Izabella Teixeira: people, politics, and a philosophy of sustainable consumption and production
By Andrew Schmidt | published 03.03.2021
This is the first in a series of portraits of individuals from diverse backgrounds across the One Planet network who have inspired the global movement for Sustainable Consumption and Production in their own way.
No lawyers, please
When Ms. Teixeira began her career as a biologist at the Brazilian Institute for Environmental and Natural Resources in 1984, the road to a career in the public sector was not a foregone conclusion. The natural sciences were an unfamiliar subject growing up in a middle-class family of doctors and lawyers.
“My first dream was to become a doctor, because I didn’t like lawyers,” she jokes, before explaining that she chose to pursue biology at university because of a fascination with life in all its forms – whether through the hard science of biology or its interactions with disciplines like philosophy and history.
This conviction that the game of life cannot be reduced to one discipline or another stuck with Ms. Teixeira as she climbed the ranks of the environmental public service. Her experience only reinforced her belief that the environmental challenges in her country cannot be faced in a vacuum. Rather, they depend on the interactions between, and an understanding of, elements such as history, social demands, and importantly, politics.
When environmental and socioeconomic realities collide
With 8000km of coastal zones and a huge diversity of biological assets, combined with one of the largest emerging economies in the world and significant disparities between the rich and poor, Brazil is one of the most diverse places on earth.
Ms. Teixeira is acutely aware of the need to balance environmental concerns with social demands and economic realities.
“It’s not enough to be a scientist with a PhD…You need to learn how to use this to convince people on the ground, or equally in a high-level forum to discuss priorities and new ways to protect the planet.”
One example she gives is the global food value chain. In particular, Brazil’s tropical climate creates a unique set of considerations. What is important, she says, is going into different constituencies and learning about politics as much as learning about environmental issues, in order to convince people that these issues are important to them. It’s just as essential to speak with huge companies as it is to explain to small farmers why it is valuable that they are engaged in the forest codes as part of global food chains.
Ms. Teixeira is passionate when speaking about the necessity of translating the diverse experiences and realities in her country into real commitments and co-responsibility. It’s only by bringing these different realities together, she says, – from the global to the national and further down to local realities– that it’s possible to create robust solutions that people will not only be part of, but actually believe in.
When asked where this enthusiasm for tackling the political sphere to make progress on environmental, social and economic agendas comes from, she reverts, naturally, to biology. “I think in my genome I have curiosity as something absolutely important…I am curious about everything, since I was a child”.
This natural curiosity clashed with the sombre political reality of military dictatorship installed in Brazil shortly after her birth. This meant dealing with a lack of freedom that, when mixed with her natural curiosity, instilled a hunger for and realisation of the importance of freedom, democracy, justice and human rights. It was against this juxtaposition of childlike wonder and harsh political realities that Ms. Teixeira grew up, learning vital lessons about the importance of family and friendship that would stick with her.
She recalls her father saying that her curiosity and energy will always make her stronger; a voice that she sometimes still hears during difficult negotiations. Or how she learned about being independent at nine years old when her parents would give her the responsibility of walking to the local bank and paying a bill. And she speaks emphatically about the importance of friendship, which helped her create her own world as a biologist, a blindspot that the doctors and lawyers in her family did not have answers for.
It’s this combination of influences from natural curiosity, from the political realities of her childhood, and from family and friends that has allowed Ms. Teixeira to blend her passion for the natural world with concern for more human aspects of social and economic rights.
“My grandmother said that you need to pay attention when you have people around you”, she says, laughing as she recounts the dominating force of the woman. What her grandmother meant by this, she explains, is that behind the politics, or the rumors, or the story in the newspaper, are simply individuals. And these individuals – from the political negotiator to the farmer in Amazonia - want to be seen, and heard. The lesson stuck, and the importance of seeing people as people, and understanding the experience of others in order to better understand yourself, remained paramount. Ms. Teixeira does not see this realisation as a trade-off with achieving real-world political outcomes that serve the interest of her country. “We can have different tracks but still have a common understanding about solutions and how we can achieve common goals together”.
This was the approach that Ms. Teixeira brought to negotiations for the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda nearly a decade ago, which she led on behalf of Brazil. “Sometimes you have to believe in your instinct,” she recalls.“I was fully convinced that we needed something to change the way that we produce goods and consume.” Not only from an environmental standpoint, she emphasises, but also to tackle new economic models and make sure there is a place for the maximum number of people at the table.
Sustainable consumption and production – keeping things simple
A Sustainable Development Goal on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SDG 12) was enshrined in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, but progress has been slow. Ms. Teixeira mentions an old proverb that says something along the lines of “When you point a finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you”, to emphasise the importance of communicating with people about sustainable consumption and production in a way that will convince them to make changes in their own lives. This means understanding the different realities of different people and putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes from time to time, she says. The public transport that works in Germany won’t work in Brazil, for example. But maybe there are innovative solutions that do exist for Brazil, and it’s only through dialogue with the people who take the bus that those solutions can be found.
Ms. Teixeira is passionate when speaking about the transformational power of sustainable consumption and production, which she says can translate global issues into local realities, into households, and into individual lives. Sustainable consumption and production needs to convince people that they can change, that they can have a better quality of life, and that they can be part of the solution What is critical, she affirms more than once, is that people need to be convinced that sustainable consumption and production makes sense for their quality of life, and that wanting more than they currently have does not make them greedy, it can simply mean that they want to be included in a society that is moving forward with astonishing speed.
When asked what she hopes to be her next big accomplishment, Ms Teixeira’s response is immediate: be simple. It seems surprising; such an uncomplicated answer from someone who has been at the head of international delegations, who has spent time with presidents and prime ministers negotiating the global environmental policies of this planet. But working on being simple is at the heart of Ms. Teixeira has been explaining all along.
Sustainable consumption and production is about translating the vast complexity of life – the complexity which ignited a passion for biology, history, and philosophy in the child and in the young civil servant – into something that makes sense for people, all people. “At the end of the day we are people, discussing; we are fathers, mothers, politicians, dialoguing” she says, observing that the more people understand sustainable consumption and production at the level of the individual, the easier it will be not only to communicate, but to actually convince people to change and of the different ways to do so.
Ms. Teixeira offers a final piece of advice for how we can take sustainable consumption and production forward, together: “Be easy, be confident, be strong, be a friend”.
Sounds simple, right?
Izabella Teixeira is the former Minister of Environment of Brazil and the current Co-Chair of the International Resource Panel and a member of the IRP-One Planet network Task Group on Catalysing Science-Based Policy Action on Sustainable Consumption and Production.
The recently launched report of the Task Group – ‘Catalysing Science-Based Policy Action on Sustainable Consumption and Production: The Value-Chain Approach and its Application to Food, Construction and Textiles’, is available here.