Our Burning Planet


Club of Rome: Looking to Africa for solutions to climate collapse

Club of Rome: Looking to Africa for solutions to climate collapse
The reality, on the ground, on the Bantustans’ grounds to be more specific, is that ensuring a plateau when it comes to the spread of the virus is going to be the toughest task. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

In 1972, the global think-tank Club of Rome issued a chilling warning that the global economy could not assume infinite growth on a finite planet. Nearly half a century later, the collapse of life-supporting natural systems foretold in its ‘Limits to Growth’ study is unfolding before our eyes. This month, the group came ‘home’ to Africa, to see what the world can learn from the mother continent.

Extractive industry is not development. When you come to extract what is in the soil for the benefit of shareholders, when you come to pollute water, destroy biodiversity and natural resources, and the ecological infrastructure, that is not development. The kind of development trajectory we want is one that is ecologically sustainable.”

Speaking at the global summit of the Club of Rome think-tank, held outside Stellenbosch this month, environmentalist and activist Sinegugu Zukulu represented the Xolobeni community from Pondoland on the Wild Coast, which has been fighting for two decades to prevent its community and environment from being torn up by Australia-based mining company Mineral Commodities, which wants to dig titanium from ancestral land.

The Xolobeni struggle has been described as the “Standing Rock of the south”, and represents the battle of indigenous communities around the world to protect their homes, livelihoods and water from the predatory interests of governments, transnational corporations and big business.

The people of Xolobeni are saying there are only two acceptable ways to develop – eco-tourism and eco-agriculture,” said Zukulu, dressed in the traditional garb of the Amadiba people of Pondoland. “This is what the people want. They want to produce their own food so they don’t have to be dependent on anyone.”

He added: “Indigenous people around the world have a key to adaptation to climate change. We need to listen to these voices on the periphery, the voices of indigenous people in Africa, the Amazon, Latin America, and South-East Asia, because they are saying something about what sort of future we need. These people have a message for us all.

For this year’s summit, Club of Rome organisers said the Italy-based group was coming “home” to Africa to see what the world can learn from stories like that of Xolobeni, and to draw from indigenous philosophies such as ubuntu.

The African wisdom of ubuntu – I am, because we are – does not only apply to other humans but to all of nature and speaks to the interdependence of life on Earth, said Club of Rome co-president Dr Mamphela Ramphele.

According to former Harvard Business School professor and activist in the field of corporate globalization Dr David Korten, humanity is facing in a “planetary emergency and the Western world has to make a transition to a new economy and a new civilisation.

To do so we need to learn from indigenous communities so we can bring out a depth of humanity that we have lost.”

The UN’s recent 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services echoes the need to draw on the knowledge of indigenous communities, who tend to live more sustainably on their land and hold the keys to this new form of civilisation.

Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions,” the report’s authors say. “On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by indigenous peoples and local communities.”

To arrest the ecological overshoot driving the collapse of natural systems, “we need a fundamentally different way of living. We need a fundamentally different economics to what we teach and practice now,” declared Korten.

In 1972, the Club of Rome commissioned Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers in the US to produce the now-famous Limits to Growth study. In it, they used computer-based modelling to show that continuing trends in global pollution, food production, resource use, industrialisation and population growth would lead to depletion of essential resources and systems, beginning in the 21st century.

What we’re experiencing now is just what models predicted,” said Korten.

Researchers at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne recently compared the 1972 modelled projections with actual trends since the early 1970s and found them to be on target. If we continue on this trajectory of consumption and waste production, the Melbourne study concludes, the ecological collapse will continue into this century.

Humanity faces an ‘immediate existential risk, requiring emergency action’

We have a planetary emergency, with global temperature change. This is the greatest emergency that humanity has ever faced. We need to totally change the approach that humanity has used in the past 200 years and very little time in which to do it,” said Ian Dunlop, chair of Safe Climate Australia and independent energy and climate adviser in Australia.

But there is a yawning chasm between what we need to do, and what we’re talking about in the Paris Accord.

A 1.5°C to 2°C ceiling in global heating is what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is the threshold that Earth’s temperature should not cross if the planet is to remain within the boundaries of liveability. But the carbon pollution targets laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement will only stabilise the temperature increase at 3°C. Current pollution rates, which are growing year on year, are set to push planetary warming to 4°C and above.

The current 1°C rise in global temperature (since the start of the industrial revolution) as already brought us to a tipping point, said Dunlop, “3°C brings outright chaos, and 4°C is complete collapse.

This year, atmospheric carbon pollution has climbed to 410 parts per million (ppm). The last time Earth experienced these conditions was about 3 million years ago during the Pliocene Epoch, when “global mean surface temperatures were 1.9°C to 3.6°C higher than for (the) pre-industrial climate”, according to the UN IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2013.

This means Earth’s systems already face a baked-in warming of up to 3°C. The Pliocene is a good analogue for Earth’s current trajectory, Imperial College London geophysicist and climate-change scientist Martin Siegert told The Guardian last April. Sea levels in the Pliocene were 20 metres higher than today, and beach fossils in Antartica show that there were trees growing near the South Pole.

Destroying life for money is suicidal’

Modern economics has failed us, Korten told summit delegates. Since the 1970s, neoliberalism has schooled generations of business and government leaders in the false assumption that the economy can be built on unlimited growth, and that it would relieve global poverty.

Instead, neoliberalism has led to this “predictable” collapse, not just of the climate system, but of other life-supporting systems such as healthy soil, forest, and water systems.

Humanity consumes 1.7 times what Earth can sustain, which is coming at the expense of destroying the regenerative system that we have to count on to maintain the health of the Earth and humans.”

The promised trickle-down of wealth has also not happened, with a cavernous divide now existing between the rich and poor.

According to Oxfam, twenty-six billionaires now hold personal financial assets greater than those of the poorest half of humanity, 3.9 billion people. Their resulting control of politicians, media, education, research, and our means of living gives 26 individuals a greater say in economic policy-making than all the rest of Earth’s 7.7 billion humans the substantial majority of whom are locked into a desperate daily struggle for survival.”

We are now talking about the collapse of civilisation and the self-extinction of the human species. The status quo cannot be sustained.”

The Club of Rome gathering called for an end to neoliberal economics, which ignores society’s dependence on natural life-supping systems, and only values people and Earth in terms of their market price and contribution to gross domestic product (GDP). Economists need to find a new measure for prosperity, beyond GDP, which only measures growth and marketised human consumption, regardless of how destructive it is.

Destroying life for money is suicidal,” Korten said.

But with the existential crisis of climate collapse, comes an existential opportunity to create something that works for all people and life, and should draw on indigenous communities’ world view that understands humanity’s interdependence on each other and nature, embodied in the notion of ubuntu.

Korten outlined eight principles that need to reshape the economics of the 21st Century (see sidebar).

A new economics needs to come with a new civilisation, he argues, one which has “shed the conceit that Earth was created for humans to exploit”.

A new economics and a new civilisation: how we get there

The low-regulation environment of neoliberal economics has allowed for carbon pollution to be dumped into the atmosphere free of charge and externalised the environmental and health costs of producing this waste. This debt is now being paid in the form of extreme weather events, food and water shortages, mass migration, and political instability.

Restructuring economies away from a neoliberal system in order to slow carbon pollution and respond to collapsing natural systems means introducing immediate and tight government regulations that put a high cost on pollution and obliges the polluters to pay for the environmental fallout. A study released last week gives a road map for how to do that.

The paper World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency is co-authored by Dr Phoebe Barnard, chief science and policy officer at Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, and a researcher with the University of Cape Town’s African Climate and Development Initiative. The paper has the backing of over 11 000 scientists from around the world who have signed a joint declaration stating “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency”.

The road map for response laid out in the paper would call for firm policies that remove fossil fuel subsidies, tax carbon pollution, encourage measures aimed at keeping fossil fuel stocks in the ground, stall the release of short-lived pollutants such as methane gas, and support a rapid switch to renewable energy sources. Bernard and her peers suggest a post-World War II-style Marshal-plan approach to begin the retreat from vulnerable coastlines and massive investment in restoring ecosystems which can help mop carbon pollution from the atmosphere while providing airbags to help absorb some of the shocks of extreme weather events.

With a new post-neoliberal economics comes a reversal of the value systems and world view that has allowed Western consumer culture and predatory Capitalism to plunder the atmospheric space at the expense of a stable, life-supporting climate.

In his book The Patterning Instinct Jeremy Lent tracks how the Western story – underpinned by dualistic thinking, the materialism of science, and one-god religion – has created a dominant modern narrative that humans are separate from nature, that we are nature’s overlords, and that the natural world is there to be exploited, dominated, and extracted for our benefit. Capitalism has commodified nature further, stripping it of its inherent right to be, and reducing its value to the rands and cents that can be earned from it.

Part of moving to an ecological civilisation, Lent argues, means looking to other cosmologies and world views that return us to our place within nature, where we realise our interdependence on it for our survival, and the right of other-than-human life forms and ecosystems to exist. Lent also cites the African notion of ubuntu, and the need to return to indigenous knowledge systems.

We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural (and) economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production,” he argues.

During the summit, the Club of Rome featured its Emerging New Civilisations Initiative (ENCI), which lays out a new paradigm for our species’ role in the “greater Earth Community” with “values that promote human dignity, respect for nature and protection of the commons beyond current generations”.

Civilisation isn’t about one group being more advanced or modern than another,” said Tiara Dungy, a doctoral student from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, during the summit, “civilisation should be the best way of doing things”.

Hearing the marginalised and silenced voices of indigenous communities

If the western world is to make this transition to a new civilisation… we need a new economics that is grounded in the reality of our true nature as living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth,” said Korten. “These are not just kind words, this is our fundamental reality which most of our science and economics have denied, which is why we are in deep trouble. Twenty-first-century economics will be grounded in the wisdom of indigenous people who lived in a balanced symbiotic relationship with Earth.”

But it is these very indigenous voices that Sinegugu Zukulu said are still marginalised, and sometimes even silenced.

Globally, in recent years, environmental and human rights activists are being murdered,” Zukulu said. “In 2014 alone, 116 leaders were murdered. And 185 in 2015. That’s three leaders every week. They are being murdered for standing up to protect their homes and livelihoods and the health of the planet. Who is being implicated in these murders and assassinations? Mining companies, agri-business, and logging companies.”

This month, The Washington Post ran the story of forest protection activist Paulo Paulino Guajajara who was gunned down by illegal loggers in the Amazon. In its 2019 report, the UK-based watchdog organisation Global Witness counted the murder of 164 people who were defending their land and immediate environment. These are “ordinary people murdered for defending their homes, forests and rivers against destructive industries”, the report says, and “(c)ountless more were silenced through violent attacks, arrests, death threats or lawsuits”.

The Xolobeni struggle has not escaped either. In 2016, Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, one of the community leaders with the Amadiba Crisis Committee which is heading the fight against titanium mining in Pondoland, was shot in an assassination-type ambush by two people dressed as policemen.

We need to listen to these people because they have a message for us all. What sort of future, what sort of development trajectory do we need? Corporations and governments are not willing to listen, and people are getting assassinated to remove those voices,” Zukulu said.

The indigenous wisdom fighting to remain alive is the same wisdom that reminds that Earth is, as Korten says, the “common household that we share”.

Hope,” he said, “lies in the vision of a possible world that is of life, love, and beauty. This is a time for a new economics that can create a culture and institutions based on sufficiency and abundance for all. Ubuntu: together we live, in isolation we die.” DM

Korten’s eight principles for the economics of the 21st century

  • New economic indicators that measure the well-being of people and the planet, rather than measuring consumption rates or the monetisation of relationships;

  • Use resources, including labour, in a way that benefits all life (which means doing away with war, dependence on cars, financial speculation, and advertising that promotes consumerism);

  • Change in ownership so that power returns to the hands of the people, and taking it away from trans-national corporations;

  • Create an accountable, transparent money system that serves community interests;

  • Refocus education so that it gives skills to deal with the rapid and dramatic change that lies ahead;

  • Create and use technology to enhance the well-being of people and planet, and limit technologies that exploit, control, or displace people or nature;

  • Create interlinked, cooperative, bio-regional communities, linking rural with urban communities and allowing the free sharing of information and technology with all who might benefit; and

  • For the human population to achieve a healthy balance with other species in a way that is consistent with the well-being of all. DM
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