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High Profile

Active Service

You grew up in Durban, South Africa, in a lower-middle-class Indian household with a picture of Gandhi on the wall. What was your childhood like?
The township was actually more working-class. My dad was very actively involved in the community, and the football and cricket associations and a sort of resid­ents' association all met in a little garage he had built. Later, when my brother and I got involved, it was the centre of the resistance in the community.

Were you fully integrated into the black community?
One of the things Steve Biko taught us was: Don't look at the divisions the state has imposed. So, by the age of 15 I embraced the notion of blackness. [My ancestors] had come to South Africa as indentured labourers, who quite often were treated worse than slaves.

You have said that the ANC 'was a religion in those days'. Was there any actual religion in your upbringing?
My mum was a Hindu, but I grew up in a multirelig­ious community which celebrated Christmas, Diwali and Eid. I remember tell­ing her that a teacher I liked a lot was trying to convert us to Christianity - he would say, 'My God doesn't ask you to slaughter chickens' - and she told me: 'All religions are the same. The most import­ant thing is to see God in the eyes of every human being you meet.' (I often quote the things she taught us, like 'It is much better to try and fail than to fail to try.')

Sadly, she committed suicide when I was 15 and I had a crisis because of the way she died and how traumatic it was - and then there was a national student up­rising, two weeks later. I had already been moved by the death of Steve Biko [in 1977] and all of these things were very formative for me.

I would describe myself today as be­ing deeply spirit­ual but not aligned to any organised religion. My starting-point is that if you don't respect the manifestations of God - people, and all living things on this planet - it doesn't ac­tually serve you all that well to go and spend hours in a [place of worship] once a week. But I've been able to draw on the best of different rel­igious tradit­ions, and I think I am quite influenced by a lot of their teachings in terms of respect for people, and compassion and care for the weak and the poor, the re­s­ponsibilities and rights that we have and so on.
Whatever the different religions may agree on, the US medieval historian Lynn White famously suggested that Christianity 'bears a huge burden of guilt' for our current ecological crisis.1 On the other hand, many people locate the roots of the green movement in an Eastern spirituality that regards the whole world as sacred and doesn't especially privilege the human race…
I think that has a measure of truth - East­ern spirituality does have a more active consciousness of [the natural world] - but I would say that historically, and even contemporarily, the communities that have the most respectful coexistence with nature are, in fact, indig-­enous communities that have largely been obliterated by colonialism. There is that saying from North Amer­ica's in­digenous community: 'After the last tree is cut, the last river poisoned, the last fish dead, humanity will discover that you cannot eat money.'

It's not even what today we consider a religious sen­ti­ment. In Ecuador, Bolivia, the rights of Pacha­ma­ma - Mother Earth - are en­shrined in the constitution.

Your own background is in promoting human rights, and human flourishing. Was there a kind of culture shock for you in joining Greenpeace, an organisation that in many quarters is still most strongly associated with hugging trees and 'saving the whale'?
This is the question I've been asked most. In fact, when I first started at Greenpeace, people said: 'Are you leaving the poverty movement for the environment movement?' But in all the work I've been doing over the last 10 years in human-rights and anti-poverty activism, it has been crystal clear to me that the struggle to end global poverty and the struggle to avert catastrophic climate change have to be seen as two sides of the same coin. Basically, it is the poor that suffer most as a result of environmental degradation, who are left very, very vulnerable when their natural assets are destroyed - and it is also the condition of poverty that, in certain contexts, can actually drive environmental destruction. Look at the Congo Basin forest, for example, the second-largest rainforest in the world: if people do not have safe, clean solar energy (which is actually easy to provide if there is political will), they're going to cut trees down for firewood and so on.

One of the mistakes of Western environmentalism, for me, was not to involve this dimension much more. It is wrong to see environmental activism as something you worry about only when you have a roof over your head and food in your stomach and your children's bas­ic needs are being met. In the past when we talked about defending forests, for example - primarily to protect biodiversity - the image that was created was: these people like animals and trees and that's their primary driver. But to­day we have come to realise that the for­ests are the lungs of the planet, right? And the oceans - one billion people worldwide depend on protein from the sea, so when even Newsweek is telling us our oceans could be dead within four decades, we need to get much, much more serious about addressing the problem.2

The reality is that our political leaders and business leaders, and much broader than them, are suffering from a terrible case of what psychologists would call 'cognitive dissonance'. You know, all the facts are there - that we are arriving at certain 'planetary boundaries' on the nitrogen cycle, on oceans, on climate… Climate science is very clear: emissions [of greenhouse gases] need to peak by 2015 and then start coming down if we are going to avert catastrophic climate change; but our politicians have just said: OK, we'll make a deal by 2020. They are in denial about how serious the problem is.

I remember in 2008 Barack Obama talking about 'the fierce urgency of now' -
And 'a planet in peril'!

- and, shortly after, his Environment Secretary, Steven Chu, suggested that one simple but effective measure would be to make all our roofs and pavements as light in colour as possible, to reflect more sunlight. I thought: 'Brilliant! Why not? If we really are in peril, let's do it!'

But nothing has been done. And it seems to me that this only feeds the suspicion of the general public that actually this whole global-warming business is nothing more than hot air.
And that's understandable. And the sad reality is that cli­mate impacts are not something that is going to confront us in the future, they are confronting us now. The problem, however, is that the people who live in the over-consumptive parts of the world, whose countries historically have contributed most to the problem, are not the ones who are in the front line, because they are from generally colder climates, right?

Look at Africa, which (even including South Africa, which because of its dependence on coal is the 14th-biggest emitter in the world) is the continent that emits least: Kofi Annan's foundation now says that 400,000 lives are lost annually as a direct result of climate im­pacts, in the Horn of Africa, in Darfur… Darfur will be recorded, I believe, as the first resource war that was induced by climate impacts. Water scarcity is one driver - Lake Chad, which was one of the largest inland seas in the world, has shrunk (according to Ban Ki-moon) to the size of 'a small pond'. Another is land scarcity, because from Senegal to Sudan the desert is marching southward at the rate of one mile a year.

Look at what the military people are saying, right? When I'm speaking in the United States these days, I start by saying: 'You know, I've been waiting all my life to start a sentence like this: I strongly support the CIA and the Pentagon when they say that the biggest threat to peace, security and stability in the future will come not from terrorism or from conventional threats but from the impacts of climate change.' Food security is already an issue - there are 14 states in the US at the mo­ment that have a deep, climate-induced drought.

In a recent article in Rolling Stone, the environmentalist Bill McKibben identified the oil industry as 'the enemy' of humankind. He wrote: 'We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn [and yet] Exxon plans to spend $37 billion a year through [to] 2016 … searching for yet more.'3 Do you think it is helpful to speak in terms of 'the enemy'?
In some respects, I think it is. These companies have en­gaged in some of the worst environmental crimes - which have impacted not only the environment, by the way, but people's lives. Shell has the temerity to take us to court because we have been trying to say: Stop drill­ing in the Arctic, it's crazy! Thankfully, the judgments have gone largely in our favour - the Dutch judge said that if Shell insists on engaging in such risky activities, it must know that a lot of people are going to disagree.

Recently, the Dutch courts accepted a case based on four farmers in the Niger Delta whose agricultural possibilities were wiped out as a result of oil that was spilt from Shell's operations on their land. And of course we know about the collusion of Shell in the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoniland leaders. I mean, let's be very clear: these guys have engaged in criminal activity with the collusion of very powerful governments and a corrupt elite within Africa. They apply one set of standards in the countries they come from and operate with another set of standards in remote places, and particularly in countries where gov­ernance is weak and there are very high levels of corruption.

I am torn by this question about whether we should talk of them as 'the enemy', though. At Green­peace, we don't want to put these energy companies out of bus­iness. We are saying: We want you to use your technical competence, your global reach and so forth to become pro­viders of clean energy.

And let's be blunt about it: for heaven's sake, why is it sensible to try to eke out the last drop of oil even [by] the most dangerous methods, as in Canada's tar sands, or from the most environmentally sensitive places, like the Arctic? The Arctic may seem very remote to most of us but it serves as an air conditioner for our planet and - you know in the US they say, 'What happens in Veg­as stays in Vegas'? Unfortunately, what happens in the Arc­tic does not stay in the Arctic, right? In Greenland particularly, the glaciers melting will lead to a sea-level rise if we do not change our course soon and decisively.

When you look at the oil industry (or, indeed, the people behind apartheid), do you see things in terms of good and evil - and if so, where do you think evil is located? Is it in institutions and systems, or in human nature itself?
I have my entire life resisted the idea that human nat­ure is intrinsically bad, that people are selfish and so on. I really do believe that it is systems and contexts that shape what we become. But I do think that as a human family we have lost our way desperately. We have come to worship money and status and things in a way that is completely unhelpful from a spiritual, an environmental, a social and a political standpoint.

The bottom line is that we have to reduce our levels of consumption drastically. We have to re­think what constitutes happiness, right? There's a really in­ter­esting book by Benjamin Barber called Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantilize adults, and swallow citizens whole:4 the way we make choices about what we spend money on, how we spend our time and so forth is not something that just happens today - these choices are very consciously manufactured (to borrow a term from Noam Chomsky). And there's enough history to show that people can be quite modest in what they have mat­erially but live very happy lives - in fact, happier lives, quite often, than people who are excessively affluent.

Even so, the green movement is accused of being anti-democratic because most people want all the mod cons, they want to be able to fly to Prague for the weekend, they want to wear a T-shirt in winter - but the greens want to put a stop to all that. Has it been uncomfortable for you, given your political background, to be seeking in many ways to resist the will of the great mass of people - even if it is for their own sake?
First, I don't think right now it is accurate to say that there is a consensus in the world that we should continue to consume at the level we are consuming. Every­where I go - even in developed countries, even in the UK - young people are concerned. And they should be, because they are going to pay the price for the absence of any sense of intergenerational solidarity in the adult leadership of today.

And every global challenge that humanity has faced, the leaders who stepped forward to articul­ate a different vision could have been dismissed as anti-democratic. Do you think Nelson Mandela had the majority of the people be­hind him when he took the leadership that he did, given the state's repression, its control of the media, its co-option of people from the black com­mu­-n­­ity into government jobs and so on? Mahatma Gand­hi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks - when they stood up and articulated a non-conventional view, they were vil­ified by many in their own communities, not just by the enemy.

I mean, I would argue that the majority of people in the UK were opposed to the war in Iraq and so you can't blame the British people [for that], you have to blame their leadership. You can say, 'Well, the people voted for them,' but we know it is much more complicated than that… Your media are now being exposed for vicious manipulation. You have one man whose media empire can affect not just politics but almost what is reality - look at Hillsborough! I'm going off at a tangent, but my point is that the problem we have is that the truth of what is happening is actually heavily misrepresented.

Your first degree was in law but at some point, I believe, you flirted with the idea of joining the ANC's military wing. What was your thinking in those days about the different forms of resistance available?
Well, Gandhi's influence was quite big, and we strongly believed in the virtue of satyagraha,5 civil disobedience and so on. But it was obvious that the only language the apartheid state understood was that of violence, right, and so there were always discussions about the role of armed struggle. In the end, I opted not to get involved in that, but I understood why it was necessary.

Looking back now, what lessons do you think you learnt in those years that are applicable now to the fight to prevent catastrophic climate change?
I would say, three key lessons. When you are facing a very powerful enemy, you have to bring together the broadest possible coalition of voices and energies if you are going to counterbalance its power.

The second thing I've learnt is that the struggle for justice is not a popularity contest. People who stand up for causes suffer a lot of public revulsion at the time, even if history later judges them differently.

The third thing is that no big struggle is won without sacrifice. Movements for justice only move forward when decent men and women are prepared to go to pri­son if necessary, or even to put their lives on the line - that spirit is critically important. I saw a lot of sacrifice by ordinary people standing up for justice during the anti-apartheid struggle, and I'm afraid to say that the scale of that sacrifice needs to be multiplied a thousand times over if we are to get the kind of global momentum we need to avert catastrophic climate change.

One of the principles of satyagraha, I think, is patience, but in the fight against climate change patience is not a virtue, is it? The website has already counted down halfway to what it says may be 'our climate's tipping point, the point of no return'. Is there some point at which the fight has to become more drastic - even violent?
I think the movement has been exceptionally patient…

But you do believe that time is running out?
Time is not simply running out, it is fast running out; and the temptation to react violently is very high right now, [in the face] of our leaders' denialism and so on. But I think that violence is self-defeating and would actually play into the hands of the very people we are seeking to… And when you use violence to advance a struggle, sadly you lose a lot of who and what you are.

Instead, we need to look at how you intensify tried-and-tested methods of peaceful civil disobedience (as we saw from our brothers and sisters in the Arab world recently - in the face of dictatorships funded and supported by the West). And how do we innovate and come up with new methods of struggle - online activism, for instance, has generated new ways of thinking and so on.
We also need to become more strategic in who we put pressure on. So, for example, we need to put more pressure on financial institutions, because for every en­vironmental crime committed by an energy company or a company that's driving deforestation or ocean des­truction, some financial institution is providing a loan. So, if we can switch off the flow of capital at source…

You told the Guardian last year that Greenpeace was 'moving to a war footing'. What exactly did you mean by that?
Every week, if you look at it globally, at least one environmental activist gets killed, right? Many major sacrifices are being made, especially at the grassroots level, in Peru, in Ecuador, in Guatemala and so on. I think the more professionalised movements need to show more courage and more willingness to sacrifice, and so we are going to be intensifying our own efforts, including being open to the possibility of harsher forms of repression being visited upon us by those that are driving social and environmental crime.

You yourself have done a number of bold things, from going on a 21-day hunger strike6 to climbing onto oil rigs in the Arctic.7 Are these more than just publicity stunts?
A lot of the things that I've done in my life have been more about - 'bearing witness' is the term I would use. We have a moral obligation to bear witness to injustice, wherever it is happening. Some of the most awful en­-vironmental crime happens in remote places like the Arctic, or deep in the Amazon, and Greenpeace seeks to get out there and draw attention to what is happening.
We make no apologies about the fact that we are good at getting our message across.

Bear in mind that just one of our adversaries, Shell, has a marketing budget that is more than Greenpeace's entire global budget, right? And understand, also, that control is not exercised today solely through repressive state apparatus but also, more and more powerfully, through the media environment, the schooling system and so on. And where the ideological state apparatus is so heavily stacked against decent, progressive values, we don't have any choice but to be willing to put our lives on the line.

Another aspect of satyagraha is that Gandhi insisted 'ever upon truth'. Environmentalists - and indeed the IPCC - are often accused of exaggeration. Is it practical, in a global culture of spin and counterspin, to aim to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Absolutely. You know, Greenpeace is an organisation that takes its lead from the science - not just our own internal scientists but the leading authorities, whether it's the International Maritime Organization on issues relating to oceans, right, or the IPCC with regard to climate change. I think it's important that we recog­nise that we can't change the science - which is what our governments try to do.

Now, let me be very clear about the IPCC. The reality is that, for a very complicated scientific body, the IPCC has been right substantially; but when it has been wrong, it has more often underestimated how serious the situation is than overestimated it - but whenever it does so, the media are very silent about it. The only ex­aggeration that stands out was the date for the melting of the Himalayan glaciers.8

You know, it reminds me of the HIV/Aids denialism when the science was crystal clear but my government in South Africa sadly lost a lot of time giving cred­ence to a handful of dissidents…

In 2000, Peter Melchett told Third Way: 'If Greenpeace wants to change things … we have to follow the power.'9 Where in the world today do you think decisive power is located?
In most places, government is still pretty powerful - and global corporat­ions have grown hugely in presence, influence and power over the last 30 years, so they, too, are very much where our focus needs to be. But, for me, ultimately whether you have the power to influence those who hold power in government and business is totally det­er­mined by what I think is the most important expression of power, the power of the street, right?

Good activism is about creating an environment in which the voices of the most powerless and the most affected can be heard by those who hold formal power.

You have been engaged in so many different struggles over the years, and sometimes the odds against you must seem overwhelming. Where do you get your strength and your sense of hope from? And what do you do with the exasperation and anger I imagine you feel when you see the inaction of our leaders?
Well, I'll tell you an anecdote. When I was 22 years old and I was fleeing from South Africa into exile, my best friend at the time, a guy called Lenny Naidu, asked me: 'What is the biggest contribution you can make to the cause of humanity?' I said: 'Giving your life?' He said: 'It's not giving your life but giving the rest of your life.' Two years later, I heard that he and three young wom­en from my home city had been brutally murdered by the apartheid regime - there were so many bullets in their bodies, their parents couldn't re­cognise them.
A lot of close friends and comrades from my old life back home made the ultimate sacrifice, and I draw a lot of inspiration from people who have given their lives. But what Lenny was saying was that the biggest contribution any of us can make is to maintain a lifetime of struggle if necessary and stick with it until the injustice has been eradicated or the challenge has been met.

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