"Human rights should be the starting and the ending point"


Emilia Reyes is an international advocate for women's rights and an expert on gender-responsive public policies and budgets and sustainable development, including comprehensive disaster risk management and climate change. She highlights the necessity of degrowth and the problems of our global neoliberal system.

This interview is part of our Living Within Our Means Series.

Overshoot Day, the day on which we as a whole global community have used more resources than the earth can regenerate in a year, moves forward every year, highlighting the acceleration and convergence of multiple crises, including in particular the climate and biodiversity emergency. This year it is on July 28, 2022. Please tell us about 1-2 topics/processes/initiatives that you are currently supporting in your professional context and which you feel are absolutely critical in the context of reaching more sustainable growth paths.

It is extremely sad that humanity is endangering life on this planet, and the well-being of people. The climate crisis is crucial, but it is not the only threat in the environmental agenda. This is why the first message is to promote environmental integrity and systemic solutions, rather than siloed measures. So far, as Jason Hickel warns in Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the Earth, we are at risk of overshooting most of the planetary boundaries, although four of them have been already surpassed: climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and biogeochemical flows. Ocean acidification is also reaching its limits. Even if we were able to stop climate change tomorrow, we still need to promote a quick systemic change, abandoning the reliance on an extractive exploitation of nature, work, and time.

The second message I want to stress is the need to cap material resource and energy use, given that massive extractive practices are eroding all of our ecosystems, harming our ways of life, violating land rights of local communities, as well as collective rights, such as those of indigenous peoples. All in all, extractive industries engaged in mega projects and in all sectors, pose the largest risk to environmental integrity. Their energy use is paired up with the idea of allowing for an overshoot of greenhouse gas emissions with the assumption that temperature limits can be reached with net-zero approaches. Comprehensive capping of material resource and energy use is one of the most urgent measures on the national, regional, and global level if we are really committed to reversing the existing devastating effects the current neoliberal capitalistic system has had on the planet and the lives of people.

What role do equity, human rights and gender equality play in these processes/initiatives? What role should they play?

In my opinion, these are the main principles that should guide our actions moving forward. They each address a dimension that is key to transform reality, to improve the lives of people, and to shift the way humanity relates to the environment and our planet.

Human rights are a starting point to think of the larger structural decisions that are needed to ensure collective and individual well-being. Human rights are a framework that must structure our technical approaches but also provides a principled path to make decisions when confronted with the unprecedented multiple and cascading crises we are currently facing collectively. Human rights should be the starting and the ending point when making the right decisions for the well-being of people and the health of the planet.

Feminist economists have shown the way women subsidize the global economy through the unpaid domestic and care work they do. Gender equality is urgent to address one of the most obscene and pervasive forms of exploitation we have seen throughout history. The sexual division of labor should be a core element that must guide our analysis and inform our solutions, because there are historical and structural inequalities that cannot be maintained any longer.

Equity is central to achieve justice of all kinds: justice between the Global South and the Global North, because so far, the South has been subsidizing the North; justice for indigenous peoples, who so far have subsidized life on this planet; justice to achieve intergenerational equity, because current and subsequent generations need to be taken into account when making decisions to ensure their well-being is considered.

In this day and age, no one can really claim ignorance about what actions are sustainable or harmful in terms of the preservation of life on Earth. So, it seems we really don't have a knowledge problem but an action problem. If you could implement 1-3 key reforms to drive more action for sustainability in your sphere of influence, which ones would you focus on and which alliances would be important to achieve them?

The first key action that I would like to propose is a comprehensive reform of the existing global economic and financial architecture to really address the pillars of the climate and environmental crises. Of course, this includes, indeed must be led by, shifting our fossil-dependent economies based on the understanding that we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Furthermore, we cannot keep on relying on false technical solutions like carbon markets, nature-based solutions (as opposed to ecosystem-based solutions), or geoengineering.

The second key reform refers to a proposal already mentioned in my response to the first question: capping material resource and energy use.

The third one refers to demanding degrowth for the rich, redistribution and reparations for the South and those who have suffered the harshest impacts of the environmental crises. It has to be understood that the roots of the current environmental emergencies lie in a neoliberal capitalistic system, that is predatory, extractive, and relies on the exploitation of nature, work, and time to maintain and reproduce inequalities and, eventually, lead to the destruction of life.

Without individual resilience, it is difficult to advocate effectively and sustainably for greater global resilience. Many sustainability advocates put their service for the collective good over their own well-being, among them a disproportionate number of women who are still facing the primary care-burden in both their personal as well as professional lives. What helps you to maintain and strengthen your mental and physical power?

This is a very important question that I think needs to be addressed collectively. I have seen in the past months many feminist and environmental activists, leaders in their own account, on the verge of a breakdown because of the burnout, the sense of responsibility, the need to act, but also the sense of desperation in the face of something that is larger than them. Individual solutions are limited, and we need to find ways to embrace ourselves in the different collectives we are a part of. I have found as well that the inspiration I get from all the wonderful and amazing activists and social movements I work with every day, who become a global family, are the source of my drive to keep on going.

If you had to tell a first grader today why it is important to continue working for an ecologically, socially and gender-just transformation in the face of all the enormous challenges, what would you say and what skills would you recommend?

Because, as feminists from the Pacific say, we will never give up on our beautiful planet. We have a historical role, one that can also be rooted in dance, in passion, in solidarity and hope. I would tell the first grader to maintain their capacity to dream, to create, to play, and also, I would encourage them to be bolder and braver.

Please tell us about one book or idea that has recently inspired you.

I am always traveling with a book of poetry, a novel, a book on feminism, a book of critical analysis about our greater challenges, and a book of French psychoanalysis. Recently I have been re-reading Antigonick, by Anne Carson, because we need to go back but also to reinterpret our social codes. Circe, by Madeline Miller, centers on the life of a female secondary character, questioning at the same time the values of the mainstream society that prioritizes violence and power. All About Love: New Visions, by bell hooks, has invited me to reflect on the nature of love and the larger role it plays in social movements. And as I mentioned initially, Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, by Jason Hickel, is a good point of entry to the degrowth theory that is expanding the debates in the Global North, calling for stronger and structural actions.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

This article first appeared here: us.boell.org