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The Vancouver Courier

Western Attitudes, Toxins Stunting African Growth

Geoff Olson

"Aliens Exist," Newsweek trumpets on its Aug. 15 cover story, which examines the latest scientific thinking on extraterrestrial life.

It's always entertaining to imagine what visitors from space would do for us--or to us. In an old episode of The Twilight Zone, a happy traveller decides to leave Earth with a group of towering aliens. But at the last minute, translators have fully decoded one of the alien texts. "Mr. Chambers," a woman cries from a crowd gathered to watch the launch, "Don't get on that ship! 'To Serve Man' is a cookbook!"

District 9, the fast-moving sci-fi film directed by Vancouver Film School grad Neill Blomkamp, offers a new twist on the alien contact theme. Blomkamp's aliens are quarantined in a ghetto outside Johannesburg. What really surprised me is that the slum setting--which I took to be a film set of a pre-Apartheid township--was the real thing. The ramshackle, corrugated shacks were already there for the filming.

"The people are warm, but the environment is so caustic and unbelievably disgusting to be in," the director said in a Guardian interview. "There's broken glass everywhere, there's rusted barbed wire everywhere, the level of pollution is insane." The South African residents of the slum where District 9 was filmed still wait on decades-old government promises to relocate them to new homes.

If the African National Congress can't get it together, it's not hard to understand why benefactors from the First World can't either. Canada's former ambassador to the UN, Stephen Lewis, believes the uplift of African society can only be kickstarted through western aid. Wrong, says Zambian-born, Oxford-educated author Dambisa Moyo, who argues that foreign aid has degenerated into children's crusades by rock stars and NGOs, which leave African people dependent on the condescending patronage of the First World.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, UN envoy to Somalia, recently told British reporter Johann Hari that someone is dumping toxic waste off the coast of Somalia. According to Hari, mysterious European ships began appearing off the coast of Somalia after the government's collapse in 1993, dumping barrels into the ocean. "Strange rashes, nausea, and malformed babies" began to appear. It might have forever remained a mystery, but the 2005 tsunami delivered the barrels express to the Somalian coast, damaged and leaking.

A 2005 UN report said the wastes are poisoning Somalis. The report identified heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, industrial wastes, hospital wastes, and chemical waste, along with--and here is the kicker--uranium radioactive waste. Imagine if nuclear waste was found dumped off the coast of Canada, the U.S. or Britain. There would be public screaming for a government inquiry, protesters in the streets and pundits agitating for revenge. There would be words of war for such a sci-fi crime. Yet the Somalian story has disappeared off the media radar--and that speaks volumes about the western elites' real attitude toward Africa and Africans.

Historians know that gold and silver from New World civilizations served as a large source of capital for European progress, just as economic globalization began with the transatlantic trade in cotton, sugar, opium and slaves. And now that the West is reaching the biosphere's limits, some of its former colonies have been reworked as entropic sinks--toilets, if you prefer.

In 1960, the think tank Brookings Institution released a report commissioned by NASA on the effect on society by activities in space, with a chapter entitled "Implications on a Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life." The Brookings Report surmised that direct contact by Earth with aliens could lead to "sweeping changes or even the downfall of civilization... Anthropological files contain many examples of societies, sure of their place in the universe, which have disintegrated when they have had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies espousing different ideas and different life ways..."

For most indigenous societies of the past, contact with the civilized West was an outright disaster. If war, slavery or resource destruction didn't do the trick, then smallpox or other infections did. Today foreign debt does in Africa what Gatling guns could not. And some commentators would add foreign aid and toxic waste to the list.

Newsweek is right, ETs exist. And on this planet, the aliens are us.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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-- Geoff Olson,

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