Monday, September 28, 2009


Earlier today I received a lengthy essay on the crisis of responsibility, entitled "No individual raindrop ever considers itself responsible for the flood". The essay deplored the tendency in modern society to shuffle off responsibility for collective action. It was primarily directed at financial regulators, politicians, economists, bankers and all those individuals whose collective actions (and inaction) plunged the global economy into recession.

It might, however, also have been directed at all of us who, through inaction, are plunging us into rapid and irreversible climate change. While numerous models of change and consequence exist, what is unarguable is that climate change is upon us, and that humanity probably still, just, has the power to curb its excesses.

There is an often-repeated wisdom that Africa will be particularly affected by climate change. I find this a little bit hard to understand – it seems to me that, just as in the recent economic turmoil, wealthier countries will bear a much higher cost, though I acknowledge that superior material and technological resources may lead to greater resilience. Having said that, one cannot but think back to the chaos caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to the droughts and fires which are destroying so much of Australia, and wonder that a movement in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide from 0.03% to 0.04%, (of 100 parts in a million), could result in climate change so destructive that it threatens human life on earth. Yet this is what our scientists tell us and, in general, scientists rarely make professional statements that are unsupported by rigour, research and evidence. The climate change campaigning website actually proposes that 350 parts per million (0.035%) is the maximum level of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at which life – as we currently know it – can continue without major irreversible change.

To understand the carbon cycle, it is hard to think of a better introduction than the final chapter of Primo Levi’s astonishing autobiography, The Periodic Table. Levi’s spare and scientific style is shown to great effect in the 21 element-episodes which comprise this wonderful book. The final chapter is simply entitled Carbon and it charts the progress of a single atom of carbon. Critics consider this chapter heavy-handed and fanciful: it is anything but. As Levi says “It is possible to demonstrate that this completely arbitrary story is… true. I could tell innumerable other stories and they would all be true….. The number of [carbon] atoms is so great that one could always be found whose story coincides with any capriciously invented story”. The atom is present in limestone (calcium carbonate] – itself an ancient product of the continuous calcium cycle in the oceans – it is then liberated through roasting in a lime kiln as a carbon dioxide molecule; it whirls around the world in the atmosphere for 12 years before being captured through photosynthesis; it is converted into glucose, consumed, digested and released once again as carbon dioxide. The cycle continues.

In the narrative, other facts emerge. Levi remarks that carbon exists in the atmosphere in tiny quantities - 0.03% at his time of writing - and from this impurity proceeds all life on earth. He comments briefly on the miraculous nature of photosynthesis – chemistry at the minuscule atomic level in which the carbon atom is freed from its pair of oxygen atoms and converted into organic compounds which support the chain of life.

The chapter which immediately precedes Carbon is entitled Vanadium. In truth, the metal Vanadium is tangential to the story, which focuses on the subjects of responsibility and acceptance so brilliantly dealt with in If This is a Man and The Truce. In Vanadium, his search for the obscure compound Vanadium Napthenate led Levi to make contact with a German scientist who –during Levi’s imprisonment in Auschwitz – had briefly been his employer as a chemist attached to an IG Farben Buna rubber factory near the concentration camp. They exchange letters but, before they can meet, the scientist dies. Levi is therefore unable to tell him that it is not enough to be honest, unarmed and a non-participant:-

“In the real world the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed clear the road for them: therefore every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed, every man, and after Auschwitz it is no longer permissible to be unarmed”.

No individual raindrop ever considers itself responsible for the flood.

As a postcript, I am glad to report that in our own small way at African Agricultural Capital we have decided – with the support and advice of the Uganda Carbon Bureau – to become a carbon-neutral organization. This entails a detailed estimate of the carbon produced from AAC’s organizational activities, followed by the purchase of offsets through financing carbon uptake projects – either through increased energy efficiency, reforestation or other qualifying projects.

But it is not enough.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Norman Borlaug

One of the giants of the 20th century passed away this weekend. His is not a household name, but it should be. Dr Norman Borlaug's work in breeding new crop varieties was directly instrumental in creating food security for countless millions of people, especially on the Indian sub-continent. It is no exaggeration to say that without his work (and the development of the Haber process for manufacturing inorganic fertilisers using atmospheric nitrogen), crop yields would have been insufficient to feed the global population.
Among his numerous achievements, perhaps the most significant was the breeding of dwarf wheat varieties. Through selective breeding, wheat stem length was reduced and thickened, thereby enabling the stem to support higher seed yields without lodging (toppling over). These varieties massively increased crop yields - and the technology has subsequently been transferred to rice varieties with significant yield benefits. Borlaug's work was, especially in its early years, heavily supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, whose philanthropic investments through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (and, on a very small scale, through African Agricultural Capital), continue to support essential agricultural research and development in the developing world. Borlaug's contribution to food security and, indirectly, to peace was recognised with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Inevitably, Borlaug had his critics, especially among the environmental lobby, which, inter alia, deplored the reduction in biodiversity resulting from large-scale monoculture, opposed the use of inorganic fertilisers and crop protection products, raised doubts about the impact of genetic cross-breeding, and objected to the potential destruction of wilderness to make way for crops. Borlaug responded to this criticism with a robust defence. "Some of the environmental lobbyists ... are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world ...... they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things"
And that's the truth. We can look back at the apparent idyll of traditional agriculture - through nostalgia-tinted spectacles - and lament its passing, but we must accept that that time is past, and look to the future. Our planet supports 7 billion people and that figure is expected to rise by a further 2 billion by 2050. Increased agricultural efficiency is the only way in which humankind will feed itself without the desperate consequences of deforestation, climate change and conflict. Without Borlaug's work - and that of the tens of thousands of unsung and unheralded plant breeders around the world who continue to develop new crop varieties - this will be impossible.
The great architect Christopher Wren's epitaph translates as "If you seek his monument, look around you." Norman Borlaug's legacy is much larger.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Virtuous Burglar

I was lucky enough, while visiting Nairobi last week, to see the Phoenix Players perform Dario Fo’s farce, The Virtuous Burglar. This is a richly entertaining short farce in the best tradition of the genre: a burglar arrives at a well-appointed residence, only to be telephoned by his wife, anxious about his well-being. The burglar, having assuaged her fears, is then disturbed by the man of the house unexpectedly returning with his mistress. An absurd telephone conversation then ensues between the man and the Burglar’s wife…. and the chain of coincidences continues with the return of the man’s wife…. The humour is savage, and shows us how fragile our world of manners and polite conventions can be when we are at risk of exposure.

This farce is close to my heart, as I have twice performed it (and once directed it) in amateur productions in Harare and Kampala. Perhaps inevitably in my eyes, the Phoenix production left a lot to be desired. First, the production was one-paced. The best farce relies on the creation of a breathless pace, interspersed by sudden silences as the characters scramble for ever-more-improbable explanations of their behaviour, and this production lacked the changes in pace necessary to make the most of the intrinsic comedy of the situation. Second, the device of positioning the Burglar’s wife behind a backlit screen was poorly executed. Third, while the acting was in general, especially among the principal characters, competent, there was little warmth in the interaction between the characters on stage.

Having said that, it is wonderful that the Phoenix Theatre continues to flourish and bring quality drama to the Nairobi audience. It is almost unique in Africa to find repertory theatre, but the resilience of the Phoenix in the face of competition from TV and cinema is testament to the unalloyed pleasure still derived by audiences from live performance in the company of others. Long may it last!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Big Brother returns.....

It's back. Bigger and brasher than ever. Big Brother Africa returned to M-Net tonight with 14 new hopefuls in the running for the $200,000 prize and the promise of celebrity status. It is strangely compelling entertainment, though its launch yesterday was rather spoilt by the device of filling the house entirely with men - of whom presumably half will be evicted within the first week to make way for women.

When George Orwell, in his classic novel 1984, developed the Big Brother concept: a world in which all communication media is subordinate to the government's interpretation of reality, and where television is the principal means of thought control, could he have imagined that people would compete, voluntarily, to surrender their privacy, dignity and liberty for the pursuit of, let's be honest, a substantial (but probably not life-changing) sum of money. I doubt it very much: my guess is that he would have been deeply saddened - if not surprised - by the triumph of greed over basic human values.

In defence of shows like Big Brother, it is sometimes argued that it's fine - the participants have voluntarily surrendered themselves and that they can exercise their right to leave the house at any time - but is this really the case? These young contestants are products of a new consumer culture, where traditional values are meaningless, image is everything, and the ideals of consumerism and fame walk down the aisle together in a marriage of convenience. Any normal sense of good judgment is quickly lost in the cauldron of the house. Big Brother can ask the contestants to do anything and they comply. In so doing, they push themselves beyond the healthy limits of normal behaviour....

Entertainment? Of a sort, undoubtedly. but a deeply unpleasant, manipulative and voyeuristic sort.