What could be the missing link connecting a yellow boat with the indigenous rights in the Amazon? How can a balcony garden help towards tackling climate crisis? We spoke with Agisilaos Koulouris, activist and member of Extinction Rebellion and Agrypnoi Polites (Awake Citizens) about COP26, climate activism, planetary boundaries and how small changes on a personal and local level can bring big ones.
What inspired you to take action on environmental issues? Tell us about you.
I’m 26 years old and I am a PΕ Teacher, a profession diametrically different to my current course of action. I started being more actively engaged in climate and environmental issues when I returned to Athens after my graduation and started working for Greenpeace in 2019. This sparked my interest in activism, energy and climate crisis and inspired me to read more and delve deeper on those topics. The next pivotal experience for me, after leaving Greenpeace a few months later, was when I travelled to the UK by car, where I participated in initiatives organised by Extinction Rebellion in London as well as in Madrid for COP 25. After that, my participation in Agrypnoi Polites’ protest in summer 2020 against the Law 4685/2020 on environmental licensing, renewable energy authorisation processes, protected areas management etc was another strong stimulus which made me approach activism from a new perspective. I am currently participating in any activist actions possible, trying to maintain the balance between fighting for climate action and making ends meet.
Can someone make their livelihood through fighting for climate justice? How is your experience so far?
From my experience, climate activism cannot stand as a main source of income. To give you an example, last year I was working as an educator at a refugee camp for accompanied minors. Some of the expenses could potentially be covered by an organisation, either directly with their own crowdfunding or indirectly, for example by providing us with accommodation, food from communal kitchens or even travel expenses. However, if you do not have a more specialized role in the organization, such as lawyer or photographer, the income is small to non-existent, especially when it comes to grassroots movements.
Out of all the projects and actions you have participated in, which one had the most impact on you and helped you crystalise your interest in climate crisis?
I think the first bigger-scale civil disobedience actions I participated abroad were pretty vivid and influential for me. I vibrantly remember arriving at London and seeing people being arrested everywhere around me however those arrests came along with a unique feeling I’ve never experienced before in similar situations in Greece. There was a sense of bond and connectivity, a phenomenically nonsensical emotional state of happiness and fulfillment expressed through solidarity, which I haven’t felt before. The music, the colours, the sound of drums, the crowd’s expression of gratitude to the people arrested, everything felt so weird but also exciting. This is when I got to realise the actual differences-almost privileges- between participating in activist actions in Greece, or in even more authoritarian regimes, and countries with lower rates of police brutality, such as the UK. This experience really shifted my perspective on activism. To illustrate the point, our arrests in Syntagma Square during the protest of Awake Citizens had strong elements of passive resistance and non-violent civil disobedience, a concept alien to most Greeks. Despite many people warning us about our physical safety, we experienced concession as something quite liberating. We were tired of being ignored for so long-a month- as well as pretty dedicated and sure on what we were trying to achieve, so no stress and fear was involved. Our goal seemed greater than any potential apprehension/constraint on the reaction of the police, what will happen to our bodies etc, which felt so new and emancipating.
Another act that had a big impact on me was the one with the Amazon Indigenous delegation at COP25 in Madrid. What specifically struck me was an action we did where we closed the road leading to COP25 with a yellow boat named after Paulo Paulino Guajajara, an indigenous activist murdered some weeks ago. Again, the sense of communion combined with the intensity of their own rituals gave me a feeling I will never forget. When we started marching to go there and meet the 500.000 people protesting at the main road, a member of the group shouted a war cry which for me captured the exact essence of climate crisis as these people face it. The closest I can describe it is as if they were screaming “We are getting murdered, we are dying”. I started crying and it took me some time to process that afterwards hah. Overall, I think my first big civil disobedience actions abroad in London and in Madrid really left their mark on me and my views on activism till today.
How did you experience COP 26? What are the key takeaways for you as an activist as well as a citizen of the world?
The way COP26 unfolded, I felt like there were many parallel worlds that did not communicate with each other, almost as if the people belonging to them weren’t attending the conference for the same purpose. On the one hand, there were the people protesting and shouting in the streets, who are often judged for their “formulaic, predictable” behaviour, however it turns out that these people are right. On the other hand, there were the participants of the conference, the bureaucrats and putative experts on climate change, who would speak, analyse and decide for our present and future without us, while pointing the finger at us for our theoritically irrational behaviour. When put into perspective though, the people who recognised the urgency of the situation and who were actually respecting, and acting towards the commands of science on climate change was us, the so-called extremists and hot-blooded. It seems like the so-called extremists are actually more accurately describing the status quo, whereas the phenomenically serious ones are the real extremists in this equation by turning a blind eye and refusing to see climate crisis on its full capacity and spectrum. The juxtaposition between those two parallel universes was really interesting and intriguing for me.
Furthermore, on a more personal level, as a person coming from Greece, I found myself feeling unrepresented in COP26. I felt like Greece was a caricature fighting on the cusp between the Global North, consisting of the countries primarily responsible for the adverse consequences of climate crisis, and the Global South, with people losing their lives, territories and generally being called to shoulder those ramifications without having contributed at the least bit to the reasons causing them. And in the middle there is Greece, a country geographically pertaining to Global North, which however bares no historical responsibility for the situation, especially compared to other heavily industrialised North economies or to countries with colonial history. On the flip side, there are the people of Global South who daily face the effects of global warming, seeing their land degrade and losing livelihoods on such a radical level that renders it practically difficult to differentiate between their past, present and future regarding climate change. Given the extreme phenomena Greece has experienced the past few years with floods, wildfires etc I could partially relate myself with the latter people’s stories yet I didn’t feel like I belonged to any of those worlds, which left me thinking that no one represents, and talks about the way I experience climate change.
Finally, one of my major takeaways from COP26 was the realisation that we have shifted from climate denialism, namely renouncing the existence of climate crisis, to climate delayism. What I mean by that is that nowadays everyone is recognising how major of a threat global warming and climate change can be, however there is a deliberate delay in finding effective solutions to these phenomena as well as an attempt to maintain the same power-status relations. There has definitely been some improvement yet it is only logical to say that we would be happy with the results of COP26 had we been living in the 2000s. In the current scale of the climate crisis conundrum, recognising the problem is not half the solution; we should keep shouting and standing up for radical changes in any way possible, even if we are called extremists. We should not forget that this mentality shift is largely due to those “formulaic” extremists who took action and communicated the ambit of this planet emergency.
Do you think Greece is leaning more towards climate denialism or climate delayism?
I would actually call it climate instrumentalisation (laughs). In Greece, the public dialogue regarding the climate crisis has not been carried out with consistency, composure and maturity. Even when it happens, it happens opportunistically adding to the already existing breach of people’s trust and it brings up the opposite result; it ends up hindering efficient societal scrutiny instead of raising awareness on climate change issues. The Greek authorities’ stance seems to often involve a certain hypocricy. Namely, it is impossible for people to be convinced of the importance of climate crisis and the need to take immediate actions, when the authorities adopt meager to no measures to prevent the adverse climate change-induced weather phenomena as well as to “cure” the respective problems when they actually come up. Take for example the wildfires of 2021. How is one anticipated to combat such a raging phenomenon while making more than 500 firefighters redundant and refraining from flying the waterbomber aircrafts due to lack of fuels inmidst of the wildfire emergency season? In general, Greece has a long way to go on developing healthy and resilient mechanisms on confronting climate crisis. The more existential the threat of climate change becomes, the more obvious the above realisation gets.
Are governments doing enough to tackle climate crisis ? What is-and what should be-their role in climate change adaptation?
The simple answer is no. The nature of policy-making as increasingly results driven means there should theoritically be no need for governments to make much more than raising awareness and mobilizing the public opinion to take action on a bigger scale, as well as co-ordinating such initiatives to ensure maximum efficiency and inclusion. As an illustration, there were discussions in the US about retooling and relaunching the programme of Civilian Climate Corps, where people from local communities are employed to help fighting climate change regionally. This would actually kill two birds in one stone; not only is this a measure to rev up local communities' interest in climate change issues and the impact they have on their daily life, but also bring them closer, build a trust- and solidarity-oriented culture among them as well as help them share expertise and good practices, since they are the ones knowing better the problems of their own neighbourhood. This way local communities could extend their actions towards achieving food autonomy e.g. via community gardens, producing their own energy on a district and municipality level etc.Therefore, I think that governments' role should be to provide people with the necessary tools, skills and information as accomplishing such a radical societal, energy and behavioural transition can only flourish if we re-build our modus vivendi-how we eat, how we commute, how we produce our energy etc- around a decentralised, people-powered model. Lastly, governments' legislative function is also of huge importance. One of the many topics worth further exploring on that terrain is establishing ecocide as an international crime. Recognising ecocide as a crime under international law would protect the climate, the environment and nature and hold big polluters accountable irrespective of jurisdiction. On the whole, thorough investigation should be carried out on environmental crimes and administrative, financial and criminal sanctions should be imposed, on deeds harmful to the environment.
Which is the main routine/habit/mentality we have to unlearn to ensure just transition?
I find it a bit tricky to strike the balance between blaming individuals for their habits and reminding myself that the problem is first and foremost deeply systemic. Even from an evolutionary point of view, people tend to prefer the solution that involves less strain and effort, therefore it seems irrational to blame them for tapping into the goods, services and conveniences provided to them by a system constantly promoting growth at all costs, excessive use of fossil fuels and feeding the vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption. The nature of the problem here is systemic; we have to abolish the social model that asseses nations' economy and prosperity solely on growth and GDP without taking into consideration the balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequalities (unemployment, racism etc) and improves human and non human well-being.
Regarding mindset shifts I find crucial for a just transition, I think it is time to drop the model of domination and exploitation. For thousands of years, man has exploited the animals, the earth, the people around them in the name of development and it is high time we abolished that mentality. We have to realise that we are not the centre of the universe and trying to dominate and leave our stigma to everything around us won't change that. To succesfully build a new paradigm that integrates the continued development of human societies and the maintenance of the earth system in a resilient and accommodating state, we have to be aware, and respect the planetary boundaries (environmental thresholds within which humanity can survive, develop and thrive for generations to come). The earth is our common home and it has some limits. To illustrate the point, in July 30th 2021(Earth Overshoot Day 2021) - which makes for a bit more than 7 months in 2021- humanity exhausted nature's budget in ecological resources and services for the whole year to come. This is truly terrifying. People's apathy towards that fact is truly terrifying. Nevertheless, as with most social and environmental problems, it would be unfair to heedlesly blame all the individuals, as this would shift the responsibility off the richest 1% of the planet to the shoulders of all middle-, and lower-class people who are simply trying to survive, often below the poverty line.
What steps do you personally take to ensure you behave within the planetary boundaries?
I'm trying to become more self-sufficient and really take into account the impact of my actions and where do the things I consume come from, because I feel like spending my money on specific products or services makes for some kind of endorsement towards the practices used to generate those things. On the daily, I'm trying to become a more autonomous and intuitive consumer. For example, my parents and I have built a small balcony garden to grow some basic vegetables. When that model of prosumerism is not an option, I'm trying to orientate my actions around the "Think Global, Act Local" mentality eg shopping from the local market, supporting local producers over big super market chains selling imported produce on a cheaper price. Also, I'll prefer thrifting over buying new clothes from the fast-fashion industry although, as I mentioned before, it's difficult to strike the ballance between the substantive roots of the problem and blaming/shaming people for striving to live their lives as easy as possible. For me eco-shaming and eco-guilt will never generate an impactful change, neither on the environment nor on people's mindset. This subject is not something that is black and white and it’s something we struggle with on a daily basis so we should create an environment in which you don't have to lead a perfectly sustainable lifestyle to have a say on environmental and energy policies. But yeah, overall I'm trying to consume more on a local scale and actively support circular economy initiatives as much as I can.
Do you think we are all equal against climate crisis?
I've read somewhere that we are all in the same storm, but not in the same boat as if some people appear to be on a large, sturdy ocean liner whereas others are sailing on a small boat for which even a tiny wave could be potentially catastrophic. To answer your question, no, we're not equal against climate crisis. From a geographical perspective, there are some regions already experiencing the repercussions of climate change more severely and of course, as it's the case for every crisis, climate crisis disproportionately affects the economically disadvantaged as well as the minorities. Besides, studies on climate refugees have shown that climate change is a tougher burden on women and minors. Situations of despair and conflict tend to highlight the aforementioned social polarisation and to only intesnify calls for justice, equity, compassion and understanding-and of course climate crisis couldn't be an exception. That's why we're talking about climate justice which is inextricably linked with social justice which is closely connected to gender equality etc. I find this intersectional approach really thought provoking.
Actually it's the first time in over 30 years of analysis that the IPCC report openly discussed the links between colonialism and climate change...
Right?! The term degrowth was also mentioned 7 times (plus 21 times in the bibliography) which is definitely a sign of progress. Going back to the question, no, I don't think everyone is equal against climate crisis and that's why I particularly enjoy the cross-scientific and intersectional viewpoint of the climate movement paying close attention to the social, economic and environmental linkages between climate crisis and the world around us, since the shortcomings in this area are mostly systemic.
In one sentence, what does climate justice mean to you?
For me, climate justice is the fulfillment of every individual's right to live equally with their needs respected in a healthy and balanced environment, and in a system not built around dominance and enforcement.