The Most Polluted Place on Earth ?

Where’s the most polluted place in the world ?

Typing the above question into a search engine will quickly throw-up a number of potential candidates:

- The city of Linfen, in the heart of China’s coal belt

- Kabwe in Zambia, the name of which literally translates as “ore” or “smelting”

- The industrial city of Vapi in the Gujarat, India

- The town of La Oroya, in the lead mining area of Peru

- The city of Sukinda, also in India, home to one of the world’s largest chromite mines

The truth is of course that it’s not that straightforward, or particularly meaningful to rank polluted places in this way. An area might be heavily contaminated, but with perhaps only a limited number of people being exposed; or there might be ongoing pollution of important rivers or ecosystems, but little direct risk to human health. It’s a bit like comparing apples and pears.

The Blacksmith Institute wrestle with these issues every year, to publish their well regarded list of the world’s ‘top 10 polluted places‘.

Regardless of the exact order of the ranking, these lists are very useful in highlighting pollution problems around the world, and two things in particular stand out:

Firstly, that millions of people around the world are having their health significantly affected by toxic pollution.

And secondly, the world’s most polluted places are all in the developing world.

The pollution stems from a range of local manufacturing, mining, smelting, processing and associated transport and energy production,  in large part associated with the production of consumer goods, food, clothing and other items – much of it destined for export to the rich world.

Not only has the West exported most of our manufacturing jobs to the developing economies – we’ve also largely exported our pollution too !

Industries move because the costs are lower – partly because labour is cheaper (people are paid less and receive fewer benefits, such as health care and pensions), and partly because there are less stringent environmental regulations and those that do exist tend to be less well enforced.

When companies talk about improved efficiency, lower overheads, improved shareholder value etc – they’re unfortunately not always talking about ‘the good stuff’ we want them to do. Often these terms are euphemisms for leaving many of the real costs of production to be paid for by someone else, other than the company or the consumer, such as exploited workers, or polluted environments. Ultimately it’s down to the desire for higher profits, and cheaper ‘stuff’.

This of course is not new.

A list of the world’s most polluted places produced around 1900 would have looked very different, comprising several of the large industrial cities of Europe. There is of course, still plenty of pollution in the West – but much of it is associated with old legacy industries, now long gone, but with their various toxic chemical footprints remaining - from UK’s Victorian gasworks and coal mines, to the sediments of the Great Lakes polluted by effluent from car manufacturing and other industries across the American Mid-West.

Over time we’ve tackled many (not all) our pollution problems, with reformers like Edwin Chadwick, Joeseph BazalgetteAlice Hamilton and Rachel Carson progressively bringing about changes to ensure the costs of controlling pollution were borne by whoever was responsible for producing it – the so called ‘polluter pays principle‘.

But this only applies in our own economies, and in our globalised, inter-connected world, the full costs of cheap goods is often left to be borne by others, invariably the poorest and most vulnerable. Unfortunately we consumers are all too often complicit in this process – with pollution being caused on our behalf on the other side of the planet, to keep down the cost of our food, clothes, mobile phones or children’s toys.

Ultimately the answer can only lie in paying the true price for things, so that pollution can be controlled, waste dealt with properly, resources used sustainably and workers treated fairly.

What we choose to spend our money on matters.

As a start we might want to check out the ethical credentials of the products we buy and the companies producing them (Ethical Consumer) – alternatively we could think about buying and consuming a little less . . . just a thought.

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Photo from Gambier20, via Flickr

Some Reflections on Kony 2012

With 70 million views in the last five days, if you’ve somehow missed the online controversy about the Kony2012 video you must have been orbiting a distant planet . . .

The 30 minute film, produced by Jason Russell, co-founder of the Organisation Invisible Children, describes the use of child soldiers and other harrowing aspects of the ongoing conflict in central Africa. In particular it takes aim at Joseph Kony, indicted war criminal and leader of the armed group The Lord’s Resistance Army. The video campaigns for the ongoing support of the current US military mission to Uganda, with a view to enabling the capture of Joseph Kony, in order to prevent his ongoing abduction and killing of children.

If you haven’t yet seen the video it is a very impressive piece of film making and well worth 30 minutes of your time.

The video’s popularity has resulted in a significant backlash and controversy.

Critics variously claim that: Invisible Children is simplistic regarding the complexity of the conflict; that they’ve selectively chosen to focus on Kony – even though many others, including the current Ugandan regime, are believed complicit in atrocities, that they are naive to promote a desire for peace by supporting the involvement of US military advisers, that the West has no right to get involved in Africa’s conflicts or disenfranchise Africans from decision making on their behalf, and that only limited percentage of donations given actually goes to fund work in Africa.

Opinion across the web now seems sharply divided, with many organisations, individuals and celebrities now expressing a range of views: The GuardianThe Telegraphthe BBCDaily MailBlack Star NewsCNNNational GeographicAl JazeeraJustin BieberWill SmithRihanna,Katie CouricStephen FryChris Blattman and President Obama.

Invisible Children have also respond to their critics on their website.

Like everyone else, when I first saw the Kony2012 video I was faced with an immediate decision – do I share and promote this across my social media, and perhaps support it further, by donating etc - Or not ?

Unless we’re intimately connected or knowledgeable about any given issue, when encountering it for the first time we don’t have the full facts available to us. We are unaware of the ‘backstory’, don’t know the motives of those involved, have only a limited grasp of the wider context, haven’t considered issues of president, practicality, cost, or the likely consequences, or possible unintended consequences . . . the world is complicated, and has complicated problems. Rarely are simple solutions available. A point I make in this site’s manifesto.

So what should we do ?

Mostly we turn to our search engines, and quickly discover there is another side to the issue, and more often than not several. But it’s impossible to read everything that exists, the shear abundance of information on the web mean nobody can be fully informed, only partly informed, based on the limited information we’ve read . . . and this applies as much to issues like climate change and the occupy movement, as it does to the Kony2012 campaign !

I’ve no detailed knowledge of the situation in central Africa. Like most of us, all I can do is read as widely around the issue as I can, educate myself, and attempt to form an opinion. Inevitably this limits the degree of confidence I can have that my own interpretation is the ‘right’ one.

But I believe strongly that we shouldn’t let such doubt and lack of certainty drive us into becoming detached observers.

Of course we should do our research and check our facts, but having done so I’m of the view that in most cases it’s far better to work towards an imperfect solution, than sitting back waiting for a perfect solution to emerge. Analysis and research are great, but by themselves they won’t change anything.

So this said where do I stand on Kony2012 ?

It seems clear that some of the criticisms of the campaign have some merit – there is an over-simplified, and fairly one sided presentation of a complex situation. The campaign does give the impression that the West can and should dictate solutions to Africans when in reality the West’s historic involvement in the region have created some of the conditions for the conflict. There is also a significant moral question about encouraging the world’s youth to campaign for the continuation of US military presence in Uganda, and the ambition to achieve what some might suggest is ‘peace via war’.

But we mustn’t loose sight of the key issues – Joseph Kony and his group are clearly some of the world’s bad guys, they are responsible for a catalogue of appalling atrocities, have been indicted by theInternational Criminal Court and unarguably should be brought to justice (as of course should other equally guilty parties engaged in the conflict).

The Kony2012 campaign has managed to shine a spotlight onto a remote conflict forgotten by most of the world, and has made tens of millions of people, in particular young people, debate peacemaking in Africa, child soldiers, the role of the West, poverty and development. It has managed to do in five days what the rest of the world’s humanitarian organisations have struggled to do in the last twenty years !

It might not be perfect, and it’s fundamental objectives - to help and protect those in need by raising awareness, lobbying democratic decision makers and raising funds to continue to do both – might be naive, but are surely not so very controversial !

My considered view is that the campaign seems a worthy thing to support – at least as far as promoting the video, and encouraging further debate of the issues.

There might be better alternatives to achieve a lasting and just peace on the ground in Central Africa, but from my armchair and laptop it would be arrogant in the extreme of me to suggest I knew what they were. We are all vulnerable to misinformation, propaganda, and manipulation – but we must think carefully how much we risk letting our reasonable questioning and skepticism, turn into cynicism and ultimately detachment.

For me, like most of us, the choice is not between voicing qualified and nuanced support of the Kony2012 campaign, and some other alternative solution, but  between qualified and nuanced support of Kony2012, and doing nothing.

While writing this I found myself thinking of the words of the last line in guitarist and activist Tom Morello’s song Maximum Firepower;  “You’ve got three more seconds to choose sides”.

It somehow seemed apt.

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Photo from Invisible Children

Meet Doc Hendley

A new series of ‘Meet….’ articles focusing on a diverse range of individuals, who are all currently working in their own way to try and make a positive difference in the world.

In his own words bartender Doc Hendley was an average student at school, he loved sports, but was never a star athlete – just a regular, ordinary guy who was never meant to have a profound impact on the world.

But while travelling the world, riding motorbikes, playing the guitar and working as a bartender, he learned of the water crisis faced by millions across the world, which motivated him to begin running charity fundraiser events in nightclubs to raise funds for water projects in the developing world. But rather than simply continuing to raise money, Doc decided to travel to Darfur in Sudan, during the genocide, to help install wells himself.

Doc believes passionately in everyone’s ability to make a real difference in the world, and in just a few years has founded the non-profit Wine to Water, which works closely with local people to provide skills and support so they can install and, crucially, maintain water wells and treatment systems. His organisation has been able to significantly drive down the cost of providing clean water to communities across the world, and provide clean water to thousands of people.

He was named as one of CNN’s Heroes of the Year in 2009, and has written a book about his story: Wine to Water – A Bartender’s Tale.

“Here’s to being a nobody.”

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in The Year I Saved the World]


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Photo from Wine to Water

Moving Mountains: Hunger and Waste in an Age of Austerity

Natalie Holmes lives and works in Berlin. She loves learning German, birdwatching and travelling by train, in between working as a  writer. A keen environmentalist, Natalie writes about sustainability and responsible travel on her blog, The Horseshoe Nail. 

One grim irony – and there are many – of the international debt crisis, aside from the obvious problems of limitless growth within finite resources, is that despite global attempts at austerity, waste continues to occur at unimaginable levels.

Italy, for example, whose debt mountain is the second largest in Europe, wastes over 30 per cent of its food, which works out at about $53 million. Reducing waste certainly won’t be the dynamite that blows a hole through that mountain of debt, which is a mind-boggling €240bn this year alone, but it will make a small dent, and surely save as much as some other individual austerity measures already suggested or implemented. It is not just Italy where this happens.  The US wastes the equivalent of 350 million barrels of oil a year in uneaten food.  In the UK, half the food produced on farms is thrown away, amounting to an eye-watering £20bn food mountain.

So why does such waste happen?

Firstly, consumers are led by omnipotent advertisers to believe that appearance is an indicator of quality. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation advises people to consider safety, nutrition and taste of food rather than the way it looks. An outrageous amount of perfectly edible produce gets discarded daily because it looks ‘off’, or in other words, not the technicolour stuff we’ve become accustomed to seeing in ads (and on the shelves). That freegans can survive almost solely on the contents of skips outside supermarkets is testament to the senseless waste that occurs in the name of aesthetics. In addition, consumers are urged to buy much more than they need, whether it be larger portion sizes in restaurants or two-for-one offers in shops.  Financial efficiency has been so misaligned that it actually became, in many cases, cheaper to waste food than to just buy what was needed.

In the end, of course, just as with homes, loans and everything else, there comes a point when the bubble bursts.

The sudden gaping hole, never invisible but until now ignored,  between the abstract ‘market’ and concrete reality threatens to swallow us all. We can no longer afford to waste. Food, money, resources, time are all precious and we must use them wisely.  This is arguably more important right now than ever before.

Instead of amending or fixing the system that got us into this mess, it seems like those in charge are building it up again identically, brick by brick; taking back their abusive but irresistible lover, hoping this time things’ll be different.

The waste that uncapped capitalism encourages continues, as does environmental degradation and widening social inequality.  That people in Somalia (and across the developing world, for that matter) starve to death in droves while Italy alone wastes  food that could produce 580 million meals a year is nothing short of obscene. “Try asking those people trekking across the Somali wastelands what austerity looks like.” Dan Hodges movingly blogged, asking why, in our modern world,  people can still starve to death. It’s certainly not for moral or logistical reasons, he points out, and if we can fund humanitarian intervention in Libya and other Middle Eastern countries, then why not Africa?

Sadly, I’d argue that it’s because we’re rebuilding a broken machine, one that is self-interested and self-governing.

There is undoubtedly aid ready to go into Somalia, but without governments providing security in this volatile region, there is no way to safely get it to those who need it. The bottomless pockets of cash that were available for Iraq and Afghanistan have mysteriously dried up.

Is it too cynical to assume that this is because Somalia, unlike the Middle East, has few natural resources worth exploiting?

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Photo by Sporkist, via Flickr

Half the Sky

March 8th is International Women’s Day – one of the aims of which is to highlight the discrimination and oppression that continues to affect millions of women worldwide. The three books below all powerfully describe the challenges faced by many women living in poverty around the globe.

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

There is a Chinese saying that ‘Women hold up half the sky’, but in many parts of the world women are treated as anything but equal to men – experiencing violence, abuse and exploitation. Half the Sky tells the stories of women across the developing world facing such challenges, but rather than being upsettingly depressing, it remains positive and upbeat, focusing on the advances and victories that have been obtained, and the often inspiring stories of the women who achieved them.

Sheryl WuDunn and her husband Nicholas Kristof had previously jointly won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting of the Tianamen Square protests, and has gone on to win numerous other awards since. They argue in their book that ‘the oppression of women worldwide is the paramount moral challenge of the present era’.

The Washington Post described Half the Sky as ‘one of the most important books we have ever reviewed – a call to arms that asks us to open our eyes to this enormous humanitarian issue’.

The Half the Sky Movement works to empower women and girls to fight poverty and extremism across the world. [Amazon]

The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz

Jacqueline Novogratz tells the remarkable story of how, after donating an old blue sweater to charity while at college in the US, she was amazed ten years later to see a young boy wearing her old sweater in Rwanda, where she was working as an aid worker. Stunned at how inter-connected the world is, she went on to write The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between the Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World.

The Blue Sweater describes Jacqueline’s trial and error approaches to supporting African woman through micro-loans and other means in her early days in Kenya, efforts which were very often unsuccessful and not appreciated by those she was trying to help. Over time and with reflection Jacqueline and her colleagues realised that more than just access to capital was needed if they were to transform the lives of the women they were seeking to help – women who have always been excluded from financial affairs, and must also find time in their day to struggle to care for their children, provide food and clean water and obtain basic health care, often with little support from men.

Jacqueline has gone on to found the Acumen Fund, which aims to use entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problem of global poverty. [Amazon]

Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara and Susan McClelland

As a small child in a village in Sierra Leone, Mariatu Kamara lived a peaceful life with her family and friends. One day during the civil war, the rebel soldiers came, many themselves children, and 12 year old Mariatu was captured and attacked. Having killed most of her family and friends, the soldiers decided to release Mariatu, but not before cutting off both her hands. Later, a she hid in the jungle she was faced with the challenge of how to feed herself and considered simply giving up, but she was determined to survive and finally managed to take a bite of the mango, she’d been given, holding it between her forarms.

The book tells of Mariatu’s experiences after the attack, and the difficulties she needed to overcome to adjust to life without her family or the use of her hands – including time spent in refugee camps, and begging on the streets of Freetown. Eventually she was able to secure a new life in Canada.

In recent years Mariatu has been named UNICEF Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, and has set-up the Mariatu Foundation to provide a much needed refuge for women and children in Sierra Leone. [Amazon]


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Photo by Afghanistan Matters, via Flickr