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Some lessons for ecological sustainability

Last night I was privileged to listen to naturalist and film-maker David Attenborough (famous brother of the equally famous Richard Attenborough) who is visiting South Africa. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Faculty of (natural) Science at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Sir David, who drew sufficient people to fill five venues, in four of which audiences saw and listened to his presentation via television connection, spoke about Darwin’s contemporary and fellow naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace’s contribution to our knowledge of nature, specifically of the splendidly coloured family of birds, called birds of paradise. Needless to say, for everyone as hooked on his nature films as I am, it was a mesmerising experience to listen to a man who, arguably more than anyone today, has awakened human beings to the beauty and splendour of nature, in all her variegatedness, through the medium of film.

To be frank, I was quite taken aback by the overwhelming interest in his talk, not only on the part of members of the university community, but among the public as well. In fact, it gave me hope that, perhaps — just perhaps — there is hope for nature in an age when few seem to care about its unabated destruction at the hands of oil companies and, most recently, companies engaged in “fracking” shale for the extraction of natural gas. I realise only too painfully that a familiarity with films which celebrate nature on planet earth, from mountains, seas, deserts, mammals, fish, insects and plants, to birds, is no guarantee that audiences who love Attenborough’s work, would show equal interest in rescuing nature as far as it is humanly possible. After all, contemporary society is a mediated society, which tends to show more interest in simulation than in the real thing.

On the other hand, however, images of nature are very powerful. Leonard Shlain, in his book The Alphabet versus the Goddess, suggests that, given the power of images, the photographic image of the blue planet, earth, taken from space by the crew of the Apollo, has done more to sensitise people to the fragility and value of the earth than all the books that have been written on the subject. I hope the same is true of Attenborough’s marvellous films. However, even if books don’t have such an immediate impact on large numbers of people as cinematic or photographic images do, some are equally important to take note of in the fight against the exploitation of nature and her resources.

Such a book is Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, in which he recounts in harrowing detail how and why societies such as that of the Mayas, of Easter Island and of the Anasazi collapsed utterly, to the point where no one survived. What these societies had in common, he shows, was that they ignored the signs that they were destroying the ecosystems that sustained them, until it was too late to stop the process. He also points to all the symptoms in today’s world that what happened on a limited scale in those societies, is evidently happening on a global scale today. Diamond’s book is a wake-up call that reminds one that what is required today is a scrupulous discernment of signs that we are on the wrong path, the path of total eco-destruction.

One of his most informative chapters is titled “Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?” He recounts the puzzlement on the part of his students at UCLA, when dealing with what would become his chapter on Easter Island, in the face of the startling fact that the people on the island cut down EVERY last tree on the island, despite knowing — as they must have — that they depended on them. One student asked Diamond what he thought the islander who cut down the last tree said while he was doing it — something that highlights the sheer irrationality of the act. But not more irrational than some of the things that other societies have done, and still do, despite similar evidence that they are paving the way for their own destruction.

Diamond lists and discusses four main reasons why such irrational, disastrous decisions are usually made, which should serve as a warning to every responsible citizen in the world today, to speak up and, more importantly, act, when they witness such choices being repeated. These four major categories are what he calls: failure to anticipate, failure to perceive, rational bad behaviour [and] failure to resolve a perceived problem. From Diamond’s elaboration on these it is clear that they are exactly the kind of thing that stands in the way of the sustainability of planetary ecosystems, which are — partly because of such bad decisions — under increasing pressure today.

Regarding the first of these, one possible reason why groups of people have failed to anticipate major problems, is that they did not have prior experience of that kind of thing. As a prime example, Diamond refers to the disastrous introduction of rabbits and foxes into Australia by British colonists in the 19th century. Not having had experience of the results of introducing alien species into the ecology of a different continent, they could not foresee that rabbits would devour major quantities of plants intended for cattle and sheep, and fed on by native species of animal, while foxes would exterminate many indigenous species of Australian mammals lacking in evolutionary familiarity with foxes.

Today it is easy to see how unbelievably stupid such an intentional release of non-indigenous species into a foreign environment is. In South Africa, too, we have seen the destructive effects, for indigenous plants, of the transfer of black wattle and Port Jackson trees to this country from Australia. That not even prior experience of disastrous actions is a guarantee for avoiding it in future is made clear by Diamond’s discussion of such instances, for instance where non-literate societies (like the Anasazi) did not have a record of natural disasters like droughts, which might have helped them anticipate droughts that came much later.

The second reason why disastrous choices are made, involves the inability to perceive a potentially calamitous problem when it has already arrived. At the basis of such failure, Diamond claims, there are three causes, to wit, the beginnings of some problems being literally invisible, the phenomenon of “distant management” (not knowing what is happening in the field) and that of slow trends, which remain imperceptible behind broad, noisy fluctuations.

An instance of the first cause is the inability of people (especially before chemical analysis-measurement) to perceive “soil nutrient exhaustion”, or “incipient salinisation” of soils, which are often at the root of crop failure. An example of the second is a company based a long way from its timber forests and not realising that it has a weed problem in its forests, and its obverse, the successful use of resources because of being constantly informed of what is the case in the areas that count (the New Guinea Highland residents being an example).

The most familiar example of the third cause of bad decisions is global warming, which had been denied to be the case by many climate scientists until they were finally convinced by evidence of a slow, but steady rise in global temperatures, which had been covered up by extreme fluctuations in temperatures from year to year.

These are linked to what he calls “creeping normalcy” (normality) — the way that slow changes establish a sense of normality which hides its own direction and rate of change — and “landscape amnesia”, which is the ease with which one forgets what a place looked like a significant time earlier, given the slow but inexorable pace of change. (Diamond mentions the snow band on the mountains in Montana, which to his shock virtually vanished in the 42 years between his first and his later visits to the area but remained almost unnoticed by residents.)

The third reason for wrong decisions that lead to failure is, according to Diamond, the most frequent and the most surprising because it goes against one’s “rational” expectations, namely that people would do something decisive once a problem has been perceived. He calls this phenomenon “rational bad behaviour”. “Rational” because it is often quite rational to argue in favour of certain behaviour because it would promote one’s own interests and “bad” because it invariably harms the interests of others. Paradoxically, therefore, “correct reasoning” and “morally reprehensible behaviour” often go hand in hand. Think of apartheid and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, both of which were “rationally justifiable” by the groups who benefitted from these policies despite the moral unjustifiability of their consequences for other groups.

More to the point regarding the effects of such “rational bad behaviour” on nature, Diamond remarks that perpetrators (who are usually few in number and highly motivated because huge benefits or financial profits are often at stake) know that, in all likelihood, they will get away scot-free, especially when there is no specific law against the behaviour or actions in question. Correspondingly, and by contrast, those who suffer the adverse consequences of the beneficiaries’ actions are usually less motivated to fight against such bad behaviour because the losses are distributed among large numbers of people and, one might add, they are usually not well-organised or wealthy enough for such resistance.

There are many instances of “rational bad behaviour”, which Diamond bluntly labels as being “selfish”, including that of Montana fishermen introducing the non-indigenous pike into Montana lakes and rivers knowing full well that this fish feeds on indigenous trout, fished by other fishermen. In South Africa, the same thing has happened with bass and trout being introduced here to the detriment of local indigenous fish populations.

Another example concerns the behaviour of mining (and we may add oil) companies and its effects on nature. Diamond observes that, until a law was passed against such selfish behaviour in Montana, mining companies used to close down worked-out mines without cleaning up and taking measures to prevent acid, cyanide, arsenic and copper from leaching into rivers (which are, in some cases, still being contaminated by such leaching today). When a law was finally passed to prevent this, companies found that they could mine the valuable ore and then simply declare bankruptcy instead of incurring the expense of cleaning up after them. Needless to say, in these cases the ones that suffer are nature’s living creatures as well as the tax-paying citizens, who have to bear the costs of cleaning up what was “externalised” by unscrupulous companies.

Most of the “rational”, if bad, behaviour in this category can be subsumed under the acronym, ISEP — “it’s not my problem; it’s someone else’s problem”. And unless people start realising that, in cases like these it is likely that, in the end, everyone suffers, they will not start acting according to a kind of rationality that is in the long-term interest of all.

The fourth reason for disastrous decisions is that, even if a problem has been noticed, a society may fail or be unable to resolve it because it may be beyond one’s abilities to address, be unaffordably expensive or one’s attempts at resolving it may come too late. For instance some past societies, like Iceland in the Middle Ages, lacked the ecological knowledge we now possess to address obstacles they faced and the introduction of species (like the cane toad in Australia) into alien ecosystems for purposes of controlling others may backfire badly and often have.

Another example: the dusky seaside sparrow in Florida died out because action was not taken in time to preserve its dwindling habitat. Or when that was finally destroyed and further procrastination of cross-breeding those in captivity with a closely related relative to help it survive eventually caused its extinction. An instance that is very significant for the future viability of forests, which are indispensable for maintaining a biosphere, is the apparent inability to do something that would effectively prevent the catastrophic forest fires in the (partly because of global warming, partly because of deforestation) increasingly dry parts of the American west.

Unless these reasons for what often turns out to be catastrophic decisions on the part of humans can progressively be obviated or removed, “sustainability” will remain a mere pipedream despite the hope-inspiring work done by the likes of David Attenborough.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.