Young people today can be forgiven for feeling despondent and helpless when contemplating the future of our planet – their future. And while there’s no quick fix for the Earth’s woes, DAVE PEPLER and Fef le Roux have set up an academy that nurtures leaders to combat those challenges.
Shall we play a little mind game? Imagine that you are fully informed about the perilous state of our planet, where the human population will increase by two to three billion people by the middle of the century, where at the current rate of soil loss, we have 60 years of agricultural production left and where poorly tested insecticides are wreaking havoc on our precious insect pollinators. Then add to this nightmare scenario our plastic-choked oceans, fragmented rainforests and runaway wildfires the size of small countries. Now ask yourself two questions. Firstly, if you’re young, would you have children? And if you have, how would you prepare them to survive this working definition of hell?
Some years ago I was discussing exactly this scenario with a school friend, advocate Johan (Fef) le Roux, while we were bouncing along dirt roads in Uganda on a gorilla-trekking expedition. We both come from education backgrounds: Johan as a founding member of the independent school network Curro and I as a teacher of conservation ecology at the University of Stellenbosch. We share a commitment to the education of young people, who, to our minds, are vulnerable to a host of media influencers and, in particular, to a feeling of individual helplessness regarding the state of the planet. Right there, in clouds of choking dust and biting tsetse flies, Fef and I forged the first plans for the future Academy of Environmental Leadership, a unique and world-class educational institution that would mould Africa’s next generation of environmental leaders.
Our first challenge was to place and pitch this institution in a highly competitive market and therefore my foremost recommendation was that it should be an accredited institution of higher learning with a qualification that is recognised internationally and that could lead to further study. Our second crucial decision was to make it a one-year, or gap-year, course, a choice that dictated the course content. This then became the central challenge: how to achieve a mix of subjects that would empower our students in terms of both personal and academic growth.
My speciality is ecology and the sustainable management of natural resources, so it was easy to assemble the appropriate academic core. More difficult was the integration of other disciplines, such as life skills, personal development planning, independence, world vision and how the individual fits into this realm. Drawing on expert opinion and hard work, we slowly gave the curriculum shape.
Perhaps our greatest challenge was where to locate the academy. This decision would be crucial to the ultimate success of the venture because we needed the right balance between geographic isolation, pristine environment and, for young learners, access to all the amenities of the Internet age. And so the Academy for Environmental Leadership finally became reality at Uizip, a spectacular location on the banks of the Orange River 20km east of Upington.
How easy it would have been to establish the academy closer to a large metropolitan or urban centre. We knew, however, that this would have defeated most of the objectives we were striving for in fostering independence, self-discovery and individual vision. We were right; never shall I forget our first graduation ceremony, where a mother and father, blinded by tears, told me that they did not recognise the son they had left there at the beginning of the year.
I always quote the words of Horace Mann: “Until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die.” Although still in its infancy, the Academy for Environmental Leadership is beginning to make its presence felt in the world of leadership and conservation, producing well-rounded and earthed graduates.
I am proud to have been involved in the creation of an institution that has no equal. Looking at the faces of the young people we are training there, I have, for the first time, hope for the future of our magnificent planet. V
- For more information, visit http://www.afel.co.za.