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Environmental concerns are not just for the privileged

A tweet by a radio personality on ocean pollution caused a social media uproar, which according to Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya, diverts attention away from the need to pay greater attention to the impact of our consumption habits on the environment.

A social media uproar emerged recently after Radio 702 breakfast show host Bongani Bingwa posted a tweet about how his 10-year-old daughter confronted a restaurant owner over the use of single-use plastic straws.

Many of those who took offense, singled out the term “confront” when engaging the manager. Some thought Bingwa was bragging about his (and her) privilege when he mentioned that she “pulled out her iPad…”

Others argued that doing away with single-use plastic straws alone would not do much for the environment because other plastics contributed more to ocean pollution.

Tashas later replied to the tweet saying: “We have been using biodegradable straws since February of 2018 at all Tashas in South Africa. Sincere apologies that the manager was unable to respond accordingly. Like your daughter, we also care about the turtles – and our oceans!”

The impact of plastic straws

The UN Environment Agency notes that, although straws currently represent 0,025 of the total volume of marine litter of up to 13 million tons annually, they can take more than 100 years to degrade in the water. In the United States alone, about 500 million straws are used each day. For this reason an increasing number of countries have banned single-use plastic straws.

While one must not make light of race and class issues in South Africa, it is critical that we do not create a false hierarchy in which care of the environment, race-relations and class issues compete with other for importance.

The environment … should be one of the urgent issues of our time.

A defeatist attitude that dismisses the impact of a small intervention to protect the environment simply because there are actions that are far more harmful to the planet is also not helpful.

The environment, particularly its care, should be one of the urgent issues of our time – along with racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and any other injustices in the world.

God holds us all accountable

Since nature cannot speak for herself, it requires us to speak on her behalf. For Christians, caring for nature is a moral duty. The instruction that man should have “dominion over all of creation” (Gen 1:26-28) should always be read from the perspective, not of domination, but of responsible custodianship.

Furthermore, it is useful for Christians to remember that the covenant God made with Noah after the flood was not exclusive to Noah’s generation.

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come” (Genesis 9:12). God promised to never again destroy the earth. But each covenant is a two-way relationship. In return, God says that “I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being” (Genesis 9:4). God has given us the earth and its resources for our benefit, but we must use them judiciously.  

“I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being.”

(Genesis 9:4)

The same covenant applies to animals today, as Bingwa’s daughter expressed at the restaurant.

Children have the power to make a positive change

Children have always been a critical influence in the home. Advertisers get that. They even have a name for advertising campaigns that target children: pester power. As the name implies, pester power is a technique used to ensure that children pester their parents until they relent and buy the product advertised.

It is therefore important that children are made aware of environmental challenges – along with other social issues – so that they might pester their parents to make a positive change.

Environmental campaigns, together with young activists such as Greta Thunberg, are needed now, more than ever, as we watch the alarming rate at which the planet’s resources are being depleted and how the devastation of the natural environment is fast becoming irreversible.

We need children like Bingwa’s daughter to tell us that we must change our consumption habits – no matter how small – and to remind us that the environment is not an issue of the privileged upper classes. It affects us all. Rich or poor, black or white, this planet is the only one we have. What world do we leave our children?

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.