'History teaches us that direct action is the best action'

03 March 2014

© David Fisher

Greenpeace leader Dr Kumi Naidoo outlined the severity of the threat of climate change, and the major changes needed to tackle it, in his lecture at the Oxford Martin School on 24 February.

Dr Naidoo, who became involved in the fight against apartheid in South Africa when he was just 15 years old, began by surveying the current state of the world. “We were promised an ‘explosion of democracy’ around the world when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed,” he said. “But we look at the world today and come to a very sad conclusion. We now have elections without democracy, or with a form of democracy without substance, or in the US, a ‘democracy that money can buy’.

“The duty of democracy is to balance the power of those with wealth with that of ordinary people. We have a global governance system that has huge challenges and suffers from a democratic deficit, a compliance deficit and a legitimacy deficit. We live in an unfair, unjust and unsustainable world.”

Examining the climate crisis, Dr Naidoo said time was running out to deal with the threat of climate change. “The WWF estimates that we will need three to eight Planet Earths if the whole world is to have a ‘Western’ lifestyle. There is a perfect storm, a convergence of economic, social and environmental crises. But political leaders have squandered the crisis moment.

“People in Africa are already being ravaged by climate change. A report by the CIA to President Bush in 2003 said that the biggest threat to peace and security will come from climate threats. All the facts are there but we are not doing anything about it. We are seeing baby steps when what we need is major change.”

Exploring whether activists should break the law to get their message across, he asked: “Is slavishly accepting the rule of law a good thing? Slavery was legal, apartheid was legal; just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right. Far too often we make the mistake of thinking governments control us with the military or the police, but it is the ideological framework that is much more powerful.

“The current system doesn’t work for the majority of people on this planet. We need a system re-design. We have it within our capacity of human ingenuity to address the challenge of climate change, it’s political will that’s lacking.

“History teaches us that direct action is the best action. But you have to be comfortable with failure. Part of activism is about feeling comfortable to make mistakes. The struggle for justice is a marathon, not a sprint.”