by Janice Golding
Climate change conferences are deeply concerning. Exorbitant hotel and restaurant bills, and air miles make one wonder whether they are not merely talk-shops and hot air. Its time to dig beneath the conference headlines.
On continents that are colder and less giving than Africa, the fastest growing new mass religion is “Environmentalism” – without the hallelujahs. Climate change sustainability is its key driver.
“Environmentalism” (also called “Going Green”) is an earnest lifestyle. It is fervent in the pursuit of reducing carbon footprints by optimising the use of energy and water. Household examples are subsistence growing of fruit and vegetables, recycling, solar panels and the reduced use of motorised transport. But its safety net for personal well-being that is ensured by relatively prosperous economies makes this movement a holier-than-thou quest. This is because “Going Green” is not a fundamental necessity born out of poverty and survival as in most parts of Africa.
In many parts of our continent, “Going Green” is translated as regression rather than progression, and it is largely associated with the peasantry.
No doubt, when the West’s particular brand of environmentalism is scoffed at, critics are regarded as self-serving plunderers of the planet. The West’s neo-imperialist critique of Africa’s refusal to convert to “Environmentalism” is met with dread about the effect of Africa’s damage to the rest of the world.
During the 1990s, environmentalists from all over – NGO stalwarts, elephant-huggers, community-based conservationists, anthropologists, policy-makers and donors – flocked to Harare to stay at the luxury Bronte Hotel.
What I remember most about those days at the Bronte are the discussions about the “African feeding trough” phenomenon – specifically, the forecasts about the world’s gluttonous appetite for Africa’s natural resources and the rise of the “McFat” population.
The depth of those conversations was unpretentious in its mediocrity – heaps of intellectual back-patting and delightful banter, and congenial discussions that were full of the deconstruction of African consumer stereotypes.
White environmentalists (mainly Brits, Kenyans, South Africans and Zimbabweans), in the majority, were irritatingly plucky and articulate on factual matters, cranking up the myth that there was a positive correlation between intellect, the rapidity of speech, and the length of time that the speaker bedazzles the listeners. Black environmentalists were eloquently silent, glum and watchful. It seemed like an indecent clash of civilisations, the one khaki bush-shirts and tousled, sun-streaked hair; and the other, savvy dark suits-cum-shiny shoes.
However, the human bonds that tied the Bronte’s visitors were genuine. They were committed, old-school environmentalists who had achieved admirable nature-based life experiences, and who had travelled the high-ways and by-ways of Africa.
Today, the new generation shaping Africa’s environmental agenda belongs to a hip and trendy set. Many are new in their introductions to the ways and means of Africa. These busy over-achievers deify nature and climatic apocalypses based on rehearsed messaging of what is hot in the daily global environmental headlines. They sermonise about the benefits of eating organic food, exercising regularly, and breast-feeding. Ironically, these lifestyle values have been practised by traditional African families since time immemorial.
Pedigreed from the world’s leading organisations and universities, almost all preach the Western gospel of “Environmentalism” using a toolbox of jargon and ideas about its application in Africa. This is exercised, it seems, with political zeal and vigorous career opportunism.
Currently, these new players are the change agents in Africa. But for them, nature – feeling it and living it with calloused hands and soft hearts embedded in the soil of Africa – is a surreal concept. It seems that these imposters are far removed from the robust lives of the millions of poor people struggling against the relentless limits of indignities arising from environmental injustices, globalisation and inequality.
Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, preached the flipside of fairness in passing environmental judgements on Africa. By planting more than forty million trees and encouraging near-broken rural Kenyans and the donor community to “save-save-save nature”, she represented the voiceless. Maathai came briefly, went quickly, but unfortunately, did not conquer.
In the dawn of the new climate change era, that conquering must still be done.
Much like Darwinian natural selection, where changes in nature drive evolution, survival of the fittest means that those who cannot adapt to a new World Order will suffer.
Seen in this light, climate change conferences are preparation for an unintended sophisticated global war of intelligence. It is not the “Going Green” types, but the world’s poorest – the billions at the bottom of the pyramid – who will be victims. And it will be attributable to the collusion of multi-government systems locked in a technological race driven by climate change, and not by prominent warmongers responsible for genocides.
Solutions for unseasonal weather, environmental catastrophes and depleted natural resources do not entail going overboard with numerous, glitzy meetings in the world’s premier conference halls while the poor get poorer. Nor does it lie in disseminating an imported brand of new-age dogma that potentially undermines the development of Africa’s home-grown expression of environmentalism.
We must instead define a philosophy of “African Environmentalism”, determine its boundaries and establish where it intersects with, and deviates from, the world’s other environmental philosophies. This will give the voice of Africa’s poor firmer feet in climate change summits.
Africa also needs to cultivate a cohort of environmental champions and high-thinkers – from Sudan to South Africa – who live by the heart, relate to land and can articulate an alternative indigenous environmental narrative to the western environmental neo-imperialism.
Dr Janice Golding is an Honorary Research Associate at the Plant Conservation Unit (University of Cape Town) and writes in her personal capacity.