Fighting for environmental health in Durban

Desmond D'Sa, coordinator for the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance
Desmond D'Sa, coordinator for the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (Photo credit: idex.org)

It’s hard to miss the major UN climate conference going on in Durban, South Africa right now (this one’s better known as COP 17), if only for the almost-daily embarrassments from Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent. He’s really good at sticking to his talking points about wanting major emitters like China and India included in any binding global agreement to lower carbon emissions. He seems unwilling to admit the uncomfortable fact that in a cumulative sense Canada is also a major emitter, because we’ve run an industrialized economy on fossil fuels for well over a century.

We were throwing ideas around at Terra Informa on how to cover what’s been happening in Durban, and decided an interesting approach might be to see what kind of work environmental organizations in the city have been up to. As it turns out, this is a big story. Fellow Terra Informer Kathryn Lennon and I tracked down a man named Desmond D’Sa who’s been working for over 15 years in South Durban to protect the health of locals from pollution in the area.

Des helped start an organization called the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance when he was part of a household survey that noticed diseases like asthma and cancers were much more common in their part of the city than elsewhere. Through research and environmental monitoring, they’ve been able to connect that to the industrial sites like oil refineries and paper mills that are concentrated in the poorer neighbourhoods in the south of the city. And as you can imagine, he had a lot to say about fossil fuel industries and the UN talks.

Listen to the interview online here.

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Hope and groundwork

Man weaving kente in Eastern Region, Ghana

Hi there.

You might know me personally, or have encountered some of my other writing drifting around the world, or maybe you don’t know who I am at all. I’m someone with a lot of curiosity and a lot of passion for contributing positively to my communities in the ways I can. I’m embarking on a path into journalism as one way to do that. And I’ve decided to make this blog to get across ideas that don’t really fit anywhere else, and collect some of the things I’ve worked on.

I’ve been in the social justice and journalism worlds for a little while now, and I think work in both can do a lot to rattle us loose from feeling complacent about this world. One thing that really irks me about both too, though, is that we can very easily get sucked into the undertow of waves of sarcasm,┬áskepticism, and cynicism. It’s so easy for us to fall into that trap of always criticizing action, and never proposing a new vision. Criticism and protest can become a refuge for us when we’re eaten up by intellectual cowardice.

Often when I write, I have Ishmael author Daniel Quinn murmuring in the back of my head. In one of his books, he says that vision is like the flowing river — meaning, to me, that criticism and opposition to a mainstream vision are like putting sticks in the middle of a river to stop its flow. You might, it’s true, eventually dam up the river. A much easier way to change minds though, he says, is to offer a new path, a new channel for ideas to flow through. Once a trickle starts, more will follow, until you have a flood.

I can see many people I admire groping towards these new visions. I am humbled by the courage of the people this year who’ve been beaten back in Tahrir Square, used tent cities to challenge economic orthodoxy, and tried to make us see our place among viruses and tectonic plates. I want to make sure to tell those hopeful stories, to lay the groundwork for what comes next.

I believe we need to build a world where we see ourselves as citizens of our human and ecological communities, with the right to live on this earth and the responsibility to make them more robust, more resilient. That means not just halting the species crash, but reversing it: contributing to spaces that nurture new life, expanding them. Not just giving aid to people in poverty, but reshaping our society so all of us have the power to reach our potential. It means making our “waste” streams a useful, healthy part of our ecosystems’ survival. And building a place for ourselves again amidst long-lasting, diverse communities of organisms with room to grow.

I won’t pretend I’ve got all this figured out. My aim, though, is to use this space as much to tell those stories as to ramble on about what I think you might find important to know. Criticism is important. It exposes hypocrisy, abuses, and inaction. But I think we can do better than just that.