Society is built on a bedrock of pollution, of treating the world as an endless source of resources and a place where waste can constantly be dumped, including excessively high carbon emissions.
But everything we do comes at a cost. We see this cost in sewage flooding into rivers, extremes in weather, the mass die-offs of insects and the planet-wide extinction of our fellow species. We have usually been able to get these other living organisms to bear the cost.
Now the air that we breathe is killing at least 50 people every single day in South Africa, and results in countless others being admitted to hospital. Some of this air pollution is natural, for example, dust on the dry Highveld.
Large emitters of pollution such as Eskom, Sasol and ArcelorMittal have taken few steps to fix a problem born from the reckless way in which the apartheid regime treated people’s health. But pollution continues in South Africa today. This is an issue of oversight and greed, with profits preferred over people’s health.
But it also comes from government. That’s why the president’s State of the Nation address was littered with references to concepts like cutting red tape, that euphemism for ignoring social and environmental concerns.
The state also drives pollution through, for example, the collapse of municipalities and utilities, with people forced to pollute their homes when they burn coal and wood for heat and to cook food. People burn waste when it is not collected, and tyres to demand attention to this failure to deliver services.
We are quick to blame companies and the government for pollution, but we are also all culpable. This is also about how each one of us pollutes the air — the exhaust fumes from the cars we drive, the fires we burn, the food transported from abroad, the products we want that are made in factories.
As South Africa’s chief air quality officer, Thuli Khumalo, says: “We have a blame culture in South Africa”; someone else is responsible. The state and utilities must do better. So should we.