The Value of Wilderness
In 1974, as a schoolboy of 16 years old, I was selected and sponsored to participate in a Wilderness Leadership School in the unspoiled wilderness area of the iMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal. This experience had a profound effect on me and was a formative influence on the person I have become today.
One of the many lessons I learned, which I share in my motivational talks to companies and youth, is the wisdom handed down to me from our game ranger, Colin Johnson. Sitting under an Acacia tree in the hot Zululand sunshine, he handed each of us boys a hardboiled egg as part of our lunch ration. “Before you crack it and eat it”, he said, “pretend for a moment that this egg is the earth. Which part would be the air, the thin blue layer that gives us our life for free, that we take so for granted every day?” We all said ‘the shell’. “No”, he exclaimed, cracking the egg and peeling it carefully. Colin peeled away that thin, almost see-through membrane between the egg and the shell. Holding a piece of the membrane up to the light, he said,
“This is how fragile our atmosphere and hence the health of our whole planet is. Its ecosystems are interconnected and are extremely sensitive. It is up to us as the earth’s custodians to ensure that they remain intact.”
Then he said something that changed my life. “I want to challenge you”, he said. “What are you going to do to become an asset to our planet when you get back to school? Don’t put it off until you retire or you think you make enough money or have enough time. By then it might just be too late. What are you going to do to be an asset now?”
I took Colin’s wise words to heart. When I read in the newspaper that WESSA (the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa) was up in arms about the pending concrete jetty that was going to be constructed as a solid wall in the spectacular Langebaan Lagoon at Saldana, it incensed me. WESSA needed a considerable sum of money to ensure that a comprehensive EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) was conducted and they did not have the necessary funds available. WESSA’s fear was that the solid structure would alter the current flow in the lagoon, which potentially could drive certain endemic species to extinction. I approached my father and told him I wanted to save Langebaan Lagoon. He asked me how. “I want to raise the money by running a long distance. My school mates and other schools around Cape Town will sponsor me per kilometre I run”, I said. “This way, many small amounts will build the big amount WESSA needs”, I explained. My dad nodded and smiled quietly. He then said something which has resonated with me ever since; “My boy, if you dream big, plan well and take some risks; nothing is impossible”.
My school friend James Siddle and I ran the 532kms from Plettenberg Bay to Cape Town in our spring school holidays and raised the money needed by WESSA. The jetty was built in a particular way where columns were erected to allow unobstructed current flow to move through the lagoon.
Reminiscing about this important period in my life, I realised in hindsight how my story is an illustration of something far more subtle than just the fact that young people, with a lot of creativity and stubbornness, can make a big impact. It demonstrates the power and influence the wilderness can have, not only on the individual, but also on the impact the individual in turn will have on others, his or her community and the world at large later on in life.
Despite all our technological advancements, we as a species are inextricably linked to nature, just like any other biological entity on this planet. We are born from it and it remains the essence of who we are. Everything we eat and drink, what sustains us, the products we manufacture and use, ultimately comes from the earth. Every minute of our lives we have to breathe the air that is made for us by the biosphere. The very power that fuels every aspect of our lives and enables the technological, economic and societal progress we pride ourselves on as an advanced industrialized society, is ultimately made possible through the resources and mineral wealth our planet has provided. What we tend to forget is that planetary resources are finite, and just like any mineral deposit or seam of coal, the wilderness is a resource. It provides ecosystem services our economic system has neglected to account for in its assessment of our country’s budget. There is obvious scientific truth in the saying that we can survive three weeks without food, three days without water and three minutes without air. And today, the stable and peaceful functioning of our society is quite clearly also dependent on power. How long can we survive without power? I figure it is rather far down the list of other priorities when it comes down to raw survival. Still, we seem to put the provision of power above the importance of much more basic commodities such as clean air, water and food. The same applies to employment. We seem to value the creation of jobs and employment for people above the protection of water resources and ecosystems that ultimately protect our food supply. We may argue that without employment and basic income, people are unable to afford water and food. Ultimately, people may have employment and money, but what are we to do when there is no water or food left to buy? We are eroding our resource base to benefit a population that ultimately will perish due to the destruction of that very resource base.
Our thinking is short term. It only serves us to maintain an illusion of provision, peace and prosperity in a country which runs on borrowed time. The current rates of resource use, coupled with the exploitation of finite ecosystems, have reached a point where their inherent capacity for self-renewal is exhausted. It has made us the walking dead.
At this very moment, there is a shocking example of this short-sighted destruction of our natural resources unfolding on the fringes of the very wilderness area that changed my life way back in 1974, and indeed, the lives of countless others.
To even suggest the development of an open-cast anthracite mine a mere 40m from the boundary of the iMfolozi Wilderness area is not only morally wrong, it is a manifestation of our complete and utter disrespect for the sacredness that is Wilderness, and complete ignorance of the essential role of species biodiversity and intact ecosystems in supporting life on this planet, including human life. Our very survival is dependent on a healthy planet with clean water and clean air.
I would like to extend an invitation to the decision makers in the Department of Mineral Affairs as well as the directors of Ibutho Coal, to join me on a wilderness trail in the iMfolozi Wilderness area before making a final decision. It is imperative that they appreciate the function this wilderness fulfils in the hearts and minds of people. In this way an informed decision can be made. Is the most valuable resource of this area its mineral wealth or the natural and spiritual richness that has been described by so many? The government, as representatives of the citizens of South Africa, must evaluate what path of development will best serve the people in perpetuity.
Any person who has even limited common sense can understand the basic principles of ecology: 1) The earth provides resources; 2) A species uses said resources for its own sustenance; 3) A species reproduces to a point where demand outstrips supply of resource; 4) The species starves and the population crashes.
This is such an ancient and basic law. So much so that nature itself has invented mechanisms to prevent catastrophic population crashes by limiting population numbers to a level where a resource base can be maintained in perpetuity and be utilized on a sustainable level.
These mechanisms include failure to breed in animals where over-crowding occurs, or plants that produce toxins when they are being overgrazed. Even lowly bacteria react when there are too many of them in a flask and their supplies are dwindling. They respond by reducing their multiplication. Not us, however. Homo sapien, the “thinking ape” in his arrogance, continues to fool himself into a false sense of security and thus undermines his own existence. This false sense of security, which prevents us from understanding and acting in accordance with basic natural principles, is brought about by the centralization and industrialization of our resource supply.
It is not the first time in history that this has happened. Many an island nation cut off from a broader resource base on the mainland has, in the past, out-bred its resources, ending in tragic accounts of famine, cannibalism, war and ultimate extinction. When you look at earth from space, what can you see but an island? Once we have exhausted the provisions offered by this one, there is nowhere else to go.
To survive, we need to remember we are a minor part of a complex global system that we are dependent on for survival, and that we need to protect the integrity of this resource base at all costs.
Wilderness areas, besides offering refuge to biodiversity, earning tourism income and providing ecosystem services, also have a less obvious yet profound influence on society. Time in the wilderness can remind us of our existence as a biological species, of the fact that we are part of something greater, which to some is a revelation. I will never forget a group of frightened adults on a trail with me. After a few days, having settled in to the wilderness, the common view expressed was “I feel so at home”.
Our modern lives are decidedly isolated, we live in smaller family groups, and although in cities people live within greater proximity, there is also often a feeling of isolation and loneliness. Social networking and instant messaging give us an illusion of connectedness, however, the deeper dimension of direct physical interaction is lost. Our children are growing up lacking a sense of space and place. In the old days, people would navigate by the stars and share a great sense of pride associated with their place of birth, their land. Now, in many cities, our children grow up not ever being able to see even the brightest stellar constellation. Globalization and telecommunication has blurred the lines between virtual and physical existence. In Africa, being less industrialized than, say, Europe, people are still connected with nature and their environment by ancient cultural traditions and customs. People share a deep sense of community and their traditions and customs are associated with the natural world around them. Wearing the pelt of a certain animal symbolizes status. These days, artificial pelts and animal prints imported from China are used to signify traditions. Certain traditional customs, which used to carry real meaning, are being commercialized, perverted or abandoned, leaving many people without culture, without historical wisdom, without identity. Ancient traditions are supplanted by the global culture of commercialism, where money has become the pelt which clothes individuals with influence and power. Status is not earned or assigned to the elders, to people of great wisdom, but is up for grabs by to those who amass the most material riches regardless of who they trample on or destroy in the process.
Traditions give people a greater sense of power, responsibility and belonging, and colour their interactions with the world around them. I believe spending time in nature makes us better people. To realize where we come from, to be humbled by the greatness of the natural universe, and to see how we fit into a delicate web of interconnected species, leaves many people questioning their motivations. They interrogate materialistic and self-serving short-term drives, and take on a more conscious view on life and their role in society. They are reminded of what really is significant and find themselves experiencing a deeper connection with others and a sense of purpose. Many people, having taken part in wilderness trails, testify to a feeling of “being connected” and describe moments of being alone in the wilderness as religious or spiritual experiences.
Humankind evolved in Africa, and interestingly, this is the fact we have to thank for the rich biodiversity still found on this continent. As humans evolved and perfected their hunting techniques, the animals adapted and developed a natural fear of humans as a dangerous predator. Every other continent carried rich large mammal and bird fauna, until a few hundred to a few thousand years ago, when large numbers of people made their home in the new world. Magnificent and enigmatic species such as the woolly rhino in the Americas, marsupial wolves in Australia and the giant moa birds in New Zealand, were all hunted to extinction in record time; for the simple reason they weren’t afraid of human beings. It is estimated that certain places lost up to 80% of their large species within a century of human contact. What now remains in these places is extensive natural beauty, yet with an astounding and disturbing lack of animal diversity. Many people who have grown up or lived in Africa can testify to the lack of spirit, of wildness, experienced in other natural places, and often express a yearning to return to this continent. It is also the reason that millions of tourist from all over the world spend billions of dollars each year to come and see and experience Africa and its last wild places.
Africa’s wilderness is unique in the world. And it is precious and priceless. After hundreds of years of industrialization, civilization and education, the thinking ape has evolved to exterminate slavery, condemn genocide and value equality, freedom and peace. I live in the hope that we have enough sense to spare the one place that has escaped our blatant ignorance, short-sightedness and senseless destruction – our sacred iMfolozi Wilderness.