Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day

Light-hearted but deadly serious about the need to preserve nature:
Werner Conradie from South Africa, Martin Hussein from Tanzania, Dr. Julian Bayliss from Wales, Dr. Bill Branch from Port Elizabeth South Africa (with the rubber band), Hassan Patel from Malawi, Colin Congdon from Tanzania, and Steve Collins from the African Butterfly Research Institute. They are deep in the forests of Mt Mabu, working to study and preserve this untouched paradise. They are some of my environmental heroes, and long may they and those like them struggle to help save our wild places.

Thank goodness for Google. Without the search engine as my start-up page, Earth Day may have indeed passed me by here on southern tip of Africa. That usually shouldn't matter, because to me, every day is Earth Day. But nevertheless, I am glad to be reminded, because its a great day to give thanks to all those folks who have really made a difference.

Sometimes it is hard working on the front lines of the battle for our trees, our air, and our planet's diversity to realize that we stand as conservationists on the shoulders of giants. So many battles are lost. So many fish are gone. So clear after I traveled up through the Atlantic three years ago on a sailing boat with two friends. Our seas are polluted, our beaches soiled, our migrating birds exist in piles of West African rubbish, our island biodiversity is wiped out. Now I work in forests, and they too are being hammered out of existence. A year ago I worked very hard for a few months trying to save a forest in Malawi. It's gone now too, like so much else. That particular loss rankles because it was so personal. It was the forest behind my spiritual home. If I can't save that, what can I save? But today is a day to sit back, and also see what we have accomplished.

It is important to remember that every single protected area that we have in the world today was a battle to save. Someone wanted to destroy it, so someone had to protect it, and some had to be protected by the president himself. When Teddy Roosevelt as president camped out high in the Sierra with the famous conservationist John Muir for a few nights with just the two of them alone camping under the stars, something changed. Their meeting spawned the first National Park in the whole world, and led to the great system of parks that exist in every country today. But it wasn't easy. Every park was a battle, and for the people who struggled to protect these last outposts of nature, it was often a losing battle. Even Muir failed to save his beloved Hetch-Hetchee valley, but he did save so much else.

I am reading John Muir's book Nature Writings, compiled by The Library of America. It is a timeless snapshot given to me by my father. Written in amazingly modern language and full of feeling and love of his subject, Muir communicates beautifully the answer to the question, why should we save it?

The issues he is discussing, on how growth should happen, whether forests and wild places are intrinsically valuable to our human spirit, the inner workings of the human mind's need to dominate and destroy in the name of growth -these are current issues relating directly to conservation today. It was his impassioned articles in the early 1900s that woke America up to the grand heritage of nature that she was losing in her dash for development. There have been so many like Muir who have dedicated their lives to helping change our behaviour towards our Earth, and it is because of them that we have anything left to save today.

So if, like me, you sometimes despair that all is already lost. That the only nature left in the future will be weeds and weedy species like cockroaches and crows, get a grip. So much has been acheived and there is of course so much more to do, but today there is finally a real groundswell of public interest from around the world. The days of the big oil companies and mining conglomerates deciding environmental policy in the White House are over. Today environmentalism is a unifying factor across the world, with broad based support from conservative Christians to long haired, tree-climbing activists. Our political leaders better take careful stock of that when facing issues like Global Climate Change and the advancement of renewable energy. The battle, in some ways has just really begun, for once the armies are more evenly matched, and despite right-wing howls to the contrary, being green is now not just good for the planet and your conscience, but vital to our national security.

Perspective is sometimes lost, especially for soldiers on the front lines of a battle. The best perspective I have gotten recently was another gift from my Dad, a series called The National Parks, America's Best Idea. Award winning film maker Ken Burns follows the battles around the creation of our National Parks system. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but the message is clear. We have this system because dedicated people fought for it, tooth and nail, and sometimes died for it. Each park is a monument to a local success, as is almost every park in the whole world. These protected lands, often saved in the face of overwhelming opposition, are symbols of what we can do when even a few dedicated individulas care. Make this DVD an Earth Day present to yourself and your family, and get inspired by the giants upon who's shoulders we stand.

Today, give thanks to these environmental pioneers and saviours, both past and present. Right now, there are people around the world, making a difference, fighting for every green tree, every coral reef, and their legions are growing. The best way to thank them is to get involved and become the change you want to see.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Lessons From A Volcano

This incredible image, taken by photographer Ragnar th. Sigurdsson, shows some of the lightning storms within the eruption. Go to his website and see some of his other amazing images and read The New York Times interview with him from Iceland.

It is there on our TVs, internet, facebook pages and if you or your money are unlucky enough to be lost in the travel chaos, it's all around you. So far, above Europe the ash cloud cannot really be seen, but it's effects are everywhere. 200 Billion dollars is lost already by airlines, but the knock-on effects throughout the business, entertainment and political spheres are rocketing around the world faster than...well faster than a parked jet airplane.

Here in South Africa on the front page of the nationwide newspaper Business Report are dire predictions about the possible effects to the World Cup of Soccer, held here in just over six weeks time -unless the cloud dissipates. The headline reads "Volcanic Ash Spreads Cloud Over World Cup".

The London Book Fair, where 46 South African authors were to fly and present their latest works will only see 13 of them. Flowers and fruit exporters to the EU, reliant upon regularly scheduled air freight, have seen millions of dollars in losses at a time when the economy is just emerging from The Great Recession.

Insurance companies are working overtime trying to gauge the effects of the aircraft grounding and whether something like this is covered in their policies. In the South African press this morning, Lloyds of London insurance spokesman Bart Nash said that "It's too early to tell what type of insurance contracts the Icelandic Volcano may trigger, however we are currently assesing any exposure we may have". The crisis is rocking every industry in the world.

So we are dealing with a large-scale environmental event, something that is immediately affecting the air, our commerce, and our very delicately balanced modern system of trade. Suddenly, some of the most wealthy and developed countries in the world lost their air travel overnight, and there is little to suggest that everything will quickly be fine again in the next day or two.

Like the big freeze in the UK at the beginning of this year, this crisis once again shows how at the mercy of the Earth our civilisation really is. There are talks of potential food shortages in parts of Europe, the collapse of the aviation fuel industry, and other, darker clouds on the horizon. So this is it, we must accept that in a world of instant messaging and air travel, our societies are so interconnected in every way that even a modest event like this one can have extreme consequences.

Now in the world of Global Warming, Climate Change and the many different extreme scenarios that may or may not be visited upon us, it would be wise for leaders and individuals to wake up to how delicate a high-wire we are on. If a really serious storm closed Europe, like it did around 11,000 years ago, and dropped dozens of meters of snow, which happened on a regular basis, any idea of "adaptation" would be laughed at. By today's reckoning, millions would die of hunger, economies would shut down, air travel would be crippled. Our world economy may crumble.

When we look and peer into the future, trying to see how our human activities may lead to an unbalancing of the systems that make our world a comfortable place to live, this volcano becomes a great tool to understand how these future environmental changes may affect us. Because our modern system of worldwide commerce is so susceptible to even small disruptions, we now know more about what effects a man-made environmental calamity might cause. It isn't pretty.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Never A Truer Word Spoken

A rare deforestion poster in Mulanje, Malawi. It says in Chichewa, "The Evil Of Fire" -Most of the forest in the country is gone to slash and burn agriculture and energy.

The wind is blowing an unseasonable mist over the city of Blantyre. It's cold, too cold for late summer, and the torrential rain of last week has only slightly abated. Here in Malawi's southern region, millions of people live from harvest to harvest, dependent completely on whether the rain comes at the right times of the year.

The planting starts in December, or these days November. It's anyone's guess and everyone's gamble. Monsanto maize, bought by farmers, who are supplied with the vital Monsanto fertlizer by the government, have but three short months where their yearly crop must grow, fruit and then dry in the fields. If too much or too little rain falls at one of these crucial parts of the process, the crop will be lost. This is hand-to-mouth living, right on the edge of survival, dependent soley upon the weather, and the weather has been getting unpredictable.

One of the most important mitigators of rainfall and run-off has been lost. Flying from Lilongwe, in the central region, down to Blantyre, in the south, the plane soars at only twenty thousand feet. Close enough to see that the forests that covered this whole country have been decimated. So gone are they that the uneducated observer would not believe they were ever here, and that the bare hills and valleys, cut by erosion, were ever thus.

So without forest to protect against torrential flooding, or to bring the rain, as outlined in this excellent study at Columbia University, the people of Malawi and virtually all of Africa are at the mercy of Climate Change.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner, writes in the New York Times Magazine this week about what can be done to Build a Green Economy, and how to make big sweeping changes in the way we pollute and control CO2 by simple processes that have already worked well in the United States. His is a welcome exploration of the issues around climate science and he gives a chilling and urgent reminder that responding to this crisis is not negotiable, no matter where on political spectrum your beliefs may lay.

Other climate thinkers like writer Paolo Bacigalupi, economist Nicholas Stern, and The Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown have all agreed that it is poor countries who are facing the worst hazards of climate change because of their precarious food security, and that this is just a taste of things to come for all of us.

If the indian monsoon did not come for one single year, the world's total food production would not be enough to feed all of the people who would go hungry. Bacigalupi's "contraction" would begin, and "growth" and "development" will become quaint terms, lost to our dwindling human population.

Brown believes that a contraction may already be under way, and that the current recession is as much about commodity prices and water resources in the face of global scarcity than it is about the price of oil, or the United States' credit market. The latter, says Brown, just fell because it was the most unstable, like the first to topple in a house of cards.

Krugman gives us a chance. He sees the obstacles to cleaning our air and greening our businesses and economy as surmountable, and carefully regulated carbon markets can successfully regulate pollution, be cost effective, and there is a lot in his article to suggest he is right. I certainly hope so.

There are millions of individual reasons here in Malawi to start reducing our greenhouse gas emmissions today, and hopefully part of that Cap and Trade system also sees third-world countries replanted with their lost forests as a way to further remove the carbon already in the atmosphere, bring back regular rainfall, and stop erosion. Maybe then not only will the rich emitting states enjoy good schooling, three meals a day, and the chance to live without fear of hunger.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What is it about Aid that is not working?

The view over Malawi's southern Lakeshore, from Zomba on the left, all the way to Cape Maclear on the right.

Water, development, health, HIV/AIDS, education, environmental degradation, poverty, more and more people working in development feel that all of these issues are inextricably linked together. It sounds like a huge pile of work and energy to solve them all at once, and many groups and governments around the world have been trying to tackle just a few, but the trillions of dollars poured into Africa through "aid" and other philanthropy that has clearly not worked shows us that the current status quo needs rethinking.

For anyone who is interested in extreme models of development, a more interesting model than the Pacific island of Bouganville could not be found. In the fascinating and uplifting documentary the Coconut Revolution, the BRA (Bouganville Revolutionary Army) uses sticks and then captured weapons to drive the company Rio Tinto off of their island, after it poisoned rivers, stole their land, and dug a massive open-pit mine in the rainforest. Australia bankrolled and trained the Papua New Gineau Government to fight the BRA, and imposed a total sea blockade for more than five years.

What happened is nothing less than miraculous. The islanders turned to local skills, in medicine, power generation and agriculture, and for the first time since colonialisation, the islanders became self sufficient. Their diets and health improved, and more than 50 small hydroelectric power stations gave them electricity to light their homes. In isolation the islanders even made diesel fuel for their cars out of coconut oil, fuel which is cleaner, safer and more efficient than that which used to be shipped in by sea.

In Africa today, any suggestion that Africans may develop best if simply left alone is anathema. The idea fo leaving starving people to die of drought and disease is simply not an option, but in her book Dead Aid, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo suggests that although assistance in the most critical times may be rendered, by and large all foreign aid assistance to Africa should be rethought. She examines countries in Africa that turned down Aid, and compares them with those that have welcomed it. Across the board the results are surprising, in all countries that accepted it, "overreliance on aid has trapped developing nations in a vicious circle of aid dependency, corruption, market distortion, and further poverty, leaving them with nothing but the “need” for more aid."

In Malawi, there is an urgent need for everything. Trees are being cleared to make way for a growing population that still has an exploding birthrate in one of Africa's most populous countries. The trees are gone and flooding off the steep hillsides wipes out villages and fields, taking lives and livelihoods. Children forced to work to help increase crop yeilds receive no education, and have children themselves when they are still in their teens, succumbing to AIDS and Malaria by their mid 40s. But in Malawi things are also different, here there is a concerted and real effort by the government to try and address these issues, but good development models can be hard to come by.

At least half the country's economy is supported by foreign governments through direct foreign aid. Aid that has increased only to see virtually every socioeconomic indicator decrease at the same time. So the status quo is not working, and people like the Bouganvillers and Dambisa Moyo have other suggestions. Maybe it's time we listened to them?