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What We’ve Lost in the Fire

Firefighters try, in vain, to extinguish a fire in the Jagger Library, at the University of Cape Town, after a forest fire came down the foothills of Table Mountain, setting university buildings alight in Cape Town, on April 18, 2021. RODGER BOSCH / AFP

This weekend was a rough one for South Africa. On Sunday, the country watched as fires around Table Mountain slowly started creeping downhill, towards the beautiful campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT). Soon it was confirmed that the university’s African Studies library, which housed a unique collection of African film, and one of the biggest repositories of historical documents related to Southern Africa, was on fire.
Librarians are still trying to figure out what exactly went up in flames, or got flooded. Together with the 2018 destruction of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro (also in a fire,) the loss of the UCT library and archive constitutes one of the greatest blows to the collective knowledge, memory and history of the Global South in our time.
This is life in the collective coal mine into which we’ve turned our planet, and Cape Town is the canary showing what climate change will bring. The city already experienced a near-catastrophic water shortage in 2018 and its unique biodiversity is particularly climate-sensitive. So excuse me if I can only bring grim mixed feelings to the current spectacle of the world’s two greatest polluters suddenly singing odes to green development.
On the one side we have U.S. President Joe Biden’s vague promises of a low-carbon counter-BRI, and possible upcoming climate commitments. On the other we have Qian Keming being all ‘low-carbon infrastructure’ in Hainan.
Sure, these are encouraging signs, and if we want to keep emissions to an only moderately hellish 1.5 degrees of warming, we need these measures and many more. Kudos to these leaders and hopefully this will set up a virtuous arms race towards green development.
But the library is still smoldering, so indulge me: on climate, the U.S. and China both suck. China is still funding coal-powered energy at home and around the world (and despite all its pious ‘quality infrastructure’ shtick, so does Japan.) And of course the U.S. used its global leadership to undermine climate mitigation for years, instead opting to indulge anti-science culture wars and frittering away the opportunity it had during 1980s and 1990s to provide actual transformative leadership that could have saved billions of future lives – lives that will now be lived as a series of wrenching losses, of which the UCT library is only the first.
So sure, bring on the low-carbon development talk, let us bathe in platitudes. Who knows – some of these measures might even happen in real life.
But the library is still gone. At this moment I can’t but feel that the gaping smoking gap it left should also burn a hole in all the current Green BRI/Green anti-BRI happy talk.
We know who put us in this position, and we’ll never stop judging you for it.

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