Monday, 31 December 2018

No 74 – Jacklyn Cock’s Writing the Ancestral River: A brief review

Most mornings for the last fifteen years or so I have gazed out over the coastal plain, the sweeping triangle between Grahamstown, Kenton-on-Sea and Port Alfred. To my right the skyline is formed by Featherstone Ridge, beneath which rises one of the main sources of the Kowie River. The river curls through the hills below, via sacred pools, game farms, the Waters Meeting nature reserve near Bathurst, pineapple and cattle farms, to its egress into the Indian Ocean at Port Alfred, whose lights I can see at night, off to my left. Even further left, almost due east, are the hilltops above the Blaauwkrantz River, another tributary of the Kowie; across one of the Blaauwkrantz gorges ran the railway bridge which dramatically and fatally collapsed in 1911.  And at my back, just over the ridge, is Grahamstown (Makhanda), through which wavers another source, disparagingly known as the Kowie Ditch, so polluted and cramped a crease it has become. At is highest reach, where it crawls through reeds and Rhodes University’s playing fields, it was known in my student days as Kotch Creek – apparently the spot of choice for barking up the effects of one’s drunkenness.

All this – roughly the district once known as Albany – is the purview of Jacklyn Cock’s recently launched new book, Writing the Ancestral River: A biography of the Kowie, published by Wits University Press. Jacklyn Cock is a sociologist with a distinguished list of publications. She made a name for herself as a champion of social justice with Maids & Madams (1990), a study of domesticity, race-relations and womanhood that during the apartheid years was daringly progressive.  She moved on to focus on links between gender and militarisation, and on environmental  affairs, editing with Eddie Koch Going Green, a 1992 collection of essays on South Africa’s parlous ecological state. Later Cock published The War Against Ourselves (2007), a powerful study of how environmental degradation and the oppression of poor and racialised people have so often gone hand in hand.

Cock brings these approaches to bear in Writing the Ancestral River, though it’s a much more personal book. It’s personal because this corner of the Eastern Cape is her own ancestral  territory: a scion of the legend-encrusted 1820 Settlers, she was raised here, and her affection for the river, its history and its wildlife sparks through frequently. Often touted as exemplary of the Settlers’ enterprise and tenacity, even moral worth, was Jacklyn’s own great-great-grandfather, William Cock .

Jacklyn’s research forced her to face the dark side of Settler history on two fronts. Firstly, as we have become hyper-aware in the post-1994 era, this region hosted decades of violent occupation and open war, followed by the more covert war of apartheid. The Kowie catchment area had been inhabited, perhaps for millennia, by Bushmen, whose paintings still enliven rock faces throughout these hills, Khoi herders, and at least a century of Xhosa  agriculturalists. Cock economically rubbishes the hoary, self-justifying  myth that the English and the Xhosa arrived simultaneously, and/or that the land was conveniently empty and wild, just longing to be tamed, improved and redeemed from darkness. In fact, of course, the Xhosa were forcibly evicted in successive waves of firepower and disease – our own Hundred Years War.  In this, Cock is drawing on the work of a number of revisionist histories, including Clifton Crais’ The Making of the Colonial Order, Ben Maclennan’s A Proper Degree of Terror, and Noel Mostert’s monumental Frontiers. She draws heavily on the recent work of Julie Wells on Makhanda, the Xhosa leader responsible for the 1819 attack on the embryonic settlement of Graham’s Town (which Cock relates in some detail). William Cock played a crucial role in subsequent military operations and scorched-earth clearances, directly and indirectly by supplying the armies with food and goods – at a handsome profit – so he became Port Alfred’s “most distinguished son”.

Secondly, William Cock was central to the environmental damage wrought by nineteenth-century settler enterprise. Settler firearms rapidly obliterated almost all wild animals, and settler agriculture gradually obliterated most forest and thicket. William Cock’s role was to promote Port Alfred’s ambitions to become a major port by dredging out the mouth of the Kowie, thus altering the flow, and damaging the health of the estuary forever. Jacklyn devotes a lot of space to this effort, and equally to the later great modification of the estuary and wetland, the luxury marina. Local opinion seems divided on the value or otherwise of this modern development, but Jacklyn is pretty clear that both port and marina have proved ecologically unsound white elephants whose flaws have come back to haunt their promoters. Meanwhile, almost entirely unaffected by the marina’s luxurious excess, the town’s black townships remain as segregated, impoverished and environmentally unhealthy as ever they were under apartheid.

Vervet monkeys survey the Kowie valleys
The more personalised nature of Writing the Ancestral River has liberated Cock from too rigid a structure, or too academic a style. So she can meander between historical narrative, family reminiscence, and excursions into Xhosa sacred rituals at the Kowie catchment’s deep hidden pools, or the fate of the endemic Eastern Cape Rocky fish.  The detail is impressive, yet it is eminently readable, heartfelt, rich, enlivened by quotations on rivers from poets and writers around the world, scientifically informed yet infused by a note of elegiac lament for all that has been lost and damaged, both natural and human.  At the same time, it is feisty and unflinching. She begins her excellent concluding chapter:

Rivers epitomise the connection between social and environmental justice. Recording the story of the Kowie River involves acknowledging the legacy and continuation of deep injustice: the violent conquest of the indigenous population whose descendants continue to live in poverty and deprivation, on the one hand, and the silting and pollution of a river and the destruction of a wetland, on the other.

No ‘biography’ can be complete, and Cock has validly chosen to focus on certain nodes in the history and nature of a complex catchment area. A still fuller study might have said more about the ancient Bushman presence, or the stories associated with the Blaauwkrantz tributary. She does quote ecologist Jim Cambray to the effect that pineapple farming has done more damage to the river than even the estuary modifications, but gives no further details or tales relating to Albany’s primary crop, nor to the centres it spawned, particularly Bathurst. And given her evident passion and feeling for wildlife, it’s a pity we don’t hear her views on the transference of much of the catchment recently to wildlife tourism or hunting reserves, especially the impact of ‘extra-limitals’ like giraffe and impala which I can see from my own ridgetop porch. But as I say, you can’t do it all.

I do particularly regret the lack of a detailed map or two, so that one could follow some of her winding paths more closely – the omission is doubly odd, given that the edge of such a map appears in the top half of the book’s cover.

These quibbles aside, I recommend this book firstly to anyone interested in the history and ecology of this micro-region, secondly to anyone interested more generally in river health and how this can be viewed through the combined lenses of human social justice and ecological biodiversity. Cock demonstrates just how inseparable these dimensions are: it is simply not possible to pursue capitalistic enterprise and ‘development’ without incurring severe environmental costs, and we ignore these at our own peril. Already up to 60% of our rivers – in line with most parts of the world – are all but fatally compromised by our toxic exudations: mine tailings, pesticide runoff, untreated sewage, silting-up dams, hormonal residues and plastics. We need such biographies of all our rivers, large and small, and we need the ignoramuses in positions of influence to read them, and act decisively in the interests of health instead of profit, sectarian allegiances and self-interest.

Dawn over the Kowie sources (c) Dan Wylie


Thursday, 20 December 2018

No.73 - Unravelled: Makhanda 2019, Take Two

"Makana's Kop: Dust storm 2019" (c) Dan Wylie

“Sudgint Skosaan!” And he feels himself violently pummelled. He buries his head in the pillows. This woman has a voice worse than a blerry hadeda. And why is his wife addressing him as “Sergeant”?
            Because the station is calling, there’s some woman her husband has been slag’d, he has to go down there.
            “Jussis, it’s still early, I just had a fourteen-hour day, fufuksake.”
            “There’s no one else. Only my man, he’s the heee-ro.” But she is mocking him, and not for the first time he regrets knocking her up at eighteen and doing the honourable thing. And getting twins for his pains. Girl twins, nog al. He kicks himself into his uniform, straps on his weapon. Thirsty.
            In the dusky yellow kitchen Shereen is standing dangling an empty plastic water bottle from her little finger. The twins are at her knees, squalling.
            “So go and get some from Suleiman. If he has any left. It hasn’t rained for four days, he might have run out.”
            “And who never got us rainwater tanks, huh?”
            “How was I supposed to know Melville Dam would kiss out?  Bacon and eggs for brekkers?”
            “You wish. There was no meat this whole week, now you want? Where’s all your famous con-tacts, ay? You the po-lice, you should be able to get us some. And you going to get water, or what?”
            “Move your own lazy pins,” he snaps. “Or send the twins. You just told me I gotta get to the station.”
            “They’re only two, you bozo.”
            “Twins are always two, you moron. I gotta go, as they say in the movies.”
            All this is not without affection, but Cornal Skosaan is grateful that, almost alone amongst townspeople, his police vehicle has some petrol, and he can drive away.  The streets are mos’ empty, but at the Beaufort Street police station, despite the early hour, there is a queue of clamouring complainants. Like a blerry herd of hadedas. There’s an hour to go before the captain gives his morning briefing; they’d got slack about this, but since the storms they’ve all had to be more on their toes, so much shit going down. He gets the daily sitrep from Xoliswa the desk corporal, reading over the grumble of the back-up generators – no Eskom for, what, three weeks now.
            Skosaan, still feeling gummy, tries to fix the cases in his head.
            1. The Traffics are mostly out on the King highway pile-up, two big trucks and a tanker spill, causing a blockage for three days now, mudslides meant recovery vehicles couldn’t access.
            2. Someone complained about assault in the queue out to the water-spring on the Port Alfred road; that queue stretched two kays all the way back into town; some were lining up dozens of barrels and selling water for profit and citizens getting antsy about that.
            3. Spikes in house break-ins and domestic violence cases; those that had left – about two-thirds of the population, estimated – were having their houses raided for food or whatever, or squatted in; those that were left, were getting more stressed and taking it out on their nearest and dearest. Tell me about it, Skosaan thought ruefully.  Situation normal, only more so.
            4. Complaint about taxi drivers shooting at each other, competing to get people out, or at least to the nearest flooded river, where people then swam or waded across to taxis on the other side. Two hundred bucks a pop. Latest shooting at De Wet Steyn bridge, no bridge there now; no casualties, fortunately, but two kids swept away and presumed dead.
            5. Report of two gang attacks on trucks headed for the supermarkets, out on the Bedford road; so several police vehicles and an Army escort had gone to see what was cutting; not clear yet if they could get across the Fish River at Carlyle Bridge, though waters were just beginning to recede now.
            6. Report that vandals had stripped away several kilometres of electricity cable along the PE road. That’ll make life easier for everyone, Skosaan reflected bitterly – except for one or three skellums working the black market. Situation normal, only more so.
            And there was more; his mind went numb. His stomach growled.
            “We’re all spinning like tops,” said Xoliswa.
            “When are the East Lunnun cops getting here to help out?”
            “Who knows? Stuck the other side of the Fish, probably.”
            “And all these people outside?”
            She shrugged, again. “Who knows? I’ll get to them. This guy” – she points with her pen at a young man standing at the desk – “can you believe it, he wants his birth certificate notarised.  In the middle of all this kak.”
            “I need it to leave town,” the man responds testily in isiXhosa.
            “You’re leaving? How?”
            “I don’t care how, I am going. First my shack is full of sand from the dust storm; then the cyclone came and washed it away, whum! Just like that. I lose half my documents, my clothes, everything. Now I can’t find even any food. You want me to pay twenty rand for just one potato? No way! For one week everybody helped everybody, it was hard times but someone would help you: some water here, some pineapples there. But now, just two more weeks and everybody is like hyenas, they just want to eat you, eat your money.”
            Not everyone, Skosaan hoped, or knew; but he nodded; it was getting much harder, as the town had basically shut down, food and fuel supplies down to the tiniest trickle. At least, after the months of drought, the rain had brought water. Just not through the taps.
            He asked Xoliswa, “So where’s this murder case I’m supposed to see about?”
            “She’s back here in your office. I can’t make sense of her, she is from Senegal or Pakistan or somewhere. Shouting and crying.”
            Skosaan sighed and walked through to his office. If violence was going to erupt, surely it would klap the foreigners first. Repeat of the 2015 xenophobic outbreaks, blerry terrifying.
            The woman was nearly catatonic with grief, choking, sobbing in broken English, with some of what sounded to him like French maybe. She ripped her doek from her head and thrashed it against the desk; she had fashioned her hair into corn-rows, just as Shereen had done; in fact, the two women looked rather similar, except this one was a lot darker. He wondered briefly how Shereen would behave if he was bumped off. Or, alternatively, the other way round. And felt a heart-spasm of panic.
 Jissus, he wasn’t trained to manage this stuff. He yelled through to Xoliswa, “Where’s D.I. Nyezwa, she should be handling this.”
            “Down at Bathurst with the taxi thing,” she yelled back.
            Shit. Skosaan turned back to the woman. He got her a bottle of water, and one for himself, from their admin stock; at least they had that still. After a while he calmed her down enough to ascertain that she was indeed from Senegal; her husband was Zimbabwean, running a little spaza up in Extension 6. What with all the tall security lights out since the cyclone and the blackout, the usual criminal activity up there had just intensified. The Zim oke, though there must have been precious little left to guard, was sleeping in the spaza overnight; a bunch of men – it must have been a bunch – smashed in and cut him to pieces.
            “He just lying dere,” the woman screams. “No police, no ambulance, no nothing!”  And she collapsed sobbing on the floor. Skosaan sighed again: no surprise there was no ambulance, there was probably only one left operating for the whole town. And where would they take the body? The private morgues had no power to freeze the bodies, only the hospital itself did, and that was overfull – the old and the newborns dying off more quickly, what with lack of shelter and food and clean water, sewage rising out the clogged storm drains. Burials happening daily, with little ceremony, as bad as during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Situation normal, only more so.
            He called out to Xoliswa, “Who’ve we got who can go up and verify this deceased?”
            “You,” she shouted back.  She sounded like she thought it was funny.
            “I must just get some forms, then we go up there,”  he told the woman. He would get her name and stuff properly later. He couldn’t understand why no one was with her, a friend at least. The captain had arrived at his office across the gloomy corridor. “Sir. You wanna help me with a” – he almost said stiff – “murder victim?” The captain gave him a bleak, exhausted stare and closed his door.
            The drive up to Extension 6 had become weird, like something out of a ‘pocalypse movie; you expected, Skosaan amused himself, zombies to come lurching out from between shattered buildings, blea-aa-arghhh! The few people visible in fact moved around like zombies, as if these three weeks had sucked all the stuffing and meaning out of their lives. Except the criminals, of course – they always seemed to have the most energy.
            They had to drive slowly through the muddy flow of water still filling the dip in Raglan Road; and the upper end, curving up towards the flats, was still awash with mud and rocks, all but flooded away in parts; the woman let out a sob every time the police Hilux lurched over a carved-out channel or pothole. The shacklands that had once clung to the slopes on both sides of the road had gone, wiped away by dust, then the gale-force winds of the cyclone, then the flooding rain. Some remnants, buckled corrugate and wire, still lay on the road itself, to be manoeuvred round. Garbage heaped up in giant piles. Only the trees clustered atop Makana’s Kop seemed immoveable.
            As they finally drove onto the flat lands alongside the township, where only the stumps of the roadside gum trees remained, all cut down for firewood, Skosaan spotted a lanky white man in a heavy green jacket, a rifle slung across his back, striding along the roadside. He slowed down beside him.
            “Where to, sir, with that gun?”
            The man gave half a grin, a shrug. “Thought I’d go out to the bush, see if I could hunt anything.”
            “You are...?”
            “Jesse van der Vleis.”
            “Don’t shoot anyone, Mr van der Vlies, I would have to arrest you!”
            “Vleis, not Vlies,” the man called after him as Skosaan accelerated again.
            They turned left towards Extension 6, past the abandoned schools, the locked library, the loiterers with their closed suspicious faces. Eerily, not a single animal: not a cow, not a donkey, not even a dog. All chowed, or starved to death, Skosaan guessed. A cluster of people at one corner where some women had set up a soup kitchen; there were always those who would muck in like that, make a plan, do unexpected acts of kindness. The community would adjust, and survive. In some form. But meanwhile...
            “Where exactly?” The woman wordlessly pointed out the directions with her water-bottle, until they came to the pokey spaza, or what was left of it: the door torn from its hinges, the security screens, such as they were, ripped aside. Its empty black interior. Two young men in attendance, who waved glumly at the woman.
Sergeant Cornal Skosaan could almost already smell the stench of death. He leaned his forehead briefly on the steering-wheel.
            “Okay,” he muttered. “Let’s do this.”
As they said in the movies.

"Makana's Kop: Cyclone 2019" (c) Dan Wylie

(Again, this is fiction: no actual person is intentionally represented here.)

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

No 72 - Unravelled: Makhanda in 2019?


"The End of the Edge of Town" (c) Dan Wylie
Jesse van der Vleis slouched out of the alley behind the block of flats known as The Hub, scuttled along shadowed African Street and ducked into the entrance to Peppergrove Mall.  He was taking a risk, doing this on his own, but he had his father’s old 30.03 hunting rifle and a knife at his belt, and dusk was as good a time as any to get out of town. And maybe there was something left to scavenge that he could carry out to his family’s smallholding on the edge of the suburbs.
            The food outlets either side of the mall gate were dark and gutted, early targets of the hungry. Likewise the ATMs in their alcove, though no amount of cash was likely to help you get anything you really needed now. Some shops had been left alone, like the little laundromat and the gift shop on the corner, though the pharmacy on Jesse’s left had been broken into and partially looted.
            His main aim was to root around the back of the supermarket – though that had been everyone’s else’s idea, too, and he had little expectation of finding anything. The big doors at the entrance had been ripped aside, the interior was a black maw, the rows of grey shelves emptied of all edibles and essentials. A few remaining shopping-trolleys lay tipped on their sides, and battered cardboard boxes were piled at the largely untouched magazine racks.
            He kicked at a box in passing, more in frustration than hope. The box yelped. He turned it over with his boot: a tiny grey-striped kitten hissed at him as he bent to look. He picked it up, manky and mewling, by the skin of its scruff. Hardly enough for more than a mouthful, if he were to cook it. Shocking: he actually thought that. On the other hand, if he kept it, what could he feed it? He should probably just stamp on its skull and be done. But there was something plaintive and appealing even in the little creature’s feral spitting, and he elected to stuff it into one of his capacious jacket pockets for now.
            Even the animal-food shelves had been pretty thoroughly stripped – people were eating even Husky and Whiskas, especially the canned stuff –  but he did find a couple of broken bags of cat-biscuit spilled on the floor, and he scraped a dozen handfuls into a twist of packaging and tucked that into the other jacket pocket.
            As he had suspected, there was nothing else left of value, unless you needed a Verimark mop or a double adaptor. Only if you owned one of the half-dozen generators that were still functional and you’d smuggled in enough diesel before the roads were completely cut off. Certainly nothing to take even the edge off his niggling hunger.
            Boots crunching on broken glass and a yell brought him up short: security guard, shit.
            “Oh, Xolani, injani!” he said lightly. Fortunately this was a man he’d known from his time on the university campus. “What a mess, hey!”
            Xolani looked a little suspicious, but escorted him languidly to the entrance; after all, there was nothing much left to secure.
            “How are things up in the township?” he asked the guard.
            Xolani shook his head sadly. “Like here, but worse. The tornado destroyed many homes. Many people have left, they have gone to relatives in King or Transkei, anywhere. Some stay. We survive, you know.” He laughed wryly.
            Of course, ironically, the poor were in some ways best equipped to deal with hardship. The rich felt deprivation most keenly; but township dwellers had in many cases lived without water and electricity for years on end. Despite all the warning signs – several years of water supply issues, Eskom’s death spiral and rolling blackouts which had already begun in 2018, the municipality’s increasing indebtedness and incapacity, the escalating breakages in sewage lines and road surfaces – the richer side of town had proven complacent. Very few had installed rain-tanks of any capacity, or ever bothered to save water much at all; even fewer had installed electrical backups like inverters or solar panels or generators. Even among those, who had thought to lay in more than a week’s supply of water or fuel?
            Jesse cocked an eye at the turbulent overcast sky. “Just a fortnight of storms –“ he clicked his fingers. “And maybe more rain coming, huh?”
            “It all happened so quickly,” Xolani agreed. “But a long, long time to fix up.”
            “I must get home.”
            “Sure, there are bad people move around here at night.” As they spoke, indeed, a clutch of ragged-looking men was emerging from the corners where the Wimpy had been, looking vaguely predatory. Xolani shouted at them; Jesse unslung his rifle, trying to look menacing. The group moved away with that slouching, not-quite-casual pace of habitual opportunists.
            Jesse took a quick scan of the shops on the south side of the mall: the medical lab, the bookshop, the travel and estate agents, the mini-casino – all untouched, though it looked like someone had had an opportunistic go at the MTN outlet. Not that cellphones were much use now, smartphones needing daily recharging and no power to do it, except for a few.
            In truth, almost all looting had happened only in the second week, and been directed at food outlets which had cranked up their prices in response to the sudden shortages. The first week – once it became clear that the PE highway had been washed away (again), the coastal roads and the Port Alfred road bridges flooded, and that resupply wasn’t likely to be quick or sufficient – was just a frenzy of panic buying. The retailers had been slow to ration, so some households went off with weeks’ supplies, leaving most others with nothing. Then the black marketeering had kicked in, raising prices and tempers accordingly.
            Now there was no more than a trickle coming in, trucks having to be diverted onto the Bedford and Fort Beaufort roads, both of them deteriorating into near-impassable conditions in the continuous rain. Gangs had targeted at least a couple of convoys, making suppliers chary of sending more.
            Jesse slunk past the drive-in fastfood joint – shut, too few having fuel enough to drive anywhere – and then past the fresh-water supplier, who had done a roaring trade for a week or so before also being forced to close – and walked through the short alley leading onto New Street. The street was empty, deeply pitted with potholes of long standing, and in a couple of places slick with reeking sewage – another problem years in the making but now critical with the flooding of the antiquated and neglected piping.
"The Scavengers" (c) Dan Wylie
At the corner of Somerset Street an army truck was parked with some soldiers lolling about; Jesse was somewhat reassured by their presence, though the military, while keeping a lid on looting in the CBD, had not been able, or hadn’t tried, to curb break-ins in the many abandoned houses in the ‘leafy suburbs’ – and some had, it was rumoured, been implicated in commandeering food supplies on the access roads, or charging informal tolls on people trying to leave. But there was little verifiable news, in the absence of which rumours flourished and fluttered about like bats.
            Jesse sloped past the soldiers, hoping to be ignored, but one hailed him and summoned him over. A sergeant. “Do you have a licence for that weapon, boss?”
            “I do,” Jesse said, but made no move to produce it. Was this guy going to be so officious, now in this time of chaos?
            Apparently not. “What is that in your pocket?” Jesse had momentarily forgotten about his little cargo, which had fallen silent. He grinned, “A dead cat. Supper.”
            The sergeant just nodded, turning the corners of his mouth down, as if to say, That’s what it has come to, and waved him on.
            Jesse kicked his way through a heap of posters left over from the election earlier in the year – smiling Cyril, poor man, won the vote but remained trapped between socialistic revolutionaries and conservative businessmen, unable to generate the investor confidence needed to crank the economy out of overwhelming unemployment and indebtedness, unable to replace the tens of thousands of incompetent civil servants parasitic on a shrinking tax base. The unravelling of Makhanda was just the sharp end of groundswell problems. No resilience; no recovery plans. And now the fury of global warming.
            He moved on past the university. Though in theory it was the middle of the fourth term the campus was darkened and empty. After the first week of storms, the flooding of the dams, the breakdown of the water pumps (again), the blowing of the electricity supply right across the district (again), parents pulled so many of their kids out of both university and schools in such numbers that almost all the schools decided to close. Only a few hostels remained open for those who hadn’t got out before the fuel ran out. A couple survived on the rationed power eked out by the three undamaged wind turbines on the edge of town, but almost all that was reserved for the hospital, the police station – and, it was said, certain officials.
            Which meant, Jesse mused, the economic heart had been ripped out of the community.
            Not to mention his own career as a fourth-year anthropology student; he had no idea when or if he would sit his finals, or would have to raise funds for another whole year, or what. A bit like the 2016 disturbances, which he’d lived through, the ripple effects were potentially huge. Now he was actively contemplating how to live on as a kind of modern hunter-gatherer – just like the allegedly ancient cultures he had been rather distractedly studying!
            For some reason the area of the Drostdy Arch and the corner of High Street had attracted garbage-dumping over the last two weeks, since the municipality had stopped collecting it. One good thing about all the rain was it had put out the fire at the landfill site to the north of town, which had burned almost continuously throughout the preceding months of severe drought. Citizens had briefly tried to fill the collection gap, but without fuel, these efforts had faded. Indeed, there had been any number of wonderful initiatives to band together, to help those whose shacks had been washed away or blown to bits by the gale-force winds, to share what they had. Ironic, Jesse thought, that those who generously shared, ran out of food or water or patience faster than the selfish hoarders and the aggressive exploiters, like the taxi operators who had temporarily made a killing charging exorbitant fees to transport people out of town.
"Trash City" (c) Dan Wylie
A few people were scratching through the stinking garbage, though Jesse didn’t think they’d find much beyond rats and disease (there were already reports of dysentery, a threat of cholera). Maybe he should try to catch a rat for the kitten. He put his hand in his pocket and the animal squeaked and spat and dug its tiny teeth feebly into his thumb. He swore; he could get tetanus from this damned thing. Maybe he should chuck it in the garbage where it would just have to fend for itself, like everybody else.
He had to admire its spunk, though. Maybe he could train it to hunt for him. After all, how long was it going to take to bring things right? Even in the richly resourced US, it took weeks sometimes to get the power back on after an ice storm or whatever. This was more like Haiti after the hurricane: two years later, people still living without the ‘basics’. But if they were still living, he pondered as he started to stride along Somerset Street, how basic were in fact those basics? One had to entertain the possibility that the entire turn of global technological so-called civilisation had always been on a hiding to nowhere, that in fact the hardscrabble lifestyle of the ‘impoverished’ was ultimately the only sustainable one.
He could, in theory, hunt. But what happened when his bullets ran out? What if he couldn’t just order more over Gumtree? A rumbling interrupted his thoughts: a pantechnicon, followed by a fuel bowser, escorted by two army trucks, lurched and ground past him, doubtless headed for the big Shoprite parking lot, where there was some chance of distributing what there was without violence. Jesse briefly considered trotting after them, but he figured that by the time he got there nothing would be left; he quailed at the thought of the inevitable riot of desperation. Maybe he could shoot a pigeon or something.
So he headed the opposite way, turning right where the robots leaned, defunct now for a few months already, and headed for his farm home just outside town. The last of the sunset lay in a crimson shawl beneath heavy grey clouds threatening further storms; a solitary wind turbine stood on the gaunt ridge, its vanes buckled and locked. His stride began to fall into a rhythm. In his pocket the kitten was so still he wondered it was dead. But he did not want to find out – not just yet.
"Who will be left?" (c) Dan Wylie


(This is fiction. Any resemblance to people living, past or future, is unintentional.)

Thursday, 1 November 2018

No 71 - Saving the Amazon?

Sometimes just a brief visit to a place is enough to make one feel deeply emotionally invested in it – in love, even, or at least rivetted with admiration or awe. This has been the case with my own fleeting sojourns in southern Patagonia and in the Amazon forests. In the latter case I wasn’t even in especially deep jungle – a tourist camp not so far from the million-soul city of Manaus, not far beyond the edge of logging operations. But I was instantly, sensuously, in love with the flooded varzea, the sounds of howler monkeys, and the extraordinary sun-patterns of leaves, even with the forbidding spiders and the taste of piranha fish and the military columns of vicious ants.

So it’s with increasing dismay that I read article after article warning of threats to the integrity of the Amazon basin and its astounding diversity of both human and non-human denizens. Some warnings are embedded in global reports, such as that of the World Wildlife Fund, which details how some 60% of non-human biodiversity has been destroyed by human activity in the last few decades. Another report, drawing on extensive satellite-generated data, reveals that only five countries hold some 70% of that biodiversity. One of those countries is Brazil, in which the Amazonian basin largely lies.

A second wave of more sharply localised reports has accompanied the recent presidential election in Brazil, which to the world’s general horror has brought to power a fascistic lunatic, Jair Bolsonaro. He compares himself to the aggressive and ignorant Donald Trump (who himself has spent the last two years rescinding some 76 Clinton- and Obama-era laws designed to protect the US environment – which is also to say, protecting citizens against their own unthinking destructiveness). Bolsonaro has lost no time in expressing support for expanding Amazonia’s agribusiness – in whose financial pocket he nestles – and infrastructural projects into the Amazon. Between the two of them, these leaders constitute a veritable ecological Antichrist.

Bolsonaro and Trump, and their supporters, are of course only the latest spearhead to a long-evolving process. If you thought that Trump was transparently biased against environmental health in appointing an Exxon oil exec to head the Environmental Protection Agency, recall that the two Bush presidents did so, too. And it’s not only hard-right leaders at fault: recall that Brazil’s leftist president Lula da Silva, now in jail for corruption, had also approved a massive hydroelectric dam project on an Amazon tributary – just one of dozens either under construction or planned. (If there is any slowing down of this, it may ironically be because of the revelation of the so-called “Car-Wash” corruption scandal that did for Lula.)

The Amazon has been under siege for a long time, particularly in the so-called Arc of Deforestation, a two thousand-mile swathe from the lower south-western edge of the basin to the north-eastern regions abutting the Atlantic coast. Dam building is just one threat: Brazil has touted itself as the nation of clean hydroelectricity for several decades. This is despite the now manifest problems with such grand, pride-driven nationalistic projects which, from the Colorado to the Ganges, have proven short-lived, destructive and economically inefficient. The US and India have started walking back from big dams, and in January this year an undertaking was made by Brazil, then under Temer, to also slow down on the dams. I am not so confident that Bolsonaro will honour that pledge, whatever the dire ecological effects will be on the basin’s ecosystems, its dependence on annual flooding, its tens of thousands of displaced indigenous people, and its wildlife. The latter can no longer be regarded as merely a frosting of interesting animals for tourists to gape at: they are vitally functional elements in complex ecosystems which constitute one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks and therefore a crucial stabiliser of global climate.

Other threats are just as important, especially agrobusinesses: not only logging and mining, sanctioned and otherwise, and not only conversion to pasture for cattle to supply the hungry northern fast-food chains, but also more nominally benign plantations, especially soybeans, manioc and rice. All involve deforestation, desiccation of wetlands, and human displacement on a huge scale: in one estimate, 52 000 square miles per year.

The fate of the indigenous peoples – groups of whom have remained sheltered from the invasion of modernity until very recently – is central to the trauma, and they are also central players in such resistance as can be marshalled. In the environmental impact studies supposed to mitigate new projects’ effects, Amazonians are routinely simply ignored, the integrity of their lifeways dismissed as irrelevant, their knowledge of their environment either exploited without compensation or derided. Reserves intended to protect them or wildlife comprise a tiny proportion of the whole basin. This is despite Article 225 of Brazil’s Constitution, which states that all citizens have a right to an ecologically balanced environment.

The depth of indigenous knowledge comes across strongly in Wade Davis’s extraordinary account of ethnobotany in the Amazon, One River. As Davis and his ethnobotanical predecessors ranged across the Amazon in tireless searches for – and ‘discovery’ of – literally hundreds of plant species “new to science”, they found tribe after tribe with profound and intricate, both practical and myth-enriched, knowledge of the forest’s plants. Here is just one passage of many:

The children appeared to know everything about plants and were somewhat taken aback by our ignorance. Shyly at first and then in great bursts of enthusiasm they explained that plants were like people, each with its own mood and story. Cacti sleep by night. Mushrooms grow when they hear thunder, lichens only in the presence of human voices. The solitary blossoms of the open field have no feelings for others. Delicate gentians fold up their petals in shame ... All plants have names and are useful ...

This is not just quaint: it is a saving pointer towards an ecology living itself out through us, not being controlled by its human components. Of course one can over-romanticise such lives – people who live in astonishing congruence with plants and animals and insects, all but immune to the physical ills of modernity from heart disease to blood pressure to diabetes, and simply not going anywhere – immune also to the myths of “progress” and “profit” that drive the world’s technological societies. including Brazil’s agro-industrial elites. Nor perhaps can they be preserved in amber; one of Davis’s interlocutors argues that Amazonians, being as intelligently curious about other worlds as any incoming tourist, should have the choice of what to embrace in modernity if they want to.

Fair enough – but most often they have no choice: their forests, and everything they have ever known, is catastrophically burned, cut or flooded away beneath them with neither understanding nor compassion nor compensation.

Davis also shows how profound outsiders’ misunderstanding can be. As it happens, he and his mentor Richard Schultes were mostly intrigued by Amazonians’ sundry use of hallucinogenics and their spiritualist associations. The most common of these is coca, which in its raw chewed form is a mild stimulant but also highly nutritive, and a crucial element in daily life, from mindset to nutrition, from origin myths to shamanic ritual. This fine-tuned and entirely harmless dependence on coca has been totally ignored because, of course, coca is also the source of cocaine. The US-led “War on Drugs” throws out the baby with the bathwater: in trying indiscriminately to destroy coca crops, especially in Colombia, the authorities are waging war on an entire cultural nexus which has been satisfactorily in place for millennia. Little wonder (quite apart from new global drugs-economics) the war is failing.

The short story, in a highly fragmented and conflictual situation (more environmental defenders have been murdered in Brazil than in any other country), is that a massive shift in governmental mindset, policy-making, financial dependencies and enforceable legislation is required. Though the seeds of more fruitful policies exist, such a turnaround seems unlikely. José Heder Benatti is a contributor to a massively detailed volume of essays, tables and maps, Biodiversity in the Brazilian Amazon (2004 - a book Bolsonaro should read carefully, alongside Wade Davis). Benatti makes a rare and gloomy foray into literary philosophy:

The expression “Man is a wolf to man” is well-known. This quotation summarises the ideas of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who argued that man in his natural state was individualistic, profoundly selfish, and with insatiable desires for power, which would only end at death. ... Thus he did not naturally live by cooperation; he was not a social being by nature. Life in society was a pact, artificial and precarious, and insufficient in itself to guarantee peace. For the pact to be honoured and peace secured, it was necessary for individuals to renounce their right to everything and transfer it to a sovereign with absolute powers. ... Leviathan.

Even as indigenous Amazonians seem to prove Hobbes wrong in part concerning the first point, it is in modernity that we seem to have voluntarily given ourselves up to superior powers, whether these manifest as a Zimbabwean dictator, a democratically-elected set of idiots, or the mind-numbing addiction to Samsung and Apple. Benatti goes on:

Man and nature are unable to live ‘naturally’ in harmony – the former will always try to modify, change, or destroy the latter, disrupting the ecological balance and putting ecosystems at risk. Protected areas have to be created in order to ensure a ‘peaceful’ co-existence and the survival of nature. However such a pact of mutual respect can function only if there is a strong absolute State ... an ecological Leviathan.

Benatti might be right, even as globally we wrestle with unruly forms of democratisation that militate against precisely such absolutism – and therefore against sufficiently far-reaching moves to save nature, and our better natures. Perhaps the best hope, though it’s a slow-acting antidote, is a thorough-going re-education – an education that would teach Leviathan, like certain individuals, to fall in love with things strange and beautiful, to treasure something other than itself.


Friday, 12 October 2018

No 70 - Death & Compassion: Elephants in literature book announcement

Death and Compassion: The elephant in southern African literature

Getting mock-charged a couple of times by an elephant in the Zambezi Valley endows one with a weird kind of affection for the great beasts. All right, so I’m a bit strange that way; but decades later, as I spend time watching the tractable elephants interacting in nearby Addo Elephant Park, I find them more fascinating and beautiful than ever. Though I’ve travelled to find elephants from Hwange to Tembe, from Ugab to Knysna, mostly I sit around reading books. So the fruit of my years of interest is not so much a book about elephants, as a book about books about elephants.

Death & Compassion, as far as I know, is the first in-depth study of the role and presence of the elephant in the literatures of Africa south of the Zambezi. Biological and conservation studies, coffee-table books, films and photographic essays of this iconic animal abound, but I propose that various literary genres have also played a crucial role in structuring public attitudes towards elephants (as to the ecology generally). Many attitudes now commonly purveyed by YouTube clips or photographic essays originated in those literatures that predated our technological era. Those attitudes have contributed to the practical treatment of actual elephants – especially in the growth of compassion towards them. Some people go to extraordinary lengths to save an elephant.

But there’s the other side, too – people who have no compassion for elephants at all. From nineteenth-century imperial hunters to today’s ivory poachers, men have slaughtered elephants without a quiver of remorse. In some estimates, today an African elephant is being killed every 15 minutes. They will not last long unless compassion and respect are much, much more effectively deployed.  

I don’t know how to achieve that, but I do think it’s important to understand how this situation – remorseless killing cheek by jowl with compassion – has developed. Literature provides one window onto that understanding.

My study proceeds roughly chronologically, but also by genre, assessing how attitudes towards elephants are embedded in each type of writing.  Each genre raises for me interesting questions. So the book goes something like this:

Introduction: What is compassion? Is it different from pity or empathy? How is compassion different for a fellow-human, for a domesticated animal, and for a wild and potentially dangerous one? What might be the practical effects of compassion in the physical world? This is, I think, a crucial question about the linkages between the imagination and action.

Chapter One: Complex pre-colonial attitudes towards elephants are expressed in our region’s stunning rock art, as well as preserved in folktales and proverbs. However, these attitudes have inevitably been filtered through modern textuality, endlessly repackaged and marketed for current readerships, so they are tricky to assess. Reverence, taboos, food-source – but compassion? Hard to say – or is compassion a more recent invention?

Chapter Two: Imperial-age travelogues by European sojourners between roughly 1680 and 1836 included Sparrman, le Vaillant, Barrow and even Darwin.  Many of these travellers had pretensions to scientific expertise on the Western Enlightenment model, while foreshadowing the hunting manias of the succeeding century. The chapter asks about the growing role of biological science in affecting the treatment of elephants – an unsettling mix of, as le Vaillant put it, “experiments and devastation”.

Chapter Three: This chapter concentrates on the nineteenth-century accounts of the ‘great hunters’ such as Cumming, Bryden, and Selous.  These narratives, like the travelogues, have not much been studied as literary productions, nor the role of the elephant particularly isolated for attention. How far do these accounts go in helping answer the fundamental question: Why do men hunt (elephants) – and are they as remorseless as they seem?

Chapter Four: Some hunters began to write fiction towards the end of the nineteenth century, often repeating the largely uncaring attitudes of the hunting genre, even as it coincided with the onset of more conservation-orientated attitudes. The chapter mostly covers adult fiction of the second half of the twentieth century, including that of Laurens van der Post, Stuart Cloete and Wilbur Smith. Does fiction offer a particular channel for imaginative empathy?

Chapter Five: Attitudes of empathy, bordering on anthropomorphism (a much debated notion), emerge more strongly in stories for youngsters than in the adult fiction. Why is this? How have we have taught and currently teach our youngsters about ecology and wild animals through literature? The chapter concentrates on three novellas for teens, which all raise a further question: What are the connections between imagination, touch, communication and compassion?

Chapter Six: The development of national parks and so-called ‘fortress conservation’ has spawned a genre of writing as distinctive in its features as the hunting-account was: the game-ranger memoir. It begins with Wolhuter and Stevenson-Hamilton in Kruger, and remains popular today. The chapter examines several examples. exploring especially how emergent forms of compassion for elephants intersects with the commercialisation of game-viewing, the rise of animal-rights philosophies, and the controversial issue of ‘culling’.

Chapter Seven: Conservation ethics and increasing biological knowledge of elephants, resulting in a narrowing of the gap between human and elephant consciousness, have brought large numbers of trained scientists or related researchers into the field.  Some have written popularised accounts, all alert in new ways to the limitations of ‘fortress-conservation’ models and to the prevalence of human-elephant conflict in many regions. How do we manage these boundaries? The chapter concentrates on two such memoirs, by Anthony (The Elephant Whisperer), and O’Connell.

Chapter Eight: This is the one chapter that departs from a generic focus, pulling together many of the underlying strands of the previous chapters in examining literatures pertaining to the quasi-mystical elephant populations of Knysna and Addo; these range from Pretorius’ hunting account, through the ‘research memoirs’ of Carter and Patterson, to the fiction of Dalene Matthee. Can a ‘remnant’ like this help focus aspects of past and future attitudes towards threatened elephants more broadly? World-wide, almost all animals are now ‘a remnant’, by their very rarity attracting a particular nuance of compassion.

Chapter Nine: Since emotion is central to the job of poetry, do poems have something specific to offer in delineating compassion for elephants?  Examples range from pre-colonial and indigenous depictions to contemporary offerings by Livingstone, Mann and Salafranca, amongst others.

I can’t pretend to have answered any of these questions comprehensively, but I do believe that if we – the collective of humans, not just some minority of ‘nature-lovers’ – do not seriously think about these kinds of questions, and do not become more effectively compassionate towards all non-human creatures and our shared habitats, not only the elephants will be lost: so will we.
The book will be available from good bookstores and at

For more info: Contact Wits University Press marketing coordinator, Corina van der Spoel011 717 18700/

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

No 69 - Climate change: a personal reader

Dan Wylie: "Your back yard: 2170"
As I write, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is issuing yet another warning that if humans don’t get their communitarian act together, and cut fossil-fuel burning to a point which will prevent average global temperatures rising by another 1.5 degrees C, we will suffer horrendous and incalculable climate effects. Essentially, they recommend cutting CO2 production in half by 2030 – that’s in 12 years’ time.

Such warnings have been current from the broad scientific community for several decades now, and despite sundry conferences, international agreements, and many innovative technical solutions proposed and in places implemented, the overall trend on the part of governments, big business, and swathes of the general populace has been to ignore them, fail to fulfil promises, or even actively deny there’s a problem at all.

Why? Is it that fossil-fuel commercial interests are just too massive to budge? Is it that the changes are so relatively slow to accumulate that they can be brushed aside as insignificant? Or that the high variability in climate effects at the local level (weather, that is) casts too much doubt on the concept? That scientists are bad at conveying their findings in a publicly persuasive way? All of the above? I recently came upon an article in which a British Minister was quoted as admitting, “The recent rise in temperatures is caused by climate change”. Hooray, the writer crowed, at last someone in a position of authority is actually seeing the light! But it seemed to me that this formulation was wrong: it’s a bit like saying “These floods are caused by an increased volume of water upstream”. The flood is the increased volume; rises in temperature are climate change. It’s not that ‘climate change’ is somehow ‘out there’, a devilish sui generis entity or machinery which can be tackled independently of our daily lives. Perhaps the very phrase is tempting people to shelve the now pervasive advertising to cut your electricity, fuel and water consumption, and so on. 'Climate change' encompasses so vast a global system that we feel helpless in the face of ‘it’. How can I begin to change my lifestyle in a way that can have an impact, or even know what’s really best?

It’s not my aim here to engage in all the debates about causes and effects of global warming. I’m interested rather in another very fundamental question: How is it that I have come to believe that dangerous climate change is indeed under way? After all, I can’t say that I’ve detected any major changes in my own life: another drought, the jasmine blooming early this year, an apparent dip in the number of migrating swallows, more trash? The answer, of course, being of the Bookish Tribe, is that I’ve read stuff, ranging from books to science magazines to blog posts and newspaper articles. But why should I credit any of it? “Do you believe in climate change?” I am sometimes asked, as if it were some religious credo one either subscribes to or not, holus bolus. A more useful question is: “Which view or theory of climate change do you find most persuasive (or not), and why?”  This acknowledges that there is a multiplicity of arguments, and that one’s job is to level one against another and ultimately try to justify one's response. 

Where does one even begin? The literature on the subject is now vast and continuously ballooning, and my own reading is inevitably extremely spotty and probably unconsciously selective. So rather than try to present an argument, alarmist or otherwise, about something I'm a million miles from being an expert in, I’m simply going to jot down some thoughts about the readings I’ve done over the years. You might be tempted to try one or two.

Dan Wylie: "Fate of the Animals"
1. Science in the world

How can I personally “know” that CO2 production is actually climbing, or that 70% of Germany’s winged insects are gone, or anything else I can’t directly observe? Well, someone said so! In our modern techno-world, it’s very likely to be said that the most credible someone will be scientific. “The science says...” is the common phrase – again as if science is some Platonic ideal entity independent of those who practice it. It’s so much more complex than that: scientists of sundry persuasions and specialisations, all drawing on more or less limited data sets, are frequently at odds with one another. Opponents of anthropogenic climate change have used this to full advantage, since they can say, “Oh, but there are studies that show the opposite...” and happily trash something unpalatable as “bad science” though they might have no more qualifications than I have to make any such evaluation.  But this misunderstands how the core scientific community works (excluding those paid by power-lobbies to say what they're told). Because so many scientists from so many fields are involved, weak theories are usually rapidly challenged and superseded. 

What is powerful about the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report  is not just its technical density (which is already way beyond my little brain), but that it correlates the assiduous work of hundreds if not thousands of scientists’ findings, evaluating what measure of agreement or certainty does exist. Agreement is never total, especially when dealing with climate, which is intrinsically a vast, volatile, multidimensional system yielding inevitably imperfect data and therefore the likelihood of varying interpretations. This is even more so when trying to project into the future, where unpredictable effects, especially at local levels, are inevitable. So the IPCC (like most scientists) is extremely careful to accord every assertion a level of probability, ranging from virtually certain to unlikely, and careful gradations in between. As for the future, they make no simple predictions, but present alongside each other at least four different computer-generated model scenarios. Each model comes from a different source, with somewhat different data inputs, depending on what was available and what that team deemed important; therefore each produces somewhat different results or ‘predictions’. The IPCC does not oblige you accept any one of these; they are deeply, impressively cautious.  For the record, even the most pessimistic projections in the previous four 5-yearly IPCC reports have fallen short of what has actually occurred. Even the most optimistic models show that we are in profound global trouble, and unequivocally that human activity is primarily responsible. In the end, I reckon if 90% of the world’s scientists are 90% certain about something, that’s as good as it gets; you would be wise to follow their advice, rather than pinning your hopes on the 10% of dissent (which is what climate-change denialists routinely do).  Of course, you have to have a certain basic faith in the processes of science, flawed, incremental and provisional as they are. Large numbers of people, through ignorance, cultural foundations, or religious belief, accord science no credence at all, even attack it: National Geographic recently ran a cover story entitled “The War on Science”.  In sum, I think the IPCC report, even just its Introduction, is worth looking through, not for any easy answers – there are none – but to get a sense of how they have gone about their work. As a recent Dutch court ruling indicates, that work seems finally to be gaining greater traction on at least some governments’ policies. 

2. Histories of the World

If an inadequate understanding of how science functions emasculates much public debate, so too does inadequate historical knowledge. One set of anti-climate change arguments postulates non-human drivers of change (sunspots, or wobbles in the Earth’s axis, or volcanoes). What history shows, however, is not that such variables do not exist, but that human societies have historically contributed to and responded to them in different ways. All societies have been subject to climatic and environmental factors, and I’ve lumbered through a number of such “environmental histories”, starting with Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Civilizations: Culture, ambition and the transformation of nature (2001). More recently, Jared Diamond wowed the world with Collapse (2006), in which he explores why four past civilisations chose (his word) to come to a sorry end. He foregrounds the ways in which societies overextended their use of natural resources, while not excluding other factors. Though wildly popular, Diamond has been trenchantly critiqued for, among other things, ignoring social institutions, economic networks, and examples of human resilience; for blundering into disciplines in which he is inexpert; for drawing big conclusions from thin evidence; and above all for trying to apply those past cases to our present – that is, to hint that we, too, are at the point of collapse.

In fact Collapse was long pre-empted by the more solid, less selective work of Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World (1991, revised 2007). Covering similar territory is Evan Eisenberg’s more conceptual, lyrical, even visionary take on human-nature history, The Ecology of Eden (2004). A little more tightly focussed and persuasively researched, Stephen Solomon’s Water (2015) covers similar ground but shows how deeply societies are shaped by their various regimes of water management – centrally important for our future, obviously. Whatever the arguments within and around these interpretations of past human interactions with natural resources, they all show one thing: our complete dependence upon, and interfusion with, the natural environment. ‘Climate’ and ‘environment’ are not ‘over there’: they are inside our very lungs and hearts, our customs and our institutions. Perhaps most readable of all is Australian Tim Flannery’s The Weather-Makers (2005), who incorporates historical perspectives but organises his material around different biomes. (Flannery has also written terrific environmental histories of North America and, just released, Europe.)

3. The devils of human nature

Why does society seem so resistant to changing in ways that will secure the species’ long-term future? I happen to be reading Wade Davis’s magnificent book about ethnobotanical explorations in the Amazon, One River (first published in 1996). At one point in his absorbing narrative, he encounters an Amazonian native who is using dynamite to kill fish in his river. In response to a question about yields, he says: “’When we started using it, we got lots of fish. Now not so much.’ What about your children, I asked. Without the slightest sign of remorse he calmly said, ‘Oh, they won’t have any fish, but we will.’ Depressingly, maybe that’s just the way we generally are: myopically, haplessly self-serving. We live our lives as we will, or can, or feel we must, and leave the storms of the future for our grandchildren to sort out. That thought provides the title for James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren (2009). It’s rather histrionically subtitled The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, but if anyone is a true global expert in climate change, it is Hansen, a self-effacing scientist thrust into public debates and writing because he felt he had to. Since the 1980s he has testified more than once before the US Congress, to little obvious effect: he discovers that governance is a “perverse” world in which “altruistic actions become meaningless”. Storms is a heartfelt autobiographical account of his efforts to persuade government agencies to take the issue seriously. He worries about his grandchildren. And he concludes bluntly: “The picture has become clear. Our planet, with its remarkable array of life, is in imminent danger of crashing. Yet our politicians are not dashing forward. ... Therefore it is up to you.”

The problem of resistance is bigger than just one or two deluded or corrupted governments, or the natural inertia of established lifestyles: it has become core to the entire neoliberal system of globalised capitalism, which is founded on technologies themselves dependent on continuous extraction of non-renewable resources (fossil fuels and minerals), at minimal cost for maximum profit. Globalised capitalism, while it has brought humans innumerable benefits, also intrinsically constitutes a “war on nature” – and ‘development’ has often been couched in terms of warfare. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capital and the climate (2014), brilliantly unpacks the involuted cultural, ideological and economic struggles underpinning governmental and societal resistance to change, and particularly demonstrates the mind-blowingly cynical lengths to which the petrochemical industry will go in order to deny that they have anything to do with global warming or pollution-related ills.  Bottom line: free-market global capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with planetary health. Something’s got to give – and we might still have some room to choose what that change might be.

Despite the daunting odds, Klein refuses to bow to pessimism, and something of this determined optimism suffuses an earlier take, George Monbiot’s Heat (2006). Monbiot was initially vilified for his views, but he has been proven right more often than not, and now amongst other things writes an energetic column for the Guardian.   Heat is unabashedly argumentative, laying out the parameters of climate change in ways that are numbingly familiar and now scientifically irrefutable. He is an excellent and fearless researcher, is winningly able to admit his own past errors of judgement, and has a gift for putting things into provocative new perspectives:

The problem is compounded by the fact that the connection between cause and effect seems so improbable. By turning on the lights, filling the kettle, taking the children to school, driving to the shops, we are condemning other people to death. We never chose to do this. We do not see ourselves as killers. We perform these actions without passion or intent.
            Many of those things we have understood to be good – even morally necessary – must also now be seen as bad. Perhaps the most intractable cause of global warming is ‘love miles’: the distance you must travel to visit friends and partners and relatives on the other side of the planet. The world could be destroyed by love.

Disputable, but thought-provoking. What’s hopeful is that much of Heat is about solutions – in architecture, in transport, in power generation. Monbiot is clear-eyed about the obstacles, sceptical about the potential of renewable energy sources, and eminently pragmatic. Whether or not you think his ideas are viable, at least he is thinking about what we can actually do without all devolving into a version of quasi-mediaeval poverty.  

4. South Africa’s climate change

A goodly number of writers have written books on our own region’s environmental condition, notably sociologist Jacklyn Cock's The War Against Ourselves: Nature, power and justice (2007). Two books of even heftier and more scholarly nature are Patrick Bond’s Unsustainable South Africa (2002), and David Hallowes’ Toxic Futures: South Africa in the crises of energy, the environment and capital (2011). Both these studies show in uncompromising detail how the South African economy is intimately tied into global capital and highly pollutive extractive industries, with great short-term benefits for some, but with horrendous damage to environmental health, and following the global tendency to concentrate wealth in ways that increase inequality, not solve it. (And this well before the Gupta state capture’ scandal.) Hallowes is drawing on two decades of reports by GroundWork, an independent environmental research group, and reveals a literally toxic relationship between corporations, pollution, power generation, governmental dereliction of legal duties, and rampant profiteering. I suppose Bond and Hallowes are both classifiable as ‘left’-leaning, but I’ve yet to see any comparably detailed and persuasive defence of our industrial trajectory that rises much above the mantra of ‘providing jobs’ and ‘making a profit’, or that adequately addresses modernity’s trick of 'externalising’ its true costs on destruction of both the environment and the livelihoods of the poor. This externalisation - characterised as ‘progress’, ‘growth’ and ‘development’ - in fact employs a creepingly incremental “slow violence”. South African, now US-based academic Rob Nixon’s multi-award winning book, Slow Violence and the environmentalism of the poor (2013), is now a key text for almost anyone working in the field of environmental justice  and ecocriticism – a work of scary brilliance.

By far the most approachable South African book on climate change that I’ve read is Leonie Joubert’s Scorched: South Africa’s changing climate (2006). It’s a chatty but informative work aimed at a general audience, enlivened with illustrations and often amusing anecdotes about Joubert's own researches. She can be charmingly self-deprecating (“It was not my finest moment...” she begins one chapter). This style might annoy some purist scientists, but it’s part of Joubert’s strategy for bringing global warming down out of the stratosphere of economic theory, tables of figures, and the abstruse languages of policy, and into the realm of the immediate and observable. She has a particular gift for revelling in the existence of a particular frog, or the astonishing symbiosis between an ant and a rare butterfly, the fynbos biome’s relationship to fire or the distribution of the quiver tree – and then showing how their existence is being affected by global warming. She travels from the lobsters of the West Coast to the coral reefs of the east; though her focus is on non-human creatures, she also has a chapter on “Food for the human animal” (dealt with more fully in another book), as well as some closing thoughts on the IPCC projections of the time. For the South African general reader, definitely the first port of call.
            South African novelists are also starting to incorporate climate change into futuristic narratives (including my own The Wisdom of Adders). I’d like to leave the final word to the protagonist of Patricia Schonstein’s novella The Master’s Ruse, a passage concerning the fate – and retaliation –  of our oceans, which we all share and depend upon, but deplete and pollute.

Dan Wylie: "Cityscape, 2170"
[A] messianic force ... to redeem the earth from human dominion... used the oceans. It made use of that mass of dead, black water and all the rubbish and filth that burdened it. Cataclysmic shifting of tectonic plates created tsunamis, which slammed the shorelines, tossing dolosse aside and pouring through coastal cities and town. They engulfed skyscrapers and highways, drowning their human prey in the very oils and solvents that had brought about oceanic demise.

I don’t know about a “messianic” force, but these events are already happening. If we are not to fulfil this imagining, what are we to do?