This talk was presented on 30 April 2019 as part of the Australian Museum's 2019 HumanNature series.
HumanNature: Is green the new white?
Lesley Green (University of Cape Town) considers how environmentalism squares with anti-racism and social justice in the sourcing of `green’ commodities from the sands of South Africa.
Green explores the impact of extracting titanium dioxide, used to produce lighter eyewear, more fuel-efficient aeroplane parts, whiter paper and food, on the coastal settlements of Xolobeni and Lutzville. Both villages are embroiled in a struggle with the same Australian mining company as they try to sustain a living from the land.
Nathan Sentance: [Welcome in Language] Hi, I'm Nathan Sentance, I'm a Wiradjuri man. I work here at the Australian Museum as a First Nations project officer. And before we begin this event, especially because this event involves discussions around land and possibly sovereignty, I'd like to acknowledge on behalf of the Australian Museum that we are on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people, and I'd like to pay my respect to their elders past and present. I'd also like to acknowledge any of my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters here with us today, and to recognise that no matter what happens on this land or whatever activity happens on this land or whatever's built on this land, that this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
Thank you, I'll hand over to Fiona to kick things off.
Fiona Probyn-Rapsey: Good evening. My name is Fiona Probyn-Rapsey and I'll be chairing tonight's session. And before I introduce Lesley I, too, would like to acknowledge the traditional owners and pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I'm delighted to introduce tonight's speaker, Lesley Green. Lesley is the founding director of Environmental Humanities South at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. And that's really a dynamic research centre. It includes 20 PhD students from 13 African countries, and over a dozen academic members.
And it's Lesley's particular emphasis on environmental humanities of the south that is so important in its resonance with what we're looking at here in Australia. Lesley has many, many books that I could mention, but I'm just going to flag her most recent one, and it's coming out soon with Duke University Press. It's called Rock, Water, Life: Science and Decoloniality in South Africa. Please join me in welcoming Lesley to our Human Nature series for her presentation, Is Green the new White?
Lesley Green: Thank you so much for the invitation, Fiona, Astrida, the environmental humanities crowd in Australia who've been such a lodestar for us in trying to work out what environmental humanities would mean in South Africa. So it's really, really an honour to be in dialogue with you here. And thanks for coming. I understand Australia's in holiday season so it's really good to see you here.
So, what I wanted to talk about this evening is a particular struggle in South Africa over titanium mining. But I want to start somewhere else. You might recognise the picture of Arundhati Roy, one of whose phrases I like particularly: 'Trickle down,' she said, 'is the new gush up.' So her words speak to a truth in our times, that's the assurances offered by Thatcher and by Reagan about market-led democracies in the 1980s have not turned out to be what publics were told to expect. For while wealth has been created, the proportion of wealth, as you would well know, that has been accumulated by the world's richest one per cent has accelerated dramatically.
So development, far from benefitting everyone, has led to quite unequal benefits. Arundhati Roy has tracked and traced this in India and in other conflicts around the world, and her comment about trickle-down being the new gush up were published in a book of essays she wrote called Capitalism: A Ghost Story. And that thinking also underlies her most recent novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which is set in contemporary India. So Ministry of Utmost Happiness weaves together beautiful, extraordinary, searing, painful, frustrating stories of different people, all of whom are struggling in different ways to survive and to be well in a world where there is no trickle-down. And corporates' and political words have come to mean the opposite of their dictionary meanings.
So in Ministry of Utmost Happiness, bureaucrats and politicians and corporate advertising promise that policies and plans will create a society of happy people at the very moment that those plans undermine the possibility of being well. So there's this kind of conceptual jujitsu that Arundhati Roy hones in in the contemporary world of neo-liberal politics where markets and states are so tightly woven together.
And it's a kind of jujitsu. If you know anything about jujitsu, jujitsu is a martial art that uses the strength and the momentum of your opponent against them. So you work with their momentum and then trip them up. And I think often spin-doctoring is a kind of conceptual jujitsu, because it takes the desires and the values of people—like being happy or being green—and claims them to be central to what is being proposed.
Now Ministry of Utmost Happiness tells the stories of people struggling for that collective wellbeing and mental self-defence in the surreal world of conceptual jujitsu. So the novel is set in India and part of it builds on Arundhati's experiences of walking with forest-dwelling tribal people in the Orissa region, who are fighting to preserve hills that are being mined for bauxite, which contains the aluminium required for manufacturing light aeroplanes.
So following their struggles and other struggles in India against development, which has been this 'gush-up', not the 'trickle-down', she wrote in an essay in The Guardian ten years ago that, 'the flagship of India's miraculous growth story has run aground. It came at huge social and environmental cost, and now as the rivers dry up and the forests disappear, as the water table recedes and people realise what is being done to them, the chickens are coming home to roost. All over the country there is unrest; there are protests by people refusing to give up their land and their access to resources, refusing to believe the false promises anymore.'
So Arundhati noted at the time that this Orissa struggle, and others like it, was unlikely to be on the table of any climate negotiations. Similar stories of struggle for ecological wellbeing in the face of conceptual jujitsu could be told on the other side of the planet. Take Argentina, for example, where the Atacama people, indigenous people, are struggling against development that involves mining for lithium. So lithium there is known as white gold because it's so in demand for batteries, most especially to power electric vehicles as part of the switch to the green economy elsewhere.
In the USA farmers struggle against fracking on farmlands for methane, which some in the petroleum industry continue to insist is a green alternative to coal, even though methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Then there's Congo, where cobalt mining, also a key element for electric vehicle batteries, is caught up in ongoing conflict. In Baotou, in China, a toxic lake is a result of mining for neodymium, a particular element used in magnets that generate electricity in wind turbines.
So globally, the transition to green energy and green products requires huge new mining operations. And the story I'll be telling here is one of those, set in the Xolobeni region of South Africa, where a struggle has been underway for 16 years over whether or not governments should issue a licence for mining titanium on wild coast lands. The woman holding a baby in this picture is Nonhle Mbuthuma, who is the powerhouse who is heading up the struggles. I took that photo when we were at their homestead in January, hiking, and she's with her little nephew there. But she doesn't actually live in the village anymore because her life is under threat.
Now, Xolobeni, like the situations that I've mentioned elsewhere, involves not only a struggle over land and mining, but a battle over logics and languages that are used in a world where corporates and governments should be all hands on deck to address climate crisis and extinctions risks. But they're not, because they're stuck in a mindset that the only to build a good politics is to base it on an economy based on the extraction of natural resources. So there's this vision of endless, endless, endless growth, which as you and I know is impossible. If the Ancient Egyptians were to have had endless growth at the scale proposed by the World Bank, they by now would occupy over three planets, I'm told.
The case study that I want to explore with you here is the case of titanium. So titanium, you might know, is used for a whole lot of things like spectacles. But you might be surprised to know that by far its largest use in manufacturing—that's a picture of pure titanium—it's largest use in manufacturing is to make paint, an environmentally friendly white paint that replaces lead. And that whiteness is also in white plastics. You could perhaps call titanium a green white. Its environmental friendliness is marketed also in sunscreens, where its reflective whiteness replaces coral-damaging chemicals. And it's used to make more efficient aeroplanes, because titanium is lighter and stronger than aluminium.
So on the one hand the argument is clear: how could environmentalists not support titanium mining? But in this case study I want to suggest that that argument is a kind of conceptual jujitsu, the kind I think best named by the novelist Amitav Ghosh, who titled his book of essays on the climate crisis The Great Derangement. And by going deeply into the case of titanium mining in South Africa in this essay, I want to try to make the case that the extinctions risks of our times are not only linked to emissions, but also to the ongoing demand for metals, including metals for the so-called green economy, through which corporates and governments claim to be addressing climate crisis.
So what I'm putting to you is that extinctions, extractions and expulsions are linked. And what I'd like to do here is begin to open a dialogue with environmentalists who ally themselves with the growing Extinction Rebellion. To ally with those who for a long time have been in an Extraction Rebellion and an Expulsion Rebellion—all of these struggles going under many different names—but all of whom now face new land struggles tied to new, planet-friendly green products.
So the struggle over titanium mineral sands in South Africa—being black sands from which white pigment is extracted—offers some surreal metaphors for exploring how and why the struggle over titanium mining in South Africa intersects with race and racism. From my perspective in South Africa the challenge for environmentalists and extinction rebels is not to go down the track of being the latest 'greens with an unbearable whiteness of being'.
It's an odd phrase, and perhaps a difficult one. My goal is not to offend environmentalists nor to fix the racial category of whites, but rather to problematise the denial of racism that is inbuilt in a globalised world, and which manifests, too, in environmentalism. Just as masculinity can be toxic but not always so, so too whiteness can be toxic but is not always so.
What is important is for extinction rebels to do the hard work of understanding what white privilege is, why it is toxic, and how it plays out in new forms of environmentalism. This is important, because it's not possible to rebel against extinctions and call for green transitions without looking at racism in environmental history—such as the relationship between coloniality and the eco side, or racism in the environmental present and the ties between extractive mining; expulsions, extinctions and the new green consumerism.
So these are not only questions that are morally right to ask, but they go to the heart of what it might mean to love the Earth enough to refuse the 'great derangement'. As climate crisis sets in, environmental management sciences and environmentalists alike need the courage to look at the racial injustices made in the name of being green in order to find and form an eco-politics that is capable of building the necessary global alliances to undo the conditions of the Anthropocene.
So, thank you for being here, and for being willing to think in unexpected and perhaps challenging ways. I want to go straight now to the questions of titanium mineral sands in South Africa—what is that struggle all about? You might be surprised to know that titanium is the ninth most common metal on the Earth's surface. But there's ten times more of it on the Moon. On the Earth the easiest to get to titanium is found in dunes like these ones, which often look like trails of gunpowder because it's a fine, fine black sand, and when the wind blows, like in this picture here, because the mineral sands are heavier than the beach sand, they form these very pretty lines.
Those dark lines there is a particular mineral called ilmenite, and this photograph was taken at Xolobeni. And this ilmenite is a mix of iron and titanium dioxide. It's the dark sand. And under a microscope it looks like that. I spent a day in the geology lab taking pictures of it with a science technical guy and was astonished to see how beautiful these pictures were. You can see the scale there, 0.5 millimetres. Anyway, the black stuff there is the ilmenite, which is the titanium bearing mineral.
In South Africa, titanium mineral sands like these are found in two places: Xolobeni and Lutzville. One is on the shores of the Indian Ocean, the other's on the shores of the Atlantic. One is known as the 'wild coast', the other the 'west coast'. Both settlements are trying to sustain a living off the land. The Xolobeni group of villagers speaks the AmaMpondo dialect of isiXhosa in an area called Pondoland. And in Lutzville villagers speak Afrikaans in the land of the Namaquas, who were driven out by centuries of settler colonialism and whose genealogies have been all but forgotten, but whose lands are still known as Namaqua land.
Now both settlements are embroiled in a struggle with the same Australian mining company called Mineral Resource Commodities, or MRC, over the extraction of titanium through two different South African subsidiaries that have two different names; Transworld Energy, or TEM, on the wild coast, and Mineral Sands Resources on the west coast.
So one on the west coast has had to contend with a cliff that collapsed into the sea, and a pistol being fired at a drone that was being used by a land surveyor that they hired. The other suffered assassinations and has won, more recently, a lengthy court battle against the South African state for the rights to say no to mining in their lands. Both have to contend with the Minister of Mining, who is intent on going ahead.
In the west coast, MRC, through its subsidiary MSR has applied to mine another ten beaches, even though a cliff collapsed at their mine, and Oxfam issued a scathing report on their failures to honour their social and labour undertakings made in order to get their mining licence. Oxfam's conclusion is, 'MSR's modus operandi is to do what it wants to do regardless of the regulatory environment'.
At Xolobeni the Minister of Mining, despite having lost a court battle in which the community won the right to say no, now wants to hire a scientific consultancy to gauge local opinion on mining in order to decide whether or not to go ahead. One wonders who will do that consultancy, because unlike in science, where we have got professional registration, PrNatSci, there is no professional registration or accountability for social science professionals or researchers in South Africa.
The titan leading the titanium mining in both areas and in both subsidiaries, is Mark Caruso, an Australian, who was quoted by the South African Sunday Times for a letter that he once sent to his opponents. So this letter that he sent to his opponents went like this:
'From time to time I have sought the Bible for understanding and perhaps I can direct you to Ezekiel 25 v.7. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers, and ye will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.'
His email invites his detractors to continue their campaign against the mine. 'I am enlivened,' he wrote, 'by the opportunity to grind all resistance to my presence and the presence of MSR into the "animals" of history as a failed campaign.'
His token quotation, of course, was not only from the Book of Ezekiel but also from the book of Tarantino, known as Pulp Fiction. But it was the assassination of Bazooka Rhadebe, seated there with sunglasses, in Xolobeni in April 2016, that prompted my research team, Environmental Humanities South, to ask ourselves about what it means to be an environmentalist in South Africa.
Rhadebe was a local shopkeeper known as Bazooka for his soccer skills, and was one of the activists opposing the mine because it would provide short-term gains—25 years of jobs for a few hundred people at most—in exchange for permanent land loss. He was shot dead in front of his home and his child by two men with a blue police light on their car. And shortly before his death he telephoned his deputy on the Amadiba Crisis Committee, Nonhle Mbuthuma, whose picture I showed you earlier, to warn her that she too was on a hit list.
Bazooka's assassination took place amid a longstanding conflict between on the one side between the South African state, the Australian mining company and the local traditional leader, who had suddenly acquired a 4WD vehicle. And on the other side, Pondoland communities who did not want to trade living off the land for any amount of cash.
Three years later the police have made no progress whatsoever in solving his murder. Shocked by the assassination, environmental humanities staff ran a course for about 40 people to try to better understand the links between extractivism and environmentalism. My colleague Michelle Presland and I invited three groups of environmental defenders to speak. And imagine our astonishment when four months later three of the speakers in one of the classes about the west coast mine were sued for damages by the company. The legal paperwork came on the letterhead of the law firm Bernadt Vukic Potash and Getz, a law firm whose website boasts that their founder, human rights lawyer Himie Bernadt had once represented Mandela and Sisulu when they were prisoners on Robben Island. Both Bernadt and Mandela by then had homes with the ancestors, and I sometimes wonder what they said to each other.
At the end of 2017 that west coast mine that had been so damaged by our class reported sales of 60 million US dollars for the year, some three times up on the previous year. I'm happy to say that the University of Cape Town, through its executive, has formally registered as a friend of the court in that case. We expect it to come to trial sometime this year, and the university is arguing that the courts must protect freedom of expression from corporate intrusion.
Now if titanium mining were to go ahead at Xolobeni, what would happen to the environment and its people? Certainly people would have to move, because to get to the sand dunes, forests, grasslands, fields and topsoil have to be strip-cleared. Dredging has to happen, and in order for that to happen they have to make artificial ponds within the sand dunes, drawing fresh water, not sea water, from streams and rivers. In the pond, and I'm quoting here from a document prepared by the South African Mineral Resources Department, 'the dredger removes the material from the front end of the pond, while the tailings produced by the separation process are piled at the back, and as such, the pond continuously moves forward. The dredger travels forward at the rate of two to three metres per day, depending on the height of the dune, as it channels into the mining face of the dune.'
So in addition, roads would have to be developed to handle the trucks taking the heavy mineral sands for processing, where huge quantities of electricity and purine are required to separate the titanium from iron and other metals, and it's important to note here that titanium has a melting point of some 1,000 degrees Centigrade higher than aluminium, so it needs a temperature of 1,800 degrees C to melt.
The lifespan of the mine would be 25 years, some 600 jobs would be created during mine set-up, says the company, and some 900 jobs would be created for 25 years thereafter. It's not clear how many of those jobs would go to local people.
Now the official South African unemployment rate is 27%. Higher than the United States Great Depression, which was then at 26% in the 1930s. And unofficially the South African unemployment rate is considered by economists to be closer to 40%.
So where are these people going to go, what jobs are they going to get if they're not going to work for the mine? Why push people from a successful agro-ecological economy into a precarious existence? The streams and soils, rich from tending with cow dung, feed all. There are no starving children in Pondoland. And why, in a time of land restitution, where a national priority is ensuring black access to land, why is it acceptable to push successful black farmers off traditional lands that are some of the only South African lands never to have been colonised. Pondos are particularly proud of having chased off the British.
So after the dunes are exhausted, who would turn deserts back into fields and forests, especially in the predicted droughts and the conditions of climate change? What money will keep those bare soils cool enough to let endangered plants take root? Would the otters, porcupines, lizards, fish and frogs and birds return? Pondoland coastal forests and grasslands, several of which contain Red Data species, are so sensitive that even overgrazing has resulted in the creation of many deserts, hot sand dunes like the picture I showed you earlier, on which nothing grows. That particular sand dune was created by overgrazing. And if you go into those sand dunes, what's interesting too is that they reveal very early stone tools that are probably over 1,000 years old, and have yet to be the focus of any archaeological investigation.
So there's an extraordinary political jujitsu going on here, offered by our Minister of Mineral Affairs, where neither archaeology nor ecology are part of his economy. For economy is simply finance. Ecology and geology for him seem to have no past and no future. There is only now. Political liberation is expected to come through trickle-downs. Those opposing the mine are opposing black economic empowerment, according to the government. Green, in that argument, is a hangover of pro-apartheid white.
In standing alongside those opposing titanium extraction in this jujitsu world, my colleagues in Environmental Humanities South and I find ourselves standing for a cliff that no longer exists, for black sand grains that have no existence in local everyday life, for people whose existence from the land seems to have no meaning to the mining companies, for Bazooka, whose existence is now with the ancestors and with the soil he died to preserve. We find ourselves speaking against corporate lawyers brandishing the name of Mandela and against the Minister of Mining, who is a neo-liberal member of the South African Communist Party. We are opposing the supposed government of liberation, and siding with environmental activists whose existence as Earth protectors is not yet acknowledged by white-dominated environmentalists in South Africa. This is our bizarre environmental humanities Anthropocene. Anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena who, some of you may know, has long worked in Peru, puts it best. 'Addressing the Anthropocene,' she says, 'requires addressing the anthropo-unseen.'
What research tactics can unmake these great derangements of our time, where things are not what they seem, where what you see blocks your sight, and what you expect doesn't appear? Is it possible to see titanium differently, and begin to change the conversation about its necessity? Might that shift the national dialogue that is so tied up in knots? So to try to answer that question, I began to try to think with the titanium itself, as a commodity and as an element with particular characteristics. Cosmological physicists make the case that titanium formed in the incredible forces when stars collapsed and supernovas exploded. That was the moment when the particular elements, atoms, coalesced in the way that they did.
Geological historians think that the metal hurtled through space in huge clouds of cosmic dust; that somewhere, somehow, began to find themselves in our solar system as it was taking form on the Orion arm of the galaxy that we see from the side and know as the Milky Way, shown here.
And slowly that dust began to cluster as asteroids, and these asteroids and space dust gravitated toward one another, eventually forming the Earth and our Moon, and other planets in our solar system. For chemists titanium is found in Box No. 22 on the Periodic Table, meaning it has got 22 protons, 26 neutrons in the nucleus, and 22 electrons that orbit in four very fascinating shells. It's a metal so unreactive, so stable, light and strong, that the German chemist Martin Klaproth gave it its name in the 1700s and chose to link it with the Titans of Greek mythology. You might remember the Titan Atlas, whose mission given by Zeus was to hold up the sky. It was that sort of superhuman strength that Klaproth was recognising in this new metal.
Now, the history of metals is interesting here. In the 19th century power, wealth creation and lifestyles depended on the production of iron, powered by the coal that began dancing in the chimneys of industrial Europe and its colonies. So that was in many ways the century of iron. In the 20th century copper and lead and stainless steel became the dominant metals, and political power, electrical power and the provision of metals became more and more dependent on one another. Copper carried electron flows, lead pipe carried water flows, and stainless steel turned into the new suburban lifestyle metal, melting and mixing iron atoms with chromium, nickel, molybdenum, silicon and aluminium, all of which needed to be mined and smelted; all of which required roads and railways and shipping, land and labour.
So you can see the Anthropocene getting more and more intense through this period of closer and closer relationship with different kinds of metal. Now titanium was isolated for the first time in 1910. It first began to have an economic existence in about the 1950s and was put to use in the Cold War to make lighter and more fuel-efficient planes, tanks and submarines for the Russians and the Americans.
Later, in the 20th century, titanium dioxide began to be marketed as a white pigment, because titanium dioxide molecules are so closely packed together that they reflect all visible light, making whatever is coated with it appear pure white. So where white paint used to get its whiteness from lead, this new, environmentally-friendly paint uses titanium to make a green alternative.
The South African Department of Mineral Resources notes that about 90% of global titanium dioxide is used to manufacture white pigment for plastics and paint and food. In other words, the mining at Xolobeni, which would primarily produce titanium dioxide, would destroy livelihoods all for a market that produces whiteness.
In what sense is it environmental to destroy beaches, lands, estuaries, ecologies and livelihoods for an aesthetic? Can we live without white paints? Let's think about white. Whiteness paints out dirt. It's part of an aesthetic of separateness from the Earth, of distaste for the Earth, in some respects, and earthly substances. Could being green include accepting that one is not surrounded by white paint, whether lead or titanium? Could we live without white foods? In packaging labels, E171 is the name for food-grade titanium dioxide, which gives whiteness to sweets, chocolates and chewing gums; pills and capsules in the pharmaceutical industry, toothpastes, and about 10% of most lipsticks.
So popular is E171 that at least one research team has claimed that a typical exposure for a US adult may be in the order of one milligram of titanium per kilogram body weight per day. That's important, because what makes a substance toxic is not only the quantity but the length of exposure. And earlier this month, in April, France's National Institute for Agricultural Research took the decision to ban titanium dioxide as a food additive, saying that the producers have not provided enough evidence to guarantee its safety.
There are also other kinds of environmental concerns, because at the other end of the spectrum, water treatment plants and sewage processing facilities rarely remove the titanium dioxide that has gone through the human guts. So there are some real concerns about the ecological effects of titanium dioxide molecules and nanoparticles in sea water and drinking water on fish and in the small marine organisms at the bottom of the food chain.
So titanium white is so reflective that it is offered as a green alternative to sunscreens, that were made with zinc and the other chemicals that contribute to coral bleaching. But I've read several papers that question whether those titanium sunscreens are safe, because in sunlight titanium degrades, releasing free radicals that may cause cellular or genetic damage. I'm sure you share my frustration in reading this. Why didn't I know this? Why was I not told? Am I safe to have used titanium sunscreens?
Your frustration and mine point to something important in the world of contemporary knowledge. Single, disciplined research goes admirably deep, but where in universities is the big-picture thinking? The reality is that big-picture thinking might be supported by occasional large grants to huge consortia of researchers, but there are barely any university disciplines that equip graduates with literacy in big-picture thinking that traverses all fields from science to justice.
The result is that even the most carefully, ethically cleared university research, and the best and brightest graduates, go out into the big wide world where the unscrupulous can pick and choose research to suit their own picture. And think tanks do that with aplomb. Yet there are very, very few places or people with the skills to hold those big pictures to account.
Beyond white foods, sunscreens and paints, titanium is a promising source of green energy. Because titanium dioxide and the sunlight releases that free radical, that electron, those ions, it is an excellent material for converting sunlight into electricity via solar panels. And again, replacing lead, this time in some of the major classes of photovoltaics. So current research on titanium dioxide explores its capacity for light-harvesting and charge transfer, all of which are the effects of its very delicate electron orbits.
So how to think through this? For me, clearly, as probably for you, having a green home would be incredibly desirable. A photovoltaic roof would be fantastic. But am I truly sustaining earth cycles if I get to live under solar roof tiles made directly from minerals obtained by forcing people off land? The surreal picture, if I think about it, is that where colonials in South Africa relied on black labour, dispossessed from land to support white lifestyles, in this situation black titanium sands, dispossessed of electrons (free radicals) come from black lands dispossessed of black people. And black labour would be providing the electrical labour to support my white, middle-class lifestyle.
A related harnessing of titanium's free radical is in photocatalysis, because titanium dioxide can be made to be ultra-reflective, its photocatalytic properties are celebrated by manufacturers as something that can be used to accelerate the process in which sunlight can kill micro-organisms in water. That would mean that clean water can be produced in less time than it takes sunlight to do it. That could be wonderful, but does it make sense to destroy drinkable, fresh-water streams to accelerate water cleaning that sunlight can do in any case, just a bit more slowly.
So, how do we begin to make meaning out of all of this? I wondered as I wrote this what your thoughts might be at this point about the meaning of all of this material, because in about 5,000 words I've sketched knowledges of titanium in health sciences, cosmology, geology, mining, manufacturing, Oxfam, interior decorating, and elemental physics, in order to try to engage as deeply as possible the claim that titanium will be the metal of the 21st century, and that green consumerism is the answer to planetary crisis.
The call to mine titanium for products to sustain the planet presents a surreal challenge. If my becoming green is counterposed by the 'unbecomings' of those at Xolobeni and Lutzville, and the dunes of Richards Bay among other places, then my being green is not a politics of sustainable life, but an unthinking politics that is part of the death of the Earth and of the lives and lifestyles of people and creatures who currently live in more Earth-friendly ways than I do.
So should there be a campaign against minerals obtained by dispossession, like there was a campaign against blood diamonds. I've heard phrases in some of the reading that I've done for like 'blood batteries', or perhaps the phrase 'blood solar panels' or even 'blood paint', would that kind of language protect places like Xolobeni and Lutzville? And by the way, the film Blood Diamond starring Matt Damon was filmed at Xolobeni. You can't make this stuff up. It is quite surreal.
But I'm not so sure that the phrases that traverse around the word, 'bloody' are terribly useful. Certainly a Fair Trade titanium would be important, but making fair titanium makes being green and fair and ethical into a consumer responsibility. And the problem is not just where the titanium comes from, but whether the Earth can absorb the ecological effect of titanium processing that requires such huge amounts of energy.
A more useful question to me seems to be this: does a green product make Earth life or consumer lifestyle more sustainable? So in choosing my products, which one am I going to go for? Is sustainability consumer lifestyle or is sustainability about life itself?
The titanium example also speaks to the importance of rethinking what knowledge is. It's clearly not enough to assess a sunscreen on whether it is coral-friendly. But the question is, are the environmental costs of manufacturing titanium dioxide acceptable? In assessing a transition to green energy, households and cities could be asking, do we need the same amount of electrical current from solar as from the coal grid, or can we live with less electricity? I am reminded that when big flat-screen TVs came out, the USA found itself needing to put up a whole lot more power stations just to cope with the extra load of the big screens.
Now, in imagining a big-picture environmentalism that can traverse all fields and that can assist us to actually make the kinds of decisions and build the kinds of eco-politics that can undo the Anthropocene, it's notable that decolonial thinkers like Edouard Glissant and Aimé Césaire and other Caribbean thinkers who inspired the magical realists, these are thinkers who used techniques of surrealism to destabilise the logics and languages of the colonial. Their work was presented in drama and poetry and highlights the derangements of their time in order to make it possible to destabilise the words and grammars that were turning every place, every thing and everyone into a measurable object. Aimé Césaire's famous quote is 'Colonisation is thingification'. And in so many ways we are still up against thingification. What he was up against, too, was the claim that it was reasonable, logic and rational to break relationalities and replace relations everywhere with the idea of objects that could be categorised and named in Encyclopaedia Britannica and other things as single objects without relations. So the surrealism of the decolonials, the ways in which they brought us to see relationships that were not supposed to be seen is an important resource for the environmental humanities in unmaking this Anthropocene with its conceptual jujitsus, because it calls us to forms of ecological politics in which relations, not only numbers and quantities, are what count.
There's a very interesting German scholar whose book has just recently come out, the book, called The Neganthropocene, really asks how can we negate the Anthropocene; what comes after the Anthropocene, how do we move towards that. And for him, too, the urgent issue is the question of knowledge. In order to unmake the Anthropocene, he argues, we need to address the forms of knowledge that dominate the contemporary worlds of experts and universities and consultants.
For Stiegler, when decision-making is reduced to knowledge that has been reduced in turn to single issues and to numbers that can measure things, for him we are then in the age of absolute non-knowledge. The history of the Anthropocene, says Stiegler, is the history of the rise of the calculative knowledge that is suited to capitalist logics and which functionally short-circuit every social system and all the forms of care they cultivate, such as justice, law and education. That non-knowledge, he argues, is post-truth. It dissolves all knowledge, all decisions into calculations. When that happens, he argues, there is the devaluation of all values that hold a society or a movement together.
What the titanium struggle in South Africa suggests to me is the necessity for any emerging eco-politics to centre questions of value, connectedness, relationality, alliance-building and justice in their engagement with environmental management sciences, including climate sciences, which, as I say, in South Africa have yet to build an alliance with environmental advocates like those in Xolobeni.
So environmental management sciences have become so technical. Working with Stiegler's ideas it seems to me that environmental sciences need to be re-socialised, brought back into care for justice. Extinctions rebellions and climate sciences, wherever they are, can and should find their form not only in the streets but in the trenches of contemporary struggles to live off the land.
I'd like to close by quoting an Italian novelist called Italo Calvino, from the novel Invisible Cities. And he says this:
'The inferno of the living is not something that will be. If there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many; accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension. Seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, and make them endure—give them space.'
Audience question 1: Hi Lesley, thanks so much. My questions are usually better formulated after events when I've walked some way on. I'm really interested in the idea of justice. I'm really interested in the idea of justice as a processual kind of framework through which we engage with all these various environments and our implications in the material kind of cultures that we're embedded in. And I just wondered if you could maybe unpack your kind of orientation towards justice and how you see it performing—being performed, being framed.
Lesley Green: Yeah, I think probably the most useful insight I ever found in thinking of environmental justice as not something that's out there but something that must be part of my own world, is Donna Haraway's concept of the Tentacular. To think of capitalism and by extension the Capitalocene as something that sucks us all in. And I think for me that's been a really useful—incredibly useful way to begin to think about what I want to oppose is not only 'out there', but it has to begin in my own household and I have to begin to recognise the ways in which I'm implicated in what I'm opposing.
And I think that's been a very, very useful thing to work with students, a useful concept to work with in classroom situations, because one is dealing with very personal issues, like what does 'whiteness' mean, what does 'blackness' mean? Who am I as a person, how does my personhood take form in relation to all of these issues. How did I get here? I got here in a plane. Fifty tonnes of that Boeing were titanium out of the 150 tonnes of the plane. And I think that as long as one can think through justice from the position of one's own feet, you've got the potential to come up with different kinds of answers. But I think that as long as justice stays something 'out there', that one is fighting 'bad people out there', I think it's going to be very difficult to form an eco-politics of alliances, because it's going to still be involved in 'othering', and yet we're all involved in the system that we try to change. That's for me the enormous challenge. Does that answer your question?
Audience question 2: Thank you so much, Lesley, that was an amazing talk, and it's very difficult to form a question because part of I think the effect of the talk was…you know, my head's exploding and it's sort of like, wow. So I apologise. It's a really bad question, but after you told the story of titanium and the very moving story of the activists you've been working with, you mentioned something like what research tactics can undo this great derangement, and I was almost at the point, like research? What is research going to do when we're up against all of these things that you have described? So I wondered if you could talk a little bit more—I know you've done more than just on this but in other cases about sorts of activism—that a researcher or a scholar, you know, someone who wants to sit and write books is called to in these times. Because I think what you're doing in Cape Town we could all learn lessons from, if you could talk about that a bit I'd be really grateful.
Lesley Green: Thanks, Astrida, for that question. The key reason why we put together that course on campus for which the three activists ended up getting sued was we wanted to ask the question, How is it possible to be a researcher in a time like this where you've got corporates and states hand in glove, and so much is secret. So much is out of the public view. And our sense was that in order to begin to do research that was going to have any kind of meaning, any usefulness in the public sphere, we were going to have to begin to learn from activists as to how to find out things and how to begin to work with information that wasn't available. And so that was the key reason for that workshop for which they then got sued.
So that was a shocking lesson in corporate overreach that a classroom of 40 people could have been photographed and recorded and end up in court. So I think that this also goes to the question of fracking in the United States. One of the earliest papers I wrote on materialism was on fracking. And I was astonished to see in one of the major journals, Engineering Science and Technology, which is right up there with Nature, one of the top three journals, that there was a review article published by eminent scientists, 'The Science of Fracking'. And yet what they didn't take into account, at all, in their review of fracking—this being a review article in the most eminent journal in the field—was going to be the definitive statement: 'Is fracking good to go, or should we stop?' And not once in that paper did they reach for information that was out of reach, even though there were so many out of court settlements, non-disclosure agreements. There was so clearly so many public secrets. And the scientists weren't getting at them because there was a sense of only being able to work with the data that was available. And it was astonishing to me that they didn't realise that simply doing a review of published science in the field was not adequate to answer the question they were asking.
So what did that mean for us in the environmental humanities? It meant that we needed to do a lot more work in thinking about science and contemporary democracy and to start to do a particular kind of STS (science studies) that challenged our colleagues in the sciences to pay attention to what they weren't able to see. And I think this is the really, really key thing where there's such a push among university vice-chancellors to do STEM subjects, you know, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, without doing humanities subjects. Because if you're just believing that all information is there and you're just going to be objective because the information is there, you miss a whole part of the big picture.
So I think that this whole experience of working with graduate students and working with activists has really taught me that we've got to do a very different kind of work, and perhaps that means in some cases working with investigative journalists. I'm not an investigative journalist; I don't want to be an investigative journalist. But to do the kind of research that gets into public secrets a whole lot more than we were trained to do.
Audience question 3: Lesley, your reference to conceptual jujitsu, that's a brilliant metaphor for the way in which we have to both use the strength of the opponent against them but we also have to stay one step ahead of them all the time, in case they use our strengths against us. So you refer at one point to the risk of being seen as correcting environmentalists on their racism, on their whiteness. Can you say a bit more about how that happens in the examples that you're talking about, can you say more about the confrontation with whiteness in the environmental movement?
Lesley Green: I can't speak about the environmental movement globally, but I can speak to what I've been researching and what my book is about, the one that's coming out. I wanted to try to understand, in working on that book, what is the operation of race and whiteness in environmental sciences and environmental management sciences, because it seemed to me that from a distance in the humanities that there was something really, really important going on about in post-apartheid South Africa, we're now 25 years after the first democratic elections. But it seemed to me that in post-apartheid South Africa I was seeing a retreat into the space of nature by whiteness, and this would be aided and abetted by the South African National Parks, which sets very high entry fees into national parks. So if you want to go to a white space, just go to a nature park. Go there for a holiday. Because you're going to be surrounded by white people, it's most astonishing. And somehow South African National Parks has never quite grasped that in setting their admissions fees quite the way that they've done, nature then by definition becomes a white space.
But more than that, in the environmental management sciences, what I was seeing was a retreat into unaccountable authority in the name of science. And that typically, and this has a large measure to do with a very poor South African education system going back decades but particularly black education and education in the sciences—has meant that very few, comparatively few black graduates come through the sciences. So again, scientific management, environmental management sciences are overwhelmingly dominated by senior white men. That would be okay if there was a willingness to explore white privilege and white authority, but there isn't.
And so what I've seen happening in all sorts of fields, whether we talk about baboon management or fisheries management or discussions over fracking or water management in the City of Cape Town, is an extraordinary retreat into an absolutely brittle, unassailable space of scientific expertise where quite literally the kind of figure that Bruno Latour puts up in his books on science, you know, the unassailable prophet of absolute truth is in that space.
And I can say it like that and it sounds surreal, but that's how it is. You've got people playing roles in environmental management with very little insight into what's going on. So, for example, a leading climate scientist could, without any thought to questions of justice in GM seeds, say, well we've got a climate emergency, we have to switch over to drought-friendly seeds, GM seeds. And to challenge that, and say that means that if the wind blows and the pollen goes on the wind, you're going to have a farmer who's going to be criminalised. That was just not on the radar, and it meant that often scientists would get extremely angry because you were challenging their authority. And who are you to do that in the social sciences?
So there's an extraordinary need for science studies in South Africa, and I want to emphasise that science studies is not taught in South Africa, and that has everything to do with the colonial experience. I think there's a whole history that I won't go into here. But science, and particularly environmental management sciences have not thought through the implications of giving governance advice in terms of questions of race and questions of justice. And I think that this is a very severe problem, because as climate crisis intensifies, I think we're moving to a time in democracies globally where scientific advice, and particularly environmental management advice, is going to be much more powerful than it ever has been. And if that is not accountable to publics, if there's no spaces of accountability for how that science is done, one is just left with statements of absolute truth against which you've got no political defence. So yeah, long answer to a short question.
Fiona Probyn-Rapsey: Please join me in thanking Lesley for a wonderful talk. Thank you so much.
This landmark lecture series offers a range of talks by leading international and Australian scholars in the Environmental Humanities. It will draw on insights from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology and related disciplines and explore the important role humanities can play in addressing some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our day.
About Lesley Green
Lesley Green is Professor of Anthropology and founding Director of Environmental Humanities South at the University of Cape Town. A Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2018, former Rockefeller Humanities Fellow at the Smithsonian and Mandela Fellow at Harvard, her research focuses on science and democracy in a time of climate change in South Africa.
Professor Green is the author of Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonising South Africa (2019), editor of Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge (2013) and co-author of Knowing the Day, Knowing the World: Engaging Amerindian Thought in Public Archaeology (2013).