Note: this interview of Josianne Gauthier was originally published on 23 October 2021 in a special report of the UK Catholic Magazine, The Tablet :”The Road to COP26″.
We are finally getting ready for COP26, after many postponements and uncertainties. We will go there with our allies and friends as part of a global community to fight for climate justice. But most of our real leaders won’t be there. For our real leaders in this struggle are the people whose lives have been upended by typhoons, droughts, rising waters that took away their land and their traditions.
They may not be with us in Glasgow, but these are the people already showing us real alternative ways of living. They are the guardians of the forests, rivers, mountains and oceans. Many who would otherwise have come to the conference have been unable to do so because of Covid restrictions. The unequal distribution of vaccines across the world has highlighted that, even when it comes to protection against a deadly virus, it is the poorest communities who come last. People are impacted differently by climate change, but so often it is the ones who are the least responsible for it who feel it the most: the very people unable to travel to Glasgow.
There will be those at the conference who will speak up for them, and there are other places where their struggle goes on, in the streets, on social media, within communities. But will world leaders listen? As young people in particular keep teaching us, the time to act is now. There is nothing more important than saving our planet, our home. Governments, businesses and citizens have to act in global solidarity as one human family. This might mean making drastic changes in our lifestyles, but the wealthy nations should not be in the driving seat this time. We should learn to listen, even if that means hearing uncomfortable truths and facing some ghosts of our past.
Two years ago, I was in Rome for the synod on the Amazon. I had a profound feeling that for the first time the Church was opening up to the voices of people speaking from a place of direct experience and ancestral wisdom. I could sense the Church being pushed to rethink its past, and to imagine and prepare for a sustainable and just future. Pope Francis and other Church leaders have pushed us to demand a radical shift from business-as-usual to a way of life that benefits the common good, that treats every human life as sacred and protects our planet for present and future generations. We need to find harmony again, between us and between humanity and nature.
The current health crisis must not be used as an excuse to continue to allow fossil fuel subsidies, the unsustainable large-scale production and consumption of goods and services and the surge in global debt. There must be an integrated response to the climate and health crises. Massive investment in a transition to clean and renewable energy sources is crucial. We must create an inclusive economy that actively promotes healthy and thriving eco – systems and protects human rights and the dignity of all. Our survival depends on it. We know of the destruction that humans can inflict on the planet, but we should not forget our amazing potential: “[Why] are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest … But together, many trees create an eco system,” wrote Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees. This reminds me how love and respect for each other are an essential part of ecological conversion.
We all come to the struggle from our own perspective, with our own knowledge and with our own story. I was involved in human rights and social justice work but, like many people of my generation, I believed for far too long that the environmental cause was the special interest of a select group of passionate people who believed that animals and plants needed better protection from human behaviour. I was not unsympathetic but I did not see where I fitted into this movement. The first step towards involvement in the struggle was an intellectual awakening, an “ah-ha” moment when I grasped how ecology was impacting on human development and vice versa: how the welfare of people around the world was directly tied to the welfare of the planet itself. It can seem terribly obvious now, but 20 years ago we had to fight to have the connections between international solidarity and development and ecological justice recognised. Development, I realised, is not only about economic growth, but about social welfare, the preservation of culture and social resilience. “Ecology” means all of this: the study of what surrounds us and the inter – actions between us.
The other trigger for my engagement was more spiritual and emotional. In 2015, two things happened which had a lasting impact on me. Pope Francis’ ground-breaking encyclical Laudato Si’ was published. I read it through the night, highlighting passages to come back to reread. I found myself using my marker on every page. It is hard to communicate how profound an impact this document had on the life of someone like myself, a Canadian Catholic working in the development sector. This is a wealthy country where natural resources seem endless but which has a darker story behind its shiny public image. We live with the ghosts of peoples whose culture, whose lives, whose way of living were violently and intentionally stolen from them.
In the same year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the Indigenous Residential Schools published its findings and calls to action. It became crystal clear that the cries of people and of peoples and the cry of the Earth were one. When you have benefited your whole life from the violence done unto others, when you have access to clean water, safe schools, warm homes only because you are from the settler community, the connection between land and people is no longer an abstract question. It becomes your chant and your prayer. You have a responsibility to be on the side of justice, and to begin to repair these broken relationships between peoples and between people and planet.
These two learning experiences continue to drive me to unlearn and learn again, to do what I can to ensure that all voices are heard, not just those of the powerful. There are so many different journeys towards action and commitment, so many different triggers and obstacles; but in the end what moves us all is courage: to change, to act, to react. In my life and my work, I have come across so many activists, many of them women, who are defending their land and environment with extraordinary courage. Some have lost everything because they have done what they felt was right for their communities: opposing ecological destruction, deforestation or megadam projects. Berta Cáceres was a Honduran environmental activist and indigenous leader who was shot dead in her home; Máxima Acuña is a Peruvian subsistence farmer who has refused to sell her land to a mining corporation in spite of years of violent intimidation. The difference they and many others have made won’t be forgotten, and whenever I hesitate, I think about their stories and know that we can all contribute to their fight.
Courage will for some of us mean being willing to confront our colonial attitudes and our arrogance. Elaine Alec, an Indigenous author from Canada, has said this hasn’t happened yet because so many of us don’t want to face some uncomfortable truths. “We cannot lead a real climate justice fight without dealing with our ghosts from the past,” she says. “But the more we share, the more we contribute, and the more we move away from our comfort zones, the easier it gets for everyone else to also move.” She concludes: “Keep moving, keep modelling, keep growing, even when it’s hard.” It’s time for us to be brave, and to face our ghosts, because only through that path will something beautiful and powerful arise.
Josianne Gauthier is Secretary General of CIDSE
Image © REUTERS / Bruno Kelly – stock.adobe.com