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A New Brand of African Environmentalism

Dr Golding

Janice Golding argues that Africa needs to cultivate environmental champions and high-thinkers who live by the heart, relate to the land and who can articulate an alternative indigenous environmental narrative to the western environmental neo-imperialism.

On continents that are colder and less giving than Africa, the fastest growing new mass religion is “Environmentalism”. Climate change and sustainability are its key drivers.

“Environmentalism” (also called “Going Green”) is an earnest lifestyle for it is fervent in the endeavour of reducing carbon footprints. Household examples are fruit and vegetable gardens, 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.

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 understood well that the marriage between poverty and environmental ideologies is founded on the fact that poverty of the pocket determines the state of the heart.

Today, the new generation shaping Africa’s environmental agenda belongs to a hip and trendy set. Many are young in their introduction 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 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. 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.

Seen in this light, 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.

Since the adoption of the United Nations Berlin Mandate in 1995, the United Nations has managed the direction of climate change science, created public awareness (punted climate change fears), facilitated international treaties, and has also laid the agenda for carbon regulations and trading. That a single organisation has had this sphere of control of environmental expressionism is alarming. And still, key agreements at its meetings seem elusive as ever.

Climate change conferences are preparations 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.

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.

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.

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for the environment, 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 nature”, she represented the poor and the voiceless. Maathai came, went quietly, but unfortunately, did not conquer.

In the dawn of the new climate change era, that conquering must still be done.

We should 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 the land and who can articulate an alternative indigenous environmental narrative to the western environmental neo-imperialism. Africa, rise up!
Dr Janice Golding is an Honorary Research Associate at UCT’s Plant Conservation Unit and writes in her personal capacity. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Cape Times on 7 October 2011.