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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.

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

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.

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

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.

4 Great Eco-Documentaries at the Labia September 14, 2010

Posted by Andreas in bees, Climate change, Environment, Film screening, Nuclear Power, Sustainable Living, University of Cape Town.
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While You Were Sleeping and the UCT Green Campus Initiative invite you to watch four fantastic documentaries with important environmental themes at the Labia on Orange cinema in Cape Town from Monday 20 September to Thursday 23 September at 6.15pm.

You can’t afford to miss these thought-provoking and inspiring documentary films covering themes from nuclear energy and over-fishing to oil pollution.

Vanishing of the Bees

Monday 20 September 6.15pm

An eye-opening account of the truth behind the world-wide decline in honeybee populations. Known as Colony Collapse Disorder, this phenomenon has brought beekeepers to crisis in an industry responsible for producing apples, broccoli, watermelon, onions, cherries and a hundred other fruits and vegetables. Commercial honeybee operations pollinate crops that make up one out of every three bites of food on our tables. Filming across the US, in Europe, Australia and Asia, this documentary examines the alarming disappearance of honeybees and the greater meaning it holds about the relationship between humanity and nature. As scientists puzzle over the cause, organic beekeepers indicate alternative reasons for this tragic loss. Conflicting options abound and after years of research, a definitive answer has not been found to this harrowing mystery.

The Nuclear Comeback

Tuesday 21 September 6.15pm

In a world living in fear of climate change and global warming, the nuclear industry is proposing itself as a solution. It claims that nuclear power generation produces zero carbon emissions. Is it time we learned to love the split atom? Or is there a risk that we might be jumping out of the carbon frying pan and into the plutonium fire? The Nuclear Comeback poses the question of whether, by seriously considering the renewed development of nuclear power, we may be gambling with the very survival of our planet.

The End of the Line

Wednesday 22 September 6.15pm

Imagine a world without fish! The End of the Line is the world’s first documentary about the devastating effects of overfishing. Filmed across the world – from the Straits of Gibraltar to the coasts of Senegal and Alaska to the Tokyo fish market – featuring top scientists, indigenous fishermen and fisheries enforcement officials, The End of the Line is a wake-up call to the world.


Thursday 23 September 6.15pm

An inside look at the infamous $27 billion “Amazon Chernobyl” case. Three years in the making, this cinéma-vérité feature from acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger is the epic story of one of the largest and most controversial environmental lawsuits on the planet. Crude is a real-life high stakes legal drama, set against a backdrop of the environmental movement, global politics, celebrity activism, human rights advocacy, the media, multinational corporate power, and rapidly-disappearing indigenous cultures.

Each screening will be followed by a facilitated audience discussion. Tickets are R20 and can be reserved by calling The Labia at (021) 424 5927. Reserving tickets is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment.

This event is presented by the UCT Green Campus Initiative, 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 and environmental messages to South African audiences.


The Labia:

021 424 5927

UCT Green Campus Initiative:


While You Were Sleeping:

Andreas Späth

084 772 1056