This column by Simon Gear first appeared on the Don't Be a Passenger blog (www.dontbeapassenger.com) in July of 2010.
Last week, a Swiss friend of mine was outraged because she had just been nailed with a €1350 fine for straying a smidgeon over the suburban speed limit. Well, maybe I must clarify. If she was truly Swiss, I doubt she would have been that angry (or indeed have been fined in the first place).
But she is a South African who moved to the green shores of Lake Geneva a few years back. The whole thing was a bigger shock to her system than her first northern winter.
The reason that this caught my eye was that the Swiss are surprisingly heavy hitters in the environmental world. Every other year, Yale University publish the Environmental Performance Index, ranking countries by their green performance across a whole range of factors. Switzerland are the current holders of the top spot on the list.
My gut reaction is to point out that the Swiss have it easy. Their economy is based on deadly boring but clean stuff like reinsurance and banking. Easy, indoor work with no heavy lifting. Their population is squeezed into the valleys leaving their abundant mountain tops pristine. And they’re rolling in cash, what with forgetting such follies as fighter jets and submarines in favour of clean energy and apparently, overzealous traffic cops.
But there is something else going on here too. The Swiss enjoy a system of direct democracy. Power is decentralised and ordinary people have a real say in what decisions get made in parliament. In fact, if you and your mates think something is important enough, you can demand a referendum on the issue. So the Swiss spend a lot of money on popular but expensive projects that benefit a wide range of people. Think traffic safety and the environment instead of weapons and ministerial motorcades.
Contrast that with South Africa (we ranked 97th in the EPI, by the way). We have a much-vaunted representative democracy which means that we vote people into power, give them all our tax money and tell them to get on with it. And that results in … well… pick any story from the front page of the Sunday Times in the last year.
South Africans love to see themselves as frontier folk, bending the rules, making it up as we go along and generally living the hell out of life down here on Africa’s sunny tip. But the irony is that the only reason that we didn’t finish lower than 97th in the EPI was because of our environmental legislation. We have better green law than any other country on earth, the clean-nosed Swiss included. The folks at Yale loved that, until they looked at how that law was being applied and noticed that it wasn’t. So perhaps if we want to start greening our world, a little Mzanzi humble pie might be in order. Let’s drive a little slower, pick up after ourselves and generally just behave a little better. Maybe if we obey the laws of our country first, the folk in our parliament might start listening to us on the bigger issues. Of course, knowing our luck, the first thing they’ll institute are massive hikes in the speeding fines.