After completing an MPhil in Environmental Management in 2004 I “hit the wall” trying to resolve the “humans-versus-nature” impasse in my mind. The MPhil gave me tools and a framework within which to understand biodiversity conservation, environmental law and economics, etc., and to be able to contribute better to resolving environmental dilemmas. Most of all the environmental ethics module helped me understand different world views and value sets that have driven our approaches over the centuries to our relationship with Nature. Even so-called “environmentalists” have differing world views if you listen carefully to their language: they could be human centered (e.g. conservationists, preservationists, etc.), nature centred (e.g. biocentrists, ecocentrists, etc.) or have radical, transformative outlooks (e.g. deep ecologists, ecofeminists, bioregionalists, etc.). Of course the point is not to place people and their values into neat categories; there is a continuum of world views (e.g. animal rightists don’t fit easily into the categories above) and it pays to listen carefully to how people frame their arguments.
Although the programme stimulated me enormously, I felt overwhelmed by the scale of ecological challenges that the planet faces and by our species’ apparent determination to careen “over the cliff” as it were. I understood the reasons for ecological destruction better, but struggled to see possible solutions. Anyway, I copped out and wrote a mini-thesis on ecotourism certification as a market mechanism, a field which I understood better from founding an internet-based ecotourism company back in 1995.
In 2008 I dived anew into a BPhil in Renewable and Sustainable Energy at Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute, having convinced myself of the twin imperatives of climate change and peak oil (read “energy crisis”) and the need to address the way we generate and use energy – fast. Once again the experience has been truly stimulating and the programme has posed some seductive and tantalising ideas such as: the possibility of dematerialised and decarbonised economic growth, and most recently, “positive” development which posits that a human-made environment can create net positive ecological outcomes, supply net positive ecological services. At the same time I obtained a healthy overview of renewable and passive energy technologies that supplements my engineering knowledge.
Originally I qualified as an electronic engineer in 1979, largely because I had been tickled by the promise of the Digital Age. Engineering studies taught us how to think in a certain way – systems thinking – which has stood me in good stead ever since. But I soon learnt that engineering, although creative if one was lucky enough to design, was an overly narrow discipline. Engineers are a product of Industrial Society, programmed to serve its ends. So in 1991 I embarked on an MBA which was exciting and stimulating, not least because the country was undergoing its historic transition to democracy at the same time. The subjects that I enjoyed the most were Systems Thinking (which many of my classmates detested) and Business Ethics, which remarkably for the time and setting, carried a healthy dose of environmental ethics. So while the MBA was a welcome broadening of my education and launched the entrepreneurial phase of my life, it paradoxically had also helped to solidify my interest in environmentalism and caused me to question the notions of rampant commercialism and unending economic growth.
My studies have thus been a continuous journey in search of answers and understanding our relationship with the ecosphere. Many people ask me why I continue to study and “collect degrees”. Obviously it has little to do with preparing for a profession or career or attaining wealth. It may have a little to do with ego and being in the fortunate circumstance of being able to study easily and cheaply, but mostly it is about acquiring the knowledge to be able to contribute to making the planet a better place. I believe that one leads through influence.