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"The times they are a-changin" (Bob Dylan)

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We are fast reaching limits to economic growth resulting from overuse and pollution of renewable resources.

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SAEON’s field of study is to measure and understand the functioning of ecosystems and how it may be influenced by interrelations with the economy.

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“New world realities are changing the old world view towards a new understanding - that the economy is wholly-owned by society, and that Nature is the holding company of both.” – Johan Pauw, MD, SAEON

Adapted from SAEON MD Johan Pauw’s speech during Minister Naledi Pandor’s visit to Jonkershoek and SAEON’s 10th anniversary celebration

There is no issue about it - our world is changing rapidly. As a result, our understanding of how the economy, society and environment hang together is also changing.

This is very well illustrated in the National Strategy for Sustainable Development and Action Plan that was approved by Cabinet in November last year.

There are a number of environmentally related issues influencing current understanding of sustainable development and I would like to highlight only four of those:

  • Firstly, there is climate change which presents society and business with additional uncertainty and higher levels of risk. These, in turn, depress the economy by raising the costs of living and doing business.
  • Secondly, although it is not always immediately evident, and more of a chronic issue, we are fast reaching limits to economic growth resulting from overuse and pollution of renewable resources.
  • Thirdly, an issue which is often sporadic and therefore often quickly forgotten, is the rising incidences of human and animal disease which are associated with degraded and polluted ecosystems.
  • The last issue is a complex one which is affected by the other three that I have mentioned. It is the rising levels of inequality which result, in part, from deficient natural resource management systems.

These four and many other environmental issues have led humanity to change outdated paradigms. One of those old world views recognises that the economy, society and environment interact to a certain extent; but maintains that overall it is the economy that owns both society and nature.

New realities

New world realities are changing the old world view towards a new understanding as depicted in Figure 1 – our new understanding is that the economy is wholly-owned by society, and that Nature is the holding company of both.

It is significant that this new understanding has been officially adopted by the Government of South Africa in the National Strategy for Sustainable Development (NSSD1) and Action Plan (Department of Environmental Affairs, 2011).

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Figure 1: Illustration of the South African Government’s view of the relationships among the economy, socio-political sphere, the environment and governance. (Department of Environmental Affairs, 2011) National Strategy for Sustainable Development (NSSD 1 2011 - 2014) and Action Plan.

An omen of things to come

In this new world view therefore, it is imperative for the economy and society to contribute to the maintenance and health of the environment, which is their holding company. It is therefore quite possible that future political and commercial battlefields will be decided by positions on environmental health. The already growing measure of green positioning by global companies is an omen of things to come.

It is from the perspective of the new world view that the Government established SAEON in 2002. Through the lens of the new world view, SAEON may be seen as analogous to a business unit in the research, development, monitoring and evaluation department of a company which is commonly referred to as Mother Nature - the company which fully owns both society and its economy. SAEON’s field of study is to measure and understand the functioning of ecosystems and how it may be influenced by interrelations with the economy.

As a network organisation for the public good, SAEON could not have a future without the leadership and support of many partner organisations. A very practical example of this is the fact that after a decade of growth, which has resulted in a national office and six nodes with hundreds of observation sites and research collaborations,SAEON does not own fixed property. This was made possible by hosting and access agreements between SAEON and numerous partner organisations. Therefore, while celebrating what SAEON had become over the years, the list of who to thank is a long one.

In the first instance, using a broad brush, we must acknowledge the thinkers and the planners of the late 90’s and early 2000’s who worked so successfully on formulating SAEON’s approach and design. In the years thereafter several organisations carried the torch.These include the Department of Science and Technology (DST) as sponsors, the National Research Foundation (NRF) as lead agency, and our host organisations: South African National Parks (SANParks), the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Across the spectrum many other organisations and individuals joined forces with SAEON. Finally, the right people, not just any personnel, are an organisation’s best assets.

SAEON still has some way to go before reaching its full potential, and we will have to work creatively to increase its resource base in order to stay on a growth trajectory. In the coming financial year, 75% of SAEON’s government grant will be absorbed by the salaries of permanent staff, which means that the growth of our grant has turned negative for our research and education programmes.

While SAEON’s core business is curtailed by current financial constraints on the government budget, we do experience growing market opportunities for environmental monitoring services.Consequently, we envisage a growth in contract income which will create more technical jobs, in line with the Department of Economic Development’s Green Jobs Report. We have already had discussions with the Working for Water programme and the Development Bank of Southern Africa about such programmes.

The value of long-term observation

It is essential to study environmental change over the long term; therefore the value that SAEON offers to our stakeholders will exponentially increase and peak much later, perhaps only in another 20 years from now. In terms of sustainable development, our endeavours contribute to creating equity between generations. Therefore we must continue SAEON’s work relentlessly, irrespective of fluxes in the National System of Innovation.

The future may be changing, and that concerns us in many ways, but we are at least able to look back and celebrate building a solid foundation hereto, as one will witness from reading our four-yearly report The SAEON Story 2007-2011. If you are not yet the owner of a hard copy, or if you are working towards being environmentally friendly, download it here.

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