So I’ve been in Cancun, Mexico since Dec. 5 assisting my old friend Kumi Naidoo with his hectic schedule at the COP16 climate summit negotiations as head of Greenpeace International and Chair of The Global Campaign for Climate Action. I haven’t been to any of the formal meetings myself, by all accounts extremely long-winded, boring gatherings, but am very much part of the behind the scenes action, particularly where Greenpeace and Kumi are concerned.
Yesterday morning for instance I accompanied a group of Greenpeace activists as they executed one of their trademark performances designed to highlight the perils of so-called global warming. The concept was simple, efffective and relatively inexpensive, involving cutouts and submerged activists holding them up. The media turned up in force and today the Washington Post and other international and Mexican media featured images of the drowning icons. I was thrilled to be present at the execution of what was literally an iconoclastic event.
Labeled Icons Under Water the performance hoped to send a message to Ministers meeting at the UN Cancun climate talks that “the rising tide of climate impacts will affect each and every one of us – rich and poor.”
“Greenpeace is here today to illustrate that climate change does not discriminate, “ said Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International Executive Director. “We are all in this boat together, the storm is coming – we need to steer in the same direction.
“The rising tide of climate impacts, be they economic, environmental or humanitarian will affect everyone – rich and poor. Here in Cancun, Ministers must choose to steer it towards a bright and safe future. The rising tide of climate impacts, be they economic, environmental or humanitarian will affect everyone – rich and poor.”
You can read a Greenpeace activist’s account of it all here.
A few days before Icons Greenpeace activists had carried out another breathtaking, imaginative performance titled Real People can’t live under water. Visual culture fiend that I am these creative, visually arresting interventions fill me with admiration.
For Kumi however, hardcore activist that he is, such activities are peripheral to the real substance of the climate talks; they may catch the world’s attention he says, but ultimately it’s the actual, painstaking give and take between governments, big business interests and advocates and NGOs representing the interests of ordinary people that will matter in terms of reducing wear and tear on the planet. I think Greenpeace’s manipulation of the visual to grab media attention does play an important role in conveying the urgency of the situation we face and is part and parcel of winning the hearts and minds of people in the struggle for what has become known as ‘climate justice’.
I’ve blogged about Kumi before he joined Greenpeace; see my posts about his hunger strike for Zimbabwe here and here. The CNN video below gives you a more comprehensive account of his career and a better sense of his personality. He’s been to Jamaica several times since i first met him in Trinidad and Tobago at a 1995 conference on Indians in the diaspora. There aren’t too many international organizations headed by persons from the South. The Mexican Greenpeace contingent for instance take pride in the fact that Kumi is from South Africa and not from the so-called developed world. It’s going to be interesting to see if and how he manages to leave his imprint on this forty-year old NGO. By coincidence the next United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 17, is going to be held in Durban, the city of his birth.
In the videos below you can see Icons Under Water as it was orchestrated yesterday morning. Do forgive the occasional inexpert handshaking…