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The great biofuel delusion February 2, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming, rant, South Africa, Sustainable Living.

The great biofuel delusion

(This column was first published on 2010-11-24 at News24 here)

Have you ever thought about what you are going to put in your car’s tank when petrol becomes prohibitively expensive as the world’s oil supplies start to dry up? And have you ever worried about the fact that the greenhouse gasses emitted by the car you drive every day make a massive contribution to climate change?

“No worries,” you say. “We’ll just convert all of our cars to run on biofuels!”

Indeed, biodiesel and bioethanol are often portrayed as the green and sustainable answer to our transport woes in an oil-free future. But how viable and eco-friendly are such biofuels really?

A wide variety of plant materials, from maize and soyabeans to sugar cane and various grasses can be converted into biofuels. They can either be mixed with conventional diesel or petrol, or (with relatively minor modifications to the car) used in undiluted form to power a combustion engine. Their promise lies in the fact that the raw materials can be grown commercially like any other agricultural crop and that they should, in theory, be carbon neutral, absorbing as much CO2 during growth as they emit when burned as fuel.

Biofuels under scrutiny

Many countries have started to promote the use of biofuels as part of their commitment to reducing greenhouses gas (GHG) emissions and combating climate change. Member states of the EU, for instance, are legally required to derive 10% of their transport fuels from renewable sources that cut GHG emissions compared to fossil fuels by 2020. South Africa’s draft biofuel strategy calls for a mandatory 4.5% biofuel component in road transport fuel by 2013.

In recent years, however, biofuels have come under increasing scrutiny and overall prospects are not looking good. Since most biofuels are currently made from food crops including maize and vegetable oils, it is now widely acknowledged that they have contributed significantly to worldwide increases in food prices.

In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, huge new palm oil plantations established specifically for biodiesel production have led to deforestation and the draining of peatlands, destroying valuable ecosystems and biodiversity and releasing large amounts of GHGs. Experiments with Jatropha, a promising non-food tree crop have experienced low-yields and crop failures in various countries.

Studies have shown that there simply isn’t enough arable land to quench our fuel-thirst on biofuels. If current US and EU biofuel targets were to be met domestically, almost all of the soy and maize grown in North America would have to be used and Europe would be left with only about a third of its farmland to grow food on.

Proponents argue that compared to fossil fuels, biofuels reduce GHG emission by as much as 50%, but these numbers don’t stand up to scrutiny. A 2007 study suggests that because of their extensive use of fertilisers that emit nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, European farmers who grow rapeseed for biodiesel production would do better if they planted trees and let regular diesel be used instead.

In the USA, maize-based bioethanol has been shown to require as much or more energy to produce than it releases when burnt and may actually cause GHG emissions to almost double instead of reducing them. Recent research suggests that the same is true for algae, another promising biofuel feedstock.

A dead end

Earlier this month, a study commissioned by the Institute for European Environmental Policy estimated that in order to meet the EU’s 2020 biofuel targets, an additional 4.1 to 6.9 million hectares of land will have to be cultivated – much of it in developing countries – resulting in 80 to 167% more GHG emissions than if the demand was met through fossil fuels.

The verdict? Biofuels are a dead end.

While they can provide a limited amount of truly green and sustainable transport fuel, biofuels will never be able to satisfy our current fossil fuel addiction. Electric vehicles powered by renewable solar and wind energy, once they are widely available, are a much better bet. But ultimately, I suspect, we’re asking the wrong question.

We shouldn’t be obsessed about how to replace our profligate consumption of one resource with that of another, but with how we can drastically reduce the use of such resources altogether and live more sustainably.

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.

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.


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.

Can meat eaters be green? October 26, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, Global warming, Life, rant, Society, Sustainable Living.
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Can meat eaters be green?

(This column was first published on 2010-09-08 at News24 here)

I’ve been an omnivore all my life. Although I’ve wrestled with the idea of vegetarianism at various times, I’ve never found the arguments particularly convincing.

We come from a long line of hunters and eaters of meat. Cut marks on almost 3.4 million year old animal bones tell us so, as does the tooth enamel of our distant hominin ancestors. Hunter-gatherers are so called for good reason. We have evolved on a mixed diet that includes meat, and some of the essential nutrients our bodies require, including vitamin A, vitamin D and the amino acid tryptophan, are exceedingly difficult to find in plant sources.

In recent years, however, vegetarian and vegan activists have added a new charge against us carnivores: you can not consume meat and also claim to be an environmentalist. The main culprits behind this claim are cows.

Cows, the argument goes, are fed grains like maize and soy which are grown on huge tracts of land – some of which used to be Amazon rainforest – with massive inputs of fossil fuels and water, and since they also belch voluminous quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, they have monstrous carbon hoofprints. A 2006 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation revealed that 18% of the world’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – more than what’s generated by all of transportation put together – comes from livestock.

So does this spell the end of my meat eating days? Well, no. It turns out that there are cows and there are cows, and not all of them eat grains or contribute massively to climate change.

Good cow, bad cow

Let’s start with the “bad” cows. After the Second World War, the so-called Green Revolution was driven mostly by the large-scale production of artificial nitrogen fertiliser using huge amounts of cheap oil, gas, coal and electricity. This allowed the farming of livestock animals including cows, which had previously been integral providers of soil fertility on farms through their manure, to be separated from the production of grains.

Grains were now grown industrially, on big, state-subsidised, monocrop factory farms with nutrients provided by synthetic fertilisers, resulting in major surpluses during the second half of the 20th Century. Crammed into high-density “feedlots”, cows could be fattened and brought to market in record time on a diet of this cheap grain, while being responsible for criminal levels of greenhouse gas emissions and noxious effluents by the pond full.

And then there are the “good” cows. Cows that are allowed to graze on pastures of mixed grasses, their natural diet. Cows that are part of agricultural systems that carefully integrate animals and perennial polycultures and mimic nature’s cycles, rather than being production units in disaggregated food factories generating pollution and waste and demanding constant inputs of non-renewable resources. Cows that are carbon-neutral or perhaps even carbon-negative.

On his Polyface Farm in Virginia, pioneering family farmer Joel Salatin, for instance, rotates cows and chickens on pastures of mixed perennial grasses which are neither plowed or artificially fertilised nor sprayed with pesticides and also host foraging pigs, turkeys and rabbits. Over a period of more than 45 years, Salatin, who only sells his produce locally, has been able to raise the carbon content of his pasture soils by 6.5%.

Soils contain about two-thirds of the planet’s carbon reserves – more than forests, oceans and the atmosphere put together – and while industrial farming of annual monocrops depletes soil fertility and leads to billions of tonnes of soil erosion annually, Salatin’s roving bovines continually fertilise their pastures and sequester carbon in the soil they help to build.

It has been estimated that system’s such as Salatin’s, which combine appropriate livestock and mixed, predominantly perennial crops, are capable of removing substantially more CO2 from the atmosphere than they emit.

None of this should be an excuse to relax and enjoy another bite of your rump steak though. If we want to be environmentalists and eat meat, too, it’s our responsibility to find out where our meat comes from and how it was produced. It’s our duty not to eat grain-fattened, factory-farmed meat, and to support local farmers who raise good old pasture-fed, soil-building, carbon-sequestering, sustainable cows.

A fantasy of falling towers September 1, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, rant, renewable energy, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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A fantasy of falling towers

(This column was first published on 2010-08-25 at News24 here)

“I remember the moment the Athlone cooling towers fell as though it happened a few days ago. The annoyingly premature detonation. The structures collapsing in on themselves. The dull thud and the puff of dust drifting across the Cape Flats.

I was nine years old at the time.

It was a winter Sunday made for a monkey’s wedding and my dad had taken us boys to Rhodes Memorial where a large crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle. Little did any of us know how dramatically this event would change South Africa, symbolically signalling the end of the age of coal.

Watching those towers collapse all those years ago made me who I am today. I’m Benjamin Späth, environmental demolition engineer, and for the past three decades I’ve made a living by blowing up coal-fired power stations.

Of course the demise of King Coal didn’t just happen overnight. The government and politicians of the day were too invested – philosophically and financially – in a carbon-intensive energy future. Since the industrialised countries had gone this route, wasn’t it our right to do the same? Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan summed up the attitude in a Washington Post op-ed piece, saying that we had no choice but to rely on coal.

Eskom, already one of the world’s champion CO2 emitters, had plans to build new coal plants in ecologically sensitive areas and declared the need to open at least 40 new coal mines. Ever willing to fund dubious mega-projects, the World Bank granted Eskom a $3.75bn loan, most of it to fund the controversial Medupi power station which was going to add 25 million tons of CO2 to our national carbon footprint annually.

But we put a stop to all that. The impetus came from the communities living in the vicinity of power stations and coal mines, whose health, environment and livelihood where threatened by the degradation of their water supplies, mercury pollution and acid mine drainage. It came from activist-driven organisations like groundWork and Earthlife Africa and it came from young people who had had enough of seeing their world and their future being trashed.

There were some hotheads who threatened to start demolishing power stations immediately, but most of us knew that there was preparatory work to be done. We started organising at our universities and school and in our townships, suburbs and villages. We took to the streets demanding that government stop its climate-changing coal madness.

Communities came up with innovative energy descent strategies to wean themselves of coal and oil. Researchers started making breakthroughs in tapping and storing South Africa’s tens of thousands of megawatts of potential wind energy and hundreds of thousands of megawatts of solar power. Soon we forced government to halt the construction and de-mothballing of coal power stations. Faltering parastatals like Armscor and Eskom were reinvented to drive the establishment of a local renewable energy research, manufacturing and service industry.

I joined the First Environmental Demolition Brigade straight out of school. Mpumalanga’s Kriel and Hendrina power stations were the first to go, on the back of a massive, nationwide energy efficiency drive. The cancellation of sweetheart deals, which had provided the world’s cheapest electricity to some of its richest multinational corporations for years, allowed us to flatten more. Some we left standing as reminders of history’s folly – like the Matimba Towers in Limpopo, now a world-famous climbing and bungee-jumping destination.

Huge numbers of coal miners were re-trained to kick-start the new green economy, building community-run micro renewable power stations and installing tens of thousands of affordable solar water heaters. Thousands of 2MW wind turbines were erected along the Cape coast in short thrift and the first of several massive off-shore wind farms opened in 2018. In 2021 Upington became the global capital of concentrated solar power. Coal shipments have long been replaced with exports of green electricity and quality South African thin-film photovoltaic panels.

Through all of this we continued to demolish dirty old coal power plants until the very last one tumbled this weekend, on the 22nd of August 2050. I remember standing at Rhodes Memorial on the same day in 2010, asking my dad what was on his mind. ‘Nothing much, Ben,’ he replied. ‘Just a silly daydream.’”

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.

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?

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.