To vrek or not to vrek

Franschhoek Literary Festival, 17-19 May 2013, Franschhoek. ‘To frack or not to frack’: Tim Cohen in conversation with Ivo Vegter, Cormac Cullinan and Jonathan Deal.


One of the late Sunday afternoon sessions at this year’s Franschoek Literary festival, “To frack or not to frack”, on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking (vrekking?) as it is commonly known, made for a heated debate. Chairing the panel was the widely known Karoo-based journalist and researcher, Tim Cohen, who managed to escape answering any of the audience-questions himself by playing the “we’ve gone over our time” card more cunningly than the devil himself could have. But what he also achieved was to give each panel member – a controversial group – a fair chance to have their say.

First to speak was Cormac Cullinan, an environmental lawyer and founding member of the Global Alliance and Executive Committee, who was listed as one of the environmental champions in Planet savers: 301 extraordinary environmentalist in 2008 and was awarded the 2012 Memorial Award for “Environmentalist of the Year”. His argument was very concise: “Why shouldn’t we frack the Karoo?” he asked. Why indeed not? Ivo Vegter, one of the other panellists, thinks we should. In fact, he thinks it’s a great idea. (I smell a rat, do you?)

Cullinan was brief, his main argument against fracking being that we are all an integral part of the community of life on this planet, humans not being superior to any other part of the natural environment. I liked that he smashed the hierarchy and put us all on a level plane. (Very anarchist of him – brownie points on my scale.) That, to me at least, reflects that he thinks of the bigger picture, or as he remarked, takes the long-term holistic view rather than the immediate economic (colonial, capitalist) view as Ivo Vegter does; an argument which has many flaws anyway, like what happens to all those employed people once the rig is set up? (Yes, I’m biased if you haven’t noticed yet). If everything is reduced to a conceptualisation of surplus value and resource extraction, what are we doing to our lives if not shrinking it, including our personal relations with each other and with nature?

Second to speak was Ivo Vegter. He was quick to point out that he is often caricatured by opposition parties, yet proceeded to do exactly the same to the environmentalists on the panel with him, reducing them to bunny huggers with no scientific evidence. Really? Does he think a lawyer doesn’t know what is bull***t and what is not? Also, his whole argument is based solely on immediate financial gains. (There’s that smell of rat again.) My favourite line was “It’s just the world we live in and the way things are?” For him maybe, but my life does not revolve around money and trading. Where’s the idea of a gift economy, where’s the time you take to do something for someone else without expecting anything in return? Where’s the consideration of the horrific state our planet is in due to our own doing? And no Ivo, this is not just the way things are – not if we all revolt against the idea, which frankly, is what we need. But then, Ivo is a climate change denialist (I thought they were extinct by now), so what can one expect? Also, his arguments are very selective and the sources he sites are hugely problematic, most of them being lobby groups for fracking, such as the Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation and the Free Market Foundation (all listed on by the way). Bad academic practice Ivo! Bad any practice!

After Ivo, head of the Treasure Karoo Action Group, Jonathan Deal spoke, just having returned from the US. He told us stories of the stinking shower water in the houses near fracking rigs and how the residents living there have to buy drinking water, and of the many deserted houses in Pennsylvania with “No trespassing” signs posted everywhere. As is to be expected, came Ivo’s remark that environmentalists are fear mongers and an audience member’s remark that Jonathan is telling us mostly anecdotes to which there are as many counter-anecdotes (the only audience member, I should add, in support of Ivo’s “go-ahead now” policy).

To these critiques, Jonathan Deal gave some real evidence. New York State, with a population of 20 million people, as well as California with roughly the same population figures, have voted against fracking. “Are all 40 million of these people stupid?” Deal asked. “Were all of them manipulated by environmentalists?” The moratoriums against fracking are increasing, not decreasing. “But,” said Ivo, “the moratorium has been lifted in the UK”. “By the Edmund John Philip Browne, Baron Browne of Madingley who, now a crossbench member of the House of Lords was Chief Executive of BP until 2007?” asked Cormac Cullinen. What a coincidence. “Everyone has a vested interest,” Ivo retorted.

Of course, but which interest do you want to choose or follow? I’d rather go with all the (scientific) evidence that climate change is killing our planet and that there are enough signs of the damage wrought by fracking to make me doubt that it can be a good thing for our singular, unspoilt bit of Karoo. There are more renewable, sustainable practices available. Yes, they will take time to implement and not be financially rewarding for some time, but it will – undeniably – make a difference to the state of our planet. Surely that’s a better cause to invest in than immediate financial gains. But I guess it depends where your values lie and it is a (scientific) fact that the rat is a species of opportunistic commensals.

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