Notice I said “nature” and not “environment.” During these talks, there was a clear distinction between the two. When I think of “environment,” I think of nature, ecosystems, wildlife, etc. When all of these speakers spoke of environment and environmental sustainability, they were referring to agriculture, soil content, water availability, etc – very human-centric. Although every topic inevitably referred back to nature, not one highlighted it as being an issue. One speaker, when talking on education in Africa, referred to going on safari during her trip as a way to “replenish your soul.” And, while I completely agree having been on safari multiple times, there was no mention of habitat destruction, endangered species, exploitation of land or pro and cons of ecotourism. During the conference, one attendee even asked the question of “untapped resources” in Africa, referring to the vast areas of untouched terrain of the African landscape. The response was surprising to me. There was no reference to leaving any of the wild to remain wild but rather that an improvement would be finding how to utilize those resources. Most of the other attendees probably didn’t even notice this omission or think of it as being relevant but, as an African wildlife conservationist, I kind of hoped it would be addressed.
The environment is essential for sustaining life and is impacted the most by imbalance but is at the bottom of the sustainability issue totem pole. Political, economic and social issues need to be fixed first and the environment will then follow. An example (I apologize for the massive run-on sentence): Government corruption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has led to militia groups exploiting starving citizens to mine coltan, a product purchased by large corporations to make tantalum capacitors found in electronic equipment, which, in turn, is demolishing the local rainforests which are home to iconic, but endangered, species such as the gorilla, bonobo and chimpanzee (all of whom, by the way, share around 96% of its genome with humans). If the Democratic Republic of the Congo could create an effective government to maintain a healthy, sustainable economy which supports the struggling population, and corporations made an effort to purchase conflict free goods, steps could then be made to monitor and regulate the environmental situation. Easy enough right?
(If it were easy it would already be done, we just need people who care enough to make that difference happen.)
What a lot of people don’t realize is that without the wild, there are no resources. Because when we “tap,” we take. We haven’t exactly figured out how not to, that’s why we need to be “exploring” these “issues.” The earth isn’t here only for human use. Millions of other species live on this planet and who are we to take the resources which they utilize sustainably for themselves without even meaning to (it’s called the balance of nature). What will happen to our world if we “tap” everything? And I’m not saying we need to stop industrialization and go back to living like cave people. I’m not giving up my cell phone, computer, air conditioning. I’m just saying, we humans need to do better and this conference showed me more than ever that it’s a trickledown effect starting with us, first world producers and consumers.