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Jay Naidoo on Today’s Challenges: Ecology Must be at the Center

By: Christine Grillo

BALTIMORE - September 30, 2020. Earlier this year, when the coronavirus pandemic began and countries began to shelter in place, Jay Naidoo found himself in lockdown in an ashram in India. Every morning he woke at 3 a.m. and spent the next 18 hours thinking and being in ways that were new for him. One day he watched an ant for hours, fascinated. He spent a day studying a flower, its geometry and fragrance. In the ashram, he began to get a deeper sense of how much we don’t know—that when we recognize that our ignorance is much greater than our knowledge, it makes life an adventure. “For the first time in my life, I had all this time to think about who I am and why I’m here and what lessons I need to learn. I asked myself what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said.

Naidoo, age 66, is a South African citizen of Indian ancestry, a status that often left him angry and hurt throughout his childhood during apartheid. His activism took root in the South African Students Organisation to end apartheid, his country’s institutionalized white supremacy, and led to decades of work in the labor movement in South Africa. When apartheid officially ended in the early 1990s, he coordinated the Reconstruction and Development Program, and he served in the cabinet of the country’s first Black head of state, President Nelson Mandela. Following that, he served on committees dealing with malnutrition and technology of the United Nations and other international organizations including the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. He speaks reverently of Mandela, referring to him as someone who went a long way to achieve a pure human state. “In the presence of Mandela, you feel safe, secure, you feel you’ve been seen, you’re not voiceless, you’re part of this greater humanity,” he said. “That’s possible for all of us.”

Since his time in the ashram, he’s become less interested in projects and programs and more interested in what we can do to change our mindsets. What he learned through his life as a social activist  is that changing systems is the smaller part of creating a better world. The critical work is changing human beings. This time in history—we’re at an inflection point in our journey as a civilization, he says—is the time to be courageous and bold.

“No matter how progressive a constitution is, you have to change people. In South Africa, we de-racialized politics, but we didn’t de-racialize land ownership, economy or education,” he said. “We’re seeing this in the United States, now. It takes a long time to build up good governance, and only a few years to destroy it. We have to change the human being.”

During our conversation, he mentioned three big life lessons that he’s learned in the last years.

“Ecology has to be at the center of everything we do,” he said. “In 50 years of activism, I missed that point until now.” That was the first Big Lesson he’s learned recently.

His work in agriculture has convinced him that the biggest challenge we face today is that we’re destroying our soil, which is undermining all the systems that support life and health. “Industrialized, chemical-driven agriculture in the West has so poisoned the soil that it’s incapable of producing nutritious food,” he said, adding that our current model of agriculture creates disease.

Agriculture that focuses on the soil and shared ecosystem services is where we need to focus. Forms of regenerative agriculture, including biodynamics, a holistic form of agriculture that adapts to the landscape, climate, and lunar cycles, are what we need to shift toward immediately to create pathways of hope and opportunity, livelihoods, and preserve (and augment) the natural resources we still have. Agroecology, agroforestry, re-discovery of indigenous knowledge—Naidoo supports all of it. We must understand the natural environment as a living organism and stop the ecocide that permeates modern agriculture.

With the emergence of the coronavirus, we’ve seen even more clearly that the food system is broken. “There’s no question of that,” he said. “Isn’t Covid a consequence of the way we treat Mother Earth? That the human being is becoming the carrier of so many diseases?”

The need to return to the sacred feminine, he says, is the second Big Lesson he’s learned recently. In the end, trade unions, like all institutions of politics and business, including nonprofit organizations and civil society, are patriarchal and hierarchical. The sacred feminine is about so much more than winning equal pay or putting more women in government. What we need, really, is to become again a matriarchal society, because women put children first, and after that everything else that’s important follows: stewardship of the earth, nutritious food, education, and more. A society presided over by grandmothers is the ideal society.

Naidoo spent much of his life advocating for workers’ rights, especially those in agricultural work, by building up trade unions. When it comes to workers, dignity is foremost on his mind. “Unions played a powerful role in creating a framework of rights for workers,” he said. “The right to assembly, the right to associate, to speak, to vote.” All good—but we need a just transition, he says. It’s not enough to secure the rights of assembly and association for a coal miner, because a coal miner faces so many dangers. “Do you want your child to face the same thing [as a coal miner]? I don’t. But they need a job. Why can’t we create a situation where we don’t need dangerous work?”

We need to re-think everything, he says, and promote a different way of living. Automation and artificial intelligence have changed the playing fields for workers—what was supposed to provide more leisure time for workers has not even come close to fulfilling that promise. “Why do we still have to work 40 hours per week?” he asked.

If we can admit that the model of development adopted post-World War II has failed us miserably, we stand a chance. We must be able to admit that we’ve made terrible mistakes, he says. Everything in life has a cycle of birth, life, and death. “We will die someday,” he said. “Why do we have this stupid notion that some things are meant to be forever? We must be able to re-imagine, re-invent. If we don’t, we stagnate, we rot … we become fossil fuel.”

The most critical worry for us today is not global warming, he says, although he’s a fan of Greta Thunberg, who he says lit a spark of imagination in much the same way his mentor Steve Biko did. The critical questions we need to ask ourselves have more to do with whether we can manage a transition to a new mindset, a new way of thinking and being human. Can we be courageous? Can we decide to do the right thing? Can we admit that the American Dream never really existed for all? Can we accept that “race” is a figment of our imagination, but exists harshly as a social construct? Can we heal the wounds of colonization? Can we, as scientists, admit to our vast ignorance and study the unknown with greater humility?

“Why do we think we want to be extraordinary?” Naidoo asked. “It’s a false notion we have, that we have to prove how great we are. It’s extraordinary to be ordinary. A flower is beautiful and ordinary.”

Naidoo’s third Big Lesson: “I am more than this body.” When we recognize that everything is sacred, we ask ourselves, “How must I behave?” He says that science and spirituality are converging: both fields know that the same energy permeates everything that exists. We are all beings of energy that vibrates, he insists. When we understand our collective humanity, our interconnectedness in relation to the natural environment, to wild animals, to everything in the planet. He referred to an African concept known as Ubuntu: I am because we are.

“While we have material comforts at the press of a button, we are also the most frustrated, angry, depressed, anxious, unhappy generation in humanity’s journey,” he said. “We all long to be somewhere else. Where? At peace. To find joy.”

Naidoo takes his best lessons from his 18-month-old grandson.

“Every day I watch him, he’s my greatest teacher,” he said. “The innocence, purity, empathy of a child—it’s true liberation. My challenge is this: How do I take this 66 years of experience and come back to being that child with curiosity and a sense of adventure to live in the moment?”

For more perspective on food systems, read the CLF Global Thought Leaders Series.

Illustration by Mike Milli, 2020.

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