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Wal-Mart: a Jolly Green Giant? January 26, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, rant, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Wal-Mart: a Jolly Green Giant?

(This column was first published on 2010-11-17 at News24 here)

With Wal-Mart’s bid to buy a stake in Massmart (Game, Makro, Builders Warehouse, etc.), the world’s biggest corporation is poised to enter the South African market.

In recent years, the giant retailer with over 2 million employees worldwide, more than 170 million customers per week and an annual revenue exceeding $400bn has made a concerted effort to become more eco-friendly.

But how green is the company really, and should South African environmentalists welcome its arrival on our shores?

In 2005, former Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott proposed that the company should power all of its operations using only renewable energy, create zero waste and deal only in sustainable products. While these lofty goals are still far from being realised, the corporation has made significant strides in reducing its overall environmental footprint.

Wal-Mart has been promoting more energy efficient products, organic goods and sustainably-harvested seafood. They have improved the energy efficiency of their stores, some of which derive part of their electricity needs from solar and wind power.

The company has set itself the goal of reducing the plastic waste generated at its outlets by 200 million pounds globally by 2013 and has significantly improved the fuel efficiency of its fleet of trucks. In February, Wal-Mart announced plans to lower the carbon footprint of its products and supply chain by 20 million tonnes of CO2 by 2015.

Wal-Mart is also in the process of developing a Sustainability Index which, once completed, will assist customers in assessing the sustainability of products sold at its outlets.

I won’t deny that these are some significant achievements and commitments. In the US a number of environmental organisations, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the World Wide Fund for Nature, have become outright Wal-Mart fans, pointing out that the US multinational can effectively leverage its buying power to force its 100 000 suppliers, especially the 30 000 in China, to adopt more eco-friendly policies. According to the EDF’s Elizabeth Sturcken, “this beast could be a powerful force for good on the planet”.

Not green enough!

So do all of its green promises really make Wal-Mart a sustainable company? Besides its atrocious history of union-busting, low wages, poor health care for employees and use of sweatshop labour, Wal-Mart’s environmental track-record is patchy at best.

The company has faced millions of dollars in fines for violations of water and air pollution laws in several US states. The gargantuan parking lots required for Wal-Mart stores are a significant source of water pollution with rain water carrying petrol and other toxins into streams and groundwater.

US environmental groups have highlighted the fact that the retailer has a record of financial campaign support for political candidates who routinely vote against environmental legislation.

But the biggest problem with Wal-Mart goes much deeper than that, all the way to the company’s intrinsically unsustainable business model premised on continuous worldwide growth and creating supply chains that are thousands of kilometres long. Critics point out that the company’s sustainability measures and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be nullified by its need for perpetual expansion.

Wal-Mart is notorious for destroying local economies and small neighbourhood businesses that are easily accessible by foot or public transport – exactly the sort of economies that are ecologically sensible and resilient in the face of oil depletion – and replacing them with enormous box stores that require customers to travel by private car.

US Studies show that this leads to drastic increases in shopping-related driving distances. The result: the CO2 emissions from customers driving to Wal-Mart outlets are larger than the emissions by all of its operations put together.

Being an environmentalist and supporting Wal-Mart for becoming greener is a bit like being a pacifist and supporting the US Army for endeavouring to make its imperialist wars a bit less bloody. Just because something is greener than it was before doesn’t in itself make it truly sustainable in the long run.

Wal-Mart is a chief proponent of a global system of anti-ecological commerce and conspicuous consumption which cares primarily about financial bottom lines and causes more environmental and social harm than good. I for one would be happy if the Wal-Mart-Massmart deal failed to materialise.

Rights for rivers and mountains? January 18, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming, Society, Sustainable Living.
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Rights for rivers and mountains?

(This column was first published on 2010-11-10 at News24 here)

Should nature and its constituent parts – animals, plants, rivers and valleys – have legally recognised rights comparable to those of humans?

Not too long ago nobody who mattered in the world (ie mostly rich white males) would have dreamed of considering women as being equal to men or black people as being people at all. Today, these concepts are well entrenched human rights, recognised and defended by all but the most barbaric throwbacks.

These days, very few of the people who matter in the world (ie mostly rich white males) would seriously consider extending legal rights to nature. But so-called Earth rights are gradually forcing themselves onto the global enviro-political agenda.

South Africans should be at the forefront of the debate. It was a Cape Town lawyer, Cormac Cullinan, who in 2002 published Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, which remains the seminal book on the topic. Cullinan has been instrumental in helping to disseminate the concept of Earth rights and turning it into a lived reality internationally, but you’re much more likely to have heard of him if you’re Bolivian than if you’re a Saffer.

The ideas behind Earth rights aren’t complicated, but for most of us they will require a major shift in mindset. Our planet as a whole is conceived of as a self-regulating, self-sustaining community of interrelated and interdependent natural entities that includes human beings, rather than simply as a collection of individual components which humans are entitled to exploit for their exclusive benefit.

The basis for this way of looking at the world is not some New Age tree-hugging esoterica, but sound scientific, ecological reasoning. The long-term survival of a complex, integrated, living system is crucially dependent on an equilibrated balance between all of its constituent parts. If humans continue to insist on dominating, polluting and unsustainably exploiting the larger natural system of which we are a part, we will ultimately be responsible for its destruction and for our own demise. Earth rights are an attempt to formally and legally balance the rights and responsibilities of humans against those of the other members of the natural community that makes up our planet.

In recent times these ideas have started to gain international prominence. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to adopt a constitution that recognises the rights of nature and April of this year saw the first World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia at which Earth rights took centre stage.

Faced with the threat of climate change, but frustrated by the lack of political will and action from developed countries and the dismal performance of international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord, more than 30 000 participants from 140 countries produced a draft for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and a People’s Agreement which were subsequently submitted to the UN by the Bolivian government.

The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, in the drafting of which Cullinan played a leading role, asserts that humans are members of an indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings”, each of which has an inherent right to water, clean air, health, freedom from contamination, pollution, toxic or radioactive waste and detrimental genetic modification. It asserts that humans have an obligation to act in accordance with these rights.

The proposals from the World People’s Conference go far beyond the weak rhetoric of Copenhagen, demanding a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emission in developed countries by 2017, a one degree limit on global temperature increase during this century, payment of climate debts and compensation to developing countries, the establishment of a Tribunal of Climate and Environmental Justice and a rejection of carbon markets as a mechanism for dealing with climate change. Capitalism, as a system premised on endless growth on a finite planet, was identified as incompatible with life itself and an underlying structural cause of climate change and environmental degradation.

Call me an idiot (again), but I for one hope that Earth rights grow from the militant groundswell they represent today into a universal principle to stand alongside human rights before it’s too late.

Carbon Nation: a climate change solutions movie January 3, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Climate change, Environment, Film screening, Global warming, renewable energy, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Carbon Nation, a documentary about climate change solutions, will premier in Cape Town at the Labia on Orange cinema on Saturday 15 January at 6:15pm, on Sunday 16 January at 6:15pm and on Monday 17 January at 8:30pm.

Carbon Nation is a brand-new, feature-length documentary about climate change solutions. Even if you doubt the severity of the impact of climate change or just don’t buy it at all, this is a compelling and relevant film that illustrates how solutions to climate change also address other social, economic and security issues.

We already have the technology to combat most of the worst-case scenarios of climate change and Carbon Nation takes us on an optimistic journey of discovery that reveals what people are already doing, what we could be doing and what the world needs to do to prevent (or slow down) the impending climate crisis.

We meet a host of entertaining and endearing characters along the way, including entrepreneurs, visionaries, scientists, business people and more, all making a difference and working towards solving climate change. Carbon Nation is an inspiring film that celebrates solutions, inspiration and action.

The screenings will be followed by a facilitated audience discussion and Q&A session with Peter Byck, the film’s director.

Tickets are R20 and can be reserved by calling The Labia at (021) 424 5927. We strongly recommended that you reserve tickets to avoid disappointment.

This event is presented by 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

Official film website:

While You Were Sleeping:
Andreas Späth
084 749 9470