If we really want to save the planet, this is how …

2009-12-16 00:00

THE Copenhagen climate change conference is ­trying to find solutions that will protect the future wellbeing of life on Earth.

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental Nobel Prize winner, sees the indicators of quality of life as: health, food security, electricity, water and sanitation. For future life on Earth, we simply have to take better care of these life-support systems. Although “awareness” is still an important feature of our work, we need to move beyond simplistic assumptions that awareness alone will provide the ingredient for change, and explore more substantive social change processes.

We need to ensure that education (relevant to ­human-capacity development) occurs on an unprecedented scale. The future of human life on Earth depends on meaningful and effective human-capacity development and this has never been more in demand.

The environmentalist James Lovelock has predicted that climate change will wipe out most life on Earth before the end of this century. He foresees crop failures, drought and death on an unprecedented scale. The population of our warming, increasingly barren world could plunge from about seven billion to one billion, by 2100, as people compete for ever-scarcer life-supporting resources.

What does this scenario mean for ordinary people who are now aware that just about everything is going wrong? Our human actions, especially the unprecedented burning of fossil fuels, is threatening life on Earth [see box].

Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom that raising awareness will lead directly to behaviour change has been a wishful hope. There is no reputable ­research that confirms this causal, linear assumption. We certainly do need to raise awareness, but simplistic messages from those who know, or think they know, to those who don’t are not enough to turn the tide. Not only are we failing our life-support systems but our dominating thinking and world view, which is steeped in the assumption that awareness leads ­directly to behaviour change, appears to have little validity.

The hope that if people become worried they will be motivated to adopt more informed actions and practices is equally flawed. When we become worried, our chances of acting more reasonably may even be reduced and, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, paralysis could result. We may do nothing or simply give up trying to find a more sustainable way of living. Education and awareness-raising processes that are based on fear and “doom and gloom” scenarios can be really counter-productive when we need creative, confident and innovative responses. “Emitting messages, however clever or evocative they may be, is not the same as helping real people, in real places, change an aspect of their everyday material reality. The transition to sustainability is no longer about messages, it’s about activity” (John Thackara, 2009).

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes that we should work from what “we do” rather than from awareness or information about what “we should do”. We should, therefore, work from what we are currently doing and work towards better, more sustainable practices. In other words, we should “do it, to get it” rather than assume that if we share the understanding, or the message, other people will “get it” and learn to “do it” more wisely. These insights about human behaviour have strengthened our understanding of “action learning” and the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) increasingly draws on applied and practical action, using an Active Learning Framework rather than on awareness-raising alone, to bring about the substantial changes that are needed.

By the nineteen seventies, many Wessa members believed that in addition to the quick-fix awareness campaigns, we needed meaningful education processes for leaders, members of the public and school children. Working with business leaders, politicians, traditional leaders and the conservation authorities, a five-day practical African Conservation Education (Ace) course was designed. These courses ran until the late eighties and it is estimated that close to 1 000 leaders in society, including most traditional leaders from KwaZulu­Natal, attended them. Many participants still attest to the life-changing potential of the programme.

The Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve also functioned as a focal destination for fieldwork courses, where most of the participants were school children. By the nineties, over 15 000 participants per year were ­attending courses in the valley alone. Wessa also opened a marine environmental education centre at Treasure Beach, and an environmental education centre was set up at Bushpigs, just one and a half hours north of Johannesburg.

In terms of the Active Learning Framework, Wessa courses aim to deepen understanding and engage more constructively with environmental issues and risks. In some ways this learning approach also seeks to change behaviour by engaging with current behavioural practices, rather than assuming that messages alone will bring about the changes needed. This framework was successfully applied in fieldwork during the 2009 cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe. Using a simple hand-washing and bacteria-cultivating exercise, participants found out for themselves what was going wrong rather than simply being the recipients of messages from the experts.

Working with social theorists from around the world, and particularly in South Africa, Arjen Wals has provided us with social frameworks in his book Social Learning Towards a Sustainable World. Such social frameworks can strengthen the capacity of schools, government officials and members of the public, but coherent educational processes are needed to achieve meaningful human-capacity development.

These environmental education processes will be very different from the awareness-raising efforts of the past and Wessa will redouble its efforts “to promote public participation in caring for the Earth.”

IN simple terms the greenhouse gas layer lets in short-wave radiation but traps the outgoing, long-wave radiation. This means more energy is trapped in the Earth’s ecosystem and this leads to climatic extremes. Unfortunately, simply removing carbon by planting trees does little to offset the risk. Mark Botha from the Botanical Society puts it bluntly: “Planting trees is not going to help climate change one bit”. An average South African produces about 10 tons of CO2 per annum. A hectare of forest can only “fix” in the region of four tons. Even if we turned the whole country into forest it would not offset the CO2 we are releasing. We simply don’t have the time, or the space on Earth, to grow the amount of vegetation that is required to offset the amount of fossil fuel we are burning.

A further irony exists. Wealthy people, through burning fossil fuels, contribute more to climate-change risks than economically poor people. But ironically it is the poverty-stricken people who bear the brunt of climate-change threats. Furthermore, as people become more educated and our income streams increase, we tend to use more fossil fuels.

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