There is a meme going around that goes: in South Africa in 2020 we only had one thing, the coronavirus, and we thought that was difficult enough. Now in 2021, we have rolling blackouts, looting, an attempted coup, rising unemployment, a failing economy and slow immunisation outputs and, still, the coronavirus.
Of course, none of these problems is new… except maybe a coup attempt.
Twenty-twenty-one also brought with it a billionaire in space. In a phallic space rocket. Jeff Bezos may not be the first rich person in space, but he is the first to fail to read the room. Inequality is driving us to hate the rich. I listened in disbelief as he thanked Amazon workers for putting him in space, his personal fortune having grown to a staggering $207-billion, even while news stories show how heartless and cruel his workspace policies can be.
I have long thought that events of the 21st century have the making of a truly great apocalypse film script. But that is making fun of events that are becoming increasingly real and unimaginably horrifying for millions of people across the world. Back home, the week of 12 July was traumatic in the worst ways. This is no longer reading classics and wondering at the similarities between the stories of Dune or 1984 or Handmaid’s Tale and the events of today – who were these soothsayers of old? What was science fiction a few decades ago is a real possibility today.
This month has been tough, but not in the ways I expected. Staying hopeful has been tough, and grows tougher. It has been very cold these past few weeks and someone posted on a public Facebook group that we are experiencing the coldest temperatures since they can remember. Someone commented, “They call it global warming [laughing emoji]”, and my blood ran cold.
I wondered to myself: “How is it not obvious yet? How can people still think that climate change is not happening or that it is a joke?” I looked at the deluge of increasing environmental catastrophes. Climate change is not global warming, the term discarded a few years ago. Climate change is all around us. Over the past few weeks I have read news of runaway wildfires in Canada, Russia and the US. Flooding in Germany and China has killed a number of people. This is just this season, but catastrophes have been happening for many years – from billions of dead animals in Australia to the melting Arctic. The Amazon has reached a tipping point, producing more carbon than it absorbs.
The coronavirus is just the tip of the iceberg (and how many of those will be left in three decades?) because I truly believe worse is to come. How can I have hope left?
In this context, I hate to admit it, but Bezos made me cry. Lying in bed with my partner, trying to convince him there was no good reason to support Bezos’s desire to go to space (“but it was a childhood dream”), I burst into tears. For more than a decade I have devoted my career to human rights and environmental justice. There are days when it feels pointless. There are days when you stand in front of a community of people whose water has been poisoned and whose poverty has been heightened and who have lost faith in the government, and you feel like your explanation of the Right to a Healthy Environment is a stretch too far. There are no rights there, only suffering.
You wonder why you are trying, what you are fighting for, when all you feel you have achieved is measured against the excesses of one man. He obliterates any small gain you made. Every piece of plastic you recycled, every kilowatt of electricity you conserved, every time you chose not to fly, every community you educated, every time you made a difference – there is someone else on the other side of the world making decisions that cancel every bit of progress you have made. It feels like a slap in the face.
I carry the stories of hundreds of people across South Africa who have stood in front of a room and told us of how their land has been taken and their resources have been destroyed. I have witnessed the pollution by our coal plants and the burning earth beneath our mines. I have seen the polluted waters and the tears of crying mothers.
It is because I carry those stories that I know I have the capacity to love. But I know not everyone does – not anymore. Speaking to the therapist I go to, because Covid and climate change and decades of stories have sent me into a depression, we spoke about love. She told me how she looks at certain people and knows they do not have the capacity to love. “Trump is one example,” she tells me. “When I look at him, he looks calcified. He cannot love.”
The thing about love is that it makes you protective. And angry. I am not sad about Jeff Bezos and his rocket ship and the cost of that (a cool $5.5-billion, in case you were wondering). I am angry. Days after he shot himself into space, on 29 July it was announced that it was Earth Overshoot Day. We used all the resources needed to live sustainably on the planet for a year, in half that time.
I am hopeless but I still harbour fantasies of finding solutions. I don’t mind being a little radical. So bear with me. We hate the rich. We joke that they should be eaten. I have a suggestion for you. How about we sue the rich. We claim damages for the “days of resources” they have taken from the Earth. We implement an individual carbon tax and tax them for the excessively and staggeringly carbon-intensive superyachts they favour. Maybe even charge them for crimes against humanity.
I have always hoped that the notion of consumer activism would make a difference, considering that the main culprits of human rights abuses, environmental degradation, resource extraction and carbon emissions are companies. But I know only a handful of people who actually care. If consumer boycotts really worked, then why is Bezos’s wealth increasing exponentially? But where the masses fail, perhaps just a few people can make a difference. Let us sue the rich and save the planet. Who’s with me?
To conclude, there is something I have to admit. I wrote this article after the argument around Bezos – although I am not clear what the argument was – was never reconciled with my partner. He continues to favour an “open mind” about what Bezos should be allowed to do with his money. He is also a huge fan of Daily Maverick, as are many rationally minded, liberal-oriented South Africans. I thought that if Daily Maverick would accept this piece of writing, and we question whether Bezos should be allowed his fantasies, even at the cost of our climate – and, I don’t know, future generations – then maybe I will get to win this one. DM/MC