Why worry about fatalities, injuries, and billions of Rand of environmental damage and medical bills, when there’s money to be made?

The desperate and urgent need for economic growth and the lack of effective enforcement of environmental laws are causing massive levels of pollution, which is threatening our health, our biodiversity, and our oceans.

As unscrupulous businesses do their best to plunder and pillage our country’s natural resources with little or no regard for the environment, a powerful counterforce has been set in motion. Some of this is a response to corrupt government power, but something else is happening across South Africa, there is growing grassroots support for a clean and safe environment. People may accept certain regulations telling them what to do, but they certainly do not want their children to be exposed to E. coli and heavy metals in their water, or to be poisoned by the air they breathe.

It may be disheartening to see ministers[1] in our government backing “investment”, “national strategic benefit” or emergency “environmentally, socially, and economically” suitable options[2], under the pretense of being in the best interests of the people while promoting unscrupulous big business and its resultant destruction of the environment.

However, with recent legal victories against Shell[3] and Eskom[4], government and businesses are realising that they can only push their unethical agendas so far. There is broad and deep support for a clean environment, which rejects attempts to disregard the constitutional rights and protection offered to the public by the national environmental laws.

We are becoming increasingly aware of our impact on the environment and over the past few decades we have successfully implemented new and developing technologies to reduce the negative impacts of power plants and motor vehicles on our air quality, reduced the discharge of effluents into our waterways, and recycle some of our waste.

We must not underestimate the complexity and difficulty of the challenge ahead. We do not understand enough about the harm or damage we cause, and the only way to mitigate it is to understand it. We need additional environmental science and data collection to expand our knowledge. The government and private organisations must dramatically increase their funding of environmental science and engineering needed to reduce the harm and damage we learn about from the scientific data collected.

A potential solution to accelerate progress on environmental issues could be to pool scientific data resources, in a manner like open-source software initiatives used in the technology industry, resulting in mutual benefit and the future well-being of all stakeholders.

In the recent past, there have been several instances where human ingenuity has been applied to reduce the complex causes of environmental damage. Catalytic converters in motor vehicles, scrubbers in power plant smokestacks, larger battery capacities, and the use of nanotechnology in solar cells are just a few examples. Other improvements include better water management, crop management, and closed-looped manufacturing that recycles most of the waste it previously used to dump into our air, land, and water.

Energy is central to every aspect of our economic life, but the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels have been proven to be dangerous to the planet’s ecology and climate, and human health. The future health of our children and grandchildren depends on the transition to renewable energy. Solar and wind power have seen massive transformative growth, and the question is no longer if they will supersede fossil fuels, but when.

Unfortunately, our government policies on energy and the environment are so far removed from reality that it has the paradoxical effect of reinforcing harmful practices. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be apathetic or indifferent to the noises made by this government and its parastatals. The result is spontaneous mobilisation, we have seen countless service delivery protests and increased legal challenges to decisions taken by the government.

The increasing public understanding of the significance of environmental challenges offers us hope for the future. While it may be difficult to address these problems, people know they exist. Younger individuals are more aware of the environmental problems facing the world than older generations. They know that environmental degradation is harmful to their health and can make their children sick. This awareness leads to cultural and social change. Cultural and social change leads to new behaviours in the economic marketplace, and ultimately to political change.

Leading international companies are demonstrating that there is no longer a need to choose between doing the “right thing” and achieving commercial success. They are finding new ways to deal with the complex interaction of factors that resemble a paradox by bringing together the oppositional stakeholders and harnessing the creative tensions to spur invention and progress rather than succumbing to paralyzed indecision and poor judgment calls.

But leaders need to get this right. Failure to resolve the “purpose” and “performance” paradoxes can result in cynicism and low levels of confidence and trust in the authenticity of organisations and their leaders, a failure to attract high-quality employees, and a failure in growth, innovation, and returns for the investors, and the same holds true for government.

If the only way to protect the environment was to reduce economic growth, humanity would be placed in an impossible position. We need organisations to articulate a purpose that goes beyond just delivering returns to stakeholders, these decisions may cost them in terms of reduced revenues and/or increased costs in the short term, but we strongly believe that we can build a high turnover, a renewable resource-based economy that can bring material benefits to humanity without destroying the planet.

The tide toward environmental sustainability is turning. We must keep learning and putting what we have learned into practice. Progress is slow, but it is steady.[5]

[1] The Citizen – 9 Dec 2021 – Nica Richards – Objecting to oil, gas exploration as a “special type of colonialism” Mantashe strongly backs Shell’s plans and has likened the environmental protests to “apartheid and colonialism of a special type” and went on to say “South Africa deserves an opportunity to capitalise on its natural resources, including oil and gas, which have proven to be game changers elsewhere.”

[2] Mongabay – 26 January 2022 – Malavika Vyawahare – South Africa authorizes dumping at sea of cargo that turned volatile.

[3] AfricLaw – 6 Sep 2022 – Gaopalelwe Mathiba – The Shell seismic survey judgment: A further endorsement of meaningful consultation – Eastern Cape High Court has ruled that the exploration rights granted by the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Affairs to Impact Africa and Shell were unlawful.

[4] Centre for Environmental Rights – 18 March 2022 – Major court victory for communities fighting air pollution in Mpumalanga Highveld.

[5] Ideas for this article were inspired by: The Slow but Steady Progression Toward Environmental Sustainability – Columbia University Climate School – Steve Cohen – 27 Dec 2017 and Lessons from Companies That Put Purpose Ahead of Short-Term Profits – Harvard Business Review – Andrew White – 09 Jun 2016