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Minister Creecy takes selfie with climate change activist Greta Thunberg.

Barbara Creecy, South Africa’s Minister for the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, yesterday – 3 October 2019 – addressed the launch of South Africa’s National Biodiversity Assessment. This occasion follows hot on the heels of the Minister appearing in selfies with Greta Thunberg, whose speech to the United Nations Climate Action summit on 23 September has made some angry white men hot under the collar (or even angrier).

Minister Creecy noted that one in seven of our 23,312 indigenous species that were assessed are now considered to be threatened with extinction. Aside from the fact that 36 of our plant species (out of a total of 20,401) are extinct, with another 70 ‘possibly extinct’, Creecy pointed to the collapse of our freshwater systems as the most concerning of the report’s findings. The minister well understands the importance of freshwater ecosystems and indeed terrestrial ecosystems. However, the language employed in her speeches is part of the challenge:
“The restoration and protection of freshwater ecosystems, or what we term eco-infrastructure services, will deliver huge returns on investment with great benefit to the communities that depend on them”

This – and her proposed solutions – lie at the heart of how we landed in this mess in the first place. South Africa simply has to become more radical about preserving the ecological integrity that remains and restoring that which has been lost.

As is well-known, South Africa’s official shorthand for the concept underpinning its approach to the natural environment is that of ‘sustainable use’, ostensibly derived from Section 24 of our constitution, except of course that the constitution nowhere uses that phrase. To the contrary, it emphasises ecological sustainability at the heart of the right to healthy environment, and ‘use’ only where it is justifiable and does not jeopardise future generations. One example of South Africa’s position, at odds with the spirit of the constitution, comes from the minister’s statement at the parliamentary budget vote speech in which she said that ‘illegal poaching and the illicit wildlife trade continue to threaten both our conservation and sustainable use efformts.’

Indeed, Minister Creecy sent an extraordinarily large delegation from South Africa to the most expensive city in the world for CoP18 – the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This Conference provided the clearest evidence of what South African authorities typically mean by ‘sustainable use’ – sell off the derivative parts of our most iconic species to ‘fund conservation’ and ‘benefit local communities’, all on the assumption that such sales will be well-governed and not exacerbate poaching and the illegal wildlife trade – the very problems we’re purportedly trying to solve.

South Africa joined some of its southern African neighbours in calling for a re-opening of the international trade in ivory. It also fought for – and won – the right to increase its hunting quota for black rhino, despite having relatively unreliable population numbers on which to do so. South Africa similarly pleaded to be allowed to sell its stockpiled rhino horn in global markets. Underpinning this is the idea that the environment, and the wild species it supports, exists primarily to serve people and should be made subservient to those ends. In other words, it does not view the environment as inherently valuable in its own right.

If you have ever wondered why you hear terms like ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘natural capital accounting’, here’s the answer: they’re part of the attempt to place a monetary value on the environment in the misplaced belief that such monetisation will provide sufficient incentives to people to look after the environment. While one may sympathise with the logic, it is indicative of humanity having reduced the natural environment to a mere object for our gratification. The ‘sustainable’ element of ‘sustainable use’ discourse is almost an after-thought. A bit like when colonial trophy hunters shot out an extraordinary number of African elephants and then established fortress conservation (kicking local communities out) to ensure that there were at least enough elephants to shoot in the following years. They then set up a quota system. Ok, so what’s the problem if they’re conserving resources for future use?

It’s twofold. First, we can never adequately value the environment in capital terms. We will always underestimate it. What is the value of oxygen? What is the value of clean air, clean water, a carbon sink, the preservation of fish species that thrive in mangrove forests that depend for survival on no upstream dams being built, and so on? Let’s take a practical example. If we were to extend the World Heritage Site of the Okavango Delta right up to the source of the Angolan rivers that feed it, what should we be prepared to pay for that? Surely we should compensate those who would benefit from dams, rice paddies and hunting the animals that live there? Or what if we were to stop the logging contracts that have been dished out in Tanzania to clear forests in advance of dropping concrete into Stiegler’s Gorge (in the middle of the Selous World Heritage Site)? Surely we should pay compensation to those who are benefiting (purportedly) from the logging and the hydropower that will come from the dam? The problem with the compensation questions is that they utterly underestimate the opportunity costs that invariably attach to development projects that destroy ecological integrity. You might get power, but at what real cost? The downstream effects of building that dam will be that rare fish species which depend on interconnected oxbow lakes just west of the mangrove forests will go extinct. You might get some money from logging, but you lose a carbon sink. You might get some rice but you might lose the Delta (with all the biodiversity and tourism revenue generated by that very biodiversity).

The second, and related, problem is one of economic modelling. As Georgescu-Roegen pointed out in the early 1970s, we treat the economy as if nature is free, as if we can extract it and not expect to pay for it. We mine coal and generate coal-fired power, but at what cost? Economists now call these costs ‘externalities’ – the social and environmental burdens offloaded onto those who can least afford it, or the ‘divergence between private returns and social costs.’ But who is going to compensate the coal miners who go home to die in the Eastern Cape with some coal-related sickness? Who is going to pay for the endless social healthcare burden associated with breathing rubbish quality air? We think that we can measure the value of a healthy environment through measuring trade-offs – we’re prepared to lose $x worth of a carbon sink for the sake of $y value of electricity. But clearly we’ve underestimated the ‘value’ of the carbon sinks, which is why Greta Thunberg has to ask us: “How dare you pretend that this can be solved with business-as-usual and some technical solutions. With today’s emission levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone in less than eight and a half years.”

In South Africa, our government treats nature as a means to an end, just like the apartheid government did. We can breed lions, tigers and chimpanzees and export them or their parts, hunt our rhino or deplete our fish stocks (and the list goes on) as long as such activity does not exceed the ‘maximum sustainable yield’ (MSY) – the supposed amount that can be extracted without jeopardising the future of the stocks. But even in the UK, with some of the best scientists, they completely underestimated the size of their cod stock. It has now collapsed because the annual ‘offtake’ allowed (note the clinical language to hide the decimation) from the MSY was excessive. This shows the arrogance of humans. We think that we can measure everything and place a monetary value on nature, whose worth we will only truly grasp when it’s gone.

To quote from George Monbiot: “Sorry, did I say nature? We don’t call it that anymore. It is now called natural capital. Ecological processes are called ecosystem services because, of course, they exist only to serve us. Hills, forests, rivers: these are terribly out-dated terms. They are now called green infrastructure. Biodiversity and habitats? Not at all à la mode my dear. We now call them asset classes in an ecosystems market. I am not making any of this up. These are the names we now give to the natural world.”

What about people? The language that Minister Creecy uses consistently implies that we must place people at the centre of preserving the environment. That’s exactly the wrong way around. People will die – and they are dying – precisely because we thought that we could enslave nature, monetise it, extract from it and harness it to serve our greed. It is not accidental that the poor will suffer the most because of our abrogation of responsibility to live in harmony with nature. They should be compensated. But the firms that should be doing so are too busy funding deforestation. And why are some of the world’s ‘leading’ men – Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro – so upset with Greta Thunberg? Because them or their handlers have made their millions on the back of the very destruction that Thunberg is calling them to account for. The beef industry, the fossil fuel industry, the palm oil industry, the agro-processing industry – these are among the biggest culprits.

South Africa has to wake up. We cannot carry on with this approach of fiddling around the edges and dressing up our destructive activities in the name of ‘sustainable use’ and pretending that there is some kind of balance that needs to be struck between ‘development’ and ‘nature’. There is no development without nature. Not everything can be measured and certainly the most valuable things should not be monetised.

What do we do? Stop coal. Fast. Stop breeding wild animals and exotic species for monetary gain by flouting CITES loopholes. Stop extracting so much water from our freshwater ecosystems to literally water unsustainable activities such as industrial beef and dairy farming. Just stop? Yes. We can’t have our Minister taking selfies with Greta Thunberg and then defending concepts and policies that have created the very problems that moved Thunberg to tie herself to parliament in the first place. We need a new paradigm.

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