South Africa-born human rights activist Kumi Naidoo kicked off a fiery Sunday-morning talk at CU Boulder’s Glenn Miller Ballroom with a pointed request for his audience.
“Please stand if you believe that: A) Everything is fine climate wise; B) We have a massive challenge ahead, and the window of opportunity is closing; or C) It’s too late,” he instructed.
Seven people stood for C. The rest stood for B. Notably, no one stood for A.
Each and every one of them, he asserted, has a responsibility to rise up against climate change.
“We are at a moment in history when all of us must now take on a mantle of leadership,” said Naidoo. “And we must do it in a way that energizes and motivates rather than saying ‘It’s too late. What’s the point of resistance?’”
During a presentation that conjured reflections from Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Matt Damon, Cree elders, and the late South African rapper Riky Rick, Naidoo called for a new kind of collective action to push back on what he calls “climate apartheid” –– one that includes more voices, communicates more clearly and even incorporates a little joy.
“Pessimism and cognitive dissonance are not luxuries we can afford anymore,” he said.
As a lifelong human rights activist who first began protesting South Africa’s system of institutionalized racial oppression at age 15, Naidoo knows something about resistance.
After multiple arrests, he was forced to flee his country in the 1980s and lived in exile in the United Kingdom. He risked his life placing protest banners on oil rigs in Greenland, served in leadership roles with Greenpeace International and Amnesty International, and was instrumental in getting the African National Congress –– banned for decades under Apartheid –– formally registered as a political party again in the mid-1990s.
From this vantage point of experience, Naidoo shared a list of dos and don’ts for today’s climate activists, starting with a request to look inward.
“All of us, academia and NGOs included, have adjusted to injustices that we never should have adjusted to,” he said, suggesting that endemic “civil obedience” has stalled progress.
In addition to direct actions such as sit-ins, strikes and other protests, he said today’s activists have changed the way they communicate the climate crisis, moving away from the sterile language of science to the language of lives, land, health and jobs.
“We have tried to win this with facts and figures: ‘1.5 degrees. 350 parts per million. Blah blah blah. All of this goes completely over the heads of 99% of people,” he said.
He added that one mistake his generation has made as activists was to put too much power into the hands of a few, and he suggested it’s time for a more decentralized, participatory and collectively shared climate justice movement.
In the past, climate activists –– many of them white and wealthy –– have also failed to recognize the harm that their protests have on working people. This, too, must change.
“If you have a persistent pattern of civil disobedience being done by wealthy white people and it adversely impacts people of color, that is an arrogance that must be addressed,” he said.
Today’s climate warriors, he said, must also stop preaching to the crowd.
“Activism cannot continue to be the art of developing a position and mobilizing the people who agree with you and dissing the ones who don’t agree. It has to be about having the humility to build bridges with those we disagree with. That means learning to love the people who voted for Donald Trump.”
He praised a new generation of youth activists who have embraced the climate crisis with unprecedented urgency, but also with new tools. In addition to bringing economic and legal weapons to the fight, they are also bringing art, song and poetry.
In that vein, he ended his talk not with jarring statistics or talk of catastrophe, but rather with a song.
On a screen behind him played a music video created by his stepson, rapper Riky Rick, who tragically died this year. It was initially created as a love song –– one lover trying to woo back another who he’d harmed. But Naidoo and his family adapted it into a love song from humans to our planet.
On the screen, images of waterfalls and sunrises intermixed with those of trash heaps and sewage as the lyrics declared:
“I was focused on paying bills when I should have focused on showing you how I feel.”
Naidoo asked the audience to stand again, this time to dance.
And they did.