Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Environmentalism, war and diet coke

Unrestricted development and pollution are the best known ways of destroying the environment. However, war is also a major contributing factor that has, at least to a degree, been ignored in the debate so far. War wipes out lives and livelihoods through destroying farmland, resources, and environments necessary to sustain life, such as food, forests and water sources.

Conflicts over resources not only spur wars on but also lead to the plundering of other resources to fund the war machine. Then, immediately after wars, countries can be so desperate to rebuild their economies that they sanction unchecked development and the wanton mining of natural resources.

There are also the direct impacts of war. The first Gulf War resulted in an estimated 11-million barrels of oil being intentionally released into the Arabian Gulf. This destroyed coral reefs and more than 15 000 birds, besides other forms of marine life, and habitats. Did you know that, in Vietnam, biodiversity is still recovering from the use of Agent Orange over 30 years ago?

Credit Tommaso.sansone91 / CC0
Even more disturbing is that it is also now clear that global warming will create further wars, leading to a vicious circle of environmental destruction. Two of the European Union's senior policy advisers, Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, outlined warnings to this effect in a recent policy paper. In the document, they warn of mass migration and north-south conflicts as perceived injustice between those causing global warming and those affected increase, as well as wars over competition for water, energy and other natural resources.

An 'optimistic' view is that climate change will not cause such instabilities but be a 'multiplier, that is, it will make bad situations worse, such as destabilising unstable States and fuelling existing conflicts, leading to local and global insecurity. What is scary is that this process is already under way. According to Solana and Ferrero-Waldner, every humanitarian crisis the United Nations dealt with in 2007 was connected to climate change in some way.

This paints a depressing picture. It makes you wonder why we have been in a state of denial about the environment for so long.

One reason for this, argues George Marshall, on his blog, 'Climate Change Denial', is that environmental issues are painted as global and feel beyond reach. I guess even talking about war and its link to environmental catastrophe has this effect. It calls on us all to stop wars, but this can have the opposite effect. That is, ordinary citizens feel powerless to stop war and so do not worry about its worldwide impact.

Marshall feels we need to drop language like 'save the planet' because it allows us to create distance between ourselves and difficult issues. 'Save the planet' means we talk of 'climate', not 'weather'; polar bears, not hedgehogs; African children, not our own, writes Marshall. 'The planet' locates the problem miles away from your community and somewhere in the solar system, and ‘save' speaks to abstinence and sacrifice. As humans, we naturally shy away from them.

As an antidote to this, Marshall feels we should replace phrases like 'low carbon emissions' with 'light living' and other positive messages, such as 'Live light because it will make you feel complete and free'.

Marshall acknowledges that this sounds like ad-speak (and a Diet Coke ad, in my opinion), but he feels it is a lot better than stock phrases like ‘save the planet', and will result in more people taking action.

I agree with Marshall that positive messages and localising the impact of environmental damage are needed. There is something off-putting about tired slogans like ‘save the rhino' or whatever celebrity animal has hit the endangered list in the last six months. However, my worry is that human denial is even more resistant than Marshall thinks. There is a tendency to only react when a tsunami rushes through your own backyard, and then it is too late.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 28 May 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Beware: SOHF is spreading

Sometimes it is not only horrific crime stories or Thabo Mbeki’s quiet (twiddling-your-thumbs-while-Rome-burns) diplomacy on Zimbabwe that creep out of South Africa for international consumption. Recently, I heard the story of KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Peggy Nkonyeni, who suspended rural doctor Mark Blaylock for throwing her picture in the bin. He claims to have been incensed by her visit to a rural hospital where she apparently commented that rural doctors cared more about profit than people and that AZT was toxic.

My favourite part of this story was that the Health Department tried to charge Blaylock with malicious damage to State property. The local prosecutor threw the case out of court, not because the department is clearly insane, but because Blaylock had not damaged the photo.

Of course, Nkonyeni has feelings and I sympathise with that. But getting worked up to the point that someone is almost forced into court strikes me as being sensitive in the extreme. You would think that a person holding public office would be more robust.

Blaylock subsequently apologised. Graciously, Nkonyeni has now lifted the suspension and, in return, is investigating “racism, ill-treatment of staff and abuse of departmental facilities by Dr Blaylock and some doctors operating at some of our rural facilities”.

If the new allegations are true, these should be looked at. But why suspend Blaylock for ‘photo abuse’ and think about racism, a much more serious charge, as an afterthought?

When I heard this story, it reminded me of the tale that used to do the rounds when I worked on the Wits Student newspaper in the 1980s. It concerned Mark Douglas-Home, editor of the student newspaper. The young Douglas-Home, a Briton studying in South Africa, ran a cartoon featuring a small girl peering into a toilet, asking, “Is that the Prime Minister?” The Prime Minister at the time, BJ Vorster, not renowned for his sense of humour, was outraged. Douglas-Home was deported to England in 1972.

Now, of course, I am not making direct comparisons between Nkonyeni and Vorster, which would be ridiculous. It is impossible to compare anyone or anything to Vorster, except, maybe, a toilet.

But I do want to question why deference to political power, whether a photograph or an irreverent cartoon, is even expected, whether in the past or the present.

The whole notion of heads of State or government functionaries being adorned on walls or commemorated through statues, the world over, is something I cannot fathom.

Those in office are paid by you and me. They work for us. If anyone’s face should be on the wall, it should be those of the people. I appreciate that putting a picture of a few million people on a wall is a tad tricky. I am also not condoning disrespectful behaviour to leaders. A President or a pauper deserves respect. But respect is something which is earned, not created through plastering pictures of the President, or whoever, all over the place.

Also, what is it about being in a position of power that causes one’s sense of humour to expire? There seems to be an inverse relationship between political power and a disease called SOHF, aka Sense of Humour Failure. And what worries me is that SOHF is spreading rampantly in South Africa.

Last I heard, Jacob Zuma had caught the bug. He is suing Zapiro for depicting him in cartoons as having a shower attached to his head, a not-so-subtle reference to his comments that he showers after sex to help prevent HIV/Aids transmission.

Zapiro, my friend, my advice is: apologise now and cooperate fully with the commission of inquiry that follows. Better still, flush your pens down the toilet and, why not, deport yourself. I have heard that censorship is the only cure for SOHF.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 10 May 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.