Mother Nature and Father Greed have both reached crisis at the same time, environmentalist Monica Graaff told an Institute of Directors breakfast in Cape Town last week.

One businessperson at the breakfast challenged: “Why should business change when what is going to happen is going to happen regardless?”

Two days later the Cape of Good Hope became the Cape of Storms. In Johannesburg, accustomed to rush hour thunderstorms in summer, cold was banished by rush hour thunderstorms in winter. In the Arctic a BBC crew kept falling through ice that is so thin it can barely sustain human footsteps.

Global warming isn’t a distant concept, it’s here and a businessperson who does not see its impact on profits is driving wearing blindfolds. Ernst & Young calls it Radical Greening which they say is a strategic risk for business driven by consumer and regulatory responses to climate change. In its Strategic Business Risks 2008 E&Y says: “Going green is expensive but could pay dividends if consumer tastes and regulation shift quickly. Carbon trading is a reality in Europe and will almost certainly happen in the US.” Companies will increasingly be expected to know and reveal their carbon footprint.

Every hour, three endangered species disappear. The destruction of flora and fauna costs the world €2-trillion annually — 6% of the planet’s total income. The United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity says the destruction of natural habitats and pollution has created the worst rate of species extinction — three an hour — since dinosaurs died 65-million years ago. Those endangered include one in four mammals, one in eight birds, a third of amphibians and 70% of plants.

In South Africa beaches are littered and rivers are filthy. The Black River in Cape Town is so polluted that paramedics say anyone who falls into it comes out with deep weals that resemble burns. Environmental scientists say the river is so dirty it is in danger of spontaneously catching fire.

In Namibia there is research into a type of acacia (Acacia mellifera also known as blackthorn, swarthaak or omusauna) that in Mpumalanga game reserves guides refer to as “acacia nightmarius”. It has proliferated so fast that it is choking game and beef farming areas because farmers have effectively stopped the natural cycle of fire that otherwise retards its range. Some innovative ecologists have found a use for it in charcoal and others are considering its application in electricity generation, but the costs will probably be too high and so, for now, it will continue to strangle potentially productive land.

Humans have interfered too much with Gaia (mother earth) so for businessmen to say that “interfering with the inevitable” — environmental destruction — “is pointless” is a little like saying suicide is a better option than medical care.

As Graaff noted at the Institute of Director’s breakfast: “We think we are a clever species and that we can predict everything and think our way out of things: it is the making of humanity and the undoing of us. Eco-justice means we have power over the earth.”

She suggests that neo-liberalism “has achieved unprecedented economic wealth and development for some, (while) resulting in underdevelopment (and) the over-use of preciously scarce natural resources”. She said it had “failed to appreciate complexity and that a systems-thinking approach is essential if we are to develop a survival plan”.

She suggests that the arrogance that has led to global warming has also led to a consumerist culture which in turn has led to debt traps and the financial meltdown; it has resulted in uneven trade rules and crass inequities.

But climate change and greed are exerting pressure on the world at the same time. It is almost as thought the seas, skies and stock markets have united to say the same thing — a world without values is a world doomed to fail.

Graaff suggests: “The world is out of kilter — spiritually and physically.”

And those like the businessman who suggested we “accept the inevitable” are most in danger of terminal failure and yet ordinary people know it and are responding to the threat: religions are seeing a major renaissance, organic produce is a growth market and anything climate friendly is being sold at a premium. Business practices are coming under greater scrutiny with everything from corporate governance to the Equator Principles. Developed nations are starting to demand more environmentally friendly agricultural and manufacturing principles in imported products.

Minister of Environmental Affairs Marthinus van Schalkwyk has travelled the world signing progressive environmental policies, but has spent too little time at home ensuring they are implemented.

A delegate at the IoD breakfast shared an anecdote from Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse — the people of Easter Island in the Pacific cut down every single tree on the island. The tribes competed to have the biggest and tallest idol on the island which they believed would save them. But they destroyed the forests that sheltered them, that gave haven to birds and creatures they could eat, it allowed environmental erosion — their greed resulted in the collapse of the civilisation on the island, today there is little left but monuments to greed.

There is still time to change.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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