Op ed

African Environment and Theological Ethics Today

As yet there has been little from African theologians on environmental ethics. Though some brief statements in the 1970s criticised the West’s destruction of nature (see Idowu 1973), on the whole African theologians echoed the then current emphasis upon acquiring the West’s technology, a vital component of the discourse of development at the time. The need for development so much dominated that any environmentalist sentiment was greatly muted. This has begun to change only very recently.

B.C.E. Nwosu’s 1972 article was typical of African responses at that time and still largely reflects African opinion today, as the recent (June 1992) United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the “Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro has demonstrated. Although not a theologian, Nwosu’s work was selected for inclusion in a theological journal, the Ecumenical Review, produced by the WCC as part of a dialogue series on development and environment. Nwosu stressed the injustice in the unequal distribution of wealth worldwide, and called for the transfer of technology to Africa on terms Africans can afford. Some of his statements now seem almost prophetic in the light of recent developments. He said:

…unless the developed nations see their future as inextricably linked with that of the developing nations in a rather dramatic way – in a way they fear threatens their very existence – it is unlikely that any suitable form of cooperation which would be beneficial to the two parties will emerge (Nwosu 1972, 297).

This, twenty years later, has become exactly the case, as the desire for development in the third world has levelled rain forests which the industrialized North now recognizes as essential to the health of the planet, and as burgeoning third world demand for refrigeration, styrofoam and the other accouterments of modern culture destroy the ozone layer with CFCs. It has emerged that the future of the “third world” is indeed inextricably linked to that of the “first world.” It always was, but the ecological catastrophe now upon us brings it home in a more powerful way.

In the area of population control Nwosu put the case very much as it is still put today. He asked the question (1972, 298) “Who should make the first move to control population? Should it be a person from the Third World who consumes only one tenth as much as a person from one of the advanced nations?” Actually Nwosu understated his case, for one of the statistics proceeding from the aforementioned 1992 UNCED Conference tells us that an average North American couple with two children consumes more energy than an entire village in the Third World. Another way of expressing this statistically is as follows.

Table 3

Country Calories per person per day Energy consumption per capita in kg. of oil equivalent per year
Kenya 1,973 98.9
Nigeria 2,039 132.9
Côte D’Ivoire 2,365 172.0
Cameroon 2,161 143.6
Canada 3,447 9,155.0
Iceland 3,352 6,883.7

Source: United Nations.

The average Nigerian eats 2,039 calories per day, while consuming the energy equivalent of 132.9 kilograms of oil. The average Kenyan consumes the energy equivalent of 98.9 kg. of oil per year. The average Canadian eats 3,447 calories per day while consuming the energy equivalent of 9,155 kilograms of oil per year. One can see that the average Kenyan, living in a country which has been often called one of Africa’s “success stories” consumes one one-hundredth of the energy consumed by the average Canadian! While differences in climate can justifiably account for certain differences in energy consumption patterns, it hardly excuses such an enormous gap.

It is for this reason that Africans have felt justified in their insistence that calls from the North for better ecological practices and population control in the South should be accompanied by the means to pay for the needed technological changes. Also they believe that the same educational and health care improvements which were the essential precondition to a reduced birth rate in all of the developed countries of the North should be made available to the people of the South before talk of “population control” becomes meaningful.

The discussion of population guidelines proceeds in a vacuum unless it is matched to the discussion of infant mortality figures, as it is known that no society in history has ever voluntarily restricted its fertility rates before improved health facilities brought the infant mortality rate down to a level low enough that parents felt secure concerning the survival of enough of their children to carry on the family name. In Africa today, infant mortality rates have continued to come down gradually in most countries, though not yet to the low levels found in industrialized western countries. The reduced mortality rate, coupled with a sustained high fertility rate, has brought about the burgeoning population “boom” found in most parts of Africa. Social conditions still deny clean drinking water to a large fraction of the African population. The UNCED Conference of 1992 reported that 35,000 children die every day in the world, due to environmental causes. Most of these deaths are due to environmental contaminants in water and air supplies, and the increasing urbanization of the third world means that even there an increasing proportion of these deaths are related to industrial pollution, in addition to the more traditional water contaminants, human and animal waste.

Despite the general feeling that the North has no right to impose population strictures on Africa, family planning has nevertheless become much more accepted in Africa today than it was in 1972, for reasons not directly related to ecology. The reason for the new mood is primarily economic. Most Nigerians in the middle class now wonder how they would be able to afford to educate all of their children if they continue to have the large families idealized by traditional Africa. The Nigerian government in 1988 submitted to the people the first set of population guidelines ever presented in that country. They recommended five children per mother; lower than is considered ideal in traditional Nigeria, but higher than western analysts would have liked. Most commentators concluded that whatever else one might say, the guidelines were at least a start.

In spite of the greater concern for industrial development which has seemed to drown out environmental concerns, grassroots level ecological movements in Africa have been springing up increasingly in the early 1990s. I could cite as an example the “Green Belt Movement” started by Wangari Maathai of Nairobi, who was Kenya’s first woman university professor. Also in Kenya, the informal sector of the economy has sparked the mass production of inexpensive solar ovens, which are built very simply from locally available materials and sold at prices the average peasant can afford. In the rural parts of Kenya now, these ovens are very common, as the price and difficulty of obtaining fire wood has increased enough to make solar ovens a viable option for the peasantry. For the same reason a new design of charcoal burning cooker which uses one third the amount of wood compared to the traditional type of iron pot has become very popular.

The informal sector has also been key in promoting the popularity of inexpensive adaptors to photovoltaic solar panels to produce electricity for home use, particularly lighting and small fans. Key in all of these developments has been the role of the informal sector, including the class of roadside mechanics and other self-employed workers such as taxi drivers. One such group is metal workers, who are called in Kenya the “jua kali”. They work in the “jua kali”, the “hot sun”, with no roof over their heads and with only simple metal working tools, yet it is their ingenuity and inventiveness that has spurred the economy of African countries more than the formal sector with its massive, inefficient, and so often disastrous development projects.

In Nigeria, Gbadegesin writes of movements to re-introduce the use of the bicycle as basic transportation at the universities (Gbadegesin 1992). The ecological movements of Africa have one thing in common with each other which distinguishes them from ecological movements in the western world: they are driven by an urgency concerning immediate survival needs which one does not find, for example, in such North American movements as that to protect the Spotty Owl. Nomsa Daniels says (1991, 15): “whereas affluence and waste spurred today’s environmentalists in the West, poverty and underdevelopment are spurring environmentalists in Africa.” The erosion of soil in Kenya had produced a life-threatening situation for the women of the country, who do most of the agricultural labour. So under the leadership of Wangari Maathai they banded together to plant trees to protect their precious heritage of the soil, upon which their very livelihood directly depends. Increasing poverty in the universities of Nigeria forces a return to the bicycle, which also happens to be one of the most ecologically sound means of transport. The same has happened in Cuba, now forced by the cessation of Soviet aid and oil to rely on the bicycle.

While the current recession in the western world has also forced many people there to look to the bicycle as primary means of transport, the western environmental movements have been relatively slow to link the poverty issue with their ecological agenda. The fact that ecology movements in Africa are survival-driven is bound to shape development of these groups and as their voice becomes heard at the international level it may produce a change in some commonly held attitudes.


1. We may also note here the lack of importance given to literal sight, a point upon which I have elaborated in the chapter above on African Orality. The equation of visibility with empirical reality is not made in African cultures.

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