One person's excess is another’s empty belly. During the Live Earth concert held in Johannesburg in 2007, as part of a planet-wide effort to increase awareness around climate change, Conservation International installed a carbon footprint calculator in the VIP lounge.
Performing artists and guests were asked to calculate how much carbon they produce from their domestic electricity consumption, food, waste and travel. One particularly glamorous socialite admitted to spending R4 000 a month on electricity. That's about 40 times what I use each month, and even mine could be reduced.
The socialite admitted that part of her expense was keeping underfloor heating running through her home, including in the garage because she didn't like getting into a cold car in the mornings. Now consider Hendrik Hesselman, a rooibos farmer on Dobbelaarskop farm in the Northern Cape.
He doesn't have a single appliance drawing electricity from the national grid. His family's only emissions come from the few hundred litres of fuel they can afford each year, some from ploughing a few fields for livestock fodder or planting rooibos, some from their food and domestic waste.
There are two sides to any story - which in this case typify precisely the moral dilemma facing the planet at this time of unequivocal crisis. In the Northern Cape rooibos growing region there are the sharecroppers of the Suid Bokkeveld, at one end of the social spectrum, are poor, barely literate and are likely to lose their livelihood to the encroaching desert.
The second side of the story is of the well-heeled consumer of that very rooibos product who enjoys the comfort of affluence and the security of wealth. While wealth and excess of the planet's rich drive the pollution responsible for global warming, it is the economically marginal that will be hardest hit by the environmental shocks that are the inevitable fallout of that pollution.
The obvious target for criticism is the United States, whose first-world affluence produces 20 percent of global emissions from only five percent of the world's population. China is fast closing the gap between itself and the US but still weighs in at 15 percent of global emissions.
According to the World Resources Institute, the US produces 24 tons of C02 per capita, China only four tons per person every year. Compared with the rest of the world, South Africa only emits 1.23 percent of the global total. But according to University of Cape Town's Energy Research Centre, the average South African produces 7.5 times more C02 than the average African and our per capita output - nearly 10 tons per person - is three and a half times the average for the developing world.
With our country's ambitious target of a six percent growth rate, on the back of cheap and dirty coal, we are likely to quadruple our emissions within the next 50 years if we continue business as usual.
According to the State of Environment Report, South Africa's poor are getting poorer. In 1995, 16 percent of South Africans lived on less than a dollar a day. By 2002, that had doubled to a third of the country's population.
Wits sociologist Dr Jacklyn Cock states that the same patterns of deprivation and over-consumption seen elsewhere on the globe are manifest in post-apartheid South Africa - the most unequal society in the world. Almost half of all households, she says, live below the estimated poverty line. According to 2006 prices, this is measured as being about R431 per person per month.
That's less than I spend on groceries for two each week. "The CEOs of our 50 largest and most influential companies each earn, on average, more than R15 million a year - more than 700 times the minimum wage," writes Cock.
Who would have thought, when that first steam engine was unveiled at the start of the Industrial Revolution, that a community's actions on one side of the planet would uncouple systems upon which people are dependent half a world away? As far as the emerging rooibos farmers of the Suid Bokkeveld are concerned, the developed world is tugging on a thread, mostly in the north, and producing atmospheric pollution that is causing the cloth to unravel so far away in the south.
The cycle which brings the Dobbelaarskop farm its water is beyond the ownership rights of anybody, whether national or private. Similarly the fish of the Benguela current or the rainstorms of the Free State. They are part of the greater system, those global commons are supposed to be held in trust for us, by us. It is a problem we have inherited from our parents, and have already passed on to our unborn children.
While policy-makers and individuals scrabble about looking for ways to change the lifestyles and fuels which are at the root of the problem, we must never forget the people out there who have no way of stepping out of the path of the approaching onslaught. To quote George Monbiot, we find ourselves "standing at the interstices between ecological collapse and ecological catastrophe".By Leonie Joubert