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

Figure 1: As citizens we have the right to a clean and healthy environment

Would you like living right next to a dirty or mosquito-infested dam; or next to a smelly rubbish dump? How about living next-door to smoky factories or power plant chimneys? The list could go on, but it is clear we all prefer to live in a clean and healthy environment!

As many of us are being affected by environmental degradation where we live, 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 says that each citizen of our country has a right to a clean and healthy environment:


Everyone has the right

  1. to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and
  2. to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that
  3. Prevents pollution and ecological degradation;
  4. Promote conservation; and

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

If you do not enjoy any of the abovementioned privileges, it is your right and responsibility to speak out!

Regarding industries, the SA Bureau of Standards has stipulated certain environmental prerequisites that should be met by industries. This is called the ISO 14000 and requires industries to formulate and abide by an environmental policy that satisfies certain conditions. We need to ask ourselves if industry is governing itself in line with environmental legislation and also if government is truly enforcing environmental law.

Figure 2: There exists a functional relationship between living and non-living components of the ecosystem

With this in mind, let us have a look at the role we as humans play 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 to make it do what it was designed for. They are all linked to one another in some way or other. 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 animals cannot live without vegetation. 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. 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, forms part of our existence and should therefore be respected. But by means of various inventions, we as humans seem to have increasingly detached ourselves from our natural environment over the past centuries.

Figure 3: In general, humans no longer live in harmony with the environment

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. No element of the Eco-system can afford to behave at the expense of the other elements. Nature strives to maintain this balance. A heard of springbuck would for example move on from a grazing area once the vegetation becomes sparse. This will give the land opportunity to recover.

However, in our efforts to live on a standard far above what is sustainable, we have often exceeded our natural boundaries. This kind of behavior has allowed us to live temporarily in an artificial manner by means of technology and the extraction of fossil fuels. But it may soon result in not only damage to parts of the eco-system, but it could lead to the disintegration and final collapse of the system as a whole. Our environment is fragile. It can be destroyed if we treat it carelessly. This in turn will lead to our own downfall.

Figure 4: By exceeding our natural boundaries we have put pressure on natural resources

The World Development Forum has sketched a startling possible scenario that could soon play out, should we fail to allow 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 2050Probably 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 editor: 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 behavior.

Figure 5: How did the environment deteriorate to its present state?

How did it happen that the environment has deteriorated to its present state? Fact is, ever since the existence of humankind on earth, there has been an impact on the earth. Many years ago, when 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 their only source of energy was their muscle power. 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 these groups of people their impact on the environment was minimal. If one area was depleted of resources, they simply moved on to another.

Figure 6: People began to burn down forests to create space for agriculture

However, for the sake of convenience and in an effort to increase living standards people 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, began to compete for green land for the purpose 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 specialized careers and people joined together to develop cities.

With the invention of the plow, 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. In this way a major shift occurred in the relationship between humans and nature. As result the land has been overgrazed and this in turn caused erosion of soil which further led to even more pressure on the remaining grasslands to remain productive.

Figure 7: Pollution of the land water and air threatens the sustainable functioning of the environment

An even more dramatic change occurred in the 1700 and 1800’s during the Industrial Revolution. Enormous amounts of energy came to the disposal of humans through the utilization of fossil fuel. 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 has increasingly been under threat ever since. Unless we put a stop to the mad unrestrained exploitation of resources an awful fate may await all of us.

Figure 8: The unsustainable functioning of the environment impacts on the quality of life

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.

Figure 9: We from the public should also get involved in environmental matters affecting our communities

However, our recourses should be used in such a way that the following generation will have access to the same amount and quality of resources as we enjoy today. Like us, our children will one day have the right to a clean and healthy environment. We from the public too must become involved in environmental matters affecting us on a personal and community level.

This is a good time for you to consider the role that you as an individual or community group may play in ensuring a healthy environment for future generations. You could join an environmental society or club like the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA) or the Youth Environmental Service (YES) program by the Department of Environmental Affairs and involve yourself in their activities. You can start up an environmental club at your school or find initiatives that care for specific environmental aspects that are close to your heart.