Category Archives: Essays

Drought: The Material Immaterial

This post first appeared on the Penn Program for Environmental Humanities Blog, which can be found here:

By Eckard Smuts

Fixing the number is not an easy matter. One media report claims that it is the worst drought in South Africa “in thirty years”;[1] another mentions 1992 as the previous benchmark.[2] The title of a third piece announces, rather puzzlingly, that the current lack of rainfall comes in the wake of the “third driest season in 80 years”.[3] A story in Al Jazeera summons 1982 as the former driest season. That piece goes on to present the thoughts of Lennox Mabaso, a spokesperson for the local government in Kwazulu-Natal (one of the worst hit areas), who reveals, simply but effectively, that the dams are at an “all-time low”, and that we are indeed in the midst of an “epic drought”.[4]

The South African Weather Service appears to have picked up on the media’s difficulty in ascertaining the comparative severity of the drought. In a report that presents the annual total rainfall in South Africa since 1904, they affirm (in bold – in a subheading, in fact) that “2015 was indeed a very dry year in South Africa”.[5] It gets worse: at 403mm of precipitation, 2015 was the single driest year over the “full 112-year period” (the yearly average is 608mm). It is not clear why “the full period” should begin 112 years ago. One imagines that earlier rainfall records for large swathes of the country are rather spotty. Nevertheless, 112 years is a substantial period of time, one against which fluctuations of a few years this way or that in various media reports seem to diminish in importance. The numbers – unsettled, wavering – conspire to tell us what we already know: it is very dry.

Comparative rainfall statistics is, however, not the only numerical paradigm along which the drought pipes its forbidding tune. Food, and the vast amounts of food that will have to be imported this year (5.67 million tonnes of grain is a conservative estimate)[6] – and more precisely, the cost of these imports (R14 billion for maize, a staple grain in South Africa)[7] as a figure in a fiscal budget that is already buckling under the strain of a number of industrial, political and socio-economic crises over the past year – means that the drought has begun to weave its sombre incantations over a whole different set of numbers, namely the numbers expected at the polling booth in the upcoming municipal elections (“Weather presents political challenge to ruling ANC”, reads a subtitle in one article).[8] Agricultural doom prophets have gone as far as comparing the pending food shortage in South Africa to the conditions that preceded the regime-toppling events of the Arab Spring.[9] (Is that a fair comparison? Difficult to say – most likely not. Things never do seem to ramify quite as catastrophically here as everyone expects them to.)

What is clear is that behind the swirl of numbers – the lists and statistics that attempt to map out and ratify this slow-moving, diffuse yet fearsomely implacable climatic event – there lurks a sense of the abysmal: a panicky premonition that some kind of standing order between society and the environment has been withdrawn, or that the collective bill for our climate debt has arrived, and there is nowhere left to shift the “unpaid costs”[10] (“It’s like a person in the distance. We can see him coming towards us,” says Hambaseni Mncube, a stricken farmer from Kwazulu-Natal, about the effects of the drought).[11] A drought is an insubstantial, drawn-out event (or precisely a non-event: drought is, among other things, another name for when it does not rain). It does not announce itself with a flash or a bang. Instead, it makes itself known through a series of diffuse effects that shift and ripple through the various systems that have evolved to accommodate our interactions with the world. These shifts and ripples accumulate, of course, into consequences of massive devastation and personal tragedy (more numbers: 1 353 980 cattle, 308 573 sheep and 969 275 goats in the Eastern Cape are said to be “rendered vulnerable” because of the drought;[12] in the Free State, a cattle farmer committed suicide one day before the first rain of the season)[13]. And that is precisely why drought is, I think, a suitable metaphor for our environmental thinking: it forces us to grapple with the relationship between systemic dysfunction and tangible suffering in the immediate world of things.

It does not seem possible enough water can ever again fall to damp or even to cool this parched and cracked earth and to fill these moats of burning sand. Optimism suggests it is only the great tidal swing of nature exemplified; that we are at the lowest point of the periphery, and that from now onwards it must rise steadily to better things. But at the back of one’s mind remains the pessimistic conviction, apparently borne out by every fact observed, that the oscillations of the pendulum are gradually lessening round the dead point.

These words were written by the South African poet and prolific amateur naturalist Eugène Marais somewhere near the start of the twentieth century, based on his observations of the effects of extreme drought in Waterberg, an area in the far north of the country.[14] If they are true, then we have by now graduated to somewhere well beyond the “dead point”: we are living, as it were, in a new, arid reality. We can stop worrying about the kind of world we will bequeath to the next generation, because we are already living in it. It is not clear yet what the full implications of the drought will be for the millions of South Africans who are already struggling to afford food.[15] It is probably time, however, to accept that our environmental thinking needs to adapt itself to what has been called the “new normal”. The challenge for the humanities, I think, is to figure out what that means.


1 “South Africa grapples with worst drought in thirty years,” BBC Africa, November 30, 2015

2 “First it was electricity, now water,” Mail & Guardian, November 1, 2015.

3 “SA drought follows third-driest season in 80 years,” Moneyweb, November 10, 2015.

4 “South Africa in midst of ‘epic drought’,” Al Jazeera, November 4, 2015.

5 De Jager, Elsa. “South Africa – Annual Total Rainfall.” South African Weather Service, January 13, 2016.

6 Willemse, Strydom and Venter. “Implications of the lingering 2015 drought on the economy, agricultural markets, food processors, input suppliers and the consumer.” December 11, 2015.

7 “Report: Fighting the Great South African Drought”, Daily Maverick, February 23, 2016.

8 “SA drought follows third-driest season in 80 years”, Moneyweb, November 10, 2015.

9 “Farmers bear brunt of South Africa’s severe drought: ‘All we can do is pray’”, The Guardian, November 17, 2015.

10 I am borrowing rather freely here from Canavan, Klarr and Vu’s fascinating re-interpretation of the idea of “ecological debt” along the lines of K. William Kapp’s notion of capitalism as a system of “unpaid costs” in their introduction to Polygraph 22: Ecology and Ideology (see pp3-5).

11 Hornby, D. and Vanderhagen, Y. “After the Drought: The rains have come to Msinga, but the devastation still remains. ” Daily Maverick, February 25, 2016.

12 “Op-Ed: SA Government’s numbers game”, Daily Maverick, February 8, 2016.

3 “Drought: Farmer commits suicide a day before rain falls”, (

14 Marais, E.N. “Notes on Some Effects of Extreme Drought in Waterberg.” Versamelde Werke Deel 2. Ed. Leon Rousseau. J.L. van Schaik: Pretoria, 1984. p1217.

15 “In 2012, the general household survey found that 14-million South Africans did not know where their next meal was coming from. Another 15-million were on the verge of this, and were one shock away from not having food,” writes Sipho Kings in the Mail & Guardian (“Full horror of drought emerges,” January 16, 2016).


Blomkamp, Ballard and the Hidden Politics of Overpopulation

“Squeezed out of existence”: The binaries and boundaries of overpopulation in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and JG Ballard’s “Billennium”

By Lizzy Steenkamp

In environmentalist discourse, the question of overpopulation is a controversial one as it is often still perceived as a problem exclusive to developing countries that exists only due to a lack of education that leads to large families (Fletcher 1198). In literature, overpopulation has been interrogated in many imaginative ways, and the two instances that will be discussed here – Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 film Elysium and J.G. Ballard’s short story “Billennium” (1962) – are important contributions to the field because they actively work against this assumption that the blame for overpopulation lies in the actions of the poor. These texts accomplish this by shifting the focus to the ways in which the structures of authority fail the poor and deliberately force them into a worse and worse condition. The subject will here be approached through the dystopian lens of the everyday life in overpopulated society as facilitated by narrative and cinematic technique. In terms of this, the primary foci are the ways in which boundaries and dichotomies are influenced by the increase of population. The boundary between the private and the public will receive special emphasis, as well as the effect of this on human interaction as well as alienation from the self and the loss of agency. The roles that societal institutions of authority play as catalysts for these processes will also be taken into consideration.

The deadly competition for Earth’s resources and space due to an increase in population is an issue that has not always been accepted as a valid concern, and is still considered a myth in even the most educated of areas. In terms of recent history, overpopulation emerged as a prominent threat after World War II and the subsequent “baby boom”: the effects were discussed in terms of important problems such as “security, the environment, poverty, food production and economic development in the global South” (Fletcher 1198). Overpopulation first began to be conceived of as an imminent threat in the late 1950’s, which eventually resulted in such preventative resources such as the United Nations Fund For Population Activities in 1969 (1199). The link between environmental degradation and overpopulation was only overtly established in the public consciousness in the seventies, largely to the Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb (1968) that contained accurate warnings about “environmental collapse, human suffering and massive starvation”(1200). The environmentalism of the 1980s saw the popularisation of an old argument that placed a lot of the blame for the population problem on the poor, labelling this class as a threat to the international community. Continue reading Blomkamp, Ballard and the Hidden Politics of Overpopulation

Annelies Vanherck on Toads, Roads and Children’s Literature

Mr. Toad on the Road

Text and sketches by Annelies Vanherck

Pictures by Annelies Vanherck and Peter Vanherck



This is the view behind my house in Mol, Belgium. It fascinates me to see how this landscape changes from day to day. I think it’s a very beautiful landscape, in a quiet, unimpressive sort of way. It is very green, which gives a lot of people the impression that all is well there. But it’s a landscape that has been formed and endlessly manipulated by people. This means there’s a vast array of ecological problems going on in this small stretch of land. One of these problems occurs all over Europe and also just down the road from my house.


car toad

Do you know this fictional character? This is Mr. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, a classic of English children’s literature. He’s an anthropomorphic toad who loves cars. He’s rich, likes technology and is known for his selfish and irresponsible driving and behaviour, even though he has a good heart. One of many interpretations of this character has been that it’s Grahame’s comment on industrialization.

As an illustrator I am very fond of the fantasty and I think imagining things should definitely be encouraged, but I also think that children’s literature has a great responsibility in educating children about animals. In Wind in the Willows, human and animal characters intermingle freely and there seems to be no difference in their behaviour. It is not the aim of this book to teach children about animal behaviour, but I still believe that the natural behaviour of animals should be taken into account when creating anthropomorphic characters. It is a great opportunity to bring children the right information. If they grow attached to the characters, maybe they will also learn to care for real animals as well. Continue reading Annelies Vanherck on Toads, Roads and Children’s Literature

Stephanie Dabrowski On Nature and Connectedness in A Monster Calls

The Concept of Nature and Connectedness in Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls – Stephanie Dabrowski

The term “Nature” has famously been described by Raymond Williams as “one of the most complex words in the English language” (in “Post-Secular” 287). This is an observation enforced by Lorraine Datson and Fernando Vidal’s assertion that “nothing even approximating a full-dress account of the multiple meanings and histories of the word ‘nature’ and its cognates (or lack thereof) [is to be found] in other languages”, emphasising instead the significance of the term’s “varied and complex meanings” (5). The value of this term lies precisely in this complexity as it becomes emulative of the character of humankind’s relationship with the natural world it occupies, a relationship more than ever in need of interrogation since the onset of modernity and particularly in consequence of the current ecocrisis. Significantly, the word ‘environment’ which has come to supersede ‘nature’ as the term of choice since the onset of this crisis obscures much of the meaning that was once inherent in the conception of the natural world. Various literary critics have focused on the significance of the loss of the word nature, citing in particular its coincidence with the disenchantment of the natural and the consequent exploitative practices that have led to the plight of the environment (see Marx). Within this context literature emerges as an important tool not only for drawing attention to specific environmental concerns and powerful imaginings of the future consequences of such practices but, moreover, as a forum for reconnecting with some of the lost meaning previously intrinsically connected to the concept of nature. One such literary example is Patrick Ness’s young adult novel A Monster Calls which, although not primarily concerned with environmental issues, evokes interesting thoughts on nature by embodying it as an ancient, shape-shifting monster which comes walking in the modern day world in the form of a yew tree. The monster, which comes to help an isolated thirteen-year-old boy, Conor O’Mally, confront his feelings about losing his mother from cancer in the absence of any other familial or social support, can be argued to represent a return to older mythic relations with nature as well as highlighting the disconnectedness which pervades modern society, a disconnectedness from nature which extends to a lack of connection between people.

Continue reading Stephanie Dabrowski On Nature and Connectedness in A Monster Calls

Louis Roux on Nine Inch Nails and the Politics of the Apocalypse

Living in the End Times: Year Zero and the Politics of the Apocalypse – Louis Roux


To say that Nine Inch Nails is a band is a bit of a misnomer: it is in fact the brainchild of one artist, Trent Reznor, who writes all of the lyrics, composes most of the music and plays most of the instruments. Coming mostly from a single artist, then, it is easy to see a unified vision in the albums that are for the most part concept albums, following direct story lines. The Downward Spiral (1995), for instance, tells the story of a man descending into madness and isolation, building an emotional wall between him and everything else. The Fragile (2005), released a decade later, follows on this album by exploring the consequences of tearing down this wall.

Year Zero (2007) takes place in the year 2022. After an unprovoked atomic attack by the USA on the Middle East, and the resultant conflicts and terrorist attacks on American soil, the world is in chaos. Global warming has reached crisis point and the weather has become more destructive than ever, especially after the nuclear holocaust. Resource scarcity is the biggest factor in international warfare. The American government has clamped down and renamed the year to year zero, the year America was ‘reborn’. Elections are no longer free, the draft has been instituted and there are tranquilizers called Parepin in the water supply to keep the populace calm. The most powerful authority is the U.S. Bureau of Morality, an NSA-like organization that keeps tabs on the people, apparently to combat terrorism, but also abducting, interrogating, torturing and executing dissenters, communists, homosexuals, Muslims, and any other ‘deviants’, under the auspices of an extreme version of the Patriot Act. Reports and rumours about ‘the Presence’, a ghostly hand reaching down from the sky, are beginning to circulate and no-one is sure whether it is God, aliens, a weather phenomenon or the hallucinatory effects of the medication in the water. The album shows, in my view, that ecological disaster can never be divorced from political, religious, class or gender concerns, and although much of the album focusses on technology, religion, violence and imperialism, it is always against the backdrop of a ruined earth.

Year Zero is the first Nine Inch Nails album to have an overt political message, and its story is also much looser, following several characters instead of the usual lone protagonist. What makes Year Zero truly special, though, is its use of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) for promotion, allowing listeners to become directly involved in the story of Year Zero through websites, secret codes hidden in merchandise, USB flashdrives dropped at strategic locations at concerts and other interactive materials. This makes the story of the album highly personalized for every user, since no-one will follow the same chronology. Due to the fluid, transient nature of the ARG, I will not try to follow the plot, or to construct a specific storyline, I will rather isolate motifs, themes, phrases, characters and other aesthetic elements from the album and its associated media and subject them to a close reading. In short, I will not be analysing the work as one would a traditional novel, but rather as a rhizomatic,[1] open-ended artwork. It is difficult to grasp, to tame, but all the more valuable for that: if the rhizomatic creates confusion in the ‘normal’ homogenous order of things, it also creates the space for dissent and rebellion in the gaps left by that confusion – spaces that Year Zero makes full use of. I will enter the work through the songs and attempt to link them to some of the websites and other media found in Appendix A, Exhibit 24,[2] a collection of many of the websites and other media, collected as evidence against someone only known as [SUBJECT CLASSIFIED].

Continue reading Louis Roux on Nine Inch Nails and the Politics of the Apocalypse

Philip Aghoghovwia on Nnimmo Bassey’s We thought it was oil but it was blood

Poetry and Activism as (New) Modes of Eco/Environmental Inflections in Nnimmo Bassey’s We thought it was oil but it was blood – Philip Aghoghovwia

In We thought it was oil but it was blood Nnimmo Bassey walks through a thin line between poetic commitment and socioenvironmental activism in bringing into the public sphere issues of sociocultural and environmental justice. The poetry collection carries the tone of subversion and defiance and the mood of anger provoked by a deep sense of denial, a collective deprivation of the people from access to the commonwealth which the oil brings. And the environment too, which suffers pollution as a result of mindless drilling of pipes into what he calls “mother earth”. Bassey creates a text that is at best poetic activism and at worst an environmental rights manifesto. His call for environmental justice at this conjuncture of on-going conversations on climate change indicts the oil extractive industry. The anthology, which Vanessa Baird describes as “dedicated to campaigning for environmental justice” (39), is a creative effort to capitalise on Bassey’s already established stature as an environmental rights activist. He poetically draws attention to corporate lawlessness and environmental crimes inflicted on local landscapes that bear fossil fuel for the oil extraction industry. His account of these spaces of environmental scrubland in the oil industry is concrete, for he has travelled throughout these parts to see first-hand how oil and other big businesses have destroyed local landscapes.

Continue reading Philip Aghoghovwia on Nnimmo Bassey’s We thought it was oil but it was blood

Petrie Meyer on Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide

Selling Nature to Humanists and Humanity to Environmentalists: Existence and Co-existence  in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide

Petrie Meyer, University of Stellenbosch

Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!

Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!

Earth of departed sunset—earth of the mountains misty-topt!

Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!

Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!

Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!

Far-swooping elbow’d earth—rich apple-blossom’d earth!

Smile, for your lover comes.

-Walt Whitman – Song of Myself

The indeterminate, fluid space of the Sundarbans in southern Bangladesh, where land and sea constantly yield to each other in a daily, elemental cycle, is the space Amitav Ghosh chooses to situate his 2005 novel, The Hungry Tide. This river delta, consisting of innumerable islands which appear and disappear according to the whims of tides and seasons, “a terrain where the boundaries between land and water are always mutating, always unpredictable” (18), is a landscape in which the sea, the river, the land, humans and animals all co-exist – sometimes in harmony, but often in competition. Within this space Ghosh, with the same beautiful sensitivity and balance with which he brings together cultures in An Antique Land, presents an environmental issue which has come to be recognized as one of the fundamental problem areas in conservationism – an issue Robert Cribb calls the “acute conflict” between conservation and human rights (Huggan and Tiffin, 4). In this conflict, a battle line has come to be been drawn between environmentally conscious groups fighting on the side of non-human nature, and human-rights groups on the side of the poor, the dispossessed and underdeveloped peoples of the world, with precious little middle ground  being acknowledged by either side. The Hungry Tide, with its complex mixture of people and landscape, steps into this conflict with an implied plea for moderation to both sides – a plea for the acknowledgement and understanding of the plight of the poor by environmentalists, and that of animals and nature by human-rights groups. To achieve this, Ghosh uses human history, human relationships and the desperation of human survival in a hostile natural environment to highlight the ‘humane’ in humanity and remind environmentalists of their own human nature, and myth and descriptions of the landscape, together with the plight of the endangered Ganges dolphin and tiger, to highlight the elemental, beautiful and fragile in Nature, in that way reaching out to the innate sense of connection that humans have with nature.

Continue reading Petrie Meyer on Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide

Jana Jacobs on Green the Film

Adjusting the lens: Green the Film and its documentary potential

– Jana Jacobs, University of Stellenbosch

Horak’s delineation of the development of wildlife documentaries over the past century raises concerns regarding trends towards commercial, consumer-oriented films and programs that culminate in the deeply problematic genre of what he classifies as “Animal TV”. Wildlife and nature documentaries have proliferated at a rapid rate and have become an integral part of television channels such as Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planet. David Attenborough’s narration of series such as Planet Earth (2006) has proven to be highly popular and bankable for the BBC. Not only are these television channels saturated with such programing, but documentaries also clamour for attention in the media market via IMAX theatres. These films offer viewers a sensory experience with spectacular cinematography and stories of animals that are often given names, followed on their journeys through nature and pitted against each other in dramatic encounters. Animals are essentially anthropomorphised in order to encourage identification with them and provide a pleasant viewing experience.

For Horak, the outlook on wildlife documentaries is particularly bleak. Documentaries – as made famous by David Attenborough – with their ‘omniscient’ voice-overs, outstanding cinematography and symphonic soundtracks seem to be more of an archiving of the filmed animals, “partially a desperate act  ‘to save’ wildlife for a virtual world” (Horak, 460); an effort to preserve them for the visual benefit of future generations. Beautiful as they are, their relevance in environmental and animal conservation remains questionable – are they confronting, or at least addressing immediate environmental concerns? It seems apparent then that these types of wildlife documentaries have become inextricably tied to the imperatives of the global media market place, and their efficacy in portraying environmental concerns has been displaced by the need for spectacular products that will secure a wide audience. On the other end of the spectrum, there are documentaries such as The Cove (2009) that rely on graphic, disturbing images in order to shock viewers into attention and potential action, but whether or not this action is taken or sustained is uncertain.

It seems to me that the central issue that remains unresolved is whether or not these documentaries are making a difference in the conservation and preservation of the animals they document. I do not think that this is an easily solved dilemma – particularly since the market is saturated with these types of documentaries. As such, they have set a certain “industry standard” by shaping human perceptions of nature, as well as consumer expectations when choosing a documentary to watch. To dismiss nature and wildlife documentaries wholesale as ill intended and exploitative is not a solution to Horak’s concerns. However these concerns do raise the question of how we are to present environmental issues effectively, in a new way that allows for change – or at least attempts a different perspective and avoids these problematic formulations of documentaries. In this paper, I would like to consider Green the Film (2009) in relation to the types of documentaries I have described. I find the film striking within this milieu and believe it provides us with the potential of approaching the wildlife documentary in a reinvigorated way.

Green the Film[1] tells the story of Green, an orangutan that has been displaced by the devastating deforestation of her natural habitat. The film opens with her, obviously weak, travelling in a duffle bag on the bag of a truck through the palm oil plantations that have replaced her home. The opening scene then cuts to her lying in a bed with an intravenous drip attached to her leg. We are acquainted with the room in which she finds herself through point-of-view shots as established from her position in the bed. The camera angles are askew, and the particular focus on the objects in the room is interesting. When looking at the clock on the wall, it is not the time that is privileged – instead the focus is on a gecko behind the clock. Immediately, we are alerted to a point of view that differs from our own – the orangutan sees the little creature, not the time. Although we initially look at Green, we are introduced to her way of looking as well – thus we are not gazing at her but gazing with her.

Green is in fact an orangutan named Sandra that filmmaker Patrick Rouxel came across in a refuge in Kalimantan in Indonesia. She had been captured on a palm oil plantation and brought to the refuge – completely paralysed on her left side and thus bed-bound. Upon seeing her in the refuge, Rouxel began filming her and eventually made the film. Rouxel is open about the fact that he “made up a story” with Green:

While editing Green, my biggest fear was that people wouldn’t ‘buy’ the story I had made up around Sandra. Anyone working closely with orangutans would be able to see that the orangutan in the opening shot and all those in the wild, in the degraded forests or in the oil palm plantations, are all different from one another, and from Sandra. Fortunately, the average viewer doesn’t really pick up on this and goes along with the story. And those who share my sensitivity actually do feel the pain and guilt. (Rouxel[2])

By using Green, Rouxel endeavours to bring awareness to the effects of the immense deforestation that is resulting in the massive decline of orangutans in the region. Green remains a film that is constructed to form a coherent narrative and convey a particular point; the structure of the film consists of cuts between Green in her refuge bed and the forest that she remembers and juxtaposes this with scenes of its degradation. Of course, Rouxel cannot know what Green is thinking but he imagines and constructs Green’s memory in an attempt to frame her point of view and in so doing present us with her world, essentially an animal subjectivity.

Continue reading Jana Jacobs on Green the Film