My Green Christmas

The closest thing to a white Christmas I might experience this year is that one of Cape Town’s shopping malls has built a giant ice slide that rich people can pay to go down for the exotic experience of it. I could afford it actually, but I’d prefer to get a steak dinner for the same price. And while I admit that my credentials as an eco-warrior are rather shaky, I really don’t see much ecological sense in my patronizing such a project.

This month began with South Africa hosting a climate change conference that was supposed to, yet again, find a way of continuing on with the Kyoto process. I take the fact that I haven’t heard much about the outcomes there to be a sign that a) I haven’t been tracking on the news so much this month, and b) they didn’t accomplish much worthy of international attention there in Durban. Both are rather sad in their own way, but neither case is hopeless: my landlord has reconnected the BBC/CNN service on the little TV in my apartment now, and there is still a chance that the environmental awareness education initiatives now in play will yield fruit before we entirely fry this planet.

For now my biggest contribution to limiting the environmental damage I do at Christmas time is just personally not consuming that much. I haven’t taken part in any of the shopping orgies or the mortal combat that goes with them these days, mostly because I don’t have that much to spend (though that obviously doesn’t stop some people). But also, I must admit, I’m too lazy to attempt to prove my love for those I care about in that particular sort of way.

What money I have comes primarily from a process of selling knowledge and ideas. I am a teacher, and what I have been paid to teach, in a nutshell, is a general idea of how our minds work, what our cultures expect from us, what various cultures consider to be important, how we can decide what is true and how we can be “good people.” I’ve established a reasonably sound professional reputation regarding the quality of my knowledge in such areas — enough where members of Finland’s upper middle class have trusted me to impart such knowledge to their children. In exchange for that I was given enough to nearly get by with a lower middle class lifestyle there. I don’t feel sorry for myself about such matters in the slightest: teaching those things to children has been the most personally fulfilling work I ever could have asked for. It just goes with the territory, however, that at Christmas time in particular I’ve never been in a position to express my love to family and friends in flamboyantly materialist terms.

Now in the olden days the way things worked is that Christmas presents were things people made for each other in whatever spare time they could take from their basic struggle for survival, out of whatever they happened to have on hand. Handcrafts were quite common gifts, but they were never cliché because every such toy or decoration reflected the idiosyncrasies and personal affection of its maker. Tradesmen, meanwhile, could offer some extra of whatever they specialized in making as gifts: Bakers would give pies, cakes and cookies to those they cared about. Carpenters would give chests, cabinets, tables and chairs. Butchers would give fine pieces of meat. Musicians would give private performances, and so on.

rag bunny

A crazy handmade gift I gave to my godson a few years ago.

Over the years I have tried to use a bit of both of these old-time systems. I don’t think that many of the handcrafts I’ve made for people have survived, but hopefully one or two are still in someone’s attic somewhere. More importantly though, I hope that those who received such thing from me recognize the amount of sincere care for them that went into such projects.

As to my attempts to give products of my trade to those I love, it has been a more inadvertent process: over celebrations and in a state of good cheer I have regularly slipped into lecturing or debating mode. Occasionally other guests have enjoyed this, but more often it has merely been tolerated. Very rarely has it been taken as a gift.

Regardless of that fact, in talking with friends lately I’ve been tossing out an idea that some consider to be potentially quite valuable, and not only that but particularly healthy for our environment. I certainly hope it might be, but I’m still rather pessimistic about my chances of selling it, so as my Christmas present to whomever can benefit from this I give it freely in the spirit of the season:

A couple of months ago my very special friend and I took a trip up the northwest coast of South Africa, and against the recommendations of the tourist information services we went to see a little town called Kleinzee. This town is on the southern end of the African Atlantic diamond mining and prospecting range, but it is no longer much of a jewel. In fact the De Beers Corporation –– which owns the town, lock, stock and barrel –– has concluded that the expense of extracting diamonds and keeping them from getting stolen on the way to market, even while paying miners’ wages far lower than what I have made as a school teacher, is no longer profitable. Kleinzee has thus become a high security, wind-swept ghost town.

The Kleinzee mine shop

In the old days, as Ernie Ford used to sing, miners would have "sold their souls to the company store." These days the company store isn't buying.

Prior to its industrialization as a diamond town, the Kleinzee area was populated primarily by nomadic herding people, grazing their small flocks on the scrub grasses growing in the area. The lack of fresh water and the vicious winds blowing up and down the coast kept it from being useful for much else. So with the diamonds mostly gone, what the area has left is a lot of sun and wind and surf, plenty of recently abandoned housing and residential and industrial infrastructure, and not much else. To my mind, however, this presents an outstanding opportunity.

The first thing to be built in Kleinzee would be a wind power generating site. Power cables supplying vast amounts of electricity from the coal fired national electric grid to the diamond mines are still in place. There is no one around to complain about the aesthetics of windmills, and the exposed bedrock of the abandoned mining facilities could provide the most solid anchoring points for tall masts that anyone could hope for. As for the strength of the wind itself there, the amount of power available is legendary.

A very wind swept beach from which they used to send men out to dredge for diamonds.

But that would just be an immediate starting point. With wind power construction finished and turning a quick profit for the town, human energies could then be turned to constructing facilities to utilize the other resources available in the region: continuous intense sun, sea water and arid scrub land. One of the simplest ways to generate electricity from solar power is by setting up a large field of parabolic mirrors to direct the sun’s heat to some sort of large cauldron in which you boil water, thus creating steam pressure with which to turn a turbine. The inevitable by-product of such a process is either steam released into the atmosphere, or more sensibly, distilled water. Besides meeting the fresh water needs of the local population, this solar distilled/desalinated water could be used to efficiently irrigate the land on the banks of the dried river bed that “flows” through Kleinzee. At a minimum this land could then be used to grow large quantities of indigenous grasses with outstanding carbon capturing properties. On a more ambitious level it would be possible to initiate an agricultural operation there which could provide for the nutritional needs of the local power station population with a bit left over for export.

And with that sort of infrastructure in place, the town could then turn to developing its own tourism industry. With sun, sand and surf aplenty; with people coming to see the exemplary use of relatively simple technologies in reviving a dead, one-company town; and with the potential added bonus of De Beers allowing amateur diamond prospectors into the old mining areas to try their hand at finding genuine diamonds in the rough; this could be a major business unto itself.

On that last item, it would basically be taking a page out of the playbook of old gold and silver mining areas. With most of the big fortunes to be made having already come and gone, rather than attempting to capitalize on industrial profits from these resources such towns can still turn a tidy profit off of tourists who come to play prospector. The last such place I visited was Finland’s Ivalojoki region, where my sons, then in elementary school, asked me to take them on our summer vacation, with dreams of finding a gold nugget that would make us rich. It plays off of the same psychological drives as a casino: everyone coming with a dream of getting rich against the odds, even though they know that in the end the house always wins.

In this case the house can no longer turn a profit at mining the area, but they can clean up the mine area enough to make it impeccably safe for tourists and then sell tickets down into it which would include hard hats, pickaxes, specimen bags and instructions in mineral identification. A certain number of tourists could then spend the day chipping away at the cavern walls to their hearts’ content, and when they would come up from their adventures they could then sit down with an expert who could go through their finds with them, helping them identify and certify any genuinely valuable stones they may have discovered. The company could then offer to buy any merely industrial grade diamonds they might come out with, encouraging them to hang onto their more beautiful gems. Meanwhile, in addition to collecting fees for the actual certification of any diamonds tourists happen to find;  De Beers could also have jewelers on hand to cut the stones and make the rings, earrings, necklaces and whatever that the finders would want; and eventually they could even set up genuine casinos there to win back a portion of the quick riches found by the fortunate few. High security would still be needed to keep explosives, firearms and organized crime out of the area, but these things could be readily paid for by the new sources of revenue the town would start generating. One or two such tourists might actually get a small fortune in the process, but most would be simply paying for the sense of adventure, and doing so gladly.

Then the final kicker for this idea would be that Kleinzee is far from the only site in the world with a plenty of sun and wind and sea water, but with a shortage of fresh water and employment opportunities. By bringing these elements together in a profitable manner this town — and the company that owns it — can pioneer a new era of sustainable development for warm coastal desert regions of the world. From Spain to Australia to Mexico, the market for such technology could be vast, especially after it has been proven in practice by someone bold enough to use it to rebuild a ghost town.

The major drawback of this whole scheme that friends have presented me with is that the ones who stand to profit from it most extensively are the robber barons of the De Beers empire. Why would anyone want to toss out ideas that will help make them richer? For that I have two answers. First of all any company which would have the resources and the initiative to set up the sort of environmentally friendly, carbon reducing and employment providing scheme I am talking about in my honest opinion morally deserve to profit from it, regardless of how checkered the history of their fortune might be. Secondly, I believe that even within companies with the most sinister business reputations there are men of conscience who want to protect our planet for the use of their own grandchildren, and who might even care about reducing unnecessary human suffering to for their neighbors, regardless of their skin color. Under such circumstances Assisting them in finding the means to “do good by doing well” is not at all against my principles.

So there it is –– my utopian idea of how a significant number of challenges on the local and global levels could be simultaneously addressed here to the benefit of all. Please feel free to point out the logistical limitations of such a plan if you can think of any. Please pass this on into any significant debate forums you happen to know of on environmental issues to drum up support for such common sense initiatives. Please pass this on to anyone you happen to know who is close to a decision making capacity on such matters. And above all, please join me in continuing to wish “peace on earth, good will towards man” in line with the ideal essence of this holiday season.

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1 Comment

Filed under Ethics, Holidays, Risk taking, Sustainability

One response to “My Green Christmas

  1. As a fellow traveler and human I thank you for thinking this through or I would rather say True. Search for the truth. On the development aspect I have experience with deserted gold mining towns of the Rocky Mtns..U.S., and you are on track w/planning/tourism/self sufficient.

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