Q and A with UNEP Goodwill Ambassador Don Cheadle
World Environment Day, 5 June 2010

1.Currently, I do not see much coverage of the Darfur humanitarian crisis/environmental degradation by the major media houses as was the case during the last few years. Is this the case? Does this imply an improvement of conditions on the ground? What is response to people who refute genocide in Darfur, Sudan? Could you briefly shed light on your responsibilities as a UNEP Goodwill Ambassador?
As far as I can tell, there have been very few conversations with regards to environmental degradation surrounding the complicated issues in Sudan. The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Darfur as well as the tenuous peace between the north and south have seemed to dominate the attention, and perhaps rightfully so. While water and vegetation (or lack thereof) will most certainly play a critical role in the region going forward, the pressing events and potential horrific violence to follow if the CPA falls apart take precedence at this moment. I don't believe there has been much improvement to speak of on the ground and arguably for many thousands the situation has worsened. However, in the very crowded media stream, it has proven difficult if not impossible to keep these stories "front and center." As a UNEP Goodwill Ambassador, my specific responsibilities will be fluid, but in general I hope to have the ability to draw attention to issues concerning the environment in as demonstrable a way possible, focusing disparate efforts and marshaling advocates, leaders and regular concerned men, women and children to push for change in whatever corridor that reveals itself to us.

2. Where did your interest in the environment come from, what was the trigger, the motivation?
“I’ve had a mounting interest in the environment as early as I can remember and I recall thinking about where all the trash and waste would go. I lived a good bit of my adolescent life in Colorado (USA) and I was lucky enough to grow up appreciating and experiencing lots of land and open spaces. I felt the urge to protect it. I also spent some of my childhood in Nebraska; I lived next to a water reservoir and water conservation was a major issue in those years. Water rationing for watering lawns and washing cars was a regular occurrence. I began to realize that things always get worse: traffic, exhaust, impact of aerosols - another big issue at the time with the problems of the ozone layer. I also remember the iconic commercial about litter where a Native American looks out over his vast landscape and cries a single tear at noticing all the changes. These were some of the pressing issues during my formative years, and those issues, along with my love for the beautiful environments around me, created a mental landscape which inspired me to care.”

3. During an interview with Delta’s Sky Magazine you made the link between conflict and environmental resources, can you expand a bit?
“Issues around the world, particularly in Africa, which tie back to control of land, minerals, water, and any natural resources for that matter, will exacerbate conflicts. It’s basically – “We need it. You have it. We will take it.” Other pressures such as rising temperatures, population growth and environmental decay, will all lead to conflict over resources. It’s all an extremely vicious cycle. And it is marching toward us. We can choose to march toward it or wait for it. But there is no doubt that it is coming. We must take great pains now to avoid conflicts as environmental destruction becomes worse.”

4. Do you have a view as to how the world might be in the 21st century if we keep running down our natural and nature-based assets including wildlife, water and the atmosphere?
Bleak! But I can’t entertain this thought because I have two teenaged daughters. I would love it if they were able to live in a word which is in concert with its environment. Unfortunately, the truth is that it is money over people… money over environment… money over everything. The desire to make money blinds everyone to environmental considerations. Look at the BP oil spill; we see clearly there is no mandatory contingency plan as oil continues to spill into the gulf. Right now, who cares about the fish that have become a needle in the haystack? When the dots are connected in a way that makes sense enough for people to get motivated, it’s too late. We will be back peddling. With that being said however, we are not being smart about the way we discuss environment. We need to educate and draw clear connections now...it’s not disparate pieces; it is a chain of life. Lion King is not just a musical! Kids are super smart and they lead the way on environmental issues like recycling. The trend is going in a positive direction with the kids of today as our future leaders. They are smarter about consequences.

People’s eyes are seriously being opened by this oil spill in a harsh way. There is no ignoring it. This may be a defining moment when in 15 years from now we look back and say ‘Oh, 2010 was when the Gulf died, but we could have cared less then.’ We hope it doesn’t take this type of destruction for people to notice, but most often it does. It is a Greek tragedy.”

5. What does it mean to you to be an ambassador for UNEP, the environmental wing of the UN, in a world often confused or even dismissive of international cooperation and the UN's importance/role?
“I’ve only just started my role as an ambassador, so it remains to be seen, but hopefully this designation will give me the opportunity to learn more substantive information on how countries around the world are addressing environmental challenges and let me use my brain power and influence to bring people together on what should be a ‘no-brainer’. We tend to look at control, power and finance, but these aspects will pale in comparison to our survival and this is the question we are facing. I hope to use my “celebrity” to motivate people and contribute to moving our global society back from the brink. I am surprised environment is not at the top of the agenda. What is more important than food and clean air? We need a big push. We have to connect the dots. People often think this is counterintuitive to being a self-starter, capitalist, or entrepreneur. Most often we say ‘I’ll worry about it after I get where I want to go in life or in my career. Big business got rich on the environment by not having to pay its way, and now we are telling developing nations to watch out. We have very little authority in that way. And if we go about it the way we have been, it will take more time than we have left.

It will be everyone’s top priority in the future, but for the wrong reasons and it probably be too late.”



Read Mr. Cheadle's acceptance speech

Don Cheadle announces Goodwill Ambassador designation for UNEP on Jay Leno.

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