorities to produce a new, cleaner technology. In northern Quebec, again, enough wind energy is produced for mass export to the US. Where there is will, where there is intelligence, there is a way too. This is what I believe.
It is a fact that ecology and environmental awareness are quite attractive today. Parties, industries, companies, multinationals with controversial actions, all now advertise their “green” policies. “Green” growth is another popular term. How do you see all this?
We need to make a clear distinction between painless, commercial, new age environmentalism and the radical changes required by the dominant system, i.e. political, social, economic and cultural changes. To think in a new way the relationship between individuals and societies, issues of gender equality, between different generations, we must also think about economic exploitation, xenophobia, racism and sexism. We need to take this into account in a democratic, ecological perspective, so we need to stand against “green” capitalism, “green” consumption, “green” washing of consciousness. A remarkable Canadian cartoonist, Aislin, once drew great cartoons in the Montreal Gazette. One of them depicted factories that produced green smoke instead of gray, and apparently wanted to show the magnitude of the mockery! It is, of course, known that in the business world, companies compete with each other to sell an eco-friendlier image. Naturally, companies are fooling with all these supposedly “green” achievements and the agreements they have signed for decades. Looking at these, in a critical spirit, one realizes that this is not the viable solution that we are asking for, so it is necessary to dig far deeper…
What is your opinion about the current Greek government?
Oh, this is a very long conversation – we would need a separate interview! I’ll say that, though. As the Greek crisis erupted, because of sensitivity and my origin, I was quick enough to set up a very active solidarity committee in Montreal. We held conferences and meetings to inform the world about how Greece – with a jointly responsible domestic political system, of course – fell victim to aggressive bullying and exploitation by the powerful of the EU and the international markets. When I found myself in Athens in the 14th, I noticed the municipal platform Open City, which was then headed by a new, excellent economist whose name I do not remember – went down that year for a mayor and almost got elected…
I think you are referring to Gavriil Sakellaridis, who recently became director of Amnesty International’s Greek section.
Oh yes; He is very interesting, I would like to meet him again. As I said, one of the issues I raised in our conversation, as I specialize on this issue, was concerning the human rights in the city and how to be provided shelter for people who need it. The people in his campaign showed great interest and kept many notes. When the new government was elected, some of them became civil servants in the competent ministry, but were unable to create a proper housing policy, something very disappointing.
You have participated in struggles and social movements around four decades. Have you ever felt like you are losing your time? What is keeping you active?
I’m still active because I’m inspired by the great things ordinary people can achieve if they believe it and really want it. I’m not talking about theories, I have seen it happen in practice. I’m also being inspired by Greek music. Some people say to me “Roussopoulos, you are a giant!” But I answer them with Newton’s saying “If so, that’s because I’m standing on the shoulders of other giants” – they are also an inexhaustible source of inspiration!