Studies and personal philosophy
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 resource extraction and consumerism, and unending economic growth.
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 ecological breakdown, 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.
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 was truly stimulating and the programme posed some seductive and tantalising ideas such as: the possibility of dematerialised and decarbonised economic growth, “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.
However, now more than a decade later, after a quarter of a century of scientific warnings about the effects of anthropogenic climate change and of a period that I might characterise as the “sustainable development” era, I now seriously question whether any of the above ideas – decarbonised growth, sustainable development (SD), positive development, SD Goals, etc. – have had any positive effect. The facts show that they have not had nearly enough. Human civilisation has frittered away twenty years with the more enlightened amongst us engaged in a holding operation at best and the rest intent on, or ignorantly, accelerating our headlong charge towards the cliff. Consider the following:
- The precipitous decline of species, genetic and ecosystem diversity continues apace. Scientists are concerned that we are entering the sixth mass extinction. Since 1970 population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have declined by 68%. The greatest recent declines have occurred in the Global South, while in the Global North the loss of insects has been most studied and most pronounced (UN Environment’s Global Environmental Outlook report of 2019; WWF’s Living Planet report of 2020);
- The oceans are under unprecedented pressure: ocean heating is causing coral reef bleaching events every six years, while reefs take ten years to recover; marine litter, especially plastic litter, is overwhelming, with microplastics present at all depths in all regions (Global Environmental Outlook report of 2019);
- Despite a slight dip in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during the pandemic, the planet is on course for catastrophic climate change (warming of 3°C by 2100 on the current emissions trajectory), with global average temperature reaching 1°C above pre-industrial levels in 2017 already. GHG emissions have increased by about 57% over the last decade (IPCC Global Warming of 1.5°C special report of 2018; UN Environment Emissions Gap Report of 2020);
- None of the SDG targets for 2020, set in 2010, were met and most nature-related targets are on track to be missed (Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future 2021; The Sustainable Development Goals report of 2020).
And so the litany of ecological breakdown continues. Everything is heading in the wrong direction and almost nothing has been reversed. The current approach has failed. There must be other ways.
The precepts of ecological economics, that economic activity is necessarily constrained by ecological limits, seem sensible. The ideology of ‘growthism’, that infinite economic growth is possible, and even desirable, on a finite planet, is plainly irrational. Growthism is a feature of all economic ideologies from capitalism, through socialism to communism – some, like capitalism are simply more “efficient” at extracting materials, although the measure of efficiency ignores “extraneous” costs like ecological destruction, waste and pollution. It seems clear to me that only radical, systemic change, rejection of extractive and wasteful economic systems, is necessary to prevent ecological breakdown. The ‘degrowth’ movement and ideas like doughnut economics argue that civilisation can remain within ecological boundaries while enabling humans, and other life on Earth, to thrive.
The idea of ‘green growth’, that economies can continue to grow if only they switch energy sources to renewables, dematerialise, decarbonise and operate “sustainably” is seductive, but probably unrealistic and definitely too little, too late. It relies on techno-optimism, faith that technological silver bullets will bail us out. I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t aggressively pursue green technologies, but faith in technological solutions’ inevitability is irrational. Especially if that faith prevents us from taking degrowth steps and preventing ecological destruction. Both approaches are necessary.
The tantalising but insidious spin around SD convinced many of us to address our personal ecological footprints, which we did, only to realise that it is extremely difficult and it makes negligible difference. It perpetuated the great lie that sustainability is an individual responsibility, when the issue is in fact systemic. This is not to say that individuals should not and cannot contribute, but there must be profound curbs on corporations, consumerism and global capitalism – and the elimination of growthist ideology.
My studies have thus been a continuous journey in search of answers and understanding our relationship with the ecosphere. Obviously it has little to do with preparing for a profession or career or attaining wealth. It may have a little to do with 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.
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