Monday, December 17, 2012

The Weed of Change

So here we are. Thirteen of us sitting in a warm room in a very cold Switzerland discussing the world we want and what needs to be done to get there. What is wrong with the world you say? Or do you? We discuss this also. What are the biggest problems? We decide problems is not a good word. Lets call them challenges.

Climate Change

These two stand out in a list of things that take up two flipchart sheets of paper. 

Who are we and where do we come from? We are a group split up from 60 young people chosen by the Club of Rome to come to Switzerland to meet, discuss and find solutions for the world and humanity's role in it.We are part of a growing population the next generation of change agents. This is the hope anyway. 

So we get split up into groups to spit ball a vision of the world we would want and possible avenues to get there. In our group, we represent virtually every continent: Africa, South America, Middle East, North America, Australia, Asia, Europe. We represent a diversity of backgrounds in terms of "career": Politican, Social Justice Activist, Biologist, Global Change Ecologist, Communications Person, Mechanical Engineer, Energy Person, Anthropologist. Would have been nice to have an economist. But never the less here we are. 

Surprisingly, we all come to an agreement that the root of all of our problems is our current value system, and more specifically the economic system. This is the reason why we are in this mess. But we also realise that this is something we cannot change very quickly and that it would take too much time to prevent the looming tipping points to which we are heading. Some of you may or may not know that we have reached seven out of the nine planetary boundaries right now (see a previous post where I allude to this information published in Nature and Science recently).

Okay. So one of the group members comes up with an amazing analogy in terms of what we can do. No, what we must do. To change. Let’s say the world is under attack by a “weed”. Unfortunately, we do not have the means right now to pull the entire plant out – and by the time we figure out how, it will have been too late. We have the possible means of at least cutting the weed to prevent some catastrophic problems our world will face. And this needs to happen now. If the root (the root cause) of our problems is our value system, then the stem is the result of this root. The stem, we discussed, represents things like climate change, poverty, inequality, among others. And to cut the stem would mean fast-tracking some solutions, like renewable energy and agricultural production. We will have to get to the root eventually. If we don’t, we will always only be fixing the symptoms. But never-the-less we need to cut the stem for now. This brings some gentle disagreement within the group. “What’s the point of cutting the stem, and wasting our time, when we need to pull out the entire plant”, one of us says. Others in the group acknowledge this and try and argue that, well, the bottom is that we do need to pull the entire plant. But we really do not have the means right now, or in the near future, to push for an entire global paradigm shift when current value systems are heavily dominated by greed and consumerism. The weed of change we call it. I don’t entirely agree with the name, but its catchy.

So the rest of the week we sit in a room and discuss endlessly how we, as a group, can be part of this change. Both in terms of cutting the weed at the stem, as well as mobilise this value shift. And its hard. And its argumentative. And its passionate. And we come out with a simple plan. Communication. How do we become the communicators…or the connectors…to the Club of Rome. They have this information. How do we go home, use our channels of influence, and become the messengers of this information. How do we package it in a way that incites a critical global human mass to change?

Unfortunately I missed our final presentation because I had to jump on a plane to Equatorial Guinea to assess the country’s vulnerability to climate change and how to come up with interventions which will lead to resilience.

So more reflections on this "change of course" after I have changed gear back to the global picture. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Human Development within Planetary Boundaries

Back home after a very long trip all the way from Jeju, South Korea and I am still trying to put together all the experiences, interesting people I met, and information absorbed during the IUCN World Congress. One of these experiences I just have to share – because it is shocking that this has not gone viral. It was a presentation by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre followed by him being joined by a panel of some of the most forward-thinking people you will ever meet: Cyrie Sendashonga, Anders Wijkman, Matthias Klum, James Griffiths and Ashok Khosla. Google these people. You will be amazed.

Anyway, let me give you a gist of what was discussed. And before I do that – this information is published, I give the publications list at the end of this post for those who want to go check them out.

So. Basically, we have been very lucky for a very long time. Or should I say, since the industrial revolution. “They” say this because Earth has been our friend during our very destructive path - it has been absorbing a lot of our crap. But apparently the year 2012 will be a monumental year to remember for future generations.

Because the end of the year will mark the arctic spiral event for the first time in millions of years. The Earth will become our Foe. The Arctic polar cap will be completely ice-free. Let me explain: all that ice up there will not be there anymore....that means that what was white will now be black. And as we know, white reflects sun’s rays. Black absorbs. That white cap at the top is our cooling system. You can figure out the rest. If and when you do – you will realise the enormity of the situation.

So, that it just a teaser. Feedback from the current system we have created. We have moved, quite a while ago, into the Anthropocene. That means that this geological timeframe we are in now is named after our species’ actions and influence on Earth. We are having such an impact on our Earth that we are in the 6th Mass Extinction as a result. Due to one species. Us. Humanity is reaching Planetary Saturation Point. A great transformation to global sustainability at this point is not only necessary, but it is possible and desirable. We need to be resilient and transform in the face of crisis.

This is not news. The book “Limits of Growth”, written yonks ago, warned us that growth is limited in a closed system. And many of the things they predicted are happening. Unfortunately, the book was heavily criticized because it made assumptions about human innovations – they underestimated them – as a result some of the predictions did not come true. Which of course Economists used to jump on the entire nay-say bandwagon.

But, Johan Rockström and his friends have developed a new concept.

Planetary Boundaries.

It does not make assumptions about human innovation. It does not make assumptions on growth. All it does is say: Here is the playing field. This is the safe operating space for humanity. It encompasses three strands of science: resilience theory, scale of human action, Earth system and sustainability. The boundaries are made up of 9 processes:
1. Climate Change
2. Ozone Depletion
3. Ocean Acidification
4. Global Freshwater Use
5. Chemical Pollution
6. Land System Change
7. Rate of Biodiversity Loss
8. Bio-geochemical loading: Global Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycles
9. Atmospheric Aerosol Loading

Now. Imagine the catastrophic event, i.e. when Earth’s system has reached tipping point with all of the above boundaries, as an analogy of the human fever. At 42°C you die. But before that, at around 38°C, you take something to prevent your fever from rising. You take action. The Earth, at the moment, is at that point. 38°C. We have reached the tipping point of seven out of the nine boundaries.

Okay. So now we have the context in which we realize that the global transformation needed is not only massive, but fiercely urgent. What do I mean by this transformation? Read two or three of my posts which came before this one. Johan puts it into good perspective by saying…So…what do we need to do?

1. We need a new type of Science – one which integrates social, natural (etc) science, looking at innovation, solutions, and so on.

2. We need a mindshift in Economics. (Value systems)

But then, he says, that these things will take too long and we cannot, a this point, wait for these – it will take too long. We need to fast-track some things,

3. (a) Agriculture and (b) Energy. These two things can help us drastically within Planetary Boundaries.

So we know the “who” (Government, Business, Consumers) must act, we know the “what” needs to be acted on. Everything moving forward now is HOW.

Now you have this information. Are you going to be a by-stander? Or are you going to make the changes that YOU can?

(List of publications – apologies, they are not exactly in a standardized citation system…but then again this is my blog….so I don’t need to be formal about it: Steffen et al. 2007; Hansen and Sato 2011; “A safe operating space for humanity, Nature, 461:472-475; Rockström et al. 2011, Ecology and Society; Science, 2010:329; Gerst et al. 2012, etc.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Causing controversy on the Future World Leaders Panel in the Think Tank of Business

So this afternoon I found myself sitting on a panel with three others, defined as "Future Leaders", with the President of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, Peter Bakker, as our Chair. This was part of a kick-off panel - to an afternoon session of experts and prominent business leaders as part of the Business and Ecosystems Think Tank at the IUCN World Congress in Jeju, South Korea. So each of us had two minutes to give our statements, followed by a panel discussion. I had to start. This is a gist of what I said:

I believe that, while great efforts have been initiated over the years, we are still on an extremely destructive path for all of biodiversity on Earth, and this includes our own species. 
And this doom and gloom picture is the product of our entire system, especially in terms of economy, which has been based on valuing commodities which actually have no value, like Gold, and putting absolutely no value on things that are intrinsic to our own survival – such as clean air, fresh water. This “undervalue”, or “no value”, as a result, has completely disconnected us from nature and our dependency on it! 
For instance, we add the price of a bushel of wheat harvested, but we forget to subtract the topsoil lost forever in its mass production. And we are changing too slowly to come back from the MAJOR global losses of ecosystem services and biodiversity as a result of this system. 
We are already getting feedback telling us that our current system is not working, peak oil, peak metal - and the end of the golden age! This seems like we are moving toward a dooms day picture if we carry on the same path. 
However, there is also hope and excitement in this picture – one with many opportunities combined with the challenges. If a critical mass can realise, understand and want to change, we can use these opportunities to move towards a very bright future in which we value human well-being over material wealth – where a successful person is not a rich person, but a happy, healthy person. 
Poverty is eradicated, nature is harmonized with development, and we connect again with our roots. I don’t have the answers to get there – but I know that with like-minded people we can come up with new, brilliant, innovative ways towards this paradigm shift in our society – for the betterment of all living beings in Earth, and especially our human society. 
Business, in this sense, can play a key role toward finding these innovations.

My fellow panelists had their say. And then Peter Bakker, eternally pushing the edge of controversy, pushed us deeper. I decided to speak my mind and screw the diplomacy. So here I spoke about how we really need to make major changes in our own thinking - we should think about the system that we have created - I used the Niger Delta and what oil has done to it as an example - ruining lives and ecosystem services and at the cost of making just a few people rich. Among other things. Anyway - I had my platform; I said my piece. 

I only realised later, when the business leaders panel came up to speak, that the Shell President was one of the panelists (oops). He had obviously taken on some of my oil statements and made some of his own - basically backtracking and talking about that "we cannot go back to scratch and redefine our value systems" - we must instead do things such duplicating best practices. Great. No complaints. But this coming from a corporation which has not made any attempts at research and development for renewables. This coming from a corporation still looking for more fossil fuels when we all know that we have reached peak. This coming from a corporation which has been put in front of the International Court of Justice for human rights violations - a company that has made strides in ruining vital ecosystem services. And for what? A resource which we really don't need anymore - we have the capacity to create energy without it If we could just spend as much time and energy researching for alternatives as we do drilling for oil offshore. In a much more innovative, off-the-grid manner. Why do we insist on continuing to destroy the Earth and its livingbeings, and of course our own human society, for a resource that we quite happily and easily can live without? 

I can tell you why. Because of rich powerful people who have been brainwashed to think that power and money is the be-all and end-all. 

So I question those people: What are you fighting humanity for? Richdom? Why? Why can't you instead enjoy life for what it is - and let everyone else enjoy life too? 

I do not want to delve into detail of these questions. Instead I leave it at that - with you to ponder and think about these a little longer. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Bunny-huggers versus industrialisers is a misconception!

I have just attended two workshops over the space of three days and have come up with the sad realisation that integral people to decision-making processes in my country, and even those sitting in the realm of biodiversity, are still stuck in that old-fashioned mindset that development and “saving the environment” are antagonistic. This has set up the context for the separation of two types of people in our society – on the one side are the perceived “bunny-huggers”, and the other side the perceived “industrialisers”.

The industrialisers think the bunny-huggers don’t care about the progress of the nation, and don’t care about the nation’s people who strive for a better life in terms of employment and quality of life. And in a nutshell, care more about “animals” than they do humans.

The bunny-huggers think the industrialisers just want to destroy everything no matter at what cost.

All the while this old-school antagonistic way of thinking is just separating humanity from sustainability and instead disconnecting us further from each other, our own goals, and a positive and prosperous way forward.
Have we forgotten that we are actually interconnected with the environment? Have we forgotten that we form part of nature and have evolved in a very complicated system where EVERYTHING has a cause and effect? We live on a planet that is a closed system. Everything links to one another in one way or another.

One big example of how we have forgotten this concept: climate change!

We are still intensely naïve in terms of what effect we have on our surroundings, and what effect our surroundings have on us.

I heard someone say the other day that “some people just want the entire Namibia under “conservation” but the truth is “we need to sacrifice some areas for high rate production for the greater good of our country”….i.e. land for high production agriculture. Okay. Good example. So lets say we put aside land for this. So we take the land, do some heavy fast-paced production in the “name of food security”. Woah! Suddenly we have a large amount of food and income from this! Cool.  But wait! We have not been clever enough to subtract the amount of top soil lost in the production of this food from the income generated. That topsoil is now gone and the land is useless. Shocker! Now what?

This is a reflection of the massive problem in our current accounting system. Which is why we are in this massive gaping hole of a problem to begin with! We have valued things that have absolutely no value. And we have put no value on things that we intrinsically need for our own survival, such as productive land, clean air, fresh water and the ecosystem services that provide for these things.

So it is no wonder that we are destroying these very things that we really need. We add to our accounting system the amount of income we have gained from rice paddies, but forget to subtract the loss in storm buffers we will have from destroying the mangroves. And then comes along a massive hurricane and everyone suffers. Well. At least one company made millions for a few years; and one or two percent went to the GDP for a few years.

We have based our entire economic system on extraction. We have not included the sustainability concept, and we have not included the fact that every time we destroy something….it has an intrinsic effect on the economy. Something we have forgotten! This is the very reason why we are having economic meltdowns in the Northern hemisphere. We have forgotten the limits of growth in a closed system. We are now reaching peak oil, peak metals, the end of the golden age. And our civilisation is crashing and burning. Bottom line.

So now we need to think of the way forward.

We need to stop acting stupid.

We need to realise that we are intrinsically connected to the natural world.

We need to take a step back and make a very important paradigm shift in our way of thinking.

And I mean this in the context of our value systems. We have been conditioned all our lives that we need to have lots of money to be successful or happy. And we have based our entire system on this concept. The American dream. We forget that we would physically need four planets if every person would live like the average American. Nevermind the fact that the average American is deeply depressed – probably works three jobs so that he can have three cars and five tvs.

We need to start realising, for instance, where exactly our food comes from and how it is made. We need to become grounded again and start valuing our own well-being instead of what type of car we drive.
How did we get to this point of “I need more and more of stuff that I don’t need to make me happy”?  

And the fact that this system is supposedly helping the poor out of poverty?
We have been on this fast-track economic growth lane at what cost for more than a hundred years. We have lost vital ecosystem services. We have one BILLION people who are starving right now. We have millions of people who have died unnecessarily at the cost of losses of ecosystem services (e.g. flooding, hurricanes, water wars, resource wars). I use Nigeria as an example, or more specifically the Niger Delta. Good old oil. 42 million people here are still living in abject poverty. 600 BILLION USD has been pumped out of here. Not one of those little notes has made it to any of the 42 million people here. But don’t worry, five percent of the world is getting enormously rich at the cost of 95% of the human population, every other species on this planet, and the services that we require for our future survival. WHY?

Why don’t we instead start thinking of new and innovative ways? Why haven’t we started thinking of what really matters: human well-being!

We are realising that we need ecosystem services for our survival and prosperity. Yet we are still destroying it bit by bit. We are still heavily depending on a destructive system, and depending on resources which are exhaustive and are very quickly running out. But wait…we found a little more oil….lets destroy that land and drill the oil out. Thank goodness, it will buy us another five years – and we can put up the price while we are at it.

But we don’t need oil anymore! We have a million other ways to get energy. We have a million other ways to gain, in monetary terms, value from renewable resources and sustainable activities. For instance in Namibia, eco-tourism together with biotrade could far exceed the percentage GDP of mining. Yet mining is the strongest component of the National Development Plan 4.

 What are we doing? Are we going to destroy the possibility for other economic gains because we can make a quick buck for the next five years? And after that we will be pretty much screwed. But hey, that’s the next politician’s problem.

How can we have gotten so far in terms of human progress, but are still so stupid?

Lets start shifting our paradigm now!   

Monday, July 16, 2012

Our education: has it made us successful .... or even more ignorant?

Have you ever noticed that everything humanity depends on is in jeopardy due not to so-called "ignorant" people? It is actually the result of work by people with MDs, MBAs, and PhDs. I was reminded the other day of a brilliant essay written by David Orr called "What is Education for?". And it inspired me to summarise it in my own words ( an extent). 

You know, think about how we have been educated. Our education has conditioned us to think success is equivalent to financial gain and that more "knowledge" pulls us out of  naivety. But...interestingly..the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any amount of time could not read. 

What is wrong with our education? Well, for one we learn seperate disciplines and have no fathom of connections and linkages - we live in a closed system where everything is interlinked - but we produce economists who lack basic ecology. As a result, in Orr's words,  our accounting systems do not subtract the costs of biotic impoverishment, soil erosion, the destruction of vital ecosystem services, poisons in the air and water, and resource depletion from gross national product. We add the price of the sale of a bushel of wheat to the GNP but forget to subtract three bushels of topsoil lost in its production. And ironically we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we are so much richer than we actually are (and...slowly....getting information feedback from our current economic system that this very fact has screwed us!).  Universities cough out experts in narrow fields who have no integrated sense of the unity of things. 

Orr gives us six myths which I find very eye-opening. I am not going to mention all of them, only the ones which were particularly interesting to me:

"Ignorance is a solvable problem". I thought so. Apparently, though, it is instead an inescapable part of the human condition. He states that the advance of knowledge always carries with it an advance of some form of ignorance. Makes sense. He uses the example of Thomas Midgely Jr., who discovered CFCs (oops...) - what had previously just been a piece of trivial ignorance suddenly became a critical and urgent, even life-threatening gap in our understanding of the biosphere. Noone actually thought to ask....what does this thing do? until 1990, when CFCs had created a thinning of the ozone layer worldwide. Makes you wonder how much we create and process which we ourselves don't fully understand. 

Another one I find neat, because we try and do this in our daily lives. The myth that we can "manage the planet...with the right technology and knowledge". However, the complexity of Earth and its life can never be safely managed. As Orr puts it, the ecology of the top inch of topsoil is still largely unknown. What might be much more realistic to manage, is us - like our desires, economies, politics and so forth. Orr states that it makes far better sense to reshape our ourselves to fit our planet than attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants. 

He then goes onto another myth, which (I smile ironically while typing this) states that "our culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement". One word: arrogant. Lets have a look at capitalism and communism as his example. Communism apparently failed because it produced too little at too high a cost (much like renewable energy versus oil). But then again, as Orr rightfully puts it, capitalism has also failed us, because it produces too much, shares too little, also at too high a cost to our children and grandchildren (and quite quite frankly, current generations - look at the impacts already as a result of climate change). Capitalism is failing because it destroys morality altogether. We live in a disintegrating culture. 

I absolutely love the words of Ron Miller, which Orr uses in his essay that 

"our culture does not nourish that which is best or noblest in the human spirit. It does not cultivate vision, imagination, or aesthetic or spiritual sensitivity. It does not encourage gentleness, generosity, caring, or compassion. Increasingly in the late 20th century, the economic-technocratic-statist worldview has become a monstrous destroyer of what is loving and life-affirming in the human soul". 

Our education is a reflection of our culture in a sense. We spurt out people with aspirations and visions that we can all have a piece of an infinite pie. People who have become ignorant of the things we must know to live (well) and sustainably as a species on Earth. In the words of Thomas Merton "mass production of people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade". what are we going to do about it? I suppose its easy. because everyone is capable of change - and we are all responsible for our own learning in the end. After all - we are "only cogs in an ecological mechanism such that, if they work with that mechanism, their mental and material wealth can expand indefinitely but if they refuse to work with it, it will ultimately grind them to dust". Leopold - "if education does not teach us these things, then what is education for?" Mmmmm....lets all have a big think about the changes we can make...

Monday, June 25, 2012

Wake up Call!

So I was listening to my music this morning while I was getting ready for work; a band called 'Rebelution', and the lyrics of this song struck me. They say it like it is! Check it out: 

It's a shame when somebody shows,
Diamonds and pearls to those you don't,
This goes out to the wealthy homes,
That under the moonlight there's a road,
To a place for the struggling,
Where people treat you like a human being,
Free of racism and other things,
Free from money and the imagery,
Why oh why has it come to be?
People look up to celebrities,
They do nothing for you and me,
They should be giving it up to the community,
And this ain't just domestic man,
This is a world wide problem and,
Still people kill for the oil ya,
Why you ask? Well cause there's demand,
But stay on top says the businessman,
And let the world be left to strand,
Hey next month I'll make twice the grand,
Things they are going just as planned,
And he'll spend most of it on what he sees,
Maybe buy something he may never need,
See now this is the mentality,
Wake up call this is reality
You see now this is the mentality,
Wake up call this is reality
Yesterday I saw a man explain,
Why he bought his seventh car to date,
How does it feel to live the life you like,
With millions of us left without a ride?
And yet we look up to the stars and dream,
What's it's like to live among elite,
I see the future in a rut,
With the poorest of the people in the mud
Well here's a message Mr. Business man,
The more you make the more the gap expands,
The more you give the more the love you land,
The more you take the more we suffer man,
But he'll spend most of it on what he sees,
Maybe buy something he may never need,
See now this is the mentality,
Wake up call this is reality
You see now this is the mentality,
Wake up call this is reality

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A few thoughts on the mis-use of the new and sexy word "sustainability"

I received an email from one of my "sustainability" mailing lists the other day. It read:

                                      Coal – Energy for Sustainable Development

No kidding. I suppose there is not something that shockingly controversial in the title. Its not like it says "Coal: A sustainable energy supply". But never-the-less....this was an email notification a report released on coal and its role in clean energy. Mmmm. Interesting. Yar, you can look it up yourself...

Anyway. Coming back from a three-week holiday visiting my sister in Australia, and I come back with a few new experiences and thoughts with this kind of thing in mind. How big corporations, and, for that matter, anyone who has profit in mind, have suddenly jumped on the bandwagon of using the words "sustainable" and "sustainable development" in such a way that I am not sure they actually know what it means.

Two of my friends in the Balaton group, a network of sustainability actors I am part of, recently wrote an extremely good paper entitled "Peak metals, minerals, energy, wealth, food and people towards the end of the golden age; considerations for a sustainable society". Here, they give beautiful definitions of what "sustainability" and "sustainable development" is supposed to mean. They say that "sustainability" is about making an activity take such shape that it can go on virtually forever, without ruining its own conditions. They say that this is fundamentally different from "sustainable development", which in itself needs careful thought on what exactly is meant by "development", or "sustainable growth", which in itself, they say, does not actually exist as a reasonable concept. They go on to say

"Hard thermodynamic limits are set by mass balances for use resources in finite supply (energy, metals, structural materials, fibre, and food through phosphorus and nitrogen). Only resources that have inbuilt regeneration function may be made to last for ever. Limits are also set by social systems in terms of personal integrity and security, interpersonal trust, transparency and degree of democracy. These are different from sustainable development which sometimes include perpetual economic or mass volume growth, which is not possible on a limited Earth and therefore greatly unsustainable."

Anyway, back to my trip to Australia. So there I sat on the "cheapest possible flight" my travel agent friend was able to procure for me. This meant me flying from Windhoek, Namibia, via Johannesburg, RSA to Abu Dhabi, UAE, to Sydney, AUS and then finally to Brisbane, AUS - my final destination. Interesting. In the in-flight magazines, there were mutliple articles on how the airlines are trying to mitigate their emissions, reduce their environmental impacts, and so on. is cheaper to fly halfway around the world in several airplanes...than to actually fly a straight, minimum-mile usage, flight path...which would greatly reduce emissions. Now can you imagine how many cheapo people there are out there who are accumulating ridiculous amounts of unnesseray carbon emissions because they are flying via Dubai, when all they need to do is fly from London to Johannesburg, or whatever.

And then...mining. I absolutely LOVE how mining is trying to get in on their "sustainability" slogans. Not that I want to bash them totally...but it seems like such a contradiction to say that "we will mine sustainably". Because within the lines of the definition of sustainability I happen to agree with, mining is not sustainable. It has a short lifespan, contributes much money (often to a tiny amount of people at the cost of many) and then suddenly comes to a halt, leaving behind low qualty, often dangerous and environmentally degraded areas. But wait! There is another deposit....that will buy us another 20 years.

It all just seems so ridiculous. How we can be so intelligent, and so stupid at the same time. We have the ability to live sustainably, and we actually need to do it this way. And yet, for decades, we are brainwashed by the five percent who are forcing the system into what it is, making themselves immensely rich (on value-less items), with the rest of us blindly lapping up the idea that this is what we all want to be: immensely rich. In the meantime the world is slowly becoming a sad and poor place (by poor I mean in terms of things that have value); while at the same time we go around pretending to care about sustainability and superficially doing our part by "using a spoon twice for our coffees". 

Thoughts that are neither here nor there. But something to think about.  

Friday, March 30, 2012

Passion for the well-being of our people vs corrosion of democracy

I have been following with interest a dear friend of mine's plight in Malawi recently. It seems that his beautiful country, with its beautiful people, are facing some serious challenges. The challenge: the painful process of corrosion of democracy. Sound familiar?

So many of our nations here in Africa have made amazing progress with democracy and good governance. However, all to often we hear of stories of incredible corruption and absolute abuse of power and country funds. And even more often, these stories stem from the highest stage...the presidency. Presidents come into power with the most beautiful and inspiring passion for their people. And somewhere along the way, this passion is replaced with greed, and, dare I say it, insanity. Ring a bell yet? I am sure we all know of one very prominent leader in power right now in a country very close to home who fits this bill. But I won't elaborate on his story; I am sure we have all heard it many times before.

In honour of my dear friend and his country, I will use President Mutharika of Malawi as an example to illustrate my point. What a wonderful man he was. He had to flee Malawi in the 1960s for fear of being persecuted because he spoke against the autocratic rule of then President Banda. When he returned, he, and his pals, formed the United Democratc Front (UDF) and promptly ran for election. Mutharika stood for democratic reform and the protection of human rights. He promised to fight the hard fight of corruption (yip, you read right!). He came into power in 2004, with an exemplary record....working experience with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, and the World Bank. He was re-elected in 2009. And then things started to go pear-shaped.

He has become intolerant of criticism, he has randomly and arbitrarily dismissed government officials and has been implicated in the harassment of civil society activists who oppose his policies. And...surprise...more and more members of his government are being implicated in major corruption scandals! Something more shocking: in 2011 President Mutharika dissolved cabinet! Then, later, appointed a new one, which included his brother and wife...And there is more: despite Malawi's heavy dependence on external support, he has managed to get onto a warpath with development partners, denying the country all sorts of resources.

I ask myself: How does this happen? How does someone come into power with so much heart, and then, while in power, the heart slowly turns into a cold dollar bill. How can you sleep restfully at night knowing that the 1000-count cotton sheets keeping you warm means that there are five children out there who will die of a malnutrition-related disease? I will have to leave it at that and let you ponder...maybe you can come up with a solution to this problem we have faced in too many countries.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The biggest mistake: undervaluation of biodiversity

Sitting in Nairobi airport with four hours to kill after Ethiopian Airlines greedily overbooked the flight I was supposed to be on from Addis Ababa to Johannesburg and subsequently had to divert me via Nairobi, followed by a painful overnighter in Johannesburg before I can finally make my way back home tomorrow morning to Windhoek. Bleh. But anyway – it gives me time for this.

My last five days were spent in Addis Ababa at a workshop organised by the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity on updating the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans for the countries of Africa. Can I hear you snoring already? Let me see if I can lose the terrible acronym-filled UN language....basically this was a gathering of African countries and “international experts”  focusing on how to mainstream the importance of biodiversity, and indeed the natural system into our countries’ development. I was sent as “resource person” (whatever that means) on effective communication – which, as we are slowly realising, is integrally important to get messages across to various facets of society, whether it be to policy-makers or the little guy on the street. As I write this I see on CNN a story on turtles in Gabon...mmmm...maybe things aren’t as bleak as I seem to think. 

But yar. It seems that, even though we (unknowingly) depend on biodiversity and environmental services for our daily function, we still, in this day and age, manage to completely undervalue it in our decision-making. Perhaps because we get it for free....and take it for much so that we don’t seem to care if we degrade it. It reminds me of the Millenium Assessment’s results from 2005 (a global survey on the state of our natural system) – a very stark reminder of what we are doing to our Earth...and to ourselves. One of the most humbling statements “Any progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger eradication, improved health, and environmental protections is unlikely to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on which humanity relies continues to be degraded”.  So now we sit at this unnecessarily formal conference venue discussing, in oh-so-typical UN delegate fashion, how to go about mainstreaming biodiversity into our national development plans. Very interesting and passionate people. But we are environmental people. And yet we are trying to find ways to communicate the value of ecosystem services across sectors. 

How much would you be willing to pay for clean air? For a view that takes your breath away? For a mangrove swamp that will save your life when a massive hurricane comes along? How much are you willing to pay to protect a dune system that has evolved over millions of years, in which a complex network of wind and sand dynamics shifts integral nutrients to your agricultural production system?

For centuries we have not put any value on these things. What we have valued however, are things which have no value (gold!?). We undervalue the basic underlying roots for life on Earth. And we are paying for it. Unfortunately not enough of us know about this. And those of us who do struggle to communicate this to the people in power. Well, so there I sat at this conference and pondered my fellow Africans. Somehow, we in Africa, with “our problems”, have managed to maintain most of the valued ecosystem services and biodiversity (although a lot of it lies on the edge). Do we need to keep copying pasting systems deemed as “successful” (and what are these systems looking like now) from the west? Systems that are showing major failures and are destructive...Or shall we look at what has worked well in Africa and how to showcase our amazing stories? We are so much closer still to nature (although this is changing as we aspire to this so-called “American dream” – people moving from their rural areas to urban slums in the vain naive hope that it will bring them this “aspiration”), and if so, can’t we still find our own ways to become successful and wealthy (defined in different ways) than our western counterparts who are now facing the consequences of their destructive actions? I think we can. But we need to start valuing our own systems of success, stop being spoon-fed, and taking charge for our own continent. This starts with our own confidence. And the hope for a new system of success...where the well-being of our people is more important than the monetary wealth of the few people on the top.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Playing for change - a beautiful initiative

Okay I admit - I am being very lazy with this week's post - too many things to do. However, this initiative called "Playing for change" is such a wonderful one that it deserves some awareness. Its musicians all over the world coming together to play songs...for change. Wonderful stuff and I am sure it will inspire you...if not your money back guaranteed!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

In honour of the change maker Bob Marley

Bob Marley the legend. You know it was his birthday on Monday, the 6th February? I actually went to a gig honouring his birthday here in Windhoek, Namibia over the weekend. I wonder how many other places in the world had a similar party in his honour. So with this thought in mind I decided to write a piece marking my appreciation of this remarkable person. The person who made music that, on some level, reaches every person in the world.I do not think I have ever met a person who does not like Bob Marley's music. His music transcends gender, race, age.

I read on his wiki page a statement that I have lazily copied and pasted:

"Bob Marley ranks among both the most popular and the most misunderstood figures in modern culture ... That the machine has utterly emasculated Marley is beyond doubt. Gone from the public record is the ghetto kid who dreamed of Che Guevara and the Black Panthers, and pinned their posters up in the Wailers Soul Shack record store; who believed in freedom; and the fighting which it necessitated, and dressed the part on an early album sleeve; whose heroes were James Brown and Muhammad Ali; whose God was Ras Tafari and whose sacrament was marijuana. Instead, the Bob Marley who surveys his kingdom today is smiling benevolence, a shining sun, a waving palm tree, and a string of hits which tumble out of polite radio like candy from a gumball machine. Of course it has assured his immortality. But it has also demeaned him beyond recognition. Bob Marley was worth far more."

And yes, its true. Yes, his music does tumble out of radio like candy with people listening often not actually listening to the words echoed. But. So what!?

Bob Marley's music has touched people's hearts. His character induced change in mindsets and behaviour all over the world. His music is the closest we have ever gotten to feel truly connected to the world and nature and simple happiness. One love. One world. One heart. This message induces more change in the world than a war ever will. Lets give a personal, from the heart perspective: Even in the lowest moments in my life, Bob Marley manages to say to me, "Justine, get some perspective and stop your bullshit, life is amazing, look around, and spread the message". And even if his words in his songs say otherwise he seems to have this out-of-our-realms-of-understanding effect on us.

He has been part of so much liberation in the world. He sang at the Independence of Zimbabwe celebrations. I wish he would have been around during our Independence in Namibia, but Ziggy Marley did an equally good job. He has instilled so much hope in communities which have in the past been left hopeless. He voiced loudly the religion of Ras Tafari, honoured Haille Salassie and lifted the people of Jamaica, and in doing so breathed pride into Africa. The Aboriginal people of Australia continue to burn a sacred flame to honor his memory in Sidney's Victoria Park, members of the Native American Hopi and Havasupai tribe also honour him. There are also many tributes to Bob Marley throughout India, throughout many countries in Africa and South America, and indeed, the world. Nevermind those who worship him.

So it doesn't matter if the machine has poured hot pink plastic over the memory of him to the plastic world. We all will have our own memory of what he was and is to us. And we all love him. And with this I leave him to finish off with his magic words

Why's this fussing and a-fighting?
I wanna know, Lord, I wanna know
Why's this bumping and a-boring?
I wanna know, Lord, I wanna know now

We should really love each other (love each other)
In peace and harmony (peace and harmony), ooh
Instead, we're fussing and fighting (fussing and fighting)
And them workin' iniquity (... iniquity)

Why's this fussing and a-fighting?
I wanna know, Lord, I wanna know (... know), I wanna know now
Why's this cheating and backbiting?
(I wanna know ...) I wanna know, oh, Lord, I wanna know now

We should really love each other (love each other)
In peace and harmony (peace and harmony)
Instead, instead, we're fussing and fighting (fussing and fighting)
Like we ain't supposed to be (... supposed to be), tell me why.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Wanna stop being brainwashed? Step 1: Take the blindfold off when you read the news.

I think I mentioned this in passing in a previous post. But a story I have been exposed to today made me think about it again and I promptly decided that this story needs its own limelight. So. Lets start.

The Niger Delta. Home to 31 million people. Also home to one of the top 10 most important wetlands and coastal marine ecosystems in the world.

Also home to one of the largest oil deposits in the world. It is estimated that mining oil here has pushed 600 BILLION USD since the 1960s (but lets be honest - most of this money has gone where!?).

A UN Environmental Assessment Report released in August 2011 said Shell's operations were responsible for heavy contamination of farmlands and rivers in Ogoni area. This isn't the first time I have heard of such wrong-doing by Shell in this part of the world. During my environmental law studies I came accross a human rights case in which Shell was at the centre: people were killed, forcably moved from their homes by "mercenaries", working, in one way or another, for Shell. I remember this clearly because when I read this I was shocked that this was the first time I heard of this behaviour by such a massive corporation (ignorant much?).

Yet this blatant evil has never made the news headlines. Interesting...mmm? Anyway, I digress. Back to the UN Environmental Report released last year. This report estimated that it would cost 1 BILLION to clean the mess up. And even if the oil companies pay up, it will take 25 to 30 YEARS (thats a third of a life!) to restore the environment. And...surprise surprise.....the majority of the 31 million people live here in poverty. Obviously none of the 600 billion little green notes made it towards the betterment of their livelihood. Surprised? Hardly!

Now, this isn't even the news. The actual news is: (queue major headline)

 "2.4 million gallons of crude oil spilt off the coast of Nigeria" 

We don't even know when exactly this happened. On 22 December 2011, fishermen were apparently  put on alert after Shell admitted to spilling oil (but they did not admit to nearly as much as they had actually spilt). And now more than a month later, noone knows exaclty what happened.

Shell began drilling the Bonga field (off the Nigerian coastline near the Niger Delta) in 2002.  Since then they have had devastating oil spills (heard of any of them on international headline news?).

The amount of destruction that has been caused,
the human lives destroyed,
the beauty and serenity of the Niger Delta that can never be regained.

600 Billion pieces of paper.
A handful of people now have a bunch of things they don't need.

And yet all we hear on the news is that the Niger Delta is dangerous because of evil scary kidnappers who will kill expats. What about what a corporation like Shell has done in the Niger Delta in the past decades?

Apologies to you, innocent people who were unfortunate enough to be born in the Niger Delta, many of whom have either died or who lived in the gutter of hell.

And apologies to you from the rest of us in the world who are ignorant and brainwashed, filling our tanks with your blood at a Shell service station, and were thus unable to help you.

Let this be a lesson. When you watch your CNN or Sky news, think about the stories that are not being told. And start making yourself more aware. You wanna know how? Simple. Take the blindfold off.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Can humanity change in time to prevent global catastrophe?

Sunday. Sitting in the office working on presenting to my colleagues tomorrow the indicators of the UNCCD 10 year-strategic plan. I stare down at the document....Strategic objective 1: To improve the living conditions of affected populations. As I stare at this I keep getting flashbacks of a heated discussion I had with two very good friends at a restaurant last night. It was one of those discussions which gets heads on other tables peaking over to see what the commotion is about. Arms flailing, face blushing and talking passionately in circles without actually listening to eachother. The discussion was very much around the concept that is linked to my work every day. Lets put it simply: humanity is heading on a fast and deadly path towards global catastrophe. We have been populating exponentially, the system we have created is destructive to the planet we depend on for our survival.

Now our argument isn't about this fact. For it is now true for too many people to ignore. I mean, forty years ago a controversial study (published in a book called 'limits of growth') warned that we had to curb growth or risk global meltdown. Back then it was criticised and bashed down heavily. Now slowly people are starting to realise that there is absolute truth in this (or are they?). So, as I said, our argument was not about this. We all agreed that the system we have created is doomed for failure. What we argued about, ultimately, was about whether the global community would realise this in time to make enough changes that would prevent a global catastrophe.

Their argument: No! It will take a global catastrophe, or tipping point, for humans to change (i.e. even as far as a huge cataclysmic event that would destroy more than half the human population, leaving only those left who realise that they need to make a change.). Humanity is too far in the system of greed and capitalism, mass media brainwashing and the like for us to change; there is too little time, and there are too little people who know or care enough to change.

My argument: endlessly hopeful (bordering on naive, as my friend would like to put it).

And so the heated debate went on. I used arguments like "if we have the ability to change the world in just two hundred years for the worse, we have the ability to turn things around just as fast", and "what if Martin Luther King had such a defeatist opinion of humanity". And they used arguments like "global population is the biggest problem" and "small changes will not be enough, what is needed is one massive change in mindset which is not the reality in a world in which mass media is controlled by corporations and the like". And how are change agents of sustainability reaching the masses and the "world controllers" (which are, ultimately, massive corporations only out to get global profit - who cares about the future generations, humanity is selfish, and so on).

In the end no one was able to convince anyone of changing their opinion on this topic, and everyone left it at deadlock. But no one went away without having learnt something. I learnt of my own weaknesses in communication and properly listening (instead of just trying to be heard). And I was left with a slightly bad taste in my mouth.

I am of course still hopeful in ability for humanity to change. Yes, we have reached carrying capacity. Yes, we are destroying Earth at an alarming rate. Yes, humans are greedy. Humans have done some immeasurably bad things for a quick buck. And we are all conditioned in certain ways that hinder us from making a positive change. My friend made a valid point. If the people who know and care are too "scared" or "conditioned by their own convenience" to do anything then what hope do we have ("like you, Justine, could only preach if you were to cycle to work, grow your own, live without electricity....but you drive to work, you buy at big supermarkets, you work on your laptop everyday"). And its true. I myself am the first to admit that I am part of this system.

But. But. But. And I actually need the words of someone much wiser than I am to try and push some inspiration into a seemingly doomed future. I am reading this book currently by Alan Atkisson called "The ISIS Agreement". I am intending to write a short and personal summary of it once I am done. But I feel it imperative to add some of his thoughts into my argument here. In a chapter he calls "The Hope Graph", he jots down a job description for those trying to "save the world". One of them strikes me because it came up in our argument last night:

Meanwhile, the momentum of change in the wrong direction will be immeasurably huge, and will continue to accelerate, in ways that seem unstoppable.

There is hope behind the Tom Atlee quote he uses "Things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster". And Alan goes on to say something that I must just quote:

But oddly, there is also hope in this picture (of despair). For if the world can be transformed in troubling or dangerous ways, at speeds that beggar belief, it can also change in positive ways, and at similarly incredible speeds. Do you remember the Berlin Wall? Apartheid? The British Empire's Rule in India? Hardly anyone, living at the time when these artifacts of history were a reality, would have been able to predict with confidence how quickly they would be overturned and replaced by new and highly democratic systems. This is the reality of transformation.

The Hope Graph (taken from Atkisson, A. 2008. The Isis Agreement. Earthscan, UK)

I actually remember reading the last section of this chapter in this great book that struck a personal chord. He mentions somewhere in the chapter that when one becomes aware that the world is genuinely headed for big trouble, and that changing couurse requires tremendous efforts, it is impossible to pretend that one does not have this rather important piece of information. For most people, once they begin to grasp the gravity of the situation, not caring is not an option. For those for whom the struggle to maintain hope is a real one, and whom the feeling of being called to a duty greater than one's capacities feels like a burden, Alan makes the following recommendations: read the Earth Charter, as a common, global reference point, a statement that has touched and united people of all faiths and backgrounds. Then write your own manifesto, your own statement or what you believe to be the case in these times, what you stand for, what you are working for in life. He guarantees that you will find the exercise enormously gratifying - and very likely enormously inspiring too.

I am sure that the debate can go on and on and on. And in the end it boils down to two main things. Hope. And faith in humanity.

Lets watch this space to see what the outcome will be.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mozambique: A case study on how travelling enriches the soul

We all need to decrease consumption and individual emissions and I am aware of this on a daily basis. I have, however, one guilty pleasure. Travelling. I just spent my new year's holiday road tripping with two good friends from Windhoek (Namibia) to Inhambane (Mozambique), a journey that took us a surprising 3200kms, three full days of driving and two nights overnighting (scrolling desperately at 22h00 on an ipad in the car in the dark looking for accommodation on route) to get there. Rumours and paranoia gave us a few hiccups on the way ("what? you forgot your passport photos? but we need them for our visas!!!"....cue two hours in random town looking for a photo place and then discovering at the border of Moz we needed nothing we were told we needed....only our perfectly good and functioning Namibian passports). We made it up as we went along and happily found ourselves bumping around in our seats looking at elephants and chameleons and tortoises in the Kruger National Park as we entered the leisurely northern border of RSA/Mozambique. Anyway, despite the annoyances, the drive was spectacular. We did a country a day, from Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and into Mozambique. Travelling from the west coast of Africa to the east coast.

We arrived in Inhambane at 22h00 at night, tired, annoyed and totally lost. Once we found our camp site at Barra, we set up and passed out. The next morning (heat and sun at five in the morning) we awoke to palm trees and mangrove swamps. And (almost) immediately we packed up some stuff (my surfboard, snorkelling equipment, a cooler with beers and snacks) and off we went on our missions. First mission: find surf. Which we did. Well, which I did. The boys spent their time snorkelling, chilling, and playing their games on the beach and I would surf endlessly. And so it went on. Every day we would get up, have breakfast, get our stuff together and go mission. Every day was different, yet every day was the same. We would be active, but activities would always include surfing, snorkelling, swimming and chilling (is that an activity?). We would then, for dinner, either grab a beer and some food at some bar on the beach, or we would braai some prawns or meat at our camping spot and have a sundowner. We just could not leave that place. We had initially booked camping accommodation at another town further down south for the second part of our 10 day holiday....yet we just stayed in Inhambane as if we would never leave.

Everywhere we went we marvelled at the beauty of the place. I felt a deep connection with the country. And it made me think about love in a different way. I have travelled to quite a few places in my relatively short life. From South Africa to Nigeria, Hungary to Canary Islands, Brazil to Chile, every place has had something special and beautiful. But like with some people, some places you have chemistry with. And the notion makes sense. If you think about it, a country is a system, a living entity if you will. It is made up of its people, its landscapes, its biological diversity and its climate. And with some systems you find absolute love. I had a love affair with Mozambique. Granted it is not the perfect system. Most wildlife is gone, it has been war struck and, like many African countries, has come accross some difficult times. And it can strike harshly at you when it feels like it (I had my absolute naive trust ripped off me: the ocean reefs ate my body and my surfboard, i had all my electronic posessions stolen - and these I will not be able to afford to replace in many years, and because of this we had none of the beautful pictures of our trip). Yet when you find yourself on the beach on a balmy evening after a three hour right point surf session, with the slight breeze on your sunkissed face, drinking your R&R, you will see what I mean when I say "I love you Mozambique".

I was sad to leave. I think we all were. This particular trip, despite also having been on brief trips to beautiful Zambia, Hungary and South Africa last year, made me all the more itchy to spread my wings and fly. The people you meet and the places you see when you are out of your comfort zone, the experiences you have, is worth more than any physical possession you could ever buy yourself. For experiencing the world enriches your soul and breathes endless depth into your life.