New Zealander Alexander Gillespie, International Francqui Chair and University of Waikato Faculty of Law professor, is an expert in international environmental and war law. He currently completes six months at Ghent University.
For Prof Alexander Gillespie, to overcome the major systemic risks it faces, humanity holds all the cards. Will it play them?
How long have you combined work in environmental law and the law of war?
Alexander Gillespie : Have you heard of the Rainbow Warrior? [The Greenpeace ship bombed by the French in 1985.] I was on it when it blew up. I was a hippy at art school but decided right then to do more than paint posters. I specialised in environmental law and conflict. War is timeless, we’ve always fought, each time it gets worse. The causes are coming together from both the environment and conflict fields.
How are they linked?
A.G. : Population growth, climate change, lack of water, desertification have angered people in many areas. They’ll get angrier by 2050. Then one conflict spills and, like Syria, five million people flee, creating tensions elsewhere. The cause is all the way back there, but everything builds, it’s never just water, just endangered democracy, just the arms trade, it’s a simultaneous cacophony.
Can current social structures handle this rapid change?
A.G. : You have to rely on two tools. Democracy and science. Democracy has many faults but is better than any alternative. Science – reason – solves environmental problems. Right now both are under attack. Working for the environment and peace means working for the tools that keep our society working.
They’re under attack by populism.
A.G. : It’s almost become a pledge of faith to believe something because someone else does. People need to think, why am I doing this?, look at the evidence, be able to defend the evidence. This puts great pressure on educators to explain why this or that report is or isn’t important. The burden on academia and the intelligentsia has never been greater.
One climate change-denying populist has his finger on the nuclear button.
A.G. : It’s not just Trump. In Belgium everyone’s fixated on Russia. In East Asia on China. In South East Asia on India and Pakistan. Each region sees just one, but they’re interconnected. It’s a misconception that if war kicks off in one area, it won’t in another.
How great is the danger?
A.G. : The risk of cataclysmic nuclear war is less than 1% but that risk is our extinction. When something happens with North Korea, Russia or Iran, I worry. People tumble into war, think they’re right, that everything’s going to be fi ne. It never works out that way. But our species is really smart. We have the technology, political mechanisms and science to solve this, but do we want to? The choice is political not ecological.
Can the law help us?
A.G. : To me the law is politics, philosophy, and science. If it doesn’t reflect them, it’s useless. You must teach context: this is the law, this is why it’s the law. Lawyers need to talk more to scientists and politicians and think in a more collaborative way.
How do you deal with politically extreme peers?
A.G. : A degree of tolerance even for the intolerant is paramount. The more you force them into darkness, the more they’ll breed. The best way to confront them is with more light, more conversation, more transparency.
What will you take away from your time in Belgium?
A.G. : While here I taught environmental law. The debate is heightened in Belgium. At climate change protests, I was so impressed by young Belgians, they’re agents of change, a new wave and it’s fantastic. The yellow vests are another lesson. You can’t have a fuel tax without social equity. Politics must be green and socially equitable. So the Francqui broadened my horizons via a Belgian lens on Europe. Belgians are very pragmatic, with a healthy distrust of authority, I’m really in love with the country. New Zealand gets overshadowed by Australia, Belgium gets overshadowed by its neighbours. In the shade you often create a very strong identity.
Article paru dans le Louvain[s] de juin-juillet-août 2019