Defending the earth

Cognitive dissonance, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously or when performing an action that contradicts existing beliefs”. Pared down, this concept describes the discomfort one experiences when consciously carrying out a behaviour one knows to be wrong in some way. And, according to former Greenpeace International executive director and prominent South African human rights activist Kumi Naidoo, there is a good chance that you suffer from it. 

“Business leaders are suffering from a simple case of cognitive dissonance, where it is becoming increasingly clear that we are running out of time in terms of avoiding catastrophic climate change, and yet these people cannot extricate themselves from the structural economic system that has set us on this trajectory. 

“While business leaders know that the economic system in place is broken and that it only serves a handful of people, perpetuates levels of inequality and is unsustainable, their brains aren’t able to process the ongoing impact of this flawed system, because they are key actors in the system – this is cognitive dissonance,” he asserts. 

Updating finweek on the initiatives he has been seized with since resigning from Greenpeace in early 2015, Naidoo repeatedly interweaves the twin challenges of climate change and structural economic inequalities, reiterating that, in attempting to advocate for the world’s poor, one cannot overlook issues of environmental justice. 

The former struggle activist has long been a proponent of environmental and social justice, and, during his time at Greenpeace, became well-known for his unabashed criticism of established global finance and economy bodies such as the World Economic Forum, dubbing these entrenched seats of capital as obstacles to global equality. 

Business opinion

His tenure at Greenpeace also afforded him access to some of the world’s most powerful business leaders and, as a result, their perspectives on intensifying global poverty occurring concurrently with profound business growth, Naidoo says. 

“I’ve had meetings with some of the most powerful business leaders in the world, and in the one-on-one meetings they never contest the science; they never contest the urgency; they never contest the broad data. They don’t necessarily agree, but they don’t contest. 

“To mobilise action on issues that require structural change [by business leaders] is not the easiest thing in the world. It’s a condition I’ve come to describe as ‘affluenza’,” he says. 

Noting the difficulties of homogenising the attitudes of business leadership towards required structural change, Naidoo has observed a continuum of opinion on a global level that also applies to the domestic private sector.

“About 10% of business leadership actually fully ‘get it’. They acknowledge that the current system is unsustainable and that there have to be massive changes in the business environment and they recognise that climate change is a game-changer,” he explains. 

“They’re willing to make changes and want government to take the lead in terms of regulatory changes.”

On the other end of the spectrum, another 10% to 15% of the heads of business are still trying to raise questions and doubts around the veracity of climate change and inequality claims. 

“They accuse civil society of being alarmists, even though they are completely out of synch with the data,” he declares. 

Around 60% of business leaders, Naidoo adds, believe that “symbolic interventions” are sufficient.

“Nedbank, for example, will say that they’re a green bank because they support the World Wildlife Fund, but, on the other hand, they are funding fossil fuels. So there is still a lot of ‘greenwashing’ that happens,” he holds. 

Climate finance lobby

Dissatisfied with the apparently measured pace of structural change in the global financial and economic sectors, Naidoo last year joined over 40 organisational delegates from across the world at an inaugural workshop for the establishment of the Global Climate Finance Campaign. 

Its overall goal is to introduce new interventions aimed at urgently shifting finance and investments away from fossil-fuel and other “climate-destructive” projects, and towards capital-hungry renewable energy projects.

Describing the campaign as one that aims to address climate change by “following the money”, Naidoo explains that the lobby’s initial intervention will involve challenging regulatory and central banks to introduce strong sustainability criteria in terms of lending, through stricter national regulation. 

The second, and perhaps most contentious approach, is to discourage lending institutions from providing funding to projects that involve fossil fuels, deforestation, the construction of large dams and other “climate-destructive” lending. 

Among the aims of this intervention is to drive 20% disinvestment in climate-destructive projects by 2020 and to ensure that the world’s 20 largest multinational banks publicly support climate-constructive investment by the end of the decade. 

“The lobby will also challenge pension funds, trusts, foundations, universities, and institutions which have investments and actually don’t know where those investments are actually sitting. We want them to divest from all projects that involve fossil fuel,” Naidoo tells finweek. 

Africans rising

Domestically, Naidoo remains active in social and environmental advocacy, and is currently focusing on building a coalition for energy justice in SA. 

“This is not simply about defeating the nuclear deal, but is also about presenting a different energy vision for SA which is more driven by renewables,” he says. 

On a continental level, Naidoo is readying for the 25 May launch of social justice organisation Africans Rising for Justice, Freedom and Dignity, a multi-national African organisation that will promote civic action, fight for social rights and freedoms, demand good governance and promote environmental justice. 

He adds that the organisation will critically evaluate the methods conventionally used by civil society to mobilise support in order to become more effective at creating real, structural change across Africa. 

“Albert Einstein said that ‘insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result’, and government leaders are guilty of this, but to be honest, so are some civil society leaders. We get trapped into a status quo where we are trying to rearrange the deckchairs while the ship is sinking. 

“As Africans rising… we are being self-critical of what has worked, what hasn’t worked and whether we are posing the right questions,” he argues. 

Naidoo is, meanwhile, cognisant of the enduring reluctance of many in business and government to engage over issues of climate change and structural economic inequality, but remains resolute in his undertaking to lobby the public and private sector towards enduring change. 

“All of us want to live a well-adjusted life. But there are so many things in the world that are unfair and unjust that we should refuse to be well-adjusted to it. If people say I’m maladjusted to the levels of poverty, structural inequalities, corruption, then I am okay with that. 

“I realise that some of your readers will say I’m too radical [around structural economy and climate change], but I wish I was more wrong about this more consistently,” he concludes. 

This article originally appeared in the 6 April edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here

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