Environmental Ponderings No. 1: What Can I Do To Make A Difference?

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m only one person, I can never get this done/changed/fixed?” Sometimes, the sheer, seemingly, hopelessness of a situation is overwhelming and results in endeavours and tasks never even getting started.

Often, the inspiration of what others can do, or have been able to achieve, can provide the nudge to reconsider paths of action and solutions.

I can think of two linked examples which provide some food for thought. The first one is human organisation. Human beings have developed the power to think, plan and organise themselves and their actions which leave one breathless in wonder. Think of the achievements of the Egyptians who with only rudimentary tools, intellect and the sweat of thousands of persons, built pyramids hundreds of metres high, weighing thousands and thousands of tons. Our modern day thinking would default to imagining vast machines, cranes, heavy trucks and other steel devices to achieve such a result. Meanwhile the Egyptians used very basic tools and techniques and adapted them to the circumstances. They used ramps, leverage, rollers, balance and other simple techniques to achieve massive and awe-inspiring results.

As a young community worker operating in a Soweto community in the early 1980’s (this was before cell phones, smart phones, Internet-on-the-go and SMSs), I could never understand how news of a meeting to be held on one side of Soweto could be successfully communicated to the entire city in hours, without the single use of an electronic communication device. The answer was simple – organised, word-of-mouth communication via, blocks, streets, suburbs, areas, and regions. Simple or complex messages could be conveyed to many people over vast distances by using word-of-mouth and human organisation.

The second example is Nature (of which, incidentally, we as humans are a part). Nature has evolved over billions of years and has a practical solution to every problem we have ever conceived. (It may be difficult to actually FIND that solution but it is there, somewhere!) There are plenty of examples which illustrate how small or large problems can be tackled by copying Nature. (If you want to know more, Google “Biomimicry”.) The complex and amazing social organisation and structuring of ant and termite colonies is a good example of optimal design for such community and survival issues as air-conditioning, food supply, waste disposal, security, population control, construction engineering, water supply and cooperative effort. The simple principle of Velcro comes from a technique used by seeds to hook themselves onto animals to spread species progeny beyond its source area.

As human beings, we waste enormous quantities of energy and effort on trying to do things for which there are clear and simple answers readily available in our back gardens, through cooperative communication and in libraries and publications. We live an oppressive, pressurised and busy lifestyle that prevents us from “thinking before we do”. The age of instant gratification, optimal electronic communication and the demand for instant decision-making is stopping us from using the most fundamental of preparatory actions, “Stop, think, research, plan, do”.

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

© Arend Hoogervorst, 2012.