S1E1: Don Cheadle on the Power of Art for Change

December 1, 2021
In our inaugural episode, IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop sits down with filmmaker, actor, and climate justice activist Don Cheadle to talk about how art and storytelling can raise awareness of a changing climate and inspire people to live their lives differently.

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IFC’s new podcast series explores how finance and economic development influence―and are influenced by―creative industries around the world. We’re trying to answer the biggest question of all: how people, working together, can create meaningful change. In our inaugural episode, IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop sits down with filmmaker, actor, and climate justice activist Don Cheadle to talk about how art and storytelling can raise awareness of a changing climate and inspire people to live their lives differently.


Makhtar Diop (MD): Hi, and welcome. I am your host, Makhtar Diop. I am the Managing Director of the IFC, International Finance Corporation. We are starting a new podcast series called Creative Development. It’s bringing together creative industry and economic development. We will be discussing the relationship between finance, economic development, and the creative industries. How they feed each other, how they influence each other, and how we can change the world in which we are living.

And to start this series we have a great actor, film maker, activist, Don Cheadle. In today's episode of Creative Development, I sat down with Don to talk about the role of the arts to move forward climate action.

Don Cheadle (DC): Yeah, so, I think the intersection between art and and, I’ve said this a lot but I think Brad Pitt was the first person that I heard say it. And it really made sense to me. Talking about celebrities and their ability to draw attention to issues that are important. You know, he said, I can't get out of the light. And these people can't get in the light. And it really does speak to the ability for celebrity... And what is it that we need to do in this position to bring attention to the issues that are very important to us, and not just to us, but everyone today.

MD: Don is passionate about climate change and climate justice and it’s a subject that means a lot to me too. And it has for a long time.

MD: I am from Senegal, I grew up next to the sea. My family is coming from St Louis. St. Louis, in Senegal, there were some places where I used to play when I was a kid, which has been totally eroded. And the coast there has been totally devastated. And as a consequence, people are getting in boats and going to Europe and dying in the sea. So for me, it's about human beings living today, and about our children, and about our present.

DC: Absolutely, we're speaking about how it impacts the most vulnerable among us and how people with means, people with money to a degree will be able to insulate themselves somewhat. But those that are living at the fringes, and those people who are, you know, coming up against it, subsistence farmers, people who live off of the sea, are the ones that are going to be most greatly impacted. And when I think about the intersections of all of these things--you know, we talk about intersectionality a lot in the work that we do, specifically with the group that I work with, the Solutions Project, that looks to figure out solutions, again, for those that are that are suffering the most and that are the most disenfranchised, and we're always talking about climate justice, and how we can make sure that we are doing the most for the least amongst us. Where do you see the main focus? I know that you are big on development, you know a lot about economics, obviously. Where do you see where our most concerted effort has to be, with regards to the people that are doing the worst.

MD: There is a nice paper recently, and TED talk, about the link between conflict and climate change. That's really a powerful message. Because people are talking about these things in isolation. In fact, all this climate change is creating huge shocks in the communities. And when there are scarce resources, the reaction of people is to channel through a conflict, the use of these meager resources which are around them. I want to relate it to the great work that you did in Hotel Rwanda. You are a powerful advocate of showing the link between climate change and some of the things that we saw in the world like genocide.

What we can do is empower people, I think that it will not be a solution of people sitting in big conferences, talking about it, that will make it happen. We need to find solutions which are important for people and which involve them in the realization of it. I think that also work with you on reforestation, preserving the ecosystems. The Great Green wall that is being built now in Africa is something very important. How to convince the rest of the world sort of exploitation of the marine resources, or the Arctic resources in the seas in Africa will lead to conflict and will lead to to misery and will lead to migration and have a mechanism where we give some more credit, we save some resources to people to be able to make a living out of it and to protect the environment.

DC: And you mentioned how it was impacting places like Rwanda. It's something else that we observed in Sudan, in Darfur, that was directly underpinning the conflict, the inability for people to obtain the resources, water, firewood, you know, women having to leave their villages and then putting themselves at risk, because they moved into areas where they were then vulnerable. And how that became something that underpinned what was happening with that conflict? And yes, it's something that we see again and again and always exacerbates these conflicts. And hopefully, there will be a way through micro loans to any of these things that we're talking about, bring people more into the fold so that they can have some sort of autonomy over their own, their own trajectory. That they can impact their own lives in a positive way and start to be a part of the solution for what they did not create. That’s the other issue we don’t talk about. So it's really about justice in every way that we talk about it, it seems to me.

MD: But Don you make a very, very powerful point. Just one data. I was talking to our team. We were talking about CO2 emissions. When you look at the energy in Sub-Saharan Africa, in fact, the emissions coming from energy produced in Africa is 3 percent of the world’s emissions.

Three percent and look at the impact of climate change on the living conditions of people. So its obvious there are people who are producing basically no CO2 who are suffering the most of the consequences of emissions and that injustice is, is important. I think it will be important to emphasize the shared responsibilities that people have. And I have an example in mind, we are talking about e-vehicles more and more in OECD countries, and large countries, how to “green,” all this, but at the same time, people are exporting older cars in South Asia and in Africa.

So polluting cars are sent to the poorest country, while people are very happy to green their transportation into the richest country. So things that we can work together is to bring the world community to say, while we are doing that in our country, we need also to take measures to stop exporting those very old polluting cars, but also to give opportunity to people out there to get access to cheap transportation, maybe by finding a way to subsidize this or to find other means.

And I think that that is a strong message that I heard from what you said, Don.

DC: And we need to have those people who are most affected egregiously by this be a part of the solutions, I believe, and be a part of letting people know exactly what and how they need it, so that is not, again, something that's sort of a top-down approach, but something where we're reaching toward the people to say and and how can we specifically, based on your experiences based on your specific needs, bring you into the fold and not just be dictating what it is that you need? And I think that's important for all organizations to think about that, that the people that, you know, we're professing to help need to be at the table to explain to them how to be helped.

MD: Yeah, you’re so right. I think that sustainable development, sustainable from an environmental standpoint, but sustainable in time is when people are involved. You can do something sustainable from an environmental point of view, but not sustainable over time, if people are not involved in it. It is an illusion in this world that people will not express their views.

It will work for a while, but at some point it will not be sustainable anymore. And I think that the lesson of last year, what happened in this country and other places in the world was a big awakening for all of us. You know, there is some, racial injustice will, cannot continue forever, you know, at some points there is something which will happen, which may make people wake up and say, um-um, and it can be brutal. It can be violent. It can be soft. We hope that it's not violent. We never wanted it to be, but if it happen, so the change would happen and that's the same for sustainability. We can build a world that is sustainable, meaning peaceful, friendly in nature, and inclusive.

DC: What do you, what do you think that the IFC’s biggest challenge, or biggest opportunity for climate change globally, is? What are you focused on?

MD: What are you focusing on now is that we will be in two years 85 percent Paris-aligned in our lending operations, and in 2025, 100 percent Paris-aligned. So it means that we are really putting a lot on that front. The kind of things that we are doing now, we are doing more and more blue bonds and green bonds, where we are really issuing bonds, to be able to do some investment in green activities. For instance, recently in Indonesia, we had a loan to one of our companies to help them recycle marine plastic. So just, as you see, we are doing more and more, working with banks, we are trying now to push them to not to add any more carbon in the atmosphere. And just what we are talking about when talking about being Paris-aligned, just the hard work, because small companies in developing countries don't have the capacity to have access to the right technology to our processes. We're not emitting but we are accompanying them with loans and by technical assistance, and helping banks also to screen and have the climate change lens when they are making and extending loans to companies. So this is the kind of things that we are doing practically.

DC: Absolutely. I think people need to be sensitized to these issues, and specifically to climate change, in a way that makes them feel something, that it's not a cerebral thing that's happening. We can talk about CO2, we can talk about, you know, your carbon footprint, we can talk about the level of, of sea rise that we have to make sure we keep it under, and you know, I'm always trying to figure out ways to smuggle these messages in, so to speak. You know, to get people nodding their heads, and then they leave later and go, wait a minute, did I just learn something? Or did I just, was I just inspired now, and I didn't even know it, you know. So I think it's important to do both. Because I think if things become too preachy, if something feels like it's proselytizing, I think people want to reject it or fold their arms. And that's why I think music is so great. And art is so great, because it's disarming, because it has the exact opposite effect, it has the ability to get in and get past your defenses and get you in your feelings in a good way, and kind of out of your head. And I think that's what we need. I think a lot of people can just wide-eye and become overwhelmed. But art can have an impact on people in a way that that gets past all of that noise.

MD: Because I don't believe that anybody, inherently doesn't care about the well being of the planet. Understand why that person is not understanding the gravity and importance of it. As you say, art is a powerful tool to do that.

If I think about what has been done in the fight against apartheid, you know, if we didn't have Hugh Masakela, Miriam Makeba, Dudu Pukwana, Harry Belafonte, all these great artists. I mean, first of all, young students at a time...

DC: Students, Yes, I'm glad you said that's it.

MD: ...was these people, they've been able to influence our generation’s understanding, and going to horizons that would have never expected to go today. I don't see a big change in recent history where art didn’t play a big role.

DC: Absolutely. And, and, and I will say art slash storytelling, I don't. To me, those are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Not only are they not mutually exclusive, they go hand in hand. So it's, it's how to make sure that the art that we're creating is speaking, you know, to the nerve of the issue without again, being too soapbox. But you know, being something that invites in and sometimes being confrontational and in your face, I mean, any way that you have to get to these results, we have to get, we have to get to them. I think it's also very important that we are clear that it's one thing to talk about individual responsibility. But I think that often that we focus on that much more than we focus on responsibility of corporations, you know, that when we're talking about relative to the pollution, and relative to the negative effects that are impacting the environment, they're much more heavy on the side of the corporations and much more heavy on the side of, of people who are making billions and billions of dollars off of these practices than they are about individuals who drive a gas car, or you know, neglect to do the best in recycling. We are not the ones, human beings individually are not the ones that are having the greatest impact. So I think in everything that we do, we have to be sure that we're focusing on the corporations and focusing on the entities that we know are raising the heat level and contributing more to greenhouse gases, and find ways to inspire the individuals to collectively hold them to account because that's really where the focus should be.

Yes, personal responsibility is important. And yes, we have to find ways in our individual lives to not create the demand that the supply from these corporations is feeding, but at the same time, we have to look to the big bads in that way. And really, you know, put attention on where where it's needed.

MD: I think you're perfectly right, we need to make sure that we don't ask the same to the person who is trying to make a living every day, the same countries also, we know we need to listen to what they say. We need to be very attentive when people are telling you, listen 20 percent of my population has access to electricity, so what do you want me to do, we have to listen to that, we have to solve that problem. But the beauty is that with technology and advancement, today there is a possibility of doing it in a way which is sustainable, and that that transitions that we need to beat together and convinced the world together, put the resources to be able to finance and I think that one of the challenges also commitment, which others made in financing the transition needs to be put at the table. So resources have been pledged needs to be put at the table. And I think that's the way we will be able really to do what you are suggesting. And I think that art is at the center of it.

DC: Um, I have kids, my kids are in their twenties now and grown, but you know, I, I know that, you know, if they have children, we're talking about people that we can touch, uh, who we are trying to protect and save for future generations. So it's very important. The work has to be done and we have to do it now. It's very important. The work has to be done. And we have to do it now. So I would just like to say I appreciate you. I appreciate the IFC. I appreciate anyone who's throwing in to try to get us to the result that we need to get to.

MD: Don, really. I’m humbled really to have this conversation with you.

DC: Well, it's great to meet another ally in the fight. Let's just keep cracking. Let's just keep cracking Makhtar, we got to do it right.

MD: Thank you for listening. Creative Development was hosted by me, Makhtar Diop. It is produced by Aida Holly Nambi and Maeve Francis for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your networks or tell a friend.