Social Ecologist Profile: Vincent Gerber of Geneva, Switzerland




[Editor’s note: We are grateful to Vincent for his contribution and happy that he was able to travel to North American to join us for the 2010 ISE Colloquium. As English is not Vincent’s first language we have done some editing/correcting while trying not to alter his meaning or change the character of his replies.]

Please introduce yourself (What kind of work you do, Where you live, etc.)

My name is Vincent Gerber, born and living in Geneva, Switzerland. I’m 27 and working part-time with several writing jobs. My 2 principal jobs include making subtitles for the television and writing articles on for a local newspaper on cultural topics. Despite that, I write for myself—essays or short stories—and do translations sometimes.

How did you become introduced to the ideas of social ecology? How do you
define social ecology when asked about it?

I was introduced to social ecology during my first year at the university, in the history introduction. The topic was around intellectuals of the 21st century and each student has to choose someone or a movement to make a presentation on that person. I wanted something new, not the usual people, and Murray Bookchin was on the list, in the ecology field. It sounded good to me and my teacher, in fact one of the founders of the green party in Geneva, gave me the translations he has (Remaking Society and Defending the Earth) to start with.
I knew nothing about anarchy, political ecology, etc at that time (my background and primary link with this subject is more utopias and ideal forms of societies). Once I’ve put my foot in this subject, I’ve never put it back and what started as a one hour presentation turned out to be a master thesis (with the same teacher, among others), and maybe a book in the future. I’m still working on it.

I have always trouble explaining social ecology when asked about it. The same when I need to start an article on it. How to start? There are so many things to be linked together. I usually talk about the idea that the problem with the environment comes from problems within humanity. Then I explain that social ecology is a proposition for an ecological society, based on a confederation of communes.

But it’s not easy to make it simple in the limited time of a conversation.

How does social ecology and/or your experience with the Institute for Social Ecology influence your current work?

Social ecology gave me tools to understand our world and to choose a way of living. It does clearly influence me by making me understand the importance of hierarchy and domination in our society. To say the things clearly, it brings me the right words and concepts to explain an uneasy feeling I’ve had for a long time about how relations are in our society. After reading, and understanding, the problem was hierarchy, things became clearer in many ways.
I don’t think social ecology did influence my work as it is, but it certainly influences the work I’ve chosen, especially to choose to have several part time jobs instead of a full time job.

Can you tell us more about your research and writing projects, especially as they relate to social ecology?

I’m currently on different things. I’ve written a master’s thesis on social ecology, on a historical perspective and in relation with the history of the ecological movement as a whole. It was presented in 2007. Since then, I’ve tried to correct, improve and develop it to publish it. I’ve done a lot of changes and it was more difficult than I thought to make this adaptation work. Yet, it looks less and less as the original.

Last but not least: I’ve started to search and gather articles of Bookchin for a compilation of French articles, with maybe new translations. This is important, because the last one of the kind, called Pour une société écologique, WAS printed in 1976 and has been out of print for ages.

There’s other things, articles mainly, of less importance and the next one should be a transcription of a long interview in French with Dimitrios Roussopoulos done by someone else. I’m finishing these days. So, pretty much things actually, I just hope to see the end of it.

What do you see as the greatest opportunities and greatest challenges for achieving a sustainable relationship between humanity and the wider world?

The greatest opportunities are that it is technically possible and accessible, socially and psychologically desirable and wanted, and morally more just. Add to this the ecological imperative that presses us, and you understand that all the fires are green for that.
BUT the challenge is to convince the people to this chance, and taking it now, because they are SO afraid to see changes, and especially great changes, in their life. People are afraid of what they don’t know and they prefer going toward a known situation, even though it is not good for them, than trying something else, even though it looks much better and could make them much happier.

Add to that that the great corporations and all the people that profit off of the present situation are very powerful, don’t want to see any change in the situation, and you understand why it is so hard to make a difference.

The last problem is the limited time before the big destructive consequences of the present way of living in the North, with the high degrees of pollution, waste, etc.

For readers of this blog who are likely unfamiliar, can you describe the social and political conditions in Switzerland as they might be related to social ecology?

You know, we the other name for Switzerland is “Swiss confederation.” In truth, as a political system, it is a federation, but the old name is kept. There are 3 levels: the national (or confederal) level, the level of the canton (there are 26 cantons in Switzerland) and the communal level. So, despite it is such a small country, it has a lot of subdivisions and, thus, it is decentralized in many aspects. Even if in many subjects the confederal level has always the last word, cantons do have a certain autonomy for important domains as the educational system or taxes level (under certain limits). This is the first thing.

The second, more well-known, is that it has a semi-direct democratic system. This mean that citizens are not only asked they thought for election, but for very concrete political questions too. 3 or 4 times a year, there’s voting on confederal, cantonal and communal subjects (all together). Just to give you ideas, the next on in February are about: should we exclude weapons from home; and for the canton of Geneva: to ask to fuse the 4 statist housing estate into one and to accept (or not) a fiscal amnesty (for people to get money back and pay less penalties than usual).

Everybody gets a leaflet one month before the voting with all the changes in the law that are up for voting, a brief explanation, the opinion of the government (with the result of the vote at the parliament) and usually, but not always, the opinion of the other view.

In a country with 4 different languages, very culturally different, the political system is really the thing that people share and are very attached too.

Still, the system is not perfect: there’s quite a lot of demagoguery during the campaign, and some of the parties that do have a lot of money can influence the result a lot. They actually try to find something against this. There are frustrations too, because French speaking cantons, the minority, usually do vote the opposite that German speaking people. There’s also a difference between rural parts and more urbanized parts.

Items that are put forth for voting come from citizens’ initiatives, referendum on a law of because the constitution is modified or implies an obligatory vote.

As for social conditions, to be brief I can say that you have here a high level of life. Switzerland is also famous for its insurances, and you have insurances for many things: health (pretty expensive in Geneva when you are healthy, but there’s good infrastructures and if something happen to you, it will be paid by the insurance, for sure), for unemployment, for retired (which is funded via three mechanisms: one is taxes, the second is taken on salary and one by the people themselves, if they want too. At the end, you should get like 75% of your last salary until your death).

Life is expensive, but there’s security too for the means of existence, even if people often do not recognize it.

Any great stories about being around the ISE?

Nothing comes to my mind, but being in Switzerland, I’m rather far away of the ISE and I’ve met the people there only recently.