What prompted the writing of the book?
Back in the 1990s, early 2000s, Ian McCallum and I were working together in the Okavango Delta. We realised that there were so many challenges facing the planet, a lot of which had become obvious to us while working in Africa and in the environmental and conservation space. But there were also socio-economic challenges globally that were impacting Africa and feeding into the environmental and conservation crisis we were facing.
We decided to take a research-based approach to try and explain the various forces at play and how these forces were having an impact on not only the world, but also Africa and the region in which we were working. So, we decided that we would go out into the world and interface with communities, researchers and scientists to find out more. In the book we explain it as going to the coalface, and we thought that the most symbolic way of doing this would be to follow the ancient migratory paths of elephants because, as my co-author Dr Ian McCallum says, if we cannot take care of something as obvious and large as an elephant, what chances do all the small creatures and microscopic organisms have?
And so, in both a symbolic and real way, we walked, cycled and kayaked for six months from coast to coast across southern Africa – through five African countries – following the migratory paths of the elephants. As we made our way through these wild areas, we collected information and had all these experiences, which we then used for the book.
Aspects of the crisis were happening before our eyes, reflecting issues that were related and connected, such as habitats and populations of wild animals being lost; poaching pressures; ongoing impoverishment of rural communities living around protected areas; over-utilisation of ecotourism assets – a whole mishmash of environmental and socio-economic challenges that seemed to come together, playing out against the backdrop of climate change, population growth, and so on. For example, if you looked at small communities in the deserts of Namibia and you witnessed the challenges of those communities trying to survive and the loss of animals through poaching, and you extrapolated that out, you’d realise that it’s not just a small microcosm of what’s going on in Namibia; it plays out at a global level as well. Illustrating that connection was the main challenge, and hopefully we’ve been able to relay that in the book.
The journey, a Wilderness Foundation initiative made possible with the support of multiple sponsors, took place in 2012 (read more about the expedition). The book came out towards the end of 2022, so it took us quite a while to put everything together, but what happened in between was that we gathered all the information and insights needed, and it was also only after the journey that we realised how global these issues were. I ended up going back to University – the Sustainability Institute at Stellenbosch University – because I understood that I needed to gain a much better grasp of the global pressures that were at play in Africa and the areas about which we were concerned.
It was only once I’d spent time at the university trying to understand the issue of sustainability on a global level that I was then able to truly reflect on what was happening in the environment. Dr McCallum also got involved in a range of projects and it was these combined activities that were finally brought to bear in our writing. We were hoping to show readers that these issues were not just relevant to me or you or any particular nation or region – they were relevant to us, humanity. Collectively we are responsible.
Main drivers of the crisis
The three main drivers that are in play are population, the current political and economic paradigms that run this world, and denial – denial in our own lives because no one wants to hear the bad news, but also strategic denial at a political and academic level where we deny something is wrong because there’s a strategic interest involved – whether it’s protecting political power or an economic model or a business empire. Fossil fuels are a great example of strategic denialism. We knew 40 or 50 years ago already the impacts of the fossil fuel industry, but it was denied for 30 or 40 years, which has delayed our transition to renewables – and now the world is in trouble.
Why is this everyone’s problem?
Ultimately, it’s important to understand that everyone – irrespective of income level, social standing or where in the world you live – is faced with the same challenge, and that is that we want to survive as individuals, and we want our families to flourish. But we can’t do that without clean air to breathe, clean drinking water, healthy topsoils that provide the food we need to eat, and carbon sequestration systems that provide us with oxygen, for instance – those ecological cycles so vital to our survival. It doesn’t matter whether you are poverty-stricken or number one on the world’s wealthiest list – you require the same factors to survive. Ultimately, we need to make the connection between these ecological cycles and the effects of our individual and collective behaviours on them. We need to understand the interdependence of all life – and act on that understanding before it’s too late.