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Kumi Naidoo: How did we move people into the struggle against apartheid? Music, dance, and theatre

The former chief of Amnesty International and Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo on why climate activism has misfired.

For a while now, science has been saying we need to “stay below 1.5 degrees”. But we are pushing right up against it now and the window of opportunity to reverse things is fast closing. So, we must ask ourselves why, despite most people wanting action on climate change, the science is being challenged more than ever before. 

The answer to this question has been staring us in the face for a long time, and we've just not been willing to acknowledge it. Climate activism, which I have been part of – and I've made this mistake, so I don't speak from an Ivory Tower – is we have disproportionately aimed these narratives at the wrong place. For too long, through scientific facts, policies, proposals, and so on, we have been speaking only to heads, and not hearts. 

We have failed to recognise that when you talk in this language of 1.5 degrees and so forth, it flies over the heads of the overwhelming majority of people who do not understand what 1.5 degrees means. Why should ordinary people be able to keep up with the alphabet soup of acronyms that the climate struggle throws up? 

I'm not saying we need to deviate from facts in a way that Donald Trump and Steven Bannon do. I'm saying, facts don't need to be presented in such a boring way that fails to move people into a sense of urgency

We also must be brutally honest and acknowledge that a lot of what foundations are doing today is not philanthropy but what I call foolanthropy, in the sense that too much still goes into policies and proposals that in the end will mean nothing. 

Why should ordinary people be able to keep up with the alphabet soup of acronyms that the climate struggle throws up? 

If we cannot carry people with us we have left the very people, who are most vulnerable and most at threat, out of the conversation. Unless we bring in frontline communities, who can speak with greater eloquence of how climate impacts their lives already, I don't believe we can move people on the scale that we need to. 

We also need to be honest about the fact that most people communicating on climate come from privilege and don't understand the realities of the folks who are completely socially excluded. In many cases, those who have not necessarily had the benefit of education or even literacy. 

If we want to reach those folks, we have to look at what struggles against injustice teach us over time. In my case, let’s look at South Africa. How did we move people – a majority of whom were deliberately deprived of education, left unable to read and write – into the struggle against apartheid? It was through music, it was through dance, it was through theatre, it was through other forms of culture. And that's why I feel today that the missing link in climate activism is what I would call artivism. We must bring the worlds of arts, culture and activism together.

One way to do this is through storytelling, something already intrinsic to cultures in the Global South. Even today, the engine of societies in the Global South is still largely storytelling, especially in rural contexts. But I think we have to be careful not to straight-jacket this conversation and assume that storytelling is the whole solution. We need to ensure that storytelling, like any intervention, is deeply contextually specific. 

Let's use the example of civil disobedience. Many of us are big advocates of civil disobedience where we believe, given the urgency of the moment, people taking peaceful resistance, even breaking the law, is a good thing to happen. But there are many kinds of civil disobedience. Take mooning, where people pull down their pants and show their bums with, for instance, the words “Stop climate change” written on them. Well, this might work very well in San Francisco, New York, or in Toronto, but it doesn't necessarily work well in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, or Egypt. That doesn't mean that mooning is a bad thing as a tactic, it just means you need to know when, how and where to deploy it. 

The bottom line is we need to tell more stories. We need to tell stories that make the threat of climate change more accessible to people who don't have huge amounts of education and literacy. We must do it in ways that ensure people are moved to do something about it. We need to make more people think about how it relates to their own lives. In doing so, they can reassess their own consumption patterns and apply pressure on those in government and business that have the power to make the changes that we need to secure their children and their children's future.

The missing link in climate activism is what I would call artivism. We must bring the worlds of arts, culture and activism together.

I also think that the challenge we have with climate change is that for some it is not yet tangible in a way that, say, torture or homelessness or many other issues are. You can take videos and capture footage of somebody being tortured, and you can see the torture. It's very clear that this person was held on such and such a day, and this particular person likely instituted the torture, and this is the end result.  With climate change, people can say “there's always been droughts, there’s always been typhoons, hurricanes, and flooding.” Which is true, of course. But what is not contestable today, is that the scale of the veracity, frequency and velocity is just completely off the charts. You have to have your head buried very, very deep in the ground not to be able to see what’s happening outside. We no longer need science to tell us how bad things are getting, people just have to open their eyes. Day in, and day out, somewhere in the world, we are seeing an extreme weather event, which is clearly induced by the impacts of climate change. 

The mainstream media have not helped the situation. When we break them down, we see we still have a large number of media outlets that are state-controlled, for example in China and Russia. And if they’re not state-controlled, they’re corporate-controlled, as is the case in the US and in many other countries now. So, if you think that the majority of media in the world is either state-controlled or corporate-controlled, they are not going to be inclined to give space and air time to propositions and proposals that suggest the need for fundamental structural and systemic change to our economy, to our energy system, to our food system, and so on. All of which is what climate change calls on us to do. Any alternative idea that goes against the mainstream status quo is not going to comfortably be given space. 

There also has to be an effort to call out and hold to account those who control powerful media outlets that are blatantly lying to people. Fox News has played such an incredibly devastatingly divisive role in the United States, and has now been accountable to the tune of millions of dollars by the courts for presenting misleading information on climate change as if it were factually true. 

But we cannot abandon mainstream media as a site of engagement and struggle. It still holds far too much power in terms of shaping the narrative and conversations. But we have to call on regulatory authorities to make sure that they, without engaging in censorship, are holding to account the institutions that they're supposed to regulate. They need to ensure that they don't enable lies because, bear in mind, the big problem we have is the high levels of collusion between the corporate media ownership and the fossil fuel industry. And the best example of that is Russia. 

In Russia, you have one radio station in Moscow that is supposedly a little bit independent, but actually it's owned by Gazprom. The United States is not as obvious, but it’s no better. The myth in the United States is that people have access to diverse and accurate media. Yes, you might have the diversity of output, but people are being lied to. I don't want to live in a world where everybody says the same thing, where there's no diversity of opinion, but we have to be very clear that celebrating the right that people have different opinions doesn't mean that we are saying that people have the right to tell lies. And that's what we see in the United States today. And that's why United States democracy is so shockingly pathetically weak at this moment of history.

We have to call on journalists, wherever they sit – whether in progressive, liberal, or right-wing media – to tell the truth and be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. 

As told to Charlotte Owen-Burge on 11 March 2024. This conversation was edited & condensed for clarity.


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