WE ARE busy destroying our planet. Last year, the United Nations released a devastating report based on three years’ research by more than 350 scientists across the world in the most comprehensive global health check ever conducted. Nothing made for good reading; coral reefs are dying beneath our oceans, rain forests are being felled leaving dry savannahs, half of our natural ecosystems are gone and hundreds of thousands of species are on the verge of extinction.
We are polluting what we have; rendering our water undrinkable and our air unbreathable – and we can’t stop ourselves. At a time when we should be seeking internationally brokered solutions as a community of nations to mutual problems, we are heading – through the ballot boxes – to
isolationism and nationalism, fomented by populism.
It all seems insane, until you consider the precepts of game theory – or how people make decisions, and the reasons behind that, exacerbated by what is known as the tragedy of the commons. No one owns the commonage, but everyone has a right to use it which all goes well when there is a balance. But the moment one farmer gets another animal, they are immediately better off than their peers. Soon there is a race on to see how many more animals all the farmers can amass.
The problem is that the land can’t sustain all these animals, so ultimately it will become over grazed and, with no other pasture, the animals that were there, will starve. The impact on their erstwhile owners will be catastrophic – if the farmers do not act, they will ultimately have neither livelihood
The commons aren’t just a patch of green little England, they’re the dry and barren patches of veld flanking rural South African towns, overgrazed to the point of almost non-return; they’re not just the rivers of Europe soiled to toxic sterility but the air of Mpumalanga – and Midrand on the Highveld –
polluted to the point of being a public health hazard. The commons are our oceans, our biodiversity, the glaciers in Antarctica, our receding ice cap at the north pole.
But who will reduce their animals first, voluntarily rather than at the point of a gun? It’s a conundrum that British academic Gregory Bateson termed the double bind; a person trapped by two conflicting demands, each on a different logical level and neither which can be ignored or disobeyed. If we ask a person who is exploiting a commons to desist “in the name of conscience”, what are we saying to them? What does that person hear at that moment and again in the small hours of the night when they wrestle with their conscience?
Half asleep, they remember not merely the words we used but also the non-verbal communication cues we gave them unawares. Sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, they sense that they have received two communications, and that these are contradictory. The intended communication
is: “If you don’t do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen”. The unintended communication in the quiet of the early hours is: “If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of
us exploit the commons.”
How do we change this? How do we recalibrate the debate? We have to globally because the science is unequivocal, but we also have to do it here at home because we have seen a uniquely South African perversion of the tragedy of the commons – the exploitation of the constitution. We are all free and we all have rights, but some cannot have more rights or freedoms than others, yet they appear to and because of that it enforces a South African double bind upon the rest of us. If there are no consequence for breaking the law, for corrupting processes – or capturing the state, then it behoves us all to bribe traffic cops or become tenderpreneurs, or get left behind floundering.
And when we do that, we breathe life into that inimitable British philosopher Thomas Hobbes declared to be a state of nature in which the life of humanity is characterised by the continual fear of violent death; solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
In fact, when we look at media both here and abroad, you can see the double messaging playing out all the time across multiple platforms; the incontrovertible science being (T)trumped by fake news and dubious opinions irrespective of whether it’s climate denialism or novel Coronavirus Covid 19.
Here we have the incessant wrestling over the narrative of state capture between the New Dawnists and the fight-back-to-the-death Radical Economic Transformationists.
We have to break the double bind. It takes leadership but in truth, it takes all of us. We possess both potentials, but can become too possessed by one. We need to practice that age-old edict of ubuntu; we are who we are through others and in doing so rediscover our reciprocal ties and obligations to one another. We need to unlearn greed and venality and re-learn not to use more than we need and certainly not at the expense of one another, to profit but not to profiteer and thus end the death spiral of the zero-sum, devil-take-the-hindmost, game in which we find ourselves locked into.
No one ever struggled to be poor, but that can never excuse the kleptocracy that we have just lived through, but nor can it repair the damage inflicted by decades of apartheid and centuries of colonialism. We need to re-learn to care about one another and reconnect with each other and with nature to understand the causes and the effects of our actions. When we can see the bad in what we do and how it will affect perhaps not ourselves, but our children and their children, perhaps that will be the incentive to change.
And it’s not too late. I was recently (before Coronavirus) at a conference in Milan, a beautiful city bisected by canals that for years were bereft of life because of decades of abuse. Yet, today those canals are full of fish once again. I grew up and wandered often along the Thames. At one stage it
was so polluted people were more fearful they’d die of disease and poisoning than drowning if they fell in – but in recent years there are salmon returning in the water, among the most ecologically sensitive fish in the world, because of behavioural changes that have been made.
We can do the same here in South Africa for our commons – and especially our common rights and freedoms – but we have to stop behaving like the proverbial boiled frogs. Falling asleep as the water warms in the pot and being cooked to death without noticing. The time to act is now, but we have to
be unequivocal. Pressure others, wake up the frogs, change habits. The mixed messaging, there can be no double bind.
• Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.