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Die Student
Greta Thunberg will make no difference in SA
Emily O'Ryan
Emily O'Ryan

Some great things have come out of Sweden: the three-point seatbelt, Shazam, Skype and humans of immense influence from ABBA to Avicci. In 2019, the world has given listening ears to another one of Sweden’s global gifts: Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg is a 16-year-old plaited protestor from Sweden who is receiving exponential amounts of global attention. She professes a torrent of truly depressing facts about climate change and the destruction of our natural world.

In 2019, the world has given listening ears to another one of Sweden’s global gifts: Greta Thunberg.

Recently, I began writing a piece about “what young South Africans can learn from Greta Thunberg”. For a few seconds, my fingers sped across the keyboard to determine the lessons young South Africans can learn from Thunberg.

I quickly realised I was guilty of doing something many South Africans do: we are too quick to aspire to the global north before unpacking what it means to deal with issues as South Africans.

We temporarily forget that South Africa as a country has its own complicated context – we are not Sweden or America. It is not always in our best interests to ‘right-click copy; right-click paste’ approaches towards colossal issues from the global north and implant them to the global south.

The “crisis of the 6th mass extinction” affects us all as humans, whether a developed or developing nation.

The “crisis of the 6th mass extinction” affects us all as humans, whether a developed or developing nation. If we are to achieve sustainable development, however, our approaches to worldwide climate issues require the lens of our African context.

The practical approach

Let’s make this practical: Greta has altered her ‘developed-nation lifestyle’ to reduce emissions. When travelling, Greta and her family no longer commute by plane (consider the implications of this for her mother, a touring opera singer).

In terms of consumption, Greta is part of the Shopstop Movement. This means she does not purchase anything new from shops unless absolutely essential. The clothing Greta wears, for example, is all donations or borrowed items from her family members.

Another noteworthy lifestyle decision of Greta’s is that over a year ago, she decided to skip school every Friday to commute (often by herself) to protest at the Swedish Parliament. Perhaps the most unsurprising of all her habits – Greta is a vegan for “ethical and environmental reasons”.

Let’s contrast these decisions taken by a Swede with the reality of the average South African. The developed versus developing country contexts become clear. To boycott aeroplane trips, for example, one must have the opportunity to commute via plane in the first place. In 2015, there were 30,4 million South Africans living in poverty according to Oxfam.

In 2015, there were 30,4 million South Africans living in poverty according to Oxfam.

This makes it likely that there are at least 30,4 million South Africans who have never considered stepping onto an aeroplane, purely because of living circumstances. Furthermore, to stop unnecessary shopping (as per the ‘shopstop’ movement), one needs to be able to shop at convenience in the first place.

In 2017, StatsSA reported that 20% of South African households were unable to meet their basic needs, as a result of inadequate access to food. In terms of food consumption, consider what it means to ask a South African earning minimum wage to buy vegan food when many cannot afford to buy food in the first place.

Though access to schooling is a human right, choosing to skip school is a privilege in South Africa. It implies one has the option to attend school in the first place and the subsequent ability to forfeit classroom learning.

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So then – what could we as South Africans be doing to deal with climate change? This requires careful, yet immediate consideration of one’s lifestyle before making context-appropriate and lifestyle altering decisions.

I have created some principles for myself regarding consumption. When buying clothing, gifts and food – buy what is local. This is not only environmentally conscious, but also bolsters local business. I am often intrigued by consumers who drive past opportunistic street entrepreneurs or small stalls of fresh fruit, veg and flowers – only to buy third grade or genetically modified produce from grocery stores with too much air conditioning and fluorescent lighting.

What South Africans can do

Driving to the same event? Lift clubs to school and events are so important – for the environment, your bank account and social connection.

South Africa is larger than we think. Use your holiday time to see (South) Africa too.

What would be the effect if we committed washing re-usable packaging instead of buying plastic containers?

These are examples of what we can do while the government sorts out social and political issues that are inseparable from environmental concerns. At national government level, the ‘Greta Effect’ should cause politicians to make environmental considerations and effect change when approaching issues such as employment, land redistribution and food insecurity.

When Greta Thunberg’s name is no longer ‘trending’, we will be left with the same issues on the southernmost tip of Africa. This is why we must integrate our governance and social justice issues with our climate and sustainability issues.

When Greta Thunberg’s name is no longer ‘trending’, we will be left with the same issues on the southernmost tip of Africa.

We may debate whether Greta Thunberg is deserving of the attention she is receiving or if she should “leave the adults to it and get back to school”. We may also debate whether climate change is a threatening global disaster or merely part of the process of Mother Nature correcting itself.

Whether we acknowledge Greta or the climate crisis – what we can learn is to apply the African context to global issues. This borderless issue needs a bordered perspective.

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