This article by Simon Gear first appeared in Advantage magazine in early 2011.
The environment occupies a strange place in the media.
Every pup journo leaves varsity with the tenets of a good story drummed into them. Who, what, why and when. Tell both sides. Create human interest. Which is all fine and well for the glorified gossip mongering that makes up daily news. We like to know that there is a clearly defined victim and an obvious perpetrator, the more narrowly evil the better. We don’t like our stories subtle or painted in shades of grey. We demand a child’s narrative. This evil crowd did that astonishing thing to these poor people, who are just like us. Heart wrenching quotes from the angry mob and a terse “No comment from the powerful but rotten-to-the-core bad boy. And best of all, a follow up next week showing how justice prevails and order is restored.
But once we start trying to tell environmental stories, the formula breaks down. Everything is still hunky dory while there is a bad guy. Foreign miners try to muscle in on the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site or the Xolobeni dunes, and we feel that rich, warm flood of righteous indignation so beloved of the Sunday paper cognoscenti. But the bigger and more serious the problem, the more the lines blur between the wrong and the wronged.
Acid mine drainage has been in the news ever since the CSIR dealt with Prof Anthony Turton’s uncomfortable truth by firing him. A century of turning a blind eye and focusing no further than the next quarter’s financial results has lead us down a path that may well make the other challenges that this country faces seem petty and inconsequential. As a nation we have teamed up to enjoy the fruits of mining, secure in the knowledge that South Africa’s natural systems would continue to honour the cheques we were writing on its behalf. Now, as that environmental debt comes due, we have cleverly cast around for villains, finding them usefully provided by Aurora. A politically connected, morbidly obese man in a million rand’s worth of sports car ticks all the boxes of the perfect mark, allowing us to continue to avoid the harsh fact that we have all lived off the profits of gold and coal for three generations without a thought for the ultimate price we will have to pay.
The story of climate change is even harder to tell. We are proving to be both the mugger and the mugged. Add to that no obviously neat conclusion and the impossibility of newsroom-style storytelling becomes apparent. Editors have done well to create an angle by stirring up divisions in the science, which are not reflected in any of the journals. But the fundamental truth of the matter: that mankind is probably a generation away from seeing the earth’s first serious push back against our expansion, remains buried in the nether regions of the paper.
I’m not entirely cynical. I do think that humanity has the technology and can do to wriggle out of tight corners when there is no other option, but the story of our great escape won’t make headline news. Weirdly, it’s just not interesting enough.