I came across this quote by American civil rights activist and writer Maya Angelou last week: “We need joy as we need air. We need love as we need water. We need each other as we need the earth we share.”
At first glance it’s easy enough to dismiss her words as a mere poetic uttering, but after recent events that quite clearly reinforce that our climate is in crisis, their message and meaning have never been so urgent.
It was reported last weekend that the south of Greece was experiencing 82 wildfires as the country recorded its hottest day of the summer on Sunday, leading to the evacuation and displacement of thousands of people.
Before that, on 19 July, heavy monsoon rains caused a landslide in the north Indian village of Irshalwadi, resulting in the deaths of 27 people. With 57 people known to be still missing, rescue efforts were called off as further heavy rains fell.
It’s hard for most South Africans to imagine the resultant damage and trauma because we are not prone to such natural disasters. However, we are no strangers to loss and we understand the importance of standing together in times of great turmoil, as well as feeling a sense of responsibility to help where we can.
In previous years when one spoke of the climate crisis, most people had not yet seen and appreciated the human tragedy it would wreak on the world. But, perhaps more specifically, as Angelou’s quote reveals, how connected human actions are to Earth’s well-being.
We cannot be joyful if we cannot breathe clean air and don’t have access to water. Or when we live on a planet facing one natural disaster after another that is of our doing as a result of not caring for one another and Earth.
Sadness and anger
Increasing evidence is being unearthed of how being at odds with our natural environment is damaging to our mental health, particularly among young people. This is understandable considering that they stand to inherit a broken world.
In a Lancet report published in 2021, titled “Climate Anxiety in Children and Young People and their Beliefs about Government Responses to Climate Change”, the young people surveyed reported each of the following emotions: sadness, anxiousness, anger, powerlessness, helplessness and guilt.
“Respondents rated governmental responses to climate change negatively and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance,” the report said. “Climate anxiety and distress were correlated with perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Climate anxiety is real. Why talking about it matters
It would be easy just to blame authorities for not being responsive. But we all need to appreciate the necessity of living in harmony with our environment. This should be inculcated at home, in schools and communities, among corporate citizens and the state. Our current model of development is such that it places our planet under unbearable pressure, and those who bear the brunt are often at the bottom of the food chain and the most vulnerable.
If we are to depart from Isaac Newton’s theory that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, we need to understand that, if we do not do harm to our environment, it will not harm us either. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.