Social and Economic Justice cannot exist without Environmental Justice

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Jan Arkert, SAFCEI's Science Advisor

At a time of rapid and significant changes in political, economic, social and environmental debates I find it useful sometimes to try withdrawing from the incompatible arguments and to consider the state of affairs, one issue at a time. Armed with some of my favourite reading matter I prefer to retreat into a quiet corner of nature where I let my mind wander.

Leading up to the forthcoming elections in the South African I am becoming increasingly despondent while I listen to political parties currently preparing for the election. Many voters will probably agree that we are inundated with political rhetoric and promises every five years when our political leaders will say anything just for an extra vote or two. Populist leadership appears to be the current trend not only domestically, where we will be feeling the consequences of Mr. Zuma’s mismanagement, but internationally as well. Donald Trump was elected president of the USA, not based on sound rational policies, but on popular utterances that appealed to intolerant and often racist mindsets.

Currently, we are faced with a barrage of promises from political parties that speak of service improvement, improved access to real jobs, social upliftment and education for all. We have also heard reams about the state of our economy, however, I am straining my ears to pick up a single comment on the state of our environment. This has brought me to my current position where I question whether we, as South Africans, as well as the community of life on this planet can achieve any form of justice while our environment continues to suffer abuse.

In the words of the esteemed philosopher, writer and thinker, Thomas Berry, all life on the planet are part of a community. Within this inter-dependent web of life, humanity plays a significant and important role, albeit as members of a broader ecological community. Ecosystem services are benefits that humanity derives from a functioning ecosystem. Some of these services include the provision of clean water, clean air, fertile soils, mitigation of floods by wetland, pollination of plants and crops by insects and the spiritual upliftment humans derived from nature. These services cost humanity nothing if we protect, preserve and cherish them. When be abuse them and take them for granted as humanity has for millennia, they begin to breakdown and fail. This failure was described by Garrett Hardin in his paper entitled “Tragedy of the Commons”, in which he describes the failure of humans to respect the rights and needs of others. The individual tends to take more than one’s fair share and the mindset that someone else will pay for the consequences of your greed are referred to as externalities in economic terminology.

Currently, planet earth is faced with the greatest consequences of externalities in the history of humanity. Our past has been punctuated by many events, the results of which pushed mans’ course along a new path. The domestication of wheat and maize, as well as sheep and goats ten thousand years ago, were one such process. Other more recent changes were the industrial revolution, the advent of the atomic age in the early 20th century, and currently, the effects of climate change.

The recent publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report in October 2018 warning of the consequences of global warming exceeding 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. Current trends in global carbon emissions indicate that the 1.5°C threshold will be reached by 2030, that is eleven years’ time, or in the South African context three national elections from now.

Despite warnings from world recognised institutions and eminent climate scientists, it is apparent that South African political parties prefer to ignore the inevitable outcome yet continue to sway voters with the promises of social, gender and economic justice. Now in my, perhaps, blinkered outlook on the world I am not entirely convinced that any of these promises can be fulfilled until such time that environmental justice is respected. There can be no social and gender justice when women and children do not have access to clean water or farmers do not have access to fertile land. I hear the naysayers tell us that we just need to build more sanitation works or apply more fertiliser to the land. When the quality of the water is such that it cannot be adequately cleaned or worst still there is no water to be cleaned, then there can be no social justice. Similarly, when fertile topsoil is removed from the land and we are left with a dust bowl and crops do not grow, once again there can be no economic justice.

The scenarios presented have been described by climate change denialist and others as fear mongering - I wish it was. Small groups of climate change denialists funded by the likes of the Koch brothers and Exxon in the USA have been very effective in casting doubt amongst people into believing the climate scientists and organizations like IPCC. In a similar manner to the tobacco lobbyist of some decades ago who tried to protect their business interest at the expense of society, so too are climate denialist using the unjust fact of economic externalities to continue subsidising outdated industries at the expense of society.

The current situation internationally and the apparent choice of South African politicians to acknowledge reality, reminds me of a recent reference I read by Andrew Dickinson White, President of Cornell University in 189.  He referred to the apparent conflict between science and religion at the time, which is equally applicable today if we consider the religion of Economics and Politics.

“In all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest in religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and to science, and invariably; and, on the other hand, all untrammelled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed for the time to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good for both religion and of science.”

Finding appropriate solutions to the divide that exists between the “what nature does for us” mind set of economist and policy makers and the “what nature does” conditioning of the scientific community must be bridged. The greater inclusion of broader society into the debate may foster a society in which environmental justice, and by extension social, gender and economic justice may be enjoyed equally by all.