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Nukes will dwarf the arms deal December 3, 2010

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", Column, Environment, Nuclear Power, Politics, renewable energy, South Africa.
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Nukes will dwarf the arms deal

(This column was first published on 2010-10-27 at News24 here)

If government gets its way and goes ahead with building six new nuclear power plants (NPPs), the potential for graft and corruption will make the arms deal fiasco look like a silly squabble over small change. Tenderpreneurs and kleptocrats throughout the land must be licking their lips at the prospect of having their palms, wallets and bank accounts royally greased.

There are many good reasons why nuclear energy is not a good option for South Africa or anywhere else: the health risk associated with NPPs, the waste which remains lethally radioactive for thousands of years and for which nobody has found an acceptable storage solution, the threat of terrorist attack and nuclear weapons proliferation, the fact that uranium fuel is neither inexhaustible nor carbon-neutral, and more. But for those of you who aren’t convinced by these bunny-hugging and touchy-feely sentiments, the clincher should be the fact that nuclear power simply makes no economic sense.

Independent studies show that nuclear energy has never been able to compete with fossil fuels and increasingly can’t compete with renewable energy technologies on a purely financial basis. Not in the First World and certainly not in a developing country like ours where elite powerbrokers have consistently found it impossible to keep their greedy hands out of the coffers of mega-budget projects

The nuclear industry cannot survive without the financial support of the state anywhere in the world. Of the $151bn in government subsidies for the US electricity industry between 1943 and 1999, more than 96% went towards nuclear power. Since the early 1980s the US government has sunk over $90bn into developing a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada without success. In the UK it is estimated that decommissioning of the previous generation of British nuclear plants and their accumulated waste will cost £72bn or more in taxpayers’ money. In February, having spent more than R8bn with absolutely nothing to show for it, our own government finally decided to cut financial support for the ill-fated Pebble Bed Modular Reactor project.

Since the start of the so-called nuclear renaissance in the early 2000s, projected costs for new NPPs have increased two- to four-fold. Their construction is notorious for being over budget and delayed. By the end of last year, the Finish NPP being built on Olkiluoto Island by French state-owned multinational AREVA – a main contender for the South African nuclear bid – was more than three years behind schedule and at least 75% over budget. The only other NPP under construction in Western Europe at Flamanville in France is at least 20% over budget and two years behind schedule.

In an independent analysis of the South African situation, Rod Gurzynski has recently estimated that the total cost of a 1600MW NPP would come to around R100bn “all-in”. Among a number of criticisms, he points out that the consultants’ report on the cost of nuclear energy which was commissioned by the Department of Energy for the government’s 20-year Integrated Resource Plan does not seem to consider decommissioning costs or long-term high-level waste management and storage costs and therefore paints an entirely unrealistic economic picture.

Last month, researchers from Duke University in the USA showed that in North Carolina, which is nowhere near as sunny as South Africa, it is now cheaper to generate electricity using photovoltaic solar panels – possibly the most expensive of all renewable energy options – than by building new NPPs. So why are we still wasting time and money on even considering nuclear power as an option for South Africa?

In 1994, Trevor Manuel, then heading the ANC’s economic desk, said: “we shall not tolerate circumstances in which policy on issues as critical as a nuclear programme be confined to experts in dark, smoke-filled rooms.” In reality, however, that’s exactly how decisions are being made. A small but powerful lobby of special interest groups, including the nuclear industry itself, has the ear of the powers that be and we’ll have to shout a lot louder or we’ll all be burdened with an entire herd of radioactive white elephants soon.

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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.

IWW documentary screening and public meeting October 12, 2010

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", activism, anarchism, Cape Town, Film screening, Politics, Society, South Africa, Work.
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Join the Cape Town Branch of the IWW for:

A screening of the short documentary “Together we win: the fight to organise Starbucks” followed by a public meeting on “Organising as casuals and contract workers”.

Most workers today work in casual and precarious jobs. In many parts of the world, including South Africa, most unions have not been up to this challenge, and have often failed to organise casual workers.


The IWW Starbucks Union, however, is different. The entire union is made up of casual workers who are organising themselves at Starbucks stores. In tribute to their comrades in the IWW Starbucks Union, the Cape IWW branch is presenting a documentary made by these workers themselves. This inspiring movie tells the remarkable the story of how casual workers in the Starbucks chain of stores fought for and won the right to organise.

Date: Saturday 16th October 2010

Time: 14h00

Venue: Cape Town Democracy Centre, 6 Spin Street, Cape Town

For more information or to RSVP contact us on iww-ct@live.co.za



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?

“For every seat in the new Cape Town stadium…” January 27, 2010

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", activism, Cape Town, Politics, Quotes, Society, South Africa.
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A shocking fact of the day from Equal Education, one of the most dynamic and awesomely brilliant NGOs in South Africa:

” for every 7 seats in the 68 000 capacity R4,5bn stadium in Cape Town we could have had a brand new fully stocked school library.”

The equivalent of more than 9000 school libraries

Some relevant facts, again from Equal Education:

  • Only 7% of public schools in South Africa have functional libraries of any kind. (DoE’s* 2007 NEIMS Report.)
  • These 7% of public schools that have libraries are the former model-C schools who are able to establish libraries and employ librarians through their own funds, collected through fees.
  • Since 1997 the DoE has produced 6 drafts of a national school libraries policy. None have been adopted as official policy.
  • The DoE offers no specialists school librarian posts. All posts are for teachers, and most schools cannot spare a teacher to run the library because of high learner:teacher ratios.
  • The DoE closed its School Libraries Unit in 2002.
  • In November 2008 the DoE published for comment ‘National Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure’ which, in tables 15 and 18 states that every large primary school and every large secondary school should have a library of 80m2. The regulations still remain unconfirmed by the Minister and therefore are of no assistance to teachers, learners or education planners.

(*DoE = Department of Education)

The Really Really Free Market – Cape Town November 12, 2009

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", activism, anarchism, Environment, Facebook, Life, Politics, Society, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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We’re having the very first ever Really Really Free Market in Cape Town this Sunday (at Zandvlei in Muizenberg where the kite festival normally happens)  and Meghan made this beautiful flyer:

Colour flyer-2

Colour flyer-1

Join the Facebook group and pray for good weather 😉

The origins of May Day April 30, 2009

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", activism, anarchism, History, Politics, Work.
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For many people it comes as a bit of a surprise that May Day doesn’t have its origins in, say, revolutionary Russia, the Soviet Union or China – what with all those hideous military parades on Red Square and Tiananmen Square of rows and rows of rocketry filing past gigantic banners of Marx, Lenin and Mao.

haymarket-square-front

The celebration of the first of May as International Workers’ Day, in fact, goes back to the United States in the 19th Century and involves several high-profile anarchists. In the late 1800’s there was a widespread movement for the establishment of an 8-hour working day which coincided with massive repression of workers by authorities, factory owners and the police. At a workers’ rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on the 4th of May 1886 a bomb was thrown at police.

4police_attack

Who threw the bomb was never discovered, but police used the incident to charge eight prominent anarchists with the crime, four of which were subsequently hanged.

hayexe

For a more thorough and detailed re-telling of the events, have a look at this article by Chicago indymedia.

Fair Trade February 25, 2009

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", activism, Cape Town, Politics, Society, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Here’s another story I wrote for The Big Issue.

A Fair Share

Having been a certifiable chocoholic for decades I nearly choked on a bite of my favourite bar of nougat, sugar, chocolate, caramel and glucose wrapped in more chocolate while reading the following passage in an article by US investigative journalist Christian Parenti published in Fortune magazine this February: “Children still work in cocoa production, regularly miss school, perform dangerous tasks and suffer injury and sickness. […] From 2002 to 2004, Ivory Coast was gripped by civil war. As militias and renegade soldiers killed and raped their way across the lush interior, income from cocoa exports helped fuel the fighting. Like diamonds and timber, cocoa became a so-called conflict resource. “Blood chocolate” was providing fast cash for armed groups and creating misery for common people.”

And there I was munching my chocolate bar blissfully unaware that there was a lot more to it than just a glass and a half of milk. It turns out that 70 percent of the world’s cocoa beans, the raw material for chocolate, are cultivated by small farmers in West Africa, 40 percent of them in Ivory Coast alone. The UN’s International Labour Organisation has estimated that between 100 000 and 200 000 children, some of them under the age of ten, are working in the Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry. What’s more shocking are allegations that as many as six percent of these kids could be victims of slavery and human trafficking.

In response to a public outcry over these revelations, the international chocolate industry agreed in 2001 to abide by a voluntary protocol which committed it to help end the “worst forms of child labour” in cocoa production. Parenti, who visited Ivory Coast to investigate the situation first hand, discovered that very little visible progress has been made on the ground. He found poor living and working conditions in cocoa-growing villages most of which lack schools, clinics, electricity and running water. He observed continued widespread child labour in cocoa production “everywhere” and expressed disbelieve at the fact that the International Cocoa Initiative, the organisation established by the chocolate industry to facilitate certification of child-labour-free cocoa has only a single staff member in the country. An independent report by Tulane University commissioned by the US Department of Labor confirms that although West African governments have taken some initial steps to deal with child labour, conditions remain bad. According to Parenti, the underlying problem is pervasive poverty among small cocoa farmers, many of them deeply indebted to international cocoa buyers, which forces them to “employ” their own children to make ends meet.

And it’s not just cocoa – much of the trade between the industrialised world and developing countries operates this way. Just about all of the profits and benefits that are supposed to be trickling down from the buyer at the top to the producer at the bottom dry up somewhere along the lengthy chain of middlemen and intermediaries. What’s left are a few fantastically powerful multinational corporations which amass astronomical profits every year while millions of poor farmers barely manage to eke out a life worth living.

The global cocoa trade, for instance, is controlled by large companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, who buy cocoa from local merchants (who themselves buy it from small farmers) and sell it on to the big chocolate manufacturers including Cadbury, Mars, Nestlé, and Hershey. In an interview on the US radio show Democracy Now! Parenti charged that these companies are only interested in “making as much money as they possibly can off of the people of Cote d’Ivoire. And if that forces independent farmers to take their children out of school […] and exploit them and work them, so be it.” To a large extent international trade in the 21st Century represent the re-packaged modern-day equivalent of incredibly unequal power relationships that have been in existence since colonial times through which the so-called developed world extracts valuable resources and human labour from the global South.

There are alternatives to this mode of exchange between producer and consumer, however. One of them is represented by the global fair trade movement, which has made significant strides in providing more just and equitable trade relationships around the world and is gradually making an impact in South Africa as well.

As the name suggests, fair trade guarantees farmers and producers, particularly those in developing countries, a fair price for their products regardless of world market fluctuations. It also promotes sustainability and self-sufficiency among vulnerable small producers and encourages them to become stakeholders in their own cooperative organisations, advocates adherence to environmental and social standards and encourages community development.

A first attempt to bring fair trade goods to North America and Europe was made in the 1940s and 50s when various non-governmental organisations and religious groups started to sell mostly handcrafted items from Africa, Latin America and Asia at fundraisers, protest rallies and church fairs. In the 1960’s efforts became more formalised as fair trade goods were made available through a growing number of so-called “World Shops” or “Third World Shops” in Western Europe as well as Oxfam stores in the UK. In the 1980s there was a significant shift away from handicrafts, which were often seen as mere charity buys, to fair trade agricultural commodities, especially tea and coffee, but also cocoa, rice, dried fruits, sugar, nuts and spices. Once official fair trade certification initiatives were established sales started to take off.

Among the international organisations that promote, facilitate and coordinate fair trade are the International Fair Trade Association, the Fair Trade Federation and Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). There are currently a number of different labelling systems in use for identifying certified fair trade items, but the most widespread is FLO’s international Fairtrade certification mark which already boasts a 50 percent consumer recognition level in the UK.

Goods that carry the Fairtrade label have been grown, harvested, manufactured, transported and traded in accordance with fair trade principle. This doesn’t just involve a fair price paid to the producer, but also ensures adherence to decent working conditions as defined by the conventions of the UN’s International Labour Organisation (no child or slave labour, a safe workplace, the right to unionise etc.), adherence to the UN’s charter of human rights, as well as a commitment to protecting the environment, social development and developing sustainable long-term trading relationships. In South Africa, fair trade is also linked to broad-based black economic empowerment initiatives.

According to FLO, worldwide fair trade certified sales amounted to approximately 2.3 billion Euros in 2007 – a 47 percent increase over the previous year and almost 70 times more than ten years ago. This included over 230 000 tons of bananas, 5740 litres of wine and 237 405 cut flowers. The biggest buyers of fair trade goods live in the USA (730.8 million Euros) and the UK (704.3 million Euros). In 2007 FLO recognised 632 Fairtrade certified producer organisations worldwide, up from 224 in 2001, representing about 1.5 million workers and farmers.

Although there are now more than 50 producer organisations certified by FLO in South Africa, fair trade has had a very low profile here until recently. Fair Trade South Africa (FTSA; www.fairtrade.org.za) aims to change this situation by raising awareness among local businesses and consumers and developing marketing opportunities for South African fair trade producers and traders. Having received funding from Europe and moved into their new offices in Observatory, they hope that South African consumers will soon have access to a substantial range of fair trade products from around the world.

FTSA has initiated Fairtrade Label South Africa as an associate member of FLO with the purpose of helping to establish and popularise the FLO’s Fairtrade label on our retail shelves. At the recent FTSA AGM and conference held at the Sustainability Institute near Stellenbosch, the first batch of locally labelled Fairtrade products was launched. These include products from African Terroir wines, Home of Origin Wine and the Bean There Coffee Company.

The Heiveld Cooperative which sells organic rooibos tea to overseas markets is one of the local fair trade success stories. “There is a huge difference from when we sold to the large farmers,” explains board member Lionel Louw. “In the past the link between buyer and seller was missing – the buyer just gave whatever price they wanted. It wasn’t related to our standard of living.” Guaranteed premium fair trade prices for their produce have meant that the small farmers that comprise the cooperative based in Niewoudtville in the Cederberg have become independent of wholesalers and neighbouring white farmers and have been able to buy their own equipment such as a tea chopping machine and a processing facility. The members of the cooperative are also working on sustainable harvesting and land use strategies and are busy establishing their own organic seedling nursery.

Tourism represents another fair trade growth area. Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA; http://www.fairtourismsa.org.za) is a non-profit organisation that awards a label to businesses in the hospitality industry that are committed to fair trade principles such as fair wages and working conditions, fair purchasing and respect for human rights and the environment. FTTSA accredited businesses include, among others, the Cape Grace, Daddy Long Legs and Spier hotels and Stormsriver Adventures on the Garden Route. The Vineyard Hotel & Spa in Newlands has recently decided to switch all of its coffees to the fair trade Puro brand imported by Belgian coffee roasters Miko Coffee. According to Pascale Hoare, Group Training and Marketing Manager for Miko Coffee South Africa, for every kilogram of Puro sold, R15.00 goes to Fairtrade and R3.00 is donated to the World Land Trust’s Rainforest Fund. The company is also busy establishing a tree planting initiative at South African schools.

Some local businesses are taking their commitment to more equitable trading relationships even further. “We believe deeply in the principles of fair trade,” says David Donde, founder of Origin Coffee Roasting in De Waterkant, “and we think we can do even better.” Origin prides itself in selling so-called relationship coffee bought from individual farmers with whom they have established a direct relationship. For the excellent quality coffee they expect from “their” producers, Origin are prepared to pay a premium price. “In recent times, for instance, the world market price has been about US$1.30 per pound”, explains Donde. “We have never paid as little as US$5.00 per pound ourselves.”

Jonathan Robinson of the Bean There Coffee Company who have just launched Ethiopian and Rwandan fair trade coffee brands on the local market says that they combine strict adherence to fair trade principles with a direct and personal relationship with the coffee growers. “Yes, we want to pay a fair price and ensure that our coffee is produced in an ethically and environmentally sound manner. But we also want to meet the small-scale farmers who grow it in person and find out what they need to improve their lives and what we can do to help them.”

The next time you sip at a cup of tea or coffee or nibble at a slab of chocolate, give some thought to what’s gone into it. It’s high time that we start to genuinely care not only about what we consume, but also about the people who produce it. Supporting fair trade wherever we can is a first step in the right direction.

Chris Jordan: Picturing the American way of life February 4, 2009

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", Environment, Life, Society, Sustainable Living.
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Just came across the amazing work of US photographer Chris Jordan. He has found brilliant ways of depicting the modern, First World way of life from mass consumption to mass incarceration. Check out the examples below (with text from his website) and go to www.chrisjordan.com for much more.

whitepitabreads-small1

Cell Phones, 2007 60x100" Depicts 426,000 cell phones, equal to the number of cell phones retired in the US every day.

Detail at actual size

Detail at actual size

Prison Uniforms, 2007 10x23 feet in six vertical panels  Depicts 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, equal to the number of Americans incarcerated in 2005. The U.S. has the largest prison population of any country in the world.

Prison Uniforms, 2007 10x23 feet in six vertical panels Depicts 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, equal to the number of Americans incarcerated in 2005. The U.S. has the largest prison population of any country in the world.

Detail at actual size

Detail at actual size

Barbie Dolls, 2008 60x80"  Depicts 32,000 Barbies, equal to the number of elective breast augmentation surgeries performed monthly in the US in 2006.

Barbie Dolls, 2008 60x80" Depicts 32,000 Barbies, equal to the number of elective breast augmentation surgeries performed monthly in the US in 2006.

Detail at actual print size

Detail at actual print size

SA Corporate Giants Come Clean? April 11, 2008

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", Climate change, Environment, Global warming, South Africa.
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I wrote this for the current edition of The Big Issue. It’s still on the streets so go and buy yourself a copy!

SA Corporate Giants Come Clean?

By Andreas Späth

Some of South Africa’s largest companies made history at the end of last year when they publicly revealed the amount of carbon dioxide their operations release into the atmosphere every year. Twenty-eight of the country’s thirty-eight biggest corporations participated in the worldwide Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), which included South Africa for the first time in 2007.

Global warming has finally and properly entered our collective consciousness over the last year or so: you can’t swing a solar-powered camping torch in a crowd of primary school kids without hitting a twelve year old who can competently explain the ins and outs of the greenhouse effect. And don’t even think about showing up at your average suburban dinner party without having brushed up on the Kyoto Protocol and international carbon trading (Wikipedia anyone?).

This is a good thing, of course. Even the most ardent eco-sceptics are beginning to thaw and most people are finally listening to what thousands of irate scientists have been trying to impress on us for years: global climate change is the most urgent single issue facing humanity right now. If we don’t collectively take action to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, our fossil fuel guzzling civilisation emits, our planet is quite literally toast.

Recently, some of the world’s largest companies, some of them among the Earth’s most notorious emitters of greenhouse gasses, including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Shell, DuPont, Nestlé and General Electric, have joined the fray by pushing governments and the United Nations to enact more comprehensive and stricter targets for global carbon emissions and the implementation of low-carbon technologies. More than 150 of them signed a climate declaration sponsored by the UN that commits them to setting, reporting and implementing in-house carbon reduction targets.

In case you are surprised, they are not doing this out of the goodness of their corporate hearts. As the respected New Scientist magazine pointed out last December, “the biggest and smartest beasts in the corporate jungle figure they can make money from combating climate change. And the tougher the targets the more money they can make”. US office supply giant Office Depot saved US$6.2 million by introducing energy efficiency measures in its shops and warehouses and DuPont estimate that they have saved US$3 billion in the last twenty years as a result of curbing their fossil fuel dependency.

The arrival of the CDP on our shores may herald a rise in environmental consciousness among South Africa’s own corporate giants. Since its official launch in the UK in 2000, the CDP has grown to become “the world’s largest institutional investor collaboration on the business implications of climate change”. Last year saw the participation of over 2600 companies worldwide, controlling over US$41 trillion in assets.

The CDP aims to raise awareness among and provide information to corporate executives, share-holders and investors about the business risks and opportunities presented by global climate change. Via an annual questionnaire, companies are asked to disclose the amount of greenhouse gases their activities emit and to assess how global warming will impact on their business.

South Africa’s participation in the CDP was coordinated by the National Business Initiative and local consulting firm Incite Sustainability. National Business Initiative Chief Executive Andre Fourie points out that “South Africa represents the overwhelming majority of Africa’s carbon emissions, and is high on the list of developing countries to undertake emission reduction commitments after the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012”.

Of the 38 top companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange to which CDP questionnaires were sent in the beginning of 2007, 28 responded in some way or other. Notable among the local companies that declined to take part or did not respond to the request for information are Barloworld, Kumba Iron Ore, Liberty Life and Mittal Steel.

Although the South African response rate was comparatively high (better than those for the UK, France, the USA, Germany, Canada, Italy and India), what is less impressive is that only 57% of the responding local companies supplied quantitative data on their greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. disclosed the actual amount of greenhouse gasses they emit annually).

So who are South Africa’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters? Sasol tops the log of the major publically listed companies – not a surprising result, since the company’s process of converting coal into oil is extremely energy intensive and releases masses of carbon dioxide. Next on the list are the mining giants BHP Billiton and Anglo American respectively. Together, these three companies account for 83% of greenhouse gas emissions from publically listed companies.

Eskom is not a listed company, but chose to participate voluntarily. With an annual emission rate of 208 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (i.e. all of its greenhouse gas emissions converted into the equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide), Eskom is responsible for approximately half of the country’s total emissions and contributes 2.8 times more to global warming than the next biggest domestic emitter, Sasol.

The reason for this is that Eskom produces nearly 90% of South Africa’s electricity by burning the country’s relatively abundant and cheap coal, and doing so quite inefficiently: its carbon emission intensity of 960 grams per kWh of electricity generated is third highest amongst regional electric utilities, behind those of the former USSR and China.

While the South African CDP report notes that most of the responding companies intend to “look into” activities to mitigate their impact on climate change (e.g. the use of renewable energy sources), it also points out that few have actually invested resources and finances in this area. While more than half have appointed upper management level staff to deal with issues related to climate change, only eight out of the 38 have declared targets for managing future carbon emissions.

Most (82%) of the local corporations responding to the CDP questionnaire consider climate change to be a commercial risk. The availability of water as a result of global warming, for instance, is of particular concern to mining companies that require large quantities of water for their processing plants and for cooling deep level mines. Possible future droughts have obvious business implications for food retailers such as Pick ‘n Pay and paper giant Sappi. According to the report, “Bidvest subsidiary Namsov Fishing Enterprise and Namibian Sea Products was disclosed as being at risk as fish stocks shrink and migrate due to changing ocean conditions” and Sanlam anticipates that the short term insurance industry may be detrimentally affected by an increased frequency of natural disasters expected due to climate change.

An even larger percentage of respondents (89%) think of climate change as representing new business opportunities, including investment possibilities in environmentally responsible financial vehicles, as well as renewable energy and cleaner transport options. MTN is investigating new developments in communication and “tele-working” technologies that could save both travel and time and therefore energy and money, while Pick ‘n Pay are evaluating more energy-efficient business practices, including internet ordering and smart delivery systems.

The CDP report concludes that much remains to be done and emphasises that for climate change “to be effectively addressed in South Africa […] there will need to be close collaboration and partnership between business, government and civil society organisations”.

While it is encouraging to see an increase in consciousness and concern about global climate change among South African corporations, the CDP raises a number of pertinent issues. For one, the fact that a company publicly discloses its carbon footprint and commits itself to reducing it does not necessarily make it “green”. Let’s not forget that these companies are massive carbon emitters in the first place and often contribute to environmental degradation in other ways – think acid rain, mine and ash dumps and polluted soil and groundwater.

Secondly, the CDP process is entirely self-reported and not independently verified. Considering the crucial importance of dealing with global warming effectively, the need for an unbiased and independent entity to monitor the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted by South African corporations on a regular basis is obvious. Furthermore, carbon emissions should not only be monitored, they should be regulated. We need national targets and legislation for drastic overall emission reductions – a process in which government should surely be taking the lead.

Although the willingness of some of our biggest companies to publicly disclose their carbon footprint needs to be applauded, the sincerity of at least a few remains questionable. It is disturbing to note, for example, that of the ten local companies given the highest marks in terms of climate change disclosure practices” by the CDP, four (Anglo Platinum, Pick ‘n Pay, SAB Miller and Sasol) are still listed as members and financial backers of the Free Market Foundation, a policy organisation that continues to publish articles denying the reality of global warming on its website (www.freemarketfoundation.com).

What is perhaps most urgently needed from us as a country, however, is a fresh approach to how we choose to lead our lives and organise our society. An increasing number of progressive environmentalists, among them Patrick Bond, the Director of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, and George Monbiot in the UK, are urging that what is really needed to avert the threat of global warming is as near a complete reduction of our fossil fuel addiction as possible, as soon as possible. Their new rallying call is for us to leave fossil fuels (and other non-renewable resources) in the ground.

As a country, South Africa is characterised by a frivolous and hedonistic attitude towards global warming. Bond makes the shocking point that we have “an emissions output per person per unit of GDP twenty times worse than the US”. Yes, the industrialised countries of the developed world are to blame for much of our current climate predicament, but we had better clean up our own backyard and soon, or such accusations will sound increasingly hollow and hypocritical.

SA’s Top Ten Carbon Emitters:

  1. Eskom

  2. Sasol

  3. BHP Billiton

  4. Anglo American

  5. Sappi

  6. Anglo Platinum

  7. Harmony Gold

  8. AngloGold Ashanti

  9. Impala Platinum

  10. SAB Miller

The first South African Carbon Disclosure Project report can be downloaded from the National Business Initiatives website (www.nbi.org.za) and the submissions from some of the participating South African companies are available to the public on the CDP website (www.cdproject.net).

SA’s Most Conscientious Climate Change Companies:

On the basis of their response to a questionnaire, the Carbon Disclosure Project ranks companies according to their “climate change disclosure practices”.

1. BHP Billiton

2. SAB Miller

3. Anglo American

4. Old Mutual

5. Sasol

6. Pick ‘n Pay

7. Nedbank

8. MTN Group

9. Anglo Platinum

10. Harmony Gold