The balance in life

Just over 20 years ago, I wrote a book with two prominent environmentalists – Brian Huntley and Roy Siegfried – about the future environmental possibilities for South Africa. The model we used in the book was that human wellbeing had to be a balance between economic development, quality of life and environmental health.

The point we were making was that because these three factors were inter-related, no decision could be taken without bearing all three factors in mind simultaneously.

Any overemphasis on one factor at the expense of the other two would lead to a sub-optional situation on account of the inevitable trade-offs in pursuing one route alone.

For example, economic success in today’s ultra competitive world requires a degree of human sacrifice just like that required to be a good athlete, rugby player or cricketer. Without pain, there is no gain as the saying goes.

Equally, human wellbeing rests on living in an environment that is not deteriorating as a result of water pollution; air pollution; desertification or hostile climate change.

On the other hand, many of the measures to preserve the environment are costly and presume a level of material prosperity in order for these measures to be affordable to society. In that sense, economic growth and environmental health go hand in hand.

It is therefore patently obvious that the essence of good policy – making is an integrated approach where the interests of business, the environment and society at large are balanced against one another. Yet we still seem to be in a highly polarised state where these issues collide with one another in any debate we have.

Special interests and ideological differences mar any proper discussion. We are caught in a wall of confrontation as opposed to cooperation.

It also does not help that the level of stress in the world has been boosted by the financial crash that occurred in 2008, and by the consequentially high level of unemployment this has generated.

Add to this governments mired in debt. So, the last thing on the mind of politicians and economists is to create international models of environmental sustainability, which demand a revolutionary approach to industrialisation, the way we live and trade with one another.

Help is at hand though from an unlikely source – Thomas Malthus, a British economist, who famously predicted in an essay in 1798 that human population growth would ultimately lead to starvation.

This hypothesis has been roundly criticised in the intervening period as placing for too low a value on human innovation and the amazing increase in agricultural yields that it has caused are cited as examples contradicting the theory of Malthus.

Nevertheless, with a global population closing in on 7 billion and the two most populous countries in the world – China and India – going through their own forms of industrial revolution and giving birth to a gigantic new middle class, the game is on.

Food prices have not declined during the recession. Quite the opposite, they are rising at a double digit inflation rate. Water is becoming a scarce commodity.

All the easy-to-find, easy-to-mine, easy-to-treat mineral deposits have been found, mined and treated. We are into the harder stuff, just when China’s appetite appears inexhaustible. Finally, the latest estimate of cheap oil in the world reserves has dipped below 100 years.

All in all, it will be a price that changes people’s attitude and behaviour towards resource conservation and promoting substitutes like solar energy. Hence, the philosophy of balance in life recommended all those years ago by Brian, Roy and myself may well be coming into its own in the 21 century.

One planet exists. It is as simple as that.


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