A billion acts of courage on 3.6 planets: a conversation with Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo

Outgoing Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo sees the struggles against political repression, poverty and climate change as intrinsically interconnected. flickr/World Economic Forum , CC BY-NC-SA

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Born in South Africa, Greenpeace International’s executive director Kumi Naidoo became involved in his country’s liberation struggle at the age of 15. He has a deep and broad experience of democratic struggles for justice and sustainability across the world. Naidoo is a former Rhodes Scholar and holds a doctorate in political sociology. Edited extracts from his recent interview with the author follow.

Kumi Naidoo in conversation with Amanda Tattersall.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa, environmentalism was what rich white people did. It was something you participated in only if you had food in your stomach and a roof over your head.

However, after being the chair of a global campaign against poverty for several years, I learnt that, actually, poverty is exacerbated by environmental destruction. In fact, the struggle to end poverty and the struggle to avert catastrophic climate change can, must and should be seen as two sides of the same coin.

Decades ago, the feminist movement gave us a powerful concept – intersectionality. If you want to advance gender equality, you need to know how gender intersects with race, class, ability, religion and sexuality. And so with Greenpeace. We are an environmental organisation and we won’t deviate from that.

But to be a good environmental organisation, we need to understand how our environmentalism intersects with other issues of inequality, gender, geopolitics, peace and the economy.

Climate change is affecting water supplies in South Africa and much of Africa. flickr/Colin Crowley, CC BY

In 2002 the CIA and the Pentagon presented a paper to George W. Bush, reporting that in the coming decades the biggest threat to peace and security will derive from the impacts of climate change. Though my continent of Africa has been the least responsible for harmful emissions, we are paying the first and most brutal price for climate impacts.

The genocide in Darfur was the first major resource war brought about by climate change. According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Lake Chad, one of the largest inland seas in the world, has shrunk to the size of a pond. At the same time, the Sahara desert, which already covers much of North Africa, is marching southward at a rate of a mile a year.

This combination of water and land scarcity results in food scarcity, which is often the trigger that allows opportunistic politicians to lead us down the path to chaos and tragedy.

The good news

The good news is that we have won the argument. For eight years, Bush denied that humans caused climate change. But today, even Tony Abbott cannot claim that climate change is not real. However, our political and business leaders still suffer from an acute case of cognitive dissonance and inaction.

To avoid catastrophic climate change we have to ensure that our planet does not exceed two degrees of warming from the beginning of the industrial period (when we started to burn oil, coal and gas) into the future. Already, we are almost halfway. From zero to two degrees, we sit at 0.8. In the last decade we have had more than a 100% increase in extreme weather events.

Abbott, along with all other political leaders from developed and developing countries, needs to realise that they are not going to get away with baby steps or incremental thinking in the right direction. We need significant and fundamental transformation.

More than 30,000 people marched in Melbourne as part of a global climate protest for action. Takver/flickr

The balance of power

Our political leaders need to understand that democracy is meant to balance a wallet with a ballot. The power of rich people is supposed to be equalised with the voices of the ordinary. But the bottom line is that too many of our political leaders act in the interests of a handful of powerful corporations to which they have mortgaged their souls. This is why they are not exercising the basic notion of democracy; this is why we are not making the right changes.

A flyer for the 2014 #FloodWallStreet protest in New York. Ashoka Jegroo/Wikipedia Commons

Those that are making truckloads of money every single day are resisting and holding us back. In too many countries we have the form of democracy without the substance. Many countries that claim to be democratic are not genuinely so – they are simply liberal oligarchies.

When the stakes are high, the need for courage is critically important. In this battle, we will need a billion acts of courage to win.

Greenpeace believes that the first act of courage is believing that another more just and equitable world is possible, even if it will be tremendously difficult to build.

We have to move from an economy that is driven by dirty brown fossil fuel to one that is based on clean, green, renewable energy. We also have to question the issue of consumption. If everybody in the world enjoyed the same levels of consumption as Australians currently do, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) predicts that we would require 3.6 planets.

We have been completely led astray by big capital and an aggressive marketing industry that has convinced us that happiness comes from big houses and big cars – when in reality our facile acceptance of the gulf between the rich and the poor is a fundamental statement of our absolute spiritual poverty.

In 1986, the first and only McDonald’s in Cuba came to the US base at Guantanamo. US Navy

Countries such as America and Australia that claim to promote democracy are failing us terribly, because their repressive practices offer a blank cheque to countries with weaker traditions of democracy. It allows them to say, “Well, if America has torture, Guantanamo Bay, racial and religious profiling and mass surveillance, we can have the same.”

We will not win the struggle against climate change unless we constantly try to recover our democracy and apply international law in an equitable way such that rich country governments are subject to the same accountabilities and vulnerabilities as poor country governments. If this were the case, Abbott’s decision to pay people smugglers to take refugees back away from Australia would have been trialed before the International Criminal Court.

Climate injustice and civil disobedience

How can we support the most vulnerable people on our planet who, ironically, are paying the gravest price for climate impacts despite being the lowest emitters of carbon?

We need to engage in peaceful, purposeful and creative civil disobedience because all of our political and business leaders, with few exceptions, seem to suffer from cognitive dissonance. We do not have a moral or ethical choice – we must fight as hard as we can so that we, along with the very imperatives of democracy and equality, can no longer be ignored.

If we don’t win in the global South and the developing nations, we have lost. If we don’t win in China, India, Indonesia and Brazil, where we are talking about substantial population sizes, we will surely lose.

All the contradictions of power differentials between rich and poor nations manifest themselves in global civil society, but it is important to recognise how we might, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, be the change we want to see in the world. To actually be different we have to equalise power between developed and developing nations.

A renewable future for all

If we did this right we could have a win not only for the environment, but also for the economy. Multiple studies show that the best chance we have for refreshing our economies and getting people into jobs is by engaging in a massive renewable energy revolution. We are already seeing growth in this industry worldwide, but the scale of our commitment needs to be greater still.

The solutions are there. Only the political will is missing.

Fortunately, political will is the most renewable of all resources. It is up to us to make sure that it acts in the interest of both current and future generations, to the point that not making the requisite changes will be condemned as undemocratic, criminal and unacceptable by the working class, the middle class and even those at the top of the economic ladder.

In 2014, Christian leaders delivered solar panels to Tony Abbott as a Christmas gift, which the Solar Council supplied and offered to install for free at Kirribilli House. Kate Ausburn/flickr

Greenpeace believes that it is within human creativity, ingenuity and innovation to turn the crisis of climate change into an opportunity. For far too long we have lived in a world of divisions – between North and South, East and West, rich and poor, developed and developing.

If we wish to secure the future for our children, we have to come together – and those who are capable must take the lead. Though it is unfair that the developing nations that contribute the least to climate change will be the first to go, the richer and the rest will soon follow.

The climate change struggle is not about saving the planet. If we continue to warm Earth the way that we are, we will perish while Earth remains. It will be bruised, battered and scarred by humanity’s crimes, but once we are gone the forests will recover and the oceans will replenish.

Don’t worry about the planet. This struggle is about us, and whether humanity can fashion a way to democratically co-exist with each other and nature for centuries to come.


This interview, Peace, People and Power: social change from anti-apartheid to the climate movement, was co-presented by Sydney Ideas, the Sydney Democracy Network and the Sydney Environment Institute in association with Greenpeace at the University of Sydney on August 5.

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