View from Devil's Peak blockhouse in thick fog

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The evidence is mounting that an environmental catastrophe will unfold on the eastern slopes of Devil’s Peak. The soil and water in the area appear to have become contaminated with a potentially very dangerous substance (Substance X), although significant uncertainty still exists regarding the distribution of the substance and its concentration, as well as the degree of risk posed by inhalation of Substance X.

The effects of its interactions with other compounds in the environment have also not yet been properly resolved; some researchers have suggested that chemical interactions are likely to lead to the pollutant’s breakdown rate being high, so that the risks would be sufficiently mitigated that drastic measures need not be taken. Such work has been widely questioned by the scientific mainstream, however–some have even suggested that the chemicals produced in the breakdown process may be far more dangerous than Substance X. The general consensus among researchers who have studied the problem is that the risks are indeed grave and probably immediate. Many have attributed troubling trends in the health of students staying in residences on and around the University of Cape Town (UCT) campuses to the presence of Substance X in the vicinity and new studies continue to point to these problems spreading to surrounding areas, while also becoming more intense and more frequent. Furthermore, while it is unclear how bad the effects will be for those who continue to live and work in the affected area (the exact boundaries of which are yet to be well-established), evidence suggests that once exposure has occurred, even if one does not come into contact with Substance X again, consequent health conditions may continue to develop for up to three decades. Known potential consequences include progressive paralysis of the limbs; arthritis; loss of vision, taste and smell; hair loss; infertility; various malignancies; memory loss; insomnia; anxiety, depression and various other psychological conditions.

On the basis of this evidence, concerned scientists–together with other citizens alarmed by what they have learnt about the problem–have attempted to bring the results of their work to the attention of the wider public. They are increasingly advocating for immediate, substantive and wide-ranging action to be taken to reduce the impacts of the problem, while also suggesting that further work is done to address the myriad problems that have already arisen as a result of the contamination. Methods for removing the contaminant from an environment are still in very early stages of development and continue to be very controversial. Other protective mechanisms, such as masks and specialised clothing, in addition to being very expensive and unwieldy, have not been proven to reduce the risks substantially. Furthermore, many researchers contend that such measures would probably lead to other health problems, such as Vitamin D deficiency–due to insufficient exposure to sunlight–and skin conditions resulting from allergies to some of the materials used in such items.

As a result, a full-scale evacuation of the region is being touted as the best solution to the problem. However, such suggestions have met with stiff opposition from companies who are active in the danger zone and stubborn resistance from many of those residing and working in the region. They contend that leaving their lives behind to settle elsewhere would be very disruptive and come at great financial costs, which some are simply not able to bear. Many are also reluctant to leave behind the beautiful scenery, their comfortable lifestyles, or the convenience of the proximity to the CBD, many good schools and recreational opportunities. Some  employees of UCT (the university situated on Devil’s Peak’s lower slopes) who have worked here for decades, have indicated their unwillingness to leave the familiarity of the institution.

Progress from government in developing and implementing policy to address the crisis has been slow and little funding has been provided to support initiatives aimed at treating and managing resultant health conditions. Individual and community interest in acting against the problem appears to be restricted to a small number of activists and organisations. Meanwhile, activity in the region appears to be continuing essentially as before, with few people having left the area.


But is staying worth the risk?


Disclaimer: This is obviously just a metaphor. Please do not freak out…

Thanks a lot to Chis Jack: the very obvious inspiration for this post is his previous blog post here. I hope you don’t mind me having flagrantly copied your ideas, although I do think there’s some value in the slightly different angle I’ve taken. Also, using a blog with 7 (!) comments as an inspiration seems like a good idea for someone who got…eh…0 last time. Then again. that may have more to do with the blogger than the blog topic.

2 Responses to “Worth the risk?”


    HMMM, Good one Stefan, what an eye opener. however, if the so called learned and academic seem to turn ignore and skeptical about such a information. How on earth then do we convince the unlearned in the society about the risk accompanying the changing climate via human activity. it is really a food for thought.

  2. Chris

    Thanks Stefaan, a very nicely constructed metaphor which highlights all the complexities of uncertainties and risk but also the key responses we see in society. I particularly like the reference to some university academics being unwilling to adapt! Very apt commentary and a great contribution to the discussion.