Ecological consciousness

Why we need to change our mind-set

The historical town of Stellenbosch and its surrounds reminds us of an idyllic past

Among Stellenbosch University's (SU) core and leading research competencies is a focus on the natural environment, which are now also under enormous stress, writes SU professor, Karen Esler.

People being in a reciprocal relationship with the Stellenbosch environment for millennia is no exaggeration. Where I live, it is not uncommon to come across a hand axe turned over in a newly ploughed vineyard. More than 300 000 years ago, Stone Age people would have looked across the same landscape, teaming with game and abundant with natural resources. The stone tools they left behind are referred to by archaeologists as the Stellenbosch Complex. In fact, the oldest archaeological evidence for modern humans comes from the Cape between 200 000 and 150 000 years ago. Clearly this was a great place to live.

Fast forward to 2013; our reliance on the natural environment has not changed, and it is still a great place to live.  In the valleys, soil and water support a now predominantly agricultural landscape that in turn supports a community of temporary and permanent farm workers, and many thriving agricultural concerns. There are families who have lived for generations in a single valley. It is the environment, the magnificent back drop of the Cape Fold Mountains, the Winelands, and the historical presence of people, that draws tourists to this area. It is no accident that among Stellenbosch University's core and leading research competencies is a focus on the natural environment. Our reciprocal relationship with the natural environment is both multifaceted and complex. Healthy soils, clean air, clean water and beautiful landscapes are central to this relationship.

Sadly, these services provided by the natural environment are under enormous stress. Development without a big-picture plan has carved up our landscape, consuming its beauty. A mountain of garbage greets visitors to our town, water supply is already at, or close to, exploitation limits. Little or no protective bank-side vegetation and wetlands remain to provide their critical filtration function. How tragic that the Eerste River water now poses a health hazard to any downstream water user. Regionally, the loss of water quality and quantity is a pending crisis likely to be exacerbated in a climatically uncertain future. The future is not what it used to be. 

Paradise, however, is not lost. I believe that it is still possible to engineer our future into one where a clean, safe and abundant environment is a given; a right that is not only enshrined in our constitution, but a reality. Brave, bold steps are needed.

As individuals, we must take responsibility for our own role that we have played in the erosion of our natural resources, many of which are no longer available in abundance. In an environment of scarcity, we now need to deal with our excess, the malaise of the 21st century. It is those of us who use the most resources who need to learn how to live with less.

Reducing that which we consume (water, electricity, fuel), reusing that which we can (plastic bags and tyres) and recycling instead of discarding (oil, organic matter, glass, paper, plastic, metal) are all simple actions at the household level. There are social, economic and ecological benefits to doing these things. We need to change our mind set into a simpler one where people with ecological consciousness exist in a local economy where we are fair and kind to each other. We need to give back - to our family, community, society and environment, both natural and built.

Above all, we need to be mindful of the decisions we make. Don't write off those small, seemingly insignificant, pro-environment actions, because they can have a profound collective impact when coordinated.

Schools, community groups, churches and the university are all playing a role, and there are some wonderful, generous initiatives already taking place. More could be done though. Regular and frequent communication about sustainable options would add value to our local newspaper. (What happens to my rubbish when it leaves my home, who deals with it, and where?) Community involvement requires being informed; and if information is insufficient to guide action, having an appropriate range of incentives (e.g. tax or rates rebates) and disincentives (e.g. sliding scale costing for water, electricity, rubbish removal) in place would further help.

Collective decision making and debate around budget allocations may help direct our rates and taxes towards real solutions at the district and municipal levels. Providing a functional sewage and sanitation infrastructure in our towns would go a long way to reducing unwanted river inputs. With newly promulgated Spatial Development Plans, municipal and district leaders now have the opportunity to halt runaway development, to plan our towns and landscapes in a way that welcomes, rather than shuns, the natural environment. Models already exist for alternative, environmentally friendly and organic agricultural practices and what is more, these are viable, going concerns that are also socially responsible. Strong local leaders with long-term vision have an opportunity to gather these options together and to coordinate them so that together their combined impact is a significant one.

Finally, we need to better harness the knowledge and talent that exists right on our own doorstep. Stellenbosch has a remarkable collection of academic talent from which to draw on. Through Stellenbosch University, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and other local institutions, management, engineering, agricultural, technological and ecological knowledge already exists to appropriately manage our natural resources and even to restore that which needs fixing. New, exciting possibilities and creative innovations can and are being developed. The future is bright with endless possibility.

Healthy environments and healthy communities can be maintained and restored. All we need is collective action, long-term vision, budgets and champions to drive the process. The natural environment is the very reason why we have existed in this landscape since the dawn of humanity. We urgently need to reconnect with that which made us unique.

  • Karen Esler is a professor in the Department of Conservation Ecology & Entomology, Stellenbosch University. This article is based on her contribution to Sustainable Stellenbosch – Opening Dialogues, published by SUN MeDIA Stellenbosch.


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Issue 68