A Conversation with Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo

A Conversation with Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo

A Conversation with Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo

Naidoo talks about disappointments at Copenhagen, coalition-building among progressive organizations and the uncomfortable truth about consumption and quality of life.


Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International and author of Boiling Point: Can Citizen Action Save the World?, paid a visit to The Nation‘s offices on September 23. After telling us that reading The Nation helped him “keep his sanity” during a few years living in the United States, he talked to us about Greenpeace’s work, his new book and the global environmental movement, and answered questions from Nation staffers and from Christian Parenti, a frequent contributor to The Nation on environmental issues. An edited version of his remarks and the Q&A session appears below.

Kumi Naidoo: We have a climate crisis, which is not a crisis in the way a lot of the policymakers talk about, as if it’s something that’s going to take lives and have an impact in the future. According to Kofi Annan’s organization, we already in 2008 lost at least 300,000 lives directly through climatic impacts. The terrible tragedy of that is that the folks that are facing the first and most brutal impacts of climate change are those that have been least responsible in terms of emissions. So when you look at that loss of life, I’ve argued in the book that this is not simply a tragedy or a sad thing, but it’s actually a daily silent tsunami or a daily passive genocide.

How do you respond? The response has largely been to ignore what Albert Einstein once said, which is that if you’re trying to address a problem or a challenge, you should not use the same logic, thinking and frameworks that got you into the problem in the first place. Because essentially the response has been to put a big Band-Aid over the problem, not to deal with the fundamental structural issues that actually got us in the problem.

Right now in the UN, one of the big conversations is about climate finance and aid for developing countries, and there is still such foot-dragging on the part of developed countries to put money on the table. Yesterday we issued a statement that said Greenpeace is an organization that is generally supportive of recycling and reusing, but in this case where they recycle the same figures of support over and over again, we can’t find a way to support it.

Let me conclude by saying that we believe the science on virtually everything, and all the science is telling us we’ve got five years left. And if we are saying to government and business that there cannot be business as usual, then those of us in progressive media, in NGOs and other parts of civil society also have to tell ourselves it cannot be business as usual in terms of our activism. And that’s the challenge, I think, that we face at the moment.

When the Copenhagen talks broke down, one of the villains was, at least in the US media, China. And that became a proxy for the larger question of what kind of caps on carbon the developing world should accept. What was your take on what exactly happened in Copenhagen, and what’s your position on looking at carbon emissions historically, through an aggregate emissions level? And how does Greenpeace wrestle with the question of poverty in developing nations and burning fossil fuels?

KN: What really happened in Copenhagen will get as many responses as there were delegates there—nobody really knows. You get this one story about how the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa were in a room, Obama was actually kept out, and there’s this joke about—it’s told as a true story—that he knocked on the door and said, Hi, I’m the president of the United States, can I join you? And then if you look at the European Union, they were totally out of it sucking their thumbs while the whole thing played itself out. And I have to say, the European Union must carry more responsibility than the media actually placed on them for failure at Copenhagen, because they came with a twenty percent target, a no-stretch target at all, which gave us no campaigning space with the United States.

But in terms of specifically how we deal with China and India and so on: China does recognize that they have to do more on climate change. By the way, just for the record, the first quarter of this year China exceeded the United States in terms of investment in green technologies. It’s very contradictory though, what’s happening in China. Every three weeks a coal-fired power plant is coming on stream—on the other hand, every hour a wind turbine is coming on stream. Small detail: many of the wind turbines are not connected to any grids. But that’s another problem that remains to be solved, but they will solve it. Because it’s so centrally planned, if they make a decision they can just push it through.

You’ve spoken about the need for US environmental groups to build coalitions. Before Copenhagen, many of the national groups did, but with business groups and with utilities. What do you think it’s going to take for Greenpeace to push those other national organizations to focus on mass movement building instead?

KN: It’s a tricky question, which the piece that Johann Hari did for The Nation addressed. I think our take is not so much to preach to the other environmental organizations. What I want Greenpeace to do in the US and elsewhere is to inspire others to act by what we do, in terms of what actions we take. And what we are looking at now in the US is to make a serious investment in mass mobilization and community organizing. We want to make a big push going after coal, we want to intensify the kind of civil disobedience actions, but where I think we should be investing more of our energy in terms of alliance building—of course we work in a sense with those environmental groups from time to time, but I think the real breakthrough alliance will come with labor, faith groups, social movements and women’s groups being able to actually come together.

Let me make a very controversial statement that I might regret. I don’t think environmental organizations will win the challenge of environmental justice on their own. I think it will only be won if environmental activism becomes more broad-based activism where environmentalism is located in a broader framework of social justice, economic justice and so on.

The uncomfortable reality is that if we are to deliver the quality of life that folks in the US and other developed countries enjoy, and that the elites in other developing countries enjoy, we would need eight planets. Six to eight planets. Just think about that for a minute. Because even we in the progressive movement need to realize that if we are serious about creating a sustainable and just world for our kids and grandkids, we have to realize that we also have to challenge certain assumptions we have about our consumption patterns. And the inequality of consumption of stuff is just overwhelming. What North America and Europe spend on cat food annually will provide three nutritional meals to the entire African continent every single day. And I’ve got nothing against, obviously, pets. But the inequity is completely unsustainable.

Having said that, I’m not closed to the idea of building alliances with forward-looking thinkers in the corporate sector. Think about it: if all of us in this room, all sort of leftyish, all get arrested—whatever, who gives a shit, right? But if you can get somebody like Richard Branson, for example, to get arrested—it begins to break through. A lot of this is informed from my learnings from within the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. We pushed the movement forward when we thought about the non-usual suspects. If we could get white Afrikaner women, even a small number, to talk to ANC women in exile, and find that actually they’re not so far apart, that unusual dialogue is when suddenly the media takes interest, public conversations start, people start thinking. So I agree that we shouldn’t put all our eggs in coalition building with the corporate sector, but I think there might be options of engagement with certain forward-looking people in the private sector. Sadly they’re not in a huge supply. You have to dig around to find them.

Thinking about the US landscape and this question of coalition-building: back in Seattle there was a lot of exciting organizing and rhetoric around the blue-green alliance, and you’ve talked about how that’s developed internationally. But it does seem that it’s kind of fallen apart in recent years. One recent example is that this development of China surpassing the US in investment in green energy was actually protested by the US labor movement. The labor movement was supporting trade sanctions on China for unfairly subsidizing its green energy sector. Are there any signs of progress or hope, or do you think that the situation is sort of troubled?

KN: The difficulty for the US labor movement is the fact that they have to play to their constituency on the one hand, and their constituency is seeing jobs migrate to China and other parts of the world. And there’s the fact that union membership has been on the decline for such a long time. So I’m not defending it, but I’m just trying to give it a bit of empathy, of understanding some of the message and difficulties that they have. Because if they for example were to say, Yeah we totally support what’s happening in China, a lot of their base won’t be able to go along with it. But my optimism is that things are shifting. I mean, just the fact that trade unions are now saying we want to work with environmentalists. The head of the trade union movement came and addressed Greenpeace’s global meeting where we were developing our strategy.

We have a hell of a long way to go, but at the end of the day the same kind of short-term political expediency that holds back governments from doing the right thing and acting with a mission, that does add a resistance within labor and broader civil society in terms of short-term political considerations. But the message that I get from other roles that I’ve been trying to push as well, is that at least we realize, either we get this right, with the rich and poor countries acting together, and we secure the future for future generations, or we get this wrong and we all go down together. Yes, it’s true that developing countries will go first, but ultimately the impacts are going to be felt in rich countries as well. So there is an imperative for us to try to work out a compact between the north-south divides of these things. Easier said than done.

You’ve talked about the problem of penetrating the mainstream media. But the media is changing. Does Greenpeace have a vision for what the media will look like in five years, ten years?

KN: I think pronouncements on the power of the social media are sometimes premature—that triumphalism claiming that social media is already reshaping the media environment. It is offering alternative ways for us to reach people on a larger scale than we would otherwise be able to, but I think to proclaim that social media balances the power of conventional mass corporate-controlled media at this point in history is premature. At Greenpeace we are pushing to harness the full value of social media. Right now, we’re running a campaign against Facebook, because Facebook is about to open a new data center in Pineville, Oregon, and they’ve opted to go for an electricity provider that is largely coal-based. So we used Facebook to run a campaign to get 500,000 people to sign, and once we got 500,000 people to sign, I wrote to Mark Zuckerberg saying, listen, you need to rethink this thing. They responded defensively. (You can see a nice cute little two minute video about the campaign on the Greenpeace website.) Basically, we’ll probably win this—not as fast as we want to—but once we hit the 500,000. My colleagues came to me early in the campaign saying, write to Mark Zuckerberg. I said, why should he listen to us? At least get 500,000 people on board first. So once we had that, we wrote to him, we made it a public letter, and if you just Google Greenpeace Facebook, you’ll see it’s been carried in more than 100 countries in terms of mainstream print media. The entry point for us was using the social media.

But when you look at it on a global basis, we still have a quite terrible digital divide. Large parts of the world do not have the kind of digital penetration that you have in the United States, and that’s another factor that needs to be taken into account.

There’s some tension between activists in this country over whether they should focus on struggles at the state and local level or on securing an international agreement.

KN: An agreement is important because unless we have a binding climate treaty, there is no guarantee that the significant fundamental changes that we need to make as a global community towards a low carbon future are going to be implemented. But the bottom line is that we have a very high compliance deficit in terms of global summit agreements. So, investing in local progress, local campaigning, with local governments or at the state level is important because we can get some movements going in the right direction and some reduction in emissions. Then,  if it happens in a significant number of states and sufficient local governments, it also builds momentum from bottom up for a national-level legislation and for international agreements.

The US Senate does not seem to want to pass a climate bill. What is your assessment of the Obama administration given the room it has to maneuver?

KN: President Obama is not engaged in the serious battle with American people to shift them in the direction of them putting pressure on their local Congress representatives, and I think he needs to do that. We urge him to go back to the spirit he had in the run-up to his election and recapture some of that spirit in how he conducts himself in the White House.

The United States is a country where civil disobedience is really difficult to do. It’s definitely frowned on.

KN: Especially after the war on terror it’s become difficult. The Patriot Act and other of interventions by the Bush Administration in the aftermath of 9/11 have seriously had an impact on this. But if you look at the history of the United States, civil disobedience has been a critical part of progress on many issues.

Next year Greenpeace turns 40 globally. We’re using the fortieth anniversary to launch a global campaign, which we’ve already got some alliances together to do, to defend the right to civil disobedience as a critical part of democracy. I’d hope that would help you out in the United States as well—give you some traction.

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