I was thinking a little more about the Ecomodernist manifesto and I realised that one problem I have is that I’m simply a physicist. I don’t really understand ecology, or how we can look after the environment while also having continued economic growth and while continuing to improve the standard of living of people on the planet. I should clarify that when I say “I don’t really understand” I don’t mean that I don’t think it’s possible; I really just mean that I personally don’t understand how we would go about doing it.
I have, however, lived in and seen some remarkable places on this planet. In case it isn’t obvious by now, I’m South African. In fact, I see myself as African and certainly identify with Africa more than with any other region. I was born in Cape Town and spent the first 10 years of my life living on a mountainside overlooking a large bay. My brother and I would bring home snakes that my mother would then let go into the bushes next to our house. I went to stay with a friend whose father was the head game ranger at the local game reserve. They had an injured Lynx in their garden and I remember waking up to find two bat-eared foxes wandering around the bedroom. We could see whales from the veranda of the house where my parents still live.
We moved to Durban – on the east coast – when I was about 10. I saved up to buy a paddleski (a fat surfboard that you sat on, rather than stood on), but when I finally had enough money I ended up buying one that was too small and so got a cheap surfboard from a friend, and took up surfing instead. I still surf, but it’s a damn site harder in the North Sea than in the Indian Ocean, and being closer to 50 than I would like to admit doesn’t help either. Surfing off Durban you’d see dolphins now and again, and a friend on a paddleski once shouted that he could see a fin, but didn’t tell me – till I’d paddled like mad for the beach – that, whatever it was, it was very small.
I used to go shark diving on a reef about 5 miles off the KwaZulu-Natal south coast. When the water was clear, it was amazing to be doing your 5 metre safety stop while watching 10 or 20 sharks circling below you. My wife wouldn’t dive during shark season, but I had great pleasure – during one dive – pointing out the large grey objects just behind the two pretty fish she was admiring. Admittedly, she then ran out of air a good deal faster than was normal, so the dive was somewhat shortened.
As a student we used to go hiking in the mountains and would regularly spend time at one or other of the various game reserves. One of the most memorable was staying in a bush camp; a set of small bedrooms on stilts, a kitchen, and a large veranda overlooking a river; all just in the middle of the bush. You’d spend your early mornings and late afternoons walking, and the rest of the time napping or watching the animals coming down to the river. We tracked lion (the paw prints were first seen around our cars), we had a crocodile rush out of the bushes in front of us on one walk, we sat a few yards away from a white rhino and its calf, and ran away from a black rhino.
While doing my PhD I did 3 trips to the Antarctic, including one where I over-wintered. Standing on the helicopter deck watching wandering albatrosses gliding behind the ship is one of my fondest memories. Having Adelie penguins follow you around the bay ice is another. When the old South African base was deemed uninhabitable (being under 20 metres of ice can do that), and the new base wasn’t yet ready, we spent some time on Marion Island; a volcanic, sub-Antarctic island that was mainly used as a weather station, and whose main occupants were many types of petrels, penguins, mice, and wandering albatross chicks sitting on their mud nests.
I’ve also lived on the East and West coasts of the USA and now live in Scotland. I’ve had the priviledge to see some of the most amazing places on this planet, and to have had many unforgettable experiences. I might only be a lowly physicist, but I find it hard to believe that the natural world doesn’t have some kind of intrinsic value, as well as being crucial for our own survival. I don’t know how we can develop a future that is good for both us and for the natural environment, but whatever we do, I just hope we don’t stuff it up.