Finding facts to suit arguments

EXTREME ENVIRONMENT by Ivo Vegter (Zebra Press)

Ivo Vegter's Extreme Environment sells a deliciously simple idea wrapped in great prose and backed by ­volumes of fact. He is campaigning to warn people that extreme pronouncements by environmental activists and unwitting journalists are misconstruing the facts about the environment. This, in turn, has a hugely negative effect on the thing called "progress". And the result is that the poorest and most vulnerable are bearing the costs.

It is a great idea and one based on the simple truth that extreme pronouncements are the bread and butter of activists and make good headlines. Vegter backs this up with his usual exhaustive research and use of facts in every argument he makes. It is how he wins arguments: he cites enough information to overwhelm the opposition, which makes this particular book problematic, because he cherry-picks facts to support his argument and his world view.

The meat of Extreme Environment is the three chapters about fracking. It is the topic that has made him a local celebrity and gives him enough fame to publish a book. The debate is an endless one that flies between two sides with no middle ground. But it is one that can really occur only when we know how much shale gas is sitting under the Karoo.

The war of words has gone to the level of personal attack. Vegter is accused of being paid by big oil, an odious claim that serves to detract from real debate. The charge probably stems from his leaning towards business, consistently arguing that it creates jobs and pushes ­development.

His favourite supporting argument is rhetorical. If we had stopped development in the past – say, generating energy from coal, or driving cars – we would be nowhere. It is a valid argument on the surface, but it does not take into account the growing awareness of externalities and the different world in which we now live.

In this pro-business argument, it is the power of the free market that keeps everything in check. Market forces will ensure that companies are compliant with any legislation and they will also punish excesses that damage people and the environment they live in.

It is an argument that anyone who pays attention to the constant damage done by extractive business will know is highly faulty. Not that Vegter does not try to absolve companies when they do wrong. Citing the case of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, he argues against the extreme headlines and pronouncements by environmentalists and the media. By showing that things were not as bad as they were said to be, he seems to think that any lesser levels of damage are fine.

The argument that the media and activist alarmism is growing is not a new one. Nick Davies made it in Flat Earth News. Big environmental organisations gain more publicity and funding when there is more alarm and journalists sell more papers when things go wrong. With the juniorisation of newsrooms and the mindless churning out of material, the public relations work of the organisations feeds into newsprint with little editing. It is something that needs to be addressed before it spirals out of control and is a fair argument.

But then to extrapolate that this harms the poorest and most vulnerably is strange at best.

Vegter argues that extreme pronouncements slow or stop progress. In the energy sector, it leads to an abandonment of nuclear and coal-powered energy in favour of sustainable energy, which drives up prices and harms consumers. This is true in the short term, but every energy source was aided in its initial growth. Plus, renewables are already reaching price parity with fossil fuels.

And it is the people whom Vegter seeks to defend who will be the worst affected by changes in the climate. They have the least resilience against shocks to the system because they are already living on the edge.

Not that we have to worry about this, because Vegter takes a whole 39 pages to dismiss the entirety of science that proves humans are helping to drive climate change.

He cites a few celebrity cases that seem to show how scientists are desperately fabricating information to keep their jobs and funding, which is apparently enough to dismiss all the work of thousands of scientists who have independently reached consensus. This style of argument is evident throughout the book. Yes, it has been summarised and a bibliography allows for further reading, but there is none of the balance he says reporting so ­desperately needs.

In one chapter, he dismisses the documentary Gasland as a work of propaganda that has no basis in fact. In another, he freely quotes from The Great Global Warming Swindle, a documentary that was so riddled with problems that Channel 4 in the United Kingdom apologised for airing it. It seems that the facts are dictated by how useful they are to your argument.

The climate-change argument was settled in the 1990s and serious scientists refuse to waste time still arguing about it. That the media is still creating space for this debate is down to the exact thing that Vegter rails against – controversy is sexy, it sells and the more there is the bigger the headlines. It creates a bit of a catch-22 situation for his argument. Environmental activism creates headlines – and so does taking the opposing view. Vegter needs it to give his columns some gravitas. They are two sides of the same extreme coin.

So, read the book, take heed of his warning that much of what you are told and read is the extreme version of reality. But remember, Extreme Environment is the other half of the same thing.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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