Environmental Ponderings No. 5: Why Should I Care About the Environment?

 “Why should I care about the environment?”

How many times has that question been asked?, I wonder. It comes up frequently at talks and discussions that I am involved in and it is not an easy question to answer. (Try googling the question and see the range of answers that come up…).

Asking the question at a dinner party is one of the quickest ways to create a bunch of angry, polarised guests, particularly if the mix of guests includes any combination of conservationists, animal lovers, bunny huggers, eco-terrorists, climate denialists, fundamental Christians, conservative capitalists, and Free Market proponents.

In my view, the reason for this variability (and animosity) is because people have different views and perspectives on what the environment is and how human beings, affect or are affected by it, causing them to argue at different levels. The other point of argument relates to the extent, boundary or scope of the environment we are talking about. Is it your immediate environment around you (say, the air that you breath), your property, your suburb, your town or city, your Province, your country or the earth in totality? We have varying abilities to affect and be affected by the environment, depending upon the scope.

There are some obvious reasons which relate to immediate environment. For example, a dirty environment around you (land, air and water), can have a detrimental effect on your personal health. Fouling the space that you rely on to exist, generate your food, and provide the air to breath is not a good idea……although that principle may not be as obvious as one might think, considering some of the pollution episodes one reads about in South Africa and other countries like China.

We also have varying abilities to affect our environment. Whilst it is easy to clean up and tidy up your own property, it is very difficult to personally change the air that your breath (other than extremes such as, for example, not burning all of your rubbish in your back garden daily), or clean up the local landfill site.

Practicing care about one’s immediate environment can also save money. Applying “environmentally friendly” practices such as installing a solar geyser, or solar panels to power your security lights, will save money directly by reducing your electricity bill. Whilst separating and recycling household waste may not have a direct financial benefit, it may delay the need for a municipal new landfill site which over the medium and long term will reduce the increases in municipal rates and taxes.

Some of the other reasons often quoted include emotive perspectives such as “It’s my moral obligation”, “It’s the right thing to do”, “for future generations”, “to protect biodiversity” (yes, even that one can be debated at length), “rhinos and polar bears are cute”, and “unnatural stuff causes cancer”.

I am sure that already I have raised the hackles of a number of readers but before you organise the lynching party, stop and think. Maybe we are not understanding the differing perspectives or are making assumptions about others’ perspectives….?

Arend Hoogervorst is an environmental scientist with some 30 years of experience in South Africa in environmental management and sustainable development in local and central government, commerce and industry and private practice.

© Arend Hoogervorst, 2014.