In December 2021, the month after the UN Climate Conference concluded in Glasgow, Al Jazeera featured Kumi Naidoo and Winona LaDuke in two inspiring conversations in London focused on the need and the potential for grassroots activists to step up when governments are failing to address the crisis.
The seven days beginning with the anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa on March 21, 1960 end on Sunday with the anniversary of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814, in which future president Andrew Jackson led his troops against the Creek nation in what is now Alabama.
These dates make this a very appropriate time to be reminded of the central role of anti-racist and indigenous activists in global struggles for climate justice.
At Sharpeville the dead were peaceful demonstrators. At Horseshoe Bend they were elite Creek warriors.
In each case, however, they were mowed down mercilessly by superior firepower.
This post contains a transcript and the streaming video of the first conversation.
From the front lines of the anti-apartheid and environmental justice movements, this episode of Studio B: Unscripted features two lifelong activists.
Author, economist and two-time vice presidential candidate of the US Green Party, Winona LaDuke, is co-founder of Honor the Earth, a non-profit organization dedicated to environmental and Indigenous rights.
An anti-apartheid activist from age 15, Kumi Naidoo later helped with South Africa’s inaugural democratic election. He went on to head Greenpeace and Amnesty International, and is currently Global Ambassador for Africans Rising.
LaDUKE: It’s a great opportunity and a privilege to be here with you. We are in a very colonial city, and we’re a couple of anti-colonialists. We both come from long histories of British colonization, I would say. And here we are to talk about the future in some times – times of tremendous change. And I think that we’ve just had the big conference in Glasgow.
NAIDOO: So wonderful to be with you, Winona. I think that what the COP26 has just shown us recently is that we are so stuck in fundamentally a colonial mindset and in terms of colonial power dynamics, because what we had out of COP26 was basically a sentiment that says the lives of people in the Pacific and other small island states don’t matter, and the least-developed countries don’t matter.
The difficulty, it seems, is that those with the largest amount of power in the conversation are not willing to recognize that the mistake they made after the global financial crisis, which was – their approach was system recovery, system protection, and system maintenance. But what should have been done then and what is even more urgently needed now is system innovation, system redesign, and system transformation.
I should just say none of us should be too surprised, though, by what happened in the negotiations in Glasgow, because the shocking truth is do you know which was the largest delegation that attended?
LaDUKE: No. I have no idea.
NAIDOO: It was the fossil fuel industry.
LaDUKE: Oh, wow.
NAIDOO: They had 503 lobbyists.
LaDUKE: You should always have the dealer at the table. I feel like what we’re talking about is late-stage addiction behavior, frankly. I’ve lived, as you have, in a fossil fuel era my entire life, and I’m looking for a graceful transition out of it. I don’t want to crash my way out, where I can’t drink the water, and I can’t breathe the air, and everything is a toxic mess. What we want is a transition out. But what we have is an addicted society. And the fossil fuel industry continues to push those addictions.
I heard someone talk about the colonial imagination versus the Indigenous imagination. The colonial imagination can only figure out like within this box, and it can’t get to the place where we need to get to, where it’s more than just the rights of corporations, and it’s more than just the rights of first-world people, but it’s also like, what about the rest of the world, and what about the relatives, whether they have wings or fins or roots or paws? That’s how you survive. Maybe Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk think they can make it without the rest of us, but the rest of us know that we are part of this world and that opportunity is here to make a change. No time like the present. That’s what I figure.
LaDUKE: And it appears that Glasgow did not bring the change.
NAIDOO: Imagine Alcoholics Anonymous having a global conference, and the biggest delegation to the conference was the alcohol industry. Or in the past, a big antislavery conference, and the biggest delegation was slave owners. By the way, that’s what it was. That’s why slave owners got compensation and those who were slaves got no compensation. This is how the climate negotiations are going.
And now, people like myself, when we look at where we get inspiration from, I think that the inspiration right now is coming from young people, but it’s also – when you’re looking at bodies of knowledge, Indigenous wisdom teaches us the way out of this mess. Because unless humanity can learn to coexist with nature in a mutually interdependent relationship – you know, we’re not going to be around for that much longer, and I always like to tell people, don’t worry about saving the planet, because actually, if we continue on the suicidal path we’re on, we will destroy our soil, destroy our water, warm up the planet. The end result is we will be gone as a species.
LaDUKE: Yeah, the plants will be back.
NAIDOO: And once we become extinct, the oceans will recover, the forests will grow back, and so on. This struggle, therefore, has to be understood as saving our children and their children’s futures.
LaDUKE: Every living being had some original instructions. We would say (Ojibwe phrase) – take only what you need. Leave the rest. Be mindful – all your relatives. Understand the Creator’s law is higher than the laws of nation-states or municipalities. Even the participants in COPs – you could say whatever you want, but in the end, we all got to drink the water. We all got to breathe the air. We all had those instructions.
Indigenous people – we’re 4% of the world’s population, and we’re 75% of the world’s biodiversity. What we need is to return to some instructions that say this is how you live. You live being mindful. You live being conscious. And you protect Mother Earth and not the rights of corporations. This is why you need things like the rights of nature over the rights of corporations.
My observation – I don’t know if you see, but I see catastrophes of biblical proportions. There’s fires and hurricanes and tornadoes, and the oceans are rising, and then a pandemic. In the history of the world, pandemics have always forced societies to change. This one is no different. What Arundhati Roy says – it’s a portal between one world and the next. And inasmuch as the financial crisis of 2008 was a pretty clear opportunity to acknowledge that the economic systems are made up and are failing, this moment is certainly a time when we can, and in many ways, many of us have reset.
NAIDOO: I think we’re facing a worse disease than COVID-19, and that disease is a disease we could call affluenza.
LaDUKE: (laughter) That is true.
NAIDOO: This is a disease where people have been led to believe that a good, meaningful, decent, happy life comes from more and more and more material acquisitions. I think that unless we look at bodies of wisdom, including – I think, again, this is something we learn from Indigenous culture – is that a good, meaningful, decent life comes from how we engage with nature, how we engage with our families, the quality of our relationships with our friends and neighbors, all of which aggressive casino capitalism has actually decimated. Does this resonate with you?
LaDUKE: Oh, entirely. Our teachings as Anishinaabe people are (speaks Ojibwe), which means the good life. It doesn’t mean how much stuff you have. (laughter) But there’s this constant barrage that you need more. You need more. You need more, and you’ll feel better. The fact is that people don’t feel better. Americans are pretty unhappy overall. And getting more stuff just means you have to pay money to store it, from what I could figure.
NAIDOO: Now, people who don’t necessarily think like you and I do will listen to us speaking and say, oh, this vision is so far from what the mainstream vision of society is. OK, you and I have been around for more than four decades in the struggle for justice. Sometimes, I don’t know, I feel given how much effort one put in that we should have made much, much more progress, but the forces of resistance to change are so powerful. But there’s something I feel in this moment that I’ve never felt before. Bad as things are now – and things actually are looking much worse in terms of extreme weather events, deepening inequality, rise of fascism, and so on – and failure of democracy.
But there’s something very optimistic for me in this moment, and I want to see how you feel about it. That is, I don’t remember any time in my history of trying to work for justice – is that there are so many people who believe that there’s a possibility this time round for major structural and systemic change. Not simply what our governments do all the time, which is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while humanity sinks, and baby steps in the right direction when what is needed is big change. Does that resonate with what you’re hearing with people in your circles?
LaDUKE: Yeah, the fact is that the systems are failing. If you look around the United States, which is the country that levied itself upon me, you’re looking over there, and you have a political crisis of pretty big proportions. You had an insurrection in January, right? And then you have economic systems that fail. You have judicial and legal systems that failed us – have failed us consistently. And you have food systems and energy systems that fail in climate change. What is clear is that if you want to survive, you need local energy. If you’re expecting the grid is going to protect you, the big disasters of climate change-related disasters are going to take down your grid.
NAIDOO: So that’s a message of the power – in planning moving forward, we need to go to a more decentralized approach in the way we put capability and control with local communities, because that’s the only way we can guarantee –
LaDUKE: I’m going to say something to you that you know, which is: empire is overrated.
NAIDOO: Yeah. (laughter)
LaDUKE: You know what I’m saying? The bigger you get, that’s great. But you know what? At the local level is where you got to eat. At the local level is where you’re going to need your solar garden that is owned collectively. At the local level is where you’re going to need some essential manufacturing with just and fair trade relations between – because an Indigenous model is a model of biodiversity – is a model of agrobiodiversity. Because Indigenous people’s 5,000 languages are not about building empire. They’re about reaffirming relationships in place. And that is what is missing with this industrial society is there is no relationship and reciprocity with the world that created us, you know?
NAIDOO: The other problem we have is the information environment within which we are operating. Because I would put it to you that probably there are more people that are more comfortable with imagining the end of the world as we know it and all of us disappearing off this planet than to imagine the end of capitalism, because that’s the power of the narratives we’ve been fed, like that’s the only system that works, when clearly it’s not working for the overwhelming majority.
For me, activism is primarily an act of love and courage. Activism is about saying we look at the world, and we refuse to accept that this is the best that humanity can create for itself. One of the anxieties I have about activism today is that far too often, our energies are going towards just surviving, because the repression is becoming so heavy against us and so on, and consolidating the people that already support the need for decency and the need for sustainability and respecting human rights.
But I think that we don’t have a choice today if we are going to make sure that we secure this planet for future generations to also say we need to learn to, for example, love the people who voted for Trump or love the people who voted for Brexit or love the people who voted for things that we might disagree with. Because I think that we need to also recognize that they are also victims, that they have been victims of lies, deceit, misinformation, and so on. And we have to build a bridge. So in any case, shall we wrap it up there and go and take some questions from the audience?
Q: Hi, Kumi and Winona. I’m joining you from Fiji in the Pacific. My question is: Pacific Indigenous peoples are bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change. We are experiencing displacement of our homes and our livelihoods and our knowledge and support systems. Our kinship ties to the land and ocean are under threat. But the current discourse on climate change impact doesn’t give voice to our cultural identity and the relationship we have with nature that is being threatened by this climate emergency. How can we center this within the global climate change discourse that seems to be dominated by financial and corporate posturing?
NAIDOO: I had the opportunity to be in Kiribati, Fiji, and Vanuatu in 2015 and definitely felt what you said in a very deep, personal way. It’s stayed with me since. And I want to be blunt about it. The way we center this is first about naming the problem that we have – climate apartheid – right? Because those parts of the world that contributed the greatest to the problem are not those parts of the world, like the Pacific, that are suffering the first and the most brutal impacts of climate change. We need to recognize, therefore, that the conversation around what happened at COP26, how we understand it – we have to understand that, in fact, it’s been a complete betrayal of small island states, for the folks in the Pacific, for people in coastal regions, least-developed countries, and so on.
Your question was how do we center it? I think that Winona implied that actually we cannot solely rely on the current systems that exist, which are broken in multiple ways. We can actually now start building new systems from below and start creating ways of doing agriculture, protecting our water sources, how we relate to each other, and so on in a much more decentralized, bottom-up way. And I think because those in power know that the systems that they are defending are indefensible, that if we can organize better amongst ourselves and generate examples of how we can do things better, I think that eventually that message is going to permeate in a context where the dominant leaders and political formations and in the dominant business community actually know that what they are speaking is completely bankrupt.
LaDUKE: I would agree. I think that they know. And I also say I just want to give my heart out to Pacific Islanders. We know that you are entirely reliant on your Mother Earth and your ocean for your life. A lot of what we do is in recognizing the situation that you are in is the same situation we are in. The better we can do to stop the tar sands pipelines, the better for you. That is my goal. I spent eight years fighting a pipeline that they just put in. It’s a crime against Mother Earth. It’s a crime. You can’t bring more oil out and pretend that it’s going to work out. You bring it out in Canada. You burn it in the United States. It’s going to show up in the Pacific. So all we do is knowing that our community is related to your community. Good prayers for your and your community.
Q: Hi, I’m (inaudible). I’m actually from Pakistan and studying in the United States. You were saying that inequality, consumerism, neoliberalism, and all these have led to the climate crisis. So how do we reimagine a different future without all these aspects of our daily lives?
LaDUKE: Just remember that the world we live in now is not the world that we had all this time. This is like the past – I think of 200 years of very bad decisions. Past 100 years, very bad. The advent of fossil fuels acceleration, the rise of fossil fuels, the agriculture system, and the toxic militarization – it’s kind of like being on steroids. Fossil fuels puts you on steroids – makes you a lot bigger and a lot faster. If you can get rid of some of the amnesia that you get from a massive fossil fuels injection and remember that there’s a way to live that is a little bit more simple, that has more relations with your relatives that are close, then you have a better shot. Because the fact is that a globalized economy is predicated on a lot of fossil fuels. I can get a shrimp that was raised in Scotland, deveined in China, and arrives at a Walmart near me. You know what I’m saying? That’s too far for a shrimp to travel. Maybe we rebuild things that are a little more local. There’s many tools ahead. I don’t know, Kumi might have a better answer for this. I just think shrimp shouldn’t travel.
NAIDOO: Well, I think the issue of how far food travels is part of the kind of change that we need to make – not only because of carbon, but because of quality, because of freshness, because of health. I’m impressed that there are many young people, and some older people in the global north, who are beginning to recognize that actually the 200 years of so-called civilization that was pushed on us actually turns out to be pretty uncivilized. The changes that we are seeking to make – I don’t think they are sacrifices. Sacrifice is the fact that people are working 20-hour days. Sacrifice is the idea that people are working three jobs just to put food on the table.
But what you’re seeing is that all over the world today, people are actually co-creating from bottom up real solutions to real problems, from providing energy to rethinking agriculture and so on. And the challenge for us right now is how do we pick up those examples? Because the problem we have is we’ve got an ideological state apparatus, almost, that is against us. By that, I mean the framework for education, framework for religion, social norms and customs, how we fund arts and culture, but most critically, the framework for communications and media. So today, even being able to project new models and new ways of doing things is a challenge, because we don’t have enough capability to do that.
So we have our next question already? Over to you.
Q: Hello. I’m based in the Bronx, New York, and heritage-wise, I’m part of the Fulani tribe of west Africa. And I really want to know, are we saving the planet, or are we saving the economy? What is meant by this in relation to polluting countries, and would new climate justice acts and policies allow for both?
LaDUKE: I call this economy the wendigo economy, the economy of a cannibal. It’s a cannibal economy, because it consumes its life force. It consumes everything which is around and turns it into products that are then sold for some profit. I heard someone say that colonialism has the same root as the word colon, which is to digest. And I believe it. It’s the digestion of the entire world.
So now, we’re Planet Stuff. That’s what someone said. We got more stuff that’s human in the world than all of the biosphere, like all the elephants and all the trees and the coral reefs. You just got to change your alliance from what you shopped for in a bottle to how you rebuild a place to relocalize. On a worldwide scale, there is this resurgence and continuation of local farming, of local health, of local energy. And in this moment, we see that it’s better to survive if you are counting on something coming in from China – probably have a better shot. That’s the real economy, and that’s the one that we actually all rely on. Because as much as Jeff Bezos wants to shop in space, there’s no food or water. So best just make things good here, Jeff.
NAIDOO: Winona, I think it’s a good point to wrap up this conversation by bringing in Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King speaking when I think I was a four-month-old baby, said, my friends, as I conclude my speech, I want to note that in the field of modern child psychology, there’s a very dominant term called maladjusted. Now, all of us want to be well adjusted and not suffer from schizophrenia or other mental illnesses. But my friends, I say to you, there are certain things in this world that are so unjust and immoral that good, decent people should refuse to adjust to. He goes on to say I never intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry, racial discrimination, mindless expenditure on military weapons when people don’t have food to eat. But on the economy, he says, I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few when millions of God’s children are smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in an affluent society.
If that was relevant in the mid-’60s in the US, it’s a thousand times more relevant today, and sadly, it’s relevant across the world. But on an inspirational note, he called on the world to set up a movement that never was set up. He said, I call upon decent men and women around the world to set up a new international organization to be known as the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. (laughter)
To those folks that think maybe some of the things that Winona and I are saying are too out there, this is what this moment calls for. This is a moment for us not to adjust to things that are so fundamentally unjust, right? And I think this is a moment for fresh thinking, creative ideas, and so on, and we should make no apologies for putting forward ideas that sound different, transformative, and so on, when in fact, the current systems are failing in every possible way.
LaDUKE: I was charged with a thousand other people. I spent three days in jail fighting a Canadian multinational and watched Biden turn his back on us.
NAIDOO: How do you think we deal with the challenge of winning over people who have been led to believe that the current system serves them?