Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “environment”

The Great (and dirty) City of Tshwane

This morning as we were driving to church we saw a bakkie dumping rubbish at the side of the R104 near the entrance to Saulsville. If we hadn’t been late we might have slowed down and taken a photo of it, but it is becoming all too common.

On the way home I did take several photos.

R104, entrance to Atteridgeville West.

All over the city there is rubbish dumped like this. Not just in Atteridgeville, but near the Botanic Gardens in the east, and in various other places, and it has been getting worse and worse. The place in Atteridgeville is noticeable because we drive past it once a fortnight, and see each time how more and more of the verges are covered with rubbish. Littering has become part of our lifestyle.

Political parties love to blame other parties for maladministration, but it was bad when the ANC confrolled the city council, and it is worse now that the DA controls the city council. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the municipal administration will remain just as putrid as the rubbish littering the streets.

Thirty years ago I visited Singapore, which was then reputed to be the cleanest city in the world. And the reason was not far to seek — as you walked down the street, you would see lots of signs informing you that the fine for littering was $750. And that law was strictly enforced.

The City of Tshwane could deal with this in similar fashion.

Increase the fine for littering to R5000 or so, put up signs, and employ the Metro Police see that the law is enforced.

As one sports shoe manufacturer likes to tell us, Just do it.


Fire and water

Nature is amazing.

Last week water began running down the gutters on both sides of the road that runs past our house. It sometimes does that after heavy rain, but this is winter, and we live in a summer rainfall area with dry winters. There’s been no rain for at least two months.

Was it a broken water main? I went up the road to have a look, and there was no sign of such a thing. The water was coming across the road all along, from the empty veld by the railway line across the road from us. Why would it come when there has been to rain? What would cause the water table to rise so that that dry veld would turn into a swamp?

The entrance to the vacant land beside the railway line -- water in the dry season

The entrance to the vacant land beside the railway line — water in the dry season

Then we recalled that a couple of weeks ago there had been a fire over the road. Every winter there’s a fire there, and some of the grass is burnt. But this time it was nearly all burnt. Between our house and the railway line was not a blade of grass, just black stubble. With no grass to suck up the water and transpire it into the air, the water rose to the surface, flowed under the concrete fence and out into the street where it ran down the gutters.

That's our house with the red roof, seen from the railway embankment, with nothing in between but blackened burnt grass/

That’s our house with the red roof, seen from the railway embankment, with nothing in between but blackened burnt grass.

It’s hard to think that the dry grass that was there before the fire sucked up so much water. It is brown and dry and brittle. Yet somehow cattle eat such grass and thrive. It gives them both food and moisture.

Burnt, dry and dead. With grass gone, the water flows

Burnt, dry and dead. With grass gone, the water flows

A little way off was a clump of trees. They too are dry and leafless, winter-brown. But somehow the fire has not penetrated the trees, and there is a clump of aloes where the fire stopped.

A clump of aloes hides a ruined habitation, a relic of a troubled past

A clump of aloes hides a ruined habitation, a relic of a troubled past

But when you go to the aloes, you see that they hide a heap of stones. And beyond it there are more heaps of stones. And then I realise that these are houses. Perhaps this is an archaeological site. Who lived here, and when?

And then I realise that this is a relic of the ethnic cleansing that took place under apartheid. Kilner Park, the suburb where we live, used to belong to the Methodist Church, as did the neighbouring suburb of Queenswood. Across the railwayline to the south-east is Weavind Park — all named after luminaries of the Methodist Church. On the hill was the Kilnerton Institution, where many black South African leaders were educated. But it was too close to white Pretoria, so the black people had to go, and all that remains are these piles of stones.

And now the suburban trains of MetroRail run past here. There is no station, nothing to stop for. They are going to Mamelodi, 15 kilometres to the east, far enough from white Pretoria for the black people to live.

The trains rush past, taking commuters to Mamelodi, farther east.

The trains rush past, taking commuters to Mamelodi, farther east.

I marvel at the interaction of fire and water. The old elements of the ancient Greek philosophers, earth, air, fire and water. The fire comes, and brings the water. Modern chemists will say that these are not real elements, not the chemical elements of the universe. But they are the elements of human life, of the human world. We need them all to live. In three weeks time spring will begin. Green shoots will appear in the grass, the trees will sprout leaves. The water table will recede again until the rains come in October, and the fire of the sun will enable the grass to suck up the water from the earth, and the life of the world goes on.


In the deep mid-winter

When do the seasons begin and end?

There seem to be various answers, depending on who you ask, and Aquila ka Hecate recently discussed this question on her blog, here.  I wanted to comment on it, but the new Blogger commenting system, which seems to be broken, would not allow me to do so, so I’ll quote the post in full and comment here.

A colleague at my (new! 3 months only!) place of work mentioned this week that there were only 12 weeks until Spring.

Being the new girl in the district, I hesitated to make a ‘thing’ of it – although I was tempted. You see, it’s one of my triggers : how we mark the seasons of the year. It irritates me that many people can’t see how beautifully simple it is.

We have 52 weeks in a solar year, with 4 seasons. That’s 13 weeks per season When each season starts appears to vary from person to person. Here in the southern hemisphere, the Winter Solstice is celebrated on or around June 21st. Now here comes the nub of the whole “season” matter: If you call this day “MidWinter”, you have just fixed a point around which you will have to configure all the other seasons.

I have no idea what’s so hard to understand about “mid” and “Winter” coming together in one word. It’s the mid-point of Winter, right? So in another 6 and a half weeks it will be the end of Winter, right? That’s around the first week in August, and I get to call it Imbolc.

Unfortunately for me, most Seffricans believe that Spring starts either at the beginning of September, or else on the Vernal Equinox, around 21st September. But how can that be? Unless you are counting Winter as starting either at the beginning of June or at the Solstice…which we’ve agreed to keep calling Mid-Winter, OK?

“Mid” does not mean “start”. It means the bloody middle, people. So, figuring from this fairly rock solid premise (and assuming 4 seasons of roughly equal length, unlike the Celts, who really only had Summer and Winter), the Vernal Equinox would be the middle of Spring, the Summer Solstice the middle of Summer (or MidSummer!) and the Autumnal Equinox on around March 21st would be the mid-point of Autumn. That leaves 4 points as ending/starting days for each of the seasons.

And as luck would have it, many Pagans already celebrate on these days – Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnassad and Samhain. The start of each season. So pardon me while I revere the very depth of Winter – when the apparent Sun reaches its lowest point in the heavens as seen from Earth – as MidWinter. That’s in just one week from today.

And Imbolc, the start of Spring, a scant 6.5 weeks later, in the first week of August. Makes frighteningly proper sense to me. More sense-making goodiness here.

My comment, if I had been allowed to make it, is this:

As a child, and until about the age of 15, I thought of the seasons in exactly the way that Aquila ka Hecate describes. Winter was May, June and July. It made logical sense for exactly the reason that Midwinter was just after the middle of June. To be strictly accurate, one should say that winter lasted from 7 May to 6 August, but the May-July reckoning was close enough.

Then when I was about 15 we had a geography lesson at school in which spring was defined as the period whe n the days were longer than the nights and getting longer, while winter was when the days were shorter than the nights and and gretting longer. So winter began in its middle.

So there was the scientific meaning of winter, and the popular meaning of winter, which didn’t quite coincide.

But there are lots of things where the scientific meaning of something and the popular meaning don’t coincide.

CreationIkon1Then, about 20 years ago, people started talking about the first day of September as “spring day”. Well, I think the media started it, and it sort of spread from there.

I’m not sure where that started, because the media must have got it from somewhere. But I accepted that because in the Orthodox Church the church year begins on 1 September, and it seemed quite appropriate that it should be on the first day of spring (though that doesn’t apply in the northern hemisphere). It is linked to the idea of the creation of the world, though I’m surprised that in the northern hemisphere they didn’t pick on February or March for that rather than September, which is the northern Autumn.

CreationIkon2In recent years there has also been a tendency for Orthodox Christians to observe the first few days of September as days to pray about and be concerned for the environment, which also seems appropriate for the beginning of Spring.

But if we are going to regard the First of September as the first day of Spring, then perhaps we should think of mid-winter as occurring on 15 July. That’s probably when it’s coldest, anyway.

But going back to my childhood, when I was 9, 10, 11 years old, June and July were the cold months, when we had chapped hands and legs at school. August was the windy month, the kite-flying season, and we could expect the wind to blow up the first rains.

I used to sit in class looking out of the window and watch the cumulus clouds sailing from north-west to south-east, and grow taller as they moved. I used to daydream about jumping around and sliding down the slopes of the clouds. The teachers thought that that was a Bad Thing, and mentioned it in school reports as Day-Dreaming in Class (DDIC). Nowadays they call it ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and they use drugs to try to suppress it.

Anyway, the clouds would build up on the south-eastern horizon and then come back, towering cumulo-nimbus clouds, and at 4 pm they would drop their load, as rain or hail, with thunder and lightning. From August onwards you could almost set your watch by it, and it was called the civil service rain, because it always seemed to fall when civil servants were leaving work at 4 pm, and stopped by 4:30.

Climate change has changed all that, of course. Now they say “Rain in September, drought in December” and everyone looks for the first rains to begin in October. So perhaps the popular seasons are moving closer to the scientific ones.







Diet, fasting and the environment

I’ve read a number of blog posts recently about eating and drinking and the environment, and this one suggests that we should drink water to save water The Green Phone Booth: Drink Water!

Well, I have to admit that in addition to drinking plain water, I also drink rather a lot of tea and coffee, though one thing I try to avoid is bottled water, unless it has some flavour added.

I’ve previously blogged about the strange habit of many people of drinking bottled water, which is expensive, unhealthy, and environmentally unfriendly. Quite a lot of the bottled water that is sold is just tap water anyway, so why not drink it straight from the tap?

Blogger Clarissa gives some reasons for not drinking it straight from the tap here Does Anybody Drink Tap Water? | Clarissa’s Blog — she thinks tap water tastes horrible, and she finds that in every city she has ever lived in.

I have been warned not to drink tap water in some cities — Mosc0w and Athens come to mind — but I’ve been living in Tshwane for 30 years and I don’t think I’ve come to any harm from drinking the tap water yet. The tap water is quite safe and palatable, as it is in most South African cities.

I agree with Clarissa on one point, though. I know some people who are forever banging on about the environment, but even when they are at home they still drink bottled water.

And then, from the same source as the recommendation to drink tap water, comes this The Green Phone Booth: Four Small Changes to Make in Your Daily Life:

Eat less meat. Meat production is a major contributing factor in climate change – in fact, livestock produce as much as 18% of the planet’s greenhouse gases. Meat production also uses far more water than growing plants. I’m not a vegetarian, but I have taken steps to reduce my meat consumption. Even one veggie meal every day can make a big difference, and you may even get the chance to try some new recipes while you’re at it.

And one of the commenters on that recommended this Meatless Monday | one day a week, cut out meat, which appears to be a new secular fast. Orthodox Christians, of course have meatless Wednesdays and Fridays.

So if the secularists fast on Mondays, and the Christians really observe the fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, perhaps meat consumption could be reduced.

But there is also a downside to this: School Districts Take on ‘Meatless Mondays’ to Support Healthy and Humane Eating Habits:

Schools are in a unique and powerful position to influence students’ eating habits for a lifetime to come. These pioneering schools recognize that responsibility, and the many benefits Meatless Monday offers for our health, for our planet, and for animals.

In a country where “separation of church and state” is elevated to a sacred principle, why are they imposing the secular fast on Christians? Should they not be providing the option of Meatless Fridays for Christian pupils? And would it make any difference at all to the secularists if they fasted on Fridays instead of on Mondays — other than that that would not provide them with an opportunity to stick it to the Christians? This seems to be a case of outright religious discrimination.

But some of the arguments for this need to reduce meat consumption seem a bit odd to me. Why Meatless?:

The water needs of livestock are tremendous, far above those of vegetables or grains. An estimated 1,800 to 2,500 gallons of water go into a single pound of beef. Soy tofu produced in California requires 220 gallons of water per pound.

I’ve seen other arguments that cattle farts produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, but the same would apply to any other animals on the planet, including wild animals and human beings. If we follow that line of reasoning, we should exterminate all animals, wild and tame, to save the planet — but to save it for what?

A better argument that I have seen, and one worth considering, is from a book I read recently The long road home: book review | Khanya:

Americans now wanted to eat more meat, and it paid their farmers to feed their cereals to the livestock needed to produce that meat, rather than to human beings. For the first time in history, high meat consumption in one major country would distort agricultural output all over the world.

If you want to be environmentally friendly about meat, then insist that the meat you buy comes from grass-fed and not corn-fed/grain-fed cattle.

And one last little tip: at public events caterers have learnt to be sensitive to religious diversity and provide kosher and halaal food, but most of them have never heard of nistisimo. Perhaps they had better learn it now, and provide nistisimo food on Wednesdays and Fridays for the Christians, and on Mondays for the secularists who observe Meatless Mondays. Oh yes, and even the secularists can Google for “nistisimo recipes”.

Saving fuel

If it is true that there is enough fuel in the full fuel tank of a jumbo jet to drive the average car four times around the world (hat-tip to 20 Mind Blowing Facts You Probably Didn’t Know) I wonder which has more impact on the environment — driving or flying.

It seems to be a toss-up.

The distance from here to Durban is 600 km, which we could just about make on a tank of fuel. So if 300 people drove to Durban they would travel 180000 km. Four times round the world is 160300 km so for 300 people on a jumbo jet that is about 535 km, so that seems better than going by car.

But that assumes one person, one car. So if there are three people in a car, it would tip the scales in favour of the car.

But then a jumbo jet wouldn’t use a full tank of fuel to go to Durban.

Oh, I give up.

Ugandan farmers kicked off their land for New Forests Company’s carbon project |

Ugandan farmers kicked off their land for New Forests Company’s carbon project | A report released yesterday by Oxfam International documents how more than 22,000 people in Uganda were evicted to make way for a carbon offset tree plantation established by a London-based firm called New Forests Company. While this is not a REDD project, it provides an early warning of how “standards” and “safeguards” can be willfully ignored.

New Forests Company (NFC) was formed in 2004. The company now has projects covering a total of 90,000 hectares in Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Rwanda. Investors in the company include the Agri-Vie Agribusiness Fund, which in turn is backed by the World Bank’s private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation and the European Investment Bank. The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) owns about 20% of NFC and has a seat on its board. These investors have social and environmental standards to which NFC should comply.

Oxfam’s report, “The New Forests Company and its Uganda Plantations”, can be downloaded here (pdf file 208.7 KB). The story has been reported in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and on AlJazeera.

‘Nuff said.

Legends from a small country: The Micro Frog of Floral Doom

Arthur Goldstuck, the veteran debunker of urban legends, tells of a new one that has apparently been doing the rounds in the Western Cape.

If you get an e-mail along these lines: Legends from a small country: The Micro Frog of Floral Doom:

If you see someone selling arum lillies you must call City Law Enforcement on (021) 596 1400/1424

It is the start of Arum Lily season. A tiny endangered Arum Lily Micro Frog breeds inside the water and dew held in the cup of these Lilies. We are desperate to curtail the gross destruction of Lilies. Please don’t buy Lilies sold at traffic intersections.

… don’t be alarmed. You can bin it where you put those other ones from a dying auntie who wants to leave you her ex-dictator husbands fortune.

As Arthur explains: Legends from a small country: The Micro Frog of Floral Doom:

The truly sad part about this plea is that the Arum Lily Micro Frog … does … not … exist.

It is an urban legend, cobbled together from two distinct species of frog, the sprouting of flower sellers on the streets of Cape Town as spring approaches, and good old fashioned misinformation. Mix in the discovery of a new species of micro frog as the urban legend was spreading, and suddenly our inboxes were no longer safe from the amphibian invasion.

And you can read the full story on his blog.

Happy Spring Day! Happy New Year!

Today, we are told, is officially the start of Spring, and it is also New Year’s Day — welcome to the year 7519 (I think).

Of course to those on the old calendar, the new year won’t begin for another 13 days (14 September Gregorian), and for those who paid attention in geography lessons at school spring won’t begin until the equinox on 21 September, or thereabouts.

But according to our mulberry trea, it’s already been spring for a couple of weeks. It seems to sprout its new leaves on about 19/20 August every year. And that’s just about when the jacarandas finish losing their leaves — they always seem to be the last.

It’s been a warm winter. It was cold for a couple of weeks during the world cup, but it’s felt like spring for well over a month now.

Twenty-one years ago the Patriarch of Constantinople, Dimitrios, urged Orthodox Christians to make 1 September a day of prayer for God’s creation and for the environment. You can read his message here. His successor as Patriarch, Bartholomew, has continued to encourage the practice, and as a result has been named the first among the top 15 “green” religious leaders. The day has since been adopted by other Christian bodies as well, and the first day of spring seems like an appropriate time for it.

Wednesday 1st September 2010

* Tone 5 – Week after PENTECOST 14


  • St Simeon Stylites (the Elder) (459)
  • St Martha mother of St Simeon Stylites (the elder) (c 428)
  • Martyr Aithalas the Persian (380)
  • Holy Forty Women Martyrs and Martyr Ammon the Deacon their teacher, at Heraclea (4th)
  • Righteous Joshua the Son of Nun (16th BC)
  • St Fiacre, Hermit of Meaux (670)
  • St Giles the Greek, Hermit and Abbot (8th)
  • St Drithelm of Melrose, Monk (c 700)

Revised Julian (New Style) Calendar

Bloody Sunday and Oily Tuesday

Yesterday one of the four remote control thingies for our TV broke and the channel it was on happened to be showing the US Congressional Committee investigating the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

One thing that struck me was the language they used. First that they kept talking about an oil “spill”, but in my dialect “spill” refers to a liquid that falls out of a vessel and on to the ground (or into the sea).

This is not a “spill”; I would have thought it is what is sometimes referred to as a “gusher”. The oil is not falling to the earth: it is gushing out of the ground at a pressure that seems to be beyond human power to stop.

The other thing that struck me was the number of members of the committee who referred to “British Petroleum”. Now I know their purpose is fact-finding and they have just started, but it is not reassuring when the members of the committee seem not to have done their homework, and don’t even know the name of the company whose acts and omissions and negligence they are supposed to be investigating. Or perhaps they were being disingenuous, and grandstanding, as politicians do, and attempting to create the impression that the blame lies in another country, though if they really want to gain more political mileage, perhaps they should refer to it as “Anglo-Iranian”, which was also one of the company’s earlier names, and thus associate it with a country that Americans love to hate even more than they love to hate Britain.

But two can play at that game: a week or two earlier, when it appeared that BP’s shares had lost several xillion[1], Sky News was accusing US President Obama of being cruel to British pensioners because he blamed BP for the mess, and demanded that they clean it up. Apparently British pension funds are heavily invested in BP. But so, apparently, are American pension funds. And after all, BP did make the mess.

There was more weird stuff emerging from the congressional committee. One member of the committee objected to the setting up of a compensation fund, and referred to it as a “shake-down”, and a by-passing of the legal system. I thought he was out of order, until I heard the other politicians on the committee displaying their ignorance, showing that if they couldn’t get simple facts (like the name of the company) right, they were unlikely to be able to make good judgements on the more complex aspects of the case.

And the day before there was another news item about a report on “Bloody Sunday” in 1972, when British soldiers shot protesters in Northern Ireland. That inquiry cost 200 xillion, and took 38 years to produce. About half the 200 xillion went in lawyers fees.

Before that there had been an inquiry by politicians, which was a whitewash.

So you can have ignorant politicians running inquiries, or you can have expensive lawyers. Perthaps setting up a compensation fund could avoid both, but no doubt it will have expensive bureaucrats to administer it, who will award themselves more in bonuses than any of the victims will receive in compensation.

Incidentally, I think the same number of people died on Bloody Sunday as on Oily Tuesday.

But news of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon was hidden for a while. It was buried under reports of the inconvenience to travellers caused by a volcano in Iceland.

To crown it all, there were reports that other oil companies wanted compensation from BP for the losses they might suffer as a result of a ban on deep-water drilling. That takes the cake, it really does. It’s got even more chutzpah than the Uruguay footballer Suarez’s offside dive at the World Cup match on Wednesday night, which got the South African goalie sent off. It’s utterly shameless, yet they don’t seem to be at all embarrassed by it. If anyone is tempted to feel the slightest bit sorry for them, read this: Nigeria’s agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it | The Observer:

The Deepwater Horizon disaster caused headlines around the world, yet the people who live in the Niger delta have had to live with environmental catastrophes for decades

The way I see it, God put that oil there for our grandchildren, who might have the technology to exploit it without making an unholy mess. But we are determined to use up all the resources of the planet in our generation. Our attitude is like of the Durban town councillor back in the 1850s who declared, “Why should we think of posterity? What has posterity ever done for us?”

And I think one of the best comments is from Father Ted. I urge you to read The Gulf Of Mexico Catastrophe: When Toxins Intoxicate Us | Fr. Ted’s Blog:

I cannot contribute in any meaningful way to what should be done to stop the oil gushing from the well, nor to how to clean up the environmental cataclysm. And while it is easy to point the accusing finger (or some other finger) at BP or the government, it seems to me the situation was really brought about by us the American consumers and investors. I am not an investor, but I am a consumer and enjoy a lifestyle based in cheap oil. It is way past time for us to change our attitudes towards lifestyle entitlements.



Xillion – a large amount of money. It refers to -illion preceded by m-, b-, tr- or several other letter combinations and basically means a lot — of dollars, pounds, Euros, Rand or whatever. Though if it it refers to Zimbabwe dollars it should probably be xxxillions. It’s for those of us who lack calculating minds and are never sure of the difference between a milliard, a billion and a trillion.

Patriotic flags increase carbon dioxide emissions

Now that the World Cup has started, just about one car in three on South African roads (including ours) is sporting a national flag, sometimes two or more, and sometimes representing more than one country. However these also have certain drawbacks — hat-tip to Big Blue Meanie for Bongo Bongoland

BBC NEWS | Flag drag will boost fuel costs:

Patriotic drivers showing their support for England with window flags during the World Cup will pay more in fuel costs, an academic has claimed.

An average car with two flags attached burns an extra litre of fuel per hour at an average of 70mph, said Manchester University’s Dr Antonio Filippone.

He also calculated that 500,000 drivers all doing the same will create 2.8m kg of carbon dioxide emissions.

The extra fuel consumption is caused by the flags creating drag.

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