Taking vs caretaking

2009-12-09 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Transient Caretakers: Making Life on Earth Sustainable

Mervyn King with Teodorina Lessidrenska

Pan Macmillan

WHILE the world is currently preoccupied with the financial crisis, it will soon have to address a far more serious ecological credit crunch. Both have similar causes — the inability of many humans to live within realistic means, and at the expense of other communities and the environment.

This is a well-organised book with helpful summaries and useful statistics. Interspersed case studies are particularly interesting, including the southern African examples of Anglo-American and the Limpopo-Lipadi transfrontier park.

Fascinating detail emerges about innovation designed to sustain a population set to reach nine billion by 2050. It ranges from a “green” skyscraper and fog harvesting to the water-purifying tricycle. Human ingenuity is working hard for sustainability, but the basic issue is one of governance.

The business sector is due for a wake-up call. The era of pure profit is gone: triple bottom-line accounting will soon include compulsory reporting on social and environmental performance. Smart companies will see this as an opportunity to make more with less, improve cost­efficiency and enhance real profit that recognises hitherto ignored and damaging costs.

King and Lessidrenska emphasise that individuals too have a role to play as responsible citizens. They can pressurise political parties, ­employers and pension funds as well as question their household carbon and water footprints. Even gardens deserve careful scrutiny.

Every product we consume carries what the authors describe as an “ecological rucksack” (one cup of coffee reportedly involves a staggering 140 litres of water). The seemingly boring topic of waste management takes on fascinating dimensions — almost all supposed rubbish can be put to some productive use.

Depressingly, South Africa is far behind in the sustainability stakes. Indeed, the word caretaker is barely understood amid a national culture of plunder. Ideally, a comprehension test based on this book should be mandatory for every company director and municipal manager.

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