One environmental message all South Africans need to hear

If there’s one thing our list of South African voices speaking up for the environment taught us, it’s that there is so much inspiring work being done in our country. So we asked these champions of the environment to share one message each - as long or as short as they liked. One message that they wished all South Africans could hear. Here are their answers: please share your favourites, add your own messages below and help us continue this discussion.

By Bridget McNulty

The power of the environment

It’s so easy for us to believe that as humans we’re the ones in charge around here. But actually Nature (with a capital N) is our kind host. We are visitors on this earth. It’s a stark but necessary reminder that we need to do better for our environment.

Gina Ziervogel, Researcher and Author

The environment underpins our livelihoods and lives. If we treat it well, we will continue to benefit. If we don’t, we will feel the impact - both socially, economically and environmentally. 

Lazola Solani, Environmental Activist

To live in an environment that is clean and green allows mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing. Bringing clarity to make sound decisions in everyday life. 

The concept of cleaning the environment we physically live in and cleansing our bodies where our soul and creativity resides through meditation are both the same from a health perspective but also different and equally important. 

This has been so critical and important for me to understand, especially growing up in a township. My mission is to share this feeling with each and every young person from the township with the hope they will respond with a call to action.

Ray Jansen, Pangolin Champion

We have the privilege and honor of being the custodians of our environment and all the plants and animals within. We must not be fooled that we are the owners of this environment to do with what we will.

Raj Lalloo, Scientist

People, wellbeing and the environment are inextricably linked. An ailing planet cannot support healthy people. Make the change to an alternative future now. Greener together.

Happy Khambule, Policy Influencer

The environment does not need us: we need the environment to be what and who we are. If we don’t take care of it, it will cease to take care of us.

Bob Scholes, Systems Ecologist

All the noise and smoke of the marketplace and politics will pass on, but the land continues. Remember to focus on what really matters in the long term: how we live on a productive and beautiful planet.

Skye Meaker, Photographer

As a photographer and a storyteller, my job is to show people the beauty of nature and why we should be protecting it. What I aim to do with my photography is to give people the opportunity to fall in love with nature and understand what we are trying to protect and why it is worth protecting. 

Don Pinnock, Writer

What is wilderness? The 1964 US Wilderness Act defined it as ‘an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor and does not remain.’

But is that still relevant … or possible? Wilderness is under siege from climate change, poaching and human encroachment. The latest UN Biodiversity report warns that more than a million species are at risk of extinction. We are influencing and unraveling the fabric of all life.

So what does it mean to be wild? A starting point is the comment by the Buddhist thinker Gary Snyder, that ‘wilderness is not just the “preservation of the world,” it is the world’. The obvious corollary is that wildness is everywhere. You just have to know where and how to look (did you ever think the spider on your wall was tame?).

Central to the idea of wilderness is conservation. Some conservationists say our goal should be to place 10% of the globe under protection from us. The eminent biologist EO Wilson says we need to give 50%. Could we do that? And what of communities within the conserved areas?

Another thought: when we step into a wild place, are we not actually in a liminal space between our reality and an imagined place, a constructed island in the midst of human busyness? Or is wildness all around us, not seen for want of seeing?

Writer Helen Moffett calls Cape Town, ‘that rare thing: a hot urban mess that has not yet smothered the wild.’ Do people ever see the Verreaux eagles, jackal buzzards and peregrine falcons that hover over the city, or guinea fowl pecking along urban roadsides? London has foxes, Mumbai leopards. These are wildlings who have learned to live among us, but remain free and wild.

Wild creatures do what they do to survive. It’s we who have the ethical dilemma. Should we shoot them for pleasure, eat their meat, keep them in zoos, farm them, restrict their migrations? These are much-contested questions. Henry Thoreau’s view in Walden Pond is that ‘we need to live more gently on the earth.’ And we need to interfere less.

I’ve just written a book on elephants and what struck me most is that they don’t need to be conserved. They just need to be left alone. They know how to be elephants. In a way, elephants doing elephant things is a measure of how much good there remains in the world. The degree to which we make that possible is a gauge of our value as a species within earth’s living fabric.

Climate change affects everyone

For so long, it seemed as if climate change was something ‘out there’ - something we didn’t have to worry about because the people in charge, the ones who could actually make a difference, would do the right thing. Clearly, this was a very mistaken approach, and it has now reached a point where it is painfully obvious that every single one of us needs to step up and take responsibility for our actions - and our impact.

Debra Roberts, Policy Influencer

The environmental choices we make here in Africa will affect the future of the world – so choose wisely in how you live, work and play.

Ruby Sampson, Climate Activist 

The most important thing to understand about the Climate Crisis is that it affects everyone: no matter their race, gender, class, ethnicity or nationality. 

However, the poor suffer the most: those who contribute the least in the form of fossil fuels and carbon emission are the ones feeling the consequences. Here in South Africa, it is difficult to comprehend the fact that climate change is more important than anything else right now, but it is. 

There will be nothing left to fight for if we don't fight for this now - if we don't demand Climate Action. We the youth understand that our generation is facing extinction, something that scares us to our very core, and unites us above all else.

Leonie Joubert, Author

Climate collapse is real, and the extent of it is much more severe than many of us realise. 

Extreme weather events and changes in the global economic system in response to carbon pollution will begin to touch on all of our lives in the coming years. We need to understand the extent of the systems-level changes necessary in our local communities, in our country at large, and globally, in order to slow carbon pollution and brace ourselves for the fallout. 

This will touch every one of us, not just the poorest and most vulnerable. 

Alex Lenferna, Climate Justice Campaigner

The UN Human Development Report (2007) stated: 

“Climate change is the defining human development challenge of the 21st Century. Failure to respond to that challenge… will stall and then reverse progress built-up over generations not just in cutting extreme poverty, but in health, nutrition, education and other areas.”

Ian Michler, Photo-journalist and Safari Guide

Let there be no doubt: taking care of the environment has become humanity’s greatest ever challenge.

For so long, being an environmentalist or a conservationist was seen as an undertaking by those involved in the natural sciences, or for the fortunate few and the adventurous types that roamed wild places.

But we now know, through decades of vigorous research and sound science, that our planetary boundaries are unravelling, being pushed to the very edge by indiscriminate and unsustainable consumption and waste production levels. And this behaviour is being aided and abetted by rotten leadership and criminal disregard, including in some of the most prominent countries around the world. In addition, these stresses are firing divisions within the social and cultural fabric of communities and nations in a way that stokes human disharmony and all manner of conflict.

Every single citizen of the world, to a greater or lesser degree, is part of the problem, and as the destruction and tensions mount, every single one of us will increasingly be impacted in some way.

Because of this, we are obligated to get involved, not to tinker or meekly adjust current paradigms in ways that suit our convenience, but to get out there and seek courageous ways that completely transform our living patterns and societies. I urge everyone to do so in whatever way they can. Doing nothing is simply not an option.

We can all make a difference

The one over-riding message from all of the inspiring voices on our list was that it is possible for one individual to have a significant impact. While it may be easier to pretend that one person can’t make change, these voices - and so many others - are evidence that we can. Greta Thunberg is sixteen years old, and look what she’s done already.

Nonhlanhla Joye, Social Entrepreneur

We cannot recover the natural  resources we have lost through greed, nor undo the pollution  accumulated over the years. However we can stop irresponsible behaviors that contribute to further damage to our environment and the planet. I know being the change I want to see starts with me.

Ian McCallum, Writer

Bound by a common language of DNA, you and I are living museums of the entire history of life on earth. If this is so, then think about it … there’s no such thing as human nature. There is only Nature and the uniquely human way of expressing it. What a privilege. What a responsibility.

Hayley McLellan, Environmental Campaigner

Everyone needs to be a voice for the environment. It can no longer be expected of a select few to fly this flag, take action and create positive results for the masses. Nothing will ever change in this manner. Keeping quiet about environmental issues is tantamount to condoning the status quo. Activism is the price we pay for living on this planet and it’s a very satisfying and empowering price to pay!

Kelvin Trautman, Photographer

There are many ways to help the environment. Yet not many people do anything. Why? The problem is often the overwhelming feeling we get when constantly bombarded with doom and gloom stories of the state of our natural world. We come away thinking, “what difference is little old me going to make?”. 

Arguably, we have been taught to adopt this mindset. But evil always wins when we do nothing. I have found it really hard not to be pessimistic and thus apathetic about what I can do to help the environment, but we need to take more action, because action is contagious. You can start at home, at work, in your neighbourhood, with friends and family. Then, it’s about putting pressure on business and government to take action. 

We live in a time when each of us has wild amounts of leverage, and we should use it more to make positive change, especially for the natural world. 

What does action look like in my world as a storyteller and artist? The more time I spend behind a camera, the more I appreciate what a powerful medium we as photographers and filmmakers have to connect, educate, and inspire people. I feel fortunate to have this tool for change at my fingertips, but I think we all have the gift and means to affect positive change.  

For a long time I have documented extreme sport athletes and explorers who use their athletic feats to showcase what it means to not only push physical boundaries and conquer world firsts, but also to use their voices to campaign for the environment. During this time I have come to appreciate what drives this willingness to inspire change, and it’s courage. Courage in this sense is not confined to battlefields and extreme sporting feats, but more to what it takes to stand against the status quo, squash biases and to take responsibility.

It takes courage to act. Let’s all be more courageous.

Chad Robertson, Recycling Evangelist

A mentor of mine once said, “I’m going to slap the next person who says they want to save the planet.” His reasoning was that we need to save ourselves, not the planet, as the planet will take care of itself and eventually wipe us off the face of the planet if we keep on destroying it.

The good news is that it’s not difficult to make a sustainable change: in fact we simply have to re-educate ourselves and be disciplined to get into the habit.

It all starts with refusing all single-use items such as straws, plastic cutlery, plastic shopping bags, plastic bottles or coffee cups. Ensure you have your reusable items with you at all times. When you’re not in a position to refuse and reuse, ensure that the packaging of the product you purchase is recyclable, in South Africa. No access to a recycling service? Or a nearby drop off? Don’t stress, most communities are fortunate to have Waste Pickers or Reclaimers (not vagrants) who are responsible for collecting up to 90% of the paper and packaging waste we recycle as a country. Simply put your recyclables aside for them and the chances are high that they’ll get it recycled.

You don’t have to be a zero-waste expert to make a change. Start small, but start.

Kia Johnson, WWFSA Ambassador

There are days when I'm just overwhelmed by it all: the warnings, the messages, the fight. I keep coming back to these few words: “how did we get here?”

 This is my driving force each day. I feel that we have allowed ourselves to believe we are “smaller than”, “inferior to” and oh those famous words, “but what can I do?” So much. If each person on this planet opens up their eyes and changes the way they eat and live, we who are the “smaller than” can have the biggest impact on creating positive change. If we were all to stand together, we would be able to change what has happened and really care for our earth.

The rules that have been put in place many years ago are not working. The way we are living is not working. The way we consume is not working. This is a crisis.

 We do not have to be greedy, we do not have to consume on this level, and we will not have an earth if we continue to do so. Your little bit that you can do as one person or as a family can do so much to ensure that we all live and thrive on this beautiful planet for many eons to come. But it’s up to us!

The time is now

We may have had some time to deliberate and think about our impact on the environment a few years ago (in retrospect, we did not). But there is absolutely no time to waste now. Our children have told us to stand up and fight for their future: too much time has already passed without enough environmental action.

Lewis Pugh, Ocean Advocate

Protecting the environment is the defining issue of our generation.

Jackie King, Aquatic Ecologist

Our planet is in trouble. The natural systems that support everything we have and do are degrading to an ever increasing rate. We have to put the brakes on. We have to move from a mindset of entitlement and exploitation to one of respect and caring management. Our future depends on it.

Andrew Muir, Conservationist

We need to realise as humans that we are part of all life on earth: the million species that are at risk of extinction are on our watch and part of our support system. We need to speak and act as a collective to address this crisis.

Ndivile Mokoena, Policy Influencer

Climate change is a big threat and danger to our environment. It is also a hindrance to development globally, especially in Africa. Therefore I urge and plead with everyone in South Africa in every sector to join and add to the voices of the world to step up for climate action: global warming is a ticking bomb. 

Climate change is not only an environmental issue, but a social, justice, economic, political, governance, equality, developmental, sustainability and religious challenge too!

Michele Pickover, Animal Rights Campaigner

We are facing an extinction crisis. If humans do not urgently recognise the commonalities and interrelatedness of oppression and if we do not move towards inclusive justice, compassion and ethical conservation, we face a bleak future as a species. So: never give up, speak up and change the world.

Ian Little, Conservationist

Whether we like it or not, humans are going to be more closely associated with natural systems over the next decade, and exponentially more so in future generations. 

Up until now, people have developed the earth and plundered its resources without any real consequence, but this is no longer the case. A small proportion of society appreciates nature, natural systems, wildlife and wild places for their intrinsic value. Going forward, all people are going to need to learn to appreciate intact natural systems and the species they support because we are going to increasingly realise that it is the basic resources that these systems provide that support us humans as well. 

We are seeing a gradual but marked shift in people’s mindset towards consumption, but governments are still driving and enabling the plundering of our natural resources and wilderness areas. As civil society, we need to stand together to not only stop using plastic straws and eating less red meat, but to be aware of the development agenda of our government and what is happening outside of our cities to the land that is our life-blood and our heritage. 

We need to think about the decisions being made about land tenure and landscape planning looking into the long-term future (hundreds of years) and lobby to stop the incredibly selfish decisions being made by government officials who think only in political terms of five year cycles. 

We are a nation defined by the beauty and splendour of our natural heritage and we should take pride in not only being quintessentially African but also being one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. It is ours to cherish and ours to keep, if indeed we can all stand together to keep it in one piece.

Meeting the challenges head on

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scope of the environmental problems we are facing. The rate of extinction, the rapidly dwindling forests and water supplies. But it is only by facing these challenges head on - by actively searching for just, sustainable solutions that we can move forward.

Peoples power 20 Sept (1).jpg

Zarina Patel, Researcher

Environmental challenges are real and complex. Finding solutions that are just requires more than science: they require new lines of questioning, and different knowledge configurations. Action is the responsibility of everyone in society.

Justin Bonello, Urban Farmer

We can no longer talk about creating a sustainable environment. Sustainable implies maintaining the status quo, and it’s far too late for us to maintain our current trajectory. 

We now need to start acting on creating regenerative environments for all, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds, with a special focus on that human created biome: the cities of the world.

Alia Kajee, Climate Activist

Power lies with people, and restorative justice for the environment cannot forgo centering the dignity and agency of those burdened with environmental injustices. 

Ferrial Adam, Environmental Justice Activist

It is important not to look at the environment as a separate issue from the challenges facing society. We cannot have environmental justice without social justice! 

Neoka Naidoo, Policy Influencer

Solutions that are devoid of people and our behaviour will only exacerbate the global environmental crisis. We need creative, systemic and systematic thinking to address the complex issues we are facing. This requires empathy, partnerships and introspection.

Courtney Morgan, Eco-feminist

The environment is not just trees and rivers. We are part of the environment, it is the interconnectedness that allows for life to be sustained. To truly fight for the environment, means to fight against all forms of exploitation and to fight for the survival of all life, human and non human. We must call for justice, for people and for nature. We must fight to put people and the planet above profit. 

Practical tips to help the environment

So what can you do? How can you start making a difference? Here are some practical suggestions that are simple enough to begin today, profound enough to have an impact.


Karoline Hanks, Social Entrepreneur

Become more conscious as a consumer and adopt the 5 Rs in all areas of life: Refuse, Reduce, Rot, Reuse – and as a last resort, Recycle. Think carefully about all your choices as you move through the day (from what you eat and drink to how you shop, etc).

Know that every choice you make has a consequence down the line… Your convenience is most probably inconveniencing a wild creature or habitat down the line. Start connecting the dots and be curious about your choices: try to live lightly.

Ian Dommisse, Social Entrepreneur

In order to have sustaining impact in a developing nation such as ours, it's crucial to empower individuals to have valuable 'green skills' so that they may find income opportunities whilst maintaining the eco-friendly lifestyle habits within their communities.

Rhian Berning, Environmental Activist

We are nature. Everything is interconnected on our living planet: what we do to nature, what we do to our neighbour, we ultimately do to ourselves. 

Each one of us can make a positive difference every single day and together we can create a world where the wellbeing of people and planet is prioritised. We just need to make conscious and informed choices about where we shop, how we run our home, who we support and how we connect and interact. 

All our small acts added together create a groundswell of change for a regenerative, healthy and thriving world. Here are some ways to take action, starting today.

Audrey Delsink, Wildlife Protector

I believe that each one of us is capable of tremendous change and positive impact to the environment around us. We often become overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable environmental challenges that we are living in, and think there is no way that we can do anything to turn the tide. But we can. 

Each one of us can make and inspire change and protect the environment by the choices that we make as consumers and within our homes. Strive to live more sustainably and responsibly by reducing, reusing and recycling, planting indigenous trees and butterfly and bee-friendly gardens, avoiding single use plastics, being water-wise and saying no to activities and interactions that exploit animals such as lion cub petting or elephant back safaris.

Only support initiatives that have a direct and measurable in-situ conservation benefit. In the words of John Wooden: “Little things make big things happen”. It starts with each one of us.

Aaniyah Omardien, Conservationist

Every second breath we take is possible because of a healthy ocean. We depend on a healthy marine environment for so many things, as do all the creatures, plant life and organisms that live in them. It is in our interests to protect this environment, particularly in the face of the climate crisis. 

The Beach Co-op’s dream is for South Africa to have a highly efficient solid waste management system that collects, sorts, reuses where possible, and recycles or composts all waste. Nothing should go to landfill. We want a full circular economy model for all manufactured products.  

Catherine Morris, Eco-entrepreneur

We want to create a waste-free and sustainable world. Nature shows us that the best way to do this is with renewable materials that can break down after use. That's why all GREEN HOME’s packaging is plant-based, renewable and biodegradable. We believe short term products should only last a short time, and be able to re-enter the natural cycle. We're proud to be South Africa's first fully compostable food packaging company.

Michelle Henley, Conservationist

We have recently seen the second upsurge of elephant poaching sweep across Africa. A comprehensive scientific assessment of the situation estimated 144 000 elephants killed for their tusks in the space of seven years. The southern African states now bear the bulk of the continental population due to excessive killings in Central and East Africa which is now moving to the Southern States. Sadly, while elephants bear tusks, they will remain vulnerable and in need of protection from human greed.  

Elephants are keystone species so some ecological processes are dependent on their presence. They are also umbrella species so if you protect elephants, you automatically protect a whole lot of smaller animals and plants that share their landscape space. Elephants are constant gardeners. They change the vegetation structure and prune trees, thereby lowering the canopy so other browsers can access the food and even changing the chemical composition of the browse leading to a more rich nutrient diet depending on the species and level of elephant impact. 

Elephants are pathfinders and makers, carving routes across the landscape which they dot with their 150kg of dung per day, ensuring that nutrients are spread against the gradient and seeds are deposited in a rich organic mulch for enhanced germination. Elephants make their landscape and should be viewed as integral parts of the last great wilderness areas left on this planet. 

These giants in our midst are scared of bees and this has been used to keep them out of crops and to protect Marula trees to foster peaceful co-existence between elephants and people. Despite their size, they have proved themselves to be sentient and empathetic beings. They mourn their dead and have passed the self-recognition mirror test. Elephants adore their young and revere their old male mentors and matriarchs. At so many levels we can view elephants as moral compasses.

What can you do to help elephants?

If you’re a tourist to elephant country, delight in the grandeur and splendour which is elephants. As observers, we can respectfully enter their world by turning our own volume down and tuning into theirs. It remains inspiring to hear the 'let's go rumble' of a matriarch or the playful trumpet of a calf. We can slow our vehicles in their presence so as not to cause additional stress and we can give them their space to live out their lives. 

We can begin to realise the value of elephants at a deeper level. They ask us to share our resources in exchange for their ecological services to the benefit of the places they occupy. They show us how to link conservation areas across international borders. They call us to action to protect them beyond the sad and lifeless value of their tusks or hides. 

Elephants, with their close-knit social ties are our moral leaders in a world where we leave more and more people to die of loneliness and isolation. They teach us how to work with other species with more tolerance for the benefit of all that are connected in the web of life. If we fail to succeed in the protection of elephants, there is very little hope left for any other less charismatic species. 

Elephants are wilderness agents and are the very symbols of what we strive to protect and crave as life moves at a faster pace. Their existence calls for the preservation of the few remaining wilderness sanatoriums which transcend space and time.

Please share any of these statements that resonate with you, and help raise the ecological intelligence of your social media community. If you have a message to share, please write it in the comments below. Let’s all learn together!

- BM