Life, etc

Review: Going to extremes

By Erin McLuckie 23 January 2013

Extreme Environment, the first book by Ivo Vegter, the Daily Maverick columnist whom readers most love to hate, is stirring the same brand of entertaining, vociferous debate his columns attract. ERIN MC LUCKIE reviews the book that has created much confusion for herself and broader society by prompting people to question the spoonsful of environmentalism we so readily swallow.

Daily Maverick’s favourite trouble maker has brought the contentious environmental debate (about which he often writes) to readers in paperback form. Extreme environmentalism is harmful to emerging economies, Ivo Vegter argues. It is a mantra he repeats, to great effect, throughout Extreme Environment.

Vegter insists he is not opposed to environmentalism. What he does take issue with, however, is extreme environmentalism, the evidence for which, he argues, is based on emotion and incorrect data, instead of factually correct information and analysis. Vegter examines various policies implemented on the basis of this extreme type of environmentalism and finds that they harm emerging economies. Having demonstrated the  adverse effects of these policies on developing countries or emerging economies, Vegter zeros in on the negative impact of these policies on the everyday life of working-class individuals.

Extreme Environment tackles contentious environmental issues such as fracking; nuclear energy; oil spills and climate change. Throughout Vegter’s analysis (because that’s what it is) he highlights endangered species, grappling with the notions of how best to conserve them; touches on the acid rain debacle and looks at the Malthusian argument in terms of the earth’s carrying capacity coupled with peak oil theory. It appears no stone went unturned in Vegter’s considerations during his analysis, pitting an anthropocentric approach fiercely against an eco-centric approach in conservation efforts.

Through Vegter’s love for argument and debate, he certainly raises his share of negative responses to the views he expounds and, as expected, the reaction to the book is proving no different. Such disagreement ranges from healthy debate in questioning Vegter’s facts, figures and data, to others simply calling him an “eejit” (idiot,) arguing that his book commits the same sins as the extreme environmentalists in terms of exaggeration.

In complete contrast to these arguments, the book has received much praise, sometimes from unusual quarters. According to one reader, “Vegter reveals in plain English, the sometimes mystifying argument of climate scientists, decodes and strips them of their too common veneer of credibility and exposes ham fisted attempts at unedified propaganda while avoiding falling into the denialist camp on the other end of the spectrum.”

One of Vegter’s fiercest criticisms of environmental journalism is that once a piece of information (thought to be correct) is discovered to be false, the error is all too seldom rectified.

It is with this criticism in mind that I refer to a column written by Vegter in October titled, “Was I wrong about acid rain?” In it Vegter addresses a dispute about factually sound information on page 27 of his book – specifically revolving around fracking – by having the grace to acknowledge that humans are fallible and mistakes are made, before going on to concede that the information in dispute, while not an outright mistake, does need clarification. Nevertheless, such an extended open debate about information that needed clarification within his argument needs to be both acknowledged and admired. Simultaneously, this column serves as an indicator that Vegter’s book (and by extension, argument) is in no way at all a trendy piece of literature. His argument has the hallmarks of longevity.

Nevertheless, it cannot be argued that Vegter’s approach is anything other than neo-liberal – specifically, hinged on free-market policies and approaches. One needs to look no further than the foreword by Leon Louw, executive director of the Free Market Foundation of South Africa, to confirm the political corner from Vegter argues. With this in mind the book appears, at first, to pit socialism against capitalism. A closer reading, however, reveals that the main thread of the argument is that of fair and even policy creation and execution based on factually sound data.

Vegter presents his argument neatly, concisely and convincingly. Having been taught to believe the sort of scary environmental doomsday view that Vegter argues against, Extreme Environmentalism has left me more skeptical, more confused and, most importantly, more willing to question the sweetened facts spoonfed us by the Mary Poppins world of environmentalism. It is only through these confusions that reconciliation and solutions can be found and, if for no other reason than to be confused, everyone should read Vegter’s book. DM

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