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There’s no planet B

How did your interest in the environment begin?
I started by being interested in the consumer society which was starting to emerge in Portugal in the mid-1980s. I started to work for Expresso and it had a section called Bolsa do Consumidor (Consumers’ Corner). We were in a closed society, a very restricted market, and, with the pre-accession to the European Union, we joined the market economy train and there was a boom of consumerism that was completely unprecedented and brutal, with no environmental legislation at that time. We ended up creating huge externalities and many negative impacts from the environmental point of view. One very interesting indicator is the production of waste. Every time a society starts on a period of growth, it produces much more waste. But there was no treatment, there were no selective collections, there was nothing. Everything went to the open-air rubbish dumps, of which there were more than 300. With no legislation, there were no rules, there were no limits.

The environment interferes with everything…
It’s not just a matter of waste, or of water, it’s also a question of land deregulation, because that was also the model of growth in Portugal. The 1990s were largely based on construction, be it public or private, creating a series of problems connected with land regulation and the impacts on nature conservation. The country had remained conserved by force over so many years that it was difficult for society to take care of the protected areas itself. But, from the 1990s onwards, European regulations began to take effect. That was when the Ministry of the Environment was created and when a series of directives were introduced into Portuguese law.

Did Expo 98 contribute to our visibility to the outside world in environmental terms?
Expo 98 had two important aspects. On the one hand, the question of the oceans. It took a long time for the country to accept the question of the oceans and the sea as an important aim in economic and social terms. On the other hand, the ability to redevelop a degraded area. Unfortunately, it was done in the Portuguese way; it started very well with the depollution of the land, but later part of it was botched and the result is still visible today.

From the point of view of urban development, it was a very interesting and very important rehabilitation project, despite the fact that there was too much construction. And it was also the first time that we started to affirm ourselves as an important place to visit, which can be seen in the almost excessive boom in tourism in Portugal. We have a tendency to go from one extreme to another in a very unreflective way in many things, and this has created a number of problems for us. We have to be more rational in the strategic decisions we take.

 Luísa Schmidt - investigadora no Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa, jornalista, escritora, membro do Conselho Nacional de Ambiente e Desenvolvimento Sustentável
Luísa Schmidt

Does your book aim to preserve that memory and alert people to what was done and what wasn’t done?
Yes, I think that that was my main intention. I tried to find an article for each of these topics from the 1990s till today, and I provide a framework which gives us an idea about what is happening today, on some levels. It shows who was in charge, who took those decisions, basically who was fighting for the common good and the public interest, and who wasn’t. It’s important for us to understand this development so that we also know why we constantly got stuck with certain decisions.

There are some articles that worry me a bit because they could have been written today. That applied to the issue of the forests. This stop-go in environmental policy and nature conservation always produces bad results. We saw what happened last year with the lack of regulation of the forests and with the fires that proliferated everywhere.

Civil society is also more sensitive to these issues…
Civil society has meanwhile started to show concern for the environment and nature conservation in a very different way, with the younger generations now having much better training in the environmental field.

The local authorities have also improved. We are working on a project with 26 local authorities and with the involvement of local people to create strategies for adapting to local climate change. A different mentality can already be seen, be it on the part of the municipal presidents and staff or on the part of the organisations and people who live in those places. There is more transparency, more rigour in what is decided and I think that things have developed very positively.

In the area of environmental education, especially among the youngest members of society, what has been done?

There was a time when environmental education really flourished, which was the second half of the 1990s, when Guterres declared his passion for education and put people in the Ministry of Education who were aware of the issue and managed to link the Ministry of Education to the Ministries of the Environment and Employment. All of this left its mark on a generation that is now in the local authorities, in the places where decisions are made. So, they are much more aware of environmental issues.

It is through environmental education that we can embed this subject and make it exciting. But, in 2009, they put an end to the Project Area, which was extremely important because that’s where citizens were trained who are attentive to the problems in today’s world. This subject-matter is part of our day-to-day lives. We can see it now with the Paris Agreement. At the moment, this is not America’s problem, it’s a problem of the planet and humanity. Nowadays, children and young people have to have much more robust training about the problems that they will face and which are closely connected with this subject-matter – science, the environment…

Human issues and human values…
Environmental values and human values are closely related. For example, in the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’, when we see these isolationist leaders saying “this is how we are” and the rest of humanity can fend for itself, we are all affected. We are interdependent; there is no planet B, so we all have to organise ourselves in such a way that we can continue to live here with humanity. The perversely positive effect of Donald Trump’s attitude is to create what is known in sociology as a sub-political phenomenon; this brings different players, people or groups together, who, otherwise, would probably not unite around what, in this case, is a common evil.

Is the communication of science reaching people effectively?
The new financing arrangements for research give great importance to the question of open science and the dissemination of science and research. To a large extent, decisions today stem from science and the knowledge that is brought to politicians and the general public about scientific research and scientific results. And this creates that same sense of social responsibility among scientists. People need what is happening at a scientific level to be decoded, and they also have to embark more often on creating their own science. Local knowledge is increasingly important.

Are politicians aware of the importance of science in decision-making?
In a document that will come out soon about open science, this government wants to create a new dynamism, not only in terms of access to data (whether it’s what is produced in laboratories, in universities, in research centres and in public administration), but also in the evaluation of researchers and teachers, where the communication of science is also involved. In other words, what they call the social responsibility of the scientist.

What this document also talks about, and what we have been supporting for a long time, is citizen science, in other words that it is young people and children themselves who collect data in a serious way about their communities. This involves them in local and national life: they start to understand things better. We also argue for there being a year dedicated to the associative spirit, of whatever kind, dedicated to society and the common good.

This boom in tourism in Portugal will also have different impacts…
I think Portugal has a cluster of activities which should be developed much more, namely health tourism connected with spas. We have absolutely fantastic thermal waters and an ageing population in Europe. Nowadays, in some of the areas that were devoted to mass tourism, it’s not just that people don’t like them, or don’t want to go there so much, but many of these areas probably won’t keep going because they no longer have a beach. We need to invest in more sustainable tourism, in nature tourism, birdwatching, for example. We already have large numbers of tourists looking for this.

As far as Lisbon is concerned, for tourism not to become a destructive activity, we cannot continue to see people being expelled from their neighbourhoods as they are at present. We are losing our characteristic quality. What is interesting in a city like Lisbon is the social mixture and the culture, seeing those different and diverse parts of the population in the old bairros.

Let’s talk about you now: how do you experience these environmental questions in your day-to-day life?
I was fortunate to be able to work on environmental issues at the university, on consumption and communication, at the same time as working in journalism, and intervening in society to some extent. Through my work at the university, I can understand how things are organised, and then in my journalistic work I can “give the door a kick”, in other words in many cases I can reveal what’s going on, and on other occasions educate, raise these subjects in public for them to be discussed, and try to intervene on that level.

In my day-to-day life, in terms of rubbish, I try not only to separate things, but also to reduce the amount as much as possible. I stopped using plastic bags and started using those bags that are specifically for shopping. In terms of food waste, which I have always been concerned about, I try not to have any. The only thing that I cannot do unfortunately is stop using the car to come to the university. I am highly sensitive to questions of energy efficiency and noise, I have great respect for everything to do with water and so I am careful about that. In short, I try to follow a little bit of everything I argue for in my teaching. I do a lot of work in schools, in local authorities, in the media, whenever they invite me, and by writing in Expresso. I am always available for everything they challenge me with in terms of working towards a better country, because I am very patriotic in the midst of all this.

Where is the best place to get involved in order to promote the common good?
It’s at school, be it in a primary school or at a university; it’s in the local authorities, in the media, in NGOs and then in companies. In the document for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, the group of the national UNESCO committee identified places where people should intervene and where there is the capacity for change. And it’s increasingly important to work with schools above all. Education is basic in everything. And education cannot be seen today without linking the environment with social issues, with cultural and even economic questions, a circular economy more and more.

How do we want to live?
That is the most important question. We want to live with a better environment, better, and better qualified, public health, better quality of life, more social and environmental justice, more equity, fewer social inequalities, an economy that puts less pressure on resources. In other words, a green or circular economy in which everything can be re,used. Basically, we want to live in a way that is collectively more gratifying and attentive in a way that is both local and global, and with more science, more knowledge, with more trust in the powers that be, whatever they are, but also with greater morality and responsibility on the part of those powers. And we also want to live with more hope.

Thank you.

Luísa Schmidt is a woman who accepts challenges and is profoundly concerned about issues of equity and justice, and her greatest wish is to live with a better environment on the planet we have. Luísa is a researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon, a journalist, writer, member of the National Council for the Environment and Sustainable Development (CNADS). We talked to her about her latest book Portugal: Ambientes de Mudança. Erros, Mentiras e Conquistas (Portugal: Environments of Change, Errors, Lies and Conquests), a reflection on a
series of articles she published as a columnist for the weekly 
newspaper Expresso.

Rosália Cera

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