Environmental Ponderings No. 6: Preferences in “Environment”, “Conservation” and “Development”

“Environment”, “conservation”, and “development” can be touchy subjects, usually because in any group of individuals, one can get a diverse, wide and emotionally sensitive range of views, opinions, beliefs and doctrines emerging which can be quite polarised. As humans, we are, by nature, diverse and competitive and often struggle to agree or achieve consensus. It is no wonder that preferences can, for example, range from natural grasslands, to a lawn, or an area of green painted concrete.

Human beings are modifiers of the environment. They have developed the abilities, skills and means to change an environment to suit their needs and wants. This is further complicated by the fact that as a species, human beings have multiplied to such a degree that their survival requirements have put the planet under some not inconsiderable strain. We modify land to produce greater quantities of food through mechanisation and monoculture; we cover the earth with concrete to move pesky rainwater away “somewhere else” as quickly as possible; we build massive coal-fired power stations consuming vast quantities of coal so that we can have access to convenient sources of electricity; we build thousands of kilometres of roads cutting swathes through the land so that we can drive quickly from one part of the country to another.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not taking a position on the rights and wrongs of these initiatives. I am merely pointing out that these actions come with both benefits and disadvantages. Everything in life is about balancing benefits with disadvantages. Decisions have to be made which impact people and the environment today, and have consequences for people in the future.

Perhaps we should try and recognise that we cannot achieve perfection in the restoration of some environments to their former (pristine and untouched) status and that we need to acknowledge a modified environment that contains differing elements of natural beauty, form and functionality. It is academic whether this is described as “environmentally responsible development” or “urban development”, or ‘Green Buildings”, or “indigenous”. It is fundamental modification of “natural” environments in such a way that they provide pleasure, joy, relaxation, peace, calm, (add your particular preference) to human beings in their daily lives.

There is always a place for the preservation of undisturbed, naturally changing environments (sometimes described as “Wilderness Areas” or “Conservation Areas”). After all, they may well contain small pieces of DNA which may one day provide the means to save us from disease and pestilence we have yet to experience. The big questions are “How much?”, “Where” and “How much do we need to protect to maintain an ecologically viable area, that will survive in a form that has a future and can be protected from the encroachment of human beings?”

Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the earth cannot exist without us. Life in one form or another has existed on earth for some 3.6 billion years. Human beings (“modern” homo sapiens) have only been on earth for about 200,000 years. Geological succession suggests that the earth is about 4.54 billion years old. Natural and ecological succession has steered the evolution and development of ecosystems and organisms long before the arrival of human beings and will probably continue long after human beings have gone.

The final thought is with regard to human beings themselves. Human population growth continues at a significant rate. People need food, water, shelter and quality of life. Will human beings learn to control their growth as a species within a finite environment or will they continue growing and consuming until the natural forces of the environment find/develop/evolve a mechanism, organism or means to “naturally” control their growth?

 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.