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Environmental concern as a western construct and its applicability in the South African and Antarctic context

This is the title of a paper co-authored by MA (Sociology) student Mr Sean Beckett and C·I·B Core Team Member Dr Heidi Prozesky which was delivered in December 2011 by the student at an interdisciplinary workshop organised by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) Social Sciences Action Group at Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand. The workshop was aimed at exploring linkages between environmental management and value systems as they pertain specifically to the case of Antarctica. The paper critiques the way cross-national surveys, such as the World Values Survey, have led to the application, in a non-western context, of a western ideal of what “the environment” constitutes – an ideal embodied in the “wild nature” of Antarctica that has, until now, been the focus of a predominantly white minority of scientists and, more recently, tourists. Furthermore, cross-national surveys measure constructs that many poor people in developing nations have never encountered, such as aesthetic, ecocentric values associated with nature reserves.

Sean Beckett

At present, a “conservationist paradigm” is adopted by most Antarctic scientists and tourism stakeholders which includes an apprehension about increasing environmental pressures and disturbance through tourism development, and a strong conservation imperative that underlies these stakeholders’ vision for future Antarctic tourism development and regulation. However, as the relevance of conservation areas to the lives of those in the developing world is increasingly being called into question, broadening environmental discourse beyond the conservation paradigm could therefore counteract potential resistance, particularly from the side of developing countries, to environmental management decisions in Antarctica. The authors asked whether, in conservation-related research and management, it is indeed possible to conceptualise Antarctic “nature” in a more holistic way that goes beyond “green issues”, by considering “red issues”, such as environmental rights.

The paper concludes with the idea that environmental issues have always been political, and that there is sensitivity (at least among environmental sociologists) towards the potentially negative effects of perpetuating a hegemonic environmental discourse. These effects need to be taken seriously when considering what Antarctica – a place that only a very tiny fraction of the world population ever sees – means to the majority of citizens of developing countries such as South Africa. Marginalising developing countries through the perpetuation of a hegemonic conservation discourse in both policy and social science research may undermine the legitimacy of the Antarctic Treaty’s as a ruling body. Therefore, by creating a more inclusive notion of what the environment constitutes, at least when measuring concern towards the environment, would produce not only more valid findings, but also more inclusive management strategies based upon such findings, in the attempt to garner support and awareness of Antarctica.