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Good evening,

Across Belgium, millions of people have turned their lives upside down to slow the spread of Coronavirus. We are making progress, and I thank you all for your efforts. Tragically however, many have died or are critically ill. Our thoughts go to them and to their families.

This pandemic has forced us to take unprecedented measures. However I have to tell you now that these measures are not sufficient to address the true gravity of the situation. I am speaking to you once again today to share with you new knowledge that we have gained concerning the current crisis.

The scientific community has told us that the COVID-19 crisis is in fact only one of many consequences of a much larger problem. If we are to overcome the current crisis, as well as the crises that will arise in future, which may be yet more serious, we must address this problem immediately.

What I have to say to you today may be difficult to hear. I am well aware of this.

Over the past decades we have seen a dramatic increase in new diseases such as Ebola, Swine Flu, SARS and now COVID-19 (1, 2). Scientific research shows that these outbreaks are directly linked to the exploitation and destruction by humans of our natural environment: deforestation, industrial agriculture, our use of antibiotics, global warming and international travel (3). Wild animals no longer have enough space to live. Diseases are being transmitted between species that have never before met. Intensive animal farming creates mass-scale opportunities for dangerous diseases to evolve and spread. (3, 4)

Coronavirus is an alarm bell we cannot ignore. Pandemics are one of the consequences of a deeper ecological crisis. Scientists, indigenous peoples and environmentalists have long been warning us that we are facing the imminent collapse of the ecosystems we all depend on for our survival. (5, 6, 7)

For centuries, our societies have viewed nature as a stock of resources to be exploited. Our need for energy and materials has steadily grown (8, 9, 10). A handful of European nations, including Belgium, colonised large swathes of the world, exploiting indigenous populations and plundering the earth. This is not merely history. These injustices still exist today: the richest ten per cent of the world’s population consumes twenty times more energy than the poorest ten per cent. (11, 12) Belgium has one of the world's highest ecological footprints in the world. (13)

Governments speak of our planet heating by 1.5 or 2°C. The difference seems minimal, but this half degree will cause sea levels to rise higher, more flooding, more fires, droughts, desertification and famine. This half degree represents hundreds of millions of deaths (14, 15). Every day, an unprecedented amount of plant and animal species disappear forever. Ten to hundred times faster than in the last 10 million years. (16) This crisis is not a distant threat. Across the world, people are already seeing their lands and livelihoods wiped out. (17)

So far, our country has been spared the worst effects of the ecological crisis. Yet even here in Belgium, harvests will fail for lack of water and pollinating insects. (18, 19) People near the coast will be forced from their homes as sea levels rise. (20, 21) Many more of us will die from heat waves and air pollution (22). Today, people are fighting over toilet paper. If we do not act now, we will soon be fighting over food in front of empty supermarket shelves.

We have pinned too much hope on new technologies. (23, 24, 25) Science tells us that no existing technology can counteract or reverse the ecological breakdown. And it does not seem that we can expect such a technology to emerge in the foreseeable future. (26)

To date, we have failed as policy makers to grasp the seriousness of the ecological collapse. But today, the Coronavirus crisis is making us aware of the depth of change required of us: we must change our way of life, and we must change it now.

I will continue to make use of the special powers entrusted to me by Parliament to address the most urgent aspects of the ongoing pandemic. But we must go further. This will require great courage and effort from all of us: from businesses, from policy makers, and from citizens.

The measures needed to combat the ecological crisis will affect each and every one of us permanently. No government should take such far reaching decisions alone, even in times of emergency. Those most affected by these measures must be the ones who determine them. This is not only the fairest option, it is the most effective one.

For this reason, I am announcing the immediate creation of new Citizens’ Assemblies. With the assistance of experts, these will be asked to decide the most urgent priorities and to propose policies. Assembly members will be drawn by lot and will represent all inhabitants of Belgium proportionally: the old and the young; the poor and the prosperous; citizens of all political, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Deciding how we come out of the corona crisis will have an enormous impact on our future. Different economic sectors have very different impacts on the environment and on people’s wellbeing. Which companies will we choose to support with taxpayers’ money once the lockdown is over? How best can we support those having difficulty paying their bills because of the crisis? How do we make sure that our health system remains strong enough to withstand future crises? (27) Answering these questions will be the first task of the new Citizens’ Assemblies.

We have gravely damaged our planet. It is time to face this difficult truth and to take responsibility. I ask you to come together, to unite as a resilient community so that together we can turn the tide. This historic burden will be shared across many shoulders and we will work together for a healthier, more balanced and brighter future.

Thank you.

Sophie Wilmès

References

  1. Jones KE, Patel NG, Levy MA, Storeygard A, Balk D, Gittleman JL& Daszak P. (2008), Global trends in emerging infectious diseases. Nature 451, 990–993. (doi:10.1038/nature06536)
  2. Katherine F. Smith, Michael Goldberg, Samantha Rosenthal, Lynn Carlson, Jane Chen, Cici Chen and Sohini Ramachandran (2014), Global rise in human infectious disease outbreaks J. R. Soc. Interface.1120140950 (http://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2014.0950)
  3. IPBES (2018): The IPBES assessment report on land degradation and restoration. Montanarella, L., Scholes, R., and Brainich, A. (eds.) Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Bonn, Germany. Pages 272-273 and 376-377.
  4. Jones BA, Grace D, Kock R, et al. Zoonosis emergence linked to agricultural intensification and environmental change. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013;110(21):8399–8404. doi:10.1073/pnas.1208059110
  5. Section By the Numbers – Key Statistics and Facts from the Report of https://ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment
  6. http://www.iipfcc.org/who-are-we
  7. Vogt, W. (1948), Road to Survival, William Sloane Associates, Inc. Publishers, New York
  8. Domestic material extraction of the world in 1970-2017, by material group (metal ores, fossil fuels, Non-metallic minerals, biomass) from http://www.materialflows.net/global-trends-of-material-use/
  9. Energy use (kg of oil equivalent per capita), 1960-2015 from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/eg.use.pcap.kg.oe
  10. Electric power consumption (kWh per capita), 1960-2014 from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.ELEC.KH.PC
  11. Oswald, Y., Owen, A. & Steinberger, J.K. Large inequality in international and international energy footprints between income groups and across consumption categories. Nature Energy 5, 231–239 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-020-0579-8
  12. Roberts, D. (2020), Why Rich People Use So Much Energy, Vox, https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/3/20/21184814/climate-change-energy-income-inequality
  13. Global Footprint Network, Compare Data, from http://data.footprintnetwork.org/#/compareCountries?type=EFCpc&cn=all&yr=2016
  14. https://interactive.carbonbrief.org/impacts-climate-change-one-point-five-degrees-two-degrees/
  15. https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/our-warming-world-how-much-difference-will-half-degree-really-make
  16. Section By the Numbers – Key Statistics and Facts from the Report of https://ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment
  17. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2125198-on-front-line-of-climate-change-as-maldives-fights-rising-seas/
  18. https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/figures/water-stress-in-europe-2000-and-2030
  19. https://fcrn.org.uk/research-library/intensive-agriculture-driving-worldwide-decline-insects
  20. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/11/knokke-heist-belgium-rising-sea-levels-environment-tourism
  21. https://www.climatechangepost.com/belgium/coastal-floods/
  22. https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/health_glance_eur-2018-28-en.pdf
  23. Smil, V. (2014), The Long Slow Rise of Solar and Wind. Scientific American, from http://vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/scientificamerican0114-521.pdf
  24. https://solar.lowtechmagazine.com/2018/01/bedazzled-by-energy-efficiency.html
  25. https://solar.lowtechmagazine.com/2009/11/renewable-energy-is-not-enough.html
  26. Jason Hickel & Giorgos Kallis (2019): Is Green Growth Possible?, New Political Economy, DOI: 10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964
  27. Heinberg, R. (2020), Pandemic Response Requires Post-Growth Economic Thinking. Common Dreams, from https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/04/09/pandemic-response-requires-post-growth-economic-thinking

Sag die Wahrheit

Für die deutsche Version dieses Textes siehe Die Wahrheit über COVID-19 und die ökologische Krise - Eine Rede für Sophie Wilmès.

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A video still from XR Belgium's speech for Sophie Wilmès