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Climate change: game over? November 19, 2012

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming.
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Climate change: game over?

(This column was first published on 2012-11-13 at News24 here)

Climate change didn’t enter the 2012 US presidential elections as a topic worth debating until superstorm Sandy knocked out the nation’s most populous city. But before we point accusing fingers at those clueless Americans, we should ask ourselves how serious we and our own government have taken this issue.

For years, the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists have warned that we need to restrict average global temperature increases to a maximum of 2oC above pre-industrial levels in order to prevent catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

At COP-15, the 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen, this 2oC target was officially agreed on by the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Many experts now believe that the target is too high and that we should be aiming at 1.5 oC to be safe.

A new analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicts that we’re headed for 6oC by the end of this century. According to the international accounting firm’s Low Carbon Economy Index 2012, entitled “Too late for two degrees?”, the pace of reducing global emissions of greenhouse gasses has been way too slow.

While reductions in the carbon intensity (i.e. the emissions per unit of GDP) of countries like the UK, Germany and France reached rates as high as 6% or more in 2010-2011, they appear to have stalled in the world’s emerging economies. The so-called E7 group of countries (China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey) now emit more than the G7 countries (USA, France, UK, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada).

According to the PwC report, the global economy has to decrease its collective carbon intensity by a massive 5.1% annually until the year 2050 to stand a chance of achieving the 2oC target – a rate never achieved in any single year since World War 2. “Even to have a reasonable prospect of getting to a 4°C scenario would imply nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonisation,” says the study.

So does this mean that we’re toast? That the 2oC target is a pipedream and that we’re doomed to follow the Ancient Maya in succumbing to drastic climate change?

Not quite yet, but we do need to urgently decide how we are going to respond to this depressing news? It seems to me that we have three options. Take your pick:

1. Business as usual

There are a number of reasons why you might think that we should simply carry on burning oil, gas and coal, regardless of the consequences:
– you don’t believe in climate change in the first place;
– you think that any detrimental effects have been vastly exaggerated;
– you have faith in the powers of the “free market” to sort things out in the end;
– you’re looking forward to the long-awaited collapse of capitalism;
– you believe that global warming is a natural phenomenon that humans can’t do anything about; or
– you just don’t give a damn.

2. Addressing the symptoms

You may argue that we should focus our attention on:
– developing technologies to help us and future generations adapt to life on a warming planet;
– capturing and safely storing enough of the carbon we pump into the atmosphere to mitigate our continued reliance on fossil fuels; or
– searching for geoengineering solutions, like dumping iron dust into the oceans to stimulate CO2-trapping plankton blooms, or launching space mirrors to shield us from the sun’s radiation.

3. Tackling the causes

Like most environmentalists you may believe that the way to go is to transition to a low-carbon economy by:
– maximising energy efficiency; and
– replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy alternatives such as wind and solar power.

Personally, I’ve long been a supporter of option 3, but a considerable need for adaptation to the symptoms of climate change now seems inevitable. The authors of the PwC index agree, calling for “radical transformations in the way the global economy currently functions: rapid uptake of renewable energy, sharp falls in fossil fuel use or massive deployment of CCS [carbon capture and storage], removal of industrial emissions and halting deforestation.”

Which option do you choose?

– Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

Are you eating genetically modified food? November 8, 2012

Posted by Andreas in Environment, genetic engineering.
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Wow, I haven’t posted anything for a very long time! I’ll try to be a bit more active again from now on.

Are you eating genetically modified food?

(This column was first published on 2012-11-06 at News24 here)

Are you consuming food made using genetically modified (GM) crops? You probably are, even if you’re not aware of it.

The Washington-based Environmental Working Group recently conducted an interesting investigation. Using 2011 data provided by the US Department of Agriculture, they estimated that average Americans consume more than their body weight – 193 pounds or about 87.5 kg – in GM food every year.

The South African government along with much of our agriculture industry has been as enthusiastic about genetic engineering as their US counterparts. This remains the only country in the world that allows GM varieties of its national staple food – white maize – to be grown commercially. In the 2011/2012 season approximately 72% of all maize seed sold in South Africa was GM.

So, unless you’re extremely vigilant or on an organic-only diet, chances are pretty good that you are eating your share of GM food on a regular basis, since maize and its by-products find their way into a surprisingly wide variety of food.

Exactly what the human health implications are remains a very controversial topic. In September, a French study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal argued that rats fed on GM maize and exposed to Monsanto’s Roundup, a glyphosate herbicide which is routinely sprayed on this maize, increased the rate of premature death in the animals compared to control groups.

They also claimed a significantly raised incidence of cancerous tumours and severe kidney and liver damage. The variety of maize used, Monsanto’s NK603, has been approved in South Africa since 2002 and is extensively planted as yellow and white maize.

As soon as it was released, the study was simultaneously embraced by GM critics and branded as inadequate and deeply flawed by pundits of the technology. What remains a fact, however, is that precious little independent, large-scale and long-term research into the human health effects of GM crops has ever been conducted anywhere. We continue to be our own guinea pigs in this area.

The detrimental environmental impact of GM crops is less contentious. For years, one of the biotech industry’s main selling points has been the promise that GM crops would reduce the use of toxic pesticides.

Some GM crop varieties are engineered to release their own insecticide, supposedly reducing the need for farmers to apply synthetic equivalents. Others GM crops are designed to be resistant to glyphosate herbicides like Roundup. In this case the idea is that limited applications of glyphosate would be sufficient to control weeds while doing no harm to the crops themselves.

There are now increasingly worrying signs, however, that nature is beating the genetic engineers at their game. In September, a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe, showed that herbicide use in the USA increased by 239 million kilograms or about 11% between 1996 and 2011, because weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate, some developing into so-called superweeds.

Statistics on pesticide use in South Africa are difficult to come by, but data from the UN show that glyphosate imports have risen from 12 million litres in 2006 to 20 million litres in 2011.

Last month also saw researchers from Iowa State University release the results of a study which indicates that western corn rootworm, an insect very destructive to maize plants, has developed resistance to Monsanto’s insecticide-producing YieldGuard variety of GM maize. In the past, this pest, which feeds exclusively on maize, was largely controlled by the age-old technique of crop rotation with farmers alternating their plantings of maize with other crops, like soybeans. As insect resistance to GM crops increases, we can expect the use of toxic insecticides to rise as well.

There is some good news for consumers who want to steer clear of GM food though. On 9 October, the Department of Trade and Industry published a draft amendment to the regulations that govern the labelling of GM food in South Africa. If it’s approved – and let’s hope it is – all imported and locally produced goods that contains 5% or more GM components or ingredients have to be labelled as “contains genetically modified ingredients or components”, giving South Africans the option to choose if they want to support this technology or not.

– Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

The Freedom to Create Documentary Film Week November 2, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Uncategorized.
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The Freedom to Create Documentary Week showcases some of the best international documentary films entered in the 2011 Freedom to Create Prize and will take place at The Labia Cinema on Orange Street in Cape Town, South Africa from the 14th to the 20th of November 2011.

Established in 2006, Freedom to Create is an international organisation that supports programmes and projects around the world that unleash people’s creativity and The Freedom to Create Prize celebrates the courage and creativity of artists who use their talents to build social foundations and inspire the human spirit. This year’s prize winners will be announced at an awards ceremony and concert at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens on 19 November 2011. As part of the celebrations, we will be screening a selection of films to celebrate this year’s best film entries.

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


The programme:


Son of Babylon

Monday 14 November

Northern Iraq, 2003. Two weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Ahmed, a 12-year-old boy begrudgingly follows in the shadow of his grandmother. On hearing news that prisoners of war have been found alive in the South, she is determined to discover the fate of her missing son, Ahmed’s father, who never returned from the Gulf war. From the mountains of Kurdistan to the sands of Babylon, they hitch rides from strangers and cross paths with fellow pilgrims on all too similar journeys. Struggling to understand his grandmother’s search, Ahmed follows in the forgotten footsteps of a father he never knew. This journey will lead the boy to come of age. Son of Babylon raises awareness about Iraq’s one million and more missing people who, having faced death at the hands of a murderous regime, were at risk of being forgotten by history. This film also carries deep and hopeful messages asking us to think about how to deal with our unresolved issues from the past in order to move forward towards true peace and reconciliation.


Strangers No More and Teta, Alf Marra

Tuesday 15 November

Strangers No More, winner of the 2011 Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar, tells the story of the remarkable Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, where the pupils include 750 immigrants and refugees from 48 countries and every known religion. The film follows three children who fled their homelands in Darfur, South Africa and Eritrea. Over the course of 15 months, the film portrays their struggle to forget the past and rebuild their lives in this very rare community, where truly no one is a ‘stranger no more’.

Teta, Al Marra is a poetic documentary about a feisty Beiruti grandmother, bringing together a grandfather, grandmother and grandson in a playful magic-realist film that aims to defy both a past death and a future one. It documents the larger-than-life character of Teta Kaabour, her tales of the Beirut of her past and her imaginings about what awaits her after death. The film documents this very personal and cultural heritage and presents a unique view of Lebanon’s norms, sensitivities and aspirations.


Enemies of the People

Wednesday 16 November

The Khmer Rouge ran what is regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most brutal regimes. Yet the Killing Fields of Cambodia remain unexplained. Until now. In Enemies of the People the men and women who perpetrated the massacres – from the foot-soldiers who slit throats to the party’s ideological leader, Nuon Chea aka Brother Number Two – break a 30-year silence to give testimony never before heard or seen. Unprecedented access from the top to the bottom of the Khmer Rouge has been achieved through a decade of work by one of Cambodia’s best investigative journalists, Thet Sambath. Sambath is on a personal quest: he lost his own family in the Killing Fields. The film is his journey to discover not how but why they died. In doing so, he hears and understands for the first time the real story of his country’s tragedy. After years of visits and trust-building, Sambath finally persuades Brother Number Two to admit (again, for the first time) in detail how he and Pol Pot (the two supreme powers in the Khmer Rouge state) decided to kill party members whom they considered ‘Enemies of the People’.


The Lost Girls of South Africa

Thursday 17 November

A child is raped in South Africa every three minutes. The Lost Girls of South Africa is a timely and revealing feature-length documentary that offers a privileged glimpse into what life is really like for young girls growing up in South Africa. It follows the stories of four girls, aged 11-13, who become victims of child rape, looking at the experience and its aftermath through their eyes and in their words. The girls involved in this film, along with their mothers, were all extensively consulted about the implications of taking part in this film, and being identified. It was explained to them that while the film would not be sold to South African television, it was still likely that their pictures would be accessible on the internet in SA. We were very clear about this, but they were equally clear that they had a right to tell their story, and wanted to, in order to try to reduce the likelihood of it happening to other girls.

All proceeds from the screening of The Lost Girls of South Africa will be donated to The Lost Girls Fund, set up by the makers of the film to provide viewers an opportunity to directly help the girls in the film. Find out more at http://www.lostgirlssa.org


I was Worth 50 Sheep

Friday 18 November

I Was Worth 50 Sheep is the story of a brave girl Sabere, and her struggle for life. When she was just ten years old she was sold to a man forty years her senior. After seven years of confinement and abuse, she escaped to find temporary refuge in a
women’s sanctuary. The camera picks up Sabere at the point where she has re-made contact with her family. This is the story of a courageous young Afghan girl, fighting hard for her fundamental rights. The film gives a voice to the voiceless – women who continue to suffer from violence, poverty and illiteracy in their country.


Kinshasa Symphony

Saturday 19 November

Kinshasa Symphony is a study of people in one of the world’s most chaotic cities, doing their best to maintain one of the most complex human endeavours – a symphony orchestra. It is a film about the Congo, the people of Kinshasa and the power of music. The film documents the story of people achieving great things under the most difficult of circumstances. It is a measured, funny and lyrical film which portrays issues in the DRC such as poverty, poor housing and healthcare, while reminding us that the problems in the country are certainly not caused by deficiencies in its people. The film’s portrayal of Africans as heroes rather than victims has had a hugely powerful impact on many.


War Don Don

Sunday 20 November

In the heart of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, United Nations soldiers guard a heavily fortified building known as the “special court.” Inside, Issa Sesay awaits his trial. Prosecutors say Sesay is a war criminal, guilty of heinous crimes against humanity. His defenders say he is a reluctant fighter who protected civilians and played a crucial role in bringing peace to Sierra Leone. With unprecedented access to prosecutors, defence attorneys, victims, and, from behind bars, Sesay himself, War Don Don puts international justice on trial for the world to see – finding that in some cases the past is not just painful, it is also opaque. The international court in Sierra Leone will be the first major war crimes tribunal to conclude cases since the Nuremberg trials. This film gives us an insight into the court, allows the opportunity for a dialogue to emerge, assessing the ways in which the system is currently run, and asks us to find ways to improve it.


All screenings will be followed by a facilitated audience discussion.


Tickets 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 Freedom to Create, 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.



Freedom to Create:

The Labia:
021 424 5927

While You Were Sleeping:
Andreas Späth
084 749 9470

The Cradock Four August 16, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Film screening, History, Politics.
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The Cradock Four, a dramatic documentary about the brutal murder of four prominent Eastern Cape anti-Apartheid activists, will be shown in Cape Town at the Labia on Orange cinema on Sunday 21 August at 6:15pm, on Monday 22 August at 8:30pm and on Tuesday 23 August at 6:15pm.

On a winter’s night in 1985, an Apartheid police hit squad assassinated four young activists in the Eastern Cape. Among South Africa’s most notorious political murders, the abduction and brutal killing of Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli became a major turning point in the country’s history, triggering a state of emergency and eventually leading to the release of Mandela.

Having taken seven years to complete, David Forbes’ award-winning feature documentary film The Cradock Four explores who the four victims were and investigates the circumstances that led to their deaths. The murders became one of Apartheid’s murkiest and most controversial episodes and the film allows the viewer to perceive the oppressive climate of the racist regime and looks at both inquiries into the murders (in 1989 and 1992), as well as into the investigations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which denied amnesty to the killers. The Cradock Four weaves together interviews, archival footage, dramatic recreations and lyrical visual images to create a chilling story that reminds all of us of the many bloody sacrifices with which our democratic freedoms were won.

The Cradock Four is a must-see for anyone hoping to understand South Africa’s past, present and future.

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:

The War You Don’t See May 27, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Film screening, History.
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The War You Don’t See, a documentary about the role of the media in war, will premier in Cape Town at the Labia on Orange cinema on Sunday 5 June at 6:15pm, on Monday 6 June at 8:30pm and on Tuesday 7 June at 6:15pm.

The War You Don’t See is powerful and timely investigation into the media’s role in war, tracing the history of embedded and independent reporting from the carnage of World War One to the destruction of Hiroshima, and from the invasion of Vietnam to the current war in Afghanistan and the disaster in Iraq.

As weapons and propaganda become even more sophisticated, the nature of war is developing into an electronic battlefield in which journalists play a key role, and civilians are the victims. But who is the real enemy?

John Pilger says in the film: “We journalists… have to be brave enough to defy those who seek our collusion in selling their latest bloody adventure in someone else’s country… That means always challenging the official story, however patriotic that story may appear, however seductive and insidious it is. For propaganda relies on us in the media to aim its deceptions not at a far away country but at you at home… In this age of endless imperial war, the lives of countless men, women and children depend on the truth or their blood is on us… Those whose job it is to keep the record straight ought to be the voice of people, not power.”

The screenings will be followed by a facilitated audience discussion.

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.

UCT Fracking Panel Discussion May 19, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Fracking, South Africa, University of Cape Town.
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Documentary screening: Black Gold May 4, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Film screening.
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Don’t trust Shell April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, South Africa.
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Don’t trust Shell

(This column was first published on 2011-03-30 at News24 here)

Shell wants us to believe that in exploring for and extracting natural gas from underground layers of shale in the Karoo using the polluting and extremely water-intensive technique of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, they have all of our best interests as well as those of the environment at heart.

They must also think us the most gullible halfwits this side of the Niger Delta.

In a recent full-page newspaper ad, the multi-billion dollar oil giant’s Bonang Mohale writes passionately about his company’s “commitments to the Karoo”, promising not to despoil and pollute it in the way fracking has been documented to mess up formerly pristine landscapes and water sources  elsewhere. He describes natural gas as a “more environmentally friendly” option and a “cleaner energy source” and twice refers to its role in building a “sustainable energy future”.

Pure greenwash! In 2008 the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ruled Shell’s use of the word “sustainable” in an ad about its involvement in extracting oil from Canadian tar sands “misleading” and in violation of industry codes for “environmental claims”, “substantiation” and “truthfulness”. The same standards ought to apply here.

In complete contradiction to their PR-laced public utterances, Shell has an atrocious environmental and human rights record, as even a cursory glance into their skeleton-packed closet reveals:

• In County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, a fishing and farming community has been fighting a protracted battle against Shell’s plans to build a pipeline and gas refinery that has involved violent clashes with police, hunger strikes, arrests, and masked men beating up local activists and sinking an outspoken opponent’s fishing boat.

• In 1995 Greenpeace activists stopped Shell from sinking the Brent Spar oil platform, laden with tonnes of toxic and radioactive waste, at sea.

• Shell has a long and sinister history of environmental destruction and human rights abuses in Nigeria. More than a thousand oil spill cases have been brought against the company in the Niger Delta, where it continues to illegally flare natural gas, a practice that causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined. Long implicated in bribing local officials and politicians, WikiLeaks cables reveal that Shell inserted employees into all main ministries of the Nigerian government and “knew everything that was being done in those ministries”. Shell is deeply implicated in the Nigerian government’s 1995 execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 fellow environmental and human rights activists and in 2009 agreed to pay their families $15.5m as a “humanitarian gesture”.

• Environmentalists have warned that Shells’ Sakhalin II oil and gas operations in Russia will contribute to pushing the critically endangered Western Pacific Grey Whale towards extinction.

• Shell has plans to drill for oil just 30 kilometres from Western Australia’s ecologically sensitive Ningaloo Reef and off the coast of the USA’s fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

• Shell has contributed more than a million dollars towards defeating legislation to set goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in California.

• Shell is coming under increasing pressure from environmentalists, indigenous communities and its own shareholders over its extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada, which involves strip mining large swaths of forest and wetlands and uses and pollutes vast quantities of water while generating at least five times more carbon emissions than conventional sources of oil.

If Shell were a person, we’d have no hesitation in recognising this list as the shocking resume of a sociopathic career criminal whom we’d never let anywhere near our homes or children. We cannot afford to trust them with the Karoo.

Note to Shell: Even in the extremely unlikely event of you being able to convince us that you are capable of producing gas in the Karoo without wasting and polluting our water, we wouldn’t want you to. We don’t even want you to explore for it. We want you to leave the gas in the ground. The age of carbon-based fossil fuels – of coal, oil and natural gas – is coming to a close and until you propose to help us develop our abundant, clean, green and truly sustainable renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power, stay out of the Karoo.

Arnie the eco-warrior April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment.
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Arnie the eco-warrior

(This column was first published on 2011-03-23 at News24 here)

Arnold “I’ll be back” Schwarzenegger has been inciting Americans to rise up in revolt to overthrow the dirty industry that is holding back a clean, renewable energy future. And no, I’m not talking about his latest Hollywood blockbuster.

After expressing his admiration for the popular rebellions against dictators in North Africa and the Middle East at a recent US Department of Energy summit, the former Governator of California encouraged similar actions against American oil and gas barons: “we want to overturn the old energy order”.

Given the very broad definition of what qualifies as eco-terrorism under legislation like the US Patriot Act and given that the FBI has identified greens as the “number one domestic terror threat”, you’d think that Arnie would, at the very least, have been subjected to some form of official knuckle-rapping. He got away scot-free.

If ordinary citizens act on Schwarzenegger’s advice, they’re unlikely to be so lucky. The case of Tim DeChristopher proves my point.

In 2008, DeChristopher attended a demonstration outside an oil and gas lease auction organised by the US Bureau of Land Management. A last minute fire-sale by the outgoing administration of George W Bush, the auction was to distribute oil and gas drilling rights on remote patches of public land at bargain-basement prices.

By happy coincidence DeChristopher found himself inside the auction rather than demonstrating against it from the outside. On the spur of the moment, he decided to monkey-wrench proceedings by “participating” in the auction. He entered outlandishly large offers, drove up prices, out-bid oil and gas companies and ended up “buying” drilling rights to 22 500 acres of land in 13 parcels for some $1.7 million before he was stopped by a federal agent. By then he’d effectively scuttled the entire auction.

I consider DeChristopher’s action a brilliantly creative example of peaceful civil disobedience. The US legal system considers it a crime, even though the entire auction was subsequently declared illegitimate by the Obama administration. On the 3rd of March 2011, DeChristopher was convicted of two felony counts in a Salt Lake City court and now faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of as much as $750 000. I agree with noted climate activist and author Bill McKibben, who tweeted “The government should give him a medal, not a sentence”.

DeChristopher’s criminalisation is neither unusual nor unexpected, of course. So-called democratic governments around the world have been conducting a low-level war against people prepared to act non-violently in defence of the environment for years. Militant groups of animal rights activists bore the initial brunt, but in recent times even your average garden variety eco-organisation is being targeted.

Like the FBI, the UK’s National Public Order Intelligence Unit, a private company largely funded by government, but accountable to no one in particular, has recently been revealed to maintain lists of “extremists” and employ undercover surveillance officers to infiltrate green organisations. Major companies are getting in on the act, too. Scottish Resources, E.ON and Scottish Power, three of the UK’s biggest energy companies, as well as Monsanto, one the world’s largest peddlers of genetically modified seeds, have employed private security outfits to conduct covert intelligence-gathering and monitoring operations against eco-activists.

Closer to home, the local nuclear industry is said to cultivate a watch-list of prominent anti nuke-activists and last December 14 Earthlife Africa members were arrested and charged with “illegal gathering” and “public indecency” for picketing outside a public hearing of the government’s flawed IRP2 electricity master plan.

Is it just me or are these symptoms of a world in which what’s right and what’s wrong has been turned upside down? Bradley Manning, the suspected WikiLeaks whistleblower, is potentially facing the death penalty for exposing government wrongdoings ranging from misdemeanours to war crimes. Bankers involved in precipitating a devastating global financial disaster get bailed-out instead of jailed. Not a single BP bigwig gets charged with negligent ecocide in the Gulf of Mexico.

I’m with Arnie on this one. We need to support people like Tim DeChristopher and stand up to those who threaten life on our planet for the sake of short-term material gains and financial profits. Call me an eco-terrorist if you like.

A farewell to nukes April 21, 2011

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, Nuclear Power, South Africa.
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A farewell to nukes

(This column was first published on 2011-03-16 at News24 here)

I’ve had it with nuclear power. And I’ve had enough of nuclear pundits telling me how cheap and clean and green and low-carbon, oh and yes, how safe it is.

Repeated hydrogen explosions at Fukushima Daiichi, the stricken Japanese nuclear power plant; engineers scrambling desperately to stop several plutonium reactors from melting down by using “innovative” (read “improvised”) techniques; a spent fuel storage pond on fire; radioactivity being released into the atmosphere; and traumatised politicians who keep enlarging the evacuation zone look anything but safe to me, not even from half a world away.

Claims that under the circumstances Japan’s nuclear installations have done remarkably well and that things could be much worse and could never get as bad as Chernobyl don’t fill me with comfort either. How bad do things have to get for them to be disastrous? Just ask the tens of thousands of people who’ve been evacuated from their homes around Fukushima.

I have no time for nuclear engineers who assure us that their reactors were designed to cope with the worst possible case scenario and then complain that they were not prepared for the severity of this particular combination of natural calamities – a more than puzzling admission in a country as prone to large earthquake and tsunami double whammies as Japan.

It constantly amazes me that people whose entire industry is based on quantum mechanics, which itself is all about statistical probabilities, can so habitually overlook the fact that even catastrophic natural events with exceedingly low probabilities have a nasty tendency of happening unexpectedly.

And don’t tell me that we’re completely safe from earthquakes in South Africa. The Milnerton earthquake (estimated magnitude: 6.3) which struck the West Coast 200 years ago may have been much weaker than the latest Japanese shaker (magnitude 9.0), but its epicentre was also much closer to the location of Koeberg, currently our only atomic energy plant. The most recent environmental impact report for a further nuclear plant at Koeberg suggests that, taking into account statistical errors, the seismic risk could be significantly higher than the rating typically used in nuclear plant designs.

While nuclear accidents in various parts of the world are blamed on earthquakes, tsunamis, human error by incompetent operators and flawed, previous-generation reactor designs, we’re forever asked to believe that it can’t happen here. Which is exactly what the people of Fukushima believed until a few days ago.

I haven’t even mentioned the environmental havoc caused by uranium mining (think radioactive streams in the Witwatersrand), the health hazards associated with every-day operation, the ever-present threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, the fact that nuclear energy is neither carbon-neutral nor a panacea for climate change, or that nobody really knows what to do with the high-level waste accumulating worldwide which will remain dangerously radioactive for a very long time.

The time to argue that we need nuclear power because it causes less environmental damage and loss of lives through pollution and climate change than energy generated by burning oil, coal or natural gas has come and gone. The implication that our only energy options involve either carbon-based fossil fuels or nuclear power is a red herring.

In fact, the best reason why we should give up on nukes is simply that we don’t need them. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that the lion’s share, if not all, of our electricity needs can be met cost-competitively by truly green, long-term sustainable and renewable energy sources including solar and wind power.

In South Africa, the nuclear industry has the ear of government and unless we start shouting our opposition we’ll soon have more nuclear power rather than less. It’s on the cards and it will happen unless we stop it.

Now is the time to consign this dangerous and out-dated technology to the dustbin of history. We should have abandoned nuclear power after Three Mile Island in 1979. We should have outlawed it after Chernobyl in 1986. And we should most definitely get rid of it for good after Fukushima in 2011. Enough is enough.