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OPEN LETTER: It’s time to believe in better

For nature to keep giving bountifully to us there is no room for destructive pessimism. And the same applies to our country, writes Dr Morné du Plessis, CEO of WWF South Africa.

Hope is life and death in equal measure. At its best it colours the day and lights up the night. At its worst, it remains an elusive hankering for something to be gifted by others.

As South Africans, we know all too well how easy it is to slip into a spiral of despair and become a liability to ourselves (just think of all those solution-free conversations at social gatherings that dwell on the negatives, from loadshedding to shoddy service delivery, taxi strikes and more).

Yet, South Africa is widely acknowledged for having turned calamitous predictions of a turbulent future into unmatched opportunity.

Those of us who lived through the 70s and 80s know just how far we’ve come. Imperfect as our new society may be, there are few who hanker for that unequal past and many who wish we could rekindle the blossoming optimism post-1994. We have come to find ways to work around inconvenience and count ourselves lucky for what we have.

Should we expect better? Of course, we must and can do better! But better will not be possible if we outsource the responsibility to others, be it government, business, or civil society organisations. Fixing the country starts with each one of us.

Environmentalists are by their very nature agents of hope. Those dedicating their lives to environmental causes are profoundly accustomed to an enduring sense of doom. Every day there is more evidence, most of it about how we are knowingly destabilising our climate, dismantling our ecosystems and leaving a growing debt to nature for our children to settle.

Yet hope, supported by action, is far more powerful than the strangely seductive slide into despair. Environmentalists know how to deal with relentless negativity. It is what we deal with all of our lives. We simply believe that it is possible to be better.

What underpins this belief? We are surely motivated by the knowledge of our extraordinary natural inheritance and the responsibility of care that comes with it.

Sometimes, just as we need reminding how far we’ve come as a society, we need reminding of just how exceptional South Africa’s natural and social endowments are.

Few places on Earth can match the claims of this country as the cradle where humankind was born – from the rich early palaeontological finds of early hominids, millions of years old, to the precursors of human culture spanning tens of thousands of years. Our very essence as human beings has been shaped right here in the mountains and plains of South Africa, and in these finds it is possible to sense the origins of hope and wonder.

Fewer than a handful of nations surpass South Africa in natural wealth. This wealth is the outcome of tens of millions of years during which an astonishing array of species were formed. When it comes to biodiversity, we are members of the Big League no matter which way you look at it.

As an example, within our borders lies the entire exquisitely abundant and unmatched Cape Floristic Kingdom (CFK) with its thousands of species of plants, insects and animals. Compared to the world’s largest floristic region, the Holarctic Kingdom, our CFK is the size of a mouse to an elephant. Yet it is so incomparably unique that not even tropical forests can match its magnificent diversity.

This knowledge should fill us in equal measure with unbridled pride and a delight of responsibility.

Even though we have not even had to compete for it, our natural inheritance is all of our endowment to look after, as is our wealth in human capital. The World Cup of Nature and Humanity is in our hands.  This trophy, however, is not merely a sign of extraordinary superiority, but it is our duty to keep intact.

What ultimately gives me hope, of the kind that colours the day and lights up the night, are the passionate young specialists within my own organisation who embody the best of what our democracy has delivered. Their willingness to embrace change and to conquer obstacles in pursuit of a better world for people and nature is truly inspiring. As much as we are blessed with a natural bounty in this country, we too have unsurpassed human capital to match – if only we are able to harness it.

If, like me, you have experienced the same wondrous uplifting emotion at the song of a chorister robin-chat at dawn or the joy of catching the strain of melodic village songs floating over the far hills at dusk, you will know that you too have skin in the game. It is us who must solve the insolvable and conquer the insurmountable, doing the constructive deeds that we so often expect of others.

With so much to play for, better is surely well within our reach.

Yours in nature

© WWF South Africa
Young specialists embody the best of what our democracy has delivered.

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