The Western Gospel of Environmentalism Is the Wrong Message for Africa

Cape Times (South Africa), October 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Western Gospel of Environmentalism Is the Wrong Message for Africa


On continents that are colder and less giving than Africa, the fastest-growing new mass religion is "environmentalism". Climate change and sustainability are its key drivers.

"Environmentalism" (also called "going green") is an earnest attempt to reduce carbon footprints. Household examples are fruit and vegetable gardens, recycling, solar panels and the reduced use of motorised transport. But the movement is a holier-than-thou quest because it is not a fundamental necessity born out of poverty and survival.

In many parts of our continent, going green is translated as regression rather than progression, and it is largely associated with the peasantry. Those who scoff at the West's particular brand of environmentalism are regarded as self-serving plunderers of the planet and Africa's refusal to convert to environmentalism is met with dread about the effect of Africa's damage on the rest of the world.

During the 1990s, environmentalists from all over - NGO stalwarts, elephant-huggers, community-based conservationists, anthropologists, policy-makers and donors - flocked to Harare to stay at the luxury Bronte Hotel. What I remember most about those days are the discussions about the "African feeding trough" phenomenon - specifically, the forecasts about the world's gluttonous appetite for Africa's natural resources and the rise of the "McFat" population.

The conversations were mediocre - heaps of intellectual back-patting and delightful banter, and congenial discussions full of the deconstruction of African consumer stereotypes. White environmentalists (mainly Brits, Kenyans, South Africans and Zimbabweans), in the majority, were plucky and articulate on factual matters, cranking up the myth that there was a positive correlation between intellect, the rapidity of speech and the length of time that the speaker bedazzles the listeners. Black environmentalists were eloquently silent, glum and watchful.

It seemed like an indecent clash of civilisations, one khaki bush-shirts and tousled, sun-streaked hair; and the other, savvy dark suits and shiny shoes.

However, the human bonds that tied the Bronte's visitors were genuine. They were committed, old-school environmentalists who had achieved admirable nature-based life experiences, and who had travelled the highways and byways of Africa. Most importantly, they understood well that the marriage of poverty and environmental ideologies is founded on the fact that poverty of the pocket determines the state of the heart.

Today, the new generation shaping Africa's environmental agenda belongs to a hip and trendy set. …

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