The End of the Anthropocene, a retort to Stewart Brand.
THAT popular science has a difficult relationship with mainstream research is evidenced by the introduction of a term popularised by atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen nearly two decades ago, at the turn of the new millennium.
In recent years, the Anthropocene, a period defined by significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, has begun to dislodge the long-held view that we are in an epoch known at the Holocene.
I will argue that not only are we in the early Anthropocene, but that human impact upon planet Earth, and hence our own habitat and species, requires that we define what it means to be human in rather different terms. And also, that far from being at the beginning of the early Anthropocene, we are instead approaching the end of this epoch. Human habitat, defined as it is by climate, polar ice, glaciation and weather systems (systems that have remained relatively stable for millennia), is entering a period of rapid change. All leading one to question what it is to be human. Changes that could lead to the sixth major mass extinction event, and along with it, not a de-extinction of mammoths, but rather the complete removal of anthropos by the technium as a defining moment of evolution.
A spate of articles on the subject of the Anthropocene followed its introduction, beginning in 2014 Borenstein, Seth (14 October 2014). “With their mark on Earth, humans may name era, too”. Edwards, Lucy E. (30 November 2015). “What is the Anthropocene?”. Eos. 96. Castree, Noel (2015). Associated Press. Waters CN et al. (2016). “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene”. Science. 351 (6269) and “The Anthropocene: a primer for geographers” (PDF). Geography. 100 part 2: 66.
According to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the professional organization in charge of defining Earth’s time scale, we are still officially in the Holocene epoch, an epoch which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age.
“But that label is outdated” writes Joseph Stromberg in the Smithsonian ” They argue for “Anthropocene”—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”—because human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.”
Coupled with the emergence of this new epoch, used to define human intervention on our planet, has been the concomitant rise of new terms within popular culture to describe human evolution itself. Thus the rise of the cyborg, transhumanism and post-humanism, ‘concepts originating in the fields of science fiction, futurology, contemporary art, and philosophy’ that literally ‘means a person or entity that exists in a state beyond being human’.
TWO rationalist pieces, thoughtfully debunking the legs of Helen Zille’s argument in favour of ‘colonialism not being all that bad’, need to be seen alongside an incredible piece of sensationalist and irrationalist nonsense, authored by self-proclaimed saviour of the ‘black race’ one Andile Mngxitama. The embarrassing piece (compared below) merely demonstrates that when it comes to black opinion, and criticism of colonialism, there are better tools, than a racist free-for-all.
Reported on News24 , without any scientific evidence, Mngxitama claims that the recent Cape storms are all the ‘fault of white monopoly capital’. It is a crackpot thesis devoid of any merit — touting an unproven conspiracy theory whose achilles heel is the fact that China is the world’s second biggest emitter of CO2 — far from being an ‘all-white affair’, climate change is rather the result of a rampant consumer society, one occupied by black and white alike, for which anyone of any colour, utilising its benefits, needs to take responsibility.
One has merely to remark that it is the ‘black majority’ South African government, which commissioned two of the largest mega-coal projects on the continent this decade, and so far as Nature is concerned, the impacts will be felt by all, regardless of skin colour or pigmentation. What was once true of apartheid South Africa, and its skewed electrification policies, no longer holds. My own research published by the Panos Institute in 1991, alongside that of Mamphela Ramphele, reported the racial bias impacting upon a then output of 246 million tonnes of CO2 pa.
South Africa is currently the 13th largest emitting country based on 2008 fossil-fuel CO2 emissions and the largest emitting country in Africa. Saying: “the ecological disaster awaiting planet earth is a direct creation of white people,” is not just shoddy science, it is assuredly evidence of a racist political agenda. There is no data, to my knowledge, showing that skin colour has any impact on the behaviour of litter-bugs nor that of conspicuous consumption.
The only reason Mgnxitama gets published in the mainstream press is because of his vocal position as leader of the ‘Black First’ front. An organisation with much in common with Donald Trump’s America First movement, and thus deserving of similar criticism to that levelled against France’s Marine le Pen. Though he differs from these two politicos in at least recognising the existence of climate change, is no recommendation.
That Mngxitima’s writing is increasingly on the fringes of rationality and scientific argument, can be seen by the emergence of writers whose opinions are eminently more sensible and suited to the important issues of the day. Thus we turn to Tembeka Ngcukaitobi writing in the Conmag, for our guidance on Helen Zille, who correctly observes, that “neither England nor Holland can claim the same robust system of judicial supremacy that we do” and “the notion of an independent, fair and just legal system ‘which is not influenced by politics whatsoever’ first emerged in the writings, not of a lawyer, but a journalist: John Tengo Jabavu, the editor of the Xhosa newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu, in the late 1890s.”
“Jabavu’s writings in a marginal Xhosa newspaper were unsurprisingly ignored by the colonial government of the day. But they found fertile ground in the organisation which he did not found, but whose foundations he clearly influenced – the South African Native National Congress.” Ngcukaitobi’s writing on legal history thus traces the emergence of the ruling party and our own constitution, before tackling the second of Zille’s claims “which draws a link between colonialism and the development of our transport infrastructure [which] is equally distortive of history.”
“It was an official policy of the colonial government,” he says, “to use prison labour for infrastructure. Large numbers of Xhosas imprisoned after the last frontier war in 1878 were taken to Cape Town and, on arrival, turned into unpaid labourers, in the development of the rail infrastructure.” This transportation and technology theme is given better treatment if not short thrift in a parallel piece published by a blogger known simply as VaPunungwe, who asks: “what model car was Cecil John Rhodes driving?”
The same question may well be asked of Jan van Riebeeck — what cellphone brand was he using? Technology is thus to be seen within its own context, not as some imported novelty, but rather as an historical construct, within a milieu as it were. It would thus behove persons such as Mngxitama to rather stick to writing on what one knows for certain, instead of punting racist theories and speculative rhetoric as easily debunked as that of Helen Zille’s.
Nuclear is ‘safe and economic’, Andrew Kenny, IOL 2 May 2017 refers
Your correspondent, Andrew Kenny, a self-proclaimed expert and ‘nuclear power consultant’ has been delivering paid sermons and editorials on nuclear energy for the past decade. When he is not attending conferences sponsored by the nuclear industry, an industry in which he claims to be qualified, both as an ‘engineer’ and apparently also a ‘physicist’, Kenny deems fit to declaim on human morality and ethics. Both disciplines in which he is eminently unqualified and unfit to deliver an opinion.
One has merely to examine his 2015 epistle on the white supremacist enclave of Orania to see where his political affiliations and moral standards are housed. The piece was considered unfit for publication by the editor of the Citizen, Steven Motale, who in a letter to Kenny, published by Biznews.com, rejected the piece since it “might be interpreted by many as a tacit glorification of segregation and may be highly offensive to victims of apartheid. I have therefore decided not to publish it.”
That the Independent Group continue to publish Kenny’s utterances, the latest purporting to present the “moral arguments’ in favour of nuclear power, is risible and beneath contempt — given the extensive scientific and medical opinion on the subject matter.
John W. Gofman, Ph.D., M.D., one of America’s ‘most prominent critics of nuclear power’, performed extensive research on the hazards of radiation, and has written several books on the ‘relationship between nuclear energy and public health’. After working on the Manhattan Project he became concerned about the affects of low-level ionising radiation, in particular after the death of two of his colleagues working with various radioactive isotopes, which then sparked his investigation
It is thus Gofman who alerted South Africans to the problem back in the 1980s, in particular the covert nuclear enrichment programme then being conducted by the apartheid state. In an interview published by Mother Earth News, he stated “our data showed the cancer hazard resulting from radiation to be 20 times worse than we, or anybody, had thought: We calculated that, if everyone in the country received the official “permissible” dose of radiation — which at the time was 170 millirems per year — there would be between 16,000 and 32,000 additional cancer deaths a year in our nation.”
In order to accommodate emissions of radioactive isotopes such as strontium-90 (Sr90) and caesium-137 (Cs137) from Koeberg, which currently exceed European safety guidelines, allowable limits had to be raised by the Atomic Energy Board to accommodate the plant. Not to be outdone, the National Nuclear Regulator (formed after the former Council for Nuclear Safety and previous Atomic Energy Corporations of the apartheid state disbanded), proceeded to exempt a range of radioactive nuclides, not normally found in our environment (1) — exempted actions include the release of sr90 and various isotopes of caesium (range Cs131 through Cs138), supposedly resulting in ‘exposure of less than 10 petasieverts (pSv) per annum or less’.
Exactly how this government sanctioned exposure is measured when it comes to the human body and our health is highly problematic and open to discussion. The regulator appears to operate under the strange assumption that human life-span is only one year, and thus we reboot ourselves on an annual basis, setting the clock back to zero every year. There is thus no measure of the cumulative effect of low-level ionising radiation. Urgent research and baseline data in South Africa is required, and I thus appeal to the public and your readers for support in this regard.
Sr90, a by-product of nuclear fission with a half-life of 28.8 years, substitutes for calcium in bone, preventing expulsion from the body, and represents a serious health problem. So far as Cs137 is concerned, it is a long-lived high-energy beta emitter with a half-life of 30.17 years (2), one of two principal medium-lived fission products, along with Sr90, which are responsible for most of the radioactivity arriving in our diet from Koeberg.
The contamination has been measured by groups such as Koeberg Alert, appearing in wheat, dairy and shellfish — in an independent 2002 study conducted by Gerry Kuhn “samples of fall-out dust captured continuously over a 16-week period” were measured and the research is in my possession. Follow-up research is urgently required.
Dr Helen Caldicott, an Australian physician and author of books on the dangers of nuclear energy, ‘Nuclear Power is not the Answer’, ‘Nuclear Madness’, ‘The New Nuclear Danger’ and ‘Crisis without End’, examines the current ongoing crisis at Fukushima, the result of a meltdown and subsequent reaction sequence of nuclear materials called breeding. Physicists are unable to provide a proper and adequate explanation for what is occurring as we speak.
In a recent article Caldicott explains robot photos taken of Fukushima’s Daiichi nuclear reactors “radiation levels have not peaked, but have continued to spill toxic waste into the Pacific Ocean — but it’s only now the damage has been photographed.”
“Every day since the accident began, 300 to 400 tons of water has poured into the Pacific where numerous isotopes – including cesium 137, 134, strontium 90, tritium, plutonium, americium and up to 100 more – enter the ocean and bio-concentrate by orders of magnitude at each step of the food chain.”
Yet it is Kenny who appears oblivious to the impact of the Fukushima disaster, an ongoing environmental and human tragedy of enormous magnitude, brashly stating immediately after the accident, that ‘not one life had been lost’ in the incident. The man now has the audacity to state to the public, that: “unfortunately many technological choices are caught up in politics, ideology and morality” and that “nuclear power has the strongest moral case of all energy sources.”
This is exactly the same justification used for the ‘moral murder’ and slaughter of innocent citizens that was made by the former apartheid state, anything but a moral agent. One must therefore thank organisations such as Earthlife Africa and SAFCEI for carrying forward the torch of our common humanity, enshrined alongside environmental rights and our earth rights in the constitution. We must continue to oppose the untenable nuclear deals being tabled, and in particular by opposing the nuclear colonialism sponsored by various states such as Russia, South Korea, France and USA.
Far from supporting a nuclear industry carte blanche, plants such as Koeberg need to be decommissioned and closed down.
Forward to a non-racist, non-sexist, nuclear-free continent.
David Robert Lewis
Committee for the Rights of Mother Nature
(1) See Annexure 1, NATIONAL NUCLEAR REGULATOR ACT, 1999 (ACT NO. 47 OF 1999
(2) Cs137 beta-decays to barium-137m (a short-lived nuclear isomer) then to nonradioactive barium-137, and is also a strong emitter of gamma radiation. Cs-137 has a very low rate of neutron capture and cannot be feasibly disposed of, but must be allowed to decay.
THE RISE of the smartphone alongside the Internet, has lead to a plethora of disruptive innovation. A paradigm shift has occurred, so profound and fundamental in its effects, that analysts refer to the fourth industrial revolution and the Internet of Things. The rapid pace of change has caught metered taxi operators sleeping. Though more than two years has passed since the upstart Uber company appeared on our shores, metered taxi operators have not found the means to get their proverbial shit together.
Instead of innovating, by producing smartphone apps and websites that would allow consumers to book taxis online, pay with bank cards and utilize the electronic transactions which litter our modern lifestyles — instead of producing efficiency and allowing clients to enjoy the benefits of GPS and other innovations — the metered taxi industry has instead resorted to a bit of disruption of their own. And it is not all good.
Following the equally myopic truckers blockade, the rise of taxi turf wars and a new form of strike action, all may be seen as the gross failure of operators to come to grips with the accomplishments of the new technology. Now one may sympathise with those critics who point out that Uber has merely shifted the cost of operating a taxi from the operator to the taxi driver, the company distributed as it is, allows own-vehicle drivers to enter an otherwise regulated marketplace, and has thus disrupted the cab industry in every city which has adopted mobile telephony. The thing is, Uber’s success is not simply a case of cutting costs.
For years, the cab market has relied upon a form of cartel behaviour, regulated monopolies and guaranteed markets. The regulations that inform the industry have themselves been the very reason why cab operators have failed to innovate. The reliance on legislation instead of innovation, has resulted in the lack of motive force needed to deliver product and services efficiently, in a marketplace where the type of person who uses a cab is usually not able to afford a vehicle. Uber on the other hand has liberated consumers who would otherwise shirk at the cost of a metered taxi, and who risk being treated as tourists, from the up-market cab operators who seem only to cater to people on holiday.
Software has thus brought greater efficiency in routes, has allowed drivers to gain control over their lives, to save petrol by redirecting around traffic, to know who it is they are letting inside their vehicles, and it is these innovations which are driving the new market, concerned as it is, with safety and affordability, and which has sprung up like fresh daisies around the smartphone. Unless the entire cab industry adapts, then those laggards currently holding Jozi to ransom, must necessarily be allowed to whither away and die, the same way that Hansom cabs and cab drivers with horse-drawn buggies, died out when the automobile brought along a more efficient means of transport.
The current strike action in Gauteng is thus nothing less than the equivalent of a group of irate Hansom Cab drivers demanding protection from the new Anti-Horse technology. One can only feel a sense of pathos, for the inevitable.
IT WAS in 1995 that I returned from self-imposed exile and America’s West Coast. Having launched what would be the very first online act of mass civil disobedience against John Major’s Criminal Justice Bill the previous year. The Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against Whitehall were launched from a techno party at the 181 Club in San Francisco, followed by a landmark Digital Be-In ‘CyberSafari’ videoconferencing event, linking the continent of North America with Africa — that I embarked on a series of public happenings in South Africa, culminating in several inaugural cyber-rights events at the iCafe in Long St, Cape Town.
A photograph from the period shows me at a terminal, wearing a Mondo 2000 t-shirt, at the very first NetDemocracy event in the country hosted by Nodi Murphy and Stephen Garrett. A simple information activist, participating in an online Internet Relay Chat (IRC) chat with Minister Pallo Jordan alongside 120 citizens from around the country, all of whom happened to be online.
￼“Internet Cafe expert gets in touch with Posts and Telecommunications Ministers Dr Pallo Jordan via the Internet relay chat held in the city yesterday. More than 120 people from around the country asked him questions about the Green Paper on telecommunications policies.” opined the Cape Times.
Jordan would later the same day, accept a complimentary copy of the Virtual Community, Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier by Howard Rheingold, as I proceeded to also fax Minister Jay Naidoo, with demands that we resist the urge to simply usher in the Internet Age, but also take proactive steps to protect user’s rights online, rights such as the right to privacy, right to not have one’s communication intercepted, right to receive and impart communication electronically, right to cryptography and pretty good privacy (PGP), the right to download and upload information, the right to copy data and so on.
Successive events the following year in 1996 held during the constitution-building process, charted new territory and included a CuSeeMe video-call with columnist and digital rights advocate Douglas Rushkoff from New York, a public IRC session with the editor of Future Sex Magazine, Lisa Palac , and a controversial session on Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas entitled ‘Negritude on the Net’, and other such interventions.
The somewhat crude outcome wasn’t exactly what we all intended, in the end, there was unfortunately, no single article in our constitution entitled ‘Internet Rights’, but instead, as fate would have it, the authors of the Constitution and our Bill of Rights achieved the same. By engaging in public consultation, by utilising the very same tools we, as net activists, were advocating, the constituent assembly effected an astonished feat and made good on many promises. Eventually including a suite of astonishing information and communication rights, many of them applicable and ready-to-wear or subsumed under other legal headings.
The historically important result was noted by Wired Magazine, who reported on the landmark inclusion of information and other rights. A first for any country on the planet. Thus, article 14 ‘Right to Privacy’, has the crucial right to not have the privacy of our communications infringed.
Article 16 Freedom of Expression aside from granting individuals the freedom to blog, tweet and produce electronic media, contains the all important ‘freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;’
Article 32 Access to Information, guarantees ‘access to information held by the state, or required for the exercise or protection of any rights.’
These three foundational rights or ‘spheres of responsibility’, when read together form an important guarantee of online freedoms and cyber-liberties, and must be seen against the backdrop of the constitution’s formation, as a secular document enshrining civil liberties for the digital age. One can thus be proud of the 21st century wording, which is both progressive and future proof.
For our nation’s founder Nelson Mandela, it was a major milestone in constitution building and alongside the rise of the Internet as the World Wide Web, which had came in the aftermath of our very first democratic election, we had collectively opened the doors of technological progress.
South African’s can be grateful we all have a digital-ready constitution and that the country has one of the most strident and open information provisions anywhere on the globe. Municipal, provincial and national government all actively share information online with voters and taxpayers.
Our taxes are now accessed via an online portal operated by the South African Revenue Service (SARS), as are other government services. A public campaign to provide free and open access to internet and data has been gaining steam, and many metros are now providing wifi for gratis.
Despite the enormous progress and despite such guarantees, as I write this, there are still several current legislative threats before the House of Assembly, pitted against our hard-won freedoms, and include the Film & Publications Amendment Bill, the Copyright Amendment Bill and Cybercrime Bill, all introduced by the ruling party, and all containing wording, stratagems and concepts which run counter to the spirit of the constitution and the nation’s legacy of cyber rights.
It thus remains up to the generation of today, the millennials and especially the new crop of digital activists and open access cadres, to defend online freedom and African cyberspace, to make good on the many promises contained in South Africa’s Constitution.
FROM two floppy disks smuggled into South Africa in the late 1980s, to an NGO which continues to play a major role in responding to the Information Technology (IT) requirements of the NGO sector in South Africa, this is the unique story of SANGONeT.
In the late 1980s, not long after Bill Gates had moved from his garage into a boardroom, a quiet IT revolution was taking place in Africa. Organisations and individuals, working on the front lines of human rights and development efforts, were beginning to make use of computers, modems and telephone lines to exchange information.
Arriving back in South Africa from Sussex, Alan Finlay says with “two floppy disks, 64kb of memory and an external modem” was, “a leap in the dark”. “No-one knew how it would turn out. It was the future responding to the surrounding environment. 1
WorkNet brought together what Taffy Adler describes as a “motley crew of union, civic and church activists” and some “progressive computer boffins What this motley crew shared was an interest in harnessing the potential of the new communications technologies for change.
Hooking up anti-apartheid organisations and NGOs to basic email services and newsgroups gave these organisations an edge against the authorities who had yet to embrace information technology.
Simone Shall, WorkNet’s first manager, describes his experience getting unions connected.“We were training the unions on PCs, and wrote a small package for them to manage their memberships,” Shall recalls.
WorkNet attracted the attention of techie activists working elsewhere in Africa, and overseas, as a global network emerged, linking non-profit organisations around issues such as environment, women’s rights, and development. GreenNet, a non-profit Internet Service Provider (ISP) become an important ally for WorkNet. With support from a sister NGO called Poptel (Popular Telematics), an international gateway was set up to WorkNet that would connect it to NGOs across the globe.
The initial set-up at WorkNet was rudimentary; nothing one would associate with today’s modern service providers. The WorkNet international link was automated for example, using a simple DOS-based ‘store-and-forward’ email system called Fidonet. The server would dial-up to the GreenNet/Poptel server in the United Kingdom twice a day to download any text mails which were forwarded back and forth from node to node, in a system which predated the World Wide Web.
‘WorkNet originally used some home-brewed scripts to act as a standalone bulletin board system (BBS). Then it migrated to a commercial BBS product called MajorBBS, an early open source programme, Subsequently WorkNet then upgraded to a Sun Sparc station running SunOS, before moving to outsource its network to a commercial provider in the US.’
Although the Worknet service was eventually forced to close as a result of the introduction of commercial competition from services providers such as MWEB and iAfrica, both of whom were able to provider better connectivity, at cheaper rates, SANGOnet continues to support NGOs and is in the forefront of introducing Information Communication Technology (ICT) initiatives in response to civil society requirements and national development priorities.
Lessons which may be learnt from SANGOnet and in particular Worknet, is the way technology may provide activists with an edge, often in periods of conflict, however this edge is only available for a short time, since new technology constantly replaces the old thus levelling the playing field. Often the experience is one of cat and mouse, with each new technological development implemented by activists being countered by big business and capitalism, think of the way pirates use peer-to-peer (P2P) software to download illegal files, in turn service providers invent new technology to counter these threats.
1Adapted from Alan Finley, The SangoNet Story, 20 years of linking civil society through ICTs 2007 ISBN 978-0-620-39102-3
First published online as a chapter in The Media Activist Handbook
THIS billboard says it all. It’s not what you think, since the Cape Doctor referred to is the Cape’s infamous wind, the South Easter. Just how much of our language is constructed through metaphor and simile? In today’s object-orientated world where computers appear to “know” more than “people”, it is becoming increasingly harder to tell the difference between man and machine. Whither language? Phrases like “Cape Doctor’s Heavy Dose of Medicine” show us just how far we actually are from real artificial intelligence (AI) since the double entendre, confuses the machine while making mincemeat of literal notions of meaning. Just think what it takes to interpret the phrase? For starters one has to divide the sentence into subject and predicate, a simple operation most pupils of school going age can perform but which computers find near impossible. Then one has to pick apart the implications, discover the meaning, literal or figurative, overt or implied. It is something no computer today is able to do, unless the computer is taught the exception or terms, has a life, a real life outside of the object orientated language that confine machines to the realm of 1s and 0s.
Expert systems on the other hand, cover up stheir mistakes by accessing these errors. It is an interesting area of computer science, but nevetheless I have proved my point. The brain is faster than a computer when it comes to translating billboards.