Antoinette Vermilye is a co-founder of Galifrey, member of the Directors Council on the Institute of Marine Biology in Hawaii, and co-founder of She Changes Climate.SHE Changes Climate. All of these roles revolve around her concerns for gender, social justice, the environment, and the intricate interrelationships within the ocean.
She is always oriented towards finding solutions and believes that every problem has multiple layers. She aspires for great things but is conscious of the journey: “Where I want to get to long-term is my idealism. What are the steps I am going to have to take to get there is pragmatism.”
Humility is one of the values she holds dear, which she mentioned throughout this interview, stating that it will be the key message she will convey on the stage of the Climate Change Summit, where she will participate as a speaker. CCS is the largest event in Central and Eastern Europe dedicated to climate change, which will take place from October 19th to 20th in Bucharest. During the two days, dozens of leaders in climate innovation and environmental policies, researchers, entrepreneurs, and government officials will come together in a joint effort to find local and regional solutions for a sustainable future. The event is open to the public, and registrations can be made at climatechange-summit.org.
During this interview, Antoinette shared her vast experience, both concerning the complexity of the ocean and gender-related issues. She spoke about her leadership style and provided some insights into her presence as a speaker at the Summit.
Antoinette, how did you develop an interest in the complex interrelationships of the ocean?
I always try to remind myself to look deeper than the first layer of any problem. We like to think the answer can simply be understood in less than five minutes! But real life is not like that. My son is about to be a father. If I look at illustrations of babies in the womb, the drawings are neatly delineated and in coloured lines. Then I look at the baby on a sonogram and I realise reality is nothing like that! Reality is more nuanced without clear definition! How many times have some of us looked at baby sonogram images puzzling out what was what!! So, let’s appreciate that each output doesn’t entirely conform to our expectations. Life is like that EVERYWHERE. And we cannot expect binary or five-minute solutions to complex wicked problems.
My journey has brought me differing layers of understanding of the ocean. I have come to learn it is a very complex interrelationship between ocean warming, oxygen, and acidity and these combine to become an exponential negative feedback loop that has vital consequences – not just on the underwater marine ecosystem but on our climate – as evidenced by this year’s extreme weather records.
I realised we cannot afford to look at our problems and solutions through a very narrow lens and it was essential that we explore all externalities of our actions and ensure we mitigate these holistically.
In your opinion, what are the biggest issues related to climate change?
The answer to me is simple: humans! We are our own enemies. For years scientists have worked out the math; have done their best to inform governments, industry, and the public. But instead of running towards solutions, the majority seem to want to continue the status quo. Economy (a man-made invention) is always favoured over the environment; and the burden of proof rests on those who wish to protect rather than those who wish to harm. As a result, we have thrown precaution to the wind in many cases and – now we are starting to pay heavier consequences.
While greenhouse gas emissions (which encompass more than just CO2) are vital, we must not ignore marine and chemical pollution – the product of industrial activity. We must bear in mind that 80% of the world’s sewage enters the water untreated.
Instead of allowing politicians and businesses to maintain the status quo we must realise we can all do something. While the public can affect local impact, politicians and business leaders can have a bigger impact. Large or small, we all have a role to play but we MUST play it.
Could you share some insights into the impacts of EU subsidies for EU fisheries of migration from Africa, based on your work with migrant refugees?
I worked with refugees in Switzerland and met a few from Africa who were formerly fishermen. I then learned that Europe subsidies billions of Euros for its national industrial fishing fleets to fish 24/7 off the coast of Africa – depriving coastal peoples of their main source of protein. Local fishermen could not compete with this ultra-efficient process.
This led to an environmental and economic disaster as fish populations were being decimated in massive numbers, depriving the ocean of its biodiversity; and impacting the fisher people who could no longer make a living. They concluded their only chance to replace their robbed livelihood was to travel to Europe and find work on one of those factory fishing vessels. Arriving in Europe, they are treated appallingly and often turned back. So, they face a double hardship (losing their living and then being rejected by Europe after perilous journeys and probably using the last of their (and their family’s) savings).
The responsibility of this lies on Europe but we only focus on the symptom not the cause. Each time we eat fish we need to know that it might have caused extreme hardship and poverty for someone somewhere else.
You have contributed to the creation of the Twitter campaign aimed at empowering citizens to tweet airlines about their policies to transport shark fins as cargo. What were the results of this campaign?
In the last 50 years over 70% of shark populations have plummeted from their former levels in 1970. Think about that figure.
Sharks are probably the most maligned and misunderstood species on the planet and yet they play a vital role as apex predators. We adore lions, tigers, and bears …but sharks? And yet they play the same role. For over 450m years they have kept the ocean healthy. Sharks have been shown to play a vital role in coral health, in fish populations and even for carbon sequestration. But we kill anything from 100-250m sharks a year! It is just not sustainable.
To counter this, we wanted to create a campaign where the public could be of help. So, we developed a twitter campaign: FlyWithoutFins to thank or shame airlines that don’t or do carry shark fins as cargo. Since we developed the campaign just three years ago, we have not only created a simple crowdsourcing campaign to educate the public, but these campaigns have led to over 60 airlines (including the entire OneWorld alliance members) to declare they do not carry fins as cargo.
We hope to gain enough momentum that the entire airline industry leaders voluntarily ban carrying fins as cargo. However, the crucial part is that we combine all the resources of different organisations and NGOs to voluntarily work together to provide intelligence and promote campaigns amongst each other to protect sharks. United we are stronger.
In your experience, what are some of the key social injustices related to leadership and gender? How can they be resolved?
I mentioned earlier that we are trained to view our lives through a particular lens. Being a patriot can be to have pride in the best of one’s nation – but it should also be transparent about what it gets wrong. It certainly should not get self-righteous about other nations. None of us are perfect but pretending to be invites more scrutiny. And without accepting humility we are doomed to fall hard.
Women are not included in leadership because men are a product of systemic privilege that put them ahead of the game earlier than women. A man didn’t have to choose between being a family or a career man – a woman does. I hope you have seen the film Barbie because it perfectly demonstrates how, even if a woman becomes all the ‘aspirational’ models that the mainly male-dominated company of Mattel produced, social pressure forces women to try to achieve impossible standards of looks, “beauty”, and smarts while often retaining the traditional role at home as well. When a woman who is on the front line of climate change comes up with a resilient solution, by the time it gets to the top it has been transformed into a more male-dominated viewpoint and she isn’t even at the table! (In India after a major earthquake devastated 400,000 homes, they were all rebuilt – but without kitchens! Why? No women were even consulted in the process!
We have to change the system to make us all aware and inclusive. We need men to support and encourage women to act as women – in the same way we need to embrace all the different viewpoints from divergent racial, indigenous and gender identities.
We are losing biodiversity in nature at an unprecedented rate because the input into our ideas and our solutions have not been diverse. For centuries, mainly male perspectives have dominated the thinking (or by women who have to act like men to be heard). That thinking has influenced our societal standards on governance, climate, finance, and technology.
Einstein claimed the definition of madness was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. That is what we are doing, and it is sending us all into an ever-worsening negative feedback loop.
We don’t want to exclude male perspectives but the ingredients to a good recipe always require more variety. All we ask is that men who hold the power, invite those excluded to be included and be allies to ensure these forgotten voices are also heard. We will all end up better for it. And this does not stop at women, it involves all marginalized parties and viewpoints.
As a co-founder of Gallifrey and holding leadership positions in multiple organizations, what do you believe are the essential qualities of an effective leader in the field of environmental and social justice?
I wish I could say I was a leader, but I am not sure that is the right word! I do want to be a thought provoker. Leading tells people where to go, I want to ask people to ask themselves where they can go. I can guide a little, but any journey of discovery must come from within and have true ownership and agency. We must allow for learning and thus embrace failure as part of that learning.
My eyes remain on the goals: what are the problems – what are the potential solutions? Have these been explored before? Why did they work? Why did they not? Can we identify other organisations with similar goals and bring them together to synergise? Can we collaborate – with all our own quirks and red lines that we don’t want to cross to at least move the needle in the right direction to empower everyone to create systemic change for conservation and social justice.
For, ultimately working in the environmental and social justice arena our goal is to help change behaviour that will be more protective, long term and more inclusive – this will reap greater rewards in the long term. This leads back to the worlds of indigenous peoples who knew to take only what they needed, never remove the first nor the last and always treat their resources and each other with respect.
Here is an excerpt from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Grass: The Guidelines for the Honorable Harvest
– Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
– Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
– Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
– Never take the first. Never take the last.
– Take only what you need.
– Take only that which is given.
– Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
– Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
– Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
– Given thanks for what you have been given.
– Give a gift in reciprocity of what you have taken.
– Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
As a leader, how do you balance the need for immediate action with the longer-term vision and sustainability of your initiatives? How do you navigate trade-offs and make decisions that have both short-term and long-term positive impacts?
This is a very hard question: It’s a question of balancing ideological with pragmatism. Where I want to get to long-term is my idealism. What are the steps I am going to have to take to get there is pragmatism.
Take whatever you can do to take immediate action if it is in your own locus of control.
For example, it is easy for me to be a vegetarian. I just don’t eat meat or fish. However, I want to avoid plastic, but I realise that is not so easy because it is ubiquitous. I must avoid plastic packaging which is harder than avoiding meat or fish! I will favour the non-plastic item but sometimes if it is not possible so I will either forgo it or take it and ensure I find an alternative for the next time. I accept it is a journey of learning.
The next stage is to educate the general public via some of our educational programs: Plastic Free Campus or Carbon Free Campus and to work with the scientists and civil society who are researching and working on legislation so that we hit the levels that will create the top-down change. Yes, there are some wins but there are also some roadblocks. It is a journey and I keep my eye on the horizon.
But we must have red lines that we cannot cross. And these are important as they guide our work. For example for any solution we are looking at implementing I have a golden rule:
We MUST explore the temporal and geographical externalities of social justice, environment and human and planetary health.
If a solution is going to cause harm in any of these latter three categories – either in a geographic space as they grow – or over time; then THEY MUST be called out and mitigated. The accountability of our actions must remain transparent.
You will be one of the speakers on the stage of the Climate Change Summit. Could you provide insights into the topic or topics you plan to address during your presentation? What will be the key message you aim to convey to the audience regarding the urgency and importance of addressing climate change?
We are at the precipice of our existence. We are falling down a steep waterfall and taking a lot of our fellow earth passengers with us. As humans we have tended to think we know it all and then found out we don’t. I saw the movie Oppenheimer that came out this summer – what began as thrilling intellectual and scientific exercise became the means of our self-annihilation and we are doing the same with climate change. We became arrogant. Despite many misquotes about humanity and technology Einstein did mention to a friend he believed “that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanization and depersonalization of our lives,” I believe humility and compassion are the checks and balances for arrogance.
My key message will be to exercise humility; to accept we don’t know everything and that we are facing this moment in time because of greed and growth. A false God of economy is everything. Ask ourselves “how much is enough?” Where can we apply compassion and kindness in our business and everyday dealings so that the winner doesn’t take all but just a bigger share so that everyone can have some part to survive and thrive. And by this I don’t just mean humans – I mean the land, the creatures and life on this planet with whom we share the air, water, and soil. Where is our empathy for these creatures who bring us joy when we see them? They also have fears, joy, pain, and sentiment. Our self-centred medieval belief lingers that all resources are for mankind alone is just so out of date.
We must care for each other if we are going to survive.
As a speaker, how do you ensure that your message resonates with a diverse audience and encourages meaningful engagement and action? Are there any specific strategies you employ to make your presentations compelling and impactful?
My wish is that my voice and my stories hit everyone in the heart – not the head. Because we can intellectualise our way to only hear what we want to hear. I want them to feel love and compassion. Love for themselves, for the planet, for all the creatures on it. Because we won’t protect what we don’t love.
I would do anything for my child because my love is limitless. Mother earth has done so much for us, and we are the very bad-tempered teens who ignore and insult and abuse her. We need to grow up and realise that hurting mother earth hurts us. But like a mother, she is in it for the long game – we may not be so fortunate.
My usual strategy is to describe what has happened. Ideally it will take a story form rather than drilling into bullet points of facts (although it does have some science backing and references). I outline the situation (usually it is not good news). What are the challenges we are facing? And then I ALWAYS provide action that anyone can do if they are a citizen, family, politician or business leader and any other category. We don’t need one person doing everything, we need billions doing little things all together.
What are some of the key outcomes or initiatives that you hope will result from the discussions and collaborations at the Summit?
I would love to see serious action on the following areas because I believe they will make the biggest difference:
– Stop food waste and wasteful food production. I revert to the Honorable Harvest. Any collection of life – whether it be on land or sea must be reduced to the minimum and exercised with the utmost compassion and humaneness.
– Massively increase shared and public transport – we MUST reduce oil and gas emissions. Switching from one car to an electric car only shifts the burden on resources. Instead, promote low-cost public transport and stop subsidising oil and gas for transportation to factor in the real costs.
– Massively invest in better insulation for homes against climate events (heat and cold).
– Massively increase circularity in all but plastics. Tight looped circular systems are brilliant.
– Revise the global economic system that still enables a growing 1% of wealth at the expense of over 50% of the lowest paid. We need a better balance – like the earth needs a better balance. Both are connected. Economics are driving more economics at the expense of the environment = we need a systemic thinking change to this.
– Bring more diversity in thinking into our leadership. It may be difficult to start with, but we must open our minds to possibilities that provide inclusive solutions
– Love and care for what we have and take NOTHING for granted.
Editor: Mara Rusu