Ivo Vegter had some interesting things to say on the debate about fracking in the Karoo. For those who didn’t read Ivo's column, the essence was that hydraulic fracturing for gas has not been shown to be as dangerous as some environmentalists are claiming. Unfortunately for Ivo, his case falls apart at the seams as soon as he starts talking about employment.
Providing jobs has become the clinching argument of the industrial age. And South Africa does indeed have a proud record of providing jobs for men to dig big holes in the ground, as De Beers can tell you. Although some of us are not as proud of that as the corporate world might like us to be. Ivo’s final argument was that, since fracking might be less damaging to the environment than other forms of fuel production, the only people who would be against fracking would be wealthy environmentalists who don’t want to provide jobs for the locals.
The silent mantra of “jobs jobs jobs” was incidentally picked up by Julius Malema last week. Perhaps surprisingly, at a meeting of Jewish students, he talked about the old colonial forces in almost endearing terms because “at least they utilised our people”, unlike the new Chinese who he claimed were just bringing their own people in to do the “jobs”.
The last time I looked, shoving workers on communal transport and moving them to some mine in the middle of nowhere to work under tough conditions for minimal pay, and little time with their families, was considered one of the appalling crimes of the colonial period and the apartheid era. What were they doing before that? Chances are they were “unemployed”, in other words they were part of a tribal set-up that formed no part of the international monetary economy, but allowed people time to get on with the important goals of feeding their families, creating a secure social structure, and hell, having fun connecting with each other and with the natural world.
I’m not recommending a return to boiled turnips, illiteracy and bubonic plague, but the average European peasant in medieval times got away with “working” just 140 days a year. It was pretty challenging to fit in “work” between those 24 weeks of just hanging out on holy days (not counting weekends). Today, as most serious environmentalists can tell you, we have the knowledge to create a sustainable lifestyle – based around permaculture, carbon-conscious natural building, localised renewable power sources, genuine communities that know each other (where the financial drain of crime is quickly reduced), and now and then still be able to travel further afield (via a properly financed rail network, for example, not one that has been consistently run down in favour of a gas-guzzling private transport network for the rich). We can even create a more manageable lifestyle with less radical change if we start using renewable energy properly – which, with today’s underfunded renewable technology and today’s disastrous primary industry-orientated economy in SA, could still provide enough power for all our needs.
Or we could carry on as Ivo (who is based in Knysna) and many residents of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, smiling at the neon lights that shine on car showrooms at night, thankful that someone else is doing the very dirty work of going down a big remote hole to power our consumer lifestyle. And the marvellous thing is, if they’re South Africans getting the jobs, they think they’re being sold the great future they were always promised. But it’s the guys driving the BMWs who are the winners here. Today’s multiracial middle-class might occasionally envy the “freedom from the rat race” offered by embryonic eco-communities, but they’re not yet going to put their bums on a compost toilet and plant veggies with the residue. Nor are they going to give up their agro-industrial Big Macs – as long as there are desperate people looking for the McJobs to serve them.
Even if you still live in the cloud cuckoo-land that believes our tasteless consumer lifestyle is maintainable in the long-term, you might baulk at some of the other scientific research Ivo didn’t quite choose to discover in time for his article. Like the suggestion from new research at Cornell University, reported widely in the last few days, that regular methane emissions from shale gas extraction lead to it being a bigger source of atmosphere-altering emissions than coal power. Or the evidence from independent scientists, at non-profit organisation, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, that gas, coal and oil extraction are the root source of the chemicals that are damaging human endocrine systems, likely to be a major reason for modern epidemics from infertility to autism. Meanwhile, in the US, remote and rural Wyoming currently suffers worse smog than Los Angeles, thanks to oil and gas companies extracting in the area. I haven’t even mentioned the issues of water contamination in such a water-poor part of our country as the Karoo, rebuttal of which Ivo made central to his thesis. Shell’s initial proposal, incidentally, was to move contaminated water from mines and pump this into the Karoo as the water source. Without cleaning it up first, of course.
The bottom line is we need radical ideas to help us move our economy to a more sustainable one. While corporations continue to convince our politicians that the freedom they fought for is actually the freedom for the few to keep their foot on the gas, that may be challenging. In a country full of poor Africans, the traditional white rhino-huggers of the old “conservation” movement were viewed in the past with such understandable suspicion that the real, socially conscious, future-orientated green agenda had no place in the popular mindset.
That has to change. Perhaps this fight against fracking is the time to finally take the concept of environmental justice to the masses. DM