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Teach a Man

living with fossil fuels

a film by. Carver Bacchus
Country.  Trinidad & tobago
RUN time .14:03 Min

“Through the eyes of fisherman Jason James This film explores the reality of living with fossil fuels - exploring the trickle down effects of pollution throughout society.”
Ally Lantz, CCFF Festival Director

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breathing fossil fuels

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fossil fuel

Fossil fuels are a constant presence in most of our lives and whilst we know that they are responsible for large scale effects like global warming, we don’t feel the brutal and damaging effects of the fossil fuel production process equally.

From the destructive extraction processes to the actual production of energy, fossil fuels are incredibly dangerous to people living in their immediate surroundings. The populations of people who are forced to inhabit areas near to fossil fuel power stations are dominated by minority and low income communities who can’t afford to move or block their construction. It is undeniable that ending fossil fuel power is an issue of environmental, social and racial justice.

Fossil Fuel power stations are often integrated into urban or suburban areas, forcing residents to breathe in harmful emissions

breathing fossil fuels

These marginalised communities, disenfranchised from the ostensibly beneficial fossil fuel-consumer relationship, are forced to live on the front lines of fossil fuel power: unprotected and vulnerable. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the towns of Middleburg and Highveld, South Africa where people are forced to breathe in some of the most polluted air in the world.

Environmental activist Thomas Mnguni used to live in Middleburg where he would wake up to find the windows and floors of his home covered in a layer of black dust. He lived between two Wolvekrans coal mines which thickened the air with a smog of particulates and harmful chemicals. After his 14 year old son was diagnosed with Asthma, a doctor recommended that Thomas move his family away from the highly polluted area to help his son’s condition. Now that he lives 6 miles further away from the mines his asthma is improving but other people who can’t afford to move are not so lucky.

An arial view of a polluting power plant.
Thomas Mnguni, a resident of Middleburg, has been fighting against the destructive effects of power stations such as the Komati Power station pictured above

The average salary in Middleburg is R190,000 per year, just under £10,000, but many of the lower paying jobs pay as little as £3,000. For these low income families moving isn’t an option. They are forced to breathe air that contains 10 times the levels of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide considered safe for human health. This level of pollution causes a range of illnesses from asthma to lung cancer but the large coal companies that provide the majority of jobs in the area do not offer any option for workers to move - instead making them live in the filth that their factories produce.

Thomas works for groundWork a Southern African environmental justice organisation. They recently filed a law suit with the Vukani Environmental Movement arguing that the air conditions around the coal plants violate the residents’ constitutional right to “an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being.” The suit hopes to set an international precedent for access to clean air to be included in the human right to a healthy environment.

GroundWork have been active in challenging the government on coal, shutting down the proposed 600 MW Khanyisa coal-fired power plant in the Mpumalanga province. The campaign started in 2018 when groundWork appealed the Khanyisa water use license to the Water Tribunal - a novel way to target fossil fuel plant construction. GroundWork are also part of the Life After Coal coalition whose protests led major investors to abandon the Thabametsi coal plant in 2020. The planned 557 megawatt power station would have caused extensive damage to the climate, local people, and scarce water sources in South Africa’s arid Limpopo Province. In winning these fights, groundWork protect people from living with fossil fuels and highlight other avenues by which to prevent or shut down harmful coal power stations and save people from breathing in polluted air.

Coal, sometimes termed ‘black gold’, is deeply entrenched in the South African energy landscape

But they face a steep challenge to establish this law in South Africa where 94% of their energy comes from coal. South Africa is the world’s sixth-largest coal exporter, seventh-largest coal producer, and thirteenth-largest CO2 emitter, with per-capita emissions twice the global average. Despite the imperative to reduce coal power both on an environmental level and to protect the lives of people in South Africa, the country’s state-owned electric utility, Eskom, is currently building the third and fourth largest coal-fired power plants in the world. Coal is deeply ingrained in South Africa politics through the African National Congress party’s funders who have financial interests in the coal industry. During the Apartheid regime, South Africa consolidated its coal mining operation and created Sasol, a state owned company that converted coal into liquid petroleum on a previously unseen scale.

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pollution breeds racism and inequality

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the dots

this interactive map shows the worlds coal power plants

Are coal power plants
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pollution breeds racism and inequality

Fossil fuel production is a classic product of capitalism in that it creates tremendous value for the wealthy few via the oppression of workers and land. The creation of value comes from devaluing geographic areas through extraction and production, without the consent of those already living nearby, and turning adjacent living spaces into undesirable areas where desperate people are forced to live. Fossil fuel plants and extraction sites are often built in areas populated by large numbers of minorities, partially due to the structural racist oppressions which force these minorities into already devalued areas, and partially because such communities are often in need of the work fossil fuel stations provide or lack the access to legal services which they could use to challenge the construction of plants and extraction sites.

These inequalities are born out starkly in statistics. Black Americans have 1.54 times the exposure to particulate matter compared to the overall population, meaning that they have the most deaths per 100,000 of any racial group. Pollution from coal plants causes a shocking 23,000 premature deaths in the EU each year, making coal power 1230 times more deadly than renewable power sources. In countries like America which don’t have a public health service, bad air quality is a slippery slope to poverty as the health problems it causes force families to spend extra money on healthcare and less on other things that increase quality of life and the potential for social mobility.

So it is not only the fact that fossil fuel production creates unliveable environments which minorities and poor people are forced into by systemic oppressions against them, it is also born out on a larger scale as fossil fuels instigate climate change’s deadly affects which fall disproportionately on poorer countries and people of colour. Both in the immediate realities of living in unhealthy air and the developing climate crisis, oppressed peoples continue to be oppressed by the fossil fuel industry and they must be stopped.

An oil rig lit up at night.

Oil extraction is equally devastating to local populations. In the case of Shell’s neocolonial campaign of oil extraction in Ogoniland, huge numbers of oil spills and frequent fires have rendered the land totally unusable for farming. A relic of Britain’s colonial empire represented in fossil fuel extraction. Oil drilling also leads to biodiversity and wildlife loss which often has disastrous effects for farmers and those who rely on the land’s ecosystem health for work. Destroying natural spaces to drill for oil harms the tourism industry too as people don’t come all the way across the world to visit fossil fuel sites. These extraction hubs scythe through communities and force migration to cities where people are forced to live difficult lives in poor quality housing and equally polluted city districts.

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how do we untangle this mess?

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curation Ally Lantz
written Jake Coleman
art direction Susanna Basso
director Carver Bacchus
country Trinidad & Tobago
year 2016
run 14:03 min

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