Kumi Naidoo is the real thing. Naidoo, who became the Executive Director of Greenpeace International in November 2009, is not your typical career environmentalist. In a recent conversation, he was refreshingly unguarded for the director of a large global organization. Instead of safe, polished soundbites, Naidoo tended toward a deeper dialogue that was full of context, storytelling, and emotional nuance.
Naidoo became an activist at just 15 years old in apartheid South Africa. As a result of his involvement in the country’s liberation struggle, Naidoo was expelled from high school, arrested at the age of 21, and, after a year living underground, went into exile in England in 1987. In hearing Naidoo talk about his activism it is very clear that the lessons, friendships, and stories of that time continue to inform his life’s work.
From the frontline of the anti-apartheid struggle, Naidoo went on to run the African National Congress’s first national literacy program. He has also been the honorary president of the global civil society network CIVICUS and one of the founders of the Global Call to Action against Poverty.
So why would a global justice activist who has spent much of his life focused on poverty, trade, aid, and political injustice turn to an environmental organization? That’s exactly what we talked about when he visited San Francisco. With Naidoo at the helm of Greenpeace, it appears it won’t be environmental activism-as-usual. As a result of his personal experiences and his political philosophy, Naidoo – the first African head of Greenpeace International – intends to bridge the issues of equity and environmental destruction. As he says: “It’s all happening on this fragile thing that we call Planet Earth.”
Moving forward from Copenhagen, what is Greenpeace doing on climate change? What are the most important things to focus on now?
Part of what is critically needed right now is for us to actually build, if you want, the broadest possible awareness and understanding of citizens who are voters, in the hope that there can be a bottom up kind of pressure.
With the Copenhagen summit, some might justifiably say that we put too much of our eggs into the COP15 basket. In the sense that we wanted a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty, and it was not fair, it was not ambitious, and it was not binding. So in the post-Copenhagen reflection we are saying we also need to continue to build other leverages of campaigning and resistance and popular mobilizations.
What the situation calls for is a multipronged approach. We need to have a legislative approach, so in as many countries [as possible] we want to invest – in the national legislative process; secondly, in the global negotiations; thirdly, in terms of pressure on corporations, particularly those corporations that are the most culpable in terms of contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
And then the most important prong that underpins everything now going forward is to look at how we bring people into the struggle. Right now, I think if we are brutally honest with ourselves, a lot of us talk way above the people. My brother, who is a former political prisoner from the apartheid South Africa days, he is a professor of optometry – quite an educated guy. After Copenhagen he said, “Kumi you’ve forgotten everything about organizing.” I said, “What’ch you mean?” He said, “Half the time when I was hearing you and your colleagues speak from Copenhagen I was getting lost between the degrees, the percentages, and the 350 parts per million.”
Ultimately our strategy has to be to make this climate change challenge something that every citizen feels – that it’s their issue – and we need to find ways in which climate change intersects with women, intersects with poverty, intersects with the challenge of peace.
We have to recognize that actually global warming offers us both the biggest challenge as well as the biggest opportunity, because we either get this right as rich and poor countries acting together and we deliver to our children and grandchildren a safe and secure future. Or if we get it wrong ultimately we put all of human life and other forms of life at risk into the future.
Do you think you are succeeding in reaching ordinary people, connecting with them on the issue of climate change?
I think that we are making progress but the progress that we are making is not fast enough, not deep enough, not broad enough. Just as we say to government and business that it cannot be business as usual, we are now, as activists, also saying it cannot be activism as usual. We have to begin to think about communicating in more accessible ways, broadening the base, making the intersections of different social struggles.
For example, not having the situation where development and poverty and climate change are competing factors. It’s very positive to see, for example, even what used to be called red-green tensions – you know, labor and environment tensions. Of course they are there, they will always be there, but trade unionists and environmentalists are getting much better at actually finding common ground and so on. So those are the kinds of things that I think we need to do.
It seems to me that you have made a personal decision to focus on climate change as a way to connect several issues that haven’t traditionally been seen as environmental issues. Given that climate change itself is challenging to solve, do you think this is effective?
The way I come to it is a very simple route, right. I think the moment of world history that we are living in is a very distinctive moment. It’s what some of us have called a perfect storm. By which we mean we have seen the convergence of big global crises coming together in a very short, pressurized space of time. So first, if you take the last three years, we’ve had the fuel price crisis, followed by a food price crisis. We have the ongoing poverty crisis that takes 50,000 lives of men, women, and children from preventable causes every single day. We’ve got the climate crisis and then we have the financial crisis.
In terms of the impacts on peace, security, and securing a more just and equitable future for future generations, I do think that climate change specifically, and environmental destruction generally, is unifying. Because the thing is, everything happens on the environment, right? Everything happens on this fragile thing that we call Planet Earth. Whether we have gender equality or not on this thing called Earth, it’s happening on the environment. Whether we have economic justice, social justice, political justice – all of these things are happening on this precious planet of ours. So in that sense, the foundational role of the environment generally and climate change specifically, I do think, offers us the opportunity to connect the different struggles in ways in which other connecting points in the past have not offered us.
Moving to the third prong of what Greenpeace is working on, campaigning against the worst corporate polluters: When it comes to big oil and coal, what is the demand? Are you basically asking these companies to put themselves out of business?
That’s a good question. Uh, I think that these companies have a choice. They can say that we were in the energy business but we must now concede that the energy we were delivering was exceptionally dirty, dangerous, unsafe energy, and we are going to reconfigure ourselves to become an energy company that delivers clean energy. That is a choice that some companies appear willing to make, but with far less ambition.
So if you speak to Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, for example, which is one of the dirtiest companies in terms of output, of course he will make a point of speaking very glowingly about all the renewable energy investments that they are making, which is still a tiny fraction of their overall output. The choice they have is to make a clean break – fast and furious and purposefully.
What’s happening right now with US energy companies is that they are falling way behind China in terms of investment in renewable technologies. So if you wanted to think in terms of the previous space race and think of a green race, right now the US has to acknowledge it’s way behind China.
The idea of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by any means necessary brings up fears for those who worry that we could reduce emissions in a way that would not necessarily be good for communities.
We shouldn’t do that.
Simply put, I think there is an opportunity here. Let’s just look at it from an African perspective, right. If we were to address climate imperatives in a bold way, that would mean: one, harnessing the humongous potential Africa has in terms of solar, huge potential in terms of wave, wind, biomass, and geothermal – just to take five. If we, for example, spent 10 percent of the money that was spent on the bailouts of the banks, the bankers and the bonuses, right, we would have revolutionized investment that would have generated clean energy, would have generated jobs, would have actually supported economic growth.
If we were to do that, the other positive impact, for places that are experiencing conflict, is that conflict will also likely reduce, because a lot of the conflict we are seeing is actually conflict based on resources. I mean, we are looking at resource wars happening now, in Darfur, in South Africa. South Africa had horrible xenophobic violence two years ago, and, you know, I was there and I have to say part of me died. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was in the communities and the biggest driver of the conflict was resource scarcity – that was when food prices had spiked globally.
You’ve been an activist since you were 15. Looking at 15-year-olds now, who may be daunted by the big job they have ahead of them, what advice would you give?
I would say that if I were to turn the clock back, I wouldn’t choose to do anything differently. You know, I got expelled from school when I was 15 for my first protest and from then on activism always came with pain. I’ve lost lots of close friends and so on. In our context, the choice was: If you became involved as activists, you could get killed. Ugh – and many got killed. My younger brother, after I fled the country, spent a year in prison, held without trial.
What I would say, though, when I reflect on my life now, 30 years later (I am 45), I think that activism actually gave my life much more meaning than anything else could have given it. I wouldn’t swap it for anything. My best friendships, you know, my best relationships with people. I mean, there are people who I worked with when I was in my teens, I don’t see them for 20 years, and I bump into them and it’s like a long-lost relative. The depth, the closeness of that relationship is very different when you combine with people working for justice.
And the last thing that I would say is that one of the reasons that is a disincentive for a lot of young people, but also older people, to get involved is that usually the struggle feels so big and we feel so small. And I will put this in an anecdote. My best friend growing up was a guy called Lenny Naidu, and he and I fled around the same time into exile when we were 22, in 1987. And he asked me this question the last time I would see him before we fled. He asked, “Kumi what is the biggest contribution you can make to the cause of justice and humanity?” And I said, “Ah, that’s a simple question, giving your life.” He said, “You mean going, participating in a demonstration, getting shot and killed and becoming a martyr?” I said, “I guess so.” He said, “That’s the wrong answer.” He said, “It’s not giving your life, but giving the rest of your life.”
I was 22 then and I didn’t know what he was talking about.… Two years later he was brutally murdered with three women from my home city. There were so many bullets in their bodies their parents couldn’t recognize them in the mortuary. I still think deep and hard over what he was trying to say. What he was saying is that the struggle for justice – the struggle, whether it is gender justice, environmental justice – is a marathon, not a sprint. And the biggest contribution that any one of us can make is maintaining a lifetime of involvement until we win on those struggles.
So to young people I would say: Activism can be fun, it can be sexy, it can be ethical, it can enhance your place in the world, it can help you with your education, it can help you with the quality of your relationships with family, friends, and community, and it’s a path of life very well worth taking. And it’s not a grind. When I think about my life as an activist, I’ve laughed a lot. Even though I have had to bury many, many people I still think that I got a lot of meaning, laughter, friendship, love out of activism.