Heed the voices of Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate and Ayakha Melithafa, they are our Earth's future

Despite the trail of misery and loss inflicted by Covid-19, it feels like just a dreadful hors d’oeuvre for bigger ordeals that are to come if we fail to change our behaviour. But it doesn’t feel like behaviour changes are the priority of most world leaders.

The presentation of the 10th Annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture by three quite extraordinary young climate justice activists – two of whom are still at school – provides a battered and bruised world with a rare opportunity to glimpse a more comforting future. 

It is to thinkers and doers of the generation of Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate and Cape Town’s own Ayakha Melithafa – who regard justice as a higher calling than the acquisition of wealth – to whom we look to pull us back from the brink.  

As leaders, representing the global North and global South, they are a hopeful counterpoint to wealthy, misogynist, nationalist men. 


Their voices must be amplified, not only to rise above the babble of selfishness, but because they speak for those who don’t necessarily have a voice – as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu so eloquently did. (Hear them speak on Archbishop Tutu’s 89th birthday on 7 October 2020 – register here).

The scariest thing about the coronavirus is that despite its trail of misery and loss, it feels like a dreadful hors d’oeuvre for bigger ordeals that are to come if we fail to change our behaviour. But it doesn’t feel that behaviour changes are the priority of most world leaders. 

The scariest thing about our response to the economic destruction the virus has wrought, and the inequality it has laid bare, is the desire of those in control of these things to get back, as quickly as possible, to where we were before the pandemic: that is, on the fast train to the destruction of the Earth’s environment as we know it. 

Our love of money and the good things in life come at the expense of life, itself.   

Over the past 50 years, global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have plunged nearly 70%. Since we began cutting down trees, 46% of all trees have been lost, according to a 2015 study in Nature

“The tree remembers but the axe forgets,” the Shona proverb says. 

At this rate, there’ll soon be nothing left. Just billions of us, we imagine, without stopping to think how we’ll live, breathe and eat… 

The trouble we’re in expresses itself, in human terms, in greed, consumptiveness, entitlement and disregard of the costs others pay for our comfort. Which leads to the destruction of natural habitats, pollution of the atmosphere – and climate injustice. 

But these are symptoms of the disease; not the disease itself. The underlying illness is an unfettered capitalist economic system that rewards those who excel at exploiting others, and the Earth. 

The global quest for capital, for what the capitalist system labels “growth”, subverts our present and our future. It has killed the natural balance of supply and demand and is tilting us over the edge. 

Yet we are continuously driven to make more money, to generate more power, to cut down more trees, to extract another drop of sweat from the brows of the poor.  

Governments say they need more money to improve the lives of the poor. Corporations promise to create jobs and opportunities if they can just develop a road through another pristine environment. Nobody admits it’s about enriching themselves.  

But look around you, at the levels of poverty and inequality.  

We are so consumed by our consumerism, we are driving so fast, that the landscape has become blurred. So focused on our destination have we become that we are no longer able to see, or no longer care, where we are going.  

And thus must we generate more power, to generate more consumption. Thus do we need more water, thus do we belch out more poisons, thus do we no longer know what to do with our waste, thus do we disregard the fact that we live on a finite planet with finite resources – thus do we continue the cycle of destruction. 

It is to this cycle that the world’s political leaders, captains of industry and members of the middle class are exhorting us to return from the miseries of Covid-19. Yet the climate crisis sounds a clarion alarm to do precisely the opposite.  

It’s a Catch-22 position we’re in. Perpetuating inequality requires us to perpetuate climate change. And that’s the choice those who are invested in the economy have made. 

It’s the wrong choice. Those who are not invested in the cycle must stand up and pull us back. And that’s why it’s so critical to invest in young leaders unencumbered by acquired or inherited possessions and wealth. 

As a Christian, I ascribe to the biblical principles of justice, honesty, morality and love – applied to all living things, including the Earth. These are in fact not Christian principles; they are universal. 

Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of philosophical Taoism, said: “Conquering the world and changing it, I do not think it can succeed. The world is a sacred vessel that cannot be changed. He who changes it, will destroy it. He who seizes it, will lose it.” 

The epic Sanskrit poem, The Mahābhārata, informs us, “Dharma exists for the welfare of all beings. Hence, that by which the welfare of all living beings is sustained, that for sure is dharma”. 

In the Babylonian Talmud we read the story of Honi, who saw an old man planting a carob tree, and asked him how long it took the tree to bear fruit. Seventy years, the old man answered… “I found ready-grown carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me, so I too plant these for my children.” 

This most ancient of wisdom has been consumed by the pursuit of industrial profit. 

We must heed what young Greta, Vanessa and Ayakha say, on the Archbishop’s 89th birthday. 

It’s that, or carry on slip-sliding over the edge. DM