In the 1950s, economist Simon Kuznets proposed a theory on inequality and development that has since been applied to environmentalism. The famous curve consists of an inverted U with economic development on the x-axis and environmental degradation on the y-axis (Agarwal). The “environmental Kuznets curve” is the basis of ecological modernization theory, which predicts that contemporary industrial societies can simultaneously improve the environment and the economy (Mol & Sonnenfeld). This theory ignores the environmentalism of Global South countries, notably those in Africa: it implies that countries on the left side of the graph are as yet too poor to care about the environment.
The “Northern” environmental paradigm developed as being against something (e.g. resource overexploitation). We must reconceive of this idea, because it implies that environmentalism didn’t exist until there were threats against the natural world. This “nature-culture divide” arises from Enlightenment thought and discounts the fact that the two are inextricably linked (“Nature and Culture”).
African environmentalism clearly exists outside of the context of “Northern environmentalism”, and, importantly, has elements as diverse and varied as the many cultures of Africa itself (Lawhon). Take, for example, Effat Naghi’s artistic depiction of the Aswan Dam, which emphasizes the loss of humanity and the project’s precarious nature (Qassemi); or the Zambian musician Maureen Lupo Lilanda, whose songs incorporate themes of conservation and climate change (Gibbens); or the numerous direct action and policy initiatives advocating environmental protection for both cultural and ecological reasons (Atieno, Bassey, “Defender of the sacred sites”, e.g.).
We must redefine development and environmentalism and acknowledge, as author Wangui Kamonji puts it, “African environmentalism is there and has been there. It is varied across space…It has taken diverse forms through the decades and centuries.” (Kamonji).
(It is important to note that idea that Africans are closer to nature derives from a historically racist paradigm that posits them as less civilized (“The ape insult: a short history of a racist idea”). The idea is to acknowledge that no matter the context, nature and culture are linked – this applies to any culture.)
Agarwal, Prateek. “The Environmental Kuznets Curve.” Intelligent Economist (1 March 2018), https://www.intelligenteconomist.com/kuznets-curve/.
Atieno, Winnie. “Environmental activist Phyllis Omido fights for Owino Uhuru residents over lead poisoning.” Daily Nation (5 May 2015), https://www.nation.co.ke/counties/mombasa/Owino-Uhuru-lead-poisoning-activist-to-court/1954178-2706768-format-xhtml-y6053z/index.html.
Bassey, Nnimmo. “They didn’t die in vain – Ken Saro-Wiwa and Nigeria’s Ogoni 8.” Global Greengrants Fund (10 November 2015), https://www.greengrants.org/2015/11/10/ken-saro-wiwa-legacy/.
“Defender of the sacred sites.” Mail & Guardian: Africa’s Best Read (11 March 2011), https://mg.co.za/article/2011-03-11-defender-of-the-sacred-sites/
Gibbens, Sarah. “African musicians use song to protest a world marred by climate change.” National Geographic (10 January 2019), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/01/conservation-music-spreads-environmental-message-africa/#close.
Kamonji, Wangui. “A picture isn’t complete without nature – Africans in their environments.” Transition Network (14 December 2018), https://transitionnetwork.org/news-and-blog/picture-isnt-complete-without-nature-africans-environments/.
Lawhon, Mary. “Situated, Networked Environmentalisms: A Case for Environmental Theory from the South.” Geography Compass 7(2): 128-138 (2013), doi: 10.1111/gec3.12027.
Mol, Arthur P. J. and Sonnenfeld, David A. “Ecological Modernization Around the World: An Introduction.” Environmental Politics 9(1): Spring 2000. https://www.esf.edu/es/sonnenfeld/ecomod_intro.htm.
“Nature and Culture.” University College London Department of Anthropology Leskernick Project (no date), https://www.ucl.ac.uk/leskernick/articles/clitter/text/cl-txt07.html.
Qassemi, Sooud Al. “The Politics of Egyptian Fine Art.” The Century Foundation (16 May 2017), https://tcf.org/content/report/politics-egyptian-fine-art/?session=1.
“The ape insult: a short history of a racist idea.” The Conversation (30 May 2013), https://theconversation.com/the-ape-insult-a-short-history-of-a-racist-idea-14808.