Bianca Jagger wishes we could all be more childlike when it comes to confronting the government about climate change, says Charlotte Metcalf.
Before Bianca arrives I find myself rehearsing her titles. There are so many that I’m nervous of slipping up over one. They include Founder, President and Chief Executive of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador, Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a member of the Executive Director’s Leadership Council of Amnesty International USA. Her reputation as a fierce human rights defender precedes her and I am expecting her to be intensely focussed with zero time for small talk. I am delighted and surprised when she arrives, warm, smiling, relaxed and happy to talk.
‘What people don’t understand is that I’m not from Paris, New York or London but Nicaragua,’ she begins. ‘I grew up under Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship. My parents divorced when I was ten. My mother had a small place selling organic juices but in conservative, Catholic Nicaragua she was looked down on as a divorced, working woman. I inherited her independence, her progressive political views and love of the environment. She was and continues to be my inspiration and role model.’
‘I didn’t want to be subjected to the same fate and promised myself I’d have an education,’ says Bianca. At 16 she won a scholarship to study political science in Paris. Her father opposed the idea, believing Paris was a ‘hotbed of sin’, but he underestimated his daughter’s determination. She arrived there on Bastille Day. ‘At first I was placed in a hotel and I hardly dared scuttle to the corner and back,’ she laughs, ‘I’d never been without a chaperone so I was terrified. But eventually I found lodgings and I was so young that my teachers looked after me as a sort of mascot.’ Bianca stayed in Paris for four years.
In 1972 an earthquake hit Nicaragua, killing 10,000. She and Mick, whom she’d recently married, went there as fast as they could. ‘I was devastated,’ she remembers. ‘Managua airport was almost completely destroyed and was full of containers of aid that Somoza had appropriated. I can still smell the stench of burnt bodies as we drove through Managua.’
Bianca couldn’t find her parents as their homes were both destroyed. ‘In desperation I put out a radio announcement and finally tracked them down in another town,’ she says. ‘On my return, I asked the Rolling Stones to do a relief concert to help the victims. I wanted to build a small children’s clinic with the funds but Mrs Somoza was the President of the National Board for Assistance and Social Security and was building her own children’s hospital. She invited us for tea, hoping we’d give our funds direct to her. We sat by the swimming pool in the blazing heat and she kept fiddling with the buttons on her denim dress. I explained that the American people who’d contributed so generously would not think kindly of donating the funds to her government as they didn’t trust it. She regarded my answer as a declaration of war.’
The relief concert money was used to build shelter for earthquake victims but Bianca became persona non grata in Nicaragua. She describes the earthquake as one of her ‘epiphanies’, opening her eyes to poverty, child mortality, oppression and corruption. When the current President, Daniel Ortega, toppled Somoza in 1979, Bianca found Ortega to be even more ruthless, barbaric and corrupt. ‘I feel so betrayed,’ she says, ‘I supported the revolution as I hoped it would bring democracy and free elections but now we have a criminal despot killing innocent students, journalists, farmers, women and torturing political prisoners.’ She has visited Nicaragua several times in the last few years, helping Amnesty and other organisations give voice to those being persecuted and killed. Yet her work for her home country is just one aspect of what she does globally.
Recently she’s contributed to an ambitious book, 2030 NOW, which brings together artists, campaigners and global ‘action heroes’ to highlight the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Illustrated with spectacular photography by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the book marks the start of a worldwide project to raise awareness of the UN’s work. It was launched at Harvey Nichols in early March, where Bianca made a speech as Ambassador for Goal 13: Climate Action. Other ambassadors include Sir Richard Branson, Glenn Close, Richard Curtis and Michelle Yeoh.
I say I was surprised not to see Bianca as Ambassador for Goal 05: Gender Equality, a role taken by Marta Vieira da Silva, but Bianca sees how broad Goal 13 is and has embraced it wholeheartedly. ‘Climate action is of particular concern to me because it directly affects human rights – it’s inextricably linked with them,’ she says. ‘If we don’t tackle climate change now, our efforts to improve all people’s lives will be to no avail. A grave mistake is the way climate change is being represented to the public, as if its catastrophic consequences are in the distance and far away. But they’re happening right here and now. This February was Britain’s hottest on record. In Britain we see migration as a threat but if we don’t tackle climate change, millions will be forced to flee their homes and migration will become an even more enormous issue. How can governments continue to deny that climate change is going to have a momentous impact on all of us?’
Bianca on Brexit
We start talking about British politics and then inexorably – given it’s nearing 29 March – we move on to chat about Brexit. As Bianca warms with earthy passion to her main theme, the failure of politicians to lead and act, any vestiges of chilliness melt as fast as the polar ice caps. ‘Policy propositions and agreements are inadequate and politicians continue to lie,’ she insists. ‘Some NGOs have gone along with policy so as not to be accused of being alarmist. But why haven’t we embarked upon a green energy revolution here? Thousands of jobs are being created in the renewable energy sector and it can only evolve and improve so why are we lagging so woefully behind in our support for it? How can the British government support fracking when we know the harm it does – to water sources, the environment, the air and our way of life?’
We turn briefly to Trump, whom she dismisses with magnificent contempt. She’s enraged but neither pompous nor hectoring, partly because she’s so aware of her own tiny hypocrisies. ‘Here I am going on about plastic and I’m guilty of buying make-up that comes in too much packaging or occasionally drinking out of plastic bottles,’ she grins ruefully. ‘But what to do? Look at places like Whole Foods that claim to be organic and support sustainability but they’re selling their juices in plastic bottles. Why aren’t Evian and Vittel and others selling water in recyclable glass?’
Walk the Talk
Mainly Bianca genuinely walks the talk (a phrase she likes): she will never invest in a ‘dodgy’ share; she will always try to avoid using a plastic bag; she doesn’t own a car and uses public transport; she recycles religiously; she doesn’t eat meat or farmed fish and carries around little bags of seeds or nuts, ‘like a bird’. She bemoans the fact that it’s so difficult and expensive to find genuinely wild fish but adds, ‘it’s our fault. We’ve over-fished. We’ve used pesticides and grown GM crops. We only have one planet and until we all change the way we eat, we’ll destroy it.’
For all her gloom about what we’ve done, she remains positive about how we can all do our bit
to change the world. ‘The possibilities are infinite but every one of us needs to act right now,’ she says. ‘Information is key and that’s why I like social media – it’s fast and effective and a way of engaging us all, and we all need to be engaged if we’re to avoid disaster.’
I ask her what we can all do from today as individuals, other than following her by recycling, watching what we eat, avoiding plastic and using public transport. ‘We have to be hands-on to find and support the
right politicians to elect. People who don’t vote make me furious,’ she concludes. ‘We need to lobby and hold accountable supermarkets, brands, farmers and governments. We have to boycott big stores that use plastic and keep insisting that governments ban it. Thousands of kids took to the streets to march and pressurise governments about climate change. So why don’t we? Sometimes I wish that we thought like children – they have so much more courage.’
Bianca herself is childlike on one level because she lacks the cynicism of a battle-weary adult. She’s convincing and engaging because her ardour, commitment, certainty and courage are so obviously heartfelt. Perhaps most impressive of all is her wisdom that stems from her experience, facing down danger to make a stand for the oppressed in Nicaragua and elsewhere. Increasingly her voice has gained gravitas and global status. Would she consider politics? And that leads to another long and animated conversation.
2030 NOW is available to purchase at Harvey Nichols, 2030NOW.com, Kokoro London and Daunt Books.