Our classically trained minds love distinctions. We seek the separate and individual rather than the interconnections. We identify the ‘thing’ before the fabric or the ‘weave’ – as Montuori a writer on complexity in education describes it – that gives it context.
Two distinctions I’ve become aware of recently through a research collaboration with the Gauteng City-Region Observatory are those of ‘environmental sustainability’ and ‘social justice’. Both are enshrined in South Africa’s National Climate Change Response White Paper, amongst many other national policy documents. As a society we purport to value and desire both. Yet we have given only very superficial thought as to how they might be related. We accept the current configuration of our social systems – our values, our behaviours, our economic and political interactions in particular – as given. From here we can see ‘win-wins’, instances where environmental sustainability and social justice appear to reinforce each other, such as the provision of Bus Rapid Transit systems in the country’s metros. We can also see instances where they appear to stand in direct opposition, such as the continuing of the South African coal fired power expansion programme in the name of social justice as employment creation and black economic empowerment. This vantage point shows us a flat landscape, with few, tired, options.
But what happens if we pay a little more attention to the weave that connects them? What of the economic system that fetishises GDP growth? The education system that idolises a foreign and homogenous knowledge abstracted from any sense of place? The logic that assumes mass employment creation is best achieved by sending people underground to extract carbon that has been safely stored away there for millenia in order to burn it resulting in a mass release of greenhouse gases? How are these things related? How else could they relate? What happens when we prod at these reified concepts of ‘environmental sustainability’ and ‘social justice’ to see what lies beneath their assumed benign benevolence? Whose environmental sustainability? Justice for whom? When? Where? And at what cost?
Perhaps its time to venture away from the perceived safety of our ‘neutral’ observation point. To enter the murkiness, to find and own our own place in it.