We need to overturn the system

In conversation with alt-Nobel winner Nnimmo Bassey – Published on rabble.ca, by ETHAN COX, June 15, 2013.

… Bassey is a Nigerian activist, author and poet, who has devoted his life to fighting for a healthy environment. He is the Director of the newly formed Health of Mother Earth Foundation HOMEF, the coordinator of Oil Watch International (no website found) and was, until last year, the Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action ERA, a grassroots NGO he founded, and the Chairperson of Friends of the Earth – International (FOI-I).   

Named a “hero of the environment” by Time magazine in 2009, Bassey was awarded the Right Livelihood award in 2010, colloquially referred to as the alternative Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2012 won the prestigious Rafto Human Rights Prize. He is the author of the newly released “To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa” and has been touted as a candidate for the Nobel Peace prize itself.

Bassey is in Montreal this weekend to speak at the Festival of Solidarity, an annual event organized by Montreal-based NGO Alternatives, and rabble was able to sit down with him to discuss his three decades of climate justice activism, and his vision of an oil-free future … //

… You said when you were younger you were working on human rights and then got drawn to the environment because you were looking for the root causes of these human rights abuses. Now, with the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, it sounds like a similar process of trying to look at the root causes of why we have these issues – why is there hunger? Why are there these environmental problems? Do you believe the current system can be reformed, or do you think we need to change the system in order to save the planet?

  • Absolutely. We need to overturn the system. Most policy-makers believe in transactions. We don’t need transactions. What we need is transformation. We need radical change. The kind of change we need is not the one where you look and say, well, it’s slightly transformed from what it was. We need total change, because if you look at the world today, the petroleum civilization, which has driven industrialisation over the past 200 years or so, is totally unsustainable. We know that the resource we are using is non-renewable. We know it’s harming the planet. The World Bank – if you’re looking for a conservative organisation, there’s nothing more conservative than them – they said just before the last meeting in Doha that at least 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves must be left untouched if we’re going to avoid runway global warming. If we’re going to have a reasonable chance of survival as a species. And yet the world knows that this is causing global warming, and they know that this resource is depleting, but they’re saying “wait! we can get more!” We can get more from the Tar Sands, more from the deep sea, more from all kinds of things. But that is not the issue. The issue is not whether you can get more. The issue is the destruction of the planet. They’re destroying life. So we need a situation where people can think more clearly than they do right now – not just about profit. We need to restructure the economic paradigm. We cannot allow the world to be run on speculation and financialization of everything. It’s serious work.

But then the question becomes, how do we bring about that change?

  • It’s going to be a political decision, and if you work in the environmental justice movement, you don’t just stand alone as an environmental activist. You have to work with social movements, work with political movements, work with labour, work with everybody, because the thing is…we simply have to be able to get into the driver’s seat of making decisions. We need more people getting active in decision-making, understanding the issues and taking an active role. That is why in the HOME school thing, where I’m speaking with policy makers, for example, the first HOME school is going to be on climate change. We’re having that in August. And the first session will be with legislators and Nigerian negotiators and Ministry of Environment people because they need to be reminded that the way the negotiations have been undertaken is not going to solve the problem. It may bring some commerce or revenue from projects – maybe adaptation and mitigation measures and things like that, but that is just immediate and temporary. And so we want to get them to begin to look at the fundamental issues and see how narrow the negotiations have been, and to really understand why Copenhagen was such a disaster – Cancun, Durban, Doha – and how Poland will be a big disaster this year. We need to change the way decisions are being made.

And I guess change the form of democracy too, because you’re quite a vocal critic of the democratically elected government in Nigeria as well, right?

  • That’s a big issue really, because globally, if you look at the governments we have around the world, even the biggest or most applauded democratic settings, there’s very little democracy. Many of the governments are put there by big corporations who pay for their elections and who lobby them, and they have to do the bidding of those corporations. They’re not really looking at what is in the best interest of the people, only what will support business. If you look at a place like Nigeria, you find government officials going on the economic road-show. They’re looking for direct foreign investment. This is also driving land-grabbing, but they don’t call it land-grabbing. They say it’s foreign direct investment! They don’t care what happens in the future. So all this – there are no easy answers, but the whole so-called democratic setting needs to be critically reviewed. We need people to regain their sovereignty. We need to decide what we allow, and what we don’t allow – what people want, and what they don’t want. People know what they want, but right now, we’re not able to enforce what we want and what we don’t want, so we need a situation where true democratic space is created in the world and there’s bottom-up leadership, not top-down leadership. The fact that we elect a man, or woman, does not mean we surrender our sovereignty to him or her.

I was wondering if you could tell me more about what’s happening in Nigeria in terms of rebels standing up to the government or oil companies. We hear a lot about religious conflicts but not much about resistance to the oil companies…

  • There’s always been conflict in the middle belt – the middle portion of Nigeria – and it’s usually characterised as a religious conflict. But I think it’s actually a climate conflict, because you have pastoralists who are displaced by desertification, who can’t raise their cattle where they used to live before. They have to migrate southward, and then they meet farmers who need their land to cultivate crops, and then this creates conflict between the pastoralists and the farmers. It’s not because they are Muslims and Christians. It’s simply about climate. This is a climate conflict, but as long as it’s characterised as a religious conflict, then nobody is going to find a solution.

So tell me about what brings you to Canada, and your thoughts on our role in fighting climate change : … //

… What would you like to see people here in Canada do in terms of concrete action to try and change things for the better?

  • Look at what Idle No More did, just simple actions, but they captured everybody’s imagination. We need things likes this, we need more people to say no to the destruction. To me saying no is an alternative because if you say you don’t want something, that thing must stop, and that thing stopping is an option already. If all of us stop doing the wrong thing, we are going to find a thousand right ways to do things differently.
  • There are particularities in certain nations, and we will find out what is the best way to do certain things. But the things that are bad are universally bad. Destruction and dependence on fossil fuel is not good anywhere in the world. Quebec now is moving more into exploiting fragile ecosystems and places that are restricted; more people should come out and say no we don’t want this anymore. We don’t want this traditional economic growth; we don’t want to live today and not tomorrow. We have to care about what’s going to happen to our children, the planet and us. Those who have investments in this sector should pull out those shares and divest.
  • We have to reduce consumption. We have to live within our means. Things can get exhausted, that’s what it means to live within ones means. Right now what we’re doing with this kind of environmental destruction is like saying well I don’t have money, but I’ll continue living on credit. It’s not even as good as that because we know that this is bad. That is what’s happening the way nature is being degraded and destroyed. Of course ultimately, once every four years we should be careful who we vote in. We have to be careful about who we vote in and who should be trusted in these positions.

(full interview text).


Friends of the Earth – International FOI-I;

Environmental Rights Action ERA, Nigeria;

ERA – Environmental Rights Action;

Bailiff Africa;

Health of Mother Earth Foundation HOMEF, Website,
/About: HOMEF is an environmental/ecological think tank and advocacy organisation. It is rooted in solidarity and in the building and protection of human and collective dignity …;

Health of Mother Earth Foundation HOMEF on Facebook;

Call for Action: Greek Government shut down Public Broadcaster ERT, on transform, european network for alternative thinkinh and political dialogue, by Felipe van Keirsbilck, June 2013: Many of you have probably seen the news regarding the closure of the Greek public broadcaster ERT that spread across news agencies during the last couple of hours.
On Tuesday, 11 June, the Greek Finance Minister used emergency powers to close all public service radio and TV stations. All workers at ERT are to be fired with immediate effect …;

The Games Kids Used to Play, They’re Still Playing on Wall Street, on Dissident Voice, by Bill Annett, June 15, 2013;

The Real Dow, on Real-World Economics Review Blog, by Edward Fullbrook, June 13, 2013.

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