University of Pretoria: UP’s Prof Cheikh Mbow features in Netflix documentary

Professor Cheikh Mbow, Director of the Future Africa Institute at the University of Pretoria (UP), has been featured in the Netflix documentary Breaking Boundaries. The film, which is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, explores the extent of Earth’s degradation.

“It was a privilege to be one of the scientists selected to feature in this global documentary,” Prof Mbow said. “This film is both specialised and easy to understand, as the iconoclastic science behind planetary boundaries is simply explained to socialise new ideas related to environmental sustainability.”

He explained that planetary boundaries highlight tipping points, at which point the acceptable limit is exceeded and there is no way back. “The challenge is to retain a safe operating space and ensure that the human footprint is respectful to the environment,” Prof Mbow said.

He also noted that planetary boundaries are not often understood, and that the documentary clarifies how biochemical flows related to human activities and planetary limitations are linked to the intrinsic human appetite for phosphorus and nitrogen. “Our human footprint is likely taking us to a very unsafe space in terms of the checks and balances of the ecosystems we have. This in-depth evaluation, which is a global assessment, underlines the biodiversity loss and climate change we are experiencing, which have largely exceeded the thresholds of a healthy, steady planet.”

Breaking Boundaries has demonstrated that the way the message is packaged is as important as the message itself. “This film speaks to almost everyone – it is universal and the vocabulary is simple,” Prof Mbow said. “We are touching on issues with visual representation. This is where the problems are and this is the potential when it comes to that way of communicating science. Future Africa needs to take inspiration from this film in the way we translate knowledge to society. We do not exist as an isolated academic entity that is doing research for its own promotion. We are there to serve a purpose, and the way we translate knowledge to users is absolutely crucial to the mission of Future Africa.”

He noted that the institute and UP in general aim to develop knowledge that serves the purpose of development while considering the potential shortfalls and impediments to a sustainable environment. “Africa is forward-looking and, in a sense, breaking boundaries as the continent is more oriented to solutions rather than negative rhetoric,” Prof Mbow said.

“The documentary underscores global figures, CO2 emissions, the impact of urbanisation, as well as a myriad of global challenges,” he added. “But, distilled down to the African context, it changes. Future Africa is more context specific ­­– global problems have local solutions. The objective is to find local solutions for Africa, a global strategy adapted locally. Because of this documentary, we can adopt a new pathway for development, through business as unusual collaboration and funding.”