By Michael J. Mortimer, PhD

South African director Neill Blomkamp’s science fiction social commentary film Elysium sees wealthy elites in the near future removing themselves from planetary resource scarcity... literally. By abandoning a wrecked Earth for a utopian existence in an orbital space habitat, these elites effectively shield themselves from the shortages of water, energy, healthcare, housing, and other human necessities on the Earth below.

We witnessed a version of Blomkamp’s vision during the recent Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability Master of Natural Resources Global Study trip to Cape Town, South Africa. The city of Cape Town is facing extreme risks to both water and energy security. These risks are illustrated by the city’s brush with Day Zero in 2018, when it was expected the taps would run dry; and by the rolling blackouts, or load shedding, necessary with the under-capacity and overtaxed electrical grid.

Cape Town is also home to some of the most extreme and visible wealth/poverty disparity in the world. Ferrari dealerships and leafy mountainside villas overlooking the sea coexist side-by-side with mile after mile of the tin-and-tarp shacks of the landless poor. As you might expect, this disparity manifests in how energy and water are distributed and consumed.

During the routine shortages, the wealthy are able to “buy” their way out of any suffering. The large convention center in downtown Cape Town has installed solar panels for power and operates its own micro-desalination plant to ensure its clientele have uninterrupted access to both hot showers and lights. The oldest and largest brewery in South Africa, located in one of Cape Town’s more affluent neighborhoods, has exclusive access to an urban public spring; it is also installing solar panels to escape the risk of load shedding halting its beer production. During the Day Zero crisis of 2018, wealthy homeowners were able to sink more and deeper boreholes, install water storage tanks, and use solar power to supplement the public power grid. The wealthy insulate themselves from the effects and hardships of resource scarcity. The poor, on the other hand, lack any of the resources to take these steps. They are, in fact, the victims of both of these resource scarcities and the historic and modern social institutions in which they reside.

An example of the toilets found in the townships outside of downtown Cape Town [Photo: Michael Mortimer].

These water and energy (in)justice questions are not unique to Cape Town, but they serve as a visible microcosm of the larger environmental security situation around the world. Climate change, for example, is largely driven by the consumption and practices of the wealthy global North. The impacts, however, are largely borne by the poor global South. The North will be able to buy its way out of the worst of the effects. The South, well… the South is going to pay the bill.

In Elysium, the hero levels the playing field, ensuring everyone—rich or poor—is a citizen with equal access to the highest level of technology, and services previously reserved for the off-world elites. Likewise, if easing inequities is fundamental to our environmental security, then it behooves us to think about how tilted the playing field is. With water, energy, or climate change, our ability to witness, discuss, and understand the inequities is a necessary starting point. 

The goal is perhaps to highlight the inequities to achieve what Professor Steven Robins describes as “political legibility,” so that they can be visibly and explicitly recognized as problems in need of solutions. The alternative, of course, runs the risk of deepening insecurity and potential violence. The 2008 xenophobic violence in South Africa against foreign immigrants was driven in large part by scarcities of fundamental goods and services—sanitation, electricity, water, and the public lighting necessary for community safety.  

Lastly, we should not dismiss the ethical imperative to ensure that all citizens’ basic needs are met. Environmental security is a pragmatic affair, underpinned by duties that the state owes its people—rich and poor. To the extent that wealthy elites are able to escape the impacts of environmental change, our mutual security is undermined. If load shedding affects us all equally, perhaps the state will be forced to act in our mutual interest.

Dr. Mortimer is the Director of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability. He received a Ph.D. in Forestry from the University of Montana, a law degree from the Pennsylvania State University, and Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Washington and Jefferson College. Dr. Mortimer teaches courses in Natural Resource Law and Policy and Environmental Conflict Management. His research is published in Society and Natural Resources, Journal of Forestry, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Environmental Management, Journal of Forest Policy and Economics, and other leading natural resource journals.

Photo credits: Michael Mortimer