Cultural norms and values shape people’s perceptions, aspirations and attitudes, and therefore their actions. Culture influences choice of livelihood activities, with direct and indirect influence on the pace of environmental change and development.

Among the many factors shaping culture are ethnicity and religion. As in some other parts of the world, religion in Africa has served as a strong unifying force in some areas, and as a potentially divisive one in others. Ethnic tensions in many areas, driven by historical animosities, themselves often exacerbated by religious, economic and social tensions, are also potentially divisive and inhibitory to development and may precipitate conflict over natural resources. However, this diversity is not always divisive. Chapter 12: Environment for Peace and Regional Cooperation considers this sensitive subject and how the environment can promote cooperation, which in turn may enhance good social relations (including social coherence) and other aspects of human well-being.

Africa, with its diversity of peoples and languages, has a rich and strong traditional culture that can serve both as a bulwark against outside influences and as a conduit through which new ideas can be assimilated (UNEP 2002a). Historically, indigenous systems of social governance, provision of services, maintenance of social cohesion, and even economic development, were based on the norms these cultures followed. But culture is not static, especially in this era of increasing economic and political globalization. People around the world are being increasingly exposed to the norms and values of other cultures, sometimes creating tensions within their own culture but in many instances resulting in substantial modification or replacement of some of its elements.

Other cultures have fundamentally changed African society. While western cultures dominate many economic and political spheres, at the more local level traditional norms often prevail. At the sub-national level, governance is increasingly shaped by “democratic ethics” intermingled with traditional values. The traditional support systems, which served as social securities for the aged, the homeless, the sick and the poor, have generally been displaced. However, these have not been replaced by efficient public structures. Similarly, in many places traditional environmental management systems have also been displaced or significantly modified (Mohamed- Katerere and van der Zaag 2003). In some instances new environmental values have begun to emerge and shape governance and management (Steytler 1997, Mohamed-Katerere 1997).

Consumption patterns increasingly mirror western-style consumer culture, and to a large extent this is a result of a shift to market-based development and globalization. This influences both trade and investment patterns, particularly by creating a demand for imported consumer goods while, at the same time, serving as an incentive for some of the multinational corporations to enter local markets directly through investment, partnerships or take-overs. In some instances these increasing consumer demands produce very direct threats to the environment, as discussed in Section 2: Environment State-and-Trends: 20-Year Retrospective and in relation to chemicals in Chapter 11.

As a driving force, western culture continues to play a central role in development in Africa. Changing lifestyles create demand for environmental goods-and-services that occasions change in environmental and natural resources exploitation. Increasing consumerism, for instance, can be expected to lead to overexploitation of resources to meet increasing wants. Depending on the measures of control put in place by societies, these developments may or may not be beneficial to the environment. Nevertheless, this consumer culture may be expected to reach a peak where people begin to see the differences between needs and wants, and lead therefore to a return to healthier and more holistic lifestyles that focus on the overall context of human well-being and the relationship to the environment.