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A misdirected frenzy; the fracking debate

Sandy van Hoogstraten | 2011-08-12 01:25:13.0
Consumerism and convenience, our modern-day plagues, are hugely energy and resource intensive and just as invasive as fracking is to the pristine Karoo environment Picture: DANIEL BORN

Sometimes the truth, though undeniable once grasped, is remarkably evasive to those who supposedly seek it. Or perhaps there is none so blind as those who do not wish to see?

This is the case in the highly polarised "fracking" debate, which has raged in South Africa this year. The true culprits responsible for bringing on this potential travesty of intergenerational justice have so far evaded mention altogether.

Shell, on behalf of the various mining companies that have applied for fracking permits, has been lambasted for its single-minded profit focus and selfish greed in seeking to liquidate our natural capital in so cavalier a fashion.

The Department of Mineral Resources has shielded similar accusations - for its conspicuous disinterest in the public participation process, which was itself a mere rubber-stamping exercise - and for the opaque, anti-democratic manner in which it has conducted its analysis of the issues at play, or not conducted it at all, for all we know.

Then there is the technology itself: horizontal drilling into, and hydraulic fracturing of, the layer of shale rock 5km under the Karoo to release the methane gas trapped for millions of years between the clay particles and until recently thought not commercially viable to retrieve. The method is highly controversial - and rightly so. It requires millions of litres of water, thousands of noisy trucks, hundreds of polluting chemicals, a handful of greedy individuals, and a single sacrifice - our beautiful, tranquil, sacred Karoo.

All of this may be true, but if fossil fuels are the drug, and the mining companies the drug producers, and the government the drug dealers, we have to ask ourselves: who are the drug addicts? The suppliers have come in for a lot of abuse, but supply follows demand. The people levelling all these accusations (you, me and the rest of society) have cast ourselves as the victims, when in fact we are the perpetrators. We despise the suppliers even as we pump up the demand.

To the question: "What can I do to save the Karoo", we find the answer "Boycott Shell". Which is great because it makes us feel like we're doing something, without actually having to do anything. Boycotting Shell simply means we're increasing our support for other mining companies. These may not be targeting the Karoo's shale gas right now, but you can be sure they're making a mess of someone else's backyard.

If we join the dots, they start with fracking and end up in our smelly black wheelie bins. Our full wheelie bins at the end of each week are solid evidence (exhibit one, Your Honour) of our wholesale embrace of two of the greatest cons of the modern era: consumerism and convenience. Our take-use-throw way of living is hugely energy and resource intensive. Like it or not, there is a very real and unavoidable connection between the way we have chosen to live and the threat currently hanging over the Karoo.

Shell and the other mining companies could argue, and rightly so, that in applying for fracking permits they are simply providing us with another energy option. The government could argue that, in granting Shell et al their permits, they are simply fulfilling their duty to provide the citizens of South Africa with an uninterrupted energy supply. What can we argue?

Do we really expect to be able to indulge our bad habits on the one hand and call for a pristine environment on the other? This is the demand of a petulant child, not a responsible citizen. It may not seem like it, but any intelligent response to fracking has to include a change in the way we live our daily lives. There is an indirect but undeniable link between that disposable cup of coffee and an unfracked Karoo. Any other response falls into the "deodorant on sweaty armpits" category.

  • Van Hoogstraten is a freelance writer and environmental activist

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