Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Red flags on green.

From a small hill within walking distance from my home, I have watched the Breede River wind its way towards the sea, its flow so gentle and imperceptible that its surface mirrors growth along the banks. High above, a fish eagle scans the river’s shallow waters, and its distinctive call adds a touch of nostalgia to the blissful scene.

Three years ago, I saw that same river burst its banks to become a vast expanse of rushing water, carving away precious top soil from many hectares of long established cultivated land and dragging millions of tons of soil and crops to the sea. The middle of its frenzied flow resembled a highway of fast moving giant trees, boats, jetties, geysers, and of course, thousands of plastic containers from large water tanks to small bottles.


Less than 100 kilometers downstream, the turbulent waters stripped or destroyed the contents of several of the luxurious holiday homes at Malgas, submerging many to roof height, including the estate formerly owned by the infamous Brett Kebble. Most of the once proud possessions were converted into debris and were deposited with contempt by nature on the beach or in the lagoon at Witsand. It was the worst flooding of the Breede River in 100 years, we were officially informed.

I become aware again of one of nature’s most remarkable attributes: its fickle power that at one moment can be reassuring, nurturing, calming, and the next awe inspiring, frightening and intimidating. I had the rather absurd thought at the time that perhaps I had somehow made a very small contribution to its destructive tantrum by some earlier thoughtless “environmentally unfriendly” act.

You hear that a lot these days. “Climate change” has become an inevitable component of virtually all discussions: unseasonal weather, early peach blossoms, packaging, diet, lifestyles, a gnat invasion, company accounting, advertising, branding, car models, a nagging cough and a visit to grandma -- a lot of it probably generating more expedient hot air than CO2 emissions. In public awareness alone, we have come a long way since Al Gore’s Nobel prize winning, power-point global crusade. As one who at one time followed the debate closely in fascination at how close human behaviour was bringing us to a precipice of self-annihilation, I must confess the scientific debate is a bit confusing. Is the CO2 atmospheric duvet going to make things hotter by keeping heat in, or make things cooler by keeping the sun’s heat out? Are we not merely witnessing one of nature’s short or long term cycles?

But what is clear is that as a species we have become a force of nature, influencing it in ways that we are not only unsure of, but the effects over which we have little or no control. Nature is frightening enough without our help. Prodding it into fury is extreme folly. At the very least, one should take very seriously the latest conclusions in a United Nations report that climate change is “already leading to increased incidences of floods and heat waves, and that such incidences will become more frequent and severe if the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions is left unchecked.”

Of course things have not stood still after the Kyoto protocol was signed in the early 1990’s. The COP17 gathering in Durban hopes to give further impetus to these efforts. South Africa’s own “green accord” signed this month brought together an impressive array of vested interests which even the skeptics must concede reflects serious intent and a common, unifying acceptance that this merits attention and action.

As is often the case, mankind finds opportunities in challenges and climate change certainly presents a host of them in terms of innovation, research and development. But it would be a mistake to equate these with an industrial, technological or communications revolution that will propel the world on a new growth path with, as Cosatu seems to hope, the creation of hundreds of thousands of additional jobs. That will be ignoring the fundamental underlying truth: that exponentially increasing non- tangible economic growth arguably contributed to the problem in the first place.

We do not need much more than a few broad brush strokes of our modern history to illustrate this. The first is the population explosion which has seen the number of people on the globe more than double from the mid-seventies to the 7 billion we have today. Each of these people, on average experienced a near tenfold increase in income (after inflation) over the same period – with a near doubling in the last 7 years alone. Even if we take vastly improved efficiencies and the highly uneven distribution of this income into account, it translates into demand on the planet’s resources of anything between 10 and 20 times more than a mere 50 years ago.

And then in the last twenty or so years, we became hooked on debt, paying for today’s spending with money not yet earned. This inflated current consumption beyond the restraint of having to earn it first, plunging the whole world into a financial imbalance. That froth is also in a meltdown. This was all underpinned by a disastrous half century behaviour shift to “want-it-now”, instant gratification, short termism, rampant expectations and greed. One of the side effects of this financial aberration was to create a much wider gulf between haves and have-nots, the consequences of which we are seeing in city streets across the world – a species at war with itself.

The two fangs of misbehavior that are imbedding themselves deeply into humanity’s flesh are living beyond its means financially and beyond the tolerance of global resources. We have indeed reached a fork in the economic road. The one is a super-highway tempting us to drive at the same reckless speed we have become used to; the other, a slower, longer and more scenic route.

Perhaps the double whammy of a financial meltdown and climate change will confirm the cul-de-sac of the first path. The second at least holds the promise of a return to sound values and broader social contentment – albeit not in my lifetime.

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