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...