Carola Rackete came to public attention as the captain of the Sea-Watch 3, a ship that rescues refugees in the Mediterranean. The main focus of her activism is actually nature conservation, however — more specifically, the question of how conservation outcomes can be achieved in a fair and just way.
Consequently, in her book The Time to Act is Now, with support from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the focus is not only on migration but on the need for urgent and decisive action in the climate and ecological crises. She recently sat down with Juliane Schumacher to discuss the role of agency, the unpredictable nature of uprisings, and the shared characteristics of refugee and climate politics.
Your book The Time to Act is Now has recently been published in English. It opens in 2019 with the dramatic days you spent with rescued refugees onboard the Sea Watch 3 off the coast of Lampedusa, waiting to be allowed to disembark on Italian soil. Nowadays, you’re no longer active in the Mediterranean, but rather in Norway and Sweden.
We have just spent the past few weeks in northern Sweden supporting a group of Sámi that is having massive problems with Sveaskog, Sweden’s state-owned forestry company, which has announced forest clearings without first consulting them.
Carola Rackete is best-known as the captain of the Sea-Watch 3 and is the author of The Time to Act Is Now, available in English from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
Translated by Ryan Eyers and Gráinne Toomey for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
As the Indigenous communities of the region, they have the right to a say in such matters. It is worth noting that Sweden has never become a signatory to ILO Convention 169 (which recognizes indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination). If the forest clearings are actually going to go ahead, we intend to be there on the ground to support the group with civil disobedience.
So you’ve now turned your attention to conservation, having previously been involved with the issue of migration?
Quite the opposite, in fact. In 2016, the situation in the Mediterranean was so desperate that I thought it necessary to concentrate my efforts there. If nothing else, it was because I have a commercial captain’s license — there aren’t that many people who can take on this task. But migration is not a topic that I am particularly knowledgeable about or was previously involved with. I also didn’t really see myself as part of the movement to help migrants in the Mediterranean.
By contrast, I have worked in the polar regions since 2011, have been on research expeditions in the Arctic and the Arctic Ocean, and studied conservation and protected area management in the UK. My main passion has always been conservation, and above all the question of how it can be pursued in a way that is fair and just. We speak a lot about climate justice these days — and that’s a good thing — and about how climate protection can and must be implemented in a just way. This is something that we must also urgently consider with respect to conservation and species protection as well.
This is why your book is less about migration and more about climate change and other environmental crises.
We wrote the book in 2019, at a time when the Fridays for Future movement had just blown up and Extinction Rebellion had become massive in the UK — there was a lot of momentum. The idea was to capitalize on this, to make these topics accessible to an audience who had bought a book that they expected would primarily be about migration.
We wanted to make it clear that it isn’t about any particular humanitarian relief effort, but rather a systemic issue, one which is much larger than a single rescue mission in the Mediterranean. For this reason, we decided to incorporate many of the other issues that are connected to migration: the climate crisis, critiques of our economic system, and the need for people to get involved in social movements.
Were people who had expected to read a book about migration surprised to find that its focus lay elsewhere?
When it was first published, a lot of negative comments about my book were posted to platforms like Amazon and YouTube, because people from the right-wing scene send word of all my publications across their channels and their followers then comment accordingly. But these comments made reference to the topic of migration, so it was clear that they had not actually read the book. And in terms of the people who had read the book, there were actually quite a few who said that they thought this was going to be a book about migration, and then there was all of this stuff about the environment. But they saw this as a positive.
Some of my fellow Sea Watch activists were initially sceptical of the book, seeing as it didn’t share the same focus the work of the organization. After reading it, however, they said that they had really learned a lot, and come to understand connections that previously were not clear. They approved of how our rescue operations were being presented in a whole new light. I was really pleased that my approach of connecting social and environmental issues had been positively received. They are closely linked to one another, after all — we cannot treat them as separate issues.
Because they both fundamentally have to do with power?
At first glance, the debates surrounding migration and the climate crisis appear quite different, but they have a lot in common. Rescuing refugees initially seems to be a much more urgent issue: if people are in distress at sea, and no help arrives, they will definitely die.
What often disturbs me about the public discourse around the climate emergency is when it discusses the younger generation, the focus is on European children. In a way, this kind of makes sense, because it is seeking to address parents and grandparents, and they might then engage with the issue more. But this makes me angry, because then I think: why are we only talking about white children?
As we speak, people of colour, adults and children alike, are dying all the time while seeking refuge, due to hunger and war and as a result of economic exploitation. And just as is the case with the climate crisis, they are not dying because of accidents, or through oversight, but because of policies consciously implemented by the wealthiest countries, under the influence of major corporations. Just like the disastrous situation on the EU’s external borders, the climate crisis is a crime with clear perpetrators.
Perpetrators who as of yet do not have to fear any consequences.
The agreements that the EU has signed with authoritarian states, and sometimes even with militias, are well-known. They are worth millions of euro. The human rights violations that occur in these places are well-known.
It’s a similar state of affairs with respect to the climate crisis: we can all see and experience the consequences of fossil fuel-driven politics. But still nothing changes. This shows how systematic the problem is — and shows the kind of colonial system we still live in, a system of white supremacy in which some lives are worth more than others, and in which many voices continue to be excluded from the discourse. You can see this happening right now: in recent months, migrants in Libya organized a kind of protest camp in front of the UNHCR offices in Tripoli, for instance. But you don’t hear much about that here in Europe.
You have also used your arrest as an example of how racist news reporting is.
Of course — when a white person is arrested, there is a huge media scandal. The controversy around this also had positive effects, however. In the ensuing months, the coalition government in Italy collapsed, and the new government revoked the country’s contentious security decree. This was the main success of the rescue mission: not that 40 people were ultimately rescued, but that this security decree was overturned and the lives of many migrants improved as a result.
Another positive was that there were now corresponding court rulings that were unambiguous in saying that Libya is not a safe port, a ship is not a safe place, and that I should never have been arrested. These are the lasting successes of this mission. Nevertheless, we still rarely talk about the people who are convicted while on the run. In Greece, refugees are sentenced to over 100 years in prison because of alleged smuggling.
Just because they held the rudder of a boat, for instance.
Exactly. 15 years in prison per other boat occupant — that’s how they end up with such absurd sentences. There are also instances of such cases in Malta or Italy, and the accused are rarely made known to the public. There are pushbacks in Belarus, Greece, and Croatia that are well-documented, where there is video evidence. All of that is public knowledge. But the people actually affected by all this remain unseen.
The protestors in Libya have received little support, even from NGOs. The UNHCR’s response after 100 days of protest was simply to close the centre they were protesting in front of and move to another location. 10 days later the Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) gave the order to clear the protest camp. The protestors were violently transported to a detention centre.
Do you see this to be a danger: that everything becomes publicly known, and yet nothing happens? That people become accustomed to it?
I see it as a great social danger, that it becomes commonplace, that people get used to death and suffering that could easily have been prevented. They become deadened to it.
Many people are not OK with what is happening — that economic interests are prioritized ahead of workers’ interests, for example. Or that major corporations have made a lot of money during the coronavirus pandemic while the lives of salaried workers and self-employed people have become precarious. The problem is a feeling of powerlessness. People have the feeling that they can’t do anything to effect change, and so they don’t stir themselves to action, even if there is a lot that they take issue with.
For this reason, I think it is not enough to keep telling people how terrible everything is — they already know. What they don’t know is what they can do about it. How they can effect change.
That explains the title of your book then: The Time to Act is Now. Do you see taking action as a way of combatting a feeling of powerlessness?
In order to actually achieve something, there needs to be a wide range of people involved. My book is also addressed to people who know that there are problems in society and want to get involved, but don’t know where to begin. It aims to provide an overview of the situation, but above all the intention is to motivate people to collectively engage in enacting political change.
The most important thing that people need to get back is a sense of agency. You could also see this with Fridays for Future: more and more people were getting involved, and it was often said that was incredibly motivating for everyone involved. And it became more difficult for the movement when this momentum began to subside, when after three years still nothing had really happened.
What do you say to people when they ask what exactly they should be doing?
I don’t think it is particularly important which topics get people politically active. One of the biggest problems is that people feel powerless, that they are not heard or are blocked from taking part in decision-making. Anything that helps diminish this power imbalance is a good thing, be it a campaign to grant voting rights to those without a German passport or a climate initiative.
People know themselves what issues they find most urgent. What is important is that they figure out what motivates them and then join an existing activist group working in that area or start their own group if one doesn’t exist. They should also seek out the help and support that exists for setting up and structuring a citizens’ initiative, activist group or organization. This is the kind of knowledge and experience that many people lack.
In the best-case scenario, could this then then result in large-scale mobilization?
Large-scale mobilization efforts cannot be planned in advance — they often develop completely unexpectedly. We saw this at the beginning of the year in Kazakhstan. Or in Chile in 2019 — no-one would have predicted that public resistance to an increase in the price of metro tickets would lead to the writing of a new constitution and a social democrat being elected president.
What is important is that a large amount of people have a base level of politicization, a basic understanding of how civil disobedience works, so that when something sparks a mobilization, there is already a kind of structure in place, as well as pre-existing groups that can join forces.
What about in terms of content? What would “action” actually mean with respect to the climate crisis?
One thing it definitely means is disrupting the narrative of ecomodernism: there is no such thing as “green growth”. If the climate crisis is to be overcome in Europe by means of technology, then this will be at the expense of poorer countries elsewhere. We need to offer real alternatives: we need to impose a cap on the use of resources and implement an incremental reduction.
A reduction in working hours is also necessary — we need to produce less and have more free time. We need a totally different system of taxation and financial redistribution. We must put an end to the military industry, which is not only partly responsible for the countless human rights violations that occur at the EU’s external borders but also produces high and senseless levels of emissions.
Ultimately, it is a question of ownership: we must socialize fossil-fuel corporations and bring fossil-fuel production to a halt. A small survey conducted in the Scottish oil industry shows that 80 percent of workers would also be willing to work in the renewable energy sector if retraining is paid and they receive comparable working conditions, remuneration, and job security. Currently, workers are frequently being used by the industry as a kind of shield against environmental change. I believe that there is every chance of winning them over to our cause — so long as they are offered something, and the conversion of production is done in a way that is socially responsible.