Remember that pesky 5G switch? It gleamed – as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold – magnetically. It seemed simple enough: if only someone could turn off the switch that controlled the 5G waves killing our immune systems, the virus would be thwarted and this inconvenient farce would be over. Yes?
Well, no. Apart from the dangerous nonsense that 5G conspiracies and their variants represent, they also offer cheap fantasies – the allure of disassociation – at a time when the Anthropocene is begging for the opposite: all-hands-on-deck sobriety.
It is asking us to face the painful truth that the tentacles of global change now reach into all aspects of our lives – from microplastics infecting the remotest oceans, to the unseen enemies of HIV, bird flu and Sars. Pandemics or epidemics, past or present, each of these zoonotic diseases cuts a forensic trail to people who interacted with sick or dead animals at some point. (Covid-19 is also a zoonotic pandemic, as noted by the World Health Organization.)
To speak to these complex realities, in 2019 Daily Maverick formally launched Our Burning Planet (OBP), a new unit that would focus on the global environmental crisis.
Led by investigative correspondent Kevin Bloom, and joined by science journalist Tiara Walters a year later, this small unit with big ideas made it their business to show there is no easy off-switch for the climate nexus.
That restoring our planet to the thriving place it was for much of its lifespan will exact – despite natural disasters such as Covid-19 – more than just decades of tireless worldwide cooperation. It will call for transforming what we humans hold dear right now – and demand that we engage with both the gleeful and the despairing who insist that all is lost.
Respected thinkers, rattling cages
OBP has also welcomed onboard heavyweight contributors Don Pinnock and Tony Carnie – and together our founding writers represent more than 120 years at the coalface.
OBP’s opus – bolstered by expert commentators, leading climate writers and opinionistas – recently passed the 500-article mark. And so the original vision is fast translating this unit into South Africa’s most consequential producer of environmental reporting.
Read the timeline of OBP’s landmark moments here. It is a telling reflection of the extent to which a handful of journalists with a committed vision can rattle cages.
To further inform our journalism, last year we commissioned an independent report by Wits University’s Global Change Institute (GCI).
That 17,000-word report, The Climate Risks We Face in the 21st Century, was led by the peerless Professor Bob Scholes, an internationally revered global systems thinker who unexpectedly died during a recent hiking trip, aged 63.
Based on citation frequency, Scholes was among the top 1% of environmental scientists worldwide – and the GCI report is an authoritative reflection of his staggering institutional knowledge. In October 2020 we published the report as an open-source guide for all journalists interested in Africa’s climate crisis.
From climate change to global change
In this time of overwhelm and fast news it is tempting for journalists to get lost in the headline-grabbing politics and shock statistics of the climate crisis. But, as true mavericks, we did not found this unit for the sake of following the pack.
Now, with financial support from the Absa Group, OBP’s new chapter firmly acknowledges that, to quote the Scholes report, “climate change does not operate in a vacuum”.
Learning to live with climate change – an undeniably critical imperative – is only the beginning, not the end, of our challenges. To run sustainable economies and keep living as an innovative species for generations to come, the global biodiversity and pollution crises need our equal and urgent attention.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the climate developments championed by the Biden administration, the European Green Deal and China’s renewable energy boom are massive progress. And strides by activists to force Big Oil to own up to its climate culpability are necessary game changers.
But climate change is not the only game in town.
We will therefore curate OBP’s content mix to reflect the impacts wrought by global change and its myriad offshoots, of which the climate crisis is but one.
We will investigate what is needed to achieve all-inclusive food and water security; sustainable agriculture and transport; as well as meaningful energy impacts on social, economic and spiritual well-being. We will also report on conservation efforts that are supporting pollination services; promoting ocean health and reversing biodiversity loss.
New senior writers will join OBP, and, by appointing four young journalists to the team, we hope to alleviate the dearth of environmental correspondents in South African newsrooms somewhat, and to help groom the next generation. Scholes’ untimely loss was devastating to the field of global change, but his legacy, particularly in the form of his GCI report, will continue to inform our own, and our young writers’, work.
Our gratitude extends to our 17,000 Maverick Insiders, whose monthly contributions help us deliver the kind of global-change journalism that must be aired – without paywalls – if we are to retain our citizenship of Planet Earth.
Despite straitened times there is much left to hope and fight for.
If anything, the past year has demonstrated just how fast human behaviour can pivot when the moment calls for it.
There is no easy off-switch, yes. As reporters working in the global change trenches, OBP’s writers know this.
We also know that this, the ultimate fight, is still ours to lose. DM/OBP