Facebook reminds me that I was in Korea two years ago today. (Thank you Mark). Sadly though we are no closer to building an International Convention Centre in PE today than we were then (nor sadly closer than we were in 2005 when the city first commissioned a business plan that gave the “green light” to build it.) Perhaps its time for the private sector to become more aggressive in insisting on this game changing project. Perhaps business leaders like Nomkhita Mona, Mkhuseli ‘Khusta’ Jack , Thembinkosi Matunda and Mandla Madwara will take the reins and bring our city to its rightful place in the world economy?
(This piece first appeared in Port Elizabeth’s “Weekend Post” on 1 July 2017)
I am inspired by the phenomenally innovative work of, California based, Elon Musk. You may know him as the founder and CEO of the ground-breaking Tesla Company. You may know that in spite of Elon growing up with the smell of mind-numbing bureaucratic paralysis in the Pretoria air, his thinking on electric cars and battery storage is proving to be hugely disruptive. His bold ideas will absolutely and fundamentally change the way we all live and work. This dramatic transformation will happen very soon and I am very excited to see it all pan out.
But I heard Mr Musk speaking the other day about his planned missions to Mars to build a colony there. I just can help feeling that that this kind of thinking is just a lot of crap, perhaps not unlike the kind of thinking of other technologists like (the American) J. Robert Oppenheimer, who applied his incredible skill to enable our species to blow up Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I can see that I think a little differently to Musk and Oppenheimer. In my reading and in my quiet time, I have come to see that we, as a species, have evolved here on this planet and are an integral part of it, perhaps like our gut bacteria are an integral part of us. To just plonk us somewhere else, is misunderstanding just how integral we are to our ecosystem and to what extent we are a product of it. I see this in the writings of brilliant and enlightened souls and I see this when I watch my cattle going about their business in the pasture.
Pasture and grasslands are a fascinating subject, but I do understand that it is quite possibly more interesting to me than it is to you. Books have been written about pasture. Entire library shelves filled. The important thing to take from our knowledge of pasture is the undeniable fact that we are dealing with a living interconnected system. In a very real and observable way cattle and grass and soil are part of the same “organism”. Grass has evolved to thrive on nutrient provided by herbivore manure, which in turn is digested by specifically evolved soil based mycelium and bacteria. Grass had evolved to look, taste and behave the way it has because of grazing animals like cattle. Cattle have developed their size, shape and biology because they have evolved in the pasture (alongside their predators) eating the grasses that they do. These are not just curious facts of anatomy and biology. These are fundamental truths. They are absolute “laws”, that whether we choose to or not, are a governing force in all of our lives. It may appear to me that I, as an individual, am a separate organism to the people around me and to the things that I consume and to the things that try to consume me, but in truth, with the perspective of evolution and of time, I am not.
So much of what I see around us attempts to convince me that I am a separate organism, that I am able to survive even without this planet; that I am separate from the earth. The spectacular 1960’s project to send a man to the moon, walk around up there and take photographs of the blue planet from that far off position, is one in a sequence of events, since the beginnings of consciousness, that have made us feel more and more comfortable with the argument that we, human beings, are a separate and distinct organism.
But when I sit in the pasture. When I observe the earthworm magically building soil from excrement, when I appreciate the cattle, I let the picture remind me of who I am. I let the picture remind me that I am a part of an organism that is beginning to show signs of disease caused largely by people (people very much like me) that have somehow come to forget the obvious truth that they are only a small (yet very important) part of a big and complex organism. Perhaps, with time, we will come to see that the disease afflicting our planet is like the disease of cancer that afflicts so many of our bodies.( A disease that killed my own father.) Some doctors say that a cancer cell is a cell that has forgotten that it is part of body, that it is part of an organism. A cancer cell consumes energy and replicates very rapidly, but it has forgotten its function within and as part of the organism. Cancer cells grow and grow until they kill the very same body that it forgot that it was integrally part of. Cancer cells form tumours that are fuelled by excess sugar in the system. In the same way perhaps as our bodies make up rapidly growing populations that cluster in cities that have become distorted way beyond any useful shape and size by the injection of excess energy in the form of over exploited fossil fuels. Perhaps tumours, cities and Elon Musk behave in this way because they have forgotten what our species has known since it has first emerged from the cradle of human kind all those years ago.
So what do we do about all this? I can only suggest that you come sit with me in the in the pasture one afternoon. Perhaps we can be still, observe and help each other remember.
(this piece first appeared in The Herald on 12 May 2017)
I don’t eat much sugar at all. In my experience, sugar and starch cause me to become fat and lazy. So I drink bitter coffee by day, red wine at night and water when I train. So I’m personally not too stressed about government’s plans to tax the consumption of sugar in the same way it taxes cigarettes and alcohol. Selfish of me perhaps? (for the record though, I don’t think the amount of sugar I put in my tea, or how many hours I spend watching TV or whether I spend enough time in gym are the business of government at all.)
I think what interests me more is the game playing out as the sugar industry attempts, through the media, to argue the case against introducing such a tax. I recall that the initial attempts by the makers of fizzy cool drinks was to rubbish any of the science that has growingly begun to link increased carbohydrate intake with a number of ailments including diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. The merits of that discussion we will leave to another, perhaps more scientifically oriented, writer.
What I notice though, is that the sugar industry’s PR campaign has now shifted to how many jobs will be lost and the general impact that this new tax will have on the economy. The latest headline reading “Sugar Tax – blow to GDP!”… or something like that. And this is what I would like to talk about here today. Not Sugar, not tax, but our community’s continued focus on GDP growth as a measure of whether we are doing well or not. We seem do descend into a collective state of panic when Treasury projects a 0% growth rate. We seem all to be in awe of Indonesia or Ghana when it reports GDP growth of 7 or 8%. But if that GDP growth has occurred as a result of the economic activity resulting from the logging of thousand year old forests, or the activity of building roads and rail to move logs from the 1000 year old forest to the Port that was built for no reason other than parking big ships that will move these logs across the ocean, then can such 7 or 8% growth really be good for any country?
Because GDP growth, at the end of the day, is a simple measure of how much money has been spent in economy. So … to use cigarettes as an example. If a farm is bought to plant tobacco, that transaction is counted as part of the GDP, so it the cost of ploughing the field and planting the tobacco seed, harvesting, drying, transporting, rolling into cigarettes in huge factories, advertising, marketing….. all part of GDP, but also all the medical costs of people dying of lung cancer or buying twisps or patches in an attempt to free themselves from nicotine addiction. Each and every transaction in the value chain is counted in the calculation of the GDP figure. So perhaps the question that you and I need to ask is: “Is it automatically good for us just because it makes up part of the GDP figure?” (Because I suppose, if everyone suddenly stopped smoking cigarettes, those people who used to smoke would spend their money on something else and therefore still show up in the GDP figures.)
I am arguing that we need to develop of ourselves a more sophisticated measure of whether or not something is good for our community than the measure of GDP growth. A measure that reflects on the value that is added by the purchases we make with the money circulating though the economy. A measure that can distinguish the value difference between money spent on a bottle of imported whiskey or the planting of a fruit tree. (Both of similar value but one of lasting contribution to the well-being of the community). A measure that helps us decide whether or not it’s good for our community to build a new supermall outside of town, or a nuclear plant at Thyspunt or a new Chinese motor vehicle assembly plant at Coega. You see, what I am introducing is the question of how do we quantify the “qualitative”. We all know through life experience that some things, some experiences, some places are better than others. We all know this, but find it very difficult to argue or prove. We know that it is better to see our economy directed to spend money of the “better stuff”, but we also know that it is so difficult to adjudicate between two parties that claim that their stuff is better, that we just tend to abandon the whole concept of quality and focus more on what we can, without doubt, quantify, and that ladies and gentlemen, is why we have this obsession with GDP growth! Not because it is useful measure of if we are doing the right stuff or not, but quite simply because it can be quantified in such a way that invites very little dispute. But this is where you and I come in. We have a duty as individuals to be vocal and outspoken about what we as individuals view to be the “better stuff”. What is your favourite building? Your favourite place to view the sunset? Your favourite street vista? Make it an issue. We don’t need consensus in order for it to be reality.
Perhaps quality cannot be quantified, but that does not mean that it’s not real?
|My 1997 Toyota, when it was still young|
I take the health of our planet very seriously. You and I know however that the truth about our country, and many others like it, is that the most pressing threat is not the levels of carbon in the atmosphere, not the depletion of the ozone layer, not even the desperate and sad story of the Rhino. No, the most pressing threat to our society is poverty and exploitation. Poverty is a breeding ground for disease, ignorance, corruption and crime. Quite simply, we are all doomed if we are not able to build a stable economy where each and every one of us feels that it is worthwhile to make our best effort every day to improve the health and welfare of ourselves and of our families. What I want to talk about today though, is what it is we do about this situation. You see, I am inspired and impressed by the direct action students across the country have taken in dealing with tuition fees. Inspired; because students are showing us that it is far more effective to take direct action than it is to put our trust in party politics. The students of 2015 have shown us, that if we want to get something done, we must get off our backsides and take direct action. The students of 2015 focussed on the issue. They set aside party politics; they set aside complexion and economic status. They focused on one issue and they were very effective.
|Photo: Litha Hewitt-Coleman|
My drive out toward Colleen Glen takes me past the Georgiou Hotel. Some of you may have seen it. It’s a sprawling , gaudy complex along Kragga Kamma road. You can’t miss it with its vulgar fleet of white stretch limos parked outside enticing the aspirational classes to indulge in some expensive massage or just generally pretend to be The Kardashians for a few hours. No I don’t really like kitsch and pretentious places that much. They are not to my taste. But the fact is that the Georgiou’s, whom I have not yet met, have gotten off their backsides and invested big money in the region. They have created jobs. They are attracting visitors to our city and generally contributing to the economy. Those of you have been following the story of the Georgious (front page of The Herald on 13 August 2015) would know though that our “system” has just ordered this massive investment demolished.
As I sit inside, warm against the weather, I can hear the winter rain falling lightly outside. At the farm, the fields are green, but it has not been that wet. I can monitor how wet it has been by the level of the Kragga-Kamma lake I drive past on the way to the farm.
Pebblespring Farm has no municipal water. It has no electrical connection. It has no sewer connection. This is of course not a major problem yet, because no one is living there full time. But we will.
In the meantime, the cattle need water and the trees we have potted need water and for this we have installed two water tanks. First a 1 kl tank and then a 5 kl tank. From these tanks I run draglines (very strong, flexible 25 mm diameter black plastic pipe) to the cattle feeding troughs that I have made by cutting in half a 200l barrel.
|We installed this 1 kl tank first last year sometime. (I remember posting a video)|
This has been relatively easy to achieve. For now at least all the pasture that I have accessed is at a lower level than the water tank, so I can gravity feed the water. No pumping required. The pasture that is furthest away (and where the cattle are grazing this week) cant be reached by the 100m dragline. For now, until I get around to buying more dragline, I bring water to this pasture in the wheelbarrow carrying a 25l container. I suppose it depends which way you look at it. Some of us will think its a real pain in the ass to trudge up and down in the biting winter wind pushing a reluctant wheelbarrow across lumpy pasture. But those same number among us, find it quite normal, acceptable and pleasurable to drive clear across town to pay for the privileged of battling against sweaty gym equipment designed to give just the correct amount of resistance and strain to mimic pushing a heavy wheel barrow across lumpy pasture. Like with most things its the story I tell myself about what’s going on that is more powerful to me than the actual circumstance. Its the meaning I give to what I do that makes it pleasurable or painful. Even pain is not that bad, when I am able to develop a story that makes the pain appropriate.US Marines have a saying “Pain is the sensation caused by weakness leaving the body”. Absolute bullshit of course, no hard science at work here, but I marvel at the hundreds of thousands of Marines that would have found push-ups that much more bearable because of that “story”. The story I give myself about the wheelbarrow is that I am giving myself a perfect cardiovascular workout with just the right proportion of weight training.
Anyway, I really did not want to let you to sidetrack me with the wheelbarrow. I wanted to talk about rainwater and “Off The Grid” stuff. Because, I really can see how we have become caught in the idea that supplying our homes with running water is an incredibly complicated thing that we can only achieve at the mercy of a massive bloated Municipality, with teams of clever engineers and armies of unionised workers. If running water intimidates some of us, then electricity send the rest of us running for the hills. Surely the only possible way to get light into our living room, heat the bathwater, roast the chicken and play “Days of Our Lives” on the TV, is to build massive multi billion dollar coal powered fire stations thousands of kilometres away in Limpopo province?