Dr. Kumi Naidoo is a renowned South African human rights advocate, focusing his work on environmental, economic, and racial justice efforts by challenging positions of power for the inequalities they create. He is a Rhodes Scholar and received a Ph.D. in Political Sociology at Oxford University. Most recently, he was the Executive Director for Greenpeace International and is now the Chair of the Board for Africans Rising for Justice, Peace & Dignity. Dr. Naidoo came to Yale University Law School as the Fall 2017 Gruber Distinguished Lecturer in Global Justice, delivering a speech titled, “The United States: Friend or Foe of Global Justice?”
The Politic: The first thing I wanted to say was simply thank you so much, Dr. Naidoo, for being here, and it is definitely a great honor and pleasure for me to be asking you these questions.
Kumi Naidoo: Thank you.
The first question I have for you is: What has inspired you throughout your life to be passionate about environmental activism?
Understanding that environmental activism is fundamentally about people, and that it is not about, important as it is, simply about protecting forests for their own sake, or oceans for their own sake, or mountains and rivers for their own sake. I personally think it is worth it to protect all of these things for their own sake, but I think the connection between human challenges and human need is fundamentally connected with whether we can actually treat, care for, and sustain our environment for centuries and centuries to come. And for me, environmental activism is not about protecting the climate, it is about protecting the future possibilities of future generations, and about whether humanity can get a better way to interact with nature in a mutually interdependent relationship, hopefully for many centuries to come.
Thank you. The second question I have is: Many people definitely see climate change as the single greatest threat facing the world in the near future. Do you think that there is a specific facet of climate change that is most critical to focus on when mitigating or avoiding crises?
I think that the biggest facet that we must address is our energy system. We need to have an energy revolution that moves us from an economy that is driven by dirty, brown, fossil fuel-based energy to an economy that is driven by clean, green, renewable-based energy. I think that this energy transition is not one that should come with hardship. If done thoughtfully, creatively, and strategically, it could give us a jobs bonanza. We can, for example, retrofit thousands of buildings to make them energy efficient while we open up new industries in solar and related battery technologies that store energy specifically from sun and wind, since [that energy] is not available all the time and must be captured and stored. There is a lot of room for innovation, and I think that a substantial transition from dirty to clean energy will bring with it reductions in emissions, but can also bring with it jobs and many social benefits.
In a previous interview with The Guardian in 2015, you did argue that the environmental movement is not about saving the Earth—that the Earth does not have to be saved—but it is about finding a way for people to more equitably coexist with nature. And I definitely agree with that statement personally. My question is: In environmentalist rhetoric, what are some ways in which we can illuminate, more clearly, humanity’s intimate relationship with nature?
I think you can look at three things: water, soil, and food. Humanity needs water and food to survive, but also the soil to plant this food. I think that if humanity does not protect its water sources, and does not protect, in a sustainable way, its soil, and does not think about its food production capabilities in a sustainable, holistic way, then humanity cannot live. And all of these life-supporting ecosystems, human life-supporting ecosystems, come from nature. These environments and communities come from our water sources, our land, our soil, and therefore, there is actually nothing more intimate between humanity and nature than water and food, and food production must include soil as part of this relationship.
To continue with these types of ideas that focus on human connection and natural relationships: How can environmental advocacy help us remember and also celebrate our common humanity and break down the constructed divisions that we have created around race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.?
I think that the reality of climate change is saying to us that, in the crisis of climate change, there might be an opportunity. We have lived in a world that, for far too long, has been defined as North and South, East and West, poor and rich, “developed” and “developing,” and so on. Humanity must now realize that we either get this crisis right, and save and secure the majority of peoples’ futures on the planet, or we get it wrong. True, people in poorer countries will perish first, but ultimately people in rich countries will also be impacted. So, I hope [for] that recognition that actually, the reality of climate change is threatening the existence of humanity, is already upon us, and is already intensifying. Right now, people might think everything is fine, that we have odd “Hurricane Sandy’s” and other odd weather patterns. But, we might be quite close to having multiple repeated extreme weather events, where our political leaders will run for cover, the rich will jump into their 4×4 vehicles and drive away somewhere safe, leaving the poor. So, we need to recognize that, if there ever was an opportunity for humanity to unite across national, racial, gendered, religious, and other divisions—I hope and pray that climate change will give us the strength to break through those divisions that actually hold back humanity not just within environmental justice, but in other social indicators as well.
Also, many people in the environmental community, and some students in the Yale community, support partnerships with the private sector to promote social entrepreneurship as well as sustainable development. How feasible do you think this approach is?
I think that there are possibilities in this approach. I think that it needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis, rather than just saying, “These [types of] partnerships work, while these [other] partnerships do not work.” It depends on whether we are able to ensure that these partnerships are transparent, that the people impacted by the partnerships are in the conversation, and that they are not simply recipients of activities flowing from the partnerships. We cannot be unrealistic, and we must be honest with ourselves when making these projects, because certain interventions, and many of these partnerships, are usually about incremental improvements rather than systemic, structural, and fundamental transformation.
Now, there is nothing wrong with incremental changes, provided that these incremental changes collectively add up to building an avalanche, and that every small speck of snow comes together to have large impact. So, I think that there are some really good social entrepreneurship initiatives that bring together different sectors, and I think we should continue to explore that. But, we should not have the expectation that such partnerships are going to offer the most transformative and necessary changes that we would like. But if it is incrementally moving us in the right direction, I would not say that it is a negative or wasteful activity—I think it should be explored.
How can everyday citizens intervene in the political process to force a meaningful and expedient change in the area of environmental policy?
I think that the role of individual citizens in public life generally, and in environmental activism specifically, sadly varies from country to country depending on available democratic space and civic space in particular. And what I see happening is that we need to recognize that ensuring participation and democratic space is an environmental agenda itself, because if people do not have the ability to participate and so on, there is no meaningful point. I would specifically say that there are two categories of citizens who can add really powerful messaging to public debate, and that is parents and grandparents. Because what is at stake here is our children’s and their children’s future. And we need to bring messaging into the climate conversation that is much more humane, which is less about 1.5 vs. 2 degrees or how many parts per million of carbon are in the atmosphere. I think it is about bringing into the conversation the very simple reason of advocating for the environment by saying, “I am doing it for my kids.”
Because people will tell me, “You are sacrificing so much!” by working for Greenpeace, and I respond by saying: “No, let’s be clear, I have a vested interest in this fight. I have a daughter who I hope will have kids. I am part of this movement, and I am not just doing this for the world.” Because it is better if people say that [they] have a vested interest rather than saying [that] people like myself are such good people, sacrificing so much for no outside reason. No, we need people who are acting so that they can protect their kids. I think that those who are parents and grandparents should intervene in the political process—as parents and grandparents—and say: “We are here to protect those that are not yet born. For my grandchildren that will be born long after I have died.” And I think that messaging is one way—it is not the only way obviously, but in the interest of time I think this an important one to share.
Now I have “rapid-fire questions” that The Politic asks all of their interviewees: First, where do you get your news?
Mostly online these days, and for South African news I have three local sources. For U.S. news, I have POLITICO and RealClearPolitics. And for general news from other places, I tend to rely on Al Jazeera English, which I trust more than other mainstream news sources.
What place would you most like to visit?
Because I travel so much, I am usually quite fine and content. But I would say that a place that I would very much like to visit, which I have not been to, is Mali, and Timbuktu in particular.
If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?
I probably would still be making life inconvenient for those who abuse power for personal gain. So, I think right now my work is specific to the climate, but I think I cannot see myself doing something for the sake of getting rich or personal wealth and relations. I also do not support the position of people who believe that activists in civil society organizations or NGOs are good and everyone else is bad. I do not buy into that. I do not rule out the possibility that—while I have worked in the nonprofit sector all my life—who knows, maybe I would work in another institutional environment, maybe I will be a professor at Yale!
I hope so! Which living person would you most like to meet?
I thought about this for a while, and then it popped out to me. I would say, Sixto Rodriguez. If you do not know who he is, Google him. I just find his story so amazing. He was a singer who was not recognized, and he was recently discovered again, but what I most admire about him was how he dealt with his newfound wealth at the age of 70. He still, as far as I know, lives simply and did not want to suddenly move to a big place. Even when he stayed in a hotel in Cape Town, he did not even sleep in the bed because he thought he would have to make the bed the next day, so he slept on the couch because it was big enough for him. And there was a movie made about him, it is called Searching for Sugar Man. You should see it, is a very beautiful documentary. It is very entertaining and the music is good.
What keeps you up at night?
Thinking about whether all the efforts I have made, and continue to make, to try to contribute to and make the world a more equal, just, and sustainable place will ever deliver the scale of impact that is necessary. I have no illusions that the scale of impact is anywhere near where it needs to be. I mean, lots of other things keep me up at night as well.
And my last question is: What is your advice for college students?
I would strongly advise college students not to adjust to injustice, racism, bigotry, and extreme economic inequality. I would urge them to go and see on YouTube a one-minute video from Martin Luther King about “maladjustment.” I found it transformative to my life.
Basically, people adjust to things that they should not adjust to. Why have we adjusted to governments spending so much money on military expenditure when actually, today, the biggest threat to our existence is climate change, and we are taking money away from the Environmental Protection Agency? I know why it happens. It happens because the military industry is one of the most powerful industries and has captured many governments around the world. They are far too powerful for democracy to be safe. And I would say that you must challenge the everyday economic injustices in the world, including extreme inequality and the indefensible use of humongous amounts of money on military expenditure. Military expenditure does not make people safe, it just makes a few individuals rich and strong.
Wonderful, and again, thank you so much!