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?

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.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Where is the light at the end of the tunnel

The word that South Africa is famous for introducing into international parlance is 'apartheid'. However, as power outages continue in the country, its next big export will be ‘load-shedding'. South Africa did not invent the term, but it is claiming it.

Every time I speak with someone at home, load-shedding finds its way into the conversation. Load-shedding is a nice way of saying you are sitting in the dark for a stretch of two to three hours, eating whatever can be consumed cold from your fridge while the power company uses your electricity elsewhere.

For those like me, sitting comfortably in front of a power-guzzling computer in the northern hemisphere, this is an unthinkable scenario. For those in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, it is typical. In fact, having no power for only four hours a day would be a luxury.

The fact that others in the world have the same or worse problems does not make it any easier for South Africans. A support group for victims of power cuts is hardly going to help. People should not be wandering around, saying how long it has been since their last electricity fix. In a country with the wealth and scientific knowledge of South Africa, you would think the issue could be sorted out.

In my quest to learn more about load-shedding, I visited the Eskom website. It offers helpful information about what load-shedding is, and tells you about how electricity is made (or, in South Africa's case, not made). There is even a cute little graphic warning of the next blackout.

This, of course, is all well and good, if you have electricity and a computer to view it. Everyone knows the attractive layout masks chaos. Stories abound of traffic pandemonium, a massive dent on business productivity and personal impacts like individuals using emphysema oxygen-generating machines being left gasping for air in the dark.

The optimistic view is that load-shedding may result in cleaner energies in the long run and greater reliance on solar technologies, something South Africa has in abundance. Some say, tongue in cheek, generator expansion and candle production could bring in millions. Others point out that load-shedding is the product of economic growth, not decline. The pessimistic view is that nothing grows in the dark, especially an economy, and that this is the beginning of social and economic meltdown.

It is a shame that this discussion is even happening. Load-shedding is impacting on the one thing South Africa has produced in bucket loads since 1994, namely pride. South Africa was seen as the powerhouse of Africa. Now no one can find the house without a torch. It seems as if load-shedding is, outside the day-to-day consequences, creating disillusionment. The light at the end of the tunnel is lost in a bureaucratic botch-up.

But the world should take note of what is happening in South Africa. It is a global warning. The South African situation is the product of bad management, but it is also about unchecked growth. Industry, especially international companies offering investment, have been given, especially over the last decade, a free hand to build as much and as fast as possible. Regulation of power use and energy efficiency has been largely nonexistent. This is happening in countless economies across the globe. It is unsustainable.

If South Africa wants to regain some pride, either we have to beat Australia at cricket or take the easy option and find an innovative way to raise electricity supply without increasing emissions significantly. So power to the people, and for everyone's sake I hope a leaner, cleaner and more efficient and regulated solution can be found quickly. For now, good luck and remember baked beans are as good served cold as hot and red wine is best at room temperature.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 11 April 2008.