Class of 2018 has arrived ….. and its a force of nature!

The Class of 2018 has founds its way to the Sustainability Institute and the Lynedoch EcoVillage. It is our largest class since we started in 15 years ago, with a total of 58 registered! 40 out of the 58 are women, which means there are more men this year than last year. Just under 50% are black (28) and the remainder are white, even though over 60% of the original group offered positions were black. There are more black students who do not show up for registration than white students because of lack of finances for fees and accommodation. There seems to be an uptick in the number of people from the public sector, after many years of decline – total of 12 out of 58, with the remainder from the private sector (21), non-profit sector (5) and 17 full-time students (our highest ever). Interestingly, 37 out of 58 are doing the degree full-time, which I also think is the highest number to date doing the degree full-time. There 9 non-South African students – 2 Brazilians, 2 from Lesotho, 1 Namibian, 3 from the USA and 1 Zimbabwean. For the first time ever there are no East Africans, which has got a lot to do with the unwise decision to significantly increase the fees for non-South Africans, coupled to the usual problems of getting study permits in time. In general, our University system is unfriendly for non-South African Africans, which is tragedy. This year we included a new process during orientation which was to ask everyone to think of the question they are bringing to the course, and then to mould in clay a symbolic representation of their question. I have included a few pics of some of these, especially for the benefit of past students.

Morning stretches

Morning stretches

Morning work - preparing lunch

Morning work – preparing lunch

Washing the feet of students

Washing the feet of students

Theo and Mark - feet washing ceremony

Theo and Mark – feet washing ceremony

sharing about the river

sharing about the river

listening to a lecture

listening to a lecture

deep ecology at the river

deep ecology at the river

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Yoliswa, permaculture teacher, introduces the students to the garden

Yoliswa, permaculture teacher, introduces the students to the garden

welcome lunch

welcome lunch

Masters students present their completed work next week

The most exciting moment in the academic year is upon us again: next week the students who have completed their masters research will present their completed research to the academic staff and to the masters students who are commencing their respective research projects. Attached is the detailed programme. Visitors are welcome to come listen to this cutting edge research by a new generation of sustainability researchers. Topics include the following:

Nomandla Bongoza: Education for Sustainable Futures: an approach for early childhood development

Karen Koen: Creating shared value in corporate South Africa

Tasneem Steenkamp: Spatial transformation in practice: the case of the Two Rivers Urban Park, Cape Town

Elzette Henshilwood: Exploring sustainable urban mobility transitions in Cape Town

Therese Luyt: Domestic Waste Flows in Cape Town

Olive Zgambo: Food system transformation in Cape Town

Angela Coetzee: Free range chickens in the Western Cape

Amy Giliam: Agroecology training of smallholder communities in Mopani, Limpopo

Megan Lindow: The art of storytelling with food innovators in the Western Cape

Jeeten Morar: Development impact of the REI4P in SA’s small towns

Fezeka Stuurman: Black woman owned businesses in the renewable energy sector

Andre Troost: Exploring strategic investments in mini-grids in Sub-Saharan Africa

Elijah Sichone: Exploiting renewable energy opportunities through integrated regional power systems: analysis of institutional perspective of barriers in Southern Africa

To download the programme:Colloquium invitation 2017

Centre for Complex Systems in Transition – two years on

Yesterday the core CST research team met to reflect on how far we have come since our first strategic retreat in about March 2015 which took place in Stanford. We met for most of the day and one of the issues discussed was progress towards achieving one of our goals, namely the founding of a ‘Stellenbosch School of Thought’. Two major papers have recently been completed by core staff, one on Complex Adaptive Systems by Rika Pelzer, Oonsid Biggs and two colleauges from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), and the other on transdisciplinary case study research by John van Breda and myself. These papers bring together a decade of thinking within their respective fields. They provide the foundation stones for what we are calling the ‘Stellenbosch School of Thought’ – the first being our conceptual framework, and the second our methodological framework. These two, plus a set of thematic areas (cities, food, socialecological systems, governance, cell systems, entrepreneurship, complexity and systems dynamics) constitute the building blocks of a ‘Stellenbosch School of Thought’. It was incredibly inspiring to work through all these conceptual, methodological and thematic  issues, and to see how much progress we have made. I am also amazed by our impact locally, nationally and globally. We decided to try write a journal article with contributions from everyone followed possibly by an edited collection.

Mncebisi Jonas, Desta Mebratu and me at the Conference on Towards a Human-Centred Sustainable Economic and Social Systems for the 21st Century


As I said last Thursday during a session where we three were the speakers, it was a privilege to speak with two of my mentors – Desta Mebratu, from Ethiopia, who wrote a paper in 1998 on Sustainable Development that has been compulsory reading for all my students for the introductory module of the Masters in Sustainable Development for the past 16 years! And Mncebisi Jonas has since the 1980s been the model of what true South African political activism and leadership is all about – and as I told the conference, this was the man who, when he was Deputy Minister of Finance, refused a bribe of $60 million to sell the National Treasury to the corrupt power elite that has captured South Africa’s state institutions. He lost his job in April 2017.

Towards a human-centred sustainable economic and social system for the 21st Century

From 10-12 May (next week), my research centre is hosting the 14th international colloquium of a network of progressive economists who have been collaborating for some years to develop a new economic theory appropriate for the world we currently live in. The colloquium is co-convened by the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, University of  Brasilia and World Academy of Art and Science. Click on the link below to access the programme for the colloquium. If you want to attend, please contact Vanessa on


Human potential, reconnecting to nature and the feminine


In writing a paper with a colleague who has strong views on economic and social issues but not about ecology and patriarchy, I wrote this message to him:  “This is an old debate between us, and I am happy for it to continue. But in my view the idea of human potential and social power that really energises your imaginary is only possible when humans reconnect to all life. We agree on one thing strongly: the crisis is a crisis of perception which, in turn, is rooted in human consciousness. We agree that human potential is an untapped resource that could transform the world. However, in my view there are two preconditions for this to happen: we as humans need to reconnect to nature, and we have to free ourselves from patriarchy. Both go back to the witchburnings which was the final assault by the church on a very very long history of balance between the feminine and masculine principle, with women celebrated as the origin of fertility across many cultures. The witchburnings broke the power of women in society, and established the male principle of control over the feminine principle of care. This, in turn, made it possible to define bodies and nature as objects to be controlled by men endorsed by the church. Without this, the industrial revolution would not have been possible, albeit some time later. The industrial revolution was premised on the violent disconnect from nature – the enclosure movements, colonialism as outright robbery of the land from the local people, destruction of 50% of the forests that existed at the start of the agricultural revolution, pollution of the atmosphere to the point that it is causing destructive warming. Hillman correctly argues that until we learn to see nature as beautiful, we will never fall in love with it enough to protect it. We see it as an object, much like women’s bodies are still depicted as objects. Deep ecology is about re-establishing a spiritual connection to nature as a means of liberating our true human potential. Your emphasis on human potential and social power is spot on, but without reconnecting to all life forms – both human and non-human – that potential cannot be fully unleashed. We cannot realise our potential if all around us there is genocidal destruction of non-human life on a scale not seen for hundreds of millennia. Scientists talk about the 6th great extinction, which could very well include us within the next 5 decades if this continues. This affects us deeply at a pychic level, and systematically subverts and destroys our humanity. We recover our humanity when we reconnect to nature and transcend patriarchy: both are about re-enchanting the world of inter-subjectivity where nothing is an object (not nature, not women’s bodies, not the bodies of labour) and everything is a subject. That is where the bulk of natural science has ended up, and it is where social science needs to end up. But alas, I still have not effectively articulated what I want to say about the relationship between reconnecting to nature and the realisation of human potential. I think, to put it bluntly, what kills human potential is the way knowledge legitimises turning certain humans and nature into objects which, in turn, is necessary to justify control of them. I live in a racist society – black bodies are assumed to be objects, and therefore many assume (and not just white people) that black people are not really people. This is patently wrong and objectionable. But the same applies to women’s bodies – not objects of labour like black bodies, but sexual objects. And so women, like black people, feel dehumanised in our society. Same with nature: we have a body of so-called scientific knowledge that defined nature as objects to be studied – as Francis Bacon described scientific experimentation it was, in his words, about ‘torturing her secrets out of her’ – he was a supporter of witch burning, and regarded nature as a women, and scientific experimentation as akin to torture, which he regarded as a good thing. Herein lies the origin of seeing nature as object, so it can be controlled and exploited, not appreciated and loved as something beautiful. Human potential is profoundly about recognising that I cannot be controlled and conditioned because I am not an object. I am a subject, and therefore author of my destiny. But this applies to me, to women, to black people, and to nature – all life! I can only celebrate and realise my own human potential and realize all my subjective powers if I accept I am part of a much wider web of life where NOTHING is an object – the web of life is a community of interconnected subjects whose existence is profoundly relational. That feels a bit better – I think I have said what I wanted to say.

Linking Fanon and Sustainability?

Given the rising influence of Fanon amongst the increasingly radicalised youth of South Africa on and off the campuses, it came as no surprise to me that a student has asked to write his essay for the introductory Sustainable Development module on the link between sustainability and Fanon. I welcomed this, recalling the many hours spent in my 20s reading Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and how influential it was on my own thinking. This is how I responded: “How you find a link to Fanon is going to be interesting and challenging. In my view this link is a conception of humanism (I had given him a few weeks earlier an article on Fanon’s humanism from THES). In other words, the question at the centre of humanism is ‘what does it mean to be human?’ For Fanon, as per that article, but clearly also in WoTE, being human for the colonized is not straight forward because it means being liberated from the definition of what it means to be human imposed by the colonizer. What follows, therefore, is a dialectic of oppression and liberation that can, ultimately, lead to a new conception of what it means to be a free human that is not defined by the colonizer. That, however, is not simply a matter of identity politics – it is also a matter of economic transformation (for Fanon). If a ‘national bourgeoisie’ takes over that simply apes the behaviour of the colonizer, nothing really significant has been achieved no matter what psychological processes of liberation may have taken place. In other words, Fanon cannot be reduced to identity politics – becoming a free human is fundamentally about a structural process, i.e. economic transformation.

Rosie Braidotti, an Italian feminist/post-feminist writer, wrote a book called Post-Human which I can send you if you are interested. Her question is the same: what does it mean to be human in today’s world? She argues that Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man became THE DEFINITION of what it means to be human, that got universalised (via colonization). The Vitruvian man is white, male, alone and disconnected from nature, and perfectly proportioned. By becoming Universalised, the validity of the hegemony of Vitruvian Man was only possible by ‘othering’ all other significant relations – women were othered by sexualisation, people who were not white were othered by racialisation, and nature was othered via naturalisation. However, from the 1960s onwards paradigms emerged that challenged each of these ‘otherings’: feminism critiqued sexualisation, political ecology critiqued naturalisation, and post-colonial studies (founded by Fanon, arguably) critiqued racialisation. All three have disintegrated. This has implications for what it means to be human today. Her argument is that the essence of what it means to be human today is about a relational existence, where no gendered is ‘othered’, it is transcended; no race is ‘othered’, it is transcended; and nature is not ‘othered’, it is transcended. The result: the relational self, intimately connected to masculinity and femininity, to diversity of racial identities, and to nature in its diversity. In other words, like Fanon, Braidotti is not just about identity – becoming a free relational self (post-humanism) is dependent on a set of structural conditions that imply the collapse of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and exploitation of nature as we know it.

So what then is the link between Braidotti and Fanon? Both want to define what it means to be human for purposes of liberation. In this sense, Fanon was interested in a relational self, like Braidotti. But Fanon was writing when nature was not an issue. But one could argue that by linking identity and structure (by insisting on economic transformation), he has opened the door for taking into account any condition that has a bearing on what it means to be human. This, in turn, opens the door for a Fanonesque conception of sustainability, i.e. as a way of understanding what it means to be human not just in relation to the colonizer (a la post-colonial studies) and economic transformation (Marxist analysis), but also nature (a la political ecology), and, for that matter, gender (a la feminist studies). In other words, we use Fanon’s humanism as the point of departure and then run it to its logical conclusion in light of knew knowledge since he wrote, i.e. nature and gender matters. I think this would be a perfectly logical way to proceed.”

Fragile states and sustainability

Got an email today from my Head of Department suggesting a conference on fragile states. This was my response: “Hi, I quite like this, but I would like to include reference to the fact that the spread of fragile states is being driven by limits to our current use of strategic resources, with water, food and oil at the nexus of this crisis. Oil for example, is in trouble: to cover the costs of accessing ‘non-cheap oil’ (which is all we have left), the price must be higher – but a higher price undermines growth which reduces demand. And so the cycle goes – the Secretary of State (whose real job is CEO of ExxonMobil) is to resolve this, which is only possible with more wars to force price reductions by backrupting more countries. The issue, therefore, is not peak production, but peak demand. The result is price volatility and a growth malaise that Trump will fail to resolve. The alternative lies in the rise of renewables, now cheaper than fossil fuels in 60 countries (including SA). But for this transition to have its full effect, we may need to transcend the current model of short-termist, financialised capitalism that needs growth to avoid debt from destroying the global economy. But rising debt is what compensates for declining EROI (Energy Return on Energy Invested – from 100:1 in the 1930s to 10:1 today). Debt-based capitalism is a ticking time bomb, and the root cause of failing states. The US state as a failed state is a case in point.” (For a good reference on all this see Nafeez Ahmed’s book on Failing States)