A conversation on ecology and socio-economic inclusion across generations – CIDSE

A conversation on ecology and socio-economic inclusion across generations

Campaign Project Officer at CIDSE, Giorgio Gotra was interviewed by the Jesuit European Social Center. We are republishing here an edited version of the interview.   

How did you come to work on sustainable lifestyles? 

Before moving to Belgium, I was based in Ethiopia, in a southern region of Addis Ababa, working on a project supporting small-scale family farming. I applied for an internship at CIDSE because I missed the bigger political and cultural frame of cooperation and political engagement, particularly at the European and international level. I remember the day of the interview very well because a few hours before the video call, a blackout happened and I had to communicate with CIDSE recruiters by phone -finding a creative solution- and by fax. 

What is your current role at CIDSE? Could you introduce us to the work of CIDSE in the field of Youth and Ecology? 

Currently, I work as a campaign project officer, coordinating several actions and initiatives around the themes of ecology and youth activism. The main initiative I am responsible for is called “Change for the Planet- Care for the People”. It was launched in 2015, which was also the year in which the Pope encyclical Laudato Si’ was published – these events were a huge boost for the campaign launch, and today we are still benefitting from that same energy as a permanent initiative. 

In a few words, the “Change for the Planet -Care for the People” initiative consists of a shared journey towards sustainability to achieve social and climate justice having youth (from our member organizations) as a protagonist. This journey takes the form of international youth camps, retreats, mobilizations during conferences on climate change and a great variety of other types of events. 

While most of our members’ organizations are based in Europe and in North America, we connect and foster participation globally. Connecting with people in the global South is very important for us, not only for international sustainable camps or during and mobilisation around big (climate) conferences, but all over the process of the journey. We recently launched a new common journey to COP 26. The idea is to bring 100 young CIDSE supporters to Glasgow during the negotiations (if Covid allows) and to have activities on site where they will be equipped with the right tools and knowledge on the main topics of our mobilization. In order to prepare the group of blossoming activists, we’re organizing webinars and trainings, to train youth in the language of the negotiations, but also to understand the role of faith-based organisations in the process. 

Beyond activism, this project also seeks to promote sustainable lifestyles. Policy is crucial but we also see the need for action and solutions from individuals and communities. From energy consumption to transportation, food production, technology… our individual decisions still play a role in proving that alternatives are possible

In this sense, we like to follow the vision of the encyclical Laudato Si’ and focus on consciousness building. In Laudato Si’ language, we apply the “see-judge-act-celebrate” approach, facilitating and encouraging inspiration coming from ordinary people like us. This applies not only to organisations but also to families, groups of friends, informal groups etc. 

Inter-generational inequality is back. 70 years ago, this reflected the result of booming progress, a society that left behind a pre-industrial normal. Today, it reflects the depletion of opportunity. As a member of the millennial cohort yourself, what has been your reaction to this broken promise?  

I think we should first rethink the meaning of this idea of incremental progress. It is impossible to deny this intergenerational inequality and its devastating effects, but it is also true that sometimes we address this question solely through the prism of consumption and consumerism. Those born in the 50s or 60s saw the arrival of the fridge and the personal cars, they grew up in a culture where the concept of a successful life soon revolved around greater access to material wealth – a culture detached from the environmental reality. 

I grew up listening to the motto of “leaving the world better than as you found it”, but I am not sure if it has been properly applied to our recent past. Of course, this is not meant to lecture of blame anyone, but change in a way should have taken off before. 

On this, I think we should start a serious dialogue, articulated around constructive listening rather than blaming. We should try to avoid reproducing what brought us here, and think of long-term solutions which will work for us all. In a way, this same logic also applies to global inequality – we should re-envision what defines a developed economy. The human being is not at the top of the pyramid, but can only live within our ecosystem’s boundaries

Since the future of our planet is currently at stake, ecology has also played a fundamental role in this inter-generational conversation. Do you feel your generation (and those who arrived since) will constitute a breaking point for the current system? 

This is very hard to predict; however, I see a lot of young really committed people, especially thanks to the “green waves” and the related student movements. The next decade will be particularly critical. Scientists confirm us that the margin is closing and, during this time, we will see how the maturing of current youth will affect political environments and perspectives across the globe. I really hope that a shared global duty or mission will emerge from this. Something which could boost cooperation and decisive action. On this, I am quite optimistic. 

Would you extend this break-up to current cultural norms and the phenomenon of consumerist identity too? Has this started already? 

I really think so, and I have been truly impressed by what European young people are achieving in this area. Starting from a very small scale, students’ organisations have pushed for the banning of plastics at university, and a culture built around reducing meat consumption and air travel is growing. We have also witnessed how young people are pioneering in practices of a circular economy – from swapping and reselling clothes to car-pooling. I can definitely see a reprioritization of needs and values, but we should not fall either for the green-washing of what can be better explained by precarity and growing poverty. 

Overall, I think this is also, to a great extent, the first results of shifting perspectives within education. I am happy to see to what extent our advocacy work and discussions are now embedded in schools, and how NGOs and faith-based organisations work in the same direction. In this sense, I am optimistic (yes, once again). Together with this, I also see how the current pandemic could further impulse this trend and make us more conscious of our impact on nature

Have the youth’s socio-economic tragedy and a lethal global health crisis shown us that a different reality is possible? Is there a silver lining? 

Yes, I do think that the worst moments can bring the best out of people. When I did my Erasmus in Spain in 2010, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of Greek students after the financial crisis hit Greece particularly. They offered me an insight into how people had reacted on a grassroots level: they started pooling the little they had available – one would bring the pasta, another person would bring the gas for cooking, they would invite each other for dinner or lunch when in need etc. It was a back to the commons and no one was excluded. 

With the pandemic, I have seen something similar happening in Italy (and surely all over Europe). It has become increasingly common to see baskets in the streets with an “if you have leave it, if you need it take it” written on them. Covid has also spurred waves of solidarity, and it’s not just churches acting this way, but ordinary people too. We should try to preserve this sense of solidarity into the future and, in a way, these have been opportunities to reconnect with humanity.  

Politically, for multiple reasons, the youth today have demonstrated marginal power in shaping reality. Can the youth afford to just “wait for their turn”? 

I believe the youth’s influence might not be visible today, but it will become apparent very soon. It is true that a lot of young people are struggling today, and I can’t even imagine the full range of social and psychological consequences that this pandemic will have on them. But, even under the conditions of hardship, we have seen things moving. Last year, for example, I was impressed by how these young people through TikTok created a huge campaign against Donald Trump which stormed the US political conversation. Recently, we have also witnessed huge demonstrations led by youth on climate

I am actually a strong supporter of the voting age to be lowered to 16. People at this age are already well aware of our reality, and decisions taken today not only address the present, but also condition the future – their future. Because of this, they should be listened to and, in an ideal scenario, they should participate and get more involved. 

In your opinion, could the European project become a testbed for the transformative potential of the current youth?  

My answer to this is a highly convinced yes. I think the EU is already investing heavily in the youth and, in a way, I am a product of that investment. I’m part of this vision and, as a millennial myself, I benefited substantially from programs like the European Voluntary Service or university semesters’ exchanges. 

On this, I should also bring up the importance of, for example, the Erasmus Plus Platform in empowering the European youth. The EU Commission has invested more and more in this program and I think we should spend more effort in demystifying this initiative as a party-filled semester away – it is much more than that.  

Would you say then that there is a natural alignment between an EU Commission who understands the comparatively Europhile identity of new generations and the interests of the youth? 

Well, I really hope so. Today I can see efforts being directed towards the digital, the green and the youth, and this is definitely the right direction. Then, of course, we would need to impulse this vision not just from the institutional and the managerial bodies, but also as active citizens: ensure transparency, efficacy with available resources and evaluate the results. 

What would be your advice for EU institutions for conjugating the rescuing of these “lost generations” with the imperatives of environmental sustainability?  

Committing financial resources to this end is always a good start, especially when it comes to addressing the excluded and those with fewer opportunities. I don’t work with EU institutions, and I wouldn’t be necessarily comfortable working in this environment but, despite that, I am certain the European project can only be successful by becoming really participatory and applying solidarity – inclusiveness should be implemented at local, national and regional policy-making. 

On this, I also think we should be braver and celebrate more what has demonstrated to be successful. 30 years ago, it was very brave to launch something like the Erasmus project – and you can now see the impact it has had within the European youth. I also believe events such as European elections should be the place to make statements like these clear and to express what Europe means for the youth.  

Would you say then that the recipe to solving the current conundrums in the socio economical field and ecology is more democracy? 

I do believe so. Participation starts from our neighborhoods, from our towns and then scaling up. Democracy, inclusion and solidarity – these are the values I attribute to the idea of Europe and the ones that every day guide my professional and personal life. 

Giorgio Gotra
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