An ambitious bioengineering project on an old mine site in Welkom might just be the innovative spark needed to fuel a “whole new way of looking at electricity and its distribution” writes Chris Chatteris SJ. However, if it is to succeed in its quest to bring about a just energy transition (JET), it may also find itself battling centralised, monopolised and largely coal-powered competition.
How’s this for human ingenuity? The rehabilitation of the slimes-dam of an old mine near Welkom by planting sugar beet and Giant King Grass on it. These crops are then biodigested into gas and oil to fire a metallurgical plant. The process also purifies the water from the slimes dam. (https://im-mining.com/2014/08/01/harmony-gold-mining-bioenergy-project-on-tailings).
This project does several good things simultaneously: it cleans up the site, cuts down greenhouse gas production and stimulates employment. A similarly smart project on another old mine site has a thousand hectares producing biocrops. It also produces biofuels which generate 2 megawatts of electricity. This is enough to power 1600 households, 2 clinics, 2 high schools, 2 primary schools and one municipal water pump for the local community.
These projects disarm the major objection to biofuels which is that they gobble up productive agricultural land. This derelict and poisoned terrain is unsuitable for food crops. And given that there are an incredible 8000 derelict and abandoned mines in South Africa, often in the vicinity of communities in dire need of work and power, the potential of such initiatives is immense.
I heard about them at a recent Round Table co-hosted by the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) and Project 90 by 2030 on the movement for a just energy transition (JET). One speaker described a women-run project to establish a degree of energy independence in underprivileged communities in Gauteng. Another looked at the global picture of community-owned and community-run energy initiatives. The point of these interesting presentations was that as the world transitions from the fossil-fuel behemoths of a previous industrial age to the new climate-friendlier renewables, there is a window of opportunity to give “power to the people” in the form of a reliable, localised and community-based electricity supply.
This requires a major paradigm shift. We need to view electricity, not as a commodity owned and marketed by private companies or even doled out by central and local government but as part of the commons, something belonging to the people as a whole, like the air, the water and (in traditional society) the land. Recent technological advances, through which electricity can be economically generated from the sun, wind and sea, emphasise this perceptual shift. For there is nothing private or privatisable about the sun, the wind and the movement of the oceans.
At least three issues flowed from the meeting. The first was that this whole new way of looking at electricity and its distribution inevitably comes up against the incumbents. Eskom is a byword for a centralised state-run system. One cannot see it relinquishing its monopoly of the power supply voluntarily. Note how wary it has been of the private power producer (PPP) agreements it has entered into. Wedded as it is to the coal industry and to the idea of the state control of electrical power, it has indulged in much foot-dragging on PPPs. Very understandably, the coal miners are also unhappy with PPPs because, as wind and solar power become cheaper, they threaten to put coal mining out of business as is happening in other countries. Ludditism is more than understandable when the alternative means you lose the only job you know.
And yet it is the responsibility of the government to consider the big picture. For if we as a country do not move with decisiveness into the so-called fourth industrial revolution, we might end up like Zimbabwe, yearning for the lost economy of a lost world. Luddite nostalgia can result in higher levels of unemployment in the longer run.
A second reflection is on why we need these ingenious projects at all. They underline the level of past carelessness about our environment in the extractive industries and how this has truly blighted so much of this lovely land. I cannot help quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins: “And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil, / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” Yes, the 8000 sites are now an ecological and economic opportunity but the brute fact of their existence highlights the callous disregard of a previous age for people and planet.
Have we learned anything? The speaker who described the mine site rehabilitation projects told me that there is no way a mining company would be allowed to let the environment get into such a state today, at least according to the current legislation. However, she mentioned one other disgraceful statistic: the number of mines which have received their government certificate declaring that they have fulfilled their legal obligations to rehabilitate old mines? One. Yes, only one. Which suggests that attitudes and the financial arrangements which reflect these attitudes have still a very long way to go.
My final reflection is on the disastrous doublethink which threatens homo sapiens. We now know that if we continue to dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the present rate, we risk so disrupting the global climate that we might make it uninhabitable for ourselves and many other species. Hence, the rational course of action is to do absolutely everything to decarbonise our economies. However, insanely really, politicians and industrialists all say that they are doing this, while simultaneously planning new airports, searching for new oil and gas fields, opening new coal-fired power stations and building new roads. Doublethink.
Most of us are caught in this cognitive dissonance. Many of us who aspire to decarbonise our lives continue to fly and drive as far and as frequently as ever, often because our jobs simply demand it. We want it both ways, hoping perhaps for a Deus ex machina to swoop in to save the planet for us. Some hope that there will be a geoengineering fix which can bring about global cooling, but that seems like science fiction at the moment. Others believe that market forces will inexorably eviscerate the fossil fuel industries but in countries like ours and the US, governments have a politically vested interest in the fossil-fuelled status quo and will prop it up in the face of market threats.
Mayer Hillman, a distinguished British social scientist, suggests that our doublethink might be the undoing of us. “It’s almost as if we’re deliberately attempting to defy nature”, he says. “We’re doing the reverse of what we should be doing, with everybody’s silent acquiescence, and nobody’s batting an eyelid”. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/26/were-doomed-mayer-hillman-on-the-climate-reality-no-one-else-will-dare-mention)
At the end of his famous novel Candide, Voltaire has his tragic character say that well, yes, the world is in a mess but in the end we must just get on and cultivate our own garden. One interpretation of this is that we can only do our own little bit. But the bland nostrum that every little bit helps, may simply mean that it all actually adds up to very little and very little is not enough. Therefore, unless we get out of our gardens and onto the streets and really push our leaders to exercise decisive climate leadership, it seems to me they will blunder on in confused doublethink towards climate disaster.
The world is still looking for authentic climate leaders who can decisively decentralise, democratise and decarbonise.