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Genetically engineered bee killer ? March 30, 2007

Posted by Andreas in bees, Environment, genetic engineering, News, Sustainable Living.
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I came across this really worrying article in Spiegel Online (the virtual version of the reputable German lefty print magazine Der Spiegel) that I though was scary enough to warrant quoting at some length.

For unknown reasons, bee populations throughout Germany are disappearing […] [I]n the United States, […] bees are dying in such dramatic numbers that the economic consequences could soon be dire. No one knows what is causing the bees to perish, but some experts believe that the large-scale use of genetically modified plants in the US could be a factor.

[…]

Manfred Hederer, the president of the German Beekeepers Association, […] reported a 25 percent drop in bee populations throughout Germany. In isolated cases, says Hederer, declines of up to 80 percent have been reported. He speculates that “a particular toxin, some agent with which we are not familiar,” is killing the bees.

[…]

Since last November, the US has seen a decline in bee populations so dramatic that it eclipses all previous incidences of mass mortality. Beekeepers on the east coast of the United States complain that they have lost more than 70 percent of their stock since late last year, while the west coast has seen a decline of up to 60 percent.

[…]

Millions of bees have simply vanished. In most cases, all that’s left in the hives are the doomed offspring. But dead bees are nowhere to be found — neither in nor anywhere close to the hives.

[…]

In many cases, scientists have found evidence of almost all known bee viruses in the few surviving bees found in the hives after most have disappeared. Some had five or six infections at the same time and were infested with fungi — a sign, experts say, that the insects’ immune system may have collapsed.

The scientists are also surprised that bees and other insects usually leave the abandoned hives untouched. Nearby bee populations or parasites would normally raid the honey and pollen stores of colonies that have died for other reasons, such as excessive winter cold. “This suggests that there is something toxic in the colony itself which is repelling them”.

A massive dying off of bee colonies is obviously a real disaster, but what had me most worried was the possible connection with genetically engineered crops, especially BT corn, which is, of course, grown here in South Africa.

[…] [R]esearchers [at the University of Jena] examined the effects of pollen from a genetically modified maize variant called “Bt corn” on bees. […] The study concluded that there was no evidence of a “toxic effect of Bt corn on healthy honeybee populations.” But when, by sheer chance, the bees used in the experiments were infested with a parasite, something eerie happened. According to the Jena study, a “significantly stronger decline in the number of bees” occurred among the insects that had been fed a highly concentrated Bt poison feed.

According to Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University of Halle in eastern Germany and the director of the study, the bacterial toxin in the genetically modified corn may have “altered the surface of the bee’s intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry — or perhaps it was the other way around. We don’t know.”

I know one small study proves nothing and this sort of thing should not be used to whip people up into an irrational frenzy. This is, however, exactly the kind of scenario many anti-GE people warn us about.

What are the consequences of introducing artificially manufactured life forms (which we understand only to a limited degree) into an exceedingly intricate, but increasingly threatened and fragile natural environment (which we understand very poorly in its overall complexity)?

For all our sakes, let’s hope that the dying of the bees has nothing to do with genetically engineered crops, because if it does, this may only be the first sign of a much larger disaster.

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Renewable energy can conquer global warming March 29, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Nuclear Power, renewable energy, Sustainable Living.
10 comments

Engage the pro-atomic energy community in a keyboard battle (as I have done in recent times) and in no time at all they will tell you that nuclear power provides 70% of France’s electricity, that renewable energy sources are immature, unreliable and expensive and that their supporters are unscientific smelly hippies who don’t know what they’re talking about and whose sources are dubious at best.

They will not tell you that Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is in the process of phasing out atomic power entirely and they will not tell you that there have been numerous scientific studies showing that currently available renewable energy technologies in conjunction with improved energy efficiency are capable of reducing global CO2 emissions enough to keep global warming and climate change under control while allowing for continued economic and population growth. And all of it without the help (sic) of nuclear power.

Atomic energy generation has some very major unresolved environmental and socio-economic problems (including long-lived radioactive waste, the danger of environmental contamination and atomic weapons proliferation), so surely if the job can be done without it, plain common sense should dictate that we do.

Below, I’ve summarised a number of extremely thorough international scientific reports from reputable institutions and individuals that support the claims above (I’ve provided links to the reports themselves, but be aware that some of the pdf files are rather bulky).

A 2004 study by the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (“Steps towards a sustainable development”) showed that simply by improving energy conservation and energy efficiency in a technologically feasible manner, the per capita energy demand of Switzerland could be reduced by two thirds while simultaneously increasing energy services by two thirds by 2050. In the US, it is estimated that energy demand could be reduced to one sixth of current use simply through more efficient technologies.

A 164-page study entitled “A Clean Energy Future for Australia” published in 2004 by WWF Australia and other members of the Clean Energy Future Group explores how Australia can cut its CO2 emissions by 50% by 2040 through a combination of existing renewable energy technologies and improved energy efficiency while taking into account economic and population growth.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Delaware and Stanford University found that

The wind resource off the Mid-Atlantic coast could supply the energy needs of nine states from Massachusetts to North Carolina, plus the District of Columbia–with enough left over to support a 50 percent increase in future energy demand […]

and Gar Lipow showed that the USA could replace all of its non-hydro power plants with wind generators and electricity storage and still lower its overall electricity bill.

In January of this year, the American Solar Energy Society, with the backing of amongst others NASA’s chief climate change scientist, Dr. James Hansen, released a report entitled “Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.”. This detailed study reveals that most, if not all, US CO2 emission reductions needed to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 1oC can come from energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies (solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal) without requiring any new nuclear power plants.

A 2003 study into the employment potential of renewable energy in South Africa (which is summarised here) found that electricity generation from renewable resources (solar, wind, biomass, landfills) would create many more jobs than conventional technologies (coal, gas, nuclear including PBMR).

The joint European Renewable Energy Council – Greenpeace report “Energy [R]evolution – a sustainable world energy outlook” concludes that

Renewable energy, combined with efficiencies from the ‘smart use’ of energy, can deliver half of the world’s energy needs by 2050 […] The report […] provides a practical blueprint for how to cut global CO2 emissions by almost 50% within the next 43 years, whilst providing a secure and affordable energy supply and, critically, maintaining steady worldwide economic development. Notably, the plan takes into account rapid economic growth areas such as China, India and Africa […]

This is accomplished using only mature, proven and sustainable technologies, while simultaneously phasing out nuclear energy and continuously reducing fossil fuel consumption.

South Africa with its long coastline, strong winds and long hours of sunshine has massive renewable energy resources. If countries like Switzerland, Australia and Germany can overcome the energy and global warming crisis, then why can’t we?

Nuclear saints or sinners March 27, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Nuclear Power.
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Jeffrey St. Clair recently wrote a very interesting account of the US atomic industry’s most recent attempts at re-inventing itself as the answer to global warming.

The article is entitled “Kyoto, Gore and the Atomic Lobby. Nuclear Saviors?” and you can read it here.

Quote de jeur #2 March 26, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Quotes.
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I hate a Roman named Status Quo! Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that, shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.

Fahreneit 451, Ray Bradbury.

Living with uranium March 23, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, News, Nuclear Power.
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Between 1956 and 1966 a uranium refining mill in Tuba City, Arizona, processed hundreds of thousands of tons of uranium ore to help fuel the United States’ nuclear effort.

Today, former workers at the plant and inhabitants of Tuba City are still living with the effects: mine tailings, cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, groundwater contamination… these are just some of the externalised costs of the nuclear industry and Tuba City is just one of many examples from around the world.

Read a series of articles from the Arizona Daily Sun about the situation in Tuba City here, here and here.

Oh and while you’re at it, here’s a really good take on the history of the atomic industry.

Yes mom, I am an anarchist! March 22, 2007

Posted by Andreas in anarchism, Politics.
17 comments

The other night my mother called me in a state of shock. People had kept telling her about the anti-nuclear rant I wrote on News24 and my blog, but although she was somewhat concerned about my taking the apparently unpopular anti-atomic stance, that was not what had gotten her into a frenzy.

Mom: It says at the bottom of your article that you’re an “anarchist”! You don’t believe in lawlessness, wanton mayhem and destruction, do you. You couldn’t hurt a fly. You’re not an anarchist. Who wrote that there?

Me: Well, actually, I guess one of the editors did, but it’s true, mom, I am an anarchist.

-long moment of silence in which almost 40-year old anarchist, feeling like a teenager, admonishes himself for not having formally come-out to his parents believing that their internet-free lifestyle would save them the associated worries and him long arguments and explanations-

Mom: What on earth do you mean? Your dad is worried we are going to be arrested!

So for the benefit of my mother and everyone else who’s concerned about my moral well-being and mental sanity, I’m writing this (rather lengthy) explanation of what I mean by anarchism (actually, I wrote it a couple of years back in a zine that was probably read by 4 people at best).

I know it’s quite wordy and pompous, but at least it’s not flippant like this introduction, right mom!?

anarchism 1

My mother’s panic is a perfect example of the fact that anarchism has got to be one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented ideas around. Maligned as violent and chaotic by the right and as ultra-left, utopian and counter-revolutionary by the left, most people have been conditioned to associate anarchism with wanton destruction and mayhem.

One of the main reasons for this very negative conception of anarchism in many people’s minds is that anarchists have consistently been outspoken enemies of those institutions and individuals that most powerfully shape public opinion and the way history is written (e.g. governments, politicians, capitalists, religious hierarchies, and the corporate media they own and control). The anarchist vision of a new society based on freedom, equality and solidarity is diametrically opposed to the way the world is run currently – no wonder that those who are in power will do everything to maintain the status quo, and have always vilified anarchists and their ideas.

In reality, the vast majority of anarchists are reasonable, peace-loving and independent-minded people who pride themselves in the fact that their ideas are grounded in rational thought and logic. Anarchism is a pragmatic, practical and ever-evolving body of ideas: a socio-economic and political theory that reflects the experiences and struggles of ordinary people. It is not an ideology… it bows to “no gods, no masters” !

At its heart, anarchism has a sophisticated critique of human power relations that identifies hierarchical authority and domination of human by human as the source of most problems in our society.

With exceedingly few exceptions, human relationships are controlled by institutions with pyramidal power structures in which power is centralized and concentrated in a minority of individuals at the top. Capitalism, patriarchy, corporations, governments, armies, political parties, nuclear families, religious organizations, schools, factories and universities are all based, in a fundamental way, on a few people bossing it over the many.

Anarchists argue for the destruction of all these authoritarian, hierarchical, repressive and coercive institutions. Noam Chomsky suggests that

“it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled to increase the scope of human freedom! That includes political power, ownership and management, relationships among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations…, and much else.”

An anarchist society would be organized “from the bottom up”, managed by free individuals and voluntary associations, in which the potential of each human being is realized without limiting that of others. In the words of L. Susan Brown,

“anarchists oppose the idea that power and domination are necessary for society, and instead advocate more co-operative, anti-hierarchical forms of social, political and economic organization.”

Anarchists oppose capitalism, the state and all forms of religious authority, and work towards a society of self-managed confederations of decentralized workplace and community organizations based on direct, participatory democracy, rather than the delegation of power to “representatives”.

In this new world, a high priority would be placed on individual liberty and sovereignty, but within a society of equals. In the absence of hierarchical power relationships, economic, sexual, racial or social oppression and exploitation would not be tolerated in any form.

Far from being the chaotic and destructive ideology of bomb-throwing hooligans it is often portrait as, anarchism thus combines a radical critique of our current society with a revolutionary vision of what it could be like. Although anarchists have a very good idea of what they want this future to be like, they have no intention of ever providing the “vanguard” to lead people to this promised land.

As Michael Bakunin realized, “no theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world”. Change will have to come from individuals and communities themselves.

Enrico Malatesta insisted that

“anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want people to emancipate themselves…, we want the new way of life to emerge from the body of the people and correspond to the state of their development and advance as they advance”.

All anarchists can do is to try to convince people of the rationality of their arguments.

It would be ironic if anarchists were to produce detailed blueprints for a supposedly perfect society, to be handed down from those who know best to the clueless masses. Instead, anarchists debate broad frameworks of ideas for a better world.

A fundamental requirement of these frameworks is that they must provide individuals and society as a whole the freedom to experiment and the ability to constantly evolve towards improvement.

Some key concepts of the anarchist vision include:

  • direct participatory democracy, with non-hierarchical organizations in which each participant has the ability to affect all decisions in proportion to the degree to which they affect her/his life;
  • self-management and self-government (i.e. workers’ control of their workplaces and citizens’ control of their communities);
  • society-wide ownership (not state-ownership!) of the means of production and distribution;
  • an economy that is accountable to society and our environment as a whole, not the other way around;
  • equity, mutual aid and solidarity;
  • voluntary association, decentralization and federation;
  • independence and direct action;
  • means that are compatible with desired ends.

In the words of Kropotkin,

“a society of equals, who will not be compelled to sell their hands and their brains to those who choose to employ them … but who will be able to apply their knowledge and capacities to production, in an organism so constructed as to combine all the efforts for procuring the greatest possible well-being for all, while full, free scope will be left for every individual initiative”.

Book Review: The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk March 19, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Book Reviews, History.
6 comments

My rating: 8 out of 10 – insightful and shockingly tragic.

For the last thirty years or so, Robert Fisk has been the English-language correspondent in the Middle East and The Great War for Civilisation – The Conquest of the Middle East is his monumental masterpiece.

This is not the kind of book you are likely to finish on a lazy long weekend. It’s heavy, both in size (1368 pages!) and content, and will leave you shocked and terrified. Even if you have kept abreast with developments in the Middle East over the last few decades, this book provides first-hand insights and between-the-lines details from one of the greatest, old-school investigative journalists and war reporters of our time that will keep you turning the pages.

Fisk has seen it all. He was there when the Russians invaded Afghanistan; during the eight year long Iraq-Iran war he spend harrowing days under fire with both the Iraqi and Iranian armies; he has interviewed Osama bin Laden three times and he was the last western journalist to enter Baghdad before the start of the second Gulf War.

This book is part history, part personal testimony and part political analysis from an engaged and angry writer who has remained steadfast in his condemnation of the horrors of war, genocide, oppression and injustice whoever the perpetrators or aggressors may be.

Fisk’s compassion for the thousands of innocent victims shines through in all of his work. He is not the kind of reporter who is content with being “embedded” with an invading army and he is not the kind of reporter who is prepared to sit on the fence or the sidelines. He tells it how he sees it. He does not simply repackage the latest government press release, but insists on visiting the morgues and the hospitals and the missile impact sites himself – even at grave danger to his life.

This book is required reading for anyone who cares about what is happening in the Middle East, but be warned: its pages are stained with blood and littered with accounts of murder, torture and atrocities. Fisk insists on telling the gory details of the human tragedy that has pervaded so much of Middle Eastern history because no body else will.

A new oil refinery for the Eastern Cape? March 16, 2007

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", Coega, Environment, News, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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If negotiations and pre-feasibility studies are successful, Coega, my favourite industrial development zone (not!), may soon be home to yet another multi-billion rand development. This time it’s a new oil refinery.

I guess we’re supposed to think that since they’re already building an aluminium smelter and a ferro-manganese smelter in the area, a little oil refinery won’t make much of a difference.

GroundWork, the KZN-based NGO, has done some really good work on the impact of oil refineries on people and the environment, especially in Durban. You can find their informative fact sheet on the subject here and download a great 22-page pdf booklet here. Actually, if you send me your postal address, I’ll mail you one of the booklets for free.

Speaking about Coega, the floating trophy for light comic relief goes to Mr Anthony Hunneyball from Walmer in Port Elizabeth. In a letter to The Herald (March 8, 2007), Mr Hunneyball writes:

Driving back from Grahamstown to Port Elizabeth I was amazed to see the extent of street lighting in the vicinity of the Coega interchange. […]

This in the light (no pun intended) of global warming and excessive carbon emissions on the one hand, and the constant strain that Eskom is under to supply even normal electricity levels to our cities at present. […]

Don’t get me wrong, I fully support Mr Hunneyball’s sentiments, they just seem a little ironic in the light (no pun intended) of the massively increased carbon emissions and strain on electricity production that will ensue once those metal smelters are fired up.

The forest for the trees March 15, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, holiday, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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We’ve just come back from the most blissful weeks’ holiday in Nature’s Valley, away from the crowds (the “secret season” rocks), the golf courses, driving ranges and golf estates that seem to pollute so much of the Garden Route these days.

Is it just me, or are places like Knysna and Plett getting uglier by the year? I wouldn’t go to Knysna on holiday. It’s just too crowded and over-developed with next to zero charm or character… really sad.

I guess to an extent it’s a case of urbanisation not just being a problem in the big cities like Cape Town, but in smaller centres as well. One of my main problems is that development in these places seems to be too much about luxury retirement/holiday living and kitschy tourism and too little about sustainable growth of communities.

While we were there there was an announcement for a new R2 billion development on the banks of the Knysna River which included, of course, another golf course.

How long will it take for the Knysna lagoon (estuary, actually) to collapse as an ecosystem? If our experience with Rietvlei in Cape Town is anything to go by, I fear it won’t take very long. But we won’t learn from these precedents, will we!? “Can’t happen here” is the mantra.

What struck me most on this trip, however, was the forest. More specifically the difference between the indigenous forest and the commercial MacForestTM plantations.

I imagine that much of the Tsitsikamma coast – the plain between the sea and the mountains – was once covered by a vast and mostly contiguous indigenous forest with fynbos et al filling in the gaps (I really don’t know if this is true and would love to hear from anyone who knows more about the natural history of the area).

Today, the indigenous forest hangs on in a couple of isolated pockets and in some of the deeply incised river gorges. It’s still beautiful and magical, but clearly a shadow of its glorious former self.

In contrast to the almost impenetrable, multi-story and many-specied indigenous forests, the monotonous sterility of the mono-crop pine plantations is truly sick-making. Geometrically aligned, numbered and chosen for their fast and straight growth, the alien trees in these plantations are harvested and turned into floor boards, telephone posts and mining timber on a regular basis leaving behind big stumpy scars to be filled with the next generation of seedlings.

plantation

The contrast between this and the indigenous forest is just mind-boggling. It’s so obvious that I’m not sure why it affected me more this time around than on previous visits.

Perhaps it’s because the forests are a metaphor of how we are conducting ourselves on this planet more generally? It makes me sad to think of what we’ve lost and what we’ve replaced it with, and forests are just one example.

A week in paradise March 9, 2007

Posted by Andreas in holiday, Life, South Africa.
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We’re on a family holiday in Nature’s Valley this week. This is one of my favo0urite places in the world. It’s got a beautiful, long, sandy beach, a lagoon (actually it’s an estuary), mountains, dense indigenous forest and it’s perfect for relaxing and just hanging out. Which is exactly what we’re doing.

Nature's Valley 1

Nature’s Valley is basically surrounded by nature reserves and there are no hotels. The village consists mostly of holiday houses and a few self-catering places and B&B’s There’s a little shop for the basics and a pub restaurant. Even though the valley is some distance off the N2 highway, Plett is only half an hour’s drive away. We’re renting a self-catering house which is actually pretty expensive, but since there are 7 of us the per person per night costs are really cheap.

Nature's Valley 2

Perfect! Don’t you wish you were here!?