What happens when you flush the loo – and other terrifying realities of our modern world

Review: Vivien Horler

Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists – Environmental stories from South Africa, by David Bristow (Jacana)

David Bristow starts this book referring to a photo doing the rounds on social media a few years ago. A young protester is holding a poster reading: “More trees, less assholes.”

Well, that’s one approach to saving our planet and we could do worse. As we know, there are plenty of assholes out there, although thankfully the candy floss-headed Asshole in Chief is on his way out.

How worried should we be about our planet? Very, says Bristow, author, journalist and environmental fundi.

Read his book and you’ll see why. He spent much of this year gathering and collating information from a variety of sources to write a South African-focused book on the predicament we find ourselves in.

Some of it you’ll know about, some you may not, but when collected all together as it is here, the situation becomes pretty sobering. Legal thrillers from the likes of John Grisham are certainly more fun to read (I was reading one simultaneously with  Big Pharma), but this book is more important.

He covers the big topics like climate change, rhino poaching and pollution as well as what he calls less obvious subjects such as the way food is produced, the plight of bees, how big business routinely lies to us, “and what happens after you flush the loo or put out your garbage bin. (Hopefully you wash your hands for starters.)”

We know about retreating glaciers, the melting of the ice caps and even something of the thawing of the permafrost, but Bristow includes some astonishing nuggets of information. These include the fact scientists believe the carcass of a diseased mammoth that popped out of the permafrost caused an outbreak of anthrax on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia.

Concerned that many of his readers might be suffering from advanced PCFS (planetary-collapse fatigue syndrome), he starts off his plastics chapter with what he calls some fun facts.

But they’re not much fun – for instance, nearly half all the plastic produced in the world today is used just once and then thrown away; less than 20% of all plastic produced is recycled; and every minute around the world, one million plastic bottles are bought and almost all of them will be thrown away.

I think the most shocking fact in the book was about plastic disposal and recycling.

He says five Asian countries – China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka – produce more than half  all the plastic waste going into our oceans. And here’s the shocking bit: “Even if you collected and disposed safely of all the plastics produced and used in Europe, the Americas, Australasia and Africa, it would make only a dent in this pile.”

So why bother then? Because we have to. Because there are heroes who are doing their bit and making a difference. Bristow describes some of them, such as Wellington biodynamic farmer Jeanne Malherbe, Angus McIntosh of Spier (who is apparently one of only two producers of genuine grass pasture-reared beef in the Western Cape), the South African racing driver Jody Scheckter who runs an organic and biodynamic farm in the UK.

There are the people who started the markets selling organic and wholesome produce including the Bryanston Organic and Natural Market in Joburg and Cape Town’s hugely popular Oranjezicht City Farm. There are the small urban farmers who have been taught the basics of soil care by Food & Trees for Africa.

And there are the young activists like Greta Thunberg, who in Bristow’s words has ignited a firecracker of youth protest around the world.

Like the young protester who wanted more trees and fewer assholes, Bristow wants “more whistleblowers, not leaf blowers”.

One tiny caveat: the book was poorly proof read. Surely Jacana has copy editors who know the difference between sewage and sewerage, know that it’s paid, not payed, and that it’s bazaar not bazar?

That aside, an important book written with a quirky  touch.

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