/ 6 January 2024

Navigating environmental responsibility in the Global South

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In a world increasingly conscious of its ecological footprint, the intricate web of environmentalism, class struggle and education often remains obscured. Jason Hickel’s tweet, “Environmentalism without class struggle is using paper straws while the rich take 9-minute flights in their private jets,” serves as a poignant catalyst for reflecting on the stark disparities between global environmental responsibility and its impact on learners in the Global South.

A Global Imbalance

As a postgrad candidate in environmental and geographical science at the University of Cape Town, a registered Candidate Environmental Assessment Practitioner (EAPASA), and most importantly as a geography teacher in South Africa, my daily interactions with students unveil a paradox — those who contribute minimally to environmental problems find themselves shouldering a disproportionate burden. 

While the affluent can make sustainable choices, our learners navigate a landscape of environmental challenges that extend far beyond their making.

In dissecting this imbalance, it becomes evident that environmental concerns are not equal-opportunity burdens. The consequences of climate change, resource depletion and pollution are not felt uniformly across the globe. Instead, they cascade down, affecting regions with lesser historical contributions more acutely.

Education Under Strain

The crux of this issue penetrates the realm of education. How do we teach learners in the Global South to embrace their environmental responsibilities when they grapple with the consequences of actions in which they had little agency?

In South Africa, and in similar regions, environmental issues are not abstract concepts discussed in classrooms; they are tangible, daily challenges. Students witness the repercussions in their communities — erratic weather patterns, resource scarcity and ecological shifts. 

The environment, a topic often confined to textbooks, becomes a lived reality that shapes their educational journey.

The Local Impact of Global Decisions

This piece transcends the symbolic gestures of environmental consciousness, like the use of paper straws, to examine how global decisions reverberate locally. The focus shifts from the individual choices of the privileged to the collective experiences of those disproportionately affected.

Consider the carbon footprint of a nine-minute private jet flight, a luxury accessible only to a select few. The emissions from such extravagance contribute significantly to the global environmental crisis. Yet, the repercussions are felt most intensely by communities in the Global South, where the effects of climate change disrupt lives and livelihoods.

Acknowledging these disparities is essential for fostering a more equitable environmental discourse. This platform stands as a crucial avenue for amplifying this perspective. By shining a light on the silent struggles faced by learners in the Global South, I urge a reevaluation of the current narrative on environmentalism.

The global conversation on environmental responsibility must evolve beyond surface-level changes and embrace a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness between class struggle, education and ecological well-being.

In contributing to this dialogue, I aim to spark not only awareness but also tangible shifts in how we approach environmental challenges. It is a call for inclusivity in environmentalism — an invitation to consider the nuanced ways in which different communities experience and respond to our shared planetary crisis.

A Call for Holistic Environmentalism

Environmentalism cannot be divorced from its social and economic contexts. The discrepancy in how environmental burdens are distributed globally demands a shift in our approach. It calls for a more holistic environmentalism that recognises the interconnected nature of class struggle and education.

In the Global South, our students are not just recipients of environmental lessons; they are active participants in a complex ecosystem where daily realities intertwine with broader ecological challenges. As educators, we face the responsibility of navigating this terrain, guiding our learners through the complexities of environmental stewardship while acknowledging the systemic inequalities at play.

To address this issue effectively, education must evolve to equip learners with the tools to navigate their environmental responsibilities in a world shaped by global decisions. It requires a curriculum that not only imparts knowledge but also cultivates critical thinking and a sense of agency.

Learners in the Global South should not be passive recipients of environmental information but active contributors to solutions. By fostering a deep understanding of the interconnectedness between local actions and global consequences, we empower our students to engage in meaningful environmental advocacy.

Towards Inclusive Solutions

The narrative surrounding environmentalism often revolves around individual choices, such as reducing personal carbon footprints or adopting sustainable lifestyles. While these actions are essential, they must be complemented by a broader societal shift. True environmental justice demands inclusive solutions that address the root causes of environmental disparities.

This is not a call to abandon individual responsibility but an insistence on recognising the collective responsibility of communities, industries and nations. The Global North, with its historical contributions to environmental degradation, must actively engage in supporting initiatives that alleviate the burdens shouldered by the Global South.

A Shared Responsibility

As we navigate the complexities of environmental responsibility, let us move beyond superficial discussions and embrace a more nuanced understanding. This platform serves as a beacon for this transformative dialogue.

In acknowledging the unequal distribution of environmental burdens, we pave the way for a more just and inclusive approach to environmentalism. This is not just a South African issue — it is a global imperative. Our collective responsibility extends beyond borders, demanding a united effort to address the environmental challenges that affect us all.

By fostering a dialogue that intertwines environmentalism, class struggle and education, we pave the way for a more sustainable and equitable future. Through shared understanding and collaborative action, we can navigate the intricate web of environmental responsibility and build a world where the burden is borne collectively, irrespective of geographical borders.

Iviwe Mtubu, Geography and Mathematical Literacy teacher at Westerford High School, instructs grades 8 to 12. He earned his qualifications from the University of Cape Town in science and humanities, focusing on environmental and geographical science and education. A Jakes Gerwel Fellow, he was recognised in 2021 among the Mail and Guardian’s top 200 Young South Africans in Education. Iviwe is also a Registered Candidate Environmental Assessment Practitioner (SA) with EAPASA.