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Storm in an organic teacup August 25, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming, Organic Food, rant, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Storm in an organic teacup

(This column was first published on 2010-08-18 at News24 here)

It’s a food fight! Last week Meagan Karstens published an article entitled 6 good reasons to go organic on Women24.com. Resident Channel24 shock jock Chris McEvoy responded by exposing the organic movement for what he thinks it is: a big, fat, money-making boondoggle.

Read together, the two pieces do more to muddy the waters than provide useful information. Karstens’ article represents standard magazine fare on the topic, regurgitating the accepted organic canon without much in the way of supporting evidence. What it contains in good intentions, it lacks in detail and research.

With his usual outrageous brilliance, McEvoy counters by wielding the polemic weapon of school-yard bullies and televangelists everywhere: if I shout my opinion louder than you, mine’s got to be true. For all its machismo and entertainment value, his contribution provides even less factual content than the original article.

Before you cancel your weekly organic veggie box in disgust, I thought I’d add my own two cents’ worth.

Organic food tastes better

She says “It does”. He says “No. It. Doesn’t.” Taste is a subjective measure of quality. There’s even a so-called “halo” effect: the average consumer will expect food to taste better just because it’s labelled “organic”.

There have been numerous taste tests pitting organic against non-organic food. Many have found no consistent difference, but among the well-designed investigations that did identify a significant distinction, the majority favour organic foods. More sophisticated organoleptic studies which evaluate the sensory properties of products involving colour, feel, odour and taste have consistently rated products such as organic apples, strawberries and tomatoes superior to their non-organic counterparts in terms of sweetness, intensity of flavour, texture and crispness.

It’s more nutritious

Here McEvoy dispenses with the pesky requirement of addressing the issue at hand altogether. Existing scientific data on the matter is, in fact, patchy. Two, influential literature reviews commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency found no evidence that organic and conventional foods differ significantly in nutrient content or health benefits.

There have, however, been a number of reports, including several long-term, EU-funded studies and a recent survey by the French national food agency, which argue that many organic products are richer in nutritionally desirable compounds, including vitamins, antioxidants, polyunsaturated fatty acids and beneficial minerals, and have lower levels of undesirable compounds such as nitrates and heavy metals. Comparatively few organic products contain residues of synthetic pesticides, common “ingredients” in non-organic food.

It promotes a healthy eco-system and is chemical-free

Its potential for environmental sustainability is the most compelling reason for supporting organic agriculture – a point that Karstens fails to make effectively. Industrial factory farming is destroying the planet and denying millions of animals, drugged with hormones and kept alive with antibiotics, the most basic levels of welfare.

McEvoy’s assessment of the chemicals used in organic food production betrays naïveté on his part. Yes, organic farmers use a small number of potentially harmful chemicals, but only in limited quantities and when ecological alternatives fail. To compare this with the billions of litres of fossil fuel-derived pesticides and fertilisers with which conventional farmers soak their fields, polluting waters and soils and poisoning millions of farm workers every year, is laughable.

Making a difference

As long as you avoid products grown far away or in heated greenhouses, organic farming is likely to have a lower carbon footprint, because of its capacity to sequester carbon in organic matter-rich soil and its reduced use of fossil fuels and their derivatives.

Setting an example

McEvoy may find this tedious, but I’d rather set an example than meekly munch the genetically-modified cornflakes dished up by the mainstream agri-industry.

Bonus: you won’t wake-up with a hangover

I’m with McEvoy on this one – impurities may add to your babalas, but it’s the alcohol that produces it in the first place.

In his final paragraph McEvoy dismisses any lingering thoughts that his piece was meant to be a joke by pointing a lazy and unconvincing hyperlink to someone else’s opinion. As far as his conspiracy theory involving oh-so-scary Woolies is concerned, I can do one better: think actual multinational agri-giants like Monsanto whose intention of taking control of the entire food chain from TerminatorTM seed to McTVMealTM are on public record.

The verdict

Go local, seasonal and organic wherever you can – it’s better for the planet and better for you.

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Can capitalism be green? August 24, 2010

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", Column, Environment, Politics, rant, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Can capitalism be green?

(This column was first published on 2010-08-11 at News24 here)

To make a 700-word story short: no, I don’t believe it can. It’s possible to make it green-er, yes, but I don’t think that capitalism is consistent with sustainable, long-term human existence on this planet.

I know that many of you will disagree with me on this one, so let’s take a step back to begin with. I would think that the majority of us can agree that we’re facing a growing environmental crisis. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, pollution and deforestation on a massive scale – the list of environmental woes is frightening. Most of us would further concede that human activities are predominantly to blame for this situation. If you don’t think so, don’t bother reading any further.

If you ask people what the causes of our environmental predicament are, they typically come up with one or several of the following:

– human greed and selfishness,

– corporate greed and selfishness,

– a materialistic consumer culture,

– aggressive rivalry over natural resources among individuals, companies and countries,

– a philosophy that values financial profits over people and planet, and

– a preoccupation with competition rather than co-operation.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t these some of the defining characteristics of capitalism? Then why don’t we identify capitalism as the culprit? The fact that capitalism, as a dominant mode of organising our human interactions, might be at the root of the dilemma is entirely absent from the mainstream discourse in the media and elsewhere.

It’s as though capitalism is the new über-expletive. The C-word that can’t be mentioned in polite society.

Capitalism is predicated on continuous and expanding growth accomplished by the exploitation of human labour and the natural world, which are converted into commodities to be turned into profit and capital. Everything – air, soil, ore, plants, oil, genetic blueprints, indigenous knowledge – has a price and if it doesn’t, it’s of no value and can be trashed with gay abandon. Nature is seen simply as a repository of raw materials. On a local and global level, capitalism depends on deep inequalities between wealthy elites and a working multitude, between resource-extracting humans and resource-yielding nature and on market mechanisms that have proved to be too slow and unresponsive to environmental crises.

It doesn’t take a brainiac to realise that on a finite planet a system like that can only have one final destination: collapse.

Corporate flirtations with so-called green capitalism have amounted to little more than greenwash in which the much-vaunted triple bottom line equates not to economic, social and environmental benefits, but simply to profits, profits and more profits. BP’s disgraceful tumble from the PR rhetoric of “Beyond Petroleum” to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe serves as the most recent example.

That’s not to say that attempts to make industries and businesses more eco-friendly are completely useless. They’ll buy us a bit of time, but ultimately they’ll amount to little more than a rearranging of the deck chairs on a sinking ship. Our problems are deeper and more fundamental. What’s needed is a systemic change in the way we organise our entire civilisation and since capitalism is the dominant force, it needs to go.

So what’s the alternative? Don’t look at me! I have some ideas and suggestion, but no ready-made solution. Those of us on the political left have precious little to point to when it comes to ecological success stories. Most definitely not in countries that were or are supposedly run along socialist lines. There certainly isn’t anything that’s inherently environmentally sustainable in socialism the way it’s been defined traditionally.

At the very least, it seems to me, we need to make a fundamental shift in the way we relate to nature – as part of it, rather than apart from it. Furthermore, we need to recognise the intimate links between our environmental and social problems. There can be no social justice without environmental justice and vice versa.

For now, I’d be happy if we simply managed to get what has to be one of the most important environmental debates of the 21st Century on the public agenda. We need to collectively answer the question: what is to come after capitalism?

Mercury rising August 20, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Mercury rising

(This column was first published on 2010-08-04 at News24 here)

Mercury is nasty stuff. Children whose parents have warned them of the dangers of old-fashioned thermometers know this. But our government and the captains of industry don’t seem to know it. Or perhaps they just don’t care.

The general consensus among scientists is that as a result of human activities, current levels of mercury in the environment are between two and five times higher than they were a century ago. Simply laying the blame at the door of the usual environmental culprits – the developed countries of the First World – would be erroneous. In fact, South Africa bears a particularly high burden of culpability when it comes to mercury pollution.

We are the seventh largest emitters of gaseous mercury in the world. In 2006 it was reported that South Africa is second only to China in terms of overall mercury pollution. A small, preliminary study has found dangerously high mercury levels, well above World Health Organisation guidelines, in fish caught off Durban, Cape Town and the West Coast. While detailed results from the South African Mercury Assessment Programme have yet to be released, we’d probably do well to brace ourselves for more bad mercury news.

The cruel irony is that our national mercury headache is a direct result of the exploitation of the two resources that have contributed more than any others to the country’s industrialisation and the incredible wealth of some of its citizens: cheap coal and abundant gold. Call it environmental karma.

Coal contains small quantities of mercury which are spewed into the atmosphere when it’s burned in power stations, making them the largest source of mercury air pollution worldwide. Mercury has been used traditionally to separate gold from ore and although this method is only used by artisanal miners these days, the toxic legacy remains in our soils and waters. Other sources of mercury pollution include chemical plants, cement kilns, automobile scrap, batteries, electrical equipment, dental amalgam, medical waste, metal smelters, waste incinerators, the paper industry and fluorescent light bulbs.

Mercury is a persistent pollutant that does not break down naturally over time and a potent neurotoxin that can be particularly damaging to the brains of developing embryos and infants. According to US federal agencies, exposure to mercury accounts for an estimated 300 000 to 600 000 American children born with learning deficits annually.

Its toxicity and effect depend on its particular chemical form, but the medical consequences of mercury are generally agreed to be irreversible. Mercury can have detrimental impacts on the human immune, genetic, enzyme and nervous systems, can affect fertility and blood pressure and can lead to memory loss, lowered IQ, tremors, gingivitis, kidney failure, cardiovascular disease, damage to the lungs and gastrointestinal tract, insomnia, mood swings, acrodynia and Hunter-Russell syndrome.

Like I said – it’s nasty stuff! Not something we really want to contaminate our environment with is it!?

Your best chance of exposing yourself to mercury is by eating fish and seafood. Mercury that is deposited in fresh and seawater is converted into a fat-soluble compound called methylmercury which enters the food chain and bioaccumulates. In other words, rather than being excreted, it builds up in the body’s fatty tissue and increases in concentration up the food chain as tiny critters get eaten by larger critters which get eaten by bigger and bigger animals in turn. The largest fish species – tuna, swordfish, barracuda, marlin – thus tend to be the most severely contaminated.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are ways of curbing mercury pollution by using more eco-friendly industrial processes and scrubbing the stuff from power station smoke stacks. So what’s the problem? As usual, it’s cheaper to pollute than it is not to. Rather than shutting down our dirty coal-fired power stations, government is building more of them.

Mercury pollution represents a classic example of what economists call an externality – a detrimental side-effect of a process or policy that has not been accounted for economically, environmentally, socially or otherwise. It’s that which is ignored, swept under the carpet and left for others to deal with.

Externalities are the equivalent of collateral damage in modern warfare. And just as “accidental” civilian deaths are morally indefensible when you’re bombing enemy territory, “inadvertently” poisoning future generations with mercury is unforgivable. We must stop it!

Human trash or treasures? August 19, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Column, Environment, rant, Sustainable Living.
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Human trash or treasures?

(This column was first published on 2010-07-28 at News24 here)

South Africa has been a global leader in green jobs for decades. While the rest of the world was still grappling with the concept, hundreds of local men and women were already delivering valuable environmental services in every town and city of this country on a daily basis. What’s more, these pioneering eco-preneurs do their jobs voluntarily and for free.

Considering that the green economy is supposedly all the rage with government and industry these days you’d expect these dedicated workers to make clean sweeps of green award ceremonies everywhere and be heavily decorated with honorary medals for outstanding service to the community. Alas, most of us simply ignore them and their efforts. At best we think of them as a nuisance, at worst we regard them as thieving petty-criminals who deserve to be chased away and harangued.

Of course I’m talking about the waste pickers we all regularly encounter half-submerged in our wheelie bins on suburban “rubbish days”. The archetypal recyclers, they basically mine our household refuse for items they can eat, use, trade or sell – the stuff we are too lazy to separate from genuinely useless garbage. They might be the only people in the country to have negative environmental footprints, yet on a social level, the average family pet gets more respect than they do.

Their colleagues who eke out a living by salvaging things from municipal landfill sites don’t fare much better. They work with dangerous, toxic and infectious liquid, gaseous and solid waste, recovering anything from plastics, paper, cardboard and glass to metals, cloth cut-offs and computer components from which they can expect to make as little as R20 a day. At many landfill sites they are under constant threat of harassment and eviction.

Waste pickers contribute to the greater good by:

– conserving scarce resources, including energy and water through recycling;
– preventing soil, air and water pollution;
– creating secondary employment opportunities for recyclers and people converting their pickings into usable goods;
– prolonging the lifespan of landfills by saving space;
– preventing the loss of biodiversity and valuable land to expanding landfills; and
– mitigating climate change from greenhouse gas emitting landfill sites.

So why aren’t we treating them better? It’s our rubbish they’re saving us from after all!

Things are improving a little bit, mind you, but ever so slowly. Several NGOs, especially the KZN-based organisation groundWork, have played a leading role in helping landfill waste pickers to get organized, by doing research, hosting provincial waste pickers’ meetings, getting municipalities to engage with and recognise waste pickers and incorporating them in their waste management strategies. The Waste Act of 2008 legally recognises salvaging activities at landfill sites as well as the valuable role played by waste reclaimers themselves.

Last year saw the launch of the South African Wastepickers’ Association and a number of municipalities from Emfuleni in Gauteng and Mafikeng in the North West Province to Mpofana in KZN have granted waste pickers permission to do their jobs without harassment and as part of an integrated waste management plan. We need more of that kind of thing. Much more. On a national, provincial and municipal level.

Green jobs aren’t just about high-tech engineering, manufacturing solar water heaters and installing wind turbines and photovoltaic panels – although it would be nice if we finally got a good start on those, too. If government is really serious about establishing a green economy it’s high time that we empower waste pickers to improve their lot in life. They may be part of the most informal sector of the economy, but they are a well-established national group with a wealth of practical skills and experience who would benefit greatly from legal recognition and a more secure way of earning a livelihood.

I can think of few more affordable, effective and eco-friendly job creation opportunities than training waste pickers, providing them with protective gear, establishing recycling depots, waste-sorting centres and secondary recycling industries and projects throughout the country.

For the rest of us, it’s time to start treating waste pickers with more dignity and the respect they deserve.

Designer animals or Frankenbeasts? August 18, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, genetic engineering, rant, Sustainable Living.
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Designer animals or Frankenbeasts?

(This column was first published on 2010-07-21 at News24 here)

“You‘re always on about the dangers of genetically modified plants, but what about genetically modified animals!?” my friend Mike complained the other day. “You know, the idea of pre-plucked chickens and allergy-proof cats just freaks me out a whole lot more than the thought of insect-resistant millies!”

In his defence, Mike had just finished reading a particularly dystopian sci-fi novel on the topic, but I had to admit that I didn’t really know much about genetically modified (GM) animals. So it came as quite a shock when I found out that millions of the critters are produced worldwide every year and that they come with some rather troubling potential implications, environmental and otherwise.

GM animals are creatures whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated by scientists, by disabling, removing or adding bits of DNA, in order to give them new characteristics. This is different from cloning, which involves creating an identical copy of adult animals from their genetic material.

The reason why you and I haven’t heard much about GM animals is that until now they’ve been largely confined to laboratory environments. It’s also a lot trickier to successfully fiddle with the genetic make-up of animals than it is to modify plants. In recent years, however, technological advances have started to make the process easier, cheaper and more precise, opening the door to a rapidly growing range of possibilities in the field.

Mice and rats have been the most popular species to attract the attention of genetic engineers. Millions are used in laboratory experiments every year. Some are designed to run twice as far as normal mice or not to be afraid of cats. Others are genetically modified to model human diseases, to test the toxicity of chemicals or the efficacy of new drugs.

Manufacturing GM lab rodents is already a multi-million dollar industry and the potential for profitable commercial applications is driving a lot of the research. In the future, GM pigs may be used to grow entire organs – livers, kidneys, hearts, pancreas – for xenotransplantation into humans. Pharmaceutical companies are turning GM animals into medicine factories. Goats, cows, chickens, rabbits, sheep and pigs have been engineered to produce various medically valuable proteins and hormones in their milk, blood, eggs, urine and sperm.

Think goats that generate anti blood clotting drugs and chickens that lay eggs enriched in cancer-fighting proteins. Most of these have yet to be approved for commercial use and with the exception of some ornamental aquarium fish species made fluorescent by inserting jellyfish genes into their DNA, none have made it past the laboratory door.

From an environmental perspective, one of the biggest concerns lies in what some expect to be the widespread use of GM animals in future agriculture and food production. GM pigs with flesh enriched in omega 3 fatty acids; GM cattle resistant to udder infection and mad cow disease; GM sheep that produce more wool; fast growing GM salmon, carp, catfish and tilapia – the possibilities are endless.

But what happens if these manufactured species interbreed with normal and wild animals? What about the ethical and animal welfare considerations? And who will own the patents to these proprietary GM species and through them control a large chunk of our food supply?

GM animal advocates say it’s nothing more than a modern, scientific progression of what humans have been doing for millennia: domesticating, breeding and improving animals. But surely there is a qualitative difference between getting your best bull to mate with your neighbour’s healthiest cow and splicing human genes into a pig!

It’s a complicated debate, I know. After all, it’s genetically altered bacteria that manufacture the insulin which keeps the world’s diabetics on their feet. It just seems to me that we’ve reached a stage in our capacity to modify large life forms that warrants an honest, public discussion between the scientists and companies behind the research and us, the future consumers of their creations. I for one don’t want to live on The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Our Cup carbon bootprint August 17, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Climate change, Environment, Global warming, rant, renewable energy, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Our Cup carbon bootprint

(This column was first published on 2010-07-14 at News24 here)

It was fun, it was loud, it was colourful and it was a huge success. But especially green it was not. In fact, by several measures, the FIFA World Cup 2010 was possibly the least eco-friendly major international sporting event ever.

Before we let the euphoria of all the excess gees generated by a job brilliantly done hurtle us towards hosting other global mega shows – the Olympics, in particular – we’d do well to honestly assess some of the environmental shortcomings of the World Cup, along with other concerns around the (mis)allocation of scarce resources, white elephant stadiums and the behaviour of bully-boy organisers like FIFA.

An authoritative study sponsored by the Norwegian government estimates that the WC2010 was responsible for producing excess greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 2.7 million tones of CO2. That may be less than a percent of our national annual emissions, but it makes for a carbon footprint twice the size of that of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and more than eight times that of the WC2006 in Germany.

The event showed up our dirty, coal-fired electricity generation industry (12.4% of emissions came from energy use in accommodation), our carbon-intensive transport infrastructure within cities and between the far-flung stadiums (19%) and, most dramatically, the fact that we are located a great distance from most of the planet’s affluent football fans (a whopping 67.4% of emissions were due to international travel).

Yes, there was talk of “green goals”, but most of these appeared to be more ad hoc afterthoughts rather than binding and substantive commitments. Planting trees, even many thousands of them, is nice, but it’s also a notoriously ineffective method for sopping up CO2. The fact that African teams wore jerseys promoting biodiversity and that those of Brazil, Portugal and the Netherlands were partially made out of recycled plastic bottles amounts to little more than greenwashed corporate PR. Our stadiums, though stunningly beautiful and wonderfully accommodating, appear to incorporate disappointingly little in the way of green design.

Golden opportunity missed

Does this mean that, from an environmental perspective, we shouldn’t host major international events again? Not at all. It just means that we missed a golden opportunity in 2010 and that there is much room for improvement in the future.

It’s been estimated that it would take in the order of R200m to offset the WC2010 carbon footprint. A big sum, sure, but not an impossible one in the context of a multi-billion rand event. Imagine if that sort of money had been invested directly in greening South Africa. In a massive energy efficiency campaign, for example. Or to kick-start a home-grown renewable energy manufacturing industry. The single wind turbine that provided some green electricity to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was a commendable initiative, but why wasn’t this sort of thing an integral part of the plan for every stadium right from the start. The environmental benefits would have been as lasting as the wonderful footballing memories.

Around the world, new and refurbished eco-friendly sports stadiums are now being built using sustainable and recycled materials, incorporating systems that optimise energy and water savings, capture, clean and reuse waste and rainwater and generate their own electricity with renewable energy technologies. The 2012 Olympic Stadium in London, for instance, will have a façade wrapped in low-impact hemp, while the large roof of the World Games Stadium in Taiwan is covered in solar panels that power the entire facility and supply surplus electricity to the city of Kaohsiung. A stadium that doubles as a gigantic rainwater storage device and renewable energy power station between the odd fantastic sporting event stands much less of a chance of becoming a money-draining white elephant than some of our brand new arenas.

How about the 2020 Olympics then? Bring it! If we make the environment as fundamental and central a priority on the agenda as running a spectacular show to wow the planet, it’ll be even better than the World Cup.

Some cancer with your nuke energy? August 13, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Environment, Nuclear Power, rant, renewable energy, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Some cancer with your nuke energy?

(This column was first published on 2010-07-07 at News24 here)

Is it healthy to live near a nuclear power plant (NPP)? Is there an increased risk of contracting cancer, particularly for babies and young children in their formative years?

These are important, controversial and highly contested questions which have been the subject of intense public and scientific debate in Europe and North America for years.

Yet in South Africa, where Eskom and the government are intent on constructing several new NPPs in the next decade or two, they hardly ever get a mention. In the ongoing environmental impact assessment process for Eskom’s proposed Nuclear1 project, for instance, considerations of the impact on human health have been specifically excluded.

If you’re a regular reader of this column you’ll know that I don’t like nuclear power, but I’ve always considered health concerns to be among the least convincing arguments in the case against nukes. We are told, after all, that barring an accident, radioactive emissions from a NPP are so minimal – practically indistinguishable from the natural background – as to be inconsequential. Well, I’ve changed my mind.

Cancer clusters

In the late 1980s and early 1990s several studies reported a statistically raised incidence of childhood leukaemia, a cancer of the bone marrow or blood, within a ten mile radius of some English and Welsh atomic facilities.

Similar cancer clusters were also identified around some nuclear sites in the USA and France, but a number of contradictory studies from France, Israel, Great Britain, Finland, the USA, Spain and elsewhere could find no evidence for a correlation between the risk of contracting cancer and one’s proximity to a NPP.

The data is inconclusive, the experts said. Besides, there are many possible causes for cancer clusters as well as many cancer clusters which are located far from any NPPs.

Then, in the early 1990s a German medical doctor raised concern over the unusually large number of small children with leukaemia he was treating in his rural practice south east of Hamburg. All of the patients in question lived near the Krümmel NPP.

Several subsequent investigations confirmed his observations and established the existence of a cancer cluster around Krümmel.

In response to the considerable public outrage that followed, the German government commissioned what was designed to be a comprehensive and definitive scientific study to settle the dispute once and for all.

Known by its German acronym, the KiKK study investigated the prevalence of cancer among children below the age of 5 living near 16 of the country’s 20 commercial NPPs from 1980 to 2003. It goes without saying that similar studies have not been conducted in SA, nor are they on the cards.

Scary findings

The German results were releases in 2007 and 2008 and can be summarised as follows:

-Children living within 5km of an NPP are statistically more than twice as likely to develop leukaemia as others residing at a distance of more than 70km.

– The cancer risk increases with decreasing distance of a child’s home from a NPP.

– The data are not skewed by any “rogue” reactors and the results are verified even if data from any individual NPP are excluded from the analysis. The main findings have also been confirmed by subsequent independent evaluations.

So cancer clusters have been found around every German NPP investigated and it’s now officially accepted there that babies and small children – the sector of the population most vulnerable to ionising radiation – develop cancer and particularly leukaemia more frequently if they live near an NPP.

But here is the kicker.

Just because a pattern has been shown to exist doesn’t mean that NPPs are to blame. Since the results are “unexpected under current radiation-epidemiological knowledge” and NPPs supposedly emit too little radioactivity by a factor of 1 000 to 10 000 to cause cancer, “there is currently no plausible explanation for the observed effect”. Occam’s razor be damned!

Personally I don’t really care if small kids living near NPPs develop cancer because of leaking radioactivity or because of toxic fairy dust from evil pixies that just happen to like living in these places. I do have a solution to the conundrum though: let’s just stop building them.

Learning from savages August 12, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, rant, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Learning from savages

(This column was first published on 2010-06-30 at News24 here)

I have an idea for a reality TV show. It’ll be called Survivor. The name’s taken?! OK, something equally catchy along similar lines then. In the programme, two smallish human communities will be left to fend for themselves on a pristine tropical island for, say, four or five generations. The one group will consist of members from a traditional, “primitive”, tribal community from, for example, the middle of the Amazon. The other group will come from the “civilised” developed world – a leafy suburb of Jo’burg, perhaps.

Their task is simply to live, survive and flourish as mini societies, but without degrading or destroying their beautiful new island home while doing so. “Not fair!” you say? OK, the civs get access to today’s technologies and tools as well as an internet connection to even out the odds.

The practical problems with my little scheme are obvious. Maintaining viable viewership ratings for several decades or even centuries would be tricky. People are more interested in swearing celebrity chefs and starlets prepared to flash their pantyless crotches at the world than in humanity’s prospects for long-term existence.

But the more important reason why nobody would watch my version of Survivor is that the final outcome would be obvious from the get-go. The primitives would win hands down. After a few decades our clan of suburbanites would have exhausted the natural resources of their habitat and polluted it to dangerous levels. Unless, that is, they adopted at least part of the mindset of their savage competitors.

“Stop with this silly and unrealistic TV show parable”, you complain. OK, let’s just call it a thought experiment then and scale it up by several orders of magnitude to a planetary level. If we, the members of the dominant, “civilised” societies on earth, simply continue with business as usual – think Gulf of Mexico, climate change, running out oil, gas, coal and uranium – what is our world going to look like in, say, 200 years’ time? Now contrast this with what it would look like if the planet was inhabited only by people pursuing “primitive” lifestyles. Again, the answer is obvious: on a finite planet, a way of living based on continuous growth can only lead to one thing – collapse.

I’m not saying that we should all revert to hunter-gatherer mode. I’m merely suggesting that we should acknowledge that the “civilised” path we’re on right now is not sustainable in the long run and that there are other cultures that have thousands of years of practical experience of living on this planet without running it into the ground. Is it so unreasonable to think that we could learn something from these savages?

Recent archaeological work shows, for instance, that in pre-Colombian times the Amazon provided a home for millions of people rather than merely small, thinly dispersed tribal clans. There are remnants of networks of towns and villages connected by surprisingly sophisticated roads, large settlements that are believed to have been inhabited by as many as 100 000 people and signs that the rainforest dwellers developed effective ways of enriching the relatively infertile soil for agriculture. Scientists believe that rather than representing virgin, untouched forest, as much as 15% of the Amazon was intentionally and sustainably managed and shaped to benefit the human population for millennia.

Perhaps it is time for us to seriously question some of the more basic assumptions that underlie our own system: that the main driving force behind homo economicus – you and me as modern, atomised producers and consumers – should be the maximisation of personal profit, that whatever natural resources we exploit to extinction can simply be replaced by others and that things in nature have no intrinsic value unless they are of use to humans.

It’s time to move from an ego-centric way of living for just today and tomorrow to an eco-centric one that looks much further ahead in time. The great Iroquois Confederacy of North America had a tradition that required them to consider the potential impact of any decision made in the present on seven generations into the future. Sounds reasonable to me. They would have watched my reality TV show…

Who’s better than BP? August 11, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, rant, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Who’s better than BP?

(This column was first published on 2010-06-23 at News24 here)

My friends keep nagging me: “Now that I’m boycotting BP because of the oil spill, where should I buy my petrol?” Why they ask for my advice is beyond me. They must know by now that I’m the biggest cynic when it comes to questions about multinational companies and their environmental records.

“Makes no difference. They’re all equally bad!” is my standard answer.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flippant. The disgusting mess BP has created in the Mexican Gulf has left motorists with a conscience in a quandary. So which service station do you pull into when your petrol gauge hits empty these days?

Caltex

Bad choice! Chevron – aka Caltex – is embroiled in one of the largest environmental lawsuits in history for turning a remote region of the Amazon into a “Rainforest Chernobyl” that has been described as the worst oil-related disaster ever.

Texaco, a company that merged with Chevron in 2001, extracted oil in northern Ecuador for nearly three decades and when they got out in the 1990s, they left behind over 900 open pits leaking toxic petroleum pollutants into groundwater and rivers used for drinking, cooking and sanitation by the local population. They’d also dumped billions of litres of toxic “formation waters”, a by-product of the oil drilling process, into local streams.

The result: widespread contamination of soil, air and water, increased rates of cancers, birth defects, respiratory diseases and miscarriages, and the destruction of the traditional way of life of the indigenous population. According to an independent expert appointed by an Ecuadorian court, the company is liable for damages to the tune of $27bn.

Sasol

Local isn’t always lekker. I’m told that it’s neither fair nor relevant to mention that the process which Sasol uses to convert coal into oil is Nazi technology adopted by Apartheid South Africa. It is pertinent, however, that it produces large amounts of CO2. Sasol spews out over 70 million tons of the greenhouse gas annually and its plant at Secuda is notorious for being the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

Total

The French oil major was responsible for what is considered the country’s worst environmental disaster when crude from a sinking tanker resulted in a 400-kilometre-long oil slick along the coast of Brittany in 1999. Total is also being investigated for bribing Iraqi officials under Saddam Hussein to secure oil supplies and it’s currently being sued for condoning the use of slave labour in the construction of a pipeline it operates in Myanmar despite EU sanctions against the military dictatorship there.

Shell

Remember Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight Ogoni compatriots! Sure, Royal Dutch/Shell didn’t exactly put the noose around their necks, but as the biggest oil player in the Niger Delta, the company was complicit in the state-sanctioned murder of the activists who spoke out against the exploitation of their people and homeland.

Shell began drilling in Ogoniland in 1958. Today, the countryside is dissected by pipelines, the air, soil and water are polluted, the locals are suffering from abnormally high levels of cancer, asthma and other diseases and their fisheries and livelihoods are severely degraded. The flaring of natural gas in Nigerian oil fields is responsible for more global warming than that from the rest of the world’s oil fields combined. An estimated 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the delta – equivalent to an Exxon Valdez disaster every year for the last 40 years. Shell has been accused of causing an average of five 16 000-litre oil spills every week.

Engen

And we have a winner. Engen is a subsidiary of the Malaysian national oil company Petronas and while they’re responsible for some comparatively minor spills, they haven’t been reported for any major disasters. Yet. So at this stage Engen might just be your most ethical choice when it comes to filling up your tank.

I retain my right to be cynical, though. The petroleum business is dirty and so are the organisations that run it. All we can do is choose the least tainted company in a thoroughly rotten bunch. What we really need is a way of living that doesn’t depend on oil in the first place.

Poisoning our crib August 10, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Environment, rant, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Poisoning our crib

(This column was first published on 2010-06-09 at News24 here)

Some types of pollution are easy to spot – the hazy blanket of smog covering a busy metropolis, a rainbow-coloured film of petroleum on the surface of a stream. Others are impossible to see with the naked eye, yet they are all around us and, increasingly, inside our bodies.

There are an estimated 70 000 to 80 000 synthetic chemicals in use globally today. Some are essential ingredients in numerous products, others are unintended by-products of manufacturing processes and many have become ubiquitous in the natural environment. While the majority may be innocuous, only a small fraction have ever been tested for safety and toxicity, while numerous others are known to have potentially detrimental health and environmental effects.

These chemicals find their way into the air, waters and plants and from there they tend to accumulate inside the bodies of animals with concentrations increasing towards the top of the food chain. They’ve been detected in people living in the remotest Arctic regions and scientists believe they explain, at least in part, rising disease rates in polar bears as well as high cancer occurrences in a range of species from Beluga whales and sea lions to humans.

There are agricultural chemicals and pesticides, some of which have recently been linked to an increased risk of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, flame retardants in everything from cars to TV sets, phthalates in plastics, carcinogenic organochlorine compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls, super-toxic dioxins and triclosan, an endocrine-disrupter known to interfere with the growth and development of tadpoles and an ingredient in toothpaste, anti-bacterial soap, face wash and moisturisers.

The history of one synthetic chemical, diethylstilbestrol (DES) is particularly instructive. From 1941, DES, a synthetic oestrogen, was approved and heavily marketed for use in hormone-replacement treatments for menopausal women and from the late 1940s it was also administered to millions of pregnant women, supposedly to prevent miscarriages. All of this even though animal studies had shown early on that DES was carcinogenic and caused intersex conditions and reproductive problems. Limited short-term tests on humans seemed to indicate that DES was safe. The drug was only withdrawn in 1971 after thousands of women who had been exposed to DES in their mother’s womb developed fertility and reproductive health problems and a variety of cancers in adolescence and adulthood.

Beginning in the 1950s DES was fed to livestock in the US after researchers found that chickens and cattle could be brought to market faster and more cost-effectively that way. Soon, 95% of all US cattle were on a DES-enhanced diet. Scientists also knew that these animals were excreting large quantities of powerful and potentially harmful synthetic estrogens into the environment. The use of the drug in beef cattle was only effectively banned in the US in 1979, while other hormones and steroids are still widely used in the industry today and routinely find their way into the environment and the food chain.

You’d think we’d have learnt from that lesson. Apparently not. There is currently an international debate about the potential health and environmental threat of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical widely used in the production of plastics. It’s an ingredient in everything from water bottles and the linings of food cans to baby bottles. Leached from these plastics it finds its way pretty much everywhere. According to the US Centre for Disease Control, BPA is present in more than 90% of urine samples representative of the American population. An independent study found BPA in 46 out of 50 canned food samples from 19 US states and Ontario.

Scientists have known for almost 80 years that BPA is a synthetic oestrogen that behaves in a similar way to DES. Animal studies have shown that even at small concentration levels it leads to increased risks of cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, infertility, developmental problems and reproductive disorders, while manufacturing and packaging companies claim it is safe.

An estimated ten million tons of toxic chemicals, some two million tons of them carcinogenic, are released into the environment worldwide every year. Blood tests show that many of these chemicals routinely make their way into our bodies. Will there be detrimental effects? Let’s talk again in 20 years.