IT WAS during the dying days of apartheid, that I wrote a series of articles promoting ‘ecological sustainable development’ and deep ecology. The pieces published by Grassroots and South Press were extraordinary, the least of which is that they were published by a working class imprint shortly after the state of emergency.
They dovetailed my criticism of race-based conservation efforts by elements within the regime, for example the Rupert Family, and addressed perceptions that the emergent environmental justice movement in the country was, to put it crudely, an all-white affair.
The result was the ‘First National Conference on Environment and Development’, in which academics and activists from all quarters joined hands on a broad eco-justice platform which included both the ANC and PAC, and which resulted in the placing of Earth Rights at the centre of our Constitution, in the form of article 24.
Today’s political pundits Carilee Osborne and Bruce Baigrie , conveniently ignore the history of environmentalism in South Africa, preferring to situate their respective struggles within the contemporary milieu of the Climate Strike — the recent Cape Town March which saw some 2500 people from various organisations and civic structures take to the streets in what they view “as one of the largest environmental protest actions in South Africa’s history.”
This is no mean feet and without wishing to downplay the successes of these epic events during the course of the past year, one should always remember that the environmental justice movement arose as a foundation stone of our Constitution during a period of mass democratic action, the likes of which have yet to be repeated. And thus a struggle which was situated not upon my own writings, nor the writings of any one particular individual, but rather the Freedom Charter, which (within the colour of the time) called upon people black and white, to “save the soil”, whilst sharing the land, and assisting the tillers of the land.
A similar mistake in historical proportion and misreading of history occurs within the various articles penned by one Farieda Khan. She writes in “Environmentalism in South Africa: A Sociopolitical Perspective”, (an otherwise excellent paper written over the turn of the millennium): “The first extra-parliamentary political organization to commit to a formal environmental policy was the Call of Islam, an affiliate of the United Democratic Front (the South African front organization for the then-banned African National Congress).” She goes on to state: “The Call of Islam had a formal environmental policy since its inception in 1984, due in large measure to the efforts of its founder, Moulana Faried Esack.”
If only history were so convenient as to claim environmentalism on behalf of any one religion or individual, whether Islam, or the Church, as many within SAFCEI and SACC would have it, or on behalf of one or more important groups or class formations formulated by those on the left, as those within AIDC would have us believe.
Rather, I think it more accurate and best to take a broader arc of history — one that includes the Freedom Charter and reaches forward to the essential humanism espoused by the deep ecology movement of the 1970s, whose distinguishing and original characteristics are its recognition of the inherent value of all living beings: “Those who work for social changes based on this recognition are motivated by love of nature as well as for humans.” And by extension, as much of my writing and published work from the 1980s suggested, an African environmentalism which realises that Ubuntu is not simply being human because we are all human, but rather, a common humanity contingent upon the necessary existence of our habitat, without which we could not exist as a species.
Instead of situating the environmental movement within so-called ‘working class’ struggles, or working class factions as Osborne and Baigrie attempt in “Towards a working-class environmentalism for South Africa”, and thus the binary of a grand populism vs narrow neoliberalism which simply perpetuates the idea of man’s dominion over nature and thus a struggle which of necessity is juxtaposed alongside the authoritarian grip of party politics, another path must be found.
It is all too easy to issue anti-capitalist prescriptions, leftist directives and cadre-based imperatives calling for the end of free markets whilst, forgetting that it is Eskom’s captive market, Eskom’s socialist ambitions, and Eskom’s coal barons which have pushed South Africa ahead of the UK in terms of GHG emissions, a country with 10-15 million more people. Although only the 33rd largest economy, South Africa is the 14th largest GHG in the world. Our national energy provider, Eskom has yet to adopt GHG emissions targets.
All the result of the boardroom compromises of the statist, authoritarian left, whose policies have seen our country embrace ‘peak, plateau and decline’ alongside a COP-out strategy excluding South Africa from the Paris Agreement, and thus a national environmental policy which is not based upon empirical science and evidence-based research but rather class driven kragdadigheid and Big Coal.
If those on the far left expect us all to reject secular humanist values alongside Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess who introduced the phrase “deep ecology” and thus an environmentalism which emerged as a popular grassroots political movement in the 1960s with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, simply because these persons are lily-white, or tainted by the liberal economics of the West, then they are sorely mistaken.
Instead, I believe, that it is far better to formulate an African-centred response, and rather a Pan-African struggle which is broad-based and inclusive of our collective humanity and common habitat. Such a broad-based struggle out of necessity includes an African-Centered Ecophilosophy and Political Ecology.The draft Climate Justice Charter is one such vehicle and deserves our full support.
The struggle for survival during the collapse of the Holocene, includes those already involved in conservation and preservation efforts and those who now join because of concerns about the detrimental impact of modern industrial technology. When one talks about climate justice we thus need to include the voices of those who have not been given an opportunity to speak, and remember that without mass mobilisation, nothing would have changed during apartheid.
IT IS NOT often that one gets to see blatant greenwashing non-science on SABC, ‘the use of marketing to portray an organization’s products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not’. The latest antics of the Dept of Environment’s Edna Molewa is possibly a low-point in the campaign to shift South Africa from coal to renewables.
In a televised broadcast from Sasol in Secunda, Molewa appears to claim an Oxygen (O2) plant ‘the world’s largest” is the solution to GHG. Gesticulating wildly without any supporting evidence, the minister claims that the O2 plant “helps us to fulfill our nationally determined contributions we committed ourselves to in Paris”
The departmental gibberish about reduction in tonnes of GHG and energy efficiency, sounds exactly like a Zuma-era Eleventyseven, a purported 20% more energy efficient system is suddenly an 80% reduction in GHG? Is she quoting our national GHG targets? The medium-term goal of INCREASING CO2 equivalent emissions to somewhere between 398 – 614 MtCO2e until 2025 and 2030, which, according to the department “will represent South Africa’s peak GHG emissions phase” and only then to “reduce emissions thereafter up to 2050.”
No, she may as well be just making up her figures and fluffing stats as she goes along, while the public is oblivious to the problem that South Africa has committed itself to ramping up GHG until 2030 and only thereafter reducing emissions. The country negotiated a COP-out deal at Paris, and has been given until 2030 by other nations to come up with better targets, by which time, the human species will be extinct.
You can thank the ANC and Dame Edna Molewa for thinking through the nuts and bolts of a dangerous negotiation strategy called ‘Peak, Plateau and Decline‘, which is really a massive failure of governance and will haunt future generations and our own, for a long time to come. Given our low GHG profile over the turn of the century, we chose a dirty coal future instead of renewables and environmental justice.
The rush by the department to provide a positive spin on Sasol gas and Big Coal, is most certainly a reaction to a very public End Fossil Fuels campaign. Eish, look, there’s O2, must be good for the environment, bang.
To put this in some perspective, GHG (or CO2 equivalent) includes Carbon Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide, Methane, and Fluorocarbons. According to a statement released by SASOL the plant is merely an ‘air separation plant’, separating out Oxygen and Nitrogen. IT WILL NOT REMOVE CARBON as such from the atmosphere, but rather create less O and N in the atmosphere, while redoubling the coal and natural gas operation. If anything any carbon chains (and we have yet to see any information on the actual process) in SASOL’s primary operation will simply be going into more fossil fuel energy systems, and right back into the atmosphere, and must not be seen as a solution to the problem.
Bongani Nqwababa SASOL CEO can also be seen launching into a big speech about ‘government targets on beneficiation of minerals’ set during the past Zuma administration, 14 million tonnes of COAL to produce 30% of fuel in SA and this without mentioning GHG. Falsely claims process is more efficient, since according to him, ‘O2 reduces need for Coal’, and no we not going to be driving around in oxygen-powered vehicles any time soon, it would be far better if Nqwababa was announcing that SASOL was shifting away from liquid fuels to renewable energy while promoting EV technologies. South Africa is falling far behind Western nations in their rush to adopt eco-friendly transport systems.
Molewa later attempted to clarify her idiotic statements in Businessday, claiming that SASOL would be saving 200 000 tonnes of CO2 because of energy efficiency. The group produced some 69,3 Mt of CO2 equivalent in 2016 and contributes some 14.5% to our nation’s total. How exactly the savings target would be derived from an expansion in production of fossil fuel components remains to be seen. In other words, Sasol just increased our GHG emissions but did it in a more efficient manner. Until such time as Sasol releases a road-map for ending fossil fuels, its attempt to greenwash itself as an “oxygen company” must be viewed with some skepticism.
Local media outlets appear to have bought into the Big Rand greenwashing figures surrounding the Sasol investment, and are touting a relativistic and unproven ‘breathing fresh air into the economy story‘ as a solution to climate change, even if it means first polluting the environment with dirty coal. The audit mechanism surrounding fossil fuels will be coming up for debate in the National Assembly later this year, as a carbon tax is being introduced from next year. It remains to be seen whether or not any carbon offsets will be factored into the new tax regime, in effect making adoption of renewables more economical via a rebate on solar and EV.
THE announcement of a green-light to Karoo fracking couldn’t have come at a worse time. The very same week, saw the world pummelled by kill the environment ideologue Donald Trump, who two days ago, scrapped Obama climate change policies. Thus Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane was merely walking in the footsteps of Trump’s anti-Earth agenda on Thursday when he made the announcement that could see a less than 10 year resource opened to exploitation by international gas companies at the same time that it jeopardises future generations.
Agriculture and water resources will be affected far longer than the short-term gains to be had. The sudden surge in development projects of dubious origin, but with major environmental consequences, alongside the rush to strip away environmental protections under NEMA, itself watered down by a Ministerial override, is an insult to the guarantees of Earth rights in our constitution, and can be seen as short-term business interests being put ahead of sustainable development goals.
This week also saw strange announcements by Eskom that it was contemplating revisiting its failed PBMR programme which had already gobbled up some R10bn of taxpayers money with nothing to show except a few fat physicists. As the townships remained underserviced and households in Cape Town were being told to save water, the Minister was encouraging the abuse of precious water resources in the Karoo, while Eskom, the national power utility was getting ready for another bout of atomic spend without so much as concern for consumer safety.
The Trumpist drumbeat appears to have taken the Zuma administration by storm, as if suddenly the mantra of ‘ecological sustainability” crucial to South Africa’s unique development path, was no longer so relevant. Does this mean there is now a Planet B? And those melting polar ice sheets are nothing to worry about? The sudden dash back to a previous age of coal and steam, oil and gas guzzling consumer excess is what is most attractive to the likes of Zuma and his neoliberal agenda. Time to start talking in earnest about ecocide?
THAT people like Ivo Vegter get given column space on the strength of an untested book purporting to debunk campaigns against fracking, nuclear power, climate change and environmentalism in general, is a sign of the insatiable rise of right-wing politics, of the kind that has lead to the ascendency of President Donald Trump. In Vegter’s latest missive published by Daily Maverick, the columnist makes the bold claim that “Rich environmentalists oppress poor people.”
In order to support his thesis, he refers to campaigns to save the Sumatran Tiger and rainforest habitat in Indonesia, the battle to counter deforestation, and a supposedly “alarmist film” by one Leonardo de Caprio, whom Vegter labels variously, a “climate change hypocrite” and a rich celebrity with a ‘carbon footprint the size of small countries’ who has merely ‘poked his nose into the fight’.
De Caprio’s film Before the Flood about climate change and presented by National Geographic was an official selection at both the Toronto and London Film festivals. In comparison Vegter’s 2012 book “Extreme Environment: How Environmental Exaggeration Harms Emerging Economies” failed to make any notable book lists and hardly ranks in terms of global sales.
Vegter’s writing has been labelled as “staggeringly naïve and shoddy research“, “elastic research“,” a man who passes himself off as an environmental journalist, but consistently backs the right of those with money and power to destroy the environment” and a “cherry-picker of facts“.
After poo-pooing De Caprio’s fact-finding epic, Vegter turns to geothermal energy, making the point that instead of being seen as a good thing by environmentalists, such projects, particularly in Indonesia, have raised the ire of earth-centric activists wanting to save habitat from human intervention. David Attenborough is thus chief on Vegters hit-list, as any deep green ecologist would be — one who places a higher value on ecosystems than human beings in general and who is thus opposed to our supposed God-given right to destroy nature.
Hence what can only be termed a rather limp but convoluted preface, tame in comparison to earlier postings, (the man’s writing has spawned a veritable cottage industry of conspiracy theory), begins Vegter’s perennial opining on the subject:
“Environmentalists often try to appeal to our common-sense instincts to preserve our world from harm. Nobody would dispute that a healthy, productive environment is desirable, and indeed essential for continued human welfare and prosperity.
“However, in their zeal to oppose environmental degradation, environmentalists routinely overstate their case. When infrastructure or other development projects are proposed, their knee-jerk reaction is to object, and never give ground. Instead of seeking to minimise harm, they insist that no environmental price is worth the benefit of development.
“There are strong incentives for environmentalists to become fundamentalist extremists, who brook no human development that might disturb a supposedly pristine environment. To understand why, allow me to propose four possible motivations: environmentalism as a religion, environmentalism as a political tool, environmentalism as sensationalism, and environmentalism as an industry.”
That Vegter willfully misstates the case, is unable to tackle apartheid and related environmental issues in his own backyard, and thus resorts to cherry-picking issues half-way around the world, issues that readers do not have any immediate interest in the outcome of events, save from what they see on their Nature television screens, is par for the course, for a man who lost the debate on Fracking and Fukushima. Vegter painfully misjudged the geology of the Karoo, made spurious claims without any science about Fukushima, supported Big Oil at the expense of Water, and continues to disregard the environmental struggles of millions of South Africans living in the townships.
His characterisation of environmentalists as nothing less than ‘wealthy oppressors’, must be rejected as insulting and offensive to all activists on the ground struggling for a healthy environment and better conditions for all humans living on the Earth. This week, saw a major climate victory for Earthlife Africa, an organisation with a predominantly black membership, and thus an organisation which carries my DNA, and notably, one to which I contributed its founding charter and principles. Part of the story of the rise of ELA and environmental activism during apartheid can be read here.
While there is no dispute regarding the need for criticism — yes, white conservationists were considered fair game during the dark days of apartheid, and I published profusely on the subject, forcing the Wildlife Society to become the Wildlife and Environment Society — and since as I argued, human beings were intimately part of the habitat, thus saving our climate and ending apartheid, was equally important, both for wildlife and all human beings, especially those who lacked clean water and basic sanitation — Vegter goes too far in his own extreme, and one should add, obnoxious alt-right point of view.
The convoluted dispatch from the self-proclaimed “never wrong” pundit (read: Never right), may also be considered a form of back-peddling, for in admitting the need for some form of environmentalism in geothermal energy, and thus in part a recognition of the energy debate central to climate change, and ergo, a part revision of an objectionable thesis, Vegter’s borrowed critique of shallow environmentalism, not all environmentalism per se, is in reality, an attempt to destroy the environmental movement by incorporating some of its own ideology and criticism.
Thus like the Rupert’s who wish to be seen as pioneers of transfrontier parks, without dealing with their contribution to apartheid, Vegter’s sudden sympathy for the poor, in essence greenwashing, cannot mask an otherwise abysmal career as a proponent of resource exploitation. Such nitpicking is unlikely to bother the strong non-racial green movement which has arisen post-COP17, nor will it remove the guarantees of Earth Rights in our constitution, and the campaign for the inclusion of ecological sustainable development, of which I was one of the authors.
Vegter’s latest views, therefore need to be discarded as nothing less than fallacious and false argument, the utterings of a dyed in the wool racist, and the work of an opponent of science. One has merely to review the latest debates around the Anthropocene, and certainly, my view is that we appear to be at the end of this geological era (1). Far from being “monopolisers of truth” environmentalists, are deploying science – evidence-based research and empirical data in their campaign to avoid the devastating consequences of climate change. Ivo the Terrible, on the other hand, appears to offer nothing more than a theological counter-point, providing a hazardous litany of argument — one of many, self-ordained saints of alt-speak making a quick buck out of roasting the green movement.
(1) NOTE: See this documentary on the great Permian extinction. A 5 degree increase in global temperature caused by massive release of CO2 albeit via basalt eruption and volcanic activity was enough to extinguish all life on the planet. The documentary makes the apt point that the increase in global temperature resulted in the melting of methane hydrate (CH4·5.75H2O) on the ocean floor and thus the release of CH4 which resulted in a further 5 degree increase in global temperature, a trophic cascade if ever there was one.
WHEN the electric icebox was invented, thousands of ice haulers went out of business. At the turn of the 20th century, nearly every family, grocer, and barkeeper in South Africa had an icebox. But ironically, South Africa’s dependence on ice created the very technology that would lead to the decline of the ice empire — electric freezers and refrigerators.
During the early 1900s, these appliances became more reliable, and by 1940, millions of units had been sold. With freezers allowing people to make ice at home, there was little need to haul massive quantities across the country.
We can’t stop progress and if we do, we risk losing far more than jobs, our Earth and our human habitat is at risk. Because of altered circumstances, Eskom has decided to shut down five coal power stations — Hendrina‚ Kriel‚ Komati‚ Grootvlei and Camden. The termination of coal truckers contracts has lead to a furore, with Cosatu labelling it a “hostile act”.
We can’t turn back the clock. This is not simply about Independent Power Producers (IPPs), as 250 medical professionals and medical organisations stated in the Durban Declaration, climate change is a medical emergency. According to the Lancet, climate change is the greatest global health threat of the 21stcentury.
Each year has seen an increase in global ambient temperatures caused by the release of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) associated with carbon and fossil fuel such as coal, with the resulting melting of permafrost and the polar icecaps, retreat of glaciers, thermal expansion of the ocean and most indicators are off the charts. Africa will suffer most from increasing temperatures. Workers will be most affected by associated loss in productivity.
We can’t afford to live under domes with an altered climate, neither can we afford to miss out on the renewables revolution. Far from being a scourge of privatisation, it is one of our country’s few success stories, continuing to attract investment, continuing to produce jobs and the roll-out of renewable energy is very impressive. It represents a paradigm shift, we dare not ignore.
A way must therefore be found to accommodate the major shift in energy priorities and the sudden dislocation of an entire industry. Truckers can truck goods in other markets, we must assist them, but we cannot step back from the icebox analogy and the melting point — we really no longer need a coal trucking route, nor a coal industry and its cost in terms of human life.
One can only suggest Eskom needs to be more strategic in its approach and truckers need to given the resources to regain control over their lives. Government must assist in skills retraining and investing in adult education that will help families deal with the crisis. It must not be mislead by the unscientific opinions and haranguing of union bosses.
Extract Published in Cape Argus, Letters 9 March 2017
Check out this posting from a blog called Integral Transformation, showcasing 5 environmental organisations making a difference in Cape Town
IN 1991 I published a series of articles on sustainable development, introducing the term to South Africans who at the time were struggling under a corrupt apartheid state. The work commissioned by South Press and Grassroots, examined the findings of the Brundtland Commission and the report entitled Our Common Future, in which sustainable development was defined as ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future’.
Canvassing recently unbanned political parties on the subject, including Trevor Manual and the late Barney Desai, from the bustling South Press newsroom housed in Russel Street, Woodstock, I managed to stir up enough debate on the subject around the country, with the result that the term ‘ecological sustainable development’ was later included in South Africa’s constitution.
The term was adopted at the first National Conference on Environment and Develoment held at UWC in 1991.
I am one thus of the first persons to introduce the term to the general public and civil society in South Africa, whilst also demonstrating the causal links between apartheid and the environment, under-development and over-exploitation.
I went on to become a vocal critic of the over-use of the term to describe development by both corporations and government eager to cash in on the environmental movement, the invariable rise of greenwashing — the use of marketing to portray an organization’s products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not
Now some twenty years after the rise of the environmental justice movement and our constitutional victory, I am moved to question once again, the over-use of the term by our current government.
Sustainable development is not development which requires annual bail-outs from the treasury.
Sustainable development is not development which ramps up the production of Greenhouse Gas (GHG).
Sustainable development is not development which destroys ecosystems whilst subjecting human populations to toxic chemicals.
Sustainable development involves a far broader view than the annual budget allocation for environmental affairs.
Sustainable development is more than just a catch phrase or buzz term, it is an economic long-view, a philosophy which takes habitat and environmental factors into consideration, places people and planet at the centre of value, and which uses the inter-generational yard-post that avoids development which compromises the ability of future generations to live and prosper.
Sustainable development is thus a far reaching environmental justice term and broader in scope than any particular generational concern, it has survived the commission which produced it, and it will undoubtedly outlive both our government and those who first introduced the term into South Africa’s common lexicon, campaigned around the idea and voted for the new constitution.