Saturday, December 18, 2010

"Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, How Sustainable Are Thy Branches...?"

A Christmas tree with gifts carefully wrapped beneath says abundance, it says peace, it says yes indeed we killed this tree for all the right reasons this season.

Maybe you aren't Christian, maybe you are aren't religious at all, which is why a tree is a good way to celebrate the season. The ancient Europeans in Celtic and other pre-Christian traditions used pine bows to celebrate their connection with the Earth, and the folks at suggest the tree may be a hold-over from that. Regardless, its a good place to assemble your Kwanza/Channuka/Christmas gifts and stop them from being trodden upon or carted off by carolers, thieves and other drunks.

But what is a healthy happy planet-friendly way of sorting out a tree for Christmas?

You could get a plastic tree, with all its packaging and petroleum-based PVCs and fuel-hungry transport that brings that tree from China to wherever you are. Though it is used every year for five or ten years or so and that helps mitigate some of it's carbon and manufacturing footprint. It doesn't smell like a tree, it lacks that Christmas ambiance, but if you are allergic to pitch and don't like pine needles all over your presents, it can work - but other than the color it is certainly not green.

You could also buy one of those farmed Christmas trees. Transported and shipped halfway across the continent, then wrapped in plastic netting or shrink wrap, this option is hardly much better that the plastic tree, and you have to buy one every year. The folks at North Carolina University have been doing health studies on farms. It does smell like a tree, look like a tree, and lets face it, if you are in a big city there may not be a lot of other options available. Or are there?

A quick search of the net brought many helpful hints on how to make your tree more sustainable. You could have a living tree. The folks at Earth Easy explain to how to pot, keep and maintain a rooted tree all year 'round. This is a great way to hold onto the brainwave of the season: you can be nice to people, give them gifts and be thankful for what you have ALL YEAR.

My folks here in Colorado decorate their living Christmas tree from a few years ago that they planted in the garden. Since our presents would get wet under that tree, and it gets a little cold in Colorado this time of year, it isn't practical to use that particular tree as our main Christmas centerpiece, but its still nice to see it thriving under its heavy blanket of snow and twinkly coalpower-driven lights.

If a planted pine tree is too tough to take care of in a small New York apartment, requiring at least as much attention as an old sofa or chair, then maybe a Christmas cactus could work for you. Another suggestion is to get an old slide projector and keep a projection of a tree up on your wall with the fireplace channel burning next to it on the TV or computer. Anything to get the old Christmas spirit to take possession of you.

Here in Colorado the white Christmases grow on trees, children are below average and around every corner there is a National Forest just waiting to be chopped down so that the gas industry can inject fracturing compounds into our water supply. To assist this very important economic process the folks at the Forest Service have issued us Christmas tree cutting permits.

All facetious remarks about gas drilling aside, usually the National Forest Service does have the forest's health somewhere near the bottom end of their top twenty priorities, and selective cutting done at a sustainable level can keep a forest healthy, wealthy and standing. So I trooped up into the White River National Forest the other day with a little yellow tag and chose an overshadowed little pine tree in a tight stand that needed thinning.

Yes, for the first time in my adult life, I chopped down a living wild tree in a wild forest, wrapped it up in a blue tarp that looked appropriately like a body bag, and skied that tree down into the valley to my parents living room here in Glenwood Springs.

So now it stands down there, a symbol of sustainable forestry that may or may not be a permanent blotch on my green Karma. At least the presents are protected from the sloppy boots of marauding carolers, and the house is filled with the fine smell of pine.

Merry Christmas everybody. I just shouldn't have counted the rings.

Sustainable harvesting of timber is one way to keep forests healthy and communities employed as guardians of this important resource.

Skiing-out with the body... I mean the tree.

A sustainably harvested Christmas tree is a great place to keep presents and the planet safe. Jeff and Jade Barbee.

White River National Forest in Colorado, much of which is being exploited by private companies for Gas Well Drilling.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Malaria Handbook

Antonio Langa is the informaticist at the Manhica Institute, left, he is examining a blood slide, positive with Malaria, with journalist Jonathan Clayton, on assignment with the photographer from the Times newspaper in London.

Dr. Montse Reno, at her office in Manhica, Mozambique. The Malaria Vaccine Initiative in Manhica, Mozambique is organized by the University of Barcelona and supported by the Gates Foundation.

Mosquito Nets protect Karoline Ntchanga, in Kasongo, DRC, who has been in the local hospital for 2 weeks with her son who is suffering from Malaria.

Malaria is not the worst thing ever, if you have the right medication. Many in Africa do not have good access to anti-malarial medication, and this is the cause of eight hundred thousand deaths per year.

One of the most primal and powerful weapons in the battle for this disease is our own immunity. Many researchers have shown that people who are exposed to the malaria protozoa from a young age develop some sort of resistance to it. In Africa, the disease has been among the population for millions of years, so many people with African ancestry have some sort of immunity or resistance. What might kill a Swedish person may only make a healthy African sick with something akin to the common cold, -unless their immune system is compromised by hunger or HIV.

Malaria mutates quickly according to the latest news from the World Health Organization (WHO), and it seems to get deadlier and more able to cause havoc in the systems of those who were showing resistance. So the disease mutates and creates new strains, resistant to it's victims immune systems as well as the pantheon of drugs thrown at it.

The drugs themselves fall loosely into two categories, ones to stop you from getting it, and ones that cure it. Often there is crossover, where the same preventative drugs are given in shorter, higher doses to cure the illness. For anyone who visits Africa it is prudent to take some of these drugs in combination -according to a knowledgeable doctors advice. But for those of us who live here for years, it is not healthy to take any of the drugs for more than a year or two.

Some of the drugs can be dangerous. People have had heart problems, liver failure, and in some cases permanent dementia. This is probably enough to make most people change their Serengeti holiday plans to the sunny beaches of Florida, and indeed the presence of Malaria partly accounts for the tiny tourism numbers in Africa.

But these drugs are far less dangerous than the disease. Malaria can lead to liver failure, kidney failure, ruptured spleen, stroke and death. For visitors to Africa who are here for less than a year, there are excellent preventative drugs with minimal side effects.

For everyone in a "red zone", Malaria is a reality that we cannot avoid. Sometimes as journalists we choose stories to cover about Malaria as much for our own education as that of our readers. This puts us into contact with some of the most accomplished Malaria researchers in the world, like the Malaria Vaccine Initiative in Manhica, Mozambique who are close to developing a new trial vaccine that might be one more tool to fight this deadly disease.

So now you may have guessed it. I figure I got this case of Malaria about ten days ago in Mozambique. Because the camp I was staying in is far from villages and there is no history of Malaria there, I probably got it somewhere else.

There was one evening where I waited in the post-rain dreariness of mud in a small town for a grilled chicken and chips. It took about three hours, and since I had arrived there from the bush on my way back to camp around 4 pm, I was still in my shorts.

So there I sat, hang-dog hungry for hours while being food for the whining multitudes buzzing hungrily around me. The mosquitoes were thick under the table, and the place had all the Malaria sign posts: wet, populated, poor health care, and after dark.

Well I had my dinner, the mosquitoes had theirs, and now I am doing battle with the legions of parasites they sent to feast on me, breaking open my red blood cells to use for their own replication.

I am laying on my sofa in Johannesburg, watching a long epic from the Pacific in World War Two with the sound turned very low to stop my head from pounding. I can't help identifying those fresh faced young marines with my own white blood cells, valiantly defending island-like organs, getting drug-filled reinforcements from pill-like ships.


I think of visiting the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, where I asked Spanish Researcher Dr. Rontse Reno whether she had enjoyed the occasional brain busting bout of the disease. She laughed, "We all get it, all the time, this is a Malarial hotspot, so we take our cure quickly, we take a few days off... if you have the drugs, this is not a serious thing".

But there was that classic 100 yard stare in that pregnant pause and the unsmiling look behind the grin spoke volumes. It is the same one seen in soldiers and combat journalists, it is the "I have been to war, and I don't really want to talk about it" look. Anyone who has been there knows it's not cool to get shot at and its even less cool to have Malaria.

So here are a few life-prolonging tidbits to take on holiday:

Most Mosquitos that carry the disease only come out after sunset, so cover up with trousers and long sleeves.

If you are worried about the effects of DEET, that evil smelling stuff in mosquito spray, put it on your long clothes (especially your back), and the backs of your hands and neck.

No Malaria mosquito was born with it, they just get it from people they have dined off of. These Malarial mozzies aren't long-distance fliers, they have to have bitten someone else with Malaria, and then flown to you. So if you can help it, try to sleep and relax in the evenings at least 300 meters from the nearest possible Malaria victim. If they snore, that should be easy.

Travel in Africa with a fold-up mosquito net, its easy to put up, small to carry and oh-so-romantic.

If caught in the first few days, Malaria is not so serious. When it is allowed some time to establish itself it gets ugly. Watch these signs and assume its Malaria first.
1. headache behind the temples and eyes
2. sweaty and then chilled
3. aching joints

Many Africans and long-term expats will travel with the cure, and take it as soon as they think MIGHT have it (including yours truly). The up-side is, if you think you have it, you probably do, and the quicker you treat it the better. The down side is you may actually have the flu, but at least that won't kill you.

Only a few Malaria strains re-occur, and even then there are drugs to cure pretty much all of them completely.

Most doctors in the west don't understand Malaria, so do your own research on drugs and side effects, especially on these sites:
Roll Back Malaria (WHO)

The Center For Disease Control (CDC) Traveler page.

A negative Malaria test DOES NOT mean you don't have Malaria. Its a sneaky disease and can hide easily on a blood side.

If you are worried, speak to a doctor in the country you are visiting to get the best information.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Are You Part of the Solution?

A healthy Forest near Dondo, left is rapidly turned into wasteland, right, by corrupt logging and charcoal making, followed by intentionally-set fires to clear the land for two seasons of cultivation.

I am just back from the Mezimbite Forest Center in Mozambique. I am working on a long term project there, chronicling the work of the project and its founder, Allan Schwarz. Schwarz is trying to slow the destruction of Mozambique's woodlands. No one knows how much forest is being lost but Ashoka Fellow Schwarz says at the current rate of loss, within fifteen years most of the country's remaining forest will be logged and burned out of existence.

As I have mentioned many times in this blog, the forest is mostly being lost to power the energy needs of rural and suburban people of Southern Africa. Rural people earn rare money by making the forest into charcoal, and selling it to urban dwellers. They also move onto these cleared areas and farm for a few seasons before the land fails, and then they move on, leaving scrubland in their wake.

Even though I have been to the area many times, the actual frontlines of the forest destruction is far from the project, which has been focusing on replanting areas already lost. But last week I went looking for the "battle front" of the destruction and I ran into an unholy alliance. Loggers, working for a Chinese company, were clearing out the big hardwood trees, and the charcoal makers were felling the small ones, piling them up into big mud-covered roasters, making charcoal on a huge scale out of what was left of the forest.

It affected me deeply, and today I spent the day in a deep hole of unhappiness. There is really no one in the area other than Schwarz trying to stop this cycle of destruction, which is being played out on a massive scale throughout the region. Why aren't the logging companies forced to replant the forest? Why are they not working sustainably, cutting only what the forest can sustain? Why doesn't the money they give the government help support local communities so they are not forced to hammer their only resource, turning it into charcoal and unproductive farmland?

Schwarz is only one man with one project, and try as he might he can't make even a small dent into what is going on just in his province. The enemies (corruption, greed and mismanagement) are too strong and it is clear that without an international effort, they will prevail.

Americans and Europeans buy hardwood flooring from China all the time in big warehouse stores for as little as a dollar per square-foot. Where do clients think these woods come from? China? Not on your life. They come from Mozambique and other corrupt countries in Africa, and the cutting of these woods and the Chinese loggers presence here leads to other losses like poaching.

In South Africa 198 Rhino have been lost this year to poaching. Elephants and many many other animals are being wiped out in Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania on a scale never seen before by members of these logging syndicates. Much of this destruction is funneled out of the countries by corrupt officials in cahoots with the logging workers.

But strangely, unlike the 1980s, there is no huge international outcry.

The silence of people in Europe, America, and other democracies is astounding. That lack of interest and outrage is as much a part of the poachers arsenal as high caliber bullets and corruption. And that means your inattention, your lack of interest. In our resounding silence and lack of outrage these nefarious killers of biodiversity are making a mockery of conservation on an international scale.

When you buy hardwood from China, you are paying for this death, it is your fault directly. There is a war against the last bastions of nature on our planet and if you are not part of the solution, you are the problem. The sides are clear. Recycling at home is not enough. You need to be informed about your decisions because you are responsible, your money is driving this destruction. And yet being a smart consumer is only part of the solution. Everyone must become an active participant in stopping this, because if you are not active you really are the problem.

So now you may be sitting there thinking, "but what can I do?" "I try to be thoughtful, and recycle, and walk to the store more and bring my own bags instead of using paper or plastic. Isn't this enough?" From someone at the battle zone, watching things you and your children will never see simply disappear, I can tell you that it is not.

But here is the good news. You don't have to do anything different, or tie yourself to a tree to stop the loggers or live in penury (yet). Right now all you have to do is your job. If you are an architect join Architects Without Borders and design appropriate low-cost solar housing for the 3rd world in your spare time. If you are an accountant, create a group of accountants that audits and follows the paper trail of multinational corporations who are paying for the widespread destruction. Name and shame offenders on blogs, Twitter and newspaper websites. As I said before, nefarious projects and poachers operate with our silent consent because we do not choose to practice oversight.

If you are a writer, take time out every month to write something about the environment, and research NGOs like the Mezimbite Forest Project that are important parts of a global solution, sharing them with the rest of the world. If you are a politician, teacher, librarian, used car salesman or concerned parent, do your job. Do it for our home, the Earth, on a regular basis.

Stock the library with consciousness raising books and articles and create an email newsletter that shares that list with your community. Troll the internet looking for news articles that are raising these issues, and share them through social networking sites and put pressure on companies bankrolling this chaos to stop. Everyone can be a part of the solution to this problem.

Sticking our collective heads in the sand will not make this problem go away. Our planet is really in peril. Our coastlines are under threat, our migrating species are dying, our oceans are being plundered on a scale that is hard for experts to measure, and our forests are being wiped out of existence for the profit of a few. Sticking our collective heads in the sand will not make this problem go away. Get active, get involved, get informed and stop being part of the problem.

Skeletal trees hang in the sun after loggers and charcoal makers have reduced this forest to ruin near Dondo, Mozambique.

Chinese logging companies remove hardwood trees and the charcoal makers move into the forests, creating a double-destruction cocktail that leaves the land bare and unproductive.

Forests are wiped out after charcoal makers and logging companies level forests. The charcoal makers like this one are aware the forest is in danger, but they say, "we are poor, what can we do?"

After logging and charcoal making few of the hardest trees are left standing, their skeletons seeming to reach imploringly to the sky.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Getting out there, making a difference

Villagers using a solar cooker for the first time, near Kanye in Botswana.

Crosby Menzies from Solar Cookers For Africa is traveling through Africa, visiting isolated communities, and trying to create a groundswell of public interest in Solar cooking. This former Wallstreet worker has created a project that takes him out from in front of his computer and into the wilds of Africa, and the reactions are overwhelmingly favourable. Armed with cookers, a simple flyer, and a huge smile, Menzies has made solar cookers his mission. I joined the Solar Caravan in Botswana, near the town of Kanye.

This country of 2 million people enjoys one of the highest solar indexes in the world, and last year the government made a commitment to develop solar energy over the next 20 years. At the moment, most of the people of this desert country use scarce firewood for their household energy needs, but Menzies sees a time when 80% of those needs will be met with solar, using today's technology.

Under the big Botswana sky Menzies trundles up in his white 4x4, bringing technology and new ideas to rural Africa.

Crosby Menzies is on a mission to distribute Solar Cookers all over Africa.

Earnest Batulo 11, learned how to use the Solar Cookers For Africa cooker in less than five minutes.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Good News....Great News!

Hells Gate National Park, the Home of Africa's Geothermal Future
Okaria 3 has about 100 Megawatts of Proven Geothermal reserves, with about 50 Megawatts developed by 2010. It sits in Hells Gate National park in Kenya. Ernest Mabwa is the Plant Manager, and he has about 30 full time employees. It is the only privately owned and operated geothermal plant in Africa.

When I was down in Cape Town last week visiting the sea and old friends, one of them mentioned to me that most of the reporting on the environment and in fact much of my blog is fairly negative. Now, it is my and other journalists role to bring up the problems in the world and hope we reach a critical mass of people that can actually change things, so people do need to know the problems around the issues. So don't expect this column to be a rosy greening over of the very serious environmental train-wreck we seem to be heading towards. However, sticky ego aside, its also true that there is much to be excited and proud about. See my column about standing on the shoulders of giants like John Muir for a positive synopsis of our past environmental heroes.

Anyone interested in seeing some great stories with some great news for humanity, look no further than Energy Entrepreneurs at Global Post. This fascinating 25 part series has upliftment aplenty for those of us looking for positive environmental news. Follow 25 entrepreneurs across the globe working to create a greener economy.

These are people with vision and drive working on their dream of a sustainable future. Overlook the fact that Shell Oil paid for the advertising, someone has to and with their oil money we have been able to make something truly unique and inspiring.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Too Many Of Us

Gliese 581c, By Graphic Artist John Kaufman

There is simply too many of us. Looking around the world, traveling as I do for my job, its obvious that there are simply too many humans. We are eating ourselves out of house and home. Tiara Walters, a South African journalist working for the Sunday Times here in Johannesburg wrote in her column today that "human demand on the biosphere more than doubled between 1961 and 2007, but the global population is only projected to stabilize at 9.22 Billion people in 2075".

Already, according to Lester Brown and other thinkers, we have passed the Earth's renewable carrying capacity and are living on ancient water deposits and borrowed time.

That we are running out of food, fuel and everything needed to make people happy and healthy members of society may not be apparent to people in developed nations. They have the financial resources to stand closer to the front of the growing queue. But in Developing countries such as Mozambique or Bangladesh the people are much further behind, lacking the cash resources to afford the rising costs that are becoming a measure of food scarcity. Bread riots last month in Mozambique are a perfect example of how even a modest cost rise can lead to civil unrest when people are living hand to mouth.

What is about humanity that we think that the right to reproduce is inalienable and permanent? This is clearly at odds with the carrying capacity of this particular piece of farmland that we call the Earth. So I have been thinking up solutions, some off the cuff and some simply impossible, but the status quo must change, of that there is no question. Population pressure will push out all of our wilderness into city parks and the margins of maize fields, with a massive extinction and an even higher risk of the sensitive food distribution system collapsing. (Systems become more susceptible to catastrophic failure the more highly organized they become, according to the law of entropy).

This is scary stuff. Not many voters, writers or thinkers are seriously even considering espousing many of these ideas, since they inevitably smack of the "one child" Chinese policy, with all its ghastly implications like infanticide. I have left out the more nightmarish "final solution" type ideas and focused on what may be the most equitable and random way of doing away with our excess folks.

1) Create a breeding ticket lottery. A yearly lottery is held that prospective people can enter and receive a breeding ticket, completely randomly.
This idea can only work in highly organized societies, the kind of societies where a rising birth rate is not a problem today, replete with good medical care and a draconian civil police force with informers and the idea of neighbors ratting out neighbors about that secret child in the basement.

2) Cyanide capsules on a rolling system that slightly increases the death rate in an equitable fashion.
This needs a less organized society and is a much more democratic process since everyone would be required to participate. However, the idea of popping a pill once a year in the chance that you will be that unlucky one in fifty that kicks it would probably turn off voters.

3) Focus the capital of the world in the pockets of a few countries that are insulated, with enough food to get them through bar environmental catastrophe, and let rest of the world's uneducated and poor people starve slowly to death.
The moral implications of this are perhaps the most ghastly, rivaled only by Hitler
-no wait, even he killed most people quickly.

With the discovery of Gliese 581c only twenty light years away, there could be a chance we could get off of this planet and take over another. Obviously twenty light years is still far away, too far even, but the implications of this discovery go beyond this odd little world that has all the goldilocks qualities we have been looking for. The reason we found it is because it is so close to its dim, cold star. But since there is a planet that could be habitable in such an unlikely planetary system, most astronomers feel that planets could be as common as pickled cabbage at a Korean wedding. Meaning that aside from euthanasia, breeding tickets and certain death for the poor, there may be a close-by neighbor we could invade and occupy in our time-honored human tradition.

All levity aside, what do we do? Its a conundrum, it is serious, it is the worst kind of political hot potato, and its only going to get worse. So rather than point fingers at people who may have taken the go forth and multiply idea a bit far, we should all be thinking about what we can do to sort it out, or nature will do it for us.

Monday, October 11, 2010

An Energy Revolution: Micro-Hydro Power

Watch The Video:

Pat Downey lives in the tiny little town of Hofmeyer, South Africa. This little town on the edge of the great Karoo Desert seems like an unlikely place for one of Africa's most innovative water engineers to live. There is a small general store, a gas station where you have to wake up the attendant, and surprisingly, a lot of rushing water in the Fish River, used to irrigate the dry farmland scattered around the desert hills.

Downey is a gentle, unassuming man, with the language of an inventor and a slightly stooped gate. Since the 1970s he has been pioneering technology that generates electrical power from small water-driven turbines. These turbines do not need a dam to build up water pressure, but rather they divert a small part of a river and harvest electricity from the kinetic energy generated by a small drop in height.

Water is a storehouse of kinetic energy. The hydrological cycle that lifts water out of the oceans and off the land through evaporation is run on solar energy. The sun heats the water and the air, evaporation occurs and the kinetic energy from this process is stored in the water. Then the water, full of energy, falls on distant mountains high up, and runs down rivers to the sea, all the while giving up that energy as splashing waterfalls and crashing rapids. Every gorgeous waterfall is a massive release of stored kinetic energy.

For a large-scale hydro-electric dam, those gorgeous waterfalls are flooded by a big lake, the stored water is backed up into a stunning gorge that will forever be lost to admiring eyes. Not so with micro-hydro systems like the ones Downey makes.

These smalls systems divert a small amount of water around the waterfall. Generally less than 1% of the total flow. The water falls through a pipe, spins a small turbine, and is dropped into the little pool at the base of the waterfall. For an average sized river like the Fish, a little fifteen foot (4m) drop can generate enough electrical power for fifty low-cost houses.

Small hydro systems like this can survive floods, they have a very small impact on the environment, they never silt up, and they can operate for as long as they are maintained, unlike massive dams which fill up with sediment and become useless over the years.

So why are they not more widespread?
Electricity in South Africa has been kept at an artificially low price for decades. The country sought to spur investment and growth with electricity subsidies to farmers and towns. Downey tried to sell these systems, but their initial cost was just too high. That has changed now. The national electrical grid has had to become profitable, and to do that they have had to raise prices by a whopping 140% in the last three years.

Correspondingly the demand for his systems has gone through the roof. At today's prices, the systems pay for themselves in three to four years. Today he cannot keep up with all the orders, "the emails just come flooding in, we can't keep up!" He explains in his wavering excited voice.

For a man who struggled and worked for years in obscurity, waiting for just this moment, he is clearly enjoying every moment of it.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Accessorizing Sustainability- An Economic Model for Forest Conservation

Cutting raw Palpretto logs from a sustainably managed forest. Every tiny piece of these logs will be used for something.

Small offcuts after the logs have been processed.

Turning the offcuts into small cosmetic jars

American model and activist Summer Rayn Oaks showing off the finished jars filled with sustainably harvested forest oils for skin care, made by subsidiary Bom Oils of Mozambique.

I have just returned from another trip to Mezimbite Forest Center, a project run by Ashoka Fellow Allan Schwarz. Schwarz has been pioneering projects around the city of Beira, Mozambique from his small replanted forest grove. The area has been hard hit by deforestation for the energy trade. Most of it has fallen for charcoal, to power the stoves of the rapidly growing urban population. This area is not unique. Throughout Africa, as I have mentioned in previous posts, there is a massive problem with deforestation.

Cosmetic jars for the Bom products, like lip balm, all made from wood offcuts from forests that are managed sustainably.

Charcoal is the main form of energy for most rural and urban households, and this has driven the continuing destruction of the forests. As the forests "run away" the cost of getting the charcoal into the cities rises, and the cost of charcoal goes up, making it more lucrative to cut the trees. It is an energy cycle that is completely un-sustainable, since virtually no one is replanting the forests. No one except for a few individuals like Schwarz.

He runs the biggest network of nurseries in the region which have been used to replant forests under his care. He pays for this by carefully removing certain trees from these well-managed forests and employing former charcoal cutters to be trained as skilled wood turners. Communities then see a greater value in their forests than making charcoal and have managed to keep some of them standing.

Tables for the European Market

One aspect of Schwarz's operation is value adding along the supply chain. Instead of selling this sustainable wood harvest at a premium, he has a working mill that employs between forty and a hundred people at any one time.

Every tiny little scrap of wood is used for something, from crochet needles for the eastern market, make-up compacts for American women, to bangles and jewelry for the French. A tree that falls for charcoal will end up being valued at roughly $1.50 for the end product of charcoal, and only 25 US cents for the cutters. With Schwarz's model however, a single tree may net thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars, with that money equitably distributed to communities, workers and crafts-people. A craftsman at his facility earns about 250$ a month, more than twenty-times the average income in Mozambique.

Knitting needles made from wood offcuts at the Mezimbite Forest Center

Value adding at a local level is driving projects like this around the world. Schwarz believes that only by including local communities in this value chain can he create awareness that forests are more economically productive as a healthy system than as charcoal. Communities are the only guardians of their forest resources, but they must benefit directly, and in Mezimbite they are included as an important part of an economic system that puts special products in the hands of environmentally aware consumers.

Far from being clunky symbols of green, the art he and his team creates is sleek, gorgeous and just happens to make the world a better place. Go to his website, or the AD Schwarz design site and explore some his designs. This award winning designer, architect and forester has created a model of sustainable design that symbolises the finest of African conservation and craftsmanship.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Homegrown Wind Power For Africa

What is an appropriate technology transfer from the western world for African villages? The answer, as Bob Dylan suggests, is blowing in the wind, at least on the Mozambiquan coastline. Jason Morenikeji explains in this short film.

These are big ideas, and they deserve a good hearing. The film I created is short but there is scope here for a much larger conversation (and a longer film- anyone interested to help?) about cross-platform sharing and sustainable power solutions that are not only in the bush but atop our apartments, houses, and even cars.

Jason, who is here in Johannesburg for an investors conference, suggests that power solutions, offered by companies like his, should be comprehensive and utilizing all available forms of generation. No wind? Use your solar panels. Stormy day? use the wind. As a back up for important medical equipment or in case of an emergency, have a basic diesel generator that can be turned on. In some sites, near hills or mountains, it is possible to put a small hydroelectric generator in as well.

These are not pie-in the sky technologies. As Jason shows us in the video these things are being crafted using local resources and skills even in the most back-water places of the world. A local pilot project using a hybrid system of wind and solar can pay back the cost of the system in saved diesel fuel in eighteen short months. Far from being over-priced or too complicated to maintain, these are the systems of the future, investors take note.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Creating A Sustainable Energy Future For Africa

Today in Africa there are many people working to make a difference and create a future for the continent that is based on sustainable energy and resource conservation. These dedicated individuals are battling against artificially low energy costs, red tape, and the continuing degradation of lands and resources. Many times their battles are private, and their successes unknown and uncelebrated by any but a small group directly surrounding the projects. But these small kernels of hope have within them a profound ability to affect change in a positive way in Africa and the rest of the world.

Energy in Africa is derived from burning trees, a whopping 91% of the continent gets it's energy in this way. Deforestation is rife, with some countries losing 5 to 7 percent of their trees every year, and its getting worse. This is a loss to everyone on planet Earth, since our oxygen and carbon dioxide know no borders. When forests are destroyed, so are all the animals and rainfall systems that depend on them. In African's search for energy to cook their meals the destruction of her environment is sown. When the trees are gone, rainfall drops, crops whither and die, and more pressure is put on the few intact ecosystems and forests. Any project that seeks to address this spiraling devastation is worth investigating and sharing. Some stand out as examples of "best practice", and I am following these projects and the people behind them in order to share what makes them so successful.

In Johannesburg, the South African company Sunfire Solutions has developed a solar plan: to get out into Africa and distribute solar cookers. If you think these machines are too clumsy, too difficult to use, or hard to set up and maintain, wake up to Africa's energy future and watch this short movie.

These stoves do have problems, the most pressing is their cost. To address this issue, Sunfire Solutions has developed a business model that utilizes private donations, non-governmental organization's (NGO) funding, carbon trading and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. Each stove can directly stop eleven tons of CO2 going into the air each year, as well as remove more CO2 from the air by preventing the destruction of Africa's woodlands.

Another problem is their distribution. Crosby Menzies, the Director of Sunfire Solutions is putting together a team to take their solar cookers on the road, traveling from South Africa, to Mozambique then on to Zimbabwe and maybe Malawi. Already they have been distributing their cookers in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, and have had a great response. A video piece by Tina Stollard is up on their Youtube channel. Along the way they will stop at small and large communities, showing how to use the stoves and distributing as many as they can. They also hope to make contact with NGOs and small businesses in the areas they visit, leaving behind a distribution system that works for the long term.

As a small part of the change that is happening in Africa, Menzies is passionate about what they are doing. He has wagered his own financial future on the success of solar cookers in Africa, and believes that the change he is helping to bring about is vital to the future of the continent.

Traveling around Africa for the last three months working on a Multimedia series with Global Post called Energy Entrepreneurs has opened my eyes to the incredible potential and possibilities that exist here for people with drive, vision and hope. They should be an example to all of us to be the change we most want to see in the world.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Wild Wet Wilderness of Mozambique

Snorkeling through the coral reefs of the Quirimbas Archipeligo

I have been spending the last three weeks in the far northeast of Mozambique. This is the Cabo del Gado province, and it is here that some of the last remaing wilderness areas in Africa can be found. Pemba is the capital city, and at the moment it is best known for its pristine white beaches, the new Quirimbas National Park with dozens of coral islands boasting an amazming varirty of wildlife. Dugangs or Sea Cows, much like the Manitee, live in inland mangrove swamps and bays, ducking among the brachiated coral. Humpback whales come here at this time of the year to breed, and from the top of the lighthouse on nearby Goa Island I watched a pod breaching high into the sky and cavorting in the waves. But there is a dark cloud on this clear blue horizon, more than one.

Here there has just been an announcement by US oil company Anadarko of a discovery of oil and natural gas offshore. Already the Texas swagger can be seen at local resteraunts along with trucks full of military guards driving through the old portuguese town with oil workers under armed guard, ostensibly to deter piracy and kidnapping - two problems which have never been a real problem in sleepy Pemba before. The dark shadow of the BP oil spill has not even entered the debate of whether drilling for oil in this island paradise is a good thing or not. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that it will happen, and the lack of debate about it makes it even more worrying, since the size of the oil deposites may be huge and a cash boon for one of the ten least developed countries in the world. But there is little evidence to suggest that oil money would ever reach the population. Other African countries like Angola and Nigeria that rake in trillions of dollars remain some of the most desperate places to live in the world.

But inland there is also a problem. The new Quirimbas National Park and Niassa Game Reserve are being shot out by poachers. There seems to be collusion or at least aquiescence by the local authorities, who have done less than nothing to stem the flow of illegal elephant ivory from these shores. North of Pemba elephants used to surf in the azure waters, but they have not been seen for four years. Reliable reports suggest that poachers have adopted a more deadly approach to their trade: using rat poison on the beasts' watering holes. A crate of ivory from here that reached Singapore seems to support this idea. Tiny tusks the size of a man's finger were found, suggesting they even hacked them from the very young animals.

Private lodge owners are banding together to fight the poachers with little official support. They have about twenty five private guards and a helicopter, but this is far from adequate, and they are urgently appealing for greater support from the Mozambiquan government and the internationalcommunity. At least two hundred rangers are needed to make any impact on this lethal trade, where every day the pochers are emboldened and the numbers of elephants diminish. Links between the poachers, local businesses, arms smugglers and drug dealers are discussed at length around lodges and bars.

Trees are being felled all over the region. For twelve kilomteres oustide of Pemba there are just wood mills, sawing up the downed hardwood trees and exporting them to the far east, mostly to China. Export permits are a joke and can be bought from corrupt officials. Much of the expensive mahogany wood is already gone, but much also remains that could still be saved. This blog has touched many times on African deforestion issues, but here there is still a chance to stop the majority of the wood loss and choose a different path than the rest of the continent.

Pemba is one of the last frontier towns in southern Africa. Until recently it was isolated -a forgotten town at the dead end of thousand mile road, with no link to nearby Tanzania. But this has changed. In May 2010, a new bridge over the Rovuma River linked the two countries for the first time ever, and trade goods, cars, tourists and local people are flowing back and forth. Development is happening, and it will be up to the people of Cabo Del Gado Province to decide what the future of this incredible wilderness will look like.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Good News

After a busy trip to Durban, on South Africa's Indian Ocean shore last week, I am taking stock of some of the news in the world. The story I was pursuing is about alternative energy, for a Global Post series called Energy Entrepreneurs.

It's a fascinating world-wide look at incredible possibilities for the future of energy production that any consumer or energy producer would do well to read. Utilizing Global Post's unrivaled group of videographers, the news site has profiled solar energy projects in Guatemala, household geothermal systems in Palenstine, and many other surprising projects that create a sense of how humanity will power itself in the post-oil period. Coming at a time of deep disillusionment with oil in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, these are profiles we should all be inspired by.

Pollution Oversight:
The New York Times reports that the Environmental Protection Agency in the US is investigating chemical fracturing's impact on ground water quality throughout the country. In Colorado, beautiful valleys like the Grand have been besmirched with thousands of gas wells, and one of the country's most important waterways, the Colorado River has had millions of tons of waste water from this process dumped into it. Hard questions have not been answered by gas companies like Haliburton and others about the ingredients in their hydraulic fracturing solutions, and from this perspective of a Colorado native, this is clearly unacceptable. Unlikely coalitions between environmentalists and farmers are driving a rethink on the wholesale drilling on our private and public lands, and the federal government should take heed. Anything that gets former adversaries like farmers and environmentalists into bed together should worry gas drilling companies that have again and again chosen profit and secrecy over disclosure and open discussion. Under the Bush administration these companies had free reign, but it seems those days may over. Groundwater belongs to everyone, and if these companies have endangered our future heath and that of our children, no amount of domestic gas production will make up for that.

The Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf both go on sale this year. Almost the first fully electric cars that are available to all Americans, they represent the future of motoring throughout the world and the end of the cosy relationship between oil companies and automakers. They also represent a sea-change in attitude that will drive innovation and creation of new options that will move the United States towards greater reliance on all sorts of different types of energy. The cars are the rallying cry of the legions who have been held prisoner by oil. The Volt cares not if it is charged from a solar array, a nuclear power station, or methane power generation from rubbish.

This brings me back to my trip to Durban. This coastal city is a world leader in landfill waste. They create specially designed landfills that take advantage of the fact that landfills generate thousands of tons of the global warming gas Methane. Methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas as Carbon Dioxide. Every landfill in the world produces methane as a by-product of the breakdown of waste. In Durban they collect this waste gas, pipe it into massive engines and generate enough power to run more than five thousand city homes. In a city of millions, this is a pittance, but the technology is cheap enough to implement anywhere and by preventing noxious gases from escaping, and using them to supplant the dirty coal power that South Africa relies upon, the project is highly successful and self-supporting. In their final coup, Durban turns the old landfills into indigenous gardens and parks that beautify this hilly city by the sea.

Monday, July 12, 2010

African Odyssee- The Pans of Botswana

Mystical Khubu Island. The former king used to sit at the top of this granite spire, looking out over the Makgadikgadi Pans.

The Makgadikgadi Pans

View of Khubu Island

It may come as some surprise, but the winter in the desert wastes of Botswana is not a hot time. Dry, yes, barren, certainly, but not hot. Last night it was freezing cold on the Makgadikgadi pans, and the chilly wind tore through my glacier jacket as if it had come off the highlands of Greenland. We camped on the edge of the Pan, the Hog (My Toyota Truck) parked on the former grassy banks of this inland sea so that we could roll it down onto the flat salt plain in the morning to start it.

These and the Nxai Pans used to be an inland lake a hundred feet deep, but climate change and tectonic plate movement drained the pans thousands of years ago. Now they are a vast inland sea of salt and odd prickly grasses, that is about as empty as places can ever be, except where water still gathers. Water attracts animals of all types, and at night the sounds of lilting jackals mix with lion grunts, hyeana laughter and all sorts of screams and chortles, carrying across the pans for miles.

The Photojournalist in the Pans

Driving is treacherous and not recommended except on marked tracks. Without rain parts of the pans carry the prints of cars for decades after they zoomed past. The salt hides a primordial ooze beneath it's crust that can be deep enough in places to swallow a truck whole.

Climate change is writ large here, and although this particular type of climate change is from our far distant past and not linked to human causes, it is a dry and withering example of what parts of our planet could look like when our climate changes. Trees are only found on the former banks of the lake, undulating in the distance and levitating off the ground with the mirage as the cool still air of the day mixes with the hot reflected sunlight.

People lived here, and still do. Outside of the protected areas of the pans, which is most places, there are cattle and sheep farms, and more and more trees are going the way of the ax. Botswana is richer than most countries in Africa, and its obvious that barbed wire has become very useful to the people here. Nevertheless its possible to blast out on a track into the these vast wastes and get as lost as your are willing to be. Lost is realtive term here, where tracks lead kind of everywhere, and a simple compass is enough to make sure that you head in the right direction.

The last night in the pans we visited Khubu Island, a granite outcrop that has been home to Boababs, succulent trees, and groups of people throughout the pre-history of southern Africa. It has gained almost mythic proportations, with "have you been to Khubu Island?" the litmus test for a well travelled adventurer in Africa. It fell into a sorry and trashed state over the last decade, as uncontrolled tourism saw people dumping their rubbish here, but now it's possible for people to visit through the help of the local people, who benefit from travellers who stay at their modest and clean camp on the island, which depsite it's name is actually more of an isthmus out into the pans.

It is a fitting place to end our trip, sitting at the King's seat, high on a granite spire, watching the sun sink over the barren whiteness of the pans.

Clarity, self-awareness, personal growth, these are things many people seek when they travel, and in this place, surrounded by nothing, they all seem more attainable, -and the view is amazing.

Our last desert campsite in the Pans.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

African Odyssee: Northern Botswana

A shy elephnat passes our camp in the last light of day near the Okavango Delta, Botswana.


The roads of northern Botswana can have a detrimental effect on your vehicle.

The Hog deep in the bush at Bone Camp (splintered femur mandatory).

Is is a landing strip? A road? Our mystery path traversing northern Botswana.

Livingston, Zambia, near Victoria Falls was, I believe, was the place I entered some of my journal. We have been traversing the areas that make up the KAZA International Peace Park. Our car battery died about three days ago, so we have been scouring the countryside we have been passing through for camps that allow us to give the hog a small push. It has made for slightly stressful but interesting times, and for about three days, we saw no one, not a 4x4, not a plane. No Cellphones, no internet. Nothing. I would love to give all the details of this place but I suggest to find a place that yourself, it makes it much more satisfying. We may have bent a few rules, and passed a few do not enter signs, but for sure I never saw them.

So now we are near Maun, in Botswana, and the Okavango Delta scatters light across the ceiling the of the airy Audi Camp bar, where I managed to pick up some Wi-Fi access. We have camped with crazy-looking and acting honey badgers (Badger Camp) lions sounding off in the distance while we cook dinner, (Lion Camp), and once got tenderly passed by a considerate elephant, who left his dropping, but no other sound as he passed in the night.

Moremi National Park and the Okavango Delta is flooded, delightfully so, and outside its border we watched shy creatures sip water at forest water holes. The animals are all scattered crazily in the distant areas of the delta by the biggest floods in fifty years. The delta is swollen, ripe with rain and from dozens of miles it's scent wafts upon the desert winds.

I will put together a small section of my journal when we get back to Johannesburg in the next week. Today we are leaving our wired comfortable pit-stop and heading into the pans of the Makadikadi. It will be wet. How wet and how far we can drive will mostly depend on nerve and the state of the flood, because when the Okavango is wet like this, it spills over into the pans, and turns them into a tropical paradise of long flat lakes filled with zebras and flamingos, but treacherous to 4x4 vehicle travel.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Into the KAZA: Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls By moonlight. A time exposure of about 20 seconds at F8

Today we are off to Kasane from Livingstone, Zambia. It has been great to see the falls again and enjoy the nature. This morning Sebastian, my travel partner in crime, woke me up while watching elephants cross the Maramba River in front of our campsite. Nice to hear their tais flicking and the sounds of their passage so close through the bush.

There is a decrepit old ferry crossing the lower Chobe River where Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia all meet. This is really the heart of the KAZA park, and there has been talk of a bridge here for years, but for now, the old ferry will do us nicely. In the chaos we hope to slip through with one of the trucks and end up tonight in Kasane, a Botswanan town right in the middle of a wilderness area, where elepahnts sometimes roam past the local Shopright supermarket.

The Hog continues to run well, but the roughest most hardcore driving is still to come, so its off to the bush!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

African Odyssee: The KAZA Park

Jeffrey Barbee
Livingston Zambia

In 1858, as artist Thomas Baines and the rest of Livingston's Expedition approached the roar of Victoria Falls through dense vegetation they could hardly have imagined that they were about to discover one of the seven natural wonders of the world. As he sat down with his paints to sketch the falls, Baines could not have known that these images would launch a worldwide plan of conservation making Victoria Falls the centerpiece of the world's biggest wildlife park. The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, Shortened to KAZA, is the most ambitious conservation plan of it's kind ever attempted.

On the 18th of June, 2010, the German government allotted twenty million Euros to the Peace Parks Foundation to support KAZA, the latest in a series of g payments that are slowly helping to establish the biggest conservation area in the world. The area embraces the countries of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, making up 29 million hectares, roughly the size of Italy. More than thirty national parks and conservation areas already exist within the boundaries of KAZA, and the project is bridging the gaps in the protected areas and creating jobs, employment and more opportunity to the local communities.

Some of the popular places the park covers are Victoria Falls, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, The Okavango Delta, and the Chobe River system. But less known, and less explored are the Eastern Parks of Angola, closed to travelers for thirty years by conflict and land-mines. The mines are being taken out, and the Angolan authorities say that as the mines are removed, the elephants are quickly taking back areas of bush where they were never found before.

Elephant Lands
And this is elephant territory. Actual numbers are hard to pin down, but it is estimated that the area holds as much as a third of Africa's remaining elephant populations. Chobe National Park is expected to be one of the "seed" parks for the area. It is well managed, with good buffer zones that allow the free movement of animals in and out of the park. And authorities is Botswana acknowledge that the sooner they get some of their elephants out of the park, the better. Chobe has been terraformed by the beasts. Former woodland is now grassland, the trees have been eaten, but other habitat has also been created that harbors other animals that prefer grass rather than trees. Nevertheless the park is without a doubt beyond it's elephant capacity, and as more safe areas around it are established, as it becomes part of the greater KAZA Park, elephants are moving into these new areas.

Although KAZA was one of the first Transfronteir Parks ever imaged, it has been one of the longest in the making. Not until Angola's Bush war ended eight years ago was it possible for the country to even discuss the possibility of inclusion in the park. Zimbabwe's shaky political situation also prevented the process from moving forward, and historical antagonism between Namibia and Botswana has not helped. However, the park seems to be bringing the countries closer together and now there is real movement forward, with the money from the Germans showing how much the international community believes in the project.

As this massive park moves from conception into implementation, communities will be incorporated into the park. It is from these communities that workers, guides, scouts and mechanics will be hired, providing people with an alternative to subsistence agriculture. Vivian Nchope lives outside of Livingston, and he has worked for local hotels as a tree planter. He makes wood crafts in his spare time to sell to tourists who come to see Victoria Falls. "This park is so important to us, we need to benefit from our wildlife, and stop cutting down so many trees for firewood, if you ask me, making a park like this will be great for the area, and maybe it will bring more tourists."

Saturday, June 26, 2010

African Odyssee: Zomba Plateau Malawi

The first stop on our trip is Zomba Plateau. The Hogs is running well so far (only a few hours out of Blantyre) and the views from the mountain are nothing short of astounding. Today we drive to Zambia, but this special place where I spent a few Christmas Holidays with my family when I was younger and we lived in Malawi requires mentioning. It is places like Zomba where a new environmental ethos is evolving in Africa, as governments realise that forest cover is vital to retaining scarce water resources.

An indigenous tree stands at sunset on the top of Zomba Plateau, the whole mountain used to be covered in forests, but now only about 8% is left.

The view from Zomba Plateau over the southern Rift, towards gleaming Lake Chilwa and the Mulanje Massif in background under moonlight.

My travelling companion, raconteur, and environmentalist Pierre Pretorius putting out a running grass fire on Zomba Plateau. The fires ravaged the newly planted forests in the dry season, preventing new growth and hampering attempts at regeneration.

In 1958, Emperor Haile Selasie visited Malawi and stood on the top of Zomba Plateau and clearly stated the importance of forests.

"When our forests are properly conserved, they protect the fertile soil of the nation from erosion, they render the landscape green and beautiful. But when forests are neglected and gradually destroyed, the wealth of our land is progressively reduced and the country slowly becomes bare and barren"

Fires sweep the former forest lands of Zomba

What is at stake? The woodland of Zomba Plateau.

Despite this, much of Africa has become barren and bare. On Zomba Plateau itself, the forest was chopped down, and this massif, rising more than six thousand feet from the base of the southern Rift valley was ravaged by erosion and then replanted with foreign pine and other alien vegatation. Today the Malawian forestry department is busy removing the pine, and hoping that they can restore some of the indigenous forests that have been lost, securing the abundant rainfall so that the rivers once again run clean, and the waters flow all year around. The following images clearly show some of the original forest that is still left, and running grass fires that are inhibiting the restoration project.

Monday, June 21, 2010

An African Environmental Journey

Lake Malawi and the mighty Shire River are under threat from deforestion. This image is taken from Khandi beach

This is the first post of an African Odyssey. I am in Malawi, getting ready to drive through Zambia, Botswana, maybe Namibia and on to South Africa. My big diesel truck,called the Hog, a Toyota Landcruiser, will be our vehicle for the journey. It is well tuned, but will still be pumping out noxious greenhouse gases like CO2 and CO, but sadly without an electric 4x4 vehicle, it is our best way to get around in the remote areas of southern Africa. When a plug-in electric 4x4 that can travel at least 200 Miles is available, I will be getting one. Until then, I will rely on the Hog.

Along the way we will be meeting up with people who are making a difference in their communities and countries by starting to reverse some of the massive deforestation that is happening here. We will try to make up for all those noxious Hog exhaust fumes by planting some trees that will grow large and strong for many years to come.

Right now I am in Blantyre, Malawi. Outside it is wet and cold and rainy, with some patches of scattered sunlight just starting to break through. Blantyre sits nestled between a group of granite mountains. Until twenty years ago, these mountains were home to huge forests that supplied water to Malawi's biggest city all year. Streams, covered with cycads and fern-shaded mosses cascaded all around the town. Deep in the forests leopards and hyaena hunted for their food among the populations of small forest deer and warthogs. The forests are almost gone now, felled for a burgeoning population and humanity's insatiable desire for food and energy. They have not been replanted, and now most of the peaks are laid bare, covered with withered grass and mud and ringed by squalid wet townships and shacks that are prone to being flooded out by rains that are not retained by the roots of the old forest giants.

But there are possibilities here, chances at an alternative future. Plans are afoot to replant many of the peaks and hills with much of the natural forest they have lost. Rafiq Hajat, the executive director of the Blantyre-based Institute for Policy Interaction, is putting to gether a plan that links government, civil society, AIDS assistance groups, international Non-Government Orgiansations (NGOs) and the people of Malawi to start a reforestion campaign using indigenous trees.

As we sat on the airplane together on my way back to Malawi, he outlined a clear plan that seens local people creating rare tree-oil businesses from the newly planted forests, and in turn, benefitting from the increased rainfall and slope stabilisation systems that the trees will bring. Their crop yields will increase, their income from the oil will provide an entry into Malawi's cash economy, and the renewed access to fresh water will increase the health of the population.

Through this convergence of goals and needs among the many stakeholders, it is possible to rebuild and regenerate at least some of the forests Malawi has lost. Hajat and donor contries (Malawi gets 38% of its annual budget from the international community) see tree planting as an investment in the future of Malawi. Malawi gets most of it's power from hydroelectric dams on the Shire River. These dams are badly affected by deforestion as the silt and old forest materials from deforested hillsides are washed into the Shire and gum-up the turbines. The country experiences electrical blackouts daily, and are a major drain on it's development and a hindrance to economic activity and investment.

Malawi is a Microcosm of the rest of the world and it's large population and small land area means everything that is happening to the trees and forests around the world are happening here more quickly, severely and with disatrous consequences. It is ironic that countries like Canada and the United States, which are currently in the process of cutting down their own old-growth forests, have been so active in trying to get Malawians to replant theirs.

More updates from the road will be forthcoming.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dear Dad, A reply to my Father

The "slimes" Dam at the Cullinan Diamond Mine, outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. Could cleaning up sites like this demonstrate an "enlightened" and mentally evolved human race?

Hi Dad,

Thanks for your very thoughtful letter, I have to say I think you may have hit the nail on the head, but also there is always an undercurrent of social change that indirectly drives our scientific and material gain. The psycho-social development as us as a people seems to have lagged behind the "material" developments of our societies, yes. Though I think if we look into the history of the human thought and social change, we do see a parallel evolution of human thought that had driven, reflected, and been an intergral part of the material developments. I am thinking of those suffragettes, including the Mayor of New York's wife at the time, ready to stand and fight for their real role in society, and be judged upon that. I think of the social networks of people who quietly got on with a diversified life within the confines of Victorian England (think Sir Richard Francis Burton) or others like Galileo during the Inquisition.

So much of that evolutionary thinking, the development of a higher understanding and a high ability to understand and even empathize, I feel is tied to a more "enlightened" approach to human interactions. It is difficult to put into words, but the gist of what I am thinking is that our development as a species on the psycho-social front is inextricably bound to our human progress, and although it looks like the one lags far behind the other, it is only through discourse like this, and many other "high-level" empathetic interactions that we can raise the bar on it.

Here in South Africa, we often see the back and forth interplay of more animalistic notions like greed to the real "evolved" emotions of empathy, kindness and selfless giving. It is one of the defining charachteristics in this society where people are essentially ungoverned and un-policed. Everyone must look out for each other, and on any given day its possible to see the most babaric acts of horriblness, juxatposed next the most heart-breakingly giving acts of kindness. If there is anywhere that more tellingly illustrates the "war" between hatred and empathy, between evolved emotions and simple stupidity, and between the chance to add something positive to our social world instead of tearing it down, it is here.

Mix into that the natural human ability to judge upon looks, upon black and white, upon education versus ignorance, and all the potential trouble-making stew of personal grievances, past injustice and papered-over fissures, South Africa is one of the frontline states in the war for the future spirit of humanity.

I feel strongly that environmental stewardship, essentially good house-keeping, sits squarely in the "enlightened" camp. This is because only when we feel like we all have a collective future, that we are all responsible for the effects we have on our material and spiritual worlds, can we make the hard decisions that will take care of our children and our future selves. Saving money, planning to make our planet better and healthier, making informed choices about our bodies, our communties and how we want them to look, these are all part of the process of "enlightenment" that brought us electricity, social equality, and the end of slavery. They are a process that must continue. We must love our future selves, and that is sometimes a very hard thing to do, but we all got here by doing just that, to a greater or a lesser degree, and it's our collective responsibility to continue that process.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

An Evolution In Psycho-Social Growth? A Letter From My Father

Australopithecus Sediba, this recent hominid discovery in South Africa has the world's scientists excited. But, asks my father, has our emotional evolution kept apace with our physical evolution?

For my regular readers, I extend an apology for missing out on the last month. I have been very busy with World Cup of Soccer work, renovations, paperwork and all the daily-life stuff that becomes such a time suck. Fortunately my time is my own again.

This last week I have been talking a lot with my father, John W. Barbee, a giant (literally and figuratively) of the sustainable development movement around the world. He has worked tirelessly in Tadjikistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Malawi and many other places assisting local people to lift themselves out of desperate situations. His take is one of vast experience and empathy with the people he works with. He is my real-life hero and a man of action.

Letter from My Father,
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
June 2, 2010

Dear Jeff

Right now (beginning the second decade of the 21st centruy) we are in the midst of an evolutionary revolution, being clobbered with disasters (nearly all man-made, or man-induced) and opportunities. And the magnitude of the latter seems definitely related to the magnitude and frequency of the former.

Many of the issues relating to our ability to respond to the opportunities is that for the last 10 years or more we have been using "the hammer" in response to problems, and this has led us to preceive the shape of the nail in every problem.

We seem, at the same time, to be gaining knowledge of our development as a species AND lacking understanding and insight of what that means, as well as its usefulness in informing our adaptation. What a paradox.

I got ahold of a fairly new book that is good food for thought....and adaptive action. "The Nature of Technology." It's written by a guy with a "understanding complex systems" perspective. He describes the process and progress of "technologies" and the interaction & complementarity of science & technology. What captured my thinking most from this book is that the "human systems" of thought, activity and their psycho-social effects seem to be the most elusive in developing and replicating adaptive & effective technology and science.

I believe the answer is that we still have not acquired the insight of ourselves as a species integrated into our global existence. We have achieved incredible development in technologies & science of electronics, micro & macro aspects of physics & chemistry, bio/genetics, etc. but only a little of the technology and science of psycho-=social development, even though much of the necessary ingredients are available. The result is that we confuse "approach" with "solution" and disregard process by over-focusing on short-term product.

The "building blocks" are there, but we have neither recognized them as such, acknowleged their essential nature in the psycho-social & civil society nor recognized them as technology/science (and therefore integrated with all the others).

Just as gravity (and its lack) are forces fundamental to the universe and our existence, so is trust (and its lack) a necessary and very basic feature to us and our existence in the universe. And trust is based on our ability to understand, communicate and engage amoung ourselves & other life forms and the universe at large. Building this -- a "civil" society of our species and those that have evolved with us -- within the universe is the primary imperative of the 21st century, and for our success as a species.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Make A Difference

Departing Johannesburg, The Adventure Diaries.

Many people are talking these days about how to make a difference. The problems of Climate Change, poverty, AIDS, deforestation and the wanton destruction of our earth seem insurmountable. How can one person make a difference?

Making a difference is easy. Often it's as simple as just deciding you want to, and then showing up. Those two actions somehow make it possible for all sorts of things to happen. Within the world of journalism at least half the stories I work on are impossible to plan very well. Most of the time I just arrive at the place, and maybe have one or two contacts, and suddenly the whole story opens up in front of me, as if it "expected" me be there. This is so common in journalism that there is even an unwritten rule called the 80% law: 80% of the story is just showing up, being there, and trying to grasp the situation. The other 20% is putting it together so that it makes sense, and then delivering it on time.

Start by saying you want to. Then physically get involved in something. Show up to town meetings when they discuss things like recycling, land use, and any issue you feel strongly about (you will be amazed how few people actually come). Research facts and make it your hobby, your Sunday activity even, to find out all the sides of an issue. Figure out your home energy budget, and calculate your carbon footprint, then take steps to reduce it and and write a blog for your family and friends so they can benefit from your new knowledge. Everyone has a part to play in changing our society into a more healthy, happier, and less destructive system.

On Saturday four of my friends departed on their own voyage of action and discovery. They are driving small delivery bikes 3700 Kilometers up through Africa, from Johannesburg to Dar Es Salam. On the way they are meeting with orphans, planting trees, swimming with dolphins, and camping out underneath the wide open African sky. You can follow their adventures from their site:

They are office workers who have a dream, and they are following it. Along the way they will be posting photos, videos and stories of the people and places they visit and share with, so follow their trip and get inspired!

Everyone can make a huge difference and with the right attitude even have fun in the process. Just show up.