London Bridge is falling down…

by Martin van Nierop

Early on Wednesday morning (Women’s Day) I was shown a post on a WhatsApp group that claimed the N3 was closed in Germiston. A pedestrian bridge had collapsed overnight. “Irritating scam!” I claimed. Turns out I was wrong. The bridge had actually fallen over completely.

After establishing that no one had been killed, my thoughts turned towards causes. What causes a bridge to collapse without warning? The bridge had been built in 1978, so it had stood for almost 40 years. Was it an act of God? Johannesburg is known for tremors (probably a result of extensive mining in the area), could this have been a cause?

As an environmental scientist, I also wondered if the changes in our climate may have something to do with it. One of the predicted impacts of climate change is more frequent and severe unusual weather events, such as storms, droughts, etc. However, none of these were reported at the time of the bridge collapsing. On the other hand, we have had some severe flooding in the recent past that may have weakened the structure’s foundations. Acid rain (caused by sulphur dioxide emissions into the atmosphere) could also be responsible for weakening the structure of the bridge. We will have to wait for the outcome of the official investigation to know what caused the bridge to collapse.

But like the Nursery Rhyme, “London Bridge is falling down”, we have to move on (build it up). The bridge rubble will have to be removed. The road re-opened. The bridge had been closed for some years, so probably will not be built up again.

But our impact on the environment is not so easy to ‘clean up’. The decades of mining in the area have left scars and environmental damage. Our lifestyles today, including the high consumption of energy, are contributing to environmental degradation. Each time you get a new computer or cell phone upgrade, what happens to the old one? E-waste is an increasing environmental problem.

As Pope Francis tells us in his encyclical “Laudato Si’”, the earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her” (Laudato Si’ #2).

However, we are able to change our ways, and clean up our act. Pope Francis urges us in the encyclical to take care of our common home.

An event like a pedestrian bridge collapsing on a busy freeway is troubling. These events are opportunities to ponder the effect we are having on the world around us. Hopefully, this will help us to change our attitudes and galvanise us into action. “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (Laudato Si’ #19).

The Jesuit Institute, with Gondwana Environmental Solutions, is offering a day seminar on ‘Care of the Common Home’ on 9 September. Book your place now at

Dr Martin van Nierop
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