Protecting the Rights of Planet Earth

In this interview we talk to Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace. We discuss, in detail, the profound issues affecting our earth, including energy and climate change, food security, oceans, forests, international trade, economics, the structure of society, technology and more.

“All human beings”, according to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “…are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” This one statement forms the rationale by which the United Nations deemed it necessary to define the structure of rights which all participants in society are owed by the international community.

At the core of our understanding of human rights is the assumption that these rights are framed in the context of “human flourishing”. This extends human rights from the basic provisions of personhood (insofar as one has a right to life, security of person, free expression, participation and worship) but towards the principle that human beings should live in a way which allows them to maximise their potential, “To flourish”, says Barbara Fredrickson of the University of Michigan, “…means to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience.” This ‘optimal range’ is a grey area, and in practice, we see the interpretation is usually based on ethical frameworks (a mixture of beliefs, preferences, sentiments, and so on). As James Griffin points out, in his seminal text “On Human Rights“, “Many ethical beliefs are shaped by a person’s understanding, often misunderstanding, of the empirical world: of the consequences of our acts, of what the objects of our desires really are like, and so on..” Griffin continues by giving the example of how, in some societies, theft is regarded as a serious crime, and in others, the concept of private property does not even exist. The fact remains that human flourishing comes at an immense cost. Capitalism (borne out of the rational desire to improve quality of life) comes at the cost of over two billion people in the world living in poverty, and over a billion left hungry, from the ‘externality’ of capital creating an immense inequality of wealth and resource distribution. Through aid and legislation, however, the international community tries to recognise and remove these externalities; hopefully providing a fairer deal for all.

Our environment itself suffers immensely through our relentless pursuit of ‘flourishing’. If we ponder the enormous age and complexity of our biosphere (including the earth, oceans, forests, plant and animal life, and our atmosphere) we cannot help but respond with wonder and awe- two emotions which command a commensurate amount of respect. Our actions, however, do not reflect this. Society runs ethical mathematics, perceiving the benefits (for example, reliable access to energy) of actions (such as mining, drilling, farming) to be greater than the intrinsic value of the environments they affect (oceans, forests, etc). this reveals a uniquely one sided view where we, as a species (and often as economic groups) act out of self-interest, largely outside any consideration for the wider space in which we exist. At a macro-level, though, it is clear, that our want of ‘flourishing’ comes at a cost we simply cannot accept (crippling poverty, and the destruction of the very environment that sustains us).

With the exception of some (openly) biased pieces of legislation, there is little coherent consideration given to ‘who’ protects the earth’s interests, and rights to flourish.

In this exclusive interview we talk to Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace (an independent global campaigning organisation that acts to change attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace- acting as a voice for the earth). We discuss, in detail, the profound issues affecting our earth, including energy and climate change, food security, oceans, forests, international trade, economics, the structure of society, technology and more.

[bios]Born in South Africa, Kumi became involved in the country’s liberation struggle at the age of 15. He was very involved in neighbourhood organisation, youth work in his community, and mass mobilisations against the apartheid regime, and in 1986, Kumi was arrested and charged for violating the state of emergency regulations. He went underground for one year before finally deciding to live in exile in England. During this time he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and earned a doctorate in political sociology.

After Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990, Kumi returned to South Africa to work on the legalisation of the African National Congress. During the democratic elections in 1994 he was the official spokesperson of the Independent Electoral Commission and directed the training of all electoral staff in the country. Kumi became the founding executive director of the South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO), an umbrella agency for the South African NGO community. Moved by the fact that South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women, Kumi organised the National Men’s March Against Violence on Women and Children in 1997.

From 1998 to 2008, Kumi was the Secretary General and Chief Executive Officer of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, which is dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. He was the founding Chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), served as Chair of the civil society alliance ‘Global Campaign for Climate Action’ (GCCA) of which Greenpeace was a founding member, and also served as a board member of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development.

In 2003 Kumi was appointed by the former Secretary General of the United Nations to the Eminent Persons Panel on UN Civil Society Relations, and in 2009 became the Executive Director of Greenpeace.[/bios]

Q: To what extent is climate change a threat to our species and our planet?

[Kumi Naidoo] It is difficult to imagine a graver threat; or an area of human endeavour or global ecology in which the profound consequences of runaway climate change would not be disastrous. Already, it is estimated that around 300,000 people die every year as a direct result of climate change. But, the consequences of continued inaction by world leaders, corporation and all of us will be far more severe. Africa could find itself locked into poverty in perpetuity. India and China will find that their development grinds to a halt in the face of failing agricultural systems and internal displacement on a massive scale. Taken together, mass migration, mass starvation and mass extinctions are what we will see if we sleep walk into a future of unmitigated climate change. These stresses will ruin economies and drive competition over dwindling resources,. In the words of US General Anthony C. Zinni, a retired Marine and the former head of the Central Command: “We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we¹ll have to take an economic hit of some kind … Or, we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives.”

While historic emissions of greenhouse gasses means that the climate will change and there is nothing we can now do to stop it, the good news is that we can still avert catastrophe. While recognizing that climate impacts are with us today and we need to address them, we need to provide money and support for adaption, especially in the world’s poorest countries and small island states, we can take win-win-win action. We can win in the struggle to avoid climate chaos, we can win in terms of economic recovery and we can win when it comes to promoting development and justice. All we need is the political will.

We can cut our carbon emissions while achieving economic growth by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy and energy efficiency. This phase-out of fossil fuels would offer substantial co-benefits such as energy security, independence from world market fuel prices as well as the creation of millions of new green jobs. It would also provide energy to the over two billion people currently without reliable access to electricity, to life enhancing and saving energy services. The technologies are already there, all we need is the political will.

Our recently published (June 2010) Energy [R]evolution Scenario, developed with the German Space Agency and the European Renewable Industry provides a realistic blueprint for how we can both save the climate and prosper.

Q: What role will renewable energies play in our future and what are the key social and political challenges facing these technologies?

[Kumi Naidoo] Adopting energy systems based on renewable energy sources is key to securing a safe future for our children, but it is also key in economic regeneration, creating long term sustainable ‘green’ jobs, free from the hazards of exploiting fossil fuels and nuclear power.

With the right level of political ad industrial support, renewable energy could become the dominant form of energy production within our lifetimes. Prices of wind and solar installations are falling and we are now starting to see significant investments in concentrated solar power, geo-thermal power and ocean power. A further range of renewable technologies are still in the experimental stage, but it’s clear that the portfolio of available renewable energies is growing, and the costs are falling.

We also find ourselves facing a huge window of opportunity. Most of the existing power generation capacity in the developed world is approaching the end of its life. Power stations built in the 1960’s and 70’s are due to be retired. If we replace them with clean, renewable power, we will be giving ourselves a brighter future. If our leaders make the mistake of deciding to build another fleet of coal fired plants, we will suffer through the consequences for generations.

The developing world must be encouraged to move straight to a decentralized power supply based on renewable energy systems, systems fit for the 21st century. They can leapfrog the outmoded dirty and dangerous fossil and nuclear fuelled centralized electricity grids of the 20th century. Not only will this benefit the planet as a whole, it will give these countries an added edge in future economic competition.
The real decision facing politicians now is whether or not they will create a framework that supports and accelerates the transition to sustainable energy sources process, or if they will try to fight progress in order to protect existing power utilities. Technical decisions about the future of the power grid may not seem exciting, but they will to a large part determine which countries reap the benefits, and which are left behind.

This is a race to the future, a future powered by renewable energy sources and underpinned by efficient energy use. The winning nations, corporation and citizens will reap enormous benefits in terms of jobs, sustainable economic development, energy security and vastly improved local environments. But, unless the whole world joins the energy revolution we will all be losers in a climate changed world.

Forests, Oceans & the Biosphere:

Q: Why are forests under threat? What role do the forests play in our social & economic systems?

[Kumi Naidoo] During the twentieth century we saw consumption boom beyond the planets natural limits, beyond what the planet is capable of sustaining. .

This boom has and is having dire consequences for the planets forests and in particular its rainforests. Everything is connected, forest destruction is a major cause of global warming, climate change. The logging and burning of forests is responsible for about 20 percent global greenhouse gas emissions, more than that emitted from all the cars, planes, and trains in the world combined.

Although the science is very clear on the need for a new low-carbon economy, growing population centres and rising incomes continue to drive increased demands for commodities. This rise in consumer demands has had a direct impact on forest-protection and it has resulted in a race by global corporations to gain access to new lands in order to harvest resources.

Tropical rainforests, with their lush abundance of natural materials, are a source of many products currently in great demand such as palm oil, leather, and wood pulp. Eight thousand years ago, large tracts of ancient forest covered almost half the earth’s land area. Today, only one fifth of the original forests remain intact, the rest has been destroyed, degraded or fragmented by relentless human activity.

In some cases, lands deforested by corporations are reforested in the form of plantation. Despite the green-spin many companies put on this practice, it is not a viable solution nor a practice to welcomed. Plantations are by definition mono-cultures and as such anathema to the biodiversity our planet so desperately needs. Without biodiversity we will ourselves without the tools necessary to adapt to some of the already irreversible effects of climate change. Monocultures also absorb much less carbon than naturally biodiverse forests.

Over the past 30 years, Greenpeace has fought against expansion into sensitive forests in places as the Amazon, Canada’s Boreal Forest and Indonesia. Along the way, we’ve accomplished some significant victories. The Amazon is receiving greater protection thanks to an agreement we made with the cattle industry in Brazil and to a moratorium on forest destruction with the soya industry ; the Canadian Great Bear rainforest – a tract of forest the size of Belgium – was protected in 2009. After a decade long campaign by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and ForestEthics; and a recent announcement by Indonesian President Yudhoyono of a two year moratorium on issuing new concessions for forest and peatland destruction is a first step towards serious forest protection in that country.
We are now focused on one goal: to end deforestation globally by 2020 in order to avert catastrophic climate change. To do this Greenpeace created the Forests for Climate proposal, which outlines how governments can protect forests and how developed countries can cut CO2 at home. Forests for Climate lets developed countries meet overall targets for forest protection and provides fair and accountable way to fund global forest protection.

Many millions of people live in or depend upon the forests for their livelihoods, the increasing industrialisation of forests is leaving them without homes or livelihoods. It is robbing them of medicines and culture.
The struggle to protect the climate, to protect forests is also a struggle for justice and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Q: Why are the oceans under threat?

[Kumi Naidoo] Our oceans give us life. They provide us with food, water, oxygen and sustain billions of people living on earth. In exchange we are plundering the oceans of fish, choking them with pollution and warming them with climate change causing greenhouse gases. Industrial carbon emissions is also causing ocean acidification, a little discussed but major threat to life in our seas. Greenpeace has just conducted an expedition with world renowned scientists in the Arctic carry out ground breaking research into ocean acidification.

Our oceans are being viewed not as something to be protect and care for, but rather as something to be controlled: a lawless frontier, from which anything and everything can be extracted but also where anything can be disposed.

Today, at least 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are considered fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted. For years, scientists have warned that destructive fishing methods will empty our oceans of the fish humankind relies on for sustenance. Indiscriminate and reckless fishing tactics, including bottom-trawling and purse-seining take not just fish from the waters but everything else in their paths.

It’s estimated that between 10 and 30 percent of all fishing catches are “bycatch,” which end up being thrown back into the ocean – dead or dying — as waste. Alternative fishing methods that do not incur so much waste and do not needlessly kill turtles and sharks exist and are economically and environmentally sustainable. Greenpeace is calling for an end to destructive fishing practices and for 40% of the oceans to be protected as marine reserves: off limits to fishing and extractive industries. Areas from which sea life can recuperate, areas from which our oceans can be replenished.

Our most pristine and delicate marine environments – the polar oceans in the Arctic and Southern (or Antarctic) regions- are also increasingly under threat. As climate change brings about increased melting of sea ice in these areas, fishing fleets and fossil fuel explorations are encroaching further and further towards the North Pole, where sea ice is receding. Near the South Pole, pirate fishing for fish species such as tooth fish and krill trawlers are readying to remove the very basis of food chains there.

As key regulators of world climate and weather patterns, the polar marine environments are not extensively studied and fragile ecosystems. Climate change is only opening these areas up to wider destruction, and the world needs an effective governance system for the Arctic Ocean region as well as the Southern Ocean so that they can remain intact.

The notion that we as a species, human being, would take advantage of the ice melting consequence of global warming, to rush in and drill for more climate changing fossil fuels, is both alarming and bizarrely ironic. It shows just how much we still have to learn if we cannot resist this simple but potentially fatal temptation.

Like other marine life, whales face many threats from climate change, pollution and habitat loss from over-fishing and collisions with shipping. It is disappointing that scientific loopholes in the international agreement that manages the world’s populations of great whales, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) allow the commercial hunting of whales to continue. Greenpeace is working worldwide to pressure governments to save the whales, not the whaling industry.

Political inertia is indeed one of the greatest threats facing our oceans.
While fishermen out on the ocean continue to wreak damage on our valuable oceans, alliances between business and politics are only making the fate of our oceans worse. This past March, delegates to the Convention on Trade in International Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) ignored years of scientific advice that trade in bluefin tuna is helping to wipe the species out. Instead of heeding warnings, the CITES delegates rejected proposals to protect the bluefin from the lucrative trade that has driven it to near extinction.

In return for all that the oceans provide us, we owe it to them and the people who depend on them to keep them alive and healthy. Greenpeace is working to defend our oceans: through grassroots movements, political pressure and by challenging those who seek short-term profit at the expense of a sensible ocean future. Should we not act now, fish stocks will continue to decline and our oceans will continue to deteriorate. We owe our children and grandchildren much more, which is why Greenpeace is acting to defend our oceans and mobilize others, as oceans protection often begins on land. As we go to great lengths to point out: if we want fish tomorrow we need marine reserves today.

Q: Do you think there should be legal protection for the environment and it¹s non-human members?

[Kumi Naidoo] For almost 40 years, Greenpeace has consistently supported and worked for stronger legal protection for the environment and its biodiversity, including, of course, people. In fact, you could argue that most of our campaigns have focused on law reform and that they have resulted in a long list of victories and have set many legal precedents including: the moratorium on dumping of nuclear waste at sea which was captured in the London Dumping Convention; the UN high seas ban on drift nets; the prohibition of mineral exploitation on Antarctica, codified in the Antarctic Treaty; the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and most recently the protection of the Canadian Great Bear Rainforest. But, it remains an uphill struggle. Recent campaign’s to ban the trade in the almost extinct Blue Fin tuna through the CITES convention failed miserably and we still don¹t have a successor for the Kyoto Protocol. Nor did we along with a great many other civil society groups come away from the UN Copenhagen Climate meeting with the fair, ambitious and legal binding agreement needed to avert catastrophic climate change.

We support the growing movement demanding the establishment of a legal “Human Right” to a healthy environment. This concept was first recognized in the 1972 Stockholm Conference and we hope that a proposal to include it in the European Convention on Human Rights will be successful later this year.

(It is worth noting that relatively modern constitutions like South Africa¹s have already include such a right.)

But all these rights mean little if they¹re not upheld, which is why our focus on law reform is always paired with a focus on law enforcement.
Through our actions and campaigns we place a spotlight on lawbreakers and call upon governments to bring them to justice. Through the use of our ships we¹ve caught illegal fishing practices in the Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. In the Pacific and in Africa, many nations don¹t have vessels to patrol their coastal waters and as a consequence their waters are being emptied by European and Asian fishing companies at an alarming rate. In the Amazon, Congo Basin and Forests of South East Asia we¹ve engaged a major campaign to stop illegal logging – despite continued threats of physical violence by loggers to our local staff. We are optimistic about achieving long lasting protection for the forests In early April the President of Indonesia publicly expressed his appreciation for our accomplishments in the fight against deforestation and vowed to crack down on illegal logging by mafia.

Greenpeace’s success is due in good part to the combination these two distinct types of campaigning in a very deliberate and strategic fashion. Lobbying involves patience, compromise, knowledge and stamina, whereas peaceful actions involve gutsy climbers, rubber boats and sometimes even bullet proof vests. Together they make for effective campaigning on a global scale and the strengthening of the legal framework to protect the environment and life on our planet.

Food Security:

Q: What can be done about hunger? And what are the key challenges facing the elimination of hunger? What is the role of Genetics in food

[Kumi Naidoo] Genetic engineering is a technology in search of a problem – a product in search of a market. Lobbyists from the genetic engineering (GE) industry are offering the world a stark choice between hunger and GE crops. This is a false choice. Hunger can be avoided without growing and eating GE crops.

According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) global population will increase from 6 to 9 billion people by 2050 and food production will need to increase by 70%. At the moment the growing number of hungry people in the world is predominantly a consequence of unequal food distribution, not insufficient food production. A distribution example is the fact that around 35 percent of India’s population – 380 million – go to bed hungry while the country exports significant amounts of food.

Ecological farming which nurtures our soils, cultivates diversity and supplies our families with safe and nutritious food, is the only way to effectively address the serious triple crises of food security, water scarcity and climate change.

Furthermore, ecological farming is backed by UNEP and the UN Agriculture Assessment, the benefits of ecological farming systems are well known and documented by a substantial and growing band of scientists. They agree on the benefits of supporting local farmers and farm workers to promote systems that minimize dependency on external inputs like artificial pesticides and fertilizers.

The so-called “green revolution” brought about an age in which the massive use of fertilizers and pesticides and “modified” seeds have destroyed soils, put small farmers out of business and concentrated power over our food production into a handful of agro-multinationals. It has reduced diversity and increased vulnerability to threats such as climate change.

Now the same agro-multinationals want to promote their latest “technofix” product: genetically engineered crops. Current GE crops are heavily dependent on the continued use of large amounts of agrochemicals. GE crops are designed by predatory multinationals prepared to sue farmers for storing seeds from one harvest to plant for the next. Many governments are allowing corporations to patent seeds, helping them to prevent farmers from planting saved seeds, a fundamental right which is the basis of the livelihoods of small farmers world wide.

Agro-multinationals make rash and unsubstantiated promises about their GE crops and chemical intensive farming methods but GE crops are not the solution to hunger in Africa, nor in the rest of the world. Take India for example, which has followed the ‘green revolution’ model for over 5 decades.

Instead of making hunger a thing of the past, today India is home to some 214 million hungry people. World hunger cannot be solved just by increasing food production. In the US, 49 million people, including 17 million children, do not have access to a secure food supply.

Moreover, scientists have confirmed that GE crops do not necessarily produce higher yields than natural varieties, according to a report entitled “Failure to Yield” published by the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists. Agro-multinationals also promote “yellow rice” or “golden rice” as the industry likes to call it, which has been genetically engineered to produce pro-vitamin A. However, the same vitamin can be found naturally in leafy vegetables, squashes and some traditional rice varieties. So why should we take risks with a GE techno fix to vitamin A deficiency? It is better to promote a balanced diet based on ecological farming.
We need to invest our effort in ecological farming systems, systems which mean less hunger – not more. Systems which mean a more resilient environment in the face of climate change. Systems which allow farmers to retain control and ownership of their own seed stocks. Systems based on ‘food sovereignty’, the right to ecological and culturally appropriate food that is sufficiently nutritious, and the right to determine the way it is produced.

The Nuclear Age

Q: What are the threats to humanity posed by nuclear weapons?

[Kumi Naidoo] The United States, Russia and China all have enough nuclear warheads to destroy the world many times over. So even though the cold war has ended the prospect of a nuclear annihilation remains. And while it may be hard to envisage the events which could lead to a full scale nuclear exchange happening today, these weapons will be with us for many years to come.

The recent revelation that most US nuclear weapons are targeted at the ocean is hardly reassuring: retargeting them is almost certainly the work of minutes, not days or months.

Nuclear weapons are, literally, a 1940’s technology. The technical skills needed to construct them become more widely available by the day. Once upon a time building a bomb required massive financial resources, but that barrier is dropping over time as well. For this reason it is essential that we take away the factors that drive nations to seek these weapons. The biggest of these, is the presence of existing nuclear weapons.

Because Israel has nuclear weapons, Iran seeks a bomb of its own. We also see this dynamic between India and Pakistan and between North Korea and the USA. Whenever a nuclear state appears to be a threat to its neighbours they respond by seeking their own nuclear weapons. That is why disarmament is essential, because only when existing nuclear powers make good on their commitments to surrender their weapons will there be a chance that others will give up their quest for the bomb.

The longer nuclear weapons exist the greater the chance that one will be used, or that one will fall into the wrong hands. Or even that there is an accidental use. And, once one is used, all bets are off.

The extraordinary amounts of human ingenuity and money that have been squandered on dreaming up new and more powerful ways of blowing us all to pieces is a serious tragedy. In the last decade or so, global military spending has increased by around half, topping 1,500 billion US dollars a year. The threat posed by this obscene misappropriation of financial and human resources, of effort and ingenuity is that we will not invest in a clean energy future, that we will not make available the 140 billion US dollars needed a year for the developing world to adopt to and mitigate climate change.

When the fallout from the financial crises continues and austerity budget as declared by Government’s all over the world, military budgets seem to be surviving intact while green development, health, education and welfare are all on the chopping block. In the UK for example plans are still on the table to spend around GBP100 billion on a replacement for the Trident nuclear weapons system, while cuts for environment protection, renewable energy development, health, welfare and education are all on the table.

Q: What role does nuclear energy play in our future?

[Kumi Naidoo] Nuclear energy should play no part in our future. It is extremely expensive, and it brings with it huge risks. Not only the risks of reactor accidents, but problems related to the safe disposal of nuclear waste and the mining of uranium. Nuclear power is the gateway to nuclear weapons, the technologies used are the same, so spreading civil nuclear technology creates the possibility of nuclear technology development: Atoms for Peace was one of the great lies of the 20th century, the myth that there are two types of atoms, one for peace and one for war.

Every nation to have broken the non-proliferation treaty has begun with a programme of nuclear power or research reactors. The technology of nuclear power is so closely linked to that of nuclear weapons that the existence of the former all but guarantees the existence of the latter.
After more than half a century of use and development, there is still no proven safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. Nuclear reactors cannot be built on time or to budget. Fortunately nuclear energy is not a necessary part of the energy supply: we do not need nuclear power. In fact investment in nuclear energy is an expensive and dangerous distraction from a safe energy future.

We must concentrate on renewable energy, which is clean and safe (Furthermore, no one has yet worked out how to turn wind turbines or solar panels into devices that threaten the world.) Growth in renewable energy already exceeds growth in nuclear energy. Investment in renewable energy exceeds investment in nuclear energy. If our politicians make the right choices in the next few years, nuclear power will come to be seen as what it is: an expensive, dangerous and problematic legacy technology. It won’t be something a 21st century nation will want to have on its electricity grid.

International Trade, Politics, Economics & Social Change

Q: Why is trade unfair? What are the key challenges and solutions to international trade inequity?

[Kumi Naidoo] The rules of global trade were largely written for the benefit of developed countries. The World Trade Organisation rules enforce free trade principles on weaker economies who would need state intervention to become competitive.

At the same time, they legalize massive unfair subsidies paid out by developed countries, such as export subsidies for agricultural products, that often destroy food markets in the developing world. This balance of power is changing, however. It is a sign of the growing power of developing countries – especially China, India, Brazil and South Africa – that the Doha Round of trade talks, launched in 2001, has been stalled for years. The times when developed countries could dictate the terms of global trade are over.

The solution for trade inequity is far-sighted regulation. The causes of equity and environmental protection are deeply linked in this regard. The current trade system leads to overexploitation of resources ¬ and thus undermines the long term economic prospects especially of developing countries. Let´s take fisheries as one example: It is estimated that Argentina lost at least 3.5 million U.S. dollars in future earnings by over-exploiting its fish resources after liberalisation measures.

Fish on dinner plates around the world are often illegally and unfairly stolen from someone else’s ocean, robbing the poor and future generations of food and income. The solution is for governments to adhere to existing global oceans governance instruments, starting with the United Nations Law of the Sea.

Nations must take responsibility for the impact that fishing vessels flying their flags have on the marine environment. Furthermore, governments must fast establish and enforce new rules to guarantee sustainable and equitable management of the oceans, including legal mechanisms for the establishment of a worldwide network of marine reserves. Only such improved governance can make trade in fisheries product less inequitable and help the world to meet its food demand.

Q: What will be the impact of the global-economic crisis on our planet?

[Kumi Naidoo] The full impact of the recent economic downturn is not yet known but will most likely be mixed. The financial crisis has made investments more difficult. From an environmental perspective this has at times been positive, as the economic case for new coal plants in the developed world has been undermined and many projects cancelled.
In many countries, CO2 emissions have declined due to decreased production. At the same time, renewable energy projects also faced the credit crunch and some did not move forward as fast as they could have.

A final definitive outcome has yet to be decided as the global economic crisis is above all an opportunity to invest in a new economic model of prosperity. Greenpeace has shown that an energy revolution based on renewable energy and energy efficiency would also be a jobs revolution. By 2030, for example, almost half a million more jobs can be generated in the G8 countries alone – compared to conventional energy pathways. The long term impact of the crisis is thus for us – and leaders in business and government to determine. If the right choices are made, the world can emerge out of the crisis as a greener planet with an economic system based on long term sustainability rather than short term – or simply speculative profit.

Q: What has been the impact of the internet in aiding activism and participation in the issues Greenpeace stands for?

[Kumi Naidoo] The ability of any one nation or any media conglomerate to censor its own population or keep information to itself is being chipped away every day.

The internet has greased the wheels of global communication and Civil Society has found new means by which to behave as a global force. Social movements and activists that once worked in isolation are now connected, and can reach audiences directly that were once only available via mediated channels.

For example, in the run-up to the United Nations Copenhagen Climate Talks in December 2010, I was involved with an internet-based campaign, called, that brought together an astonishing 250 organisations across civil society to call for a Fair, Ambitious and legally Binding (FAB) deal on climate change. This coalition was only possible because of the internet.

And while we did not get the treaty that the science told us we needed, the coming together of environmental, humanitarian, social justice, faith, youth, labour, health care and many more organisations established an important synergy and will, I am certain, be a major force to reckon with in the near future.

Greenpeace has embraced the new opportunity to transition from being an activist group that found its niche in the television era to one which can really catalyze activism in the era of social media. Not only does Greenpeace have the largest following of any INGO on Facebook, our YouTube channel has an audience of 10 million, and all told we’re connected more than 5 million subscribers to our information and action alerts worldwide through various digital channels (and of course those people are connected through their own networks). That said, it is important to point out that although we’re the fastest of the pack, it is a very slow pack – there are celebrities that have more twitter followers than we have supporters, and running shoe brands that have more Facebook friends than we do – and social media is important tool we are continuously working to improve.

Social media has made reputation a highly vulnerable commodity, providing massive leverage opportunities. Global brands have put huge budgets into building their reputations and making themselves appear to share the value systems of their customers. In doing so, they’ve created a global responsibility to actually live those claimed values, and a global vulnerability when they do not. This is a truth we can hold them to and social media allows us to do this publically. We’ve held many companies, such as Apple, Coca Cola, McDonalds, and Unilever publically accountable when their words and deeds don’t match, and we’ve won the vast majority of those battles.

Sometimes it simply comes down to an accounting question for a corporation that finds itself in the cross-hairs of public scrutiny: which costs more, doing the right thing for the environment or the brand damage of ignoring customer concerns about damaging our planet? Other times it is about connecting to people within companies who share our ambitions we are genuinely concerned about their impact on the environment.
Greenpeace and other activists today reach a global community of people willing to vote with their wallets for their beliefs, and who are willing to join us in pressuring companies that actively work to stop climate change — and vote against those who put profits before the planet. There’s a new accountability, and a new social responsibility ¬ a new social contract perhaps — that corporations simply have to live up to — and the internet provides the means for many of us to watch them and pressure them when they fail to do the right thing.

A great example of the impact the internet can have on campaigning is our recent Kitkat campaign– When Nestle tried to silence our campaign against their use of rainforest-destroying and climate changing palm oil in their products by censuring a critical video, our own supporters posted new copies everywhere and raided Nestle’s Facebook page, driving a massive viral effect for a video the company didn’t want anyone to see. The customer pressure was so great, that Nestle changed its policies on the sourcing of palm oil in Indonesia, within one month.

The social media revolution is in its infancy and we are taking baby steps in developing its potential, corporation and governments will learn how to use it and how to abuse it ¬ we need to stay one step ahead. It can be a profoundly unifying force. But, let’s not forget, many areas in the world are not digitally connected, they are not online and Greenpeace will continue to use all available communications channels to connect to people, to work with them to create change for a better planet, for a green and peaceful future.


Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote a short story entitled, “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” which tells of a city called Omelas- a city of happiness and celebration, without kings or slaves, without advertisements, a stock exchange, or weapons. The city, however, has one secret; “In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window”, and in this room sits a child, feeble-minded, neglected and malnourished, living out its days in wretched misery.” The people of Omelas all know that this child has to be there, that their happiness, the beauty of their cities, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, their abundant harvests, weather, and all the other things they enjoy, depend on the wretched misery of this child. If the child were brought up into the sunlight, cleaned, fed and comforted, it would be a good thing, but if it were done, the prosperity and delight of the Omelas would wither and be destroyed, those are the terms.

This story provides a powerful paradigm for our world, where the success and wealth of us in the west (citizens of Omelas) has come at the cost of a horrible fate for the environment and over two billion people (represented by the child). In this sense, we are quite clearly implicitly trading off some number of human lives for other goods and conveniences- thus putting a price on the lives of our fellow citizens now, and in the future (clearly not in the spirit of brotherhood, as the United Nations would have wanted).
Fundamentally, this makes us question our basic notions of liberty and justice. While very few individuals have ever formally signed a ‘social contract’ there is, by virtue of participation in society, a tacit consent- insofar as; if we expect to receive the benefits of society, we owe a duty to it also. John Rawls (an American philosopher) in his 1971 book ‘A Theory of Justice‘ proposes the way to think about justice is to think about what principles we would agree to in an initial situation of equality. If we gather our populous together ‘as it is’ to write a social contract, it would be difficult to agree, as different people would favour different principles, based on their interests, beliefs, social position, race, and more. There would be a compromise, but it would invariably favour the group with superior bargaining power. This, in a sense, is how our world works now.

The hypothetical social contract between us as citizens, and between us as a species and our environment is devastatingly weighted in favour of those with the greater bargaining power, rather than being equal.

If we then suppose that we gather society behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ which removes our class, gender, race, ethnicity, advantages, disadvantages, and so forth. Starting from this initial position of equality, where nobody has superior bargaining power, the overall design of a social contract for humankind would be in the spirit of individuals who “..are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. If we now introduce earth into this negotiation, the awe inspiring complex environment that sustains our very existence, we start to see a shift of bargaining power. We start to see that in reality, it is us, as a species, who must compromise to earth- not the other way around.

Referring this back to our discussion of flourishing, and the basic principles of human-rights. As sentient beings, we have to accept that more than anything else, our present happiness, and future existence, depends on the quality and stability of our environment. We, along with the billions of other species on our planet, are fragile creatures who are susceptible to environmental changes, and dependent on our biosphere existing within very narrow parameters to provide us with the climate and nourishment to exist. Everything else, our religions, beliefs, economies, political and social spaces, our loves, friendships and families – is built on this.

This environment, this earth, must therefore become our priority- as without it- everything else (including us) becomes irrelevant.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.