South Africa

Sustain our Africa summit: Can you spare any change?

By Rebecca Davis 24 October 2012

There are some difficult discussions taking place at the inaugural Sustain our Africa summit in Cape Town this week. Billed as Africa’s ‘first annual integrated sustainability summit focused on inspiration and tools for change’, it aims to provide practical suggestions for tackling the continent’s environmental problems. Ivo Vegter was busy, so REBECCA DAVIS went along.

Everyone at the Sustain our Africa summit is called a “change agent”. People working or talking at the summit even have T-shirts which label them as a “change agent”. Depending on your disposition, you may find this phrase invigorating and community-building. If you are a naturally curmudgeonly soul like me, the terminology may begin to grate, especially when paired (often) with the words: “As Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’”. 

I know this isn’t important, because it’s the principle that matters, but can we just clear this up for once and for all: Gandhi never said that. As this New York Times article on the subject points out, the closest thing that Gandhi said that sounds a bit like that was: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” But that doesn’t fit half as neatly on a bumper sticker. 

(While we’re at it, Nelson Mandela also never said “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Those words were written by self-help guru Marianne Williamson, the author of books like A Return to Love and Emma & Mommy Talk to God.)

To return to the Change Agents, however: the phrase captures the whole raison d’être of the summit, which has been two years in the making and has lined up a really impressive roster of speakers and events. The gathering purports to be debating “the biggest question of all: Can Africa deliver enough for all, forever?”, but the answer (no, not at current rates of resource-pillaging) is a foregone conclusion for all present. This is a really refreshing element of proceedings in one sense: if everyone is on the same page, you don’t have to waste time building consensus by producing screeds of temperature data and images of deforestation, freeing things up for much more intriguing discussions. In another sense, of course, it produces a slight echo-chamber effect.

One of the most interesting moments of the first day’s proceedings came when an audience member posed the following question (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) to a panel discussion: If I am a poor African farmer, and my only means of feeding my family right now is to continue with the environmentally destructive, unsustainable farming practices I currently employ, how do you persuade me that there is some loftier long-term goal at stake, of saving the planet? No satisfactory conclusion was reached, other than an acknowledgement that it was a problem. Perhaps the next two days’ proceedings will bring delegates closer to answering that question, which seems a critical one.

What kind of “change”, then, are we talking about? For one thing, changing personal behaviour. A point which was rightly noted frequently was the middle-class hypocrisy of asking that the poor act in certain environmentally-friendly ways without the rich adopting these behaviours. Opening proceedings, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille spoke of her belief that future generations will see the concept of flush toilets as an “aberration – flushing away clean drinking water”. But – in case you thought this was leading towards a Makhaza justification – she acknowledged that such toilets are also seen as aspirational. And, in terms of basic fairness, why should only the rich have flush toilets? While Zille stopped short of announcing she would be installing a long-drop in Leeuwenhof post-haste, “we need to lead by example”, she said.

Let’s look at the food we eat, suggested science writer Leonie Joubert, whose book The Hungry Season was recently released. The way city-dwellers eat is making them fat and sick. With a move to the city comes access to an abundance of highly processed, very cheap food. It’s energy-dense and high in fat, sugar and salt. Because it has to have a long shelf life, it’s low in nutrition and highly addictive. As a result, it’s possible for someone to be poor but obese – and malnourished. It’s a growing problem within the developing world. But while the rich can eschew KFC for Kauai, the poor cannot. 

Let’s look at our businesses, suggested the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Dr Marie Parramon-Gurney, who said we need to start weighing “natural capital” – the world’s natural assets – more heavily. “We need to mainstream biodiversity into economic decision-making,” Parramon-Gurney said. “Assess your business risk: do you need water to produce your product?” It’s not just mining companies, or Coca-Cola, that do. “You need to start looking at biodiversity as capital which you need for your business.” Influence your client, your shareholder, your supply chain, she suggested. What is necessary is a radical shift in the thinking about the relationship between business and the environment.

Let’s look at the coins in our pockets, suggested Dan McDougall, a British Sunday Times correspondent. McDougall became interested in the question of how coins were made, and what they were made of, so he traced the supply chain. The outer layer of a coin is 75% copper and the interior is 25% nickel alloy. But no mints ethically source base metals for coins, he discovered. The world’s largest nickel mine, in Madagascar, will shortly become the most profitable in the world. It is a £4-billion project which has built a four-lane super-highway through the heart of the Madagascan rainforest to carry nickel to the port, at enormous environmental cost. In Chile, home to the world’s largest copper mine, there is a similarly disastrous environmental fall-out. Think about your role in this kind of global economy, said McDougall. Remember to ask where things come from and how they are made.

Let’s look at where our money goes, suggested Paul Clements-Hunt, head of the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative. “If you have a pension fund, do you know where it’s invested? That’s a good place to start your housekeeping.” But he admitted that he himself had not done this. There was a similar moment of self-chastisement when, in response to an audience question, renowned environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan admitted he recently bought an SUV in order to take his kids to wild places. “It’s a constant reminder that my hands are not clean,” he said.

It was useful to hear the speakers’ honesty in this regard, because it’s a reminder that even quite simple behaviours (don’t buy an SUV) can be hard to adopt for regular, flawed, human beings. There’s also the point that individual behaviour change can only help up to a point: to tackle serious environmental crises, you need both systemic transformation as well as everyone being the change they want to see in the world. The Summit seems to be a platform for some interesting ideas in this regard.

For one thing, we could use law more effectively. That’s Cullinan’s bag. Cullinan thinks that more countries need to follow the lead of Ecuador, which in September 2008 instituted a constitution which recognises the rights of nature. Last year, the Vilcabamba River brought a case against the provincial government of Loja, in Ecuador, to prevent a road-builder from dumping rubble in the river. The river won through it. (Apologies.) There is other global advocacy underway on matters pertaining to law and the environment: activist Polly Higgins, for instance, has been campaigning for some time for the law of Ecocide to be declared the fifth UN “crime against peace”, with commensurate penalties.

Joubert suggested legislation could have a role to play in fixing urban nutrition problems. We need more health warnings on food products, as with tobacco, she suggested. Stating that the fast-food industry has had unfettered access to consumers for too long, she proposed applying the “polluter pays” principle from environmental law to fast food. “They get us sick, but the state has to mop up the heath problems,” she said. Another potential step could be for cities to start restricting the access of fast food outlets to schools by instituting a mandatory distance between educational establishments and fast food shops. “The patterns you learn in adolescence are difficult to break,” she warned.

In an afternoon panel discussion, participants were in agreement that the discourse around sustainability needs to change. “We’ve been having a circular conversation for 30 years,” said Clements-Hunt. “We can’t keep going around shouting ‘The world’s going to end!’ We’ve got to think about solutions we can replicate and move at scale.” That’s precisely what the Summit aims to do. The problem, as usual, is that the speakers are preaching to the choir. DM

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Photo: A logging company’s tractor sits on the side of a road that has been cut into Congo’s forest in the northern province of Equateur October 8, 2004. REUTERS/David Lewis 

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