It doesn't grow on trees

J-B Louveaux had planned to be a banker, just like his father. But at 25 and with a degree from Oxford, he is on the dole and involved in direct environmental action. It has taken his father, Xavier, 59, a while to accept that his son's career path has quite literally taken him up a tree


`My parents were using all the arguments which are anti-direct action, anti-this, anti-that, anti-anything I was doing at the time'

I was going to follow in dad's footsteps and become a banker. In fact, I was going to be an even better banker. I worked at his bank a number of times - my first job there was when I was 16. My last placement was on the trading floor. that's where I decided I'd make most money. I found it very dehumanising.

The standard Belgian upbringing (my dad and I both have Belgian backgrounds) is: go to school, go to university (if it's Oxbridge all the better), get a job, get married. My dad certainly followed that trajectory and while I was following that standard, middle class line, all seemed well.

At university I was very analytical of myself and my motives. I went to Mexico and saw a country whose culture and heritage had been completely ruined by tourism. I got a sense that not only was it important to do something useful with my life, but that there was so much to do that I couldn't sit back and do nothing.

I became involved in Reclaim the Streets as a part-time thing. That's when I started getting my picture in the paper and being interviewed on TV. I think my parents were just as excited about it as I was at the time. The debate started about whether it was right to cause drivers to sit in traffic for ages so that I could prove my point. Each time, my dad has felt: "What are you getting into now?" He just didn't understand, for instance, why I wasn't eating foie gras. When we were in France he said: "I'll go and buy some foie gras. will love it." Then it was me acting like a spoilt brat, refusing to eat it. I explained about the cruelty and he came around to it. He wouldn't eat foie gras now.

My parents were OK with what I was doing, as long as I wasn't arrested. Once I was arrested, that made them fearful. During Newbury, when I was totally immersed in the campaign, I would fly off the handle, be incensed by what they came up with. Signing on was another thing. I could get a job. I justified it by pointing out that there were plenty of people out there getting paid for work which is detrimental to the welfare of human beings.

I've got a very gentle approach to challenging my parents on personal grounds. I wouldn't challenge what my dad does head-on, be it genetically engineered food, which my dad's bank is involved in financing, or Third World debt. If I was to attack my dad, I could just as well attack 90 per cent, if not 95 per cent, of people in society.

As a result of Newbury, my parents have become immensely proud of me. I think what changed their view is what changed everybody's perception: the media coverage. I'm not going to become any more radical. In fact, I've become more moderate. That's because my conversations have become a two-way process. I'm even got friends with people who are top bankers, for instance, the managing director of JP Morgan in this country. I've learnt that it's not just to do with what's right or wrong, but how to reach those sections of the community


`He is fortunate I still have a job so he can rely on what I'm earning. But one day I'm going to retire and he's going to be on his own'

I had no absolutely no preconceptions about which career path should take. I did ask him, when he got his degree in maths and philosophy from Oxford and became more and more involved in environmental issues, what was the point in getting a degree from Oxford. His answer was simple. "It helped me to understand myself and what I wanted to do in the future." OK, I found it possibly a bit hard to swallow, but I accepted his judgement.

In a way I'm still concerned today that he doesn't earn a living per se. That's the reason I'm keen for him to apply for a masters at Forum For The Future, the Jonathon Porritt masters. I still believe in high qualifications for getting a job. He is, in a way, fortunate that I still have a job so he can rely on what I'm earning. But one day I'm going to retire and he's going to be on his own.

I think he came back from Mexico with a very negative opinion because of the damage to the rainforests. It took me a while to understand the message he was trying to convey in terms of the way he would address that particular issue. Whereas I personally favour what I would call legal ways of trying to get your message across, particularly using MPs and lobbying and so on, he was trying to explain that all these avenues had failed in the past and the only way to make progress was by doing what he is doing.

I'm still concerned about him being arrested. First, for his own sake. If you are, like he was recently, sent into solitary confinement for 48 hours, it's mentally nerve-wrecking. And if you are arrested and spent some time in custody you are considered a criminal.

Over time I've learnt a lot about the environmental issues. I fully share his concern about the fact that people on this planet don't seem to pay a lot of attention to this planet. Of course we can survive, but you wonder what will happen to the future generations. If I were to buy a new car I think I would pay attention to what kind of car to try and limit the damage to the environment. We definitely eat less meat - beef in particular - and we pay much more attention to recycling.

It's all a question of what you expect from life. I mean, I think about it. His mother is involved in charity work. All right, I work for a bank here. I have what you would call a very conventional job and career. Fair enough. You can't teach a dog new tricks, I guess. I've got to finance my family, that's number one. And two, I'm not sure I can change anything now.

Both my wife, Evelyne, and I are more concerned about what I would call the ethical behaviour of large companies like Citibank. If I were to be involved in project finance, which I was in the past, I would possibly have second thoughts about the sort of projects the bank gets involved with, but the kind of work I now do is so remote from environmental concerns that I don't find it a problem

Interviews by Clare Garner

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