Statistics? No, thank you. It’s the personal stories that matter.
It is only after David Johnson turned his back on his profession as a lawyer and moved to South Africa from rainy London in 2003 that he found his true calling as environmentalist. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his new project, Too Much Too Many. During a six-month road trip around South Africa, David will take a closer look at the increasing human population and its consumption habits, and how these affect the country’s remaining wild places.
Q: You have a degree as environmental and town planning lawyer. How did that come about?
A: When I qualified as a lawyer I needed to specialise. I love architecture and wildlife and all my work was about property developments and the impacts they’d have on people and their surroundings. I came across some fascinating human impacts. Wind farms, for instance, are promoted by the UK government but are opposed to by the Ministry of Defence because they impact radars and low-flying fighter jets. I became really interested in these surprising side effects of developments and how people, landscapes and nature were affected.
Q: Consumption habits and population growth are intrinsically linked. Why are these topics such a taboo?
A: The issues are tough and people often avoid controversial and sensitive topics. There are no quick fixes. Many of the results, if we were to deal with these issues, will not be seen in our lifetime. Most environmental organisations are frightened of linking environmental harm to population and consumption growth, in case they are perceived as saying that the interests of people are less important than their environmental cause. With Too Much Too Many, I’m looking at the impacts these issues have on both people and nature. This taboo can be broken by discussing the topic in an accessible way. I don’t want to read pages of statistics, instead, I think we can more easily grasp our own impacts by highlighting personal stories.
Q: In 2007 you relocated from London to Cape Town. Big step!?
A: I’ve always found South Africa so much more interesting than the UK. If you watch wildlife documentaries, you end up seeing a lot of South Africa and not much of the UK. If you’re interested in human rights issues, the housing crisis here is acute. In the UK it is about middle-class couples who struggle to buy their first apartment without parental help. All the issues here are so much more dramatic.
Q: In South Africa, what are the major impacts of humans on the environment? What opportunities are there for solutions?
A: Loss of habitat and fragmentation are perhaps the primary impacts that humans have on the environment. The solutions are rooted in improving human rights, women’s rights, health and education. Environmental solutions will not work if the people are ignored. Worrying purely about protected areas will ultimately fail if the people living around those areas are not at the heart of the solutions. Europe’s wild areas are lost and that is irreversible. South Africa has the opportunity to avoid that by doing things differently.
Q: What do you love about South Africa?
I love the sense of being in a country where something is happening. This is an exciting time in the history of South Africa. If I return to the UK in 10 years’ time, not much will have changed. I’m very optimistic about South Africa’s future, but it’s the potential for surprises that makes living here exciting. Also, there is less of the European health and safety culture. I can choose to surf in waters where I know there are sharks. I feel less controlled.
Q: Favourite mountain slope and ocean playground?
A: Royal Natal National Park’s amphitheatre is my favourite mountain for splendour. Table Mountain’s pipe track is my favourite running route. I love trail running. I’m not spiritual, but when I run alone it’s the one time I manage to stop thinking and switch off. But I love nothing more than new experiences and knowledge. Through my project I get to learn from a vast array of people – from an expert in rural education, a national park manager, a Transkei historian, all within a couple of days. That beats law.
Read more about David’s journey in the June issue of Africa Geographic. For more information about how to get involved in his ‘Too Much Too Many’ project, visit http://www.toomuchtoomany.co.za/ or follow up on David’s six-month road trip through South Africa via Facebook and Twitter