LESSON 1: The human factor – how did we lose touch with nature?


Environmental Education School Curriculum Outcomes mentioned in this lesson: Grade 1; Grade 2; Grade 3; Grade 4; Grade 5; Grade 6; Grade 7; Grade 8; Grade 9; Grade 10; Grade 11; Grade 12

Eco-Assignments that relate to content covered in this lesson: Grade 1; Grade 2; Grade 3; Grade 4; Grade 5; Grade 6; Grade 7; Grade 8; Grade 9; Grade 10; Grade 11; Grade 12

Would you like to live right next to a dirty stream filled with rubbish; or next to an unsightly smelly dump; or amongst smoky factory an power plant chimneys…? The list could go on… Fact is we all prefer to live in a clean and healthy environment! This is why it is important for us as a society to agree together on a policy regarding the state or condition of our environment. Such a policy could take the shape of a written statement that expresses your point of view or that of your community towards the natural environment. Or it could simply be a short list of points of what should constitute healthy living conditions. (Supporting article T).

As most of us are being affected by environmental degradation wherever we stay, we ought to know our environmental rights. The first environmental right we need to be aware of is stated in the South African constitution. It states that each citizen of our country has a right to a clean and healthy environment. It reads as follow:

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.

So if you do not enjoy any of the privileges mentioned here, it is your right and responsibility to speak out!

The South African Bureau of Standards also stipulates certain environmental requisites that should be met by industry. After looking at (Supporting article B) and the following webpage, (http://www.14000store.com/ISO-14000-Articles-Requirements.html) do you think that government and industry is serious about their environmental mandate? We need to ask ourselves if industry operates in line with responsible environmental legislation. Do our authorities regularly and with consistency enforce environmental law on perpetrators? Or has the time  finally come that individual and group action, backed by legislation (Supporting article D) should become the driving force to influence attitudes in favour of our natural heritage (Supporting article E and Supporting article F)?

With this in mind, let us have a look at the role we as humans excersize in the natural world. 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. For example, a bicycle is (just like the environment) made up of different parts. It has a seat, frame, handles, brakes and pedals. But all of these would be of little use unless it also has a chain! There is a functional (or dynamic) relationship between the parts of the bicycle in order for it to function properly. All its parts are all linked to one another in some way or the other. In the same way the environment consists of many elements and many forms of life which depend on one another to function properly. This whole co-existence between living things and non-living things is exemplified in the concept of the ecosystem. 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. (Supporting article M). Like the chain of the bicycle, we are just another link in the web of living organisms and non-living things on earth. The rivers, the trees, animals, birds, soil, air – everything around us, form part of our existence and therefore should be respected. But over the past centuries, by means of various inventions, we as humans have increasingly detached ourselves from our natural environment (Supporting article J).

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. In nature no single element of the ecosystem can afford to behave at the expense of the other elements. For example if an elephant population completely destroys the vegetation of their habitat, their numbers will start to fall due to starvation and as a result, ecosystem balance would return.

However we as the human race, in trying to improve our living conditions, have greatly  exceeded our natural boundaries. We have created an unnatural support system which can only be maintained temporarily in an artificial manner by means of technology and the use of fossil energy. In the process we are not only damaging parts of the ecosystem, but this may well lead to the disintegration and final collapse of the system as a whole – leading to our own downfall.  (Read about seven planned resorts that could adversely affect the natural balance that presently still exist in the heart of our country’s first World Heritage Site – the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu-Natal (Supporting Article C and Supporting Article Q).

It would be worth our while to contemplate the quote below, before I move on with the discussion:.

“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 and even see wild animals like bushbuck and monkeys in the wild – the days before sunbathing was fatal, when you could drink water from a stream; 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 editor: Word Development Forum)

In supporting article K you can read about the severity of natural resources deterioration on a global scale. We need to realise from the outset that things will get worse at an ever increasing rate, unless we prioritise environmental issues in our decisions and behaviour (Supporting article S). So how did this scale of deterioration come about? Fact is, we have impacted the earth ever since our existence on it. In the beginning, men were hunters and gatherers. Their impact on the environment was very small and resources were so to speak “unlimited”. Population density was low and our only source of energy was our muscle power. Soon we 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 the groups of people their impact on the environment was minimal. If one area was depleted they simply moved on to another. (Consider the Thongo People of Kosi Bay in supporting article A).

Later, for the sake of convenience and progress, they began to burn down forests to create space for agriculture. The effect on the environment became noticeable. It was at this stage when our forefathers, or should I say ‘we’, began to compete for gain of green land for the use of cattle farming. It now became possible for a single man to produce for far more than his own immediate family needs. This paved the way for specialised careers and people joined together to develop cities.

With the invention of the plough, stronger animals replaced the weaker strength of humans and so the Agricultural revolution began. Irrigation systems and the making of terraces against steep hills further advanced farm production. So a major shift occurred in the relationship between man and nature. It has resulted in overgrazing and the deterioration of grasslands, which in turn led to the erosion of soil which further led to even more pressure on the remaining grasslands.

However an even more dramatic change occurred in the 1700 and 1800’s during the Industrial Revolution (Supporting Article I). Enormous amounts of energy came to our disposal through the utilisation of fossil fuel (Supporting Article U). We found out how to tap energy from the sun that was absorbed in coal deposits millions of years ago. This was accompanied by a rapid increase in technology and science. Life-expectation increased, resulting in a huge population explosion.

Pollution of the land, water and air took on proportions unheard of before. The proper and life-sustaining functioning of the environment (Supporting Article L) has increasingly been under threat ever since. Unless we put a stop to the mad unrestrained exploitation of resources (Supporting Article G) an awful fate may await all of us.  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 and 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 as we have today. Like you your children will one day have the right to a clean and healthy environment (Supporting Article H).

At this point you may consider the role that you as an individual or group could play in ensuring a healthy environment for future generations. Environmental deterioration affects everyone. Without a collective healthy respect for the earth our future hangs in the balance. You could:

  • Join your voice with other existing initiatives fighting for the preservation of the environment, like the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA) (Supporting Article R).
  • You could join and become involved in an environmental society or club or start one up at your school.
  • You could also acquaint yourself with factors that threaten the continued health of the environment by looking at work sheets used when environmental impact studies are executed (Supporting article P).
  • You can find initiatives that care for specific environmental aspects that are close to your heart by exploring our list of local Eco Champions. Find one and do not forget to participate.

In the ground-breaking book “Silent Spring” the famous American ecologist, Rachel Carson, in the early 1960’s said that one morning in spring we will suddenly wake up and realize that there are no birds to be heard. Then it will be too late and our fate as humans on earth would have been sealed. Who has to take action? Governments (politicians) are too busy ensuring votes; business is too busy making money; the old generation has no vision… or they just don’t care. If YOU do not take action, nothing will happen and YOU will bear the consequences. You will have to make the choice.