Fighting green fever
The debate surrounding shale gas exploration in the Karoo is an emotional one. It is also a shrill one, a clamour in which the extremists are making their presence felt.
For many of those who believe the campaign against Shell and the other oil companies granted exploration licences is a just and principled cause perhaps the most dangerous voice in the controversy is that of journalist Ivo Vegter - possibly because it is not extreme at all, but measured and rational.
For the anti-frackers, Vegter's recently published Extreme Environment: How Environmental Exaggeration Harms Emerging Economies is a blatantly heretical tract, rubbishing, as it does, with well-researched data much of the fear and misinformation that has contributed to the orthodoxy of the green movement.
Its back cover carries the teaser "The most controversial book of 2012?", and perhaps it is.
Certain journalists, Vegter tells me, have refused to write about it or review it, and there are some bookstores that won't sell it.
Random House Struik MD Steve Connolly confirms this, adding that they had been in touch with those concerned, but they're "digging in their heels". In most cases, they hadn't read the book. He declined to identify the "isolated" stores. "I don't want to name and shame," he says. "It's very sad, and it amounts to censorship."
"There is very little 'middle ground' in this argument, according to members of the green movement," Vegter says, and to appeal for scientific accuracy and reasoned argument to drive public policy, rather than fear and alarmist propaganda, is to run the risk of being branded "an extremist capitalist who wants to destroy everything through greed".
Extreme Environment's concerns are broader than dealing with the claims of the "anti-fracking movement" - most are exaggerations or patently untrue, he claimed - and examine a trend among environmentalists of using fear "to promote a perversely conservative and oppressive form of government".
The media, Vegter argues, are often complicit in these campaigns - journalists are traditionally sympathetic to narratives that purport to speak the truth to economic or political power - and "emotional environmentalism" would tend to displace dull statistics or unsensational facts.
A case in point was the reported "unmitigated catastrophe" of the earthquake and flood damage to the Japanese nuclear power station at Fukushima.
Thousands lost their lives in the natural disaster that caused the accident, but exposure to radiation at Fukushima has yet to claim a single life.
"Instead of considering it a testament to the safety of nuclear power that even a very old reactor design under less-than-sterling management did not cause far worse damage under such extraordinarily severe circumstances, the sensational storyline of nuclear meltdown trumps even the mind-numbing reality of 20 000 dead or missing people," Vegter says in Extreme Environment.
The nuclear fear, duly whipped up by special interest lobby groups, like Greenpeace, causes both government policy-makers and ordinary people to distrust a source of energy that has over time proved to be safer than any other alternative, economically viable or not.”
Vegter is particularly provocative when it comes to rhino poaching.
He believes the animals should be “farmed” in much the same way sheep are.
“Sheep are poached, but they’re not an endangered species. ,” he said.
“That’s because they’re bred in programmes,’ he said.
“The demand for rhino horn in the East is never going to go away. You may as well try and get hippies to stop using homeopathic remedies. So why not farm rhino?”
He argued that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has done little to protect the rhino and other endangered species and should be scrapped.
“Prohibition ,” he pointed out, “never works.”
It is, however, with the dull numbers and economic statistics surrounding shale gas that Vegter's book is particularly convincing.
At an estimated 485-trillion cubic feet, the Karoo reserve is said to be the fifth-largest in the world. Shale gas production here, counting direct and indirect employment, could result in as many as 700000 jobs in one of the poorest regions in the country.
In a developing country like South Africa, such a boost to the economy and to poverty alleviation cannot be dismissed on the basis of "environmental scaremongering", Vegter argues.
"We need a healthy productive environment. And we need to take protective measures to ensure that our interaction with the environment is sustainable and remains productive. But there are those who feel the environment should be left untouched. They have this romantic notion that we should live our lives without having any impact on the environment whatsoever. It's nonsense."
It is reasonable, Vegter says, to be cautious and to seek the best information and expertise in a project like shale gas exploration or building a nuclear power station while also mitigating environmental risks. However, whatever decisions we make with regard to such development won't be helped by hysteria.
- Extreme Environment, Random House Struik, at Exclusive Books, R206