The Power of Citizens in the Ecological Transformation of the Mediterranean

Jérémie Fosse

President of Eco-union

Several scientific reports on climate change that have come to light recently have alerted us to the terrible state of terrestrial ecosystems, as well as the drastic solutions needed and that will require unprecedented efforts. The rising global temperature, the use of fossil fuels and, in general, the throwaway society quickly are destroying the terrestrial ecosystems. The Mediterranean is an area especially vulnerable to this process of destruction that, in general, political and economic elites and traditional industrial enterprises refuse to recognise. Fortunately, the Mediterranean civil society is starting initiatives that, in some cases, are not afraid of confronting governments and companies to seek collective solutions to these global challenges and create a more sustainable, just and inclusive society.

In the last few months, two international scientific reports have come to light that have outlined a devastating future for the planet and its inhabitants. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), announced that the consequences and costs of global warming will be far worse than thought. The objective of limiting the rise in temperature since the preindustrial era to less than 2ºC, approved in the Paris Agreement 2015, could fail in just eleven years if we do not drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions (CO2). And even if these reductions are made immediately, this will only delay ‒ not stop ‒ global warming. The solutions will require unprecedented efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels by 50% in fifteen years and completely eliminate them in thirty years.  

As if all this were not already disturbing, another report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) announces the sixth mass extinction of species, at a speed never seen in the history of the planet. More than a million animals or plants are about to disappear from the surface of the globe due to human action, land use changes, pollution or overexploitation of natural resources. The very functioning of natural ecosystems is in danger, which threatens all those mechanisms that provide us with water, food and air, so essential for human life and the health of the planet. The risk to our society is high, since these losses of species are often irreversible, affect our ability to innovate ‒many medicines have their origin in terrestrial or marine biodiversity‒ and reduce our potential for adaptation and resilience to natural risks, which are increasing due to climate change.

In both cases, the poorest areas and populations in our environment are the most vulnerable to the loss of environmental quality of our planet, especially in developing countries, as they have little capacity to anticipate and adapt to these abrupt changes. Scientists already predict an increase in mortality for climatic reasons, a reduction in GDP due to the decrease in productivity and the possibility of reaching a systemic land collapse if feedback loops are created and we pass a turning point both feared and unknown in equal measure.

These global challenges take on a more concrete perspective in the Mediterranean region, which is considered one of the main critical areas of climate change and biodiversity worldwide. This unique ecosystem, distributed around the Mediterranean Sea, harbours an exceptionally rich environmental, human and cultural diversity. Unfortunately, the region is experiencing an accelerated process of desertification, accompanied by increasing water scarcity and a series of increasingly frequent and damaging climate events. The concentration of population and economic activities in coastal areas increases their vulnerability to rising sea levels, ocean acidification, droughts, floods or fires. These changes in the climate system are already causing a reduction in agricultural productivity, while accelerating migration from the South to the North and making its tourist destinations less attractive and competitive.

Compliance with the Paris Agreement and the sustainable development goals of the Agenda 2030 requires a radical change in how we live, especially in industrialised countries. In less than thirty years, we must eliminate the use of gas or oil for heating; replace petrol cars with electric vehicles; close all coal and gas thermal power plants; make the petrochemical industry green industry; abandon the use of pesticides in agriculture; use carbonless energy sources for the heavy steel or aluminium industry, and so on. The challenge is enormous and implies a radical change in how we produce and consume. Our productivist and linear economy, based on the throwaway society, must be inspired by the foundations of nature, where nothing is wasted and everything is recycled. In a circular economy, the biological and technical cycles of the products we use are closed and repeated indefinitely. In this way, the principles of efficiency and sufficiency are applied to our daily life and our scarce common goods, such as water, land, sea or air, are shared rationally and fairly.

The breadth of this transformation requires an urgent political commitment, with a long-term vision and short-term actions. However, many current governments do not have enough power to implement the necessary measures that this change of model requires, or are just not interested. In modern states, decision-making processes are slow, bureaucratic and often inefficient. Governments continue to apply the same production recipes that have led us to failure, without effectively responding to these global challenges, which need coordination between very diverse actors, both locally and globally. Neither have the political economic elites and the traditional industrial enterprises been able to understand and support the ecological transition. Both tend to be more interested in maintaining the status quo ‒facilitated by cheap fossil energy that produces easy money‒ than in promoting a more sustainable and responsible economy and market. Their bodies of influence (that is, the groups or lobbies located in the decision-making centres) have often denied the importance of climate change and the need to adopt greener practices. Moreover, citizens have often become pure consumers, submissive to the constant bombardment of advertising and cheap products.

However, outside the mainstream media, winds of change are blowing and new voices are making themselves heard. The young Norwegian activist Greta Thunberg is appealing to our ethics, individual responsibility and collective intelligence to radically change our way of producing and consuming. Through the strikes called every Friday (Fridays for Future) or the activist movement Rebellion Against Extinction, young people and students from around the world are loudly and clearly expressing a feeling of outrage at the inaction of our current political, social and business representatives. Nothing can continue as before and civil society, diverse and active in the Mediterranean, is taking over. Through their knowledge of the terrain and their ability to mobilise, thousands of associations manage to inform, educate and empower citizens in relation to the importance of recycling, saving energy, consuming organic products or reducing the use of the plane or car.

In European countries, citizens group together to consume more sustainably and responsibly. The cooperatives Som Energia, in Spain, or Enercoop, in France, represent tens of thousands of individuals who want to consume electricity produced by renewable energy sources by and for citizens, away from energy multinationals that base their business on fossil energy and the use of natural resources through monopolies or oligopolies. In the field of food, hundreds of cooperatives ‒ such as the Associations for the Maintenance of Local Farming (AMAP in its acronym in French) ‒ bring together thousands of families who buy their fruit and vegetables directly from local producers, guaranteeing seasonal local products free of pesticides and without intermediaries, and at a fair and balanced price. Thanks to new technologies, there are new generations of eco-entrepreneurs launching digital applications that allow services to be shared ‒ such as Blablacar, for travel ‒ or to exchange products ‒ like Wallapop, for used items.

In the southern Mediterranean there is also a growing community of eco-entrepreneurs developing more sustainable businesses and more responsible products in the field of tourism (such as Jabalna Ecolodge, in Lebanon), plastic recycling (Zero Zbel, in Morocco), ecoconstruction (Ecosahara, in Algeria) or organic farming (Sabra, in Jordan). The company SEKEM, based in Egypt, managed to recover desert areas and transform them into fertile land producing high quality organic food, which today is exported to the entire Mediterranean 

Beyond individual initiatives, many citizens in different countries are coming together to seek collective solutions to these global challenges and, if necessary, do not hesitate to confront governments and companies. The various climate trials are probably the most ambitious and promising example of these initiatives. In 2015, in a historic ruling confirmed in 2018 by the Court of Appeal of The Hague, Urgenda, an environmental foundation acting on behalf of 900 Dutch citizens managed to force the Dutch state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020. In France, several associations supported by two million French have taken the French state to court in the so-called “trial of the century” to demand an action plan that can deal with climate challenges. Globally, several civil society organisations and numerous intellectuals plead for the development of an international legal framework to prevent and punish the famous “ecocides”, defined as the loss, damage or destruction of the natural ecosystem of an area.

Through the federation Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development (MIO-ESCDE), over one hundred environmental associations and foundations in all the countries of the Mediterranean have joined forces to become a driver of progress and influence in the integration of environmental sustainability in national, local or regional public policies. Today, MIO-ESCDE is promoting a regional programme on education in sustainable development. The environmental citizen association Eco-union has also launched the initiative Blue Tourism, which fosters the development of sustainable green and blue economy activities among tourist companies, public agents and citizens.

Faced with the magnitude of environmental challenges and the failure of the usual political actors, civil society on both shores of the Mediterranean is taking the lead in this irreversible and urgent process of ecological transformation of our society and economy. The democratic awakening of North African countries also accelerates the possibility ‒ and need ‒ of including citizens in decision-making for more sustainable and responsible development. The question is no longer whether we have to transform our model towards a more sustainable one but rather when we will finally establish a more just, sustainable and inclusive Mediterranean society.