Events Sustainability Week Switzerland

Sustainability Week Geneva – from March 25th to 26th

The Geneva Sustainability Week is an annual student project in collaboration with IHEID and Université de Genève with the aim to bring sustainability discussion into higher education institutions.

Sustainability and the Crisis of Value: Conversations between Bhutan and Switzerland

By Silvia Ecclesia 

Switzerland and Bhutan share a long history of collaboration, mutual engagement and friendship. When Bhutan’s fourth king proposed the idea of a Gross National Happiness (GNH) concept in alternative to the Gross National Product (GDP) in 1972, the question of value and how to measure it became dear to the country. This panel brought together three “pairs” of speakers from Bhutan and Switzerland contributing with different perspectives to the discourse about the intersections between the GNH concept and sustainability. 

Wangyel Phuntsho, Senior Policy Analyst for the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness Commission, and Jane Carter, Senior Advisor for the Natural Resource Governance Helvetas, spoke from the public perspective. Thinley Choden, Bhutanese Social Entrepreneur, and Kasmira Jefford, Editor in-Chief at Geneva Solutions, represented the private sector. And finally, Sonam Deki, Environmental Health Specialist and Youth Climate Ambassador, and Silvano Lieger, Executive Director at Sentience Politics, brought the youth eye to the panel. Moderated by Anne Lee Steele, the event was surprisingly interactive and fun with the use of polls and questions for the public. 

The conversation kicked-off with Wangyel explaining the very intriguing concept of GNH. Bhutanese policies and governmental decisions need to be aligned with this key concept. It is “the SDGs of Bhutan”. GNH can be broken down into nine key domains that include five “traditional ones”, already included in development frameworks and strategies, but also four concepts unique to Bhutanese philosophy: psychological well being, time use, community vitality, and cultural diversity. As pointed out later by Thinley, these ideas are rooted in the Buddhist philosophy. However, in the light of sustainable development, this could be the key to change our value system and increase engagement for sustainability. 

Jane talked about her experience as advisor to the global community forestry program in Bhutan, that aimed to give local communities the autonomous management of surrounding forests. Forests are a key aspect in the life of local Bhutanese communities: source of timber but also medical herbs and food products. The harmonious collaboration for the conservation of forests is a valuable example of how the GNH concept can be linked to sustainable development and climate resilience. On a positive note, women were central in the implementation of this program as main participants in the discussion. 

However, despite its attractiveness, the GNH concept also faces some challenges. Wangyel explained how the inclusion of the five original Bhutanese domains in development frameworks is often difficult, as well as the availability of resources. As a consequence, the implementations are not always straightforward. 

In addition to that, GNH also has some negative outcomes. Entrepreneurship and sustainable finance are crucial to fight the current climate crisis. However, Thinley pointed out the difficulties she had to face in introducing the private sector into the debate on sustainability in Bhutan, due to the mentality brought by the GNH which is based only on public action. Even in Switzerland, despite the entrepreneurial mindset, funding is challenging for newly born start-ups. 

Moving on to the youth perspective, Sonam and Silvano emphasized the link between environmental issues, air quality, and animal rights for the achievement of a happy and healthy life. Silvano highlighted how the concept of GNH could bring structural changes in our relationship with nature and the planet, driving us away from destructive behaviours. 

The crisis of value, as suggested in the title, is the one we are facing as members of the modern society that values instant reward over long-lasting happiness. In the end, all the panelists conveyed very strong messages, not only in advocating for stronger cooperation between the generations but also in practicing empathy, compassion and dialogue.  

Environmental Racism

By Clare Maxwell

Environmental degradation is a human issue, inextricably bound up in issues of racism and social exclusion, no matter where in the world you go. Speakers from three different continents affirmed this and shared their experience and advice for fighting back in the Environmental Racism Panel on Thursday, March 25th. It was an event sponsored by the GISA Environmental Committee, the Student Initiative on Asia, the Latin American Network Initiative, and Black Conversations. Panelists Bezwada Wilson from Safai Karmachari Andolan in India, Rafaela M. Molina Vargas from the Society for Conservation Biology, Bolivia, and Brian Young and Emily Cobar from the Los Angeles Audubon Society in the United States have all had different experiences of environmental racism but together they recognized that the same patterns were present in their respective homes and work. Over the course of the afternoon, they addressed themes of broken relationships between humans and the natural world, the role of racial and class discrimination in pollution and environmental risk, and the need to decolonize sustainability efforts and discourse. 

At the heart of the environmental movement are the relationships that people have with nature as individuals, as communities and members of a common ecosystem. Ms. Molina Vargas spoke of the break in this relationship as a rupture, where humans ceased to reconcile their behavior with the world around them, and reframed nature and raw materials as something to be exploited. The split has gone on to affect entire populations. Ms. Cobar and Mr. Young described their experiences with urban communities in California who were cut off from access to parks, beaches, and other natural areas due to the constraints of poverty, discriminatory urban design, and transportation. They described the transformative moment  their community members feel when they are first able to experience being in a nature reserve or next to the ocean after spending all their lives in an urban environment –  some who even live in the direct vicinity of urban oil wells. Mr. Wilson too described the ways that Dalits and members of other low castes in India are relegated to live and work in environmentally hazardous areas simply due to the circumstances of their birth. These workers have no choice but to work cleaning sewers and latrines, sacrificing their labor for a safe and sanitary waste management system. Despite the differences between working class urban communities in the US and so-called untouchables in India, both are forced into spending their lives in unhealthy environments, and to forgo a complex understanding of their relationship with their ecosystem.

This rupture is situated in economic and political inequality. All the panelists were clear: a narrow economic focus on profits and capital accumulation is driving both the exploitation of natural resources, the exploitation of cheap labor in extractive industries, and the relegation of working-class communities to environmentally unsafe or unhealthy areas. Similarly, Ms. Molina Vargas raised the issue of rights violations against indigenous communities, such as the peoples of the Amazon Rainforest, who suffer the loss of their homes and livelihoods due to logging, and are often torn between defending their land and having access to basic utilities and public services. In each framework, governmental and industrial decision makers see  natural resources as expendable, and in turn see certain communities as expendable when they need someone to bear the effects of degradation. Mr. Wilson knows that the message of expendability can have lifelong consequences for low caste Indians and urges a strategy that shows young people that they have a future, especially when they fight for healthier environments. “We need to develop a new syllabus,” he declared, “There is already a syllabus for discrimination, but there isn’t one of equality, dignity and self-respect.”

Decolonization is a key part of rebuilding  self-respect and agency for those fighting environmental racism. Ms. Molina Vargas noted that the moment that European ships landed in the Americas signaled “the transformation of Earth into a factory.” European settlers, divorced from any relationship with the lands they had freshly occupied, set about a process of extracting natural resources and turning indigenous people into laborers and slaves. To this day, indigenous peoples are more likely to be denied their right to land use and ownership, as well as more likely to be affected by pollution and forced to work in the most dangerous jobs of resource mining and logging. Colonial and Western-Centric thinking is also prevalent in some areas of the environmental movement. As Mr. Young noted, the idea of Conservation in the United States has its roots in  white, privileged communities, who often do not consider the needs of marginalized groups.

In this light, how can students at the Graduate Institute, living in one of the most ecologically friendly and affluent countries in the world better engage with and dismantle environmental racism? The panel was ready with two answers. First, Mr. Young cautioned against over-intellectualizing sustainability with the African American adage of “study long, study wrong.” He noted that he and Ms. Cobar often dedicate time to helping their students understand environmental laws and treaties like the Paris accords, and that technical and legalistic language runs the risk of discouraging everyday people from engaging in advocacy. But beyond that, the panelists urged students and academics to ground their research in relationships with communities that are affected by climate change, pollution, and extractive industry. Ultimately, the knowledge and perspective of those who live with environmental racism are key to both understanding the depth of the problem and unlocking solutions. 

‘Thank you for the Rain’ Film Screening and Panel Discussion

By Laura Silva Aya

“Sometimes we don’t get any rain and sometimes we get too much rain. It’s chaos”. These stark words were spoken onscreen on Thursday, March 25th, as the Environmental Committee of the Graduate Institute held a screening of the film “Thank You for the Rain” – a powerful and deeply moving depiction of the journey of Kisilu Musya, a Kenyan farmer and activist who is fighting fiercely to protect his family and community from the ravages of climate change. 

Film Screening

The film follows Kisilu as he documents the impact that climate change is having on his life and the landscape around him, and then as he gains international recognition for his activism. As the title suggests, rain – of which there is either a severe lack or an overwhelming amount  – plays a defining role in both the film and Kisilu’s life. The threat of the unstable climate pushes him to become an inspirational leader in his community; he convinces others of the value of planting trees and transforming their farms. Throughout it all, it becomes clear that he is indeed empowering his community and making true change, yet as his efforts increase, he and his family struggle with their own farm, and they’re forced to navigate difficult decisions. 

The film is poignant and eloquent, and the underlying theme of climate justice encapsulates its most powerful message. This becomes especially clear in the climax of the film, which takes Kisilu to the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015 where he is invited to speak on behalf of farmers in Africa. His hope and excitement at the prospect of concrete action to combat climate change quickly gives way to frustration and disappointment when the reality of international politics becomes clear. At one point, he states in frustration that he was invited “to be seen, not to be heard”. The audience is left with a palpable sense of anger and desperation after the reminder that those least responsible for climate change are the most vulnerable to it.

 For Kisilu and others like him, climate change demands immediate and urgent action. Yet the film reminds us that policy makers have not experienced climate change as Kisilu has, and are unlikely to ever experience such hardship. Thus, they choose to dawdle and are unwilling to act in the face of dire circumstances. The film drives home the fact that there is an immense power disparity between those making policy decisions and those fighting at the frontlines of climate change- an intractable and terrible imbalance that has grave consequences. Nevertheless, despite these odds, the film ends with scenes of Kisilu and his community stubbornly continuing their efforts with inspiring hope and determination – serving as a call to action for everyone to push for change in their own lives. 

Panel Discussion

The screening itself was followed by a panel discussion with Hilary Heath, program associate at the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, Julia Dahr, the lead filmmaker, and Kisilu himself, who was the co-director and star of the film. It was moderated by Anna Ploeg and Alison Eddy of IHEID’s Environmental Committee. For participants and attendees, it was an exciting opportunity to engage directly with both the creators of the film and individuals who are fighting for climate justice. Kisilu was able to share updates on his efforts; noting that he has continued to work with his community to collectively shape their future and is trying his level best to engage with youth because, as he sees it, “tomorrow is theirs.”

Ms. Heath, for her part, described the work of the Climate Justice Resilience Fund (CJRF), which is a grant making initiative that funds women, youth, and indigenous people seeking to create their own solutions for climate change. She highlighted how climate change is a multidimensional problem, and thus climate justice should always be a key part of the conversation, whatever the topic. She also explained how the CJRF has been trying to use the film to launch conversations on climate action – and in fact, the film has been used to implement resilient harvesting methods and engage leaders both within and outside of Kenya.

As such, the film has led to policy advocacy and also concrete actions. Ms. Dahr commented on this encouraging situation, stating that “film can really link people’s hearts and minds… it’s an important way to shed light on really important issues”. Finally, when asked what gives them hope, the panelists spoke of the support they have received in response to the film, and how this gives them strength to keep fighting.  They emphasized that effective climate action is a process, and how important it is to have long-term vision when it comes to progress. Kisilu’s final piece of advice to participants was to keep pressing for policy action and keep talking about climate change. “Do your level best”, he said, “to spread the message to your neighbours and your communities. Just keep talking and reaching out to policymakers and influencers who need to hear the message”. 

Respecting Food: Lessons on how addressing food waste can build an equitable and sustainable future

By Clare Maxwell

“Who am I? I am the currency of life? They Celebrate with me, they plan civilizations around me, I protect me from sickness and death… I have won battles and they lost wars when I ran out, but they became careless… They might be at the top of the food chain, but they forget that I put them there.  I am food and all I ask for is some respect.” Intoned the voiceover of the video entitled “Respect Food” to an audience of about twenty students. But what does it mean to “respect food”? How much food is wasted every year, and how? Is it possible to rethink food systems management to reduce waste, benefit economies, and address global food insecurity? Can our societies repair a broken relationship with food? These are just a few of the questions tackled by Benjamin Lephilibert, a class of 2005 IHEID alumnus and the Founder of LightBlue Environmental Consulting, in the Food Waste Workshop, sponsored by the GISA Environmental Committee and the IHEID Alumni office on March 26.

Food waste is an issue that ties multiple layers of environmental, social, and political modalities together. Mr. Lephilibert noted that sustainable food use can be related in some way to every one of the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals, whether it is through the management of natural resources and the protection of flora and fauna, addressing poverty and inequality, or ensuring clean and affordable water and energy. 

Despite the oft-acknowledged importance of using food equitably and efficiently, billions of tons of food are wasted every year. At the current rate, the world will produce 3.4 billion tons of edible waste annually by 2050. This number represents calories and nutrients lost that could have gone to those who are food insecure, or lack access to high quality food. It also represents wasted land, labor, and resources that are dedicated to creating a product that will never be used. One shocking statistic that Mr. Lephilibert noted is the amount of water that goes into creating common food items. A cup of coffee, for example, take 132 liters to produce from bean to espresso machine. A single pizza takes 1,259 liters to create, and one kilo of chocolate requires a staggering 17,196 liters of water to produce. Equally concerning is the amount of greenhouse gases produced by food waste. If food waste were a country, it would rank third in the world for net emissions after the United States and China. It is also industrialized countries that are responsible for a great deal of global pollution who produce the most food waste. 

In order to address this, LightBlue recommends both an examination of waste at each step of the supply chain, and a transformation of our economic paradigms about the relationship between food, waste and profit. To start off, there are various policy, lifestyle, business, and technological solutions to address different areas of inefficiencies in food production. Since low-income countries tend to lose the most in the production and processing stages, they will need different interventions than industrialized countries, who are more likely to waste food at the consumption level. Furthermore, Mr. Lephilibert discouraged what he termed a linear economic model, where products are created, used, and discarded, and favored a model where resources are created with sustainability in mind, uses, repaired, and reused again. While he estimated this would cost hundreds of billions of dollars annually to enact interventions and recreate the supply chain, the benefits in terms of efficiency, poverty reduction and livelihood creation could generate $2.7 trillion by 2050.

There are many possible interventions to address the food waste crisis including the creation of biofuels, green entrepreneurism, food rescue, and public recycling or composting. However, there is still a dearth of political will, investment, technological capacity, and general awareness. The incentives to move towards a more sustainable food system model are pressing, for both the environment and the hundreds of millions of acutely food-insecure people. Changing food production systems and respecting the role that food plays in tying together our families, societies, and environment, is a crucial piece of the puzzle that is a more sustainable and equitable future. 

The Geneva Sustainability Week is an annual student project in collaboration with IHEID and Université de Genève with the aim to bring sustainability discussion into higher education institutions. Events will be held during the whole week as well as a week-long art exhibition at the Graduate Institute. See the program here:

1 comment on “Sustainability Week Geneva – from March 25th to 26th

  1. Pingback: Concluding Sustainability Week Switzerland: A People’s Assembly – The Graduate Press

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