Camille Étienne, Portrait of a Planet on Fire

To mark Earth Day, we revisit our conversation with climate activist Camille Étienne, who calls for an uprising to combat ecological catastrophe.

À lire en français

At just 25, the activist Camille Étienne has become the new face of the French environmental movement. Educated in prestigious schools, Étienne has set out to lead whistleblowing campaigns, lobby institutions and raise public awareness of the consequences of climate change. Originally from France’s Savoie department, she has a strong media presence and a powerful voice. Her first book, Pour un soulèvement écologique (For an Ecological Uprising), has just been published by Éditions Seuil. Here, she discusses her commitment to the cause and the genesis of her activism.

You describe yourself as an “activist for social and climate justice.” What does that entail?

CÉ We have to make the link between social justice and climate justice. This type of environmentalism is not depoliticized, but it’s not partisan either. It’s not about trying to deal with climate disruption from the margins. We have to understand what brought us to this point: it’s the consequence of political and economic decisions. That’s why I politicize environmentalism.

I’m talking about social justice because, in concrete terms, the most affluent, whether they are countries or social groups, have greater responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, while those who suffer the consequences are the most precarious. That’s why the question of social justice is fundamental to this battle.

You’re leading the fight in the media. Is this consciousness-raising necessary?

CÉ The media only takes up a quarter of my time. I actually work in the field and lead lobbying campaigns. I don’t want to confine myself to an editorial role – which I totally respect. I want to be in control of my time. For three months, I wasn’t in the media at all, mostly because I was taking part in the United Nations negotiations in Kingston [Jamaica]. I spent hours with geologists and biologists to really understand the scope of the subject. The media plays a very important role by contributing to the cultural battle, but it’s not the whole story.

Your Instagram account used to be called “Graine de possible.” Where did that come from?

CÉ It’s a tribute to the first book I read on the ecological question, when I was very young, at home. It was written by Nicolas Hulot [former French environment minister] and Pierre Rabhi [writer and agroecology pioneer]. It was the very first book on the subject that really moved me.

What led you to become involved in the cause?

CÉ There was no particular trigger, but I grew up in the mountains. When you’re born at the gateway to the Vanoise National Park and have parents whose professions are linked to that environment – my mother was a top-level sportswoman and my father a mountain guide and first-aider – inevitably, your whole life revolves around nature, but it’s not necessarily intellectualized. In Paris, whether it’s raining or not only affects the way you dress. When you’re in the mountains, the weather plays a much larger role – in your conversations, your private life, your everyday life and your memories. Since I grew up at the foot of glaciers, it’s clear to me that you now have to walk farther to see them, that the eternal snows are no longer quite white. This created a sense of paradox for me: as a species, we are very powerful when it comes to upsetting immense things, and yet, in the midst of life, we are very vulnerable, as when there is an avalanche, for example. My commitment was based on this awareness.

How would you define commitment?

CÉ Having the courage to be lucid and deciding not to lie to yourself.

In concrete terms, how does your commitment express itself in your day-to-day life?

CÉ It’s my whole life! It goes beyond the day-to-day. I went to the French grandes écoles [leading universities], graduated from Science Po Paris in economics, spent a year studying agroforestry in Finland and got a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne. I can aspire to management positions and devote my energy to occupying a special place in society, as a counter power, a whistleblower. I can be found in many different places. I’m in the field with activists, then in the media, but I might also take part in a meeting at the Cour des Comptes [France highest public audit institution]. I sometimes speak to the Council of State or the National Assembly, lobby the European Parliament and so on. All this happens on the edges of power but with the goal of putting an end to environmental impunity.

Does it also mean taking action every day to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions yourself?

CÉ It’s a question of consistency. What’s unbearable is cognitive dissonance: having great ideas for the world and being out of step with the way we live in it. That kind of disconnect can be untenable. But I also believe that we live in a society where the rules of the game are not organized in such a way that we can claim to be truly “green.” Individual actions count, of course, but we realize that we are unequal in this matter. When you live in the suburbs, finding a small local producer is expensive. Zero waste is great, but if you have three children, who bears the mental burden of managing cloth diapers? Of course, every ton counts – there are human and nonhuman lives behind it – but we mustn’t think that we can be satisfied with that and not question collective action. We need to change the rules.

You’ve done a lot of work on issues surrounding water. Forecasts predict that half of humanity will be short of water by 2050. Do you think the world’s population is aware of this?

CÉ There is no global awareness. But like any idea that challenges the established order, it provokes confrontational reactions. Opposing narratives are emerging, and climate skepticism is gaining ground, even in France. The latest IFOP [French Institute of Public Opinion] survey revealed that 17 percent of people under 25 believe that climate change is not a reality. That means that our opponents are organizing themselves effectively to counter our arguments. On the other hand, awareness does not necessarily lead to action.

Do you understand why climate change is not a priority?

CÉ What we advocate is better for the vast majority of the population, but this idea is only beginning to emerge. It would be nice to have an economy that is more focused on well-being than G.D.P. But in the ecological model I support, you have to realize that this would be more difficult for some people. When you have oil companies like TotalEnergies acting like the goose that lays the golden egg and making record profits, obviously they’re not inclined to change their model.

But those big groups aren’t influenced by the convictions of the majority of the population, either.

CÉ Unfortunately, it’s not enough to want to – it’s not public opinion that decides. Most importantly, the public authorities are choosing to do nothing, which is exasperating. When it comes to Total, management’s response is always to say no. The resignation of the state, which has no power over France’s biggest company, is terrifying.

During lockdown, you set up a collective called “Avant l’orage” [Before the Storm], designed to bring art and ecology closer together. What’s the relationship between the two?

CÉ We are inundated with information. Sociologists have a word for it: “infobesity.” Algorithms create bubbles in which we are less likely to be confronted with a form of otherness. As a result, a lot of information slips through our fingers, and we retain only what touches us and speaks to other parts of our brain. Using art helps us inspire emotions: indignation, fear, joy, wonder, etc. Since it gives an idea physical form, it stays with us.

Might your commitment lead to a political career?

CÉ It’s been suggested to me, but what’s just as powerful, if not more so, are opposing powers that aren’t tied hand and foot to the logic of reelection and party loyalty. What interests me is concentrating solely and fully on my own cause: the ecological crisis.

In your book, you call for “an ecological uprising.” What do you mean by that?

CÉ It’s one way to go. Faced with a sinking ship, you either get in the lifeboats and try to see if another life is possible elsewhere, or you force open the captain’s door, ask him why he fell asleep and make him turn around. There’s a whole range of possible actions.

You even put a number on it, saying that if 3.5 percent of the population were to rise up, the established order could be overturned.

CÉ Democracy is not the dictatorship of 50 percent plus 1 percent, who decide for all the rest. And there are opinions, on the one hand, and facts, on the other. Water scarcity is not dogma; it’s a reality. The democratic process is needed to determine what to do with the remaining water. The 3.5 percent is the radical side. According to the 3.5 percent theory, a very active minority of the population can help shake up the more moderate majority opinion. That’s where the tipping point comes in. We don’t need to wait until 50 percent of the French are activists for things to change.

The battle also involves words. You prefer the expression “destruction of life” to “climate inaction.”

CÉ The latter is very disempowering; it’s like saying, “Oops, we didn’t do it on purpose.” But when you have a policy that gives billions to intensive agriculture, you’re actively participating in the destruction of living things.

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 14 – buy it here.

Cinematic style: Winona Ryder

Read the interview

Hermès FW24: Outerwear fit for a sudden rainfall

Read the interview

Everything To Know About Loewe’s FW24 Men’s Show

Read the interview