New Deal for Nature and People

Climate Change and Covid-19: Has the momentum been lost? 

In a presentation to the World Economic Forum in 2016, historian Professor Ian Morris posited that civilizations died due to one or more of the following reasons: uncontrollable population movements; epidemic diseases; failing states leading to increased warfare; collapse of trade routes and climate change. In the midst of the COVID_19 pandemic, much focus has been placed on not only containment and minimizing loss of lives but also what socioeconomic and political transformation can occur over the short-term to create a more equitable world going forward. 

In terms of Morris’s theory, 2020 has brought to the earth’s doorstep, at the very least, a serious engagement that humans are not infallible and modern existence isn’t guaranteed. In terms of the uncontrollable movement, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in its Global Trend Report stated that 79.5 million people, 1% of the world’s population, are currently forcibly displaced, with 40% of them being youth.  The World Health Organization (WHO) lists a number of ongoing epidemics, many under resourced to combat, such as Ebola, including the coronavirus pandemic. With the pandemic highlighting social divides, despite calls by the United Nations (UN), as states across the wealth spectrum struggle to balance the economic and health fallout of COVID_19, conflicts in over 30 countries, which is more than WWII, has exacerbated migration and will continue if states are unable to capably and developmentally respond to the current crisis. Economists remind that the impact on the global economy is unprecedent since the Great Depression and 2008 economic recession. Trade routes in the modern sense are not only impacted, but politically compounded by the dynamics between China, European Union (EU), Russia, United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA). This, the left and right wing political war coupled to questions of socioeconomic justice, institutionalized racism and globalism versus domestication have taken the forefront of current public discourse. 

Against this background, the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa (WWF) ran a Youth Month campaign in June 2020 linked to the idea of a New Deal for Nature and People. The campaign, which had a strong focus on climate change, kicked off with a webinar on 5 June 2020, hosted by WWF’s Theressa Frantz and Laurent Some, asking youth to ‘add their voice to the planet’. Their presentations warned that rapid global warming is putting the planet’s ecosystems under pressure with the potential to accelerate a sixth mass extinction.  

The New Deal for Nature and People addresses the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to revitalize them through mobilizing youth activism to enable target achievement by 2030. SDG 13 developed five tangible targets and eight indicators. The targets are to better prepare for human impact and mitigate climate-induced disasters; integrate various policies into a consolidated national plan per country; increase knowledge and capacity to address climate change; overarch a coordinated UN strategy into national plans and promote mechanisms for better management. 

Leah Rodriguez links the youth aspects of climate change to that of the most impacted by it, the poor, particularly the urban Black poor in the USA. She reports that the highest risk group experiencing climate related complications during birth are Black and Indigenous women. Underscoring this, gynecologist, Dr Nathaniel DeNicola, adds that there’s a next generation currently being born ‘pre-polluted’. Using the studies indicating that smog and pollution particles are increasing by 42%, the chances of still, premature and underweight births cause significant risks in this demographic group, especially in the last trimester. 

Clearly climate change cannot be divorced from #BlackLivesMatter, matters of poverty and the youth, especially not in the midst of a pandemic and not as we look forward to a world that seeks to create a better earth for the next generation, not already set it back at birth. For this reason, the New Deal for Nature and People is summed up by the WWF Director General, ‘Science has never been clearer, awareness has never been greater. It’s time for decisive action’. The call to youth is simple: act now to reverse the speeding up of harm to the planet, its habitat and people. The proposal is estimated to create food and water for nine billion people, improving quality of life, whilst alleviating the climate damage and preventing the sixth mass extinction. 

The momentum is waning in the wake of pressing life and death faced imminently be it through hunger, unemployment, insufficient access to healthcare to treat COVID_19 effectively and rampant spread including second and third waves of infection that is pushing up the death toll beyond models and in absence of viable vaccine or cure. Within this possible political momentum, there is a gap to link climate change better to current socioeconomic justice movements, thereby leveraging points of power and influence to drive meaningful change within the new social impact being envisioned post-pandemic. The efficiency and effectiveness does indeed lie with our youth, but not disparately as currently the case. WWF needs to create multisectoral partnerships that meet in the middle between grassroot activism and high-level public and private policy reform. Youth needs to be more than rhetoric. Linkages with existing youth organizations are critical to mainstream and incorporate climate change in civic education, advocacy and policy governance. 

In this, the best chance of success lies in “think local, act local” to bring the challenge home to South Africa in a way youth leaders can propagate change through existing economic, political and social channels that understands the here and now for the future and a public good beyond the individual to a broader society, at least for the next generation.  To conclude with popular culture, 30 Seconds to Mars, wrote ‘A Beautiful Lie’ whilst in Cape Town, about climate change. The musical video illustrates the challenge that has faced us for years. Let it motivate us to urgently take up the call as youth to unite, to find the centre and work together to mainstream climate change in from nursery to primary and secondary school as well as tertiary education and workplaces. 

Overcoming toxic culture at tertiary institutions and the servitude required to combat it

The furore over Professor Gray and the role of academics in the response by the South African government to the novel coronavirus pandemic reminded me that in late 2019 I was asked to speak on the institutionalized culture of discrimination at the University of Pretoria by the UP Head of Department: Political Sciences.  My reflection then as now is in line with the South African Human Rights Commission 2018 ‘Transformation at Public Universities Report’ that the perpetuation of exclusionary academia, be it by language, funding models or lack of sufficient curriculum and  faculty transformation continues to be a challenge. Embedded in the ivory towers of higher education is the missing link to communities that they should serve. The more I mull over academia without a community constituency, the more I realize that it’s symptomatic of a societal failure – to serve.

How many academics have significant work experience outside of consulting, writing and lecturing? How many lecturing on public policy have worked in government or developed an actual public policy besides critiquing it? How many PhDs are successful outside academia and beyond research roles? How many universities insist on practical experience hours, volunteered or compensated, be undertaken to continue academic work? Why are we not asking whether it’s in students and broader public interest to be taught by those out of practice with workplace skills and a holistic education that modernizes quicker than books? When tertiary institutions fail to transform and modernize to an ever adapting world, it does not simply fail as an institution. It fails the graduates, the faculty staff development, the organizations that take on board our graduates and most importantly the communities it’s intended to serve. 

In South Africa, higher education hallways remain by and large a remnant of the colonial and Apartheid institutional constructs, which were not fully dismantled post-democracy. Literally like colonialism it mines knowledge to transport via journals, conferences and secure consultancy work; churns out graduates like a factory mill, not taking into account whether South Africa or Africa actually requires those type of graduates and linked whether the graduates leave with skills that work places require. Academia generates a lot of paper, entrenches silos, talks a lot about how much the system works by championing particular collaborators but at the end of the day, how much has it positively changed the issues it champions? In the crisis of COVID19, South African academics have a meaningful opportunity to practically contribute to a new norm where horizontal governance is a standard because sector trust is strengthened by goodwill partnership. From the side of academics, it will mean a move from lecturing those with practical experience that they often lack, an approach that teaching is a two-way process that promotes active citizenry and where students potential to contribute is developed not unearthed for a lecturer’s research ratings. Such a path is hindered by the 250 academics who signed to support Professor Gray, in essence continuing this practice of the sector not being held to the same scrutiny as most professions by virtue of academic freedom.

To address the challenges, we need to stop making parts of the discussion taboo. Why are our African academics not as prominent in discourse? The look towards the female in the room to take minutes irrespective of her standing. The basically indentured labour of the PhD and post doctorate students to keep the numbers ticking overThe ‘mature’ student, no matter how much work experience, who has no opportunities because everything is 35 under. The individualism that is advocated but not applied when it comes to the tertiary institution you graduate from –irrespective of personal circumstance and effort, we prefer to look at the name of the printer of the degree. 

If we start to honestly reflect on these biases – conscious or unconscious – we can start to understand that there is indeed an individual within the broad strokes of academia and some of them, student and staff are bearing the brunt of academic gatekeeping. Continuous exclusion or being forced to conform to a standard not reflective of local realities can lead to stress, anxiety and major depression. These in turn can manifest in physical burnout, chronic illness leading to regular sick leave or absence to treat the symptom but not the cause. It can lead to poor performance and a defeatism that sees individuals just do the minimum, not realizing full potential. The irony is that it reinforces in those who actively sustain this patriarchal and traditional culture, the notion that the sick are actually just lazy and were not committed or capable from the onset – tokenism if you will. The vicious and toxic cycle of discrimination continues not only by those perpetuating it but by those who prefer to not actionably overcome it for fear of further ostracization. 

The substantially debated science of COVID19 is showing us that there are alternatives in a time where information changes at a faster pace than can be taught or published. Early insight indicates that a changed approach and culture within institutions of higher education is feasible.  One which is more inclusive, where expertise is understood as a fraction of a collective framework, acknowledgement of a team approach being more solution orientated and not mistaking advisory capacity with that of policy or decision making.  Ultimately that science must serve humanity and be flexible to respond to the public good as opposed to the individual interest. 

The in progress momentum for structural change to overcome the grossly inequitable divide that is the South African reality should be seized by Vice-Chancellors to change institutional culture beyond paper and impose it if need be.  Universities like the public service need to urgently incubate a culture of Batho Pele in actionable service delivery. Faculties across the sciences must understand that their curriculum, research, lecturers & student mentoring including supervision must serve the needs of what South Africa requires, not their academic interest. Choice, yes, but when you sit with crippling unemployment, we cannot justify the economics of not aligning choices to community necessity. Now sooner than later, those in this space need to iteratively ask how they are going to serve South Africa as opposed to merely joining a long queue of educated extractors.