Home > The Great Unraveling? > Who’s Already Suffering the Consequences of the Environmental Crisis?

The consequences of environmental degradation have impacted people across the world for hundreds of years. In recent decades, the negative social, economic, and health impacts of global problems, particularly climate breakdown, have fallen disproportionately on those least responsible.

In this episode of the “Great Unraveling?” series, Nnimmo Bassey joins Laurie Laybourn-Langton to explore how environmental destruction has impacted peoples past and present, particularly those whose voices are often marginalized within and across countries.

Nnimmo Bassey is director of the ecological think-tank Health of Mother Earth Foundation. Among other positions, he is a member of the steering committee of Oilwatch International, and was formerly chair of Friends of the Earth International. In 2010, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award and, in 2012, the Rafto Prize.


Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
The consequences of environmental degradation have impacted people across the world for hundreds of years. In recent decades, the negative social, economic, and health impacts of global problems, particularly climate breakdown, have fallen disproportionately on those least responsible. This episode explores how environmental destruction has impacted people’s past and present, particularly those voices who are often marginalized within and across countries.

To do so, I’m joined by Nnimmo Bassey, who is director of the ecological think tank The Health of Mother Earth Foundation, among other positions. He is a member of the Steering Committee of Oil Watch International and was formerly Chair of Friends of the Earth International. In 2010, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, and in 2012, the Rafto Prize. Nnimmo, welcome.

Nnimmo Bassey 
Thank you very much.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
It’s very good to have you here. And I’m going to launch in with the first question. In what way have communities, particularly in the Global South, experienced the growing consequences of climate breakdown and other global environmental problems?

Nnimmo Bassey 
The climate breakdown and other global environmental problems have meant very direct challenges to communities in the Global South. Because the area have generally been a sacrifice zone through many years. The plundering of the Global South has gone on, through slavery, through colonialism and, right now, ongoing imperialism. The imperial powers that don’t accept that they are imperial. 

In terms of global warming, the path has been very clear in terms of desertification. If you talk about Africa, the Sahel region is very seriously impacted, and we have got erosion. You know, Africa, I talk about Africa a lot, Africa is surrounded by water. So rising sea levels have direct implication for communities. But even before that becomes a major issue, there’s a lot of coastal erosion right around the continent, and in some places like the Niger Delta, where I come from, we also are experiencing natural soil subsidence. So the global warming sea level rise compound this. 

Then we have gross pollution from fossil fuel extraction, whether coal, or oil, or gas. And early 2019, we had two severe cyclones in Southeastern Africa—Cyclone Idai, and Cyclone Kenneth. That kind of cyclone never happened in recent history in that region. We learned that increasing Indian Ocean temperatures are triggering this kind of cyclones. So we’ve seeing the cyclones, we’re seeing global warming impact very directly on the lives of the people in many nations–impacting agricultural production, and of course, livelihoods, and access to resources.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
And in what way does that lived experience feed in to justice movements in the Global South, both in the past, so you talked about a number of issues there when it came to the impacts of particularly Western nations on the Global South. So when it comes to those movements in the past, how much of this lived experience environmental degradation, feed into that narrative and campaigning, and how is that if in any way changing now, as those impacts increase?

Nnimmo Bassey 
Yes. Well, as the impacts, as you rightly suggested, that has been over a long stretch of time. But now, are getting more stark, more clear, more challenging. The struggle now is about survival, because the lives of people are threatened. Environmental justice campaigns in the Global South is a life or death struggle, because the most people directly depend on environmental resources.  So the fight for justice is a natural struggle to ensure that the very basis of life, the fabric of life, the webs of life, natural webs of life, are supported and maintained.

We find that the degradation over the years has been in some places totally unimaginable.  I could speak directly about the kind of environmental degradation caused by oil companies and oil extraction in Niger Delta, in Nigeria, talk about what oil companies have done in the Amazonia area of the Equator, talk about coal extraction in South Africa, which has left caves abandoned, coal mines that are on fire for decades. We have gas flaring in the Niger Delta that has been going on from the 1950s and they go on day and night, 24 hours every day for this length of time. In the past two years, it’s been, on the average five oil spills every day in the Niger Delta. 

So the buildup of environmental degradation—mostly are tied to extraction of resources that are compounding global warming—has been so threatening that people have over the years, they’ve mobilized and organized and there are more and more communities standing up to resist what is present in their lives. Because people are seeing what’s going on as not just an occasional environmental change or occasional pollution or contamination.

What people are seeing are things that may not be reversible in this lifetime. Things that will take many lifetimes to return to normal, if the situation is not further compounded. 

So the struggle is happening at all dimensions environmental, social, economic, political. You find communities, faith-based organizations and media coming together in the struggle for a complete overhaul of the system. So they, I will say that at this stage we are now, we’ve got a point where if solidarity is not built at a higher level, the challenges that are confronting communities and territories and regions will not be surmounted. So this has forced grassroots to live more regionally and attempt also to live globally.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
Right. And that was going to be my next question. If we look over the coming years and decades, a time in which we expect these environmental shocks to increase, particularly driven by things like climate breakdown, how do you think those movements will respond to that? You’re saying that they’re already making those connections across regions across the world. And presumably, you’ve also got the impact of a younger generation coming up as well. As we look into a world in which, at the moment, it looks like it’s going to be more environmentally destabilized, how do you expect those movements to evolve and develop?

Nnimmo Bassey 
I’m thinking that the direction of things would have to actually go very fundamental. There are many things we take for granted. For example, when we look at economic models, people generally believe that market forces are invisible. That is the question of demand and supply. So even in terms of countering the continuous dependence on fossil fuels, the approach is mostly in that dimension. We need to go back to look at what constitutes economy? What constitutes energy? What has made us think this way? What is the factor behind the imaginary, that’s driving the way we behave? 

And I think the movements would have to engage in struggles for a mindset reset, so that we go back to who we truly are and come back not just as individuals, but as a collective in all our various locations.

So as I’m seeing a situation where, when movements challenge the imaginaries, they will also look at: Wow, why are we hearing that technology has solutions to everything, to food production, to climate solutions? How come we don’t realize that what is creating more of the problem is the entrenchment of false solutions? 

I see a situation where movements go back to traditional wisdom, to indigenous knowledge, and build a future based on knowledge that is not driven by financial or economic benefits and kind of domination. So things like climate, generally, would be seen to clearly put, potentially aim at deflecting climate impacts on the Global South {unclear} will eventually destroy biodiversity on which most will depend for survival.

Therefore it would only be those who are equipped to survive, maybe to go to Mars or to live in outer space, who can create this kind of artificial environment on air, and also possibly do well on it.  So really, I think the race for the remaining natural resources will make the situation more complex and more violent, possibly, and movements aiming actually taking aim at stopping war.

We have to stop the investment in armaments because right now we’re talking about Green Climate Fund to help countries, vulnerable countries, to be raised to a level of 100 billion US dollars in a year, reversing climate impacts on countries that go beyond that one year. And there will soon be richer countries investing up to 2 trillion, almost 2 trillion US dollars, literally on warfare and equipment every year.

We are seeing imperialism in the forms of military bases across the world, and countries who are more or less, more or less, running the world and setting extra influence on where decisions are being made, destroying multilateralism. This, I believe this would make the movements in the future, more, more connected, more intense, and the risk even higher. But I don’t think it’s going to be ultimately negative. I think people power will bring about system change that is needed.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
And that’s a great note to end on. Nnimmo, thank you so much for joining us.

Nnimmo Bassey 
It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.