The new world according to Félicien Bogaerts
Translation by:Kaitlin Willoughby
At only 23 years old, Félicien Bogaerts is a TV and radio presenter, as well as an environmentalist recognised in Belgium and France. More than 50,000 follow his Facebook page Le Biais Vert. In his videos and media appearances, he tactfully denounces the lack of action governments have taken in the face of environmental and social disasters. What will be the next step before competing with the French TV talk show, Touche Pas à Mon Poste?
You have co-founded Le Biais Vert, which has 52,000 followers on Facebook, you host the show Plant Cult on RTBF, and you are only 23 years old. How did it all start?
I started working on the radio at 16 years old, on Classic 21 which is a rock channel. I had wanted to do radio since I was a child, I was passionate about rock music, and I already loved the idea of telling stories. I really liked that channel because there was room for musical expertise, but also the opportunity to draw a connection between music and politics. I was able to secure a spot on Classic 21 by simply sending an email.
My task was to make a sequence that put the music in its historical context, which was called Vinyl Vintage at the time. And because I was young and I guess a little unusual, I caught the eye of the boss at the time Marc Isaye, who hired me. Little by little at RTBFI, I pursued my dream, until today where I am working with Plan Cult. At the same time I was on the radio I had started to become interested in video-making, with a particular friend of mine, Elias Sanhaji. Around this time, we developed an environmental conscience, which was only the beginning of our journey.
Do you think that it's necessary for everyone in the world to have an environmental conscience?
It is often said that environmentalism is about the sensitive connection that we have to the world. But if we are sensitive to the world around us, it’s hard to see why more of us aren’t engaged and revolted by the organisation of the society that is imposed on us. And not just environmentally. It's a global mess. We are in a completely capitalist crazy society with abysmal inequalities. Three years ago, we could not have imagined that Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon) could have possessed more than one trillion dollars, whereas today we can envision it. This is a global phenomenon. Inequalities, colonisation, the fact that modern industrial society is built on the deconstruction of our environment, are just some of the issues we face today.
When you are 23 years old in 2020, and you have the chance to be able to document your views and opinions publicly, to be able to take a retrospective look on your lifestyle. I have the luxury of having the time to think about all of this, which not everyone in the world has - I don't see how we can do anything but worry about the future of our world, and to want to fight for it.
Do you come from an environment that is sensitive to these problems?
I don't come from a political background, but I have had access to culture. I was raised in the countryside, which is also an incredible opportunity. No doubt that we are the product of our familial and socio-economic background, but my politicisation came after Le Biais Vert.
Yet Le Biais Vert from its inception carries a political message?
Actually, we started Le Biais Vert by imagining that we were going to inform our leaders that there is a climate emergency. We put a lot of effort two years ago in organising marches for the climate in Belgium, with the idea that we were going to alert our governments so that they are aware of the model in which we live. Some defend it blindly and others defend it cynically. Cynicism of economics, finance, political powers; this is something that we did not recognise at the beginning of Le Biais Vert.
We made videos raising awareness of the pollution caused by plastic, talking about plastic bottles and bags, but without having a systemic vision of the crisis and the social disarray linked to it. We started the project with the idea of making environmentalism a more prevalent topic. But for us, environmentalism was about actions of individual citizens. Now, we understand that it is a subject that is intrinsically political, and which is a collective responsibility. It is not a hobby or a trend. We see that it as our relationship with the world and a necessary global questioning of the society in which we live.
With Le Biais Vert on Youtube, you use a format which appeals to young people, but you also use Homer Simpson and figures like Amelie Poulain in your videos. Is that your tactic for reaching a larger audience?
It's both, it amused us and we also actually thought it would work quite well. We would like to change this format, but its not easy to speak about environmental issues to the general public without some sort of bullshit. We are asked: 'What is the solution to climate change?' and there is no simple one key solution, because it is the whole system that needs to be questioned. And raising awareness of this at a very young age is not easy because we would have to start all over from the beginning. It is not easy to speak about the environment in a short format, in a dynamic way, not giving the audience a headache, without falling into some bullshit. We can't just say: 'Look, the bees are disappearing, but with flowers on your balcony, they will stop disappearing.' So it's not easy to make short, dynamic videos without taking people for idiots. We realise it and we think about it.
"We regret that the image we have of ecology leads to the responsibility of the individual."
How then do we educate in a way that reaches a wider audience than we currently have?
It's not simple at all. But we must have confidence in the intelligence of the public, even the young. We are going to enter a writing residency in June with Elias Sanhaji and Ilyas Sfar, the three of us on Le Biais Vert. Over two weeks, we are going to try to find something that goes in this direction. I don't know yet what it will be. I don't know if it's going to be an update of the channel, but we would like to go in the direction of a format without concessions on the bottom and with a catchy form. I believe that it's possible, but it demands a lot of reflection and a lot of work.
We regret today our previous idea that environmentalism is the responsibility of the individual, and which maybe is compatible with capitalism. For us, it's evident that there will be no social and ecological justice within this organisational model, which is focused on colonisation and productivity. But that's what they're trying to sell us as. In that sense, Elon Musk for example is a public danger, because he is criticised very little. Sometimes taken for a modern Da Vinci, a redeemer who will take us to Mars. Tesla is being presented as a solution when it is not. One must extract millions of tons of earth to obtain rare metals in lethal work conditions. And in all this, we do not question the principle of the individual car. In light of this, we have been offered a car which pollutes differently. I use the example of Elon Musk to say that today capitalism encroaches on the imaginary environmentalist. So one must combat this confusion with accessible formats to all without concession on the merits, with clear examples.
What is, in your view, the biggest way of reaching the general public? Is it public TV channels, Youtube, Facebook?
I’m more interested in format than the platform. When it’s well thought out, well written, well staged, wherever it’s broadcast, it will work. It’s not rocket science. For example, at the base it is a TV program, but many young people have seen it thanks to being shown it in class, and today enormous amounts of people watch it on Youtube. With the audiovisual realities of our time, we can do shocking things. For instance, with Netflix: a series like Black Mirror produced makes us more aware of the dangers of technology. Any format - a series, tutorials, videos - can be effective. Facebook is more our main media outlet over Youtube. But we don't think so much about where we publish it. We think: 'What video could please our viewers and get our message across?'
"We saw that a book could still cause political upheaval."
In fact, we recently saw the example of the book by Vanessa Springora (French writer and director who recounted in her book Le Consentement her relationship with the writer Gabriel Matzneff when she was a teenager). We saw that a book could still have a political impact. There was an outcry and a lot of debate. And I think that has changed society a little bit.
But do you not think that debates must first find a promotion method on TV, on social networks, on radio - as Vanessa Springora’s book did when it came out - before making a difference in society?
Of course, but in the case of Vanessa Springora, it wouldn’t have existed without the book at the base. Another example is the film Parasite by Bong Joon Ho. It became a world phenomenon, bringing the theme of class struggle up to date. As this topic is the pet peeve of many politicians, including the ruling party in France. However, there is a Korean director who puts out a film which is truthful to the class struggle of today in images, even if its not written in black and white, it resonates in us and with the world.
An idea if it is well done, whatever the method of communication, it can hit the bull's eye. I do not believe in a format or a way of communicating it, but rather in the ideas and deep intentions of those who carry them.
You introduce yourself as a militant, animator, journalist?
Not a journalist in any case, I don't find myself rigorous enough to proclaim myself a journalist. Elias is more so. Being a journalist is a very demanding profession to learn. Militant yes, because we can observe things which make us angry and we want to pass it on to those who, either haven’t had time, or they’re having trouble putting words behind it. To be able to put words on injustice or feelings which are sometimes difficult to express, I think that if we have the opportunity to do so, we have to go do so thoroughly.
At the moment, I do animation work on television to earn my living and on the side we write, we create content. So I would say author, or content creator. But not journalist because I have too much respect and consideration for this work. We are working to spread ideas, but we have not yet found the right format that will allow us to reach more people.
"The power of particracy would kill me."
Have political parties approached you? How have you responded to them?
I have been approached by many parties in Belgium, in France too. They invite you to dinners, symposiums, and so on. I don’t go, I don’t do that. For me, it's that we do it's political but outside of the political system, which is corrupt and alienated. Notably in Belgium, the power of particracy would kill me. The pressure of the party structure would kill me. Already here, when we are in a small group and I have to comply with the rules of the group, I sometimes want to go beyond that,so it would be horrible within a political party.
What we do is maybe even more political. For example, we supported the development of the Zone to Defend (ZAD) in Arlon which the authorities wanted to turn into an industrial area. Since the ZAD has been in place, the people of Arlon have politicised themselves more, based on whether they agree with the project or not. It brings politics to the level of the citizen. They attend public debates, the city hall is full to the point of almost bursting, unlike before. There is a reclamation of politics by the citizens.
It’s the same with the Yellow Vests. People found themselves on the roundabouts for various reasons and all of a sudden it turned into citizens' assemblies, where people realised that they had common interests, and that there were things that were wrong in society. I believe very strongly in politics, but I believe it is disruptive events that break the normal course of political life, which is more management than politics. In fact, writer and actor François Bégaudeau quotes the philosopher Jacques Rancière, saying that “the government does not make politics, it makes the police.” So politics is when citizens take back the control of their lives, from which they had lost.
"We need diversity in actions, in the types of formats that can expose a wider audience to these realities."
You mentioned the marches for climate earlier. How do you see things headed for the future?
Marches have their importance, but actions must also diversify. There is also the question of biodiversity, endocrine disruptors, plastic, police brutality, and many other issues. The climate is a matter of urgency, and it is unifying, but we must not stop there. I find it great that there have been actions that are put in place, actions that bring people together. It’s like the formats: political action and the way we talk about it is a matter of diversity. We need diversity in actions, in the types of format that can expose a wider audience to these realities.
Do you have a new project underway?
Not really, what is most pressing is to put some order into what we do now. We are more concentrated on our video projects than our action projects, but there are those who are preparing and we will accompany them.
Cover photo: Illustration by Ilyas Sfar for the series Coup de Gueule, co-produced by Le Biais Vert et Mr Mondialisation. Additional effects by Cafébabel.
Translated from Le nouveau monde selon Félicien Bogaerts