Rhinos and Resource Extraction

white-rhino_755_600x450Rhinos are one of the oldest species of mammals on the planet.  Brought back in from the brink of extinction in southern Africa, they are once again under grave threat.

As a very strong article in The Guardian details, one of the world’s greatest preserves for rhinos, the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, is threatened by plans to permit the opening of an open-cast coal mine near the border of the park. The mines would draw large numbers of people to the area, many of whom would inevitably be enticed by the high prices of rhino horns on the international black market.

The question of what South Africa is doing opening so many coal mines is the gaping question that underlies current developments. The article in The Guardian mentions that the number of operating mines in South Africa has increased from 993 in 2004 to 1,579 in 2012. The government argues, the article suggests, that these mines are necessary to provide power to the country’s majority population, against whom apartheid policies discriminated in many ways, including energy provision.

But why is coal power, the most dirty form of fossil fuel, the dominant mode of energy generation in South Africa? To a certain extent, this seems like a misguided policy on the part of a national government – the ANC – desperate to provide resources to its people under constrained conditions.

But such an analysis ignores the significant boost that coal has gotten from international interests, including the World Bank. As Patrick Bond details in an account of the grievously misguided loan from the World Bank for the building of the coal-powered Medupi power station in northern South Africa, international lenders such as the World Bank have a long record of supporting the most purblind and environmentally destructive development policies in South Africa.

Among the many destructive impacts of such policies, then, we might think about how the support for coal mining contributes not just to climate change on a global plane, but also to the potential extinction of one of South Africa’s greatest natural treasures: the white rhino.

 

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Waste Politics and Detective Fiction

0-TOXIC_LAND001Toxic waste, the mafia, and corrupt politicians: a marriage made in Italy.

In the region around Naples, the local branch of the mafia – the Camorra – has for decades been involved in dumping toxic waste exported by rich industrialized countries such as Germany, as well as from the industrial zones in northern Italy.

In the current issue of National Geographic, Greg Kahn has a powerful photo essay on toxic waste in the Campania region of central Italy. The image above from the series is of a lung cancer patient, one of the many residents of the region suffering from heightened levels of cancer as a result of the toxic dumping.

One of the most well known exposés of organized crime in Naples, Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra (subsequently made into a film of the same title by Matteo Garrone), touches on this problem of toxic dumping. Here’s a trailer for the film.

A lot more could be made of this history of toxic waste in Italy. Most of the public in Italy knows about this, but relatively few outside the country are aware of this kind of abuse.

There are parallels in the US, particularly in the cancer alley in Louisiana focused on in Richard Misrach’s powerful book Petrochemical America.

This account of what Misrach and Kate Orff call our country’s petrochemical “sacrifice zone” in turn inspired the recent TV series True Detective.

It’s highly appropriate that a detective series be set in this toxic landscape. In Italy, in fact, there’s a whole series of novels called “verde/nero” or green detective novels, the premise of which is to reveal the various forms of environmental violence done by the “ecomafia.” It’s published by Legambiente, one of Italy’s major environmental groups, and contains some very interesting titles exploring many of the major facets of the environmental crisis, past, present, and future.

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Sonic Cannons and Ocean Life

sonic cannonsThe Obama administration announced yesterday that it is reopening the entire Eastern outer continental shelf – from Florida to Delaware – to offshore oil and gas exploration.

Such exploration will use sonic cannons to locate fossil fuel deposits deep beneath the ocean floor.

According to an article in The Guardian, The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management openly acknowledged that whales, dolphins, and thousands of other sea creatures will be harmed by such prospecting. Dolphins and whales depend on much less powerful forms of echolocation to feed and to communicate across hundreds of miles of open ocean.

The area to be mapped is outside the jurisdiction of individual states, in federal waters. President Obama is consequently solely responsible for the decision to permit harmful exploration.

Communities up and down the Atlantic seaboard have begun to pass resolutions opposing seismic testing and offshore drilling. It’s time to mobilize the anti-fracking lobby in NY to oppose this new threat to life from the oil industry.

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The Flood Next Time

Tacloban_Typhoon_Haiyan_2013-11-14A new report from the World Meteorological Organization itemizes the destruction currently being caused by climate change.

At the top of the destruction caused in recent decades is flooding.

As this chart below shows, the destructiveness caused by floods (indicated in blue) is increasing. Indeed, floods constitute 89% of reported disasters. And this is not just economic damage. Storms are responsible for 1.45 million of the 1.94m global disaster deaths.

An excellent article in the Guardian summarizes many of the key findings in the WMO report.

disasters

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An entire island nation is preparing to evacuate to Fiji before they sink into the Pacific

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The Liquidation of Cetacea

cetaceaWhales, it turns out, play a key role in mitigating climate change.

A recent article by Philip Hoare discusses the key role played by whale faeces in supporting rich communities of phytoplankton throughout the world’s oceans. These phytoplankton in turn absorb huge quantities of carbon dioxide.

Hoare’s article challenges the longstanding perception among humans that whales are their enemies – takers of their catch, scourges of the deep, embodiments of the devil. Instead, Hoare alludes to a recent study that shows that cetaceans immensely enrich the oceans on many levels, including by fertilizing them with their faeces.

Hoare challenges humanity’s hubris in scathing terms:

Such propositions speak to our own species’ arrogance. As demonstrated in the fantastical geoengineering projects dreamed up to address climate change, the human race’s belief that the world revolves around it knows no bounds. What if whales were nature’s ultimate geoengineers? The new report only underlines what has been suspected for some time: that cetaceans, both living and dead, are ecosystems in their own right. But it also raises a hitherto unexplored prospect, that climate change may have been accelerated by the terrible whale culls of the 20th century, which removed hundreds of thousands of these ultimate facilitators of CO2 absorption. As Greg Gatenby, the acclaimed Canadian writer on whales told me in response to the Vermont report, “about 300,000 blue whales were taken in the 20th century. If you average each whale at 100 tons, that makes for the removal from the ocean of approximately 30m tons of biomass. And that’s just for one species”.

These statistics concerning humanity’s genocidal war against order cetacea are chilling. whale huntThe best accounts I’ve found of the war on whales are in John Richards’ recently published The World Hunt and Callum Roberts’ Unnatural History of the Sea.

Pressure from environmental campaigners led to the suspension (with the exception of a few nations) of whale slaughter in the 1980s. Indeed, Hoare notes with satisfaction that cetaceans are on the rebound around the world. This increase, he suggests, might allow whales to once again play a significant role in mitigating climate change.

This optimistic prognosis unfortunately ignores the acidification of the oceans, one of the corollary effects of anthropogenic carbon emissions. As a result of the industrialized nations’ carbon emissions, the oceans are 30% more acidic than they were in 1800. If we continue with business-as-usual emissions, the oceans will be 150% more acidic by 2100 than they were at the start of the industrial revolution.

Ocean acidification impacts organisms that rely on calcium shells most dramatically. These include the krill and other microorganisms that whales feed on. As the oceans acidify, their numbers are likely to plummet, as Elizabeth Kolbert details in the “Sea Around Us” chapter of The Sixth Extinction.

Ocean acidification might be thought of as a form of violence that is both slow and microscopic, unfolding not simply across centuries but also on a scale so small that most humans are completely oblivious. Yet this microscopic violence is capable of devastating the lives of the largest and most majestic animals ever to have lived on Earth: the whales.

The planet’s cetaceans are on the rebound today. But in order for this new lease on life to be sustainable, the industrialized nations need to end their feckless policies of burning fossil fuels more or less immediately.

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The Extermination of Charismatic Megafauna

rhinoThe world’s last charismatic megafauna are being exterminated.

This slaughter is taking place with particular gory ferocity in Sub-Saharan Africa, for reasons linked to the continent’s enduring poverty and vulnerability to global regimes of resource exploitation.

An article in The Guardian describes the record-breaking tally of rhino deaths in South Africa. So far this year, 558 rhinos have been killed. The slaughter is on track to exceed last year’s horrendous tally of 1,004.

Articles such as the above one often mention that animals such as the rhino are killed for Asian markets, where the horns are (falsely) believed to augment male sexual potency. elephantUnfortunately, these articles seldom mention the decades of structural adjustment programs – administered by Western-dominated institutions such as the World Bank – that have made sub-Saharan nations and peoples vulnerable to the globe-girdling trade in illicit megafauna flesh.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in The New Yorker offers a similarly decontextualized analysis of the contemporary slaughter of elephants such as Satao (pictured above). Her article puts these tragic deaths in the context of the worldwide extinction of megafauna since the Neolithic revolution. What she does not mention, however, is the culture of European colonial big-game hunting that was responsible for the vast majority of such extinctions around the globe. Nor does she talk about how Western policies of  “development” are linked to enclosures of land and resources around the world, encouraging strapped locals to plunder the remaining resources for global markets.

A lot of work remains to be done to place this slaughter in adequate political-economic context. Tragically, animals like the elephant and the rhino may well be effectively extinct before the policies that are promoting their slaughter are reversed.

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