Kumi Naidoo's a bit of an anomaly when it comes to executive directors of Greenpeace International. For one, he's the first African to serve as head of the global organization: born in Durban, South Africa, Naidoo battled apartheid when he was 15, fleeing to England to evade arrest in the late '80s. He later earned a PhD in political sociology from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and has since headed numerous anti-poverty and environmental organizations before becoming the Greenpeace chief in 2009.
Naidoo's also distinguishing himself in the role by carefully injecting some critiques of capital accumulation into the environmental conversation, linking what he sees as ecocide with economic oppression in the Global South in the spirit of Wangari Maathai and Naomi Klein.
On Tuesday, March 10, Naidoo participated in a public discussion in Vancouver with First Nations leaders about the future of environmentalism in Canada and the rise of the security and surveillance state.
VICE Canada spoke to Naidoo about the Harper government's contentious anti-terror bill and Canada's slowing economy.
VICE: Prior to the event last night, you were in Alert Bay, BC, where you attended a potlatch. There were also two prominent First Nations leaders at the talk last night. What sort of role are you finding indigenous people are playing around the world in advocating for environmental sustainability and economic equality?
Kumi Naidoo: Assume you and I were the last two people on the planet. If we continue on the trajectory that we are and continue to warm up the planet to the point that humanity cannot exist—which, to be blunt, we're on at the moment—and you said to me, "Let's write up the history of the world just in case human life emerges again in the future so people can learn from the mistakes of us as a species," we would probably conclude that the "uncivilized" who the "civilized" felt they had an obligation to "civilize" were actually the more "civilized" people on the planet.
If you look at indigenous peoples, the entire culture's spirituality and approach to the economy and so on reflects a very, very symbiotic relationship with nature. They respect the fact that whatever you take from nature, you need to do it in a sustainable way. I think indigenous wisdom about sustainability is fundamentally important. For example, the Arctic is different from Antarctica in the sense that there are four million indigenous people who live there, from Alaska all the way to Russia. Greenpeace, in recognizing that wisdom and vulnerability of the peoples of the Arctic given the plans of certain governments, think it's really important to ensure that we're acting together with and in partnership with; before we took any major actions in the Russian Arctic, we first had an arctic indigenous people's conference in 2012.
I think indigenous people are playing a very important role in also forcing us to rethink about consumption, about what constitutes a good life and also addressing some issues such as inequality and trying to rehabilitate the importance of the sense of community. I think the notion of community—the notion of taking care of your neighbour—in many cultures we live in has been eroded. I think all of these are wisdoms we need to resurrect at the moment.
South Korea requested information on your environmental activities prior to your attendance to the G20 back in 2010. Tell me a bit about how you learned about those spying allegations and what your reaction was to those.
It was in late January that Al Jazeera English came to our offices and presented us with what information they had: they said they had evidence to suggest that in 2010, just before G20, the South Korean intelligence had asked South African intelligence for information on myself and two other people, saying that they considered me a dangerous person and wanted to get a specific security assessment.
Given recent revelations from the likes of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, I wasn't not shocked by it. I was in South Africa when the story broke. I gave a press conference and said, "In the old days, when we were struggling against apartheid, if you were not being monitored you weren't doing your part as an activist." What's not clear is whether South African intelligence fulfilled that request from South Korea intelligence. An NGO called the Legal Resources Centre is working with me to try to get that information.
The problem with this is too many of us consider this normal. This is what happens. But just because it's normal does not make it right. What we've got is a 20th century approach to intelligence in the 21st century world. It's still stuck in the pre-Cold War era. Quite frankly, we should be spending this expenditure on the public instead of monitoring people who are clearly peaceful activists. I make no apology for my views that how the world needs to change is quite transformative change. Tinkering with the current system is only going to lead to catastrophic climate change and endanger our children's future. The path that we're on is a path that's going to destroy humanity.
Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada recently stumbled across some RCMP documents which stated that Canada's "anti-petroleum movement" is "increasingly threatening" politicians and oil companies. What was your take on the report?
The absolute lack of analytical intelligence in it is really disappointing. It's not just us saying that Greenpeace and other organizations want to get off fossil fuels and curb the development of the tar sands: Canadian climate scientists, together with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are saying quite clearly that we need to leave 80 percent of known fossil fuels in the ground. To do a whole report about what we're saying and forgetting that in fact we are taking the lead from the scientific community is disappointing.
Coming back to the spying thing, the reason South Korea made that request at that time is because they were trying to push through their nuclear technology, along with South Africa and Turkey. That was a big part of the G20 summit. I can't say I was surprised, shocked and so on—but just because it's become a normal practice doesn't mean people should accept it's right. Similarly, at a more broader level if you look at consumption, the levels of inequality that exist in the world are absolutely abnormal. But we just accept it. That's just life.
Bill C-51, a piece of "anti-terrorism" legislation that's currently being studied in committee, will grant more power to our federal spy agency and increase information transfers between agencies. Do you any sense of how this might impact the ability for environmentalists to advocate against natural resource development?
I've heard of all of the debates of C-51. Quite categorically: C-51 is soft on terrorism and hard on democracy. It will do absolutely nothing to keep Canadians safe. If anything, it will weaken the approach to dealing with violent extremists. The way extremism is used in the RCMP documents is particularly troubling, because democracy guarantees the right to have any views, however contentious those views are. The diversity of views is what allows government to make good policy decisions because they look at all the different thinking and pros and cons, then arriving at a decision.
There's no question that the RCMP thinks we are a terrorist threat. They don't. But they are playing politics and doing the current government's bidding. Because let's be very clear, Canada was once a country that many parts of the world looked to as one of the more progressive countries on peace: the Montreal Protocol, and Ottawa Treaty, and so on. Today, it seems quite unrecognizable from the outside. It's not only that it's bad environmentally. It's fundamentally putting the Canadian economy on a path to weakness. Substantial weakness.
Explain that a bit more.
It's clear Harper wants to make Canada into a petrostate. Already we're seeing the way the drop in oil prices is impacting the economy. I have a PhD in political science from Oxford University and am looking at the political messaging from the Harper government as a political scientist: it's very interesting, as they're not selling the economy. They know about the vulnerability in the short-term. I can see that this whole C-51 and security thing is mainly an election strategy to frighten people into submission and to try to get people to go for the devil they know.
But, on a more long-term basis, the only thing that matters in terms of which countries and companies will be competitive in the future will be those that get as far ahead with green technology now. Canada has potential for geothermal, wave energy and wind energy, so it's crazy that the government wouldn't move in that direction when it's so clear that it makes economic sense. It's because the economic model has to be different.
You're not going to get one company like Shell or Syncrude scoring a monopoly on the sun or wind. If you have a more distributive energy system, the control of that system is more distributed as well. Every roof of every home, as we're saying in Africa, can boast an electricity generator as well as an income generator: it also helps electricity efficiency because if people know they can feed their excess energy into the grid and get paid for it, they're more likely to be a bit more conservative in how much energy these use. I think Stephen Harper's government is not only bad for the environment but in the medium- to long-term is going to be bad for the economy.
You've been involved in protesting and working against state oppression since you were 15. What sort of advice would you have for activists or concerned citizens who are seeking to advocate against increased state powers and/or economic mismanagement?
Mahatma Gandhi once said that, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." The current state of activism today shows that they're not ignoring us, they're not laughing us: they're fighting us and fighting us very hard. The only reason is because the arguments that we've been putting against the mainstream media and mainstream control of messaging from government is breaking through. The fact is more and more people are beginning to say that this just doesn't add up.
The second thing is that these surveillance efforts have the intention of having a chain effect. That it would intimidate people. I would urge people to build a strong sense of community to be able to have the courage and strength to withstand that. People need to understand that what's at stake here is not only the environment, but the very quality of our democracy and the very key question of what kind of what economy will give us more peace, more justice, more sustainability and more fairness. The current economic model is not helping address that at all and therefore must be challenged. I would say to people that you're being taken seriously. Ultimately, I believe that climate justice, social justice, economic justice and political justice will prevail if people stay on the course and not be intimidated.
I want to believe that there are people within the RCMP and state security structures who have a discomfort with this approach. I even want to believe that there are people within Stephen Harper's own party with a broad sense of Canadian values who feel uncomfortable with the moves that are being made in terms of C-51.
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