I became a climate and cultural activist out of necessity

We need to be more humble as young activists. We cannot invade the space of scientists and climate change experts

We speak to young international activist and author Alejandro Quecedo del Val

How would you describe yourself?

I am a 19-year old who is curious and cares about the world around us. I have many interests and a love for nature, our heritage, history, the arts etc. I approach these areas of knowledge from a place of understanding and protection. I am passionate about birds and biodiversity and above all committed to making a meaningful difference in the world.

I developed a love for literature from an early age thanks to my mother. I was also a regular at my local radio station where I hosted a program where we discussed a book every week. In addition, I did drama at school and my teacher was a huge inspiration for me. I have always used the internet for access to knowledge in my areas of interest. All of these experiences have helped me grow as a person and appreciate the rich diversity I’ve found in international environments later on.

When did you start your interest in environmental and socio-climatic issues?

I come from Briviesca, a small town in Northern Spain surrounded by fields which have been devastated by intensive farming. It breaks my heart to see that the landscape has been ruined; I developed an intense love for nature and especially birds in those fields. Years later, I am sad to say that birds are gradually disappearing from my local area and their own habitats. Birds rely on healthy ecosystems to survive and they are being destroyed by anthropogenic activities. As a society we need to take a holistic view of nature and the natural world as our livelihood depends on it. So I became an activist out of necessity.  At the age of 12, I joined the Spanish Ornithology Society, SEO/BirdLife. In 2017, SEO took the pioneering decision of establishing the first Youth Steering Group in Spain. At the age of 16, I decided to put myself forward for the committee elections and I won. As a President I led field campaigns on climate action, biodiversity, land planning etc. At the same time we developed the “Eduardo de Juana scholarships” to foster youth ecological engagement. That’s how I was invited by the Spanish President to act as the national delegate at the UN Youth Climate Summit held in New York in 2019. From then on, my engagement at a global and local level has only increased. 

Becoming an activist was therefore a very gradual and natural process. It started with my love for birds and as I gained more in-depth knowledge on climate change my commitment grew with it.

I am a 19-year old who cares about the world around us. I have a love for nature, our heritage, history, the arts etc. and I am committed to making a meaningful difference in the world

Why do you talk about an ecosocial crisis instead of a climate crisis?

We are not just in front of a climate crisis, we are also facing an ecological crisis which leads to a raft of other related problems. Climate change is only accelerating and enhancing other sustainability issues. The most worrying issue right now is the loss of biodiversity: IPBES data reveals that the 6th mass extinction crisis is well underway. The problem is dire: up to 150 species are becoming extinct every day and this breaks my heart. The whole planetary system is interconnected so if the ecosystems lose their resilience, through deforestation, oceans pollution etc., the whole natural systems become destabilised.

In order to stem this trend, we need to mobilise society and initiate a deep social transformative process. Currently, 7 million people die a year from air pollution according to a WHO report. By 2050 it is forecast that as many as 1 billion  people could become climate migrants according to the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). Prestigious scientist, Will Steffen, has claimed that in a world warmer by 4ºC on average, the Earth’s carrying capacity will be limited to 1 billion inhabitants. Currently, we are heading towards 8 billion. The World Economic Forum concludes in its 2021 Global Risks Report that a non-mitigated climate crisis could be more destructive than weapons of mass destruction. Humanity prospects are terrifying. 

We are witnessing the terrible consequences of an anthropogenic-driven natural crisis. This has been brought about by our neoliberal society’s extractive ambition geared towards increasing productivity at all costs. A study by  Aarhus University concludes that it would take between 5 and 7 million years for the planet to recover to the natural levels before man appeared on Earth if our species were to disappear today. We are therefore facing an ecosocial crisis and the solution lies in the social sphere and its transformation. 

We are seeing the terrible consequences of a man-made natural crisis brought about by our neoliberal ambition geared towards increasing productivity at all costs.

Tell us about “cultural democratisation” and its link with the ecosocial crisis

I have always been passionate about the Humanities, Arts, Philosophy, etc. In the village, I am from there aren’t museums, theatres, etc. so I did not grow up with a massive cultural exposure but there was the internet which became my window to the world. Yet, this lack of cultural dynamism is pushing the youngest generations to abandon the rural areas as they feel they don’t have a future. Consequently, there is a tendency to urbanise the rural world, to imitate the city,  whereas we have to do just the opposite. We should use culture to enhance the intrinsic value of the rural world and its privileged contact with nature. However, all the cultural means are monopolised by the urban areas. This is what cultural democratisation is about: giving everyone the opportunity to make their neighborhoods, towns and villages spaces where the community feel fulfilled and their emotionality enhanced in relation to the territory. 

Indeed, culture is the basis for self-construction and for social inclusion. The new industrial development models are at the root of the ecosocial crisis. Yet, the deeper underlying problem is our gradual disconnect from nature. We need to understand life in a different way and reconnect with nature to improve our mental and physical well-being, to make space for deep thinking, away from technology,  and to self-construct ourselves as human beings who are prepared for a socio-cultural transition. 

The problem is not the lack of compelling scientific data. What we are missing as a society is the determination to take action. This powerlessness is directly linked to our technology consumption which increasingly erodes our ability to react. In this technological age, everything is instantaneous, emotionally triggered and ephemeral. We live in a BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear, Incomprehensible) world and so the cultural democratisation is urgent to transform our emotional response. We cannot fight for what we cannot feel. That is why our societies remain passive in the face of the unfolding ecological disaster. If we manage to evoke our maternal ties with nature and to develop an emotional attachment to our immediate environment, we could set off a social movement leading to a true paradigm shift. 

Finally, we can all live more sustainably by reducing our consumerism tendencies. We have a personal responsibility for our impacts on the world. Having said that, the individual can do only so much and this focus diverts attention from the real problem which is the big capital. According to Oxfam, 50% of the emissions stem from 10% of the richest global population, while the poorest half is only accountable for 10% of the overall emissions. We need to transform the system and our lifestyles in order to address the ecosocial crisis. We cannot live in a burnout society where productivity is the only metric. Thatcher famously said: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul‘. Sadly, one could say she was right. Now is the time to re-connect with nature to change our souls into more caring, humble, self-reflecting, and emotional ones. 

Now is the time to re-connect with nature to change our souls into more caring, humble, self-reflecting and emotional ones.

You’ve written an essay (only available in Spanish at the moment): “Gritar lo que está Callado” (Yell out what it is quiet). Tell us about this project

The idea of writing this essay was triggered by my frustration following the UN Youth Summit in 2019. I remember that when I got there, I was hit by an overwhelming sense of being part of a “climate circus”, an alienating show full of flashy videos and delegates from every country taking the stand and making theatrical presentations. It is a kind of “performative activism” which generates instant emotions and feelgood gratification but in actual fact amounts to little real action. It was an illusion which did not move the climate change needle. Then, we with a bunch of other delegates, gathered outside the conference to draft the Global Youth Climate Action Declaration but it was not adopted in Plenary. Somehow, the UN got cold feet at what they might consider radical proposals. Months later we presented the Declaration at COP25 and the UN realised the wasted potential. A new declaration was finally drafted and adopted in September 2021 at the UN Youth Conference in Milan within the UNFCCC framework.

I wanted to turn this frustration into something meaningful and that’s why I decided to write this book which is divided into two major sections. The first one provides an anatomy of the various faces, causes and consequences of the ecosocial crisis. Of course, I am not a scientist, and all the data provided is based on extensive bibliographical research. The second section is perhaps more personal as I try to answer a question that has haunted me since I began my work as an activist: in the face of the evidence, why don’t we react? In answering this question one must mobilise and interconnect all fields of knowledge since the answer is perhaps more related to a cultural condition of powerlessness than to the absence of information. Thus, the latter section is approached from a social science perspective, where we can find valuable insights such as the powerful quote by Walter Benjamin: “The individual self-alienation has come to a point where it allows a whole society to watch its own destruction with aesthetic pleasure”; which despite being written in the 30s is still relevant nowadays.  

Does Gen Z have a new approach to these issues and what is the role of the new young activism?

We cannot put all younger generations in the same category. We are not a monolithic block, there are young people who spend all their time on tiktok and there are others that care about the world and want to make a difference. In the 70s the younger generations were very involved and they were fighting for peace and freedom whereas now the cause we young people fight for is a different one. We have made a lot of progress and climate change awareness is widespread, although not everyone knows what they are talking about.

In my generation we are native digital activists much as the ‘68 generations were street activists. As the space of protest is shifting towards the digital, the younger generations have successfully spread awareness of the climate issue in the virtual world which has reached a tipping point triggering mass-mobilisation. We all have a role in this fight and everyone’s voice is important but we need to be more humble as young activists. We cannot invade the space of scientists and climate change experts. Greta’s blablabla speech was very effective and the footage traveled round the world. Ironically, her own speech was probably as empty as the ones she was denouncing. Media coverage tends to cover the stories of young white and privileged activists. It is well and good to demand the end of CO2 emissions by 2030 but if you do that you are condemning millions in emerging economies to poverty. It is not an inclusive representative view of the world and we need the perspectives of the Global South. At a recent conference a young delegate from Uganda burst into tears overwhelmed by the climate change threat to her country. Greta rushed to comfort her and her gesture was broadcast globally. However, nobody wondered why the Uganda girl broke down in the first place. 

In the Western world activism is a hobby whereas in the Global South it is a life-or-death matter. Greta has done lots for activism but she unwittingly overshadows other voices which don’t get heard. For instance, the African Great Green Wall  is being led by many spirited young African activists but nobody talks about them. Greta’s Fridays for Future has been successful as it was an easy-to-digest message that everyone can support and embrace. By contrast, Extinction Rebellion is more complex and ideological and therefore did not reach the mainstream. I believe this diversity of messages and approaches to the ecosocial crisis are galvanising. There is truly fascinating momentum now. Hence, we should strive towards activism where there is dialogue among equals and we leave behind the current situation in which mainstream messages silence the plural reality of the youth and the ecological crisis.

Media coverage tends to cover the stories of young white and privileged activists but It is not an inclusive representative view of the world.

Tell us about your take on education for change

In 2019, I was awarded a United World Colleges (UWC) scholarship to study in Norway for 2 years. UWC is a global movement that makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. It is an initiative which has just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as it educates young people to become agents of change. Growing up, I was never interested in studying the traditional way, memorising lots of data, to get top grades. At UWC it was different as the goal is to mobilise knowledge triggered by thoughtful topics which develop our critical thinking with the aim of making that knowledge a vector for social transformation. 

UWC  promotes non academic learning in its curriculum which provides students with the key tools to make a transformative impact in their communities. In Norway, we were a community of 200 students with an outstanding diversity of cultures and backgrounds.The day to day in these colleges is a constant challenge to your previous beliefs and attitudes. Interestingly, I would say that during my first year the place where I learned the most was my room and this as a result of the interactions with my roommates and their life experiences (one was an Afghan refugee). I lived a fascinating social equalising experience which taught me to view the world with fresh eyes. 

What are you studying now and what projects are you involved in now?

I decided to pursue a degree in Social Sciences, Political Humanities and Sociology in the Reims campus of Sciences Po Paris as I did not want to become stuck in a niched academic world. I believe knowledge should be interdisciplinary and its significance is connected with its transformative potential. I am interested in knowledge as a driver for social transformation and this was a key factor in my university education decision. Sciences Po, provides a holistic view of the world which I think is an asset at a time where there are so many narrow-focused experts everywhere who don’t understand the overall picture and its dynamics. Unlike other institutions, this faculty treats the humanities as a complex matter of utmost importance. Furthermore, this institution provides very generous scholarships in a conscious effort to democratise education without which I would not be able to continue my studies. 

In addition, I am involved in the development of the Youth UNESCO Climate Action Network (YoU-CAN). We aim to create a platform for young movements worldwide to start a dialogue and work in a collaborative manner. It tries to avert cultural inertia and white privilege biases by putting all the cultures and perspectives at the same level. We are currently working on the governance plans. You-Can is meant to become a useful organisation to provide input and improve the UN decision-making on climate change by providing a full picture of youth activism, its perspectives and developments while enhancing them. 

In addition, I continue working closely with SEO/BirdLife and the new members of the Youth steering group. Whenever local initiatives come up I try to get involved. We are currently developing a summer course on the ecosocial crisis in a village close to my hometown. And, on top of that, my book came out last November and is due to be translated into different languages next year. So far, I’ve been fairly busy with the book promotion.

A multi-disciplinary education is an asset at a time where there are so many narrow-focused experts everywhere who don't understand the overall picture and its dynamics.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years and what do you think the world will be like then?

Honestly, I don’t know where I will be in 10 years. In these uncertain times, there is nothing set in stone. I am not that interested in politics as the agency for real transformation is limited. All my project collaborations and personal involvement have to live by the principle of meaning and impact. We make our own history, we are actors that have to develop our own individual narratives. We are now fast approaching a tipping point where we can either end up in dystopia or immersed in an unprecedented ecological and social transition towards a sustainable paradigm.  I’d like society to take the latter path in 10 years’ time. We can build a more ethical society together.  

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