“Politics does not lead culture, culture leads politics,” says climate change and human rights activist with 45 years’ experience on the frontlines and in the boardroom Kumi Naidoo on the latest episode of the Climate Curious podcast by TEDxLondon. In our most inspiring chat to date, he explains what ‘artivism’ is, and how we can use creativity to urgently change the trajectory of the climate crisis.
The original activist, starting out as an anti-apartheid activist at 15 years old, and ending up on a rubber dinghy in the Arctic, floating around protesting for Greenpeace, Kumi is now spearheading the movement of ‘artivism’ – using culture to get your message out there.
“A key problem for us moving forward is how do we get the truth out to the largest number of people in the shortest space of time, that changes their attitudes quickly, so they can change their behaviours quickly.” – Kumi Naidoo
Why big organisations don’t necessarily make the most impact
Despite being the former International Executive Director of Greenpeace International and Secretary General of Amnesty International about, Kumi explains that if you can sing and dance you are much more powerful than any CEO of a big organisation. And it is in fact ideological state apparatus that makes us think otherwise, through influencing our behavior – “that governments and corporations control us, through mechanisms such as army police, formal laws, rules, and regulations,” he shares. On the other hand, mechanisms such as education, media and social norms are not under state control, and offer us a vital medium through which to affect people’s attitudes – a key lever to behavior change.
But the pressure should not be on us just as individuals – it needs to be pushed back on our leaders – who can make change on a structural level:
“We have a massive level of cognitive dissonance, which is the denial of reality by those who power both to address the threat of climate catastrophe on the one hand, and to address the systemic injustices that people face either as a result of race, gender, economic, class, and so on…”
A native South African, this pioneering activist draws a fascinating parallel between his experiences on the front lines protesting against the apartheid and sitting in the boardrooms of global climate change and human rights organisations. “When I started as a 15 year old, I had an intuitive sense of injustice. […] What I learned in the first sort of 10 years of my activism was probably the most instructive. I wish I had hung on to some of the core lessons even stronger than I did. But I got contaminated a little bit along the way, by the idea of doing things where you had big logos and marketing and communications.”
So alongside holding onto your early learnings and fighting against ideological apparatus, what else can we do?
Kumi urges us to analyse our approach, attitudes and behaviors towards climate change through the lens of our environment. Taking an intersectional approach is key to helping the people in most need of help, in the regions that are already being adversely affected by the climate crisis. “The reality of London is not the reality of the world. The reality of Europe is not the reality of the world, the reality of North America is not the reality of the world. Right? You know, which is fossil fuel dependency, structural racism, an economic system that’s unjust, nuclear weapons… Why do you think the solutions are going to come out of the very same places that created the problems?” he shares.
As Kumi summarises, in order to speed up the urgency of the climate crisis with leaders, politicians, business owners and even your friends and networks, “what we need is the courage of people and institutions to say, we are failing to turn the ship around. That humanity is on a suicidal trajectory. And there’s no time for niceties. There’s no time for egos, there’s no time for being too polite about how deep a crisis that we are in.” (Cheery, we know! Sorry – but it has to be said!)
Reflecting on his own amazing 45 years’ in the field, working on the frontlines and in the most senior positions at some of the world’s biggest climate change organisations, Kumi candidly shares that:
“I can say I tried. But trying is not good enough when results are what matters. And I hope that in this current moment that we find ourselves where the agenda of structural racism, economic inequality, and climate change come together, because the COVID dynamic reality has exposed a range of these contradictions that exist. I hope that my colleagues who remain in these institutions, and those that are in leadership will have much more courage to act with much greater urgency to address the inequalities and differentials of power that exist.”
In part 1 of this very special feature conversation, hosted by TEDxLondon’s Maryam Pasha and advocate and activist Ben Hurst, Kumi breaks down why culture leads politics, how to organise people according to their needs, not yours, and why London and other major polluters do not have the answer to climate change (even though we like to think we do!)
Don’t miss out on part 2 – here.
Until next time – stay curious!