“Activists on the A12 motorway have to be careful not to alienate the people”

“Activists on the A12 motorway have to be careful not to alienate the people”

Lecture by philosopher Lieven de Cauter on the importance of rigorous actions

13-09-2023 · Interview

“Instead of occupying the A12 motorway, you would be better off sabotaging the petroleum industry.” That is the opinion of Lieven De Cauter, poet, essayist and cultural philosopher at KU Leuven. De Cauter argues for radical action that disrupts society. Next week, he will be giving a lecture entitled Activism in the Age of Climate Crisis, organised by Studium Generale.

As a teenager, Lieven De Cauter (64) already climbed the barricades. When he was in secondary school, he protested against the Chilean dictator Pinochet and he handed out red carnations for the independence of the Portuguese colony Angola. Later on, he was co-founder of the Brussels Tribunal against the illegal invasion of Iraq and he was at the cradle of the Flemish petition Heart Above Hard (Hart boven hard), which advocates an inclusive and sustainable society. The slogan was: where profit wins from value, loss will be the result.

Activism and science do not compete with each other, according to De Cauter, they go hand in hand. He is a cultural philosopher at the Catholic University of Leuven and since 1997 has worked at the department of Architecture, Urban Development and Spatial Planning. His last book is entitled Ending the Anthropocene: essays on activism in the age of collapse (2021), in which he shines his light on activism.

With an eye towards the climate crisis, you are arguing for radical action to disrupt society. What does that look like in your view?

“We are totally unaware of the seriousness of the situation. According to some experts, global warming is not even the most urgent, it’s the diminishing biodiversity. We are standing before an all-embracing catastrophe, which will be ten thousand times more serious than the Covid-19 pandemic. I am not a biologist, but I have read enough to know that this ecological crisis will be much more radical in terms of size, cost and human lives. I mean, without nature we will be dead tomorrow. We can’t last longer than three minutes without oxygen. At the same time, the Amazon Forest, one of the world’s lungs, is now emitting more CO2 than it is absorbing. It is code red for the whole planet.”

So that requires rigorous measures.

“Yes, especially from the government. Keep aeroplanes on the ground. Introduce pay-as-you-drive immediately. Limit the consumption of red meat. We saw during the Covid-19 pandemic that we are able to take harsh measures. That all has to happen tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow.”

Still, aeroplanes are not staying on the ground.

“No, society still hasn’t been awakened, the urgency is not being felt yet. This is aggravated by the fact that politicians fear electoral damage. On top of this, there is the economic pressure in this neoliberal era. We are trapped in the logic of economic growth. Even though Thunberg has previously said to the UN: ‘I don’t want your hope, I want you to panic.’ But another person whom one couldn’t suspect of fanatical activism, UN boss Antonio Guterres, said last week: ‘Climate collapse has started.’”

According to Bas van den Hurk, the new chairman of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the climate does not benefit from warnings and doom scenarios, but needs solutions.

“I agree, but as long as people deny the seriousness of the problem, there will be no support at all for solutions. As a philosopher, I consider it primarily as my task to provide a warning. For half of the population of the United States, global warming does not exist. It is partly a political matter, because the far right still believes that the climate crisis is fiction, from Baudet, the German AfD to Vlaams Belang.”

What do you think about the daily occupation of the A12 motorway by Extinction Rebellion?

“I am in favour of rigorous action. Although I wonder if you would not be better off bringing the petroleum industry to a standstill instead of blocking a motorway. If you live in The Hague, and you are confronted with the blockades every day…. Activists have to be careful not to alienate people. In Belgium, activists blocked an energy company, which I think is fine, seeing as these companies are extremely polluting and make huge profits. The cynicism of our captains of industry is shocking. Shell’s new CEO recently said: ‘We are going to pump oil and pump more oil, that is our core business.’ In other words: fuck the world.”

Lieven de Cauter   Photo: SG


“Scientists need to speak out more”

No, Pim Martens, professor of Sustainability at UM, did not go to The Hague to occupy the A12 motorway. He did consider it, though, he says. Martens is sympathetic towards the Extinction Rebellion activists, but he himself is not going to climb the barricades. “I am more for the gentle action; I would rather write a piece in the newspaper than block a motorway.”

Does he support XR’s action? “I completely agree with the reason why they are doing this. It is too crazy for words that the fossil sector still receives tens of millions in subsidies. It is just that I am not at all in favour of actions that disrupt the lives of people. I do not denounce them, but I would choose actions that generate sympathy, actions that get people thinking, such as climate marches.”

Martens also feels, in line with Scientist Rebellion, that scientists should speak out more. “I have been doing so since the nineteen-eighties. Even back then, the negative impact that humans have on the climate was known. After which it has only become clearer and clearer. It hasn’t made me dispirited. There are dozens of possibilities to turn things around, but we really need to want it.”

De Cauter’s lecture (in English) will be delivered on 18 September (20:00hrs) in the auditorium of MBB, free entrance. Please register here.

Photo: Eveline van Egdom

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: lieven de cauter, Extinction Rebellion, The Hague,philosopher

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