When you hear how passionately he speaks about the land and its people you might be tempted to think of Lowell Scarr as just another tree-hugging hippie. But that would be short sighted. Thinking differently about the environment is but one aspect of Lowell Scarr’s wholly alternative approach to life. Or as he puts it, “perpetuating the status quo – for me that’s not success, for me that’s not progress; being successful is about pushing the envelope, challenging the way people think, really trying to make a difference.”
Making a difference and doing something meaningful are things Lowell believes he can do in the agricultural sector. He teasingly accedes that it’s not a very “sexy” sector among young people, but it’s one that he feels most comfortable in. Having grown up on a small holding just outside Port Elizabeth where a dense forest is a mere stone’s throw away might’ve had something to do with the life choices he’s made. More influential than the beauty of the Eastern Cape, however, must be the fact that he was raised by parents and grandparents who also loved the land. His grandfather owned a farm; his father, Nicholas, works as an environmentalist and his mother, Denise, is an organic agriculture expert.
Lowell’s future plans include owning a farm or two one day. One will be for him and his family to live on while the other will serve as a kind of training centre and think tank. People from different sectors of society – agriculture, science, engineering, and economics, to name a few – will form part of this think tank for the purpose of exchanging ideas, learning from one another and putting together plans to provide our country with alternative approaches.
He has already taken such alternative approaches in his own life. Not only did he go in the opposite direction in his economics field of study – the “unsexy” agricultural sector – he has also chosen to pursue postgraduate studies instead of following his classmates to big cities to earn big salaries. In fact, this past year saw him living completely off the grid on Windsor Farm, about two hours’ drive from Grahamstown. Its remote location and lack of municipal and other “normal” services were ideal circumstances for living out what he terms his “practical side”. He was forced to become farmer (of crops and cattle), electrician (installing a solar panel for their energy needs), plumber, carpenter, painter and mechanic.
This plan to go live in the middle of nowhere was often laughed at, but he persisted nonetheless. While he acknowledges that the year has been a lot harder than he imagined, he still looks back on it as his proudest achievement – having the courage to follow his heart. It’s an example that his mom and dad had always set for him and it’s the essence of what he learnt during his term as Candidate Allan Gray Fellow. “Follow your passion” is such a hackneyed saying these days, but for Lowell it’s a saying that has proven true for himself and countless others – more often than not they are the ones who end up making a success of their lives.
Where others would see any development as good as long as there’s progress, he argues that economic development does not necessarily lead to social development and that social development is worth far more. Having been a student in Economics and Philosophy (he is now busy with a master’s in Economics) these fields have no doubt informed his paradigm. And one would hope that he would be able to inform the paradigms of others, especially through his proposed doctorate studies in Economics and Agricultural Economics. His research will look at how and to what we assign value and how our habit of acknowledging and preserving only those things with monetary value (for instance, a mine as opposed to a flourishing environment) could lead to our demise.
Lowell’s way of thinking is a vivid example of one of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation’s Pillars, Intellectual Imagination. The Foundation defines it as being “demonstrated by an established record of intellectual achievement, an ability to see the unseen, a willingness to challenge the status quo and suggest that things could be done differently.”
Speaking of his time as a Candidate Allan Gray Fellow he recalls the sense of community he experienced with the Eastern Cape cohort of Candidate Fellows. It’s a striking reminder of how much he values people, community, and social development. And of course, there’s the fact that he will always have a soft spot for anyone and anything relating to the Eastern Cape.
Written by Alexa Anthonie.