A hope for a change: an interview with Mark Hertsgaard

In one of the Global Conversations hosted by our course, we have had the pleasure of attending a two-day conference led by an esteemed guest: Mark Hertsgaard.

He is a father, author, journalist, broadcaster , public speaker and has published seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages. Moreover, as an independent journalist, he has traveled around the world twice, reporting from twenty-five countries and much of the United States about climate change, politics, culture and the environment, which is also main topic of our interview.  Therefore, without further ado, let’s get into it:

  1. Tackling climate change, the economist Serge Latouche claims that a ͞limitless growth in a natural resource limited world is unsustainable. Do you share this idea? What could be an economic solution that has less impact on the environment?

The idea of unsustainable limitless growth in a natural resource limited world is, I think, largely correct. However, there are different kinds of growth. I remember interviewing the French ecologist Jacques Cousteau who addressed this point saying: It’s true we cannot continue to grow in the amount of the wood we cut down or in the amount of the oil we extract from earth or in the amount of pollution we put up in the sky, but we can continue to grow in other ways. We can grow in human rights. We can grow in education. We can grow in artistic and cultural achievements. But that doesn’t really get the question of economics, right? Those are different things. I think that law and culture are not involved enough yet. Instead, there are exciting technologies right now in the environmental field that aim at an efficient use of energy, like the ͞Zero Net Energy Buildings. In these cases, a limitless growth could be done if we avoid the traditional impact, but I’m not sure it is possible.  It’s not simply black and white as Latouche is saying. The American economist Herman Daly in a book called ͞Beyond the limits of growth demonstrated that the world economy is a subset of the Earth that those two sets cannot be considered separated. Therefore, is capitalism compatible with environmental survival? I would recommend looking into my book Earth Odyssey. At the end of Chapter 8 Sustainable Development in the Future of Capitalism I argue that I don’t see Capitalism disappearing any time soon. And the reality, scientifically, is that we have to act soon against problems started in the past. A positive example is represented by Germany or California. In the 1970’s the latter shifted to efficiency rather than growth in the electricity sector and it uses the same electricity today with twice the people and an economy three times bigger.  So, there is clearly room for a certain amount of capitalism, but the key element is that you must have State policies that control capitalism to make sure the economy serves social purposes and not solely economic ones. We have a monopoly capitalism now and what happens is that only the 1 % of economy, the biggest corporations, gets served. And that is disastrous, unsustainable.


  1. Can technology give a contribution to face climate change? If so, how can innovation be applied to less developed countries and through which means?

Well, innovation comes in many forms. It can come from scientist in University. Recently I’ve heard of 94 years old scientist at the university of Texas who just came up with an incredible innovation about batteries, which could revolutionize the market thanks to improved storages and driving capabilities. Then, if you talk about less developed countries, a kind of innovation comes from the grassroots. I’m thinking in particular of Bangladesh, where I’ve done a lot of reporting and it’s arguably the most vulnerable country to climate change. Some of the innovations that the peasants of Bangladesh have put in place are just ingenious and they arise not because of one scholar or some World Bank expert who went there. They arise out of the daily life and the traditional knowledge. One example is represented by floating gardens, because Bangladesh is a delta region, most of the time underwater. Thus, they put their gardens on a boat, more like a raff made of leaves and stocks. They use ducks rather than chickens because both lay eggs but ducks can swim. These innovations are really important and they rise from below.  But the most fundamental innovations are often not technical ones: they are political and economic. In Bangladesh, they should be: true democracy, women’s rights and land reform. If you have those three things the situation would improve. You still have the same scientific and ecological problems, like flooding, but the people and peasant will be much more empowered to take the measure which are necessary.  Another problem is the population pressure, as Bangladesh the most densely populated country in the world. That wouldn’t happen if women had rights and girls are educated, because the best birth control is women’s education. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against motherhood, but let’s have a motherhood that a mother can choose. I’m thinking about a little girl, who I met in Bangladesh. Her dream was to go to school one day, and her mother was working in a garment factory in Dhaka, that is a terrible job with dangerous conditions in a place with no emergency exit from the factory because it costs money. I did something you aren’t supposed to do as a journalist, but I couldn’t help it. I pushed money into her mother’s hands and I said: this is for her school. She needs to go to school. If you want to help these countries that’s what you need to do: girls education, access to birth control (not forced birth control) and land reform. Those are important innovation. They rise often from below and they are political and economic, not just technical. But you’ll notice, when most people talk about innovation, they think of Silicon Valley. Nothing against Silicon Valley, but that’s not what will solve these problems.

  1. Regarding climate change policies and agreements, for developing countries it is considered an obstacle to their economic growth whereas developed countries have had a head start that enabled them to become the super economies they are now, so who should make the first step and what compromises should be considered?

This has been the major contradiction at the heart of climate politics internationally for decades. In my book “Hot”, I argue that a proposal of solution may be a Global Green Deal, meaning that rich countries should provide financial assistance to help China, India, Africa and the rest to avoid our past mistakes with cool and oil. Of course, the US and Europe have an interest in saving the planet, as they can also create business for their companies. However, we basically haven’t chosen to do that and as a result we’ve lost a lot of time while China and India were continuing with the old path. Thankfully there was finally a break between China and Us under Obama, where China decided to reduce its emissions, because the Chinese communist government took climate change seriously, to face the problem of food production and avoid famine again. Chinese people are not crazy about living in a communist state, but they aredefinitely afraid of opposing that and they appreciate the economic growth that the party has provided. Let’s not forget that what China did over the last 20 years was the biggest anti-poverty success in human history letting 200 million people out of extreme poverty. They did it by burning a lot of cool and the Chinese people understood it, accepting for a long period to live with that.  When I made my first report in China their air was really polluted and I asked them how did they felt about that: of course, they didn’t like it, but they thought it was the price to be paid. A friend of mine grow up in a very poor family of peasants in a small village. He got his first pair of shoes at the age of 14, before he went barefoot in a cold climate where the only way of having a bit of hot in the winter was with leaves and corn stocks that they burnt because the inside wall of their house was frost, white with icy water drops. With the anti-poverty reform, a bit of money started circulating, their life condition improved and he managed to buy his first pair of shoes. I’ve told this story to emphasize: there are human decisions here. So, Chinese government delivered on the anti-poverty and then shifted to a more climate sustainable production, doing more to end cool and specially to advance solar and wind. They are probably the main nation in the world, with the exception of Germany, and because China is such a massive economy, its impact on the global economic sector is massive. Financial capital is the biggest player in world of economy and everyone knows that nowadays the real fight is to control the green economy. That is why Trump environmental and economic policies appear so short-sighted. China may say to the Us: ͞you take the past and we take the futur. In this way, in fact, China’s massive production of solar and wind energy with economy of scale makes solar price lower, encouraging less rich developing countries to follow their example.

  1. From this perspective, usually the problem for many countries and multinationals to shift to green economy is that it is very costly for them…

Yes, but the point is that the price of solar and wind is now less costly, much less costly, in the electricity sector. Now, transportation can be different, but the transportation sector is going to be electrified as well. It is a mistake to think that the green economy, at least in the electricity sector, is not more expensive, maybe it was true 3-5 years ago. But what happens is that the leaders in too many developing countries are still using their old line, because they are in corrupted relations with the companies producing cool. That is what is going on in India with Pranab Mukherjee Party, whose decisions are connected with Indian cool

companies. If they were making decisions on the basis of purely economic issues, they would choose solar and wind but they are making political calculations and often times corrupted political calculations.

  1. Now that the problem of climate change is felt worldwide and creates conflicts, should the refugees status be considered for people also fleeing from climate change impact that threatens their life as climate change refugees?

Absolutely. Climate refugees’ issue goes back to the equity question. Climate refugees are the result of mainly western countries economic policies or I would say of main powers, because China is responsible too. There is a very interesting suggestion coming from Bangladesh Centre for Advance Studies: basically, the US should assume its responsibility taking Bangladesh refugees as they are creating climate problems and making Bangladesh inhabitable. If the US want to pollute, they can go ahead, but as part of the deal they have to accept Bangladesh refugees. Would you, president Trump? The question answers itself.

  1. A recent book by Naomi Klein ͞This Changes Everything highlights the necessity of political, social and ecological revolution to overcome capitalism and environmental problem. How should this happen? And how do we foster interest and participation?

I am glad that you mentioned Naomi Klein, she is my esteemed colleague at The Nation magazine, doing a great work as contributor to the environmental section.  Our thought may differ on a couple of things about capitalism as Naomi thinks we really have to get rid of it, while theoretically I don’t have any objection to that because our time for dealing with climate change is considerably shorter. I don’t see capitalism disappearing in the next 5-10 years, but you never know history is full of surprises.  But I think Naomi would agree that in the meantime, while we are in this system, we need to have a capitalism with a very strong and fair State government role, with State regulation and laws giving priorities to human needs and not to private profit. So, if we are considering human needs, the US government that is the biggest arms industry in the world, exporting weapons to Asia, Africa and Middle East for a total of 10 billions dollars. Instead of military weapons that usually make things worse and led to antidemocratic governments that violate human rights, what if we have a different policy, what if we use the same amount of money and we invest in people, solar power, schools for girls and boys? We’ll have a very different world, still capitalist world, but very, very, very different.

  1. Your final message as a father, as a journalist and as an activist?

Sure. My final message would be: remember that you are responsible for what you do with this one precious life you have, you can make the difference or you can sit on the side line. If you sit on the side line you can’t complain about what happens. If you try to make the difference, there is not guarantee you will succeed, what is guaranteed is that if you don’t try, you will fail. I call this ͞living in hope, practicing hope. Hope is an active verb, not passive and this is not my conception: I learnt it from the Czechoslovakian play writer and human activist Vàclav Havel who led the Velvet Revolution in the Cold War years against the soviet empire and was imprisoned for his work many, many times, spending 4 years in solitary confinement in the 1980s. Very famous is the story of the disagreement with one of his colleague, Milan Kundera: Havel was going to attend a political demonstration on behalf of rock and roll group that the Czech government didn’t like and Kundera was trying to dissuade him as they needed him out of prison, but Vàclav said ͞No, I am going do it because I don’t know if I’ll come out of that, but I know that if we don’t try, nothing is going to come out. So, we must try, we must live in hope, we must do the right thing without any guarantee that it will matter. That is the big challenge because, of course, it is easier not to get involved in politics, it is easier not to try to make the difference, it is easier only look at your own career, make money with a job you don’t care of. That is easier, but at the end your life is empty. It is much better to try, without guarantees, living in hope, and it is harder, it is challenging, but I think this makes life worth living. And it is also great fun to be involved in politics: when I am able to write articles that tell the true about Trump or any of this bad, it is great fun.”


Interview by Clara Saglietti and Mariamawit Delelegne

3 thoughts on “A hope for a change: an interview with Mark Hertsgaard

  1. César Valdivieso

    Hi Clara! This is an idea that you might like:

    Despite the high quality of life that some of the so-called developed nations have achieved, the truth is that the world, considered as a group of countries located in a fragile and geographically limited biosphere, is threatened with extinction due to human conflicts and the depredation of the environment.
    Notwithstanding the good and very important actions taken by groups and individuals in favor of a better world, deterioration at all levels continues to increase dangerously.
    After more than thirty years dedicated to these matters, and since “an image is worth a thousand words” we have come up with a novel idea of designing a model city that has all the characteristics of infrastructure and organization inherent to the peaceful and sustainable society that we want for ourselves and our descendants, whose representation in the form of scale models, animated series, feature films, video games and theme parks, would constitute a model to follow to generate the necessary changes.
    The prototype that we present has some characteristics that are opposed, sometimes in a radical way, to the religious, economic, political and educational traditions and customs that have been transmitted from generation to generation, yet are the causes of the aforementioned problems, and therefore must be transformed.
    If you are interested in knowing about this project, or even participating in it, we invite you to visit our website https://elmundofelizdelfuturo.blogspot.com/ (written in Spanish and English), where we are working in that sense.

  2. clarasaglietti

    Hi César!
    Thank you for your comment and for the suggestion: I found the idea very interesting and I would like to learn more about your project. Visiting your blog, I had some new ideas and I considered some things from a different perspective. I completely agree on the need of an effective commitment to protect the environment and I also think that it is fundamental to have a dream or an ideal behind our actions, even if it is utopian. However, I have never been in favor of the imposition of an abstract model of city in the reality, like happened with the completely artificial creation of Brasilia. That is why I am interest in the attempt you are making of creating a model “from below” starting from the people and trying to include many points of view in the virtual creation.
    I will circulate the link of your website to achieve this goal and I hope to keep in contact.
    Thank you again!

    1. César Valdivieso

      Thanks to you for answering Clara! I would love you to share your ideas with me. Of course, I would never be in favor of imposing anything either, because people only really change when they are convinced, and never when they are forced. Yes, what I try to do is create a virtual model, perceptible by the senses, and therefore more effective, that serves as an example to introduce changes in our societies worldwide, so that the necessary transition is made towards a truly sustainable world.
      Thank you very much for your support!

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