“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own — indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder”- Wangari Maathai
Earth Day was born out of collective action on 22 April 1970; groups that had been “fighting individually against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife” in the United States of America came together to protest against the damaging legacy of unsustainable industrial development which gravely affected the health of people and the planet. The ethos of these protests has spread worldwide as young and old people are demanding their governments to take action against the increasing environmental degradation and human-driven impacts of global warming.
The 2021 theme for Earth Day is “Restoring our Earth”. It is a global call for everyone- world leaders, innovators, activists, investors, and citizens to take stronger climate action. Action which focuses on natural processes and emerging green technologies that can restore the world’s ecosystems. This theme comes at a critical juncture. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the fragile relationship between humans and ecosystems. Biodiversity loss is quickly becoming a leading driver of emerging infectious diseases and has the potential to disrupt all activities shaping the reproductive and productive economies of our society.
A 2021 report produced by UN World Meteorological Organisation states that 2020 was one of the three warmest years on record. As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, the severe impacts of climate change continued. Extreme weather patterns such as flooding in “Sudan and Kenya resulted in 285 deaths reported in Kenya while 155 deaths and over 800 000 people affected in Sudan”. In China, persistent rainfall during the June-August period, “saw the Three Gorges Dam face its largest flood peak since its construction, reaching 75 000 m3”.
In January 2020, the world watched in awe as fires spread across vast tracts of land in Australia. The World Wildlife Fund states that 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds, and 51 million frogs were killed and displaced during the Australian bushfires. We are experiencing unimaginable loss of human and animal life, climate change-induced migration, and environmental degradation.
As a society, we’re finally at the point where we realise that the impacts and responsibility of climate change are felt differently across and within countries. A report from World Resources Institute outlines that, China, the European Union, and the United States — contribute 41.5% of total global emissions.
Unfortunately, developing countries are disproportionately burdened with climate impacts as countries like Botswana face climate change-induced drought, which negatively impacts agricultural production and increases food insecurity. Small island developing states face existential crises as rising sea levels have contributed to the loss of low-lying Pacific islands along with severe erosion. Not only are people’s homes vanishing but rapid changes in the oceanic conditions have seen declines in fisheries across the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and South China Seas region (Thomas, Martyr-Koller & Pringle, 2020).
Within countries, the inequalities shaping climate change cut across several socio-economic markers. Sultan (2018:22) argues that “systemic inequities and gender biases in land ownership, inheritance rights, access to resources, and social norms of participation in natural resources management will be exacerbated with worsening ecological change from climate change.” In this vein, we realise that the collapse of ecosystems and natural disasters will always impact some groups more than others.
For example, Cyclone Idai in March 2019 affected three Southern African countries: Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. Chatiza (2019:7) states that Cyclone Idai impacted 270 000 people in Zimbabwe; 51 000 people were displaced and 340 died. In addition to the loss of human life, displacement, and destruction of water infrastructure and schools; women and girls met challenges of unsafe shelters and engagement in transactional sex as coping mechanisms in the post-disaster environment. (Chatiza, 2019:13). The gendered experience of Cyclone Idai reveals one of many instances where existing gender inequalities are worsened by climate disasters.
This daunting picture of inequality, extreme weather, health, and environmental challenges requires that as a society, we need to take serious and urgent climate action towards restoring our earth.
What does restoration look like to me?
It means changing our relationship with the planet. Humans interaction with the earth is highly extractive! Current construction, agricultural, industrial, and energy production practices do not foster a spirit of sustainability OR ecological protection.
Our governments need to rethink their paths to economic development. Fossil fuel-based energy has been a driver of economic development and growth over the past 200 years. Vinod Thomas argues that the “single biggest step the big carbon-emitting countries could take is to cut their fossil fuel combustion. Eliminating all subsidies to fossil fuel production and consumption is a part of this agenda”.
The reduction of fossil fuels gives rise to cleaner and more affordable forms of energy production such as solar and wind. But governments must strengthen enabling environments for the use of renewable energy. Currently, renewables made up 26.2 percent of global electricity generation in 2018. The consumption of renewable energy-driven electricity generation is expected to increase up to 45 percent by 2040. Most of the increase will likely come from solar, wind, and hydropower. In order for such projections to materialise, all governments should create subsidies for renewable energy production and consumption.
Through nature-based solutions like protecting and growing forests and wetlands, communities can protect themselves against climate disasters. In Harare, Zimbabwe, we face the destruction of our wetlands through urban cultivation and construction. The consequences of these actions result in heavy flooding and destruction of at least 10 000 homes in the country as seen during the 2020–2021 rain season. The restoration of wetlands ensures the filtering and absorption of floodwater, which keeps everyone safe. Stronger preservation of wetlands includes lobbying state authorities to take putative actions against those destroying wetlands for financial gain.
Restoring the earth includes climate and environmental literacy being incorporated in the school curriculum. Through compulsory, assessed climate and environmental education, we empower students with the knowledge to understand the influence of the climate and environment on themselves and their community. As students gain knowledge about climate literacy, they can share this information with their communities and families. But climate and environmental curriculum must unpack the relationship between climate change and socio-economic inequalities. It must unequivocally state the effects of climate change are gendered, racialized and place people with disabilities in vulnerable positions.
Better yet, we can create CLIMATE and ENVIROMENTAL knowledge hubs that allow citizens to share their experiences and solutions to ongoing environmental challenges in our communities. A 2021 Afrobarometer study revealed that 67 percent of Africans across 32 countries held that climate change is negatively impacting the quality of life and agriculture production. Our families and communities are aware of the impacts of climate change but we need communal spaces that allow us to collectively imagine new environmental and climatic possibilities.
As an Afro-feminist researcher specialising in Water and Health rights’, one of my major points of frustration is the alienating language used in government policy and research papers about climate change. Climate and environmental knowledge hubs allow us to translate technical jargon into everyday situations. Such collaborative spaces give citizens the power to effectively engage in state policies guiding their national state responses to climate. We can call for greater accountability and quicker climate action from state and business actors.
Restoring the earth looks like changing our daily habits. Human activity is one of the key drivers of climate change. We can change the course for our future. It includes not littering our communities. Let’s replace our plastic water bottles and coffee cups with reusable drinking containers. In urban areas facing poor waste management such as Harare, residents could separate their rubbish- use kitchen waste compose for your gardens. There are an increasing number of individuals and organizations who collect plastic, tin, and paper waste from households. We don’t need to burn our uncollected municipal trash. Restoring the earth includes ethically consuming food products.
Each day, we have the opportunity to restore our earth. Let’s rise to the occasion and protect the earth for generations to come. As Wangari Maathai said we need to shift in our thinking so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system!