By Anne Lee Steele
Over the course of Sustainability Week Switzerland (also known as Semaine de la durabilité Genève), students belonging to the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute planned events that ranged a variety of topics related to sustainability: from discussions on water privatization, environmental racism, and food waste to dialogues over notions of value for different fields and advocating for responsible practices within organisations.
Despite the online-first format, the events themselves ranged from panel discussions, to film screenings and art exhibits, as well as one-on-one dialogues and interactive activities with audience members.
With the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic belying this year’s Sustainability Week, many of the events seemed to point to an underlying realization that “business as usual” is no longer an option for addressing climate change, let alone any other crises.
Speaking to the multiple crises and social movements that individuals, communities and societies are concurrently addressing in the present day, this year’s SWS appeared to point to both a paralyzing inability – yet an increasingly urgent need – for new approaches, imaginations, and possible solutions for the world as we know it.
With this in mind, it seemed fitting that the week concluded with a “People’s Assembly” event, organized in tandem with Extinction Rebellion Geneva. Planned over the course of two days, the People’s Assembly sought to challenge existing political processes, presenting an alternative model for collective decision-making that has become a core tenant of the organisation’s wider political strategies.
About Extinction Rebellion
Extinction Rebellion is an environmental movement that was founded in the United Kingdom in 2018. The organisation is most well known for its civil disobedience actions in London, the country’s capital, which have ranged from creating a blockade in Oxford Circus with a pink boat to spraying fake oil on global banking conglomerate Barclay’s Headquarters in Canary Wharf.
The organisation now has hundreds of satellite groups worldwide, including branches in Switzerland. XR Switzerland has similarly organised a number of civil disobedience actions, including occupying the country’s Parliament Square in Bern, blocking private jet terminals at Geneva’s airport, and publicly mourning the loss of Trient Glacier at the base of the Mont Blanc Massif in Valais.
Aside from these ongoing public actions, what is less known, however, is XR’s politically-oriented work, the citizen’s assembly being one of them. Given Switzerland’s existing direct democracy, the event appeared to take a specific resonance.
The event was split into two parts, the first being a “Pre-Assembly” and introductory event on Thursday, 25 March. The “People’s Assembly” event took place the following day over a three-hour period. Hosted by Khaliun Purevsuren and Tobias Drilling, both masters candidates in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute, the event was designed to be a centerpiece of SWS, concluding the week-long series of events.
The event began with statements and a poll by Purevsuren and Drilling, with live translation provided between French and English. Beginning with a video that placed the citizen’s assembly in context within the wider democratic and decentralized system of Switzerland itself, Purevsuren and Drilling explained the role that citizen assemblies might be able to play in the climate crisis.
Calling it a form of “participatory democracy”, Drilling explained how Citizen’s Assembly merges “activism with participatory democracy” in order to “advance normal citizens’ voices like ours to be heard at a higher level”.
They then passed the floor to Rodan Bury, an occupational therapist and representative from Extinction Rebellion Switzerland and Félix Burnand, an environmental engineer and representative from Extinction Rébellion Lausanne.
Sharing selections from “Les Assemblées Citoyennes: Une sortie de crise démocratique”, Burnand and Bury set the stage for Friday’s event, explaining the role of citizen’s assemblies as a form of collective representation and mediation across difference.
A People’s Assembly: Introducing the format
Friday’s assembly began again with introductions by Purevuren and Drilling, who discussed how citizen assemblies “take [student engagement] a step further [by] bringing… new ideals and ways of radically rethinking our future”. They defined the Assembly as “a new approach where every voice is significant and the real democratic process of decision-making happens”.
Citing Macron’s “Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat” – which brought together 150 randomly selected members of all demographics of France over 7 meetings in 3 days to discuss how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent by 2030 – the pair took note of how ideas of social justice are being integrated into notions of climate action, and acknowledged the difficulty of implementing them in real time.
Explaining XR’s role within the People’s Assembly event, Drilling explained that the Citizen’s or People’s Assembly approach is one of the organization’s three “demands”: the first two being “Tell the Truth” – declaring a climate and ecological emergency – and “Act Now” – implementing action to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The third, “Go beyond politics”, asks for collective-decision making forums like Citizen’s Assemblies “on climate and ecological justice”.
The introduction ended with a distinction between that of “Citizens’ Assemblies” and “Peoples’ Assemblies”. While Citizens’ Assemblies “enable a democratically based process of finding solutions without lobbying, elections, and without dealing with low political participation”, both noted the role that “randomization” and “volunteer” action play within the latter, rather than the former.
The pair introduced the format of the session, as divided into three parts: a “learning phase”, followed by a “deliberating phase” then “debriefing phase”, organised “according to the 10 principles of XR”. Using breakout rooms on Zoom, the video conferencing platform, the online Peoples’ Assembly discussed the question: Why (or not) should students organize a civil disobedience action? Around which issues and why? If so, how and if not, then what other actions needed?
A People’s Assembly: Learning
In the learning phase, a series of experts presented ideas and presentations surrounding the role of public debate and conversation.
Among the presenters were Sibel Arslan, a member of Swiss Parliament (Green Party) and member of Switzerland’s Foreign Affairs Commission, Zoë Roth, a student at the University of Basel and activist with Collective Climate Justice, Jasmine Lorenzini, a research fellow at the institute of citizenship studies at the University of Geneva, Luea Ritter, a co-initiator and facilitator of the Catalyst Lab of Collaboratio Helvetica, and Laou, who presented during the pre-Assembly event. Other speakers included an anonymous activist at ZAD de la Colline, Ecofeminisms, and Grève pour l’Avenir organiser from Geneva.
The series of expert dialogues presented a broad overview of how their organizations aim to bridge across their differing approaches to dialogue and climate action. Speakers discussed activism as being one of many possible approaches for social change, the wider role of civil disobedience within the history of social movements, and the role of “creating spaces for tackling deeply ingrained root causes together… beyond fighting or fixing symptoms,” as said by Ritter.
A People’s Assembly: Deliberating
The deliberating phase took place in a series of randomized breakout rooms, with the groups supported by facilitators in both French and English.
After the two deliberation phases, space was given to discussion by participants, who engaged with the role of student activism and universities more generally within protest culture. Students also drew upon experiences of previous SWS events, for example: critiquing existing legal structures “that may or may not be equipped to address the climate crisis”, as discussed in the “Ecocide” event earlier that week.
Participants also discussed the need to create “intergenerational conversations that shift away from blame culture”, as well as acknowledged the difficulty of engaging students in activism during today’s culture of precarity, especially given the consequence of engaging with existing threats like police arrest. Over the course of two sessions, participants sought to replicate the “People’s Assembly” approach digitally, and bridge the diverging perspectives and approaches within the group.
A People’s Assembly: Debriefing
The final phase of the event consisted of a debriefing session with participants, organisers, and facilitators, many of which discussed shared-learnings and takeaways from the digital event.
Many shared positive takeaways from the “collaborative discussions” enabled by the People’s Assembly, and listed possible approaches they might take moving forward. At the same time, they pointed to the inherent barriers presented by its small scale and lack of actionable steps, which pose a barrier for its enactment at scale.
Closing the event, Purevsuren and Drilling ended by thanking the participants, organisers, translators, and facilitators.
Concluding Sustainability Week Switzerland
From the Opening Ceremony of SWS, which asked panelists from the Green Climate Fund, Fridays For Future Nigeria, and VSN-FDD-FSS about their diverging (and converging) approaches to climate action, the People’s Assembly event appeared to offer a venue and approach for these types of conversations in real time.
As Sustainability Week Geneva closes for its 2021 season, its wider effects upon either the Institute community or Geneva itself remain to be seen. Despite its digital format, this series of student-run events accompanies a growing cacophony of voices that are demanding substantive action on climate change. Whether or not they are engaging with each other, of course, is another question – one that was asked time and time again during the week’s events.
Given the changes that have unfolded since its 2020 season, few can predict the kind of climate – both political and ecological – that 2022’s Sustainability Week Switzerland will take place.
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.