A Fresh Face at Greenpeace

By Michelle Chen Nov 19, 2009

Greenpeace has earned a reputation as the quintessential radical environmental group, facing down oil tankers and crusading against nuclear plants. Today, the organization’s new executive director, a veteran of racial justice struggles in Africa, is tipping the group’s focus from whaling ships to the disenfranchised communities of the global south. Kumi Naidoo, who began his activist career as a teenager in apartheid South Africa, doesn’t mark a sea change in Greenpeace’s agenda. But he does represent a subtle shift toward an environmental perspective that harmonizes ecosystems with social systems. Environmentalists have often painted themselves into a corner as insular and overwhelmingly white. Now, with the Copenhagen conference approaching–and leaders bristling at emissions regulations just as they’ve skirted financial reform and the global food crisis–Naidoo occupies a vital pivot point between two movements, seeking combat ecological and economic exploitation simultaneously. Though it’s unlikely that Copenhagen will yield radical policy changes from the United States and other major polluters, the conference is focusing grassroots groups on the plight of the world’s poor as a component of global climate catastrophe. Locating environmentalism at the heart of a broad-based vision of sustainability, Naidoo commented on the BBC:

At Copenhagen we have our best chance to avert the worst of the coming climate catastrophe. So far the talks have been strangled by short term expediency, election cycles and national parochialism. Those of us who have followed the world trade negotiations are familiar with this lack of ambition. But Copenhagen is not a trade negotiation. You can’t win this while others lose. Either we all get it right together or we all sink. Nature does not negotiate.

He told the Associated Press last week, "If the whole planet is under threat … what’s the point of not addressing that and saying we’ll do other development work?" From a human rights approach, activists are pressing wealthy industrialized nations to invest their fair share in helping poorer nations deal with the floods, famine and other disasters driven by climate change. Naidoo argues:

While some may wonder what a poverty activist is doing moving to an environmental organisation, I do not view my role at Greenpeace as an abrupt detour. I believe the struggles against poverty and climate change are inextricably linked, while the solutions are the same.Let’s be clear; time is running out to address the issue of climate change More equality and the equitable sharing of the planet’s finite resources are our only chance to save the planet for the future. We in civil society have to believe there is a new pathway. We have to have the confidence to tread this new path; indeed, to demand this new path. We must take the leap of faith that says the strategies may need to be fluid, but the objectives are abundantly clear. We need to organise ourselves and work together in new and more transparent ways. We have to break down the barriers that exist, and realise that our struggles and causes are not independent. They are not about the people or the planet; they are in fact one single common cause–justice.

Will Nadoo’s words resonate at Copenhagen in December? It’s already echoing in some of the poorest corners of the world, where terms like "renewable fuel" and "carbon footprint" may be seldom heard, but everyone understands the meaning of equity. Real environmentalism is fundamentally radical: correcting the nature’s imbalances, after all, requires a redistribution of the whole earth’s wealth.