Oh ignore him – he’s an environmentalist

Kenneth Boulding, (1910-1993), said that “economics has been incurably growth-oriented and addicted to everybody growing richer, even at the cost of exhaustion of resources and pollution of the environment”.

In reviewing two pertinent examples of industrial age and 20th century thinking, it is relevant to quote Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson. Thoreau, (1817-1862) identified at least 150 years ago, that “in wilderness is the preservation of the world” – stating plainly that the human race was inextricably bound up in nature and therefore reliant on the state of nature.

More than 100 years later, but nevertheless ahead of its popular time, was scientist Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. Two years before her death from cancer in 1964, Carson, an environmental campaigner against the use of pesticides, postulated:

“The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man”.[1]

We are well past the debate of whether or not there is such a phenomenon as climate change and whether or not the future of mankind depends on the environment. Yet even in 2011, warnings and advice from scientists and authors who have dedicated their lives to studying the relationship between environment, climate and world economy are effectively ignored by politicians, captains of industry and governments.

In his book, The Great Disruption, published 2011, Paul Gilding intones:

“We are heading for a social and economic hurricane that will cause great damage, sweep away much of our current economy and our assumptions about the future, and cause a great crisis that will impact the whole world… ”[2]

Enter the age of shale gas. Unemployment. Energy. Global warming. GNP. Four big ticket items on the ‘to-do’ list of any government. To remain in power, a government facing these challenges needs to fix unemployment. Generate energy. Reduce global warming. And keep GNP growing year on year.

But nobody’s asking if this is possible, or even if it’s sustainable. Why not? Because that’s the way its always been done. Everyone knows jobs come from economic growth and economic growth comes from spending and spending comes from employed people. Simple.

So more fossil fuels are a good idea. Right? Because the oil and gas industry tells us that shale gas brings jobs. And the more people that are working, the bigger demand for all the goods that our factories produce, which will keep more people in work who will need more energy to power their new appliances and light their new homes, and propel their new cars and bigger airplanes further and faster, so that they can spend more money and see more in a shorter time, and work harder to pay off their increasing debt.

It is with purpose that I present my view as skeptical and exasperated, because those who deny that this is where we are headed, are those who have the most to lose in the short term – they are the politicians, and the global corporations locked into fossil fuels.

Those whose horizon is no further away than the next election, dividend announcement, or corporate promotion. It is they who reject scientific fact and empirical evidence that the planet and all who depend on her are hurtling towards a catastrophic environmental collapse – a set of unfolding events that will make the world wars of the 20th century seem like regional skirmishes.

And so thank God, America has sent hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to South Africa.

Shale gas is touted by those who would profit from its exploitation as the ‘game-changer’ of the millennium. Never before, has so much been possible from one resource. In fact, if one were aussie online casinos to accept all of the wonderful benefits offered by shale gas in 2011, it would be trite to say that that if 100 years ago, we had had the technology to extract shale gas [in the way that Shell can do it today – safely, reliably, economically, and responsibly – sic] then we would probably not have climate change, unemployment or any energy problems – and of course our global economy would just keep growing and creating more wealth and prosperity for all.

Those who have achieved or secured their positions by promising people jobs, food, energy, health care, houses, education and prosperity, are those who do not know how to tell the billions of unemployed, hungry and increasingly angry people that the model that brought us here, can’t take us past here. They are too scared to admit that the worst of it has happened on their watch, whilst they have been warned by realistic, morally conscionable, rational scientists and during the time that they could have made a responsible decision.

And so, at a time when South Africa is hosting an international conference on climate change, and we have arrived at a point that we can’t afford to burn even half of our known fossil fuel reserves, it is remarkable, that governments are even considering the rallying call of the fossil fuel industry; to explore for more, extract more and exploit more fossil fuels.

It appears to matter not a jot to the fossil fuel Barons and their fawning politicos that the very essence of life on earth, our food and water is being depleted faster than it can re-generate.

Even (no, perhaps especially) if everyone on the planet had unlimited free energy, it would create more of a problem for humanity. It is on this basis and as a precursor to a strategic assessment of shale gas in the South African context, that I offer the words of Robert Kennedy in 1965:

“Too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community value in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product … counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our houses and jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and it counts nuclear warheads, and armored cars for the police to fight riots in our cities.

Yet the Gross National product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, in the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit, nor our courage, neither our wisdom, nor our learning, neither our compassion, nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.

What, one may ask, can I do? Surely not descend into a mindset that says “But I”m only one person – it won”t make any difference.” Although it may seem like an impossible fight, that it”s already too late and that the big players either haven”t the guts or don”t care – take heart.

My personal experience this year, when faced with a formidable opponent like Royal Dutch Shell, and in defending a seemingly indefensible position, one in which erudite and well to do business people and politicians have said: “I admire you, but you know they will frack SA anyway?” – is this:

If world history consisted only of fights that had a certain outcome at the beginning, the world would be a very different and poorer place. People like our own Nelson Mandela would have given up before the fight started. He didn”t – and neither should we. So, keep your spirit up and take charge of your personal space – how much power you consume, driving you do, water you use, pre-packaged food you buy. You, and your neighbor and his neighbor can make a difference – one person at a time.

[1] Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring 1962

[2] Gilding, Paul. The Great Disruption, page 5, 2011