Mandla Sibeko.
Mandla Sibeko.
Image: Darryn Gwyn

"Don’t it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got ‘til it’s gone,” sang Joni Mitchell in 1970. The lyrics are appropriate for the sun: lose sight of it in daytime, and you’re sobered by its ominous absence. It sounds far-fetched, but on a recent trip to China I found myself squinting at the sky, trying desperately to locate our life-giving star amidst the all-enveloping smog. This in itself was frightening, but worse still was the oblivion around me, citizens continuing their day unperturbed by this bleak state. There was an acceptance I found hard to accept.

As we strive for a better world, change should be demanded on all fronts, especially when it comes to our climate. We can’t be inured to late winters and inconsistent rainfall, and we shouldn’t ignore the increasingly polluted atmosphere that darkens our lives. But when I see the thick cloud that Sowetans live under, or feel the filth in my sinuses, I worry that we are headed towards a sunless place; and more so that this slow and sustained blurring of lines will inevitably result in our own compliance.

Combating pollution is about careful choices and becoming conscious of our actions. Plan more, consume less, spread the word, and we can make a dent

On a personal level, combating pollution is about careful choices and becoming conscious of our actions. Plan more, consume less, spread the word, and we can make a dent. But unless local government and municipalities are on our side, actively implementing programmes and changing old ways, we are doomed. I was shocked to read recently that, even after our more polluted, industrialised areas were ordered to comply with new air-quality laws, Eskom circumvented these by arguing that the cost would be too high. But what about the greater cost? Must our poorer citizens, trapped by apartheid-era proximity to unhealthy toxins, suffer even more?

Places like India are taking these issues more seriously. Recently the country’s ministry of environment, forests and climate change launched the National Clean Air Programme, under which very specific action plans will be developed for the 102 cities that exceed national air-quality safeguards. These municipalities are on board and committed: the capital New Delhi ordered the closure of a polluting thermal power plant and banned the use of diesel generator sets, and other major metropolises are clamping down on vehicle emissions while investing in electric-transport solutions and upgrading waste management.

Globally, innovation and partnership are key drivers behind cities reducing their pollution levels. Green City Solutions, a German startup, created the CityTree, a block of foliage densely packed with moss culture that can filter 240 metric tons of pollution out of the air in one year — the equivalent of planting 275 trees. In highly populated areas, ideas like this will become integral to finding a balance between modern-living standards and a healthier natural environment.

We all need to start thinking this way. Health is a basic human right, and clean air should be the backdrop against which we uplift and empower future generations. We can’t turn a blind eye to noxious shifts, because if we do, very soon we too won’t see the sun.

Sibeko is an entrepreneur and founder of FNBArt Joburg.

• From the July edition of Wanted 2019.

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