climate change

Another beautiful day. Damn.

Theewaterskloof Dam

The woman at reception was apologetic. “I’m afraid there might be some bad weather on the way,” she said, peering out at a distant wisp of cloud.

We understood why she’d said it. Most of the people who stayed at her establishment were tourists from the northern hemisphere. To them, rain is bad weather and sun is good weather. Of course she was going to apologise for the chance of a shower.

The peculiar thing, though, is that it wasn’t just an act put on for sun-seeking Swedes and Canadians. The locals believe it too. Ask most residents of this water-scarce country and they’ll tell you that the total absence of rain is an ideal state of affairs.

At the height of Cape Town’s last heat wave I heard a local deejay announcing that the dust-choked, raw-nerved city could look forward to “another amazing weekend of perfect weather” with temperatures throbbing up past 37 degrees and into the space where people burst into tears mid-conversation.

Yesterday, as I read that the city has eight weeks of water left, I heard someone sighing about how beautiful the weekend had been. He talked of windless warmth, a sky of the most perfect blue. The sea had been warm enough to swim in. Bliss!

What he was describing was, of course, a catastrophe; the preamble to Googling, “How to boil your own urine so that it is OK to drink”; but he could not see it as anything but aesthetic perfection.

It’s not our fault. Our colonial programming runs incredibly deep and a large part of that software is dedicated to an unbreakable attachment to the picturesque and the belief that scenery that was agreeable to British people in the 1700s is agreeable to us. And so we go out into the glare of this monstrous autumnal summer with its cruelly empty skies, peeling sweaty shirts off our backs, watching the dams drop and drop and drop, and admire the “good weather” and take photographs of yet another barren sunrise.

I’ve always felt that Cape Town is a temporary place. Established by a Dutch corporation as a satellite office; occupied by the British to guard sea routes to much more important places; used as a dumping-ground for revolutionaries from altogether elsewhere; it can seem like a city that has spent over 300 years waiting for a memo from Head Office to sell the furniture, shred the files and head back home.

the sand is running through the hourglass

Of course, that was just a feeling. I had no evidence of how fragile my city might be. Now, though, as the satellite images show the rain curling away to the south, week after week, and the sun rises on yet another depressingly “beautiful” day, I think I’m seeing proof. The sky has shifted. And now the sand, white and fine and unmoved by a breeze, is running through the hourglass.

Not that one should panic, mind you. Cape Town might be running out of time but the world goes on. I’m not even that fussed about climate change. That’s because a lot of people are very worried about it, which almost certainly means it’s not the thing that’s going to nail us. No, what gets you in the end is the banal threat you’d more or less made peace with; the one that was so over-hyped that it had become boring and, therefore, invisible.

For example: last year the Chapman University released its annual Survey of American Fears. Of the 1,500 people polled, 41% cited terrorist attacks as their greatest worry. Nowhere on the list of American horrors was “dying of heart disease”, a condition that kills over 1,500 Americans every day. That’s a 9/11 every two days.

And so it goes with all of us. We stay in the shallows to avoid the infinitesimally small chance of being eaten by a shark; and when we’re done we hop happily into our car and tootle off into the murderous streets, entirely convinced we will not become one of the 14,000 South Africans killed on the roads every year.

So yes, I have no doubt that what’s going to end humanity is something we’ve already grown tired of. Some clever little creepy crawly that shrugs off our antibiotics. Maybe a less clever little nuclear war. I know. So early 1990s. So lame.

Cape Town is in trouble, but it’s not going to shrivel and die. People are talking about drilling holes into aquifers, or blowing the budget on desalination. And who knows? Maybe dependable, good rain will come back one day, soaking us through the winter as it used to.

But as another brilliant dawn breaks, and the sky turns to deep blue, untroubled by a single cloud, and the wind doesn’t ruffle the vast, undrinkable ocean, I’m going to watch my language. Today is a beautiful day in Cape Town, but this is not good weather. And if the weather stays beautiful and bad for the next month, it could get very ugly indeed.

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Published in The Times

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The end is nigh. I’ll wait for the DVD.

“It’s a bee. And it has murder flashing in its eyes.”

Trust Cape Town to get the Hollywood blockbuster disaster. Asteroids and a tsunami. So predictably mainstream. So tiresomely dramatic.

At least South Africa’s other doomed cities are exploring more sophisticated cinematic traditions when it comes to catastrophe. Johannesburg, slowly sinking into polluted sludge, is clearly being influenced by the Japanese Godzilla myth and is starting to do really interesting things with radioactive mud and poisoned water.

Durban has looked to the classic spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and set up a fascinating story arc by running out of water. I’m confident that even Pretoria has resisted the pull of Hollywood cliché and is planning a much more authentic death for itself, perhaps a classic Hartiewood romantic comedy in which the handsome owner of a wine estate and the beautiful owner of a hairdryer fall in love, get separated by a series of unlikely events, and then get afflicted by urban blight and rampant youth unemployment.

But not Cape Town. Ever the slave to hand-me-down, mid-Atlantic trends, it has brought Michael Bay to Table Bay and gone straight for the asteroid-tsunami combo.

The news broke last week. According to a map produced by Ben Affleck on an aircraft carrier in a typhoon (or was it academics at the University of Southampton?), Cape Town lies on a corridor of the planet known for more frequent asteroid strikes.

A direct hit on the city would, of course, be very upsetting, mainly because the local ANC would accuse the DA of using astrophysics to oppress the poor, while the DA would blame substandard geological infrastructure left in place by the ANC. But the real drama would happen if an asteroid landed in the sea. According to Affleck’s calculations, an object larger than 40m in diameter would trigger a tsunami. Forty metres isn’t very big. It’s basically the bidet in the en suite bathroom in the second guest rondavel at Nkandla.

As I read the worrying facts and figures and imagined how Cape Town would deal with an asteroid disaster (including Pam Golding brochures describing the impact crater as a “a spacious hidey-hole for the modern family living off the grid”), I remembered the two great asteroid flicks of the 1990s, The Intelligent One That Made Quite A Lot Of Money, starring Morgan Freeman, and The Immensely Stupid One That Made A Squillion Dollars, starring an electric guitar and an explosion. And I wondered if the reason Hollywood has stopped making asteroid movies is because we’ve slowly realised that it’s not asteroids that are going to get us in the end. It’s poisoned water, or no water, or a nagging cough that turns out to be a global pandemic, or the bees that just go on strike one day. And to be fair to the Jerry Bruckheimers of the world, it’s really hard making a blockbuster about bees:

Fade to black. The urgent, husky voice and duh-duh-duh-duh music from every movie trailer you’ve ever seen. “In a world gone mad…” (Sexy science lady in unsnappable high heels runs into a boardroom: “Gentlemen, it’s the bees. They just…stopped.”)

“One man” (Chris Pratt looks up from doing repairs on his bee-hunting helicopter and reaches for his bee-hunting shotgun) “will have to face his worst fears to save us all.” (Sexy science lady, now wearing a bikini: “Who hurt you?” Pratt, gazing at a crumpled photograph from long ago: “A bee. It stung me on my foot when I was nine.”)

“Now, using science…” (Sexy science lady screams as a bee brutally attacks the honey on her scone; Pratt kicks down the door and puffs smoke at it out of a small watering can with bellows) “it’s time to sting or be stung!” (Pratt, covered in charred honey from climactic air strike on the rebel hive, staggers along volcano rim towards sexy science lady, who is now wearing a ball-gown and tiara from her forced marriage to the wasp king. They embrace. Sexy science lady: “Oh honey!” Pratt grins: “Yeah, I get a buzz outa you too.”) “This summer…Kill or Bee Killed! Not suitable for viewers under the age of 16 or anyone who knows anything about bees or science or anything whatsoever.”

Even this is probably too dramatic, though, because what eventually bumps us off might not even be visible, which is tricky when it comes to film.

“This summer…Tom Cruise is infinitesimally sweatier than he was last summer…In a world almost completely identical to how it was very recently, except for many confusing and worrying changes in climate data, everyone is going to carry on pretty much as normal, until a new normal gradually creeps up on us, and we start doing that version, until the antibiotics stop working and nobody makes it through childbirth any more…”

Nah. Probably wait til it’s out on DVD.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail.

We’ve been framed

frameIn the middle of Cape Town’s Waterfront there stands a large yellow frame. Viewed from directly in front, it encapsulates a famous scene: the city, loomed over by a perfectly flat Table Mountain.

To be photographed inside the frame is to capture the quintessential Cape Town image. There’s even a white X painted on the ground nearby to show photographers where to stand. Because of course you have to line it up perfectly: to shift the view by a few degrees – to put the frame around not-quite-Table-Mountain – would somehow feel like a less true image of the Cape Town experience.

It seems like a gimmick but its popularity with visitors is proof of the power we give to frames. When something – an image, an idea, a news report – is inside an official-feeling framework, it feels more authoritative than something outside the frame.

It’s a deep-rooted prejudice that despots have exploited, airbrushing rivals out of photographs to obliterate them from history, so it’s no wonder that we’re so concerned with making the frame bigger. We realise that too many people and histories have been excluded from too many frames, and it feels progressive to give them their own. But perhaps caution is advised; because just as we have a tendency to disregard anything outside the frame, we might also have a tendency to believe anything inside it.

When I was editing the satire website Hayibo.com, I learned that one particular frame, the news story, wields astonishing power: present us with a headline, some apparently factual statements and a quote, and we seem unable to resist. Hayibo’s stories were never intended to trick people. They were often ludicrous, laced with silly names and outlandish scenarios, and yet far too many people who should have known better took our stories as gospel.

For example, our “report” during the London riots that the African Union would be sending troops and food packages to Britain popped up on UK financial blogs, with a few commodities traders wondering whether a sudden glut of African crops would affect UK indexes.

Worse, when we “revealed” in 2010 that the controversial painting ‘The Spear’ had been bought by German art collector Gunther Knutsach (because, in his own words, “I just like big black penises”), a local journalist – someone trained to tell fact from falsehood – e-mailed me asking for Mr Knutsach’s details. Nut-sack? Geddit? No?

We are really up Gullibility Creek without a paddle, and our slavish respect for the Frame is to blame

Most worrying of all, though, was what happened after we wrote a story about Somali pirates. The piece was pure silliness, explaining how most Somali pirates started their careers by downloading music illegally to make mix-tapes for their girlfriends. If that wasn’t obvious enough, we quoted a buccaneer called Pugwash. But some time later The Times revealed that the story had been cited as fact in an official report by an attorney who specialised in intellectual property and anti-counterfeiting.

If highly trained lawyers don’t hear alarm bells when reading quotes about mix-tapes by a Somali pirate called Pugwash, then we are really up Gullibility Creek without a paddle, and I suspect that our slavish respect for the Frame is to blame.

I’ve heard a few media gurus claim that more access to more media content has resulted in a general rise in media literacy and critical thinking. I’m not convinced: I suspect that there’s just more content for people to digest uncritically. I think we’re still as vulnerable to the quasi-authority of the Frame as we ever were. Which is odd, because even when it is being positioned in front of reality by responsible editors, it still shows us a bizarrely warped image.

I suspect that if you read every respected South African news source for a month, a picture would emerge of a country populated entirely by politicians, sports stars, Eskom spokespeople, victims of crime, protesters, about 20 people of dubious creative ability whom the media doggedly insists are celebrities, and two economists.

You would discover a country whose citizens are more agitated by the English Premier League than by the rape pandemic, and where load-shedding causes more outrage than 40 murders a day. In this South Africa, corruption happens in government about once a week and in the corporate world about twice a year. Poverty is getting worse, except when it’s getting better and staying the same. And climate change doesn’t exist at all, unless your favourite weekly has a syndication deal with The Guardian, in which case it does exist and we’re all going to drown, especially Jeremy Clarkson.

The media are essential. It was journalists who told us about Nkandla and who demanded that parliament turn off the signal jammer. Countries where the media are heavily restricted are invariably among the most corrupt. But responsible journalism also needs responsible readers, who are conscious that everything is a picture inside a frame, and who will ask, now and then, to be shown what lies just beyond the edges of the picture.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive