It is important for us to understand that our own emotional and physical well-being is closely connected to the state of the environment in which we live and breathe and have out being. It is a tragic fact that thousands of people (mostly children) die annually of poor environmental conditions and hunger in Africa. There is a real danger that our earth’s production system can collapse in the near future, leaving us all without adequate food on our tables. 

From the 1960’s voices were coming to our attention that we as humans are not living in harmony with Nature and that deterioration is serious. Recently comments from scientists that we are on the verge of an environmental collapse is disconcerting. The United Nations have issued as Code Red warning to say, unless we do something drastic, widespread hunger and deaths will become prevalent. 

The excessive air pollution and climate change bringing both droughts, major fires, and floods in various parts of the world, is being daily reported in the media. But, is this a situation that we must accept as unavoidable? Certainly not. After all, the first environmental right in the South African Constitution states that each citizen of our country has a right to a clean and healthy environment. It reads:

Figure 1.1: As citizens we have the right to a clean and healthy environment.

Everyone has the right

A. to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and

B. to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that

i. Prevents pollution and ecological degradation;

ii. Promote conservation; and

iii. Secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

As certain industries often have a remarkable negative impact on natural resources like air, water and soil, the SA Bureau of Standards has stipulated certain environmental prerequisites that should be met. This is called the ISO 14000 and requires industries to formulate, and abide by, an environmental policy that satisfies certain minimum conditions. Both industry and government need to be held accountable.

To ‘fix’ the damage and further degradation imposed on the services of nature is a complicated undertaking and requires a thorough understanding of nature. The environment can be divided into multiple units, each having a unique combination of soils, plants and animal life. These areas where there is a co-existence between living things such as plants and animals, and non-living things such as rocks, water and soil, is exemplified in the concept of the ecosystem.

As all living and non-living things are in some way dependent on one another for survival, it is important to respect the environment as a whole. Each part of the environment has a special place and function in the system. In Fig. 1. 3 it is shown how all species of plants and animals are connected with each other in what we call a food web.

Figure 1.2: The earth can be divided into functional units, called Ecosystems.

Figure 1.3: There exists a functional relationship between all components of the ecosystem.

As an analogy we can consider a bicycle. It is made up of different parts – a seat, frame, handles, brakes and pedals. Each part has a specific function that is essential to make the bicycle operational. The whole structure would be of little use if the chain breaks! 

There is a functional (or dynamic) relationship between the parts of the bicycle in order to make it do what it was designed for. They are all linked to one another in some way or other. If one element is missing or mal-functioning, the whole system will become dysfunctional. In the same way the environment consists of many elements and many forms of life which depend on one another to function properly. 

Plants cannot grow without soil, and humans as well as plant-eating animals cannot live without vegetation. If we wish to continue living as part of this system, we need to realize our place in the system and take up our responsibility. Like the chain of the bicycle, we are just another link in the web of living organisms and non-living things on earth. 

Figure 1.4: Humans living in balance with nature.

The rivers, the trees, animals, birds, soil, air – everything around us – form part of our existence and should therefore be respected and handled with care. However, by means of various inventions, we as humans seem to have increasingly detached ourselves from our natural environment over the past centuries.

The ideal state of the environment is what we call, “a condition of dynamic equilibrium”. This is when all the parts of the ecosystem co-exist in perfect harmony. Nature strives to maintain this balance where there will always be just enough vegetation for the number of plant eaters (herbivores), to provide food for smaller number of meat eaters (carnivores).

As soon as vegetation diminishes due to drought, the number of herbivores will be reduced, and subsequently also will the carnivores diminish. This will give the grass a chance to return to normality after the drought. 

Large areas of the earth have however been permanently cleared of vegetation and animals to make way for cities, road, farms, mines and other manmade features. Human use of the earth is thus no more in balance with nature.

In our efforts to live on a standard far above what nature can continually provide for, we have exceeded our natural boundaries. The production of more luxury goods than we need, and what can be provided for by the natural ecosystem, has resulted that we live temporarily in an artificial manner made possible by technology. In nature vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide and convert it to oxygen and food but we burn far more fossil fuels for additional energy than nature is able to recycle. 

By so doing we increasingly pollute the air. We also put so many more cattle on the pastureland that its natural carrying capacity is exceeded and the veldt becomes overgrazed which leads to loss of valuable soil because of erosion. 

Figure 1.5: Our agricultural systems have destroyed natural ecosystem functioning.

Figure 1. 6: Infrastructure such as road networks are inhibiting the movement of animals.

The production capacity of our soil resources is further damaged when we add artificial fertilizers and herbicides. This also pollutes the water. This may result in, not only irreparable damage to parts of the ecosystem, but it could lead to the disintegration and final collapse of whole ecosystems upon which we depend for food. Our environment is fragile and once disrupted, it is often impossible to restore.

The World Development Forum has sketched a startling possible scenario that could finally play out, should we fail to protect the health of nature and its harmonious functioning.

“The senior citizens of the 1990’s have indeed witnessed tremendous change. Most of them grew up in rural areas or in small towns. They have lived in the pre-spaceship times; before the age of the computers and some of them can recall the day the first automobile came racing down the main street of their town at 20 miles per hour.

What of the senior citizens of 2050?

Probably they would be those who would be able to recall the days before the sea-level rose to engulf coastal cities like New York and Cape Town; the times you could still go on a hike in indigenous forests; when you could drink water from a stream; and even see wild animals like bushbuck and monkeys in the wild; the days before sunbathing was fatal, when children could go to downtown schools without oxygen masks; the times when governments fought election on political and economic issues instead of ecological scenarios”. 

(Adapted from Word Development Forum)

We need to realize from the outset that conditions will deteriorate at an ever-increasing rate, unless we prioritize environmental issues in our decisions and behaviour. We should ask ourselves why did we allow environment deteriorated to its present state? The answer to the question lies in our gradual detachment from nature as our reliance on our own inventions increased.  

Since the existence of humankind, we have had an impact on the earth. In pre-historic times when humans were hunters and gatherers of veldt fruits, people lived directly from available food near to their homes and their impact on the environment was small as population density was low. Soon they learned how to make spears and other types of weapons. 

Methods for mass-slaughter were developed like fires, which would force animals over cliffs or into ambushes. Still, because of the sparse distribution of people, their impact on the environment was minimal. If one area was depleted of resources, they simply moved on to another.

Figure 1.7: How did the environment deteriorate to its present state?

Figure 1.8: People began to burn down forests to create space for intensive, as well as extensive, agriculture practices.

With the invention of the plough, and the harnessing of the strength of strong animals, replaced the limited strength of humans the Agricultural revolution began. Irrigation systems and the making of terraces against steep hills further advanced farm production. In this way a major shift occurred in the relationship between humans and nature.

As time progressed, to feed increasing populations and to enable increased living standards, people developed fertilizers and herbicides. Natural ecosystems were destroyed as they cut down forests and drained marshlands to be replaced by monocultures (such as large wheat lands); and they built big dams as reservoirs to irrigate crops and to supply permanent settlements with safe drinking water and sanitation

The effect on the environment became noticeable. It now became possible for a single man to produce for far more than his own immediate family’s needs. This paved the way for specialized careers, and people joined together to develop cities.

An even more dramatic change occurred in the 1700’s and 1800’s during the Industrial Revolution. This was accompanied by a rapid increase in technology, science, and the development of heavy industries.

Enormous amounts of energy came to the disposal of humans through the utilization of fossil fuel – coal, gas, and petrol. We found out how to tap energy from the sun that was absorbed in coal deposits millions of years ago.

Increase in health services led to raising of life expectancy, resulting in a huge population explosion, putting huge stress on production for an ever-growing numbers. 

Due to excessive production made possibly technology, substances such as discarded metal, plastics, unhealthy gasses in the air, etc. accumulated. Pollution of the land, water, and air took on proportions unheard of before.

Figure1.9: Pollution of the land, water, and air threatens the health of people and the sustainable functioning of the environment.

In nature, however everything that is produced does not accumulate but is again circulated for re-use. Microbes and other organisms in the soil ensures that animal corpses and the dying leaves again become part of the soil fertility. There is no accumulation that jeopardizes the normal functioning of the ecosystem.

Pollution occurs when the recycling processes of nature are no longer able to effectively recycle dumped materials on land or released fluids in water bodies or foreign particles in the air. This has a negative effect on the functioning of ecosystems. 

Figure 1. 10: Population growth

The proper and life-sustaining functioning of the environment has increasingly been under threat ever since. We need to put a stop to the unrestrained exploitation of resources to allow our resource base to recover. 

Currently the Post-Industrial Revolution encourages the generation of clean energy such as wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear. It also recommends light industrial practice as opposed to heavy industry requiring extractive resources such as coal contributing to massive pollution.

Humans thus proceeded from a perfect balance with nature, via the agricultural revolution, and the industrial revolution, into the current situation of unsustainability. If our environment could ever be saved from total collapse, we need another Revolution: An Environmental Revolution. If this Environmental Revolution succeeds it will rank along with the Agricultural, Industrial and Post-Industrial Revolutions as one of the greatest social and economic transformations in human history.

It is up to us in this generation to drive the Environmental Revolution. The two previous revolutions were based on more production and quicker exploitation of resources. However, our resources should be used in such a way that the following generation will have access to the same amount and quality of resources that we enjoy today. Like us, our children and grandchildren and their children will one day have a clean and healthy environment.