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The eco footprint of rape November 30, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming, Politics, rant, Society, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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The eco footprint of rape

(This column was first published on 2010-10-20 at News24 here)

Rape contributes to climate change and environmental degradation.

While this may not be a notion that gets much – no, make that any – airtime or column space in the media or even one that many environmentalists are aware of, it is hardly a new concept. Feminists, including Dr Yvette Abrahams of the South African Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), have tried to raise awareness about the connection between gender based violence and the environment for years.

The calculus may be brutal, but it’s really quite straight forward. Population growth is one of the most important pressures on the environment. People consume natural resources like water and food, produce waste and generate greenhouse gases and as the earth’s human population increases, the stress we put on the planet rises. Babies born as a result of rape add to this stress and thus contribute to our growing ecological woes.

“So what!?” I hear all my male readers say. “You’re exaggerating the importance of rape and besides, I’m not a rapist anyway!”

In a country like South Africa, where rape is widespread and perennially under-reported, the importance of rape to women and by inference to the natural environment could hardly be exaggerated. More importantly, however, you’re missing the point. Rape is merely the most evil expression of gender based violence in a society that is based on the oppression of women and systematically undermines their ability to control their reproductive capacity.

South African women are estimated to be engaged in productive, but unpaid labour – from domestic work to child and frail care – for almost three times longer than the country’s men every day. While they are responsible for a considerable proportion of the country’s food production, female landownership remains at an outrageous 1%. The fact that the concept of a “glass ceiling” has become a cliché doesn’t mean that it is no longer firmly in place. In 2005 women earned only 45 cents for every rand earned by men and unemployment rates are substantially higher for women than men.

Gender based violence in South Africa is endemic and commonly domestic. We have the highest rate of femicide in the world and according to the CGE in 2007 “a staggering 30% of girls […] said that their first sexual experience was under force or threat of force”. With insufficient family planning and widespread unprotected sex, pregnancy rates among school girls are among the highest anywhere.

In this patriarchal society, Abrahams explains, “women […] cannot choose to have children because they want to. They have children because they have to, […] providing men with heirs and capitalism with cheap labour.” She estimates that “something like 24-30% of children born are conceived through gender based violence, and that a majority of children born are not planed or responsibly chosen.”

The corollary to this shocking statistic is that environmental activism isn’t just about renewable energy and recycling. We can make substantial contributions to a healthier planet by working for gender equality, which has been shown to lead to reduced rates of reproduction and slowed or even reversed population growth. As Abrahams points out, “when women have more choices, they tend to chose to have fewer but healthier children”.

“You’re still not talking to me,” I can hear my male readers complain again. “I haven’t oppressed any women in all of my life.” Once again, I’m afraid you’re missing the point. Living under Apartheid as a white person meant benefiting from the system whether you thought it was atrocious or not. Similarly – and I write this as a privileged white male and a father of two sons – living under patriarchy as a man means benefiting from the system, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

Is it really too much to ask that we actively work towards creating a society in which half the population isn’t constantly treated like second-class citizens or worse? As an added bonus, we’ll be engaging in effective green activism while we’re at it, because fighting patriarchy means fighting environmental destruction.


Why gold isn’t green November 24, 2010

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", Column, Environment, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Why gold isn’t green

(This column was first published on 2010-10-13 at News24 here)

Gold has made South Africa rich, right!? Well actually, gold mining has allowed an elite to accumulate incredible wealth on the backs of hundreds of thousands of poor black miners risking life and limb labouring under the most excruciating working conditions thousands of meters underground. To add to this, it is becoming increasingly evident that gold mining is having devastating environmental consequences – nothing short of an ecological disaster – for large parts of the Witwatersrand Basin.

The trouble is that the rocks which contain the gold also host constituents that are considerably more hazardous to the environment and human health. Locked up and widely dispersed deep underground, they are harmless, but having been exposed to mining and brought to the surface, they are wreaking havoc.

Take the sulphide minerals, particularly pyrite, aka fool’s gold, for example. When exposed to oxygen and water in mines and mine dumps, they oxidise and form sulphuric acid, giving rise to the acid mine drainage (AMD) which has made for ever more alarming headlines in recent times.

AMD carries elevated concentrations of toxic elements, including chromium, arsenic and cadmium, into the wider environment, polluting ground waters, streams and soils and poisoning aquatic ecosystems. In the West Rand, AMD has started to “decant” – you have to admire the euphemism of the term – from disused mine shafts and levels below central Johannesburg are reported to be rising at a rate of up to 0.9 metres a day. Like a menacing monster from the deep, AMD is encroaching on nature reserves and the Cradle of Humanity World Heritage Site, creating sink holes and threatening to swallow central Johannesburg whole. Stemming this acrid flood isn’t just extremely difficult, it’s also very expensive.

But it gets worse! Another nasty constituent unearthed by gold mining is uranium and its radioactive progeny. Uranium is carcinogenic, toxic to the kidneys, can cause radiological damage to DNA, bones and lymph nodes and may be a neurotoxin and weaken the immune system.

While some of the uranium has been sold as a lucrative by-product of gold, an estimated 600 000 tons have simply been dumped onto the more than 270 tailings dams in the region. From the dumps it’s finding its way into the surrounding environment – tens of tons of it every year. It gets leached out by water or spread around as windblown dust particles and ends up in streams, farm dams, on irrigated crops and in ground water.

The Wonderfonteinspruit, which runs through the West Rand past Randfontein, Kagiso, Westonaria, Carletonville and Khutsong, has achieved international notoriety as a radioactive stream containing sediments with uranium concentrations of as much as 1 000 times above natural background levels. Most at risk from uranium exposure are the thousands of poor people who live along its banks and in other contaminated sites throughout the Witwatersrand.

None of this is news, of course. In 2006 a report by the Water Research Commission, investigated the extent of uranium pollution in the West Rand, highlighting its environmental and health impacts and tasking the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) to come up with a regulatory response. The NNR claimed the report’s methodology was “inconsistent with international norms and standards” and commissioned its own independent assessment, which it promptly tried to suppress when it revealed that there was “no natural water in the whole [Wonderfonteinspruit] area that was safe for use by humans, animals or plants”. We’re still waiting for decisive action from the NNR, which is supposed to be the “independent statutory body mandated to protect persons, property and the environment from nuclear damage”.

The bottom line: more than 100 years of gold mining has left us with a legacy of massive environmental pollution and health hazards for decades to come. We need an environmental truth and reconciliation commission! A green TRC which will hold those responsible accountable, even if they have absconded, loot-in-hand, to more favourable financial environs like the London Stock Exchange. We have to rethink the true cost of cold, a substance that, besides a few uses in electronics, is valuable for being, well… shiny. A proper accounting of all of the damage it has done will show that all gold is fool’s gold.

Whose electricity is it anyway? November 17, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming, Nuclear Power, Politics, rant, renewable energy, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Whose electricity is it anyway?

(This column was first published on 2010-09-22 at News24 here)

At this very moment, wide-ranging decisions about South Africa’s energy future are being made. Decisions that will have major impacts on the environment and on the ecological legacy we’ll leave to future generations. But who is making these decisions?

Government is working on an “Integrated Energy Plan”, a “Climate Change Response Policy”, the second “Integrated Resource Plan” (IRP2) and the establishment of an “Independent Systems Market Operator”. If you’ve heard about any of these, let alone understand what they involve, you belong to a privileged minority.

Take the IRP2, also known as the IRP2010, for example. This plan will establish the framework for major policy and investment choices that need to be made to ensure South Africa’s electricity supply for the next 20 years – how many and what kinds of new power plants are to built and so on. Not a trifling matter and one in which we should all have a say. Indeed, according to the Minister of Energy, Dipuo Peters “the Department [of Energy] is committed to stakeholder engagement and public participation with regard to the IRP2010 […] Public participation is crucial if we were to develop a plan that will stand up to scrutiny […] so that whatever emerges from it will represent the widest spread of views across both government and civil society.”

In reality, of course, the process has been about as consultative as the Spanish Inquisition.

Official documents and procedures are steeped in impenetrably technical and bureaucratic jargon and government has done precious little to inform ordinary people about the issues involved or the fact that they have the right to participate in the debate. Even dedicated NGOs have found it prohibitively difficult to properly engage with and respond to government’s proposals in the very limited time granted them. And when they do formally submit contributions – some 300 civil society comments have been submitted for the IRP2 – only a tiny minority is actually taken into consideration while the majority is simply ignored. Official attempts to co-opt a few hand-picked NGOs amount to little more than trying to legitimise what remains a deeply undemocratic process.

If you’re tempted to think that at least the so-called representatives of South African voters have more of a say in what will go into the IRP2 than civil society at large, you’re sadly mistaken. Parliament has only had a single meeting about the IRP2 and with the exception of a few notable rebel voices, the people’s paid deputies have remained shtum on the issue. Yet we are told that a draft plan is already in circulation within the Department of Energy.

So who is calling the shots? Would you call me a conspiracy theorist if I told you that our country’s energy future is being substantially determined by what is overwhelmingly a small group of powerful men representing the very same interests that have landed us in the mess we’re in today and made us one of the most carbon-intensive countries on the planet? The crucially important technical advisory panel for the IRP2 consists almost exclusively of Eskom technocrats, state apparatchiks and representatives of South Africa’s most wealthy, energy- and carbon-intensive industries with virtually no delegates from civil society or labour to speak of.

And they call this democracy. Looks more like oligarchy – rule by an elite – to me.

So here’s a challenge to Minister Peters: It’s not only your moral and ethical duty to comprehensively inform and consult the general public about the IRP2 process and enable them to participate in it actively, but also a precisely defined legal obligation. There is absolutely no reason why, given good information and the opportunity to engage in robust debate, ordinary citizens should not be capable of collectively making sound decisions about their own energy future.

And the rest of us? Let’s become active citizens and citizen activists. Let’s support and join the organisations that are trying to give voice to public concerns in the energy debate. If we don’t, we’ll simply get railroaded into more of the same old non-solutions: laughably insignificant commitments to renewable energy, more CO2-spewing coal power stations and more dirty nuclear energy.

Fracking up the Karoo November 10, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, South Africa.
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Fracking up the Karoo

(This column was first published on 2010-09-15 at News24 here)

Farmers in the Karoo are increasingly worried about a massive search for shale gas on their land and if developments in the USA, a global leader in the exploitation of this form of natural gas, are anything to go by we are in for an environmental mess that will affect more than just a few back-of-beyond sheep farmers.

Shale gas is trapped in countless tiny bubbles in certain layers of the sedimentary rock shale. It was previously considered to be too expensive to exploit commercially, but advances in horizontal drilling techniques and a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” have led to a worldwide rush to identify shale gas reserves. Fracking involves injecting pressurised water mixed with sand and a cocktail of chemicals into boreholes to crack open the impermeable shale and allow the gas to escape to the surface.

I have raised concerns about shale gas exploration and fracking in South Africa previously. Now things are hotting up. Government has granted permits to five major companies and consortia to evaluate the country’s shale gas reserves, which are unproven but potentially substantial. Between them, Royal Dutch Shell, Falcon Oil & Gas, Anglo American, Bundu Gas and Oil and a joint venture between Sasol, Statoil of Norway and Chesapeake Energy of the USA are assessing a huge area extending from Worchester to Port Elizabeth and from the Free State to KwaZulu-Natal. While their permits do not allow drilling, if they are successful, widespread fracking is sure to follow.

Supporters of the industry say it will create jobs and alleviate energy shortages, but the Karoo farmers are particularly worried about the large quantities of water – as much as 20 million litres for a single well – required for the fracking process. They should also be apprehensive about possible contamination of their groundwater by methane gas and the chemicals used during fracking, among them several known carcinogens and endocrine disrupters.

Environmental organisations have collected extensive evidence for fracking-related groundwater contamination in several US states. A 2008 study conducted in Colorado, for instance, found that methane contamination of drinking water wells rose in tandem with increased gas shale drilling.

In June, a shale gas well blowout in Pennsylvania spewed toxic fracking water and gas for nearly 16 hours. Regulators in the state have repeatedly penalized shale gas companies for contaminating private drinking water wells and recently quarantined 28 cows that came into contact with fracking wastewater.

Scientists from the US Environmental Protection Agency have identified methane, 2-butoxyethanol phosphate, benzene and other toxic chemicals known to be used in fracking in private boreholes located near shale gas wells and the US Congress has recently instructed the agency to investigate the potential impact of fracking on drinking water quality, human health and the environment. The New York State Senate has already instituted a moratorium on shale gas development to protect New York City’s drinking water supply in the Catskill Mountains and the Delaware River adjacent to a major shale gas area.

Disposal of the toxic wastewater which returns to the surface presents another headache. A damning Vanity Fair article reports that “in Avella, Pennsylvania, a wastewater impoundment caught fire and exploded on George Zimmerman’s 480-acre property, producing a 200-foot-high conflagration that burned for six hours”.

Shale gas supporters claim that it could provide a low-carbon bridge to a renewable energy future, but while gas-fired power stations emit only about half the greenhouse gasses produced by coal-fired equivalents, shale gas may be no more climate friendly than other fossil fuels. Taking into account leakages of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, during drilling, storage and transportation, a preliminary study by Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University in the USA suggests that shale gas is likely to be “far less attractive than oil and not significantly better than coal in terms of the consequences for global warming.”

Instead of being a clean power panacea, shale gas is just another fossil fuel dead end. Rather than wasting precious time, money and opportunities by handing out exploration permits that threaten our scarce water resources and increase our already oversized carbon footprint, government should use our taxes to move us towards truly eco-friendly, renewable energy solutions.

Empty Oceans, Empty Nets November 2, 2010

Posted by Andreas in activism, Cape Town, Environment, Film screening, Sustainable Living.
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Empty Oceans, Empty Nets, an acclaimed documentary that explores the deepening crisis of the world’s marine fisheries, will be shown at the Labia on Orange cinema in Cape Town on Tuesday 9 November at 6:15pm.

This event is brought to you by the Marine Stewardship Council, the world’s leading certification and eco-labelling program for sustainable seafood, which works with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public to promote the best environmental choice in seafood.

Empty Oceans, Empty Nets explores the marine fisheries crisis and the pioneering efforts of fishermen, scientists and communities to sustain and restore these fisheries and our oceans. The film begins with a sequence of stunning images that reveal the immense volume and diversity of fish caught in a seemingly limitless ocean. From Indonesia to Japan to the Bering Sea, the cameras document an ever-growing, high-tech fishing effort that yields over a hundred million metric tons of seafood each year. These marine fisheries provide food, income and employment for 200 million people worldwide, but how long can the massive hunt be sustained?

There are signs that the ocean’s bounty may well have reached its biological limit. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 15 of the world’s 17 major ocean fisheries are either depleted or over-exploited. A long-term, comprehensive study conducted by a team of marine scientists concluded that 90% of the large fish species in the world’s oceans (such as tuna, swordfish and cod) have been fished out in the last 50 years.

Yet the news is not all bad: Empty Oceans, Empty Nets documents some of the most promising and innovative work being done to restore marine fisheries and to protect essential fish habitat. These efforts include new market initiatives that now give consumers a powerful vote in deciding how our oceans are fished.

A welcome drink and snacks will be available on arrival.

The screening will be followed by a facilitated audience discussion.

Tickets are R20 and can be reserved by calling The Labia at (021) 424 5927. This is a once-off screening and we strongly recommended that you reserve tickets to avoid disappointment.

This event is brought to you by the Marine Stewardship Council, the Labia and While You Were Sleeping, a Cape Town-based non-profit film collective committed to bringing progressive, non-mainstream documentaries with important social, political and environmental messages to South African audiences.


The Labia:
021 424 5927

For further information about the Marine Stewardship Council contact:

Michael Marriott

Tel: 021 551 0620



While You Were Sleeping:
Andreas Späth
084 772 1056