Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Wanna stop being brainwashed? Step 1: Take the blindfold off when you read the news.

I think I mentioned this in passing in a previous post. But a story I have been exposed to today made me think about it again and I promptly decided that this story needs its own limelight. So. Lets start.

The Niger Delta. Home to 31 million people. Also home to one of the top 10 most important wetlands and coastal marine ecosystems in the world.

Also home to one of the largest oil deposits in the world. It is estimated that mining oil here has pushed 600 BILLION USD since the 1960s (but lets be honest - most of this money has gone where!?).

A UN Environmental Assessment Report released in August 2011 said Shell's operations were responsible for heavy contamination of farmlands and rivers in Ogoni area. This isn't the first time I have heard of such wrong-doing by Shell in this part of the world. During my environmental law studies I came accross a human rights case in which Shell was at the centre: people were killed, forcably moved from their homes by "mercenaries", working, in one way or another, for Shell. I remember this clearly because when I read this I was shocked that this was the first time I heard of this behaviour by such a massive corporation (ignorant much?).

Yet this blatant evil has never made the news headlines. Interesting...mmm? Anyway, I digress. Back to the UN Environmental Report released last year. This report estimated that it would cost 1 BILLION to clean the mess up. And even if the oil companies pay up, it will take 25 to 30 YEARS (thats a third of a life!) to restore the environment. And...surprise surprise.....the majority of the 31 million people live here in poverty. Obviously none of the 600 billion little green notes made it towards the betterment of their livelihood. Surprised? Hardly!

Now, this isn't even the news. The actual news is: (queue major headline)

 "2.4 million gallons of crude oil spilt off the coast of Nigeria" 

We don't even know when exactly this happened. On 22 December 2011, fishermen were apparently  put on alert after Shell admitted to spilling oil (but they did not admit to nearly as much as they had actually spilt). And now more than a month later, noone knows exaclty what happened.

Shell began drilling the Bonga field (off the Nigerian coastline near the Niger Delta) in 2002.  Since then they have had devastating oil spills (heard of any of them on international headline news?).

The amount of destruction that has been caused,
the human lives destroyed,
the beauty and serenity of the Niger Delta that can never be regained.

600 Billion pieces of paper.
A handful of people now have a bunch of things they don't need.

And yet all we hear on the news is that the Niger Delta is dangerous because of evil scary kidnappers who will kill expats. What about what a corporation like Shell has done in the Niger Delta in the past decades?

Apologies to you, innocent people who were unfortunate enough to be born in the Niger Delta, many of whom have either died or who lived in the gutter of hell.

And apologies to you from the rest of us in the world who are ignorant and brainwashed, filling our tanks with your blood at a Shell service station, and were thus unable to help you.

Let this be a lesson. When you watch your CNN or Sky news, think about the stories that are not being told. And start making yourself more aware. You wanna know how? Simple. Take the blindfold off.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Can humanity change in time to prevent global catastrophe?

Sunday. Sitting in the office working on presenting to my colleagues tomorrow the indicators of the UNCCD 10 year-strategic plan. I stare down at the document....Strategic objective 1: To improve the living conditions of affected populations. As I stare at this I keep getting flashbacks of a heated discussion I had with two very good friends at a restaurant last night. It was one of those discussions which gets heads on other tables peaking over to see what the commotion is about. Arms flailing, face blushing and talking passionately in circles without actually listening to eachother. The discussion was very much around the concept that is linked to my work every day. Lets put it simply: humanity is heading on a fast and deadly path towards global catastrophe. We have been populating exponentially, the system we have created is destructive to the planet we depend on for our survival.

Now our argument isn't about this fact. For it is now true for too many people to ignore. I mean, forty years ago a controversial study (published in a book called 'limits of growth') warned that we had to curb growth or risk global meltdown. Back then it was criticised and bashed down heavily. Now slowly people are starting to realise that there is absolute truth in this (or are they?). So, as I said, our argument was not about this. We all agreed that the system we have created is doomed for failure. What we argued about, ultimately, was about whether the global community would realise this in time to make enough changes that would prevent a global catastrophe.

Their argument: No! It will take a global catastrophe, or tipping point, for humans to change (i.e. even as far as a huge cataclysmic event that would destroy more than half the human population, leaving only those left who realise that they need to make a change.). Humanity is too far in the system of greed and capitalism, mass media brainwashing and the like for us to change; there is too little time, and there are too little people who know or care enough to change.

My argument: endlessly hopeful (bordering on naive, as my friend would like to put it).

And so the heated debate went on. I used arguments like "if we have the ability to change the world in just two hundred years for the worse, we have the ability to turn things around just as fast", and "what if Martin Luther King had such a defeatist opinion of humanity". And they used arguments like "global population is the biggest problem" and "small changes will not be enough, what is needed is one massive change in mindset which is not the reality in a world in which mass media is controlled by corporations and the like". And how are change agents of sustainability reaching the masses and the "world controllers" (which are, ultimately, massive corporations only out to get global profit - who cares about the future generations, humanity is selfish, and so on).

In the end no one was able to convince anyone of changing their opinion on this topic, and everyone left it at deadlock. But no one went away without having learnt something. I learnt of my own weaknesses in communication and properly listening (instead of just trying to be heard). And I was left with a slightly bad taste in my mouth.

I am of course still hopeful in ability for humanity to change. Yes, we have reached carrying capacity. Yes, we are destroying Earth at an alarming rate. Yes, humans are greedy. Humans have done some immeasurably bad things for a quick buck. And we are all conditioned in certain ways that hinder us from making a positive change. My friend made a valid point. If the people who know and care are too "scared" or "conditioned by their own convenience" to do anything then what hope do we have ("like you, Justine, could only preach if you were to cycle to work, grow your own, live without electricity....but you drive to work, you buy at big supermarkets, you work on your laptop everyday"). And its true. I myself am the first to admit that I am part of this system.

But. But. But. And I actually need the words of someone much wiser than I am to try and push some inspiration into a seemingly doomed future. I am reading this book currently by Alan Atkisson called "The ISIS Agreement". I am intending to write a short and personal summary of it once I am done. But I feel it imperative to add some of his thoughts into my argument here. In a chapter he calls "The Hope Graph", he jots down a job description for those trying to "save the world". One of them strikes me because it came up in our argument last night:

Meanwhile, the momentum of change in the wrong direction will be immeasurably huge, and will continue to accelerate, in ways that seem unstoppable.

There is hope behind the Tom Atlee quote he uses "Things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster". And Alan goes on to say something that I must just quote:

But oddly, there is also hope in this picture (of despair). For if the world can be transformed in troubling or dangerous ways, at speeds that beggar belief, it can also change in positive ways, and at similarly incredible speeds. Do you remember the Berlin Wall? Apartheid? The British Empire's Rule in India? Hardly anyone, living at the time when these artifacts of history were a reality, would have been able to predict with confidence how quickly they would be overturned and replaced by new and highly democratic systems. This is the reality of transformation.

The Hope Graph (taken from Atkisson, A. 2008. The Isis Agreement. Earthscan, UK)

I actually remember reading the last section of this chapter in this great book that struck a personal chord. He mentions somewhere in the chapter that when one becomes aware that the world is genuinely headed for big trouble, and that changing couurse requires tremendous efforts, it is impossible to pretend that one does not have this rather important piece of information. For most people, once they begin to grasp the gravity of the situation, not caring is not an option. For those for whom the struggle to maintain hope is a real one, and whom the feeling of being called to a duty greater than one's capacities feels like a burden, Alan makes the following recommendations: read the Earth Charter, as a common, global reference point, a statement that has touched and united people of all faiths and backgrounds. Then write your own manifesto, your own statement or what you believe to be the case in these times, what you stand for, what you are working for in life. He guarantees that you will find the exercise enormously gratifying - and very likely enormously inspiring too.

I am sure that the debate can go on and on and on. And in the end it boils down to two main things. Hope. And faith in humanity.

Lets watch this space to see what the outcome will be.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mozambique: A case study on how travelling enriches the soul

We all need to decrease consumption and individual emissions and I am aware of this on a daily basis. I have, however, one guilty pleasure. Travelling. I just spent my new year's holiday road tripping with two good friends from Windhoek (Namibia) to Inhambane (Mozambique), a journey that took us a surprising 3200kms, three full days of driving and two nights overnighting (scrolling desperately at 22h00 on an ipad in the car in the dark looking for accommodation on route) to get there. Rumours and paranoia gave us a few hiccups on the way ("what? you forgot your passport photos? but we need them for our visas!!!"....cue two hours in random town looking for a photo place and then discovering at the border of Moz we needed nothing we were told we needed....only our perfectly good and functioning Namibian passports). We made it up as we went along and happily found ourselves bumping around in our seats looking at elephants and chameleons and tortoises in the Kruger National Park as we entered the leisurely northern border of RSA/Mozambique. Anyway, despite the annoyances, the drive was spectacular. We did a country a day, from Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and into Mozambique. Travelling from the west coast of Africa to the east coast.

We arrived in Inhambane at 22h00 at night, tired, annoyed and totally lost. Once we found our camp site at Barra, we set up and passed out. The next morning (heat and sun at five in the morning) we awoke to palm trees and mangrove swamps. And (almost) immediately we packed up some stuff (my surfboard, snorkelling equipment, a cooler with beers and snacks) and off we went on our missions. First mission: find surf. Which we did. Well, which I did. The boys spent their time snorkelling, chilling, and playing their games on the beach and I would surf endlessly. And so it went on. Every day we would get up, have breakfast, get our stuff together and go mission. Every day was different, yet every day was the same. We would be active, but activities would always include surfing, snorkelling, swimming and chilling (is that an activity?). We would then, for dinner, either grab a beer and some food at some bar on the beach, or we would braai some prawns or meat at our camping spot and have a sundowner. We just could not leave that place. We had initially booked camping accommodation at another town further down south for the second part of our 10 day holiday....yet we just stayed in Inhambane as if we would never leave.

Everywhere we went we marvelled at the beauty of the place. I felt a deep connection with the country. And it made me think about love in a different way. I have travelled to quite a few places in my relatively short life. From South Africa to Nigeria, Hungary to Canary Islands, Brazil to Chile, every place has had something special and beautiful. But like with some people, some places you have chemistry with. And the notion makes sense. If you think about it, a country is a system, a living entity if you will. It is made up of its people, its landscapes, its biological diversity and its climate. And with some systems you find absolute love. I had a love affair with Mozambique. Granted it is not the perfect system. Most wildlife is gone, it has been war struck and, like many African countries, has come accross some difficult times. And it can strike harshly at you when it feels like it (I had my absolute naive trust ripped off me: the ocean reefs ate my body and my surfboard, i had all my electronic posessions stolen - and these I will not be able to afford to replace in many years, and because of this we had none of the beautful pictures of our trip). Yet when you find yourself on the beach on a balmy evening after a three hour right point surf session, with the slight breeze on your sunkissed face, drinking your R&R, you will see what I mean when I say "I love you Mozambique".

I was sad to leave. I think we all were. This particular trip, despite also having been on brief trips to beautiful Zambia, Hungary and South Africa last year, made me all the more itchy to spread my wings and fly. The people you meet and the places you see when you are out of your comfort zone, the experiences you have, is worth more than any physical possession you could ever buy yourself. For experiencing the world enriches your soul and breathes endless depth into your life.