Sergio Federovisky is one of Argentina’s most established environmental journalists. President of La Plata’s environment agency, he is also the face of the television programme ‘Contaminación Cero‘, and for the past 20 years has been working as a journalist, adviser, and consultant in environmental policy.
Federovisky’s fourth book, ‘Argentina, de espaldas a la ecología. Apuntes para una política ambiental’ (Argentina, turning its back on ecology. Notes for an environmental policy), has just been released by Capital Intelectual. The book is an in-depth analysis of the politics around environmental issues in Argentina, from the 1980s to today. As somebody who has witnessed the subject’s slow installation into the political agenda, Federovisky writes with frank authority, and is honest in his criticism of the country’s shortfalls.
Kristie Robinson sat down with him to talk about the book, and where Argentina stands on environmental issues in general.
How did the idea come about to write this fourth book? Is it a follow on from your previous works?
In reality there is a kind of thread in all of my books related to the environment, and following this thread I try to tackle the subject from different aspects, and evaluate what has happened over the past 20 or 25 years. When I started to work in environment-related issues – before even Eco ’92 [the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio] – the prevailing discourse regarding environmental issues identified two problems: an institutional weakness and a lack of awareness. Twenty-five years have passed, and today there are many institutions and there is awareness. There could always be more awareness, but this has undoubtedly advanced a lot. So the big question is, if these two factors have been resolved, why – if we look at all the environmental issues – are all of the indicators worse than before? One of the possibilities is that this formula, this diagnosis, was wrong. Or that different questions have to be asked.
In this book I try to analyse why environmental policies are not public policies, why suitable people – professionally speaking, with a background in the environment – are never sought for the top environmental posts. And all this leads to the conclusion that the political class are not really aiming to resolve the problems, but to have them work themselves out. Because if they really were aiming to resolve the issues, at least one of them would have been solved. They would put suitable people in the environment ministry, they would adopt real, serious public policies, and fundamentally, they would establish concrete rules and laws and wouldn’t leave it all in the hands of the awareness that the society is supposed to have to resolve the issues.
And do you think this is done on purpose?
I don’t think that it is done on purpose in the sense that this is not a product of evil. But yes, it is deliberate in terms of understanding the way the system works. Policies that resolve environmental problems would have to go against the prevailing model. It can’t work in any other way. For example, if Latin American countries wanted to resolve the problems of natural resource extraction, they would have to go against the capitalist system – the only one we know. And the political class, in general, doesn’t go against the system, it accompanies it – any change in it would go against their interests.
Let’s take a very contemporary example, which is the issue of rubbish. It would seem that this issue could be resolved if I separate my rubbish, and all of that. But how is it possible to ask that society reduce its production of trash when the system pushes people to consume ever greater amounts of things and produce ever more waste? Everyday the system is telling me, as a citizen, ‘consume, spend, buy the things that come in the greatest amount of packaging, buy as much as you can’. The message is either contradictory or fallacious, and I think it’s the latter, as the two things are not possible together. So which one wins?
The economy, always! Even so, it still surprises me how everybody is so inside this system, celebrating it.
Well, those are things that I broach in my previous book – myths. What we have achieved in the past 20 years is the installation of many myths which allow us to carry on, but which don’t look for the solution to the problem. The contradictory concept of ‘sustainable development’ is the biggest one, for me. ‘Environmental awareness’ is another one. ‘Zero trash’ is another one. They are all things that we want to achieve, which are going to be marvellous when we get there, and in the meantime our collective consciousness is calmed.
And these myths work in a way that allows the existence – survival – of other things. The best example is energy. We can go for oil, fracking in Vaca Muerta, for nuclear energy in Atucha II, to get us through the day-to-day, knowing that other alternative energies, such as wind power, exist and we will develop them one day.
Short-term thinking – on a political level, nobody is thinking beyond their four years in power. You highlight in your book the concept of ‘sending into the future the problems of today’.
One of the things that is essential to understand, and then to try to change, is that environmental issues have two characteristics that are opposed to conventional politics. One is that they are medium to long-term, and we are not used to having medium or long-term policies. And the second is that environmental matters are very complex, whereas politics are very linear. What do I mean by that? Climate change is the best example here, to understand and interpret this situation, you have to understand that it’s a complex system – there are multiple variables, multiple inputs, and politics thinks of this complex problem in a linear way. So it is necessary to find the right language to explain the situation, and move away from the linear way of trying to tackle a problem from just one place. For example, I have a lot of discussions with soy producers, and they say, regarding chemical spraying, that the problem lies with the application of the fertilisers – that is linear thinking! Applying just the right dose will not resolve the problem of weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate, nor that the soil is retaining ever more fertiliser, nor the related social issues – it requires a full analysis of the complexity of the issue.
Another reason why it’s so complicated is that ‘environmental problems’ don’t exist, ontologically and philosophically speaking, because their solutions are not within the realm of the environment. A problem is considered a problem when the possible solution lies within the same framework that defines it. And as environmental problems are solved by the economy and by politics, they are not really environmental problems, but the collateral damage of economic decisions. To solve environmental problems properly – to resolve climate change, for example – you have to refer to the economy, not the environment. As Nicholas Stern said: ‘Climate change is the greatest market failure in the world’s history’. So the possibility of resolving these issues lies within politics and economics, and this makes it more difficult, as it is more hidden.
In your book, you talk about the media and the role they play in the system. How do you view them in terms of their treatment of environmental issues?
Very poorly. They have the same idea as the political class – the idea that the environment is an accessory. That it’s not a central question. So one of the things that I underline is that many media outlets have interests in areas that are very complicated for the environment. Soy, for example. The big media have interests there, and they allow these interests to coexist with articles or politically correct protests about environmental issues, without establishing the connection. In recent years, every now and then the issue of deforestation gains some coverage, for example. But the media doesn’t ever make the link between 75% of the land being sown with genetically modified soy and the destruction of the native forests, when there is a direct connection there. The media maintains this logic that everything will be resolved with greater awareness. The position of the media here is, unfortunately, very poor.
Do you see this changing?
It’s difficult to see that it will change, as the media in Argentina have stopped being journalistic enterprises and have become big businesses, which exceed journalism, and these interests are very present. For example the media in Argentina, apart from very few exceptions, is pro-nuclear. They all think that nuclear energy is a symbol of technological independence when it is very well-known that it is not the case, and that is doesn’t offer a serious or consistent input.
There are a lot of environmentalists who think nuclear energy could be a solution when facing the problem of climate change.
For me it’s an absurdity. My view on this is very simple. Firstly, it’s debatable that atomic centres really do have a null effect in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, because if you take the whole process of mining uranium, it generates a lot. But let’s say that it does reduce emissions, why would I choose a system of producing energy that has a really high risk? I have been to Chernobyl, and the truth is, if you could imagine that devastation in four or five places in the world, you would realise that it’s ridiculous, even when the risk is low. Regarding risk, I use a concept that is called mathematical expectation, which establishes the probability of damage of those incidents that have a low chance of happening, but have a really high impact. Such as a plane falling down – it happens very rarely, but when it does, everybody dies. Well, this is the same. Very few nuclear power stations explode, but when one does, it’s Chernobyl. Or Fukushima. So I think the cost-benefit relation is bad. If the cost of reducing emissions is the possibility of a Fukushima, then it’s bad.
So how do you see a sustainable future for Argentina, in terms of energy?
Argentina has to sit down and discuss, calmly -and perhaps now is a good time due to the energy crisis the country is facing- what the energy matrix will be in 50 years time. For this, the first thing that must be accepted is that alternative energies are not token gestures. They have to be integrated into the matrix and be just another option. Today, in the mentality of those who make decisions, alternative energies are a token gesture – they produce them because it looks good to do so.
Yes, the renewable energy investment dropped from US$539m in 2012 to US$94m in 2013, and much of that money went instead towards Vaca Muerta and oil exploration.
Because it is considered a token gesture. Something politically correct, that should be promoted, but not an essential part of the energy matrix, when Argentina has an enormous potential – particularly in terms of wind power. I also think that Argentina – like the rest of the world – is prisoner to an energy matrix in which oil is favoured. Al Gore – and we’re talking about Al Gore, not somebody who is against the system – said that we cannot say that we are aiming for alternative energies to flourish in the current system, which subsidises oil enormously and says that alternative energies are expensive. They are expensive, but if they received the same benefits that oil received, the price would drop quickly.
And do you think that this will happen?
I am not very optimistic. The capitalist system only replaces things that have a replacement within the confines of the system. It’s what happened with the hole in the ozone layer, which was resolved when the system found a replacement that didn’t put the system itself at risk. The day that the system finds a replacement for the oil matrix that doesn’t put the system at risk, then it’s probable that cleaner energies will replace the old system. But until that happens, it’s going to be very difficult.
How do you see Argentina compared to other countries in Latin America?
Argentina is very behind. It has enormous professional capabilities, and grey matter, and a greater level of development and lower inequality than other countries in Latin America. It is in a better condition than other countries, and yet it wastes that potential to seriously invest in environmental issues.
And why is this?
I think it is down to a real lack of clarity and strategic thinking from a political class that is very enamoured with the idea of development per se. Because the country has to develop, to grow, and so oil is necessary for growth and nuclear energy is a sign of development. There is an idea that is almost Soviet when it comes to thinking of development, with heavy industry, etc. In the last ten years, the development model has involved natural resource extraction – mining, oil, soy – taking as much as possible from our land in as short a time as possible, and as such the environment is a problem.
The small things that have been achieved – and I really do think that they are very small, compared to what could be done – have been thanks to social resistance, or social demands in a certain area. And the political class took note. But the few things that have been done have been very emblematic: the bike lanes, the marketing campaigns about separating rubbish; they don’t challenge the system.
What gives you hope?
I don’t see things in those terms – I don’t think it’s about having hope or not. I think it’s as I say at the end of the book: if we believe that having an unpolluted river is better than having a polluted one, if we think it would be better to live in a city where the sewage is treated, if we think that the environment should be taken into account when making economic decisions, then we should keep moving forward, as the idea of having environmental policies still makes sense.
‘Argentina, de espaldas a la ecología’ was published in May by Capital Intelecutal and is now available in bookshops for $100.
Lead image by Sub Coop