Earth Day: Q&A on saving the planet

Today is the 50th annual celebration of Earth Day, a day that strives to focus on raising awareness and concern – increasing consciousness – of the need to protect and conserve the planet. After the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1960, Earth Day gained momentum in the US as a citizens’ response to oil crises and spills, massive air pollution and toxicity in the environments in which we all live and breathe. It was, in fact, Earth Day that catalysed the modern environmental movement and gave rise to the Environmental Protection Agency as well as a number of key federal laws in the US around clean air, water protection, animal protection and conservation.

Today is the 50th annual celebration of Earth Day, a day that strives to focus on raising awareness and concern – increasing consciousness – of the need to protect and conserve the planet.

After the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1960, Earth Day gained momentum in the US as a citizens’ response to oil crises and spills, massive air pollution and toxicity in the environments in which we all live and breathe. It was, in fact, Earth Day that catalysed the modern environmental movement and gave rise to the Environmental Protection Agency as well as a number of key federal laws in the US around clean air, water protection, animal protection and conservation.

Earth Day went global in 1990, with 200 million people in 141 countries coming out in solidarity.  It paved the way for the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, thereby catalysing the agreement that resulted in the globally recognised Climate Change Convention. It was on this same Earth Day that the Convention on Biological Diversity was opened for signature, and that governments, academics, civil society and the private sector initiated efforts to redefine how to measure growth in a manner that didn’t require or inherently encourage destruction of the environment – so called ‘uneconomic growth’.

So what does Earth Day call upon us to do in 2020?

The theme of Earth Day 2020 is climate action: something that everyone, every organisation every community, every citizen must mobilise around if we want to recreate a future that is resilient, sustainable and able to support a thriving Earth.

To take the right action and to take it effectively, it is useful to understand not only the challenges we face as they appear symptomatically (like the spread of a virus in a globally interdependent system), but also the root causes that give rise to systemic threats. We have to appreciate the complexity and interconnectedness of natural systems, the multiple feedback loops that make isolation of a single cause an impossibility.

In February this year, we asked some of the many youth participating in our Sygnature Award programme what their key questions were. We then posed these to our faculty of thought leaders, practitioners, scientists and academics to get a considered view on some of these tough issues. We think their answers are useful guides that could grow our understanding and response this Earth Day and are delighted to share them with you so that together we can take effective action for a positive impact. Some of them are written below, some of them are videos that you can find on our YouTube channel.

There are many more questions that our learners have asked and we will be running this Q&A each Wednesday from Earth Day on April 22nd to the International Day of BIodiversity on May 22nd. If you have a question to ask, simply post it in the comments below this post or get in touch via our social media – we will get the answer for you. We look forward to hearing from you.

Question 1: can we undo climate change?

Catherine Cameron from Agulhas Applied Knowledge acknowledged that we have a lot of work to do, but believes that we can reverse the damage we have done:

“As humans we have done a lot of damage to our home, Earth, especially in the last few decades. But we know that now – and many people, organisations, and nation states have been working to repair the damage done. If we all pull together really, really hard in the next few years we can avoid the Earth’s overall temperature rising above 1.5 degrees, putting us on the path towards a cleaner, safe future using renewable energy from the sun, the wind, and the waves. We have the technology; we just need to make the deep change to systems to make it happen. We can all help to make that happen – as individuals, in our families and schools and by choosing how to vote and where to spend and invest our money. So, we can, and we must, work hard together, to avoid dangerous climate change.”

Gary Kendall, a Strategy and Sustainability Specialist at Nedbank, is less optimistic, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think we have to do everything we can to try:

“In short: we don’t know. Inertia in the climate system means that feedback loops are very long, perhaps 20-30 years, meaning that any significant changes we might make today (e.g. rapidly reducing GHG emissions to zero) won’t be experienced until 2050 in terms of reduced damages from climate change. Over the course of those 20-30 years, global warming will continue, so it will be very tempting for society to imagine that our collective actions are not having any beneficial impact. However, unless we continue to act, it is possible that the Earth’s climate system will tip into a new state that is both stable and much less hospitable for modern civilisation, at which point there may be nothing we can do to reverse the process.”

Question 2: How long will it take to make the world sustainable?

So if we have to work hard at reversing the damage we have done to the planet, how long will it take for us to make the entire global system sustainable?

Elspeth Donovan, the Deputy Director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership in South Africa, believes that we can do it by 2050:

“This is a great question and a hard one to answer. The innovation for all the key technology areas on which our sustainable future depends exists: energy, water, waste management, land use, resources and so on. Practically everything we need to create a sustainable world for nine billion people is either out there, or being developed in the lab. But without the political will to get all this financed and implemented, at a massive scale, in the shortest possible period of time, all around the world, this opportunity stays locked. The world can aim for a zero-carbon economy by 2050, it is technically feasible and economically affordable, but it requires us all to become active citizens now and use our voices to influence the change required. We must transform our economies away from a dependency on fossil fuels now.”

Catherine Cameron agrees that it can be done, but that we have to work hard and fast:

“That is a really good question. The good news – not that long. The bad news is that we only have just over a decade to avoid dangerous climate change all over the world, but fortunately the solutions to that – using clean energy from the sun, the wind and the waves, and phasing out using oil and gas  – will really help a lot to make the Earth more sustainable. Then if we work hard to meet the Global Goals by 2030, we will have done a lot to make the Earth a sustainable place for us, our children and their children to live long, happy, healthy, lives.  So, let’s get cracking.”

Catherine also recorded her answer, which you can watch here.

Question 3: Who is trying to prevent global warming, and who isn’t?

Gary Kendall:

“In short, and slightly simplistically, countries who are exquisitely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are trying to prevent it; whereas countries who profit from the causes of climate change are not. At the individual level, people who understand that enjoying the benefits of being a member of society carries with it responsibility to others are trying to prevent climate change, while those who don’t share that view aren’t.”

Question 4: Why aren’t most leaders acting? And why do humans depend on others to make change?

Gary Kendall says it’s all down to the individual:

“Governments are (with a few exceptions) there to respond to the will of society, either expressed through the democratic process or expressed through meeting societal needs in undemocratic ways. The question is, why are more people not challenging the status quo?  What does it say about the state of modern society when it takes a Swedish teenager to demonstrate true global leadership on climate change? 

“Remarkable leadership does exist: it’s certainly not sufficient but it is growing. The good thing about our socioeconomic system being unsustainable is that… it’s unsustainable! That means it can’t continue: something must come in its place. We – those of us alive and active today – are the generation that gets to decide what that is, because we have no choice. That’s an incredibly exciting proposition – where we are compelled NOT to follow the template set by our predecessors. What a great time to be alive!”

Question 5: Is wealth the root cause of climate change?

Catherine Cameron says that wealth is one of several important factors in climate change – but that many wealthy companies, people and countries are also part of the solution.

“Too few people having too much of the wealth in their hands is bad for everyone. It leads to unhappiness, crime, violence and a breakdown of trust in societies. If you get money and power concentrated in the hands of a few it can lead to poor outcomes and a downward spiral of bad decisions.

At the personal level, richer people consume more (houses, gardens, flights, holidays, cars, clothes, toys), so they emit more carbon – this is called having a heavier carbon footprint. Americans have a footprint of over 16 tonnes per person, South Africans just over 8 tonnes per person and Mozambicans only just over one third of a tonne per person.

At a company level, companies that emit carbon dioxide (mining, oil and gas companies) have accrued massive wealth over the decades, and with it power, as country governments come to depend on that wealth and more and more people follow the profit made by those companies. Factories, cars and heating were all built around using these fossil fuels. This is then bedded into the financial system and assumptions people make about success and what good look likes.

For a long time, many people did not believe that clean energy from the sun, wind and waves, could compete with dirty energy, from fossil fuels – it was argued that it was too expensive or unreliable. The fossil fuel companies argued against the new energy as it would affect their wealth. Neither of those things are true now, but it allowed fossil fuels to carry on being emitted, causing climate change, and it slowed down investment in clean energy.

So, there is a link between wealth and climate change, but it is one of several important factors. Wealthy people, companies and countries are also working to slow climate change down. E.g. George Soros, Unilever and South Korea.”

Gary Kendall is more unequivocal:

“In a word, yes. Private wealth (as opposed to public wealth, which includes things like clean freshwater, a breathable atmosphere, fertile soil, hospitable climate, biodiversity, etc.) is an expression of the extent to which energy has been captured and deployed to assemble natural resources into products and services that benefit the individual. That energy comes overwhelmingly in the form of fossil fuel combustion, which is the primary cause of climate change. Wealth is tightly correlated with carbon footprint.”

Question 5: What percentage of the Earth’s resources are depleted?

Gary Kendall explains why there isn’t a simple answer to this question:

“It’s worth differentiating between biological and geological resources. On some level all of the Earth’s natural resources are renewable in theory, given a long enough time frame. For instance, fossil fuels were formed through natural (biological and geological) processes over a very long period of time, therefore they are technically renewable… but not over the time frame of human civilisation. With respect to geological resources (e.g. metals, minerals and fossil fuels), we can think about: 1) the ratio of remaining reserves against annual rate of production, the so-called R/P ratio; 2) the declining quality of remaining reserves. The former might suggest we have so many years of X resource remaining at current rates of production.  But the latter might indicate that we cannot sustain the current rate of production, because of the energy and resources required to extract X.  With respect to biological resources, we can estimate the Earth’s biocapacity (its ability to generate biological resources) as well as humanity’s ecological footprint (the cumulative demand human civilisation places upon nature).  If the ecological footprint exceeds the biocapacity, we can say we are in ‘ecological overshoot’, which is by definition unsustainable.”

Gary Kendall goes on to explain that while the natural resources are unlikely to be used up, that doesn’t mean we can just carry on as we are:

“This (resources being used up) is unlikely to happen.  What is more likely is that the quality of our resources will continue to deteriorate, eventually to such an extent that nature no longer sustain the same (let alone growing) levels of human activity.  Either human civilisation will collapse, or civilisation will radically transform its relationship to the natural world.”

Question 6: How do you create jobs to lower unemployment, but not destroy the earth?

Geoff Kendall One of the important things about creating jobs is that they have to be good jobs, so that means paying a living wage which is enough to support a family in terms of meeting their basic needs for education, nutrition and health care and so on, and fair employment terms for example the right to freedom of association and the right to parental leave.  These things are really important because it is not so long ago that companies thought if they were giving people jobs, they were doing their bit for society. But the qualify of those jobs is what matters. Ideally companies create jobs that give people meaningful work, a sense of purpose. And that’s where the role of business ties in with supporting the earth’s natural systems and the social fabric we all depend upon. And there are various ways that business has to behave to ensure it is upholding those systems conditions. And that’s some of the work we do at FutureFit. And if you go to there is a video crash course there that you can watch on your mobile phones which will tell you everything you need to know about how business should be done in the future to ensure we are protecting our natural systems and the social fabric we all depend upon.

Geoff also recorded his answer, which you can watch here

Elspeth Donovan said this was a tough question, and she was going to draw on the work of the University of Pretoria’s Professor Fioramonti:

“For an economy to be successful, we must prioritise natural and social systems and build development on that. We have done exactly the opposite by adopting a misconceived and myopic approach to economic growth. We have ‘sold’ our natural resources, “humiliated and oppressed a lot of our people”. We know that when Mother Nature gets upset, she destroys our salaries. We need to understand that the best economic decision is to maintain and preserve the ecosystems that make our economies possible. This in itself creates jobs – protectors of the air, land, forests, wetlands, rivers and the ocean! South Africa’s immense unemployment, which Fioramonti put at over 50% in the wider sense, has resulted in “a separate economy where only those ‘inside’ can do things, while those ‘outside’ are invisible, and do not matter, do not exist.” The future of economic development depends on decentralised economic empowerment – moving away from a system dominated by a few big companies towards a system of production led by many small businesses. 

South Africa needs to invest in labour-intensive sectors of the economy within the manufacturing and agricultural sectors. These need to be re-generative businesses based on circularity. Organic farming is very labour-intensive and produces nourishing food which, at the moment, we have to pay more for. The food from large scale agriculture is not priced correctly because it is subsidised and the cost of the pollution that it causes is not factored into the price. The future of the South African economy hinges on the ability to give small businesses a level playing field. Fioramonti cites the example of Eskom as a large, dominant business that was following an obsolete economic model, thereby limiting the country’s potential. The system was designed to ensure the country remained dependent on Eskom, instead of empowering small businesses and households to become the driver of a new economic era through independent power production. This was “keeping a defunct economic model on life support through subsidies and regulations.” Smart grids or micro-grids would allow individuals to produce and share energy, “bringing power to everyone, including all the rural areas is about simple technology,” he explained.  There is no reason for the state to provide services communities can provide themselves, much more efficiently, if they are empowered. This speaks again to quality appropriate education for all.”

Gary Kendall thinks that we need to change the paradigm and rethink how we organise society:

“The question may be located in a paradigm that is inherently problematic. Perhaps we need to think about how we organise society in such a way as human beings are able to meet their physical, material, psychological and spiritual needs without having to get a job? If we’re going to find true sustainability, this alternative must be on the table for discussion. If our technologies (e.g. artificial intelligence and robotics) are able to eliminate many blue and white collar professions, why must everyone still attach themselves to the yoke of private enterprise? What if everyone could be free of the need to chase income, and instead be allowed to pursue their true calling? How many people in their current jobs would quit on the spot and do something meaningful and purposeful with their lives instead?”

Question 7: How do we know which growth is good?

Geoff Kendall: A very good question. If you talk to some people – sustainability specialists, climate change activists – they will say growth needs to stop, we have to stop growing. But if you talk to the Prime Minister or CEO, they would say don’t be ridiculous, we have to have growth. Of course they’re both right in the sense that we have to stop doing certain things and start doing other things. And the problem is that we haven’t had a very good definition of what growth means. One environmental economist has identified that there are four types of growth we need to think about.  The first, Type 1 growth, is growth in biophysical throughput – so this is the amount of stuff we are taking out of nature and putting back into nature. Now this type of growth is pretty bad. The more we can avoid doing that, the better because the less we disrupt nature. Type 2 growth is growth in production and consumption. This is the kind of growth that we typically think of as GDP. How much money is being spent, how much stuff is being produced and consumed around the world whether it is food or cars or so on. Now that Type 2 growth isn’t necessarily bad, it’s the fact that its coupled to Type 1 growth that is really the problem. At the moment, the more we produce and consume, the more we are taking out of the earth. Type 3 growth is actually really good. This is growth in societal wellbeing. So that’s growth in our ability to give people good educations, give them nutritious food, for people to have fulfilling lives and so forth. Then Type 4 growth is growth in natural capital – so this, for example, is improving the quality of our forests, enriching our soils, cleaning up our oceans.  And this of course is good as well. 

So what we find if we take this 4 Phase view of growth, Type 2 growth in production and consumption is actually good if we can tie it to positive societal and natural outcomes (Type 3 and Type 4) and if we can decouple it from Type 1. And this is the more nuanced conversation we need rather than the “growth is good vs growth is bad” argument.

Geoff also recorded his answer, which you can watch here

Elspeth Donovan describes a non-growing, regenerative economy where growth is qualitative, not quantitative:

“To explain good growth, I am going to draw from an economist called Herman Daly. He said “a sustainable economy adapts and improves in knowledge, organisation, technical efficiency, and wisdom; and it does this without assimilating or accreting, beyond some point, an ever greater percentage of the matter-energy of the ecosystem into itself, but rather stops at a scale at which the remaining ecosystem (the environment) can continue to function and renew itself year after year. The non-growing economy is not static – it is continually maintained and renewed as an environment.” This is called a regenerative economy, where the growth is qualitative not quantitative – it focuses on maintaining health and wellbeing; circularity where there is no such thing as waste because everything is re-used, re-cycled or up-cycled; and access to opportunity through quality appropriate education for all. The cost of pollution in producing products is factored into the price. It is growth that emulates nature: organisms look for opportunities in their habitat, while respecting its limits. They manage these feats with a beguilingly simple set of common raw materials, procured locally, manufactured at body temperature and pressure, and processed silently in water. At the end of their useful life, these materials are re-gathered and re-configured by other organisms and up-cycled again and again with the energy of the sun.” (Janine Benyus)

Question 8: Why does business value profit above all else, including Mother Nature?

Geoff Kendall said this was a great question.  It really came down to the goal of our economic system, meaning what is the economic system trying to do.  You might think it is trying to meet the needs of society and in theory that’s what it’s doing. But the reality is that the way we measure economic progress is via something called GDP, Gross Domestic Product, and this is a measure of money flowing through the system.  Now it doesn’t matter what that money is being spent on, what matters is the amount that is getting spent.  So the analogy I would use is like a car – imagine a car where you are measuring how fast the engine is turning, if you slam your foot on the accelerator, that RPM goes really high and that’s the equivalent of GDP. The problem is that GDP doesn’t measure where you’re going. Imagine you have your foot on the accelerator and you haven’t even put the car in gear, then the speed the engine is turning would be really fast and it might look like you’re making progress but you’re not actually going anywhere. And that’s the problem with GDP. If all we measure is Dollar value, then we are going to optimise for dollars and everything else including societal wellbeing and nurturing our environment is going to fall by the wayside. And that’s the challenge we have today in that all of the world’s government focus on GDP as their headline number for assessing whether things are on the right track or not. And that’s one of the things we have to change but it is incredibly difficult to do so. Watch Geoff’s recorded answer, which you can watch here

Gary Kendall gave a different slant on the question saying the focus on profit above all else only applies to certain sections of humanity and society:

“That’s a very leading question, and I don’t agree with the premise. This might be generally true about the private sector, but this represents only one aspect of human civilisation (albeit an ascendant one, currently). The private sector often distils complex problems into first-order ‘solutions’ that focus on competition and profit maximisation, creating along the way some powerful incentives and narratives that compel employees to compete and pursue profit. But this is only one aspect of human civilisation. Public sector institutions (including education and health in most places) and civil society organisations (for example cooperatives, charities, NGOs and churches) operate according to a much broader set of principles. It’s worth reflecting that humanity is a social species, first and foremost collaborative and cooperative, complex and nuanced, in search of meaning and purpose. Those qualities may indeed be scorned by some in favour of narrow short-term financial self-interest. But this is not a universal truth of human nature.”

Question 9: Why are manufacturers allowed to manufacture products that increase global warming? Why are eco-friendly products so expensive?

Gary Kendall say this is really a question in two parts! To part 1: the power of incumbency; the convenience that comes with highly energy-dense fossil fuels in comparison to renewables; the fact that the benefits of consumption accrue to me, right here, right now whereas the costs of that consumption are borne by someone else, somewhere else, sometime else. 

To part 2: this should be rephrased ‘why are unsustainable products so cheap?’  It’s because the total cost of their production and consumption are not reflected in the price. For instance, coal-fired power has appeared to be cheap for a long time because the costs associated with GHG emissions (as well as polluted air and water, acid mine drainage, respiratory disease etc) are not embedded within the price of the electricity.  The only way to remedy this is through some regulatory intervention… for why that’s so difficult, see Part 1. 

Question 10: Are electric cars the solution?

Gary Kendall thinks that they are indeed part of the solution:

Certainly, electric cars are part of the solution, because, compared to conventional mechanical vehicles, they are 1) highly energy efficient in principle, e.g. 4-5x more efficient; 2) compatible with every form of renewable energy we can ever imagine (e.g. wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal, etc.); 3) they have zero tailpipe emissions at the point of use.  What they don’t do is provide an answer to the question about how we organise society such that people waste several hours a day driving in sole-occupancy vehicles in heavy traffic because of the distances we have created between places of residence, places of work, places of commerce and places of leisure. 

Mike Freedman, Managing Partner of Freedthinkers, agrees that electric cars are part of the solution, but says that we must also consider what we eat and what we buy. He recorded his answer for us – you can watch it here.

Question 11: How does gender inequality fit into the climate crisis?

Elspeth Donovan explains how climate change and gender inequality are closely linked:

“Research has shown that climate change and environmental stress are common factors that intensify pre-existing disadvantages or gender and developmental inequalities.  It is especially true in poorer parts of the world, where families depend on agriculture and labour jobs to make money, and where male migration, male-dominated labour markets and patriarchal institutions already put stresses on families, mostly women, that are struggling to survive. Climate change exacerbates these burdens. For example, as warming global temperatures lead to more crop uncertainty – droughts or floods could wipe out a year’s work in a matter of weeks – breadwinners, often male, are more likely to have to move away from the family for months at a time to earn an income. Women are left to care for the children and earn whatever they can, because often the men aren’t able to send their wages home on a regular basis. Even if they can, the hard labour in industries which are unfamiliar to them, such as construction or mining, often compromises their health, and many families must spend an increasing amount on medical costs. 

Labour markets around the world also typically discriminate against women, forcing them to find low-paying jobs, or dangerous, often illegal ones like selling drugs or prostitution. As the climate becomes more unpredictable with changing temperatures, pressures on women, particularly in agriculture-based economies, deepens. When women can’t seek loans from legitimate institutions, these women are forced to turn to private lenders who charge higher interest rates and can be corrupt, further putting women at financial risk. In many poorer countries, services like childcare, potable water and affordable food programmes are privatised and expensive, putting them out of reach of the families that need them most. Making such services more widely available could significantly alleviate the climate-related burdens on women.”

Gary Kendall adds that the empowerment of women and girls can help reduce humanity’s carbon footprint:

“Gender equality correlates strongly with fertility rates – where women and girls are more empowered, that power is expressed (among other things) through family planning.  Since population is one of the four primary drivers of GHG emissions (see: Kaya Identity), lower fertility rates can be helpful in reducing humanity’s carbon footprint.”

Question 12: What can be done to make our townships places that can help us to be stronger and more self-sufficient?

Mike Freedman answers this question by talking about the theory of placemaking and four key areas: clean and safe, being a good neighbour, good learning opportunities, and developing and helping small and micro-enterprises. You can watch him explain more here.

Question 13: What can we do?

Gary Kendall’s answer is simple:

“Never give up!”

Geoff Kendall went a bit further, saying that if we wanted to contribute to a flourishing future for everybody, one of the best places to get started is to look at which is an initiative that aims to translate the sustainable development goals into actions that individuals can take themselves. It’s a really good starting point that covers all 17 of the SDGs.



From Earth Day (22nd April) until International Day of Biodiversity on May 22nd, our amazing thinkers, faculty and expert contributors are around to answer your questions.  So don’t forget, if you have any questions on climate change that you would like answered, send them to us in the comments of this blog or on our social media between now and 22nd May and we’ll get the answers to you. Huge thanks to Mike Freedman (Freedthinkers), Geoff Kendall (FutureFit Business), Elspeth Donovan (CISL, South Africa), Gary Kendall (Nedbank), Catherine Cameron (Agulhas Applied Knowledge), Anton Cartwright (African Centre for Cities) and others to come for your questions answered.