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How to beat eco-paralysis: Lessons from young leaders

It’s easy to be laid low by all that ails our planet. But the cure lies in taking incremental steps, celebrating small wins and building on them.

Don’t – a certain psychotherapist and motivational writer famously tells us – sweat the small stuff. A little perspective can see off a mountain of personal pain.

That said, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should make light of our achievements, especially in tackling enormous environmental challenges confronting us today.

“Problems at hand that we face can seem so big and overwhelming, it seems so unattainable to make any kind of meaningful change sometimes. But we have to keep up the energy and make the small changes that cumulatively can bring about big changes,” says Rio Button. “Working with young people, it is important to celebrate the small stuff that maintains the enthusiasm of the movement or project.”

Button, a 27-year-old marine biologist and environmental writer, was speaking at a “Tipping Points” webinar organised by Oppenheimer Generations Research & Conservation to mark Youth Month in South Africa.

New voices

Also on the panel were Reinhold Mangundu, the co-chairman of the Namibia Environment and Wildlife Society, and Karabo Mokoena, a community and environmental activist with a special interest in water.

Nox Ntshaba, head of communications at Oppenheimer Generations, facilitated the meeting.

Button, whose interests include marine protected areas, responsible fisheries and youth journalism, said working with young people to make changes in conservation, presented an “amazing opportunity”.

“The youth must not be disheartened because the climate crisis is huge and overwhelming. We must not be paralyzed into not doing anything at all,” said Button,


The antidote to paralysis lay in “inspiring and nurturing a love of learning and a passion for conservation” among young people. And we must create space for the youth, while listening, supporting, and mentoring them, she said.

Mangundu took a similar line to Button on how we might face up to an uncertain future.

“If we all take small incremental steps, with every bit of hope and love in our hearts then we will be able to transform our communities, because in the end our future depends on our collective efforts, and we are called to come together and weave together that fabric of humanity,” he said.

But Mangundu noted there were precious few young people in political structures and decision-making processes in his native Namibia and this had consequences for the environment.

How to beat eco-paralysis
27-year-old, Reinhold Mangundu, is a vocal opponent of oil exploration in the Okavango Delta. Photo: supplied.

“Our African politicians suffer from a syndrome of economic growth without taking sustainability into consideration. This affects them in the way that they don’t take young people seriously,” he said, adding that the regeneration of the continent required a change in thinking.


“Young people in schools are being taught to pronounce words such as ‘industrialisation’. These kinds of words are unfriendly to a planet that is running out of resources,” he said. “Unless we redefine what we mean by growth, we’ll keep on supporting systems of extraction and destruction.

“We need to look at alternatives,” said Mangundu.

Mangundu felt that for too long young people were only dimly aware of the power they held as a “potent force for change”. Happily, though, this was shifting.

“Young people have been mobilising in the past two years to speak against extractive companies exploring for oil and gas in [Namibia’s] most sensitive areas, but we have been labelled as climate hooligans and as anti-development activists,” he said.

Cleaner energy

Mokoena, a 29-year-old natural scientist is a strong advocate for involving young scientists in driving an energy revolution for a greener future, lessening the dependency on coal powered energy plants.
As a member of the South Africa Youth Parliament for Water, Mokoena has been instrumental in developing a “Water Action Plan” on how government could tackle the current water and sanitation crisis in South Africa. These recommendations were tabled at the United Nations Water Conference in New York in March.

Karaabo Mokoena
Karabo Mokoena, (29) recently completed her MSc degree in Animal, Plant and Environmental Science, with distinction, at the University of the Witwatersrand, specialising in phycology. Photo: supplied
Skills and innovation

Mokoena reminded the webinar that unemployment was a big problem in South Africa, especially among the young.

She stressed that people in marginalised communities were very capable of innovation, and wants to see a shift from dependency on the formal workplace to job creation through entrepreneurship.

This, she said, required that young professionals be recognised for their skills, and “not just as youth”.  

“And we should be allowed to take seats at the big tables and take part in policy- and decision-making,” added Mokoena.  “Having a seat at the table means that at every stage of the decision-making process, you have one or two youth representatives who are specialists in that field. Having us there brings a different narrative, a different perspective.”

Role swopping

In Namibia, Mangundu is involved in a host of projects. For his recent Masters degree in sustainable development, he explored how participatory games might be used for experiential learning, to help people respond to the difficulties Namibia faces in meeting its sustainable development goals.

Today he helps runs role-switching games with nearly 1000 participants in Namibia and South Africa, supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

“We are able to bring different diverse groups together, including community leaders, students, young professionals and policy makers. They step outside their normal biases, and together, collaborate to find creative alternatives to deal with complex problems,” said Mangundu.

“For example, we make the politicians a young person at school, and then you give the power to the young person…  with certain rules and conditions,” said Mangundu

In this transformative space young people “can co-create and navigate alternatives for our common future,” he said.

Ecosystems approach

Button said a similar approach had been used by the Responsible Fisheries Alliance in creating “safe platforms” to discuss an ecosystems approach to fisheries.

“They put us in a room. Scientists, fishermen, and fisheries monitors. They gave us some prompts and activities. We learned so much from each other. Information flowed in all directions.”

“Fishermen could share what was really happening at sea and open up about how regulations can be cheated. Scientists could answer questions, like: Why do we need sharks? Why they are important for our ecosystem? And monitors had the opportunities to show the unique challenges they face.”

Rio and Loggerhead turtle
Rio Button diving at Aliwal shoal, KZN, alongside a loggerhead turtle. Photo: Temujin Johnson

Button said there was also great value in fostering the writing talents of young scientists to promote greater awareness of environmental concerns.

She has written and co-authored more than a dozen biodiversityrelated stories for the Daily Maverick and served as an ambassador for the WESSA’s Young Reporters for Environment.


Writing for the media, she said, had broadened her networks, and introduced her to a fascinating array of people and mentors who had helped along her journey as an early-career scientist. And she sure does get around. Earlier this year, she helped set up Protected Areas in Saudi Arabia. A month ago, she got back from Somaliland where she worked as a camera assistant and commercial diver at Africa’s newest marine protected area. Now she’s off to Brisbane to begin a PhD – “a new degree, in a new place, a new academic system – all very different to what I have done before.”

But studying abroad, she said, does not mean she will not be back in Africa, taking on the mantle of a mentor in the same way others have empowered and inspired her. – Additional reporting, Skyla Thornton and Alexandra Howard.


Savannah Burns is a Roving Reporters correspondent and ambassador for WESSA’s Young Reporters for the Environment programme on the lower South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal.

Howard is completing with a PhD in zoology at the University of the Free State. Skyla Thornton is studying Earth Sciences at Stellenbosch University.

This story was produced with support from Roving Reporters’ New Narratives project – a journalism training initiative developed in partnership with science communication specialists, Jive Media Africa.

This story was first published in the Daily Maverick Burning Planet issue 168 on 11 July 2023.


A recording of this 14th Tipping Points webinar is available on the OGRC YouTube channel 


Savannah Burns
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