Seeing the world through Byron’s eyes
Two centuries ago the British poet Lord Byron wrote: “There is pleasure in these pathless woods/ There is rapture on the lonely shore/ There is society where none intrudes/ By the deep sea/ and music in its roar/ I love not man less/ but Nature more.”
Would the impressionable young poet be as enthralled by nature if he viewed the world today? If his gaze were to traverse the global landscape devastated by pollution and his eyes transfixed on the aftermath of decades of plundering that has scarred the Earth beyond recognition, would he be able to write “I love not man less”?
For North-West University’s faculty of law on the Potchefstroom campus, it is imperative that the world be seen as Byron saw it. To achieve this, the faculty has established itself as a hub for the teaching and research of environmental law.
Many of its academics include environment- related issues in their research, bringing a real multidisciplinary approach to environmental law. “Every decision the government or the private sector takes has an impact or implication for the environment, so environmental law is indispensable. The Constitution explicitly states that it is the duty of every South African to ensure that we live in a country that isn’t harmful or detrimental to our wellbeing. It is a responsibility that must never be taken lightly,” said Professor Willemien du Plessis.
“By placing ourselves at the centre of the national environmental debate and by facilitating co-operation as well as a discourse between the various stakeholders, we try to implement our expertise as best as possible. At the university we are in a privileged position, because we can use interdisciplinary resources to resolve issues relating to the environment. To my knowledge, it is the only faculty in the country where this kind of situation and co-operation exists.”
In terms of the national environmental debate, the faculty has a resounding voice that can be heard by both local and international ears. It hosts the secretariat of the South African Environmental Law Association and is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Academy of Environmental Law. Some of its professors and lecturers serve on committees of the academy, such as the research committee (co-chair) and governance committee, whereas others serve on the union’s commission for environmental law.
The faculty’s research unit is involved in several collaborative projects with other universities, for example, the trans-boundary protection of biodiversity with the Justus Liebig University in Germany. An annual summer-school project on this topic was introduced in 2011 and there is an active co-operation agreement with the University of Tilburg, Netherlands, which includes annual lecturer exchanges.
It is also a member of the Academic Partnership for Environment and Development in Africa, a consortium of African universities in collaboration with the Justus
Liebig University that works on environmental issues, climate change, food security and land tenure issues.
The faculty is also involved in Ahead, an interdisciplinary consortium of universities, government departments and non-governmental organisations in Southern Africa that focuses on issues such as animal health and diseases and cross border environmental issues in transfrontier conservation areas.
Lastly, it offers an LLM degree in environmental law and governance and produces a steady stream of doctorates in the field.
“We are at a decisive juncture. The law is an immensely powerful tool and if there was ever a reason to put it to use, concern for the environment is it,” Du Plessis said.
By doing so, the future Byrons will not have to write an elegy for the Earth. Instead, they will write an ode to those who saved it.