Friday, 24 July 2009

Shell, grass, articles, and rootless solutions

I recently applied for a journalism job which required submitting a 400-word environmental article. I didn't get the job, so I'm going to put the article here instead, as I discovered something very sad - and well worth finding out - whilst researching it.

Can science put down roots in an old problem?

“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” Albert Einstein is reported to have said many years ago. Like relativity, some statements remain up to date whatever the year.

Upon Peter Voser’s rise to CEO of Shell last week, Amnesty International released a 141-page report on the many-decades-old problem of oil spills and other pollution in the Niger Delta. The report suggests no particular remediation method, but points to successful technology in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and Shell’s repeated failure to meet governmental deadlines to cease gas flaring. Shell refuted Amnesty’s prior accusations of human rights violations. Can science help?

J. N. Okereke and two other scientists from Nigeria’s Federal University of Technology studied the ecological effects of oil spillage. Grasses, they found, invariably die altogether, while some fungi thrive, as do different species of bacteria from non-contaminated areas. They believe this is due to oxygen depletion from petroleum’s presence and from increased carbon in the soil. The soils were also more acidic after oil spills.

In 2002, a hopeful article appeared on at least four websites, claiming that indigenous plants were the solution. A non-government organisation (NGO), The Centre for Environmental Resources and Sustainable Ecosystems (CERASE), was piloting a new project in the community of Ogbogu.
Sheets of kenaf (Hibiscus Cannabinus), also used in paper production, act as absorbers of the oils. The perennial vetiver (Vetivera Zizanioides) removes contamination in the long term; it is a grass, but apparently very tolerant. Local people were encouraged to “make nurseries” for these two plants. Uzo Egbuche, CERASE’s director, stated that “this highly sustainable rural development approach will create multiple avenues for poverty alleviation.”

“We aim to promote the use of local resources and provide technical and funding support to individuals and groups,” says Shell’s website now. But there has been no mention of CERASE since early 2002. Later that year, Chijioke Evoh wrote in NigeriaWorld that NGOs suffer from corruption and a lack of transparency even while they appear to do more than governments whose influence is weakening.

Sadly, perhaps Amnesty International has the right approach; no science or creativity will solve this old problem until it can break free from the type of thinking and acting that produced it in the first place. Mothers may have to cook contaminated meals on burning oil leaks for some time yet.

Here is a picture from Amnesty International:

It was very difficult to find any scientific literature on the Niger Delta or its many environmental problems. If ever mentioned, it's usually in passing, along the lines of "renewable energy's not realistic, but in the meantime we really ought to build oil pipelines carefully - the Niger Delta ones keep exploding and killing people". Top Google hits include a moving article from the Independent almost a year ago, and a military report on the area's problems whose tone I thought fell somewhere between disapproving and dismissive.

The indigenous plants article which cropped up in at least 4 places - probably several more - was this one. It's true; I wasn't able to find any more references to the idea or the organisation after 2002. This is the article critical of NGOs. Prestigious online scientific journal places, such as ScienceDirect and arXiv, returned "no results" in their searches again and again. The Okereke et al paper is just under 3 pages long and quite basic (not to suggest they didn't work very hard, which they seem to have done). In short, infamous as this environmental problem is, it doesn't seem to be receiving much scientific attention.

So why on Earth did I choose to write about it for a job application? On show-what-I-can-do grounds, it may have been a mistake. But I never have been one for trendiness and worrying about "what's hot"; and I suspect there's a larger niche for "what's-also-important-but-merely-lacks-glamour" in journalism than a lot of editors realise. If you picked up some magazines you hadn't read before, you'd think each one was reporting half a dozen world-changing revolutions. Pick it up again a few times, and the cumulative effect becomes desperate, unfulfilling, and lame. (I recently had a conversation with a scientist about how ludicrously their discoveries get reported by some magazines - each one has to be blown out of proportion and then hastily forgotten.) I'd sooner go for something of real substance.

But deeper than that, the environment isn't about trendiness or new things that are "hot". The world is big and old. Large problems have filtered into large areas and won't be fixed-quick with some amazing new solution which you can forget about next week. To see people make an attempt to fix a problem, and then struggle to survive by making silly promises about how planting grasses will earn the locals money and education without explaining how (is there a market for them? who will buy them? where does the money come from?), is either another of these quick-fixes - or a sad story of a well-meant effort that was then choked off before it could get anywhere. To solve a problem, you have to study it first, and then - sorry, there's no way out of it - work hard. And stay where you are for a long time, running like Alice and the Red Queen all the while.

To download the Amnesty report, click here. It's over 100 pages but very informative.

The Niger Delta crisis is, at present, on the Amnesty website's front page. This is its page with more information, and how you can help.


Anonymous said...

Dear Alice,

Thank you!

I would add more, but I am too infuriated at the moment to retain any civility.

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

To preclude any possible ambiguity regarding my prior comment, I will state explicitly that my fury was, and remains directed at corporations such as Shell.

Again Alice, thank you for a well written, and substantive article.

Best regards,

Alice said...

Thanks EigenState - I shall definitely have to write more! I have been horrified by how uncritically these things are written about (if only I had had over 400 words to write about what Shell is doing in there).