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Earth at the crossroads: lessons for civilization from two African countries

Updated: Feb 6


This reflection was just published in January 2023 in The Ecological Citizen by Phoebe, CEO of Stable Planet Alliance and professor of conservation biology and environmental futures at University of Washington. See the original article here, with citation Barnard P (2023) Earth at the crossroads. The Ecological Citizen 6(2): epub-086.

Keywords: civilization; national development; collaborative planning; overshoot; Namibia; South Africa; biodiversity; climate emergency; apartheid; colonialism; independence.

Our species, despite its cleverness, is proving grimly resistant to wisdom. The rise and fall of civilizations over millennia give us much to learn from. Do we learn? Will we learn? We should see the eight-billion-people milestone in 2022 for what it is: a red flag for humanity.

Our appetites, and our numbers, underlie virtually every societal and planetary pressure and crisis we face. So we need short, medium and long-term strategies to turn our trajectory around, to keep humanity and our exquisitely diverse, beleaguered planet from the brink. As a medium-term strategy, this milestone should trigger a global grand-challenge moonshot focus: a multi-pronged process of tapering off our numbers and our appetites to a point where humanity can live in balance with ecosystems and with itself.

But how do we get from here to there? My personal reflection on many years in environmental and development planning, in two African nations at historical crossroads, suggests that as those nations did, we can and must hold explicit, open, honest society-wide dialogues – both formal and informal – on the purpose and values of a new economy, society and politics.

Namibia and South Africa

As a young scientist and policy strategist, I was privileged to be embraced by two countries, Namibia and South Africa, where I lived and worked for 34 years in government and academia. Without realizing it, I had found two nations which might teach the rest of humanity about negotiating major crossroads. Those two countries were at pivotal points in their histories. They could ask two crucial questions: “What kind of a society do we want to be from here? And how should we get there?”