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Having just returned from the South African Adaptation Colloquium, I feel like I have walked out of a room full of really good people, “tickling an elephant”. I borrow that expression from my colleague Anna Greenwood… with permission, and probably with completely different application, sorry Anna.

So without any clever lead in, the elephant is the western/northern worldview, belief system, and resultant development paradigm or model. Interpret each word in that sentence as narrowly or widely as you wish, I don’t think it really makes much difference. This was driven home to me in the last talk before I had to leave. Here some researchers had tried to quantify the relative cost of eco-systems based adaptation versus classic modern engineering/technical solutions, in two different contexts. In both cases their conclusions were very similar. Eco-systems based adaptation costs between ten and one hundred times as much as engineering solutions or just basic ongoing maintenance. Actually their first conclusion was a figure of around one hundred times but that was whittled down to closer to ten by diluting or restricting the scale of the eco-system based measures. Now obviously there will be research that contradicts their results. That is the nature of research. But other research will not necessarily invalidate their work.

The western/northern, technical, engineering, capitalist based paradigm “works”. It “works” really really well. It has created cities that “service” millions of people with clean water, electricity, roads, accommodation, education, health care. It is most efficient at large scales. Un-human scales. I often look down on very large cities from aircraft and find myself wondering how it is at all possible that all of that infrastructure could possible work. But it does. Most the time it really does. And it’s cheap! How is it even possible that I power all the the incredible luxuries of fridges, lights, gadgets, for a mere R100/month? The answer is scale. The system works well at massive scales.

But it also comes packaged with a whole lot of baggage that we are only just starting to understand. It is built on assumptions of perpetual growth. In fact it needs perpetual growth. The elephant must keep eating. And therefore it assumes infinite resources. The elephant must keep eating. It is steered by principles of open market and individual gain. The elephant goes where it “wills”. It rewards those who gamble, or who can afford to gamble. And it punishes losers. Sorry I can’t think of an elephant analogy for that one!

And maybe it goes deeper than that. Here opinions may vary, but these are mine (which I’m told are as valid as anyone else’s). The elephant breaks down community. It breaks down family. Big, impersonal cities work. Rural, small, community doesn’t. Africa is experiencing incredible rates of urbanisation. Rural communities are left nonviable and vulnerable. Increasingly dependent on the very elephant that destroyed them. Communities trade vulnerability that they have learnt to deal with (droughts and floods, fire, disease), for vulnerabilities that they can’t even comprehend (global economies, national policy, donor fickleness). We heard in a talk yesterday about the vulnerabilities of rural communities in the eastern cape. I was fascinated that while the focus was on climate change, in reality the vulnerabilities people listed were more closely associated with the western development model (damage to infrastructure, crime, lack of schools, insufficient social grants and support, food insecurity due to migration of people to the cities). Many of the proposed adaptation options look more like a pre-industrialised age. Community gardens, local production, locally sourced resources, less dependence on infrastructure, community support networks.

Somehow we seem to know that the elephant is dangerous. Returning to the eco-systems based adaptation, even though all the evidence pointed towards this approach being incredibly irrational from an economic point of view, the researchers showed an incredible reluctance about their conclusions. They waved their hands towards concepts of addressing real vulnerabilities and needs of communities, but perhaps they actually just felt deeply uncomfortable with their results. All of us in the audience probably felt a similar discomfort judging by the looks people were giving one another across the room. Somehow we know that the elephant is a problem but its kind of hard to put our finger on why.

And so the elephant marches on. And the adaptation community are bravely and probably quite effectively tickling it to try to keep it happy. Of course it can be used to “help”. We can chain communities to the elephant. They gain something, sometimes quite a lot. But they are also then chained to the elephant. We can build roads and infrastructure but then our communities become dependent on roads and infrastructure. They must now follow the elephant where it goes. And they are virtually powerless to steer it. Our national policies, our international policies, our economics, our existence is chained to it. We heard yesterday that agriculture in South Africa uses 60% of our water but contributes only 2% of GDP. The elephant could well be preparing to stomp on agriculture. We’ll just import our food instead. Let the markets decide. The elephant marches on leaving silent carnage in its path.

And to this we add the reality of climate change. Climate change that at core is a result of the relentless need for resources for our beloved elephant. And so we try to use that which caused the problems to fix the problems. And in so doing become a further part of the problem? The more people the elephant is pulling the hungrier he is going to get? Or we feel the elephant itself is at risk so we try to protect the elephant from the impacts of the changes it has caused. So it can improve the lives of more people, or continue to cause more damage? We convince ourselves we can put our elephant on diet. We want a lean fit kind compassionate elephant. But a hungry elephant is even more dangerous (and probably less kind and compassionate) than a satisfied elephant so this is a risky gamble!

Of course there are also massive benefits to development and I’m not sitting here in my air-conditioned office secure in the knowledge that I have medical insurance, a good hospital within 5km, shops stocked with every food imaginable just down the road, and a pension plan to look after me when I retire (maybe), pretending that I don’t live a very different life to the life I could be living right now without modern development. In fact I may not even have survived past birth without modern medical development. But its really not that simple. Because it seems that only a few people are riding comfortably on the elephant. Most are running along side, trying to keep up, or even worse, being dragged along in the dust behind. And how vulnerable is our elephant? What if it runs out of food? What if it trips or gets sick? What if some few people learn to steer it to where they want to go rather than where is best for the majority (this has probably already happened)?

Surely we need to be questioning our devotion to our beloved elephant. What would it look like if we cut some of these chains? If we stepped away from this incredibly dominant paradigm, world-view, belief system. If we explored some different measuring sticks to gauge our progress? I’m really not sure, its certainly not a simple imagining process. But if we don’t we will be left tickling the elephant. And one that may soon start getting hungry and angry (and not like being tickled anymore)

One Response to “Tickling the elephant?”

  1. Piotr Wolski

    Thank you CJ for this rather dark and depressing post. Unfortunately, I totally agree and indeed struggle with similar thoughts all the time. The economic paradigm elephant is raging. Perhaps there are a few of them at large in our not so big a room. Yet, we rarely talk about them, although we might be getting somewhat uncomfortable in their presence. Why? Exactly because thinking about alternatives is so difficult. Do they even exist? Can we ideate a working, stable socio-economic system that not based on exploitation of (as yet practically freely available) natural resources and a fellow man? Anything that is not an unrealistic utopia preached by a stereotypical urban environmental activist?

    You talk about (modern) northern-western paradigm, I guess in an opposition to traditional southern-eastern ones, with perhaps the hint of suggestion that the latter might hold the answer to the conundrum. But do they? The elephant, or rather a steamroller, did not have much trouble with clearing these, seemingly fertile, fields. Initially – it forced itself, fuelled by investable capital. But ultimately – it was welcome. We have embraced it all, and are busy fashioning our indigenous tapirs and eastern european bisons to sport trunks and big ears (well, the elephant analogy gets somewhat awkward here, but I hope you get what I mean).

    Why this happens? Why do we so easily forfeit the culture and system of values of our forefathers, and create an ugly hybrid? Perhaps because western capitalism plays to traits perfected in humans during eons of evolution. We’d rather be rich than poor, stalwart than feeble, resting than sweating, alpha than omega. Because if we are the latter rather than former, there is a bigger chance that our genes, not these of our neighbour, will stay in the pool, and perhaps even dominate it with time. Even altruistic behaviour might be seen as evolutionary adaptation giving us some edge over the villagers from behind the mountain. Let’s be honest – as a group, we are a violent, conniving, selfish lot, with our atavistic animalism somewhat moderated to fit the patronising image of “owners of the world”. To be humane, according to the dictionary on my Mac, is to kill with compassion and benevolence – cool!

    Back to the point – I, personally, cannot imaging a truly sustainable, equitable socio-economic system compatible with human nature. I’ve lived in an alternate system that was supposed to be equitable. But it wasn’t. And it had little regard towards sustainability. So on my bad days, I’m gearing myself towards a crash. My only hope is that when the elephant trips, those who sit on top and have a comfortable ride will hit the ground the hardest;-). On my good days, however, I hope that evolution will somehow favour a symbiont rather than a parasite, and those of us who appreciate the other (non-human) side, and agree to give rather than just take, will prevail. With all the consequences thereof.