walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: December 31, 2011
NYT Squeezes Bad News From Good

A worthless desert in South Africa, largely inhabited by drought-stricken sheep and a handful of marginal farmers, turns out to contain rich natural gas reserves that could bring a new wave of economic growth to South Africa and provide huge numbers of well paying jobs for poorly educated workers.

The New York Times, of course, is wringing its elegantly manicured hands.  And why not?  The soil of the Karoo desert is “fragile,” and the extraction of the natural gas will involve fracking.  What will happen to the sheep?

The Times finds a local farmer who is worried about exactly that.

“If our government lets these companies touch even a drop of our water,” [the farmer] said, “we’re ruined.”

Ruined!  By wicked natural gas companies feeding the world’s hydrocarbon addiction.  The farmer in question has a herd of 1400 sheep.  (It was 2000 last year before a drought forced the slaughter of 600.)  One somehow suspects that the farmer will find some other way to make money when the district becomes a major gas producing center.  And, worst case, roughnecks eat a lot of meat.

That the Times chooses the lonesome shepherd to lead off one of the best good news stories around these days speaks volumes about the gloomy Gus mindset at the Paper of Record.  Why can’t this be a good news story?  Will a gas boom save South African democracy, for example?  Will new economic opportunities transform the lives of tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of poor black South Africans?  Will the huge increase in South Africa’s natural gas supply reduce the country’s carbon footprint? Is there anything in the geology to suggest that other poverty stricken parts of Africa might also be similarly blessed?  How are local leaders planning the spend the windfall: better schools? better hospitals?

Soweto Township

Dig deep enough into the story, and there is so much good news that even the Times can’t spend the whole piece mourning the sheep. South Africa, it turns out is only one of a large number of countries, many poor and in the Third World, where new technological breakthroughs — mostly by US companies — now offer the hope of substantial energy discoveries. This isn’t just going to bring jobs, prosperity and electric power to desperately poor people all over the world; it is going to reduce the ability of countries like Russia and Iran to throw their weight around the natural gas markets. Once the obligatory green dues have been paid and the Times reporter can actually get down to some information, the diligent reader can, with enough fracking, extract some valuable news out of the shale.

But, moans the Times, the good news is complicated!  Yes, sad to say, there are many logistical problems to be solved before the gas can be extracted, and there will be environmental consequences that, unless properly handled, could be serious.  Worse, the US government (almost as hostile to fracking at home as is the New York Times, which judging by its editorial page would rather see upstate New York turn into an empty Buffalo Commons than suffer the indignity of resource extraction), is encouraging Third World countries to exploit this treacherous new resource.  It is promoting efforts of US corporations, shudder, to get contracts based on their unrivaled expertise.  One of these corporations is the dreaded Halliburton. So warns the only ‘energy expert’ cited in the story, Professor Michael Klare of Hampshire College.  As the defense correspondent of The Nation magazine, he can be trusted to give a completely accurate and unbiased picture of American strategic and economic interests around the world.  As the author of The Race For What’s Left: The Global Scramble For The World’s Last Resources, Professor Klare may not be the best person to consult about a new energy bonanza, but no matter.

The Times wanted a doom and gloom merchant to enhance its downer take on the gas boom, and, with the vast resources of the world’s largest and richest print news organization at its command, it found one!  And people say investigative reporting is dead.  Here is Amazon’s description of Professor Klare’s latest book:

The world is facing an unprecedented crisis of resource depletion—a crisis that goes beyond “peak oil” to encompass shortages of coal and natural gas, copper and cobalt, water and arable land. With all of the Earth’s habitable areas already in use, the desperate hunt for supplies has now reached the final frontiers. The Race for What’s Left takes us from the Arctic to war zones to deep ocean floors, from a Russian submarine planting the country’s flag under the North Pole to the large-scale buying up of African farmland by Saudi Arabia and other nations.

As Michael T. Klare explains, this frenzy of extreme exploration and acquisition carries grave consequences. With resource extraction growing more complex, the environmental risks are becoming increasingly severe: the Deepwater Horizon disaster is only a preview of the dangers to come. At the same time, the intense search for dwindling supplies is igniting new border disputes, raising the likelihood of military confrontation. The only way out, Klare argues, will be to alter our consumption patterns altogether—a crucial task that will be the greatest challenge of the coming century.

Thomas Malthus

Of course, having found a source thousands of miles from the gas fields in question who was guaranteed to say all the right, doom-laden things, the Times saw no need whatever to quote any other independent experts with positive views.  When it came to more positive quotes, the Times went to oil company employees, immediately countered by green NGO staff.

Obvious, isn’t it: the independent experts and the environmentalists are in a brave alliance with the elves, the Riders of Rohan and the New York Times against Mordor, Halliburton, and the corporate shills.  Live is very simple if you work for the Times.  Nobody asks hard questions about stories that the editors intuitively know must be true.

Now maybe the Times made a good faith effort to find independent experts who disagree with Professor Klare.  Maybe there aren’t any experts anywhere on the planet who think a natural gas bonanza is a good thing.  Maybe there is no controversy on this topic at all.  Maybe Michael Klare speaks for the consensus of world energy science.  And maybe I am the Queen of Romania.

A shepherd and a confirmed leftie Malthusian doomster: those are the Times‘ leading guides for what could be one of the most important economic and geopolitical stories of the decade.  We should just be glad the discoveries involve natural gas, the least-hated fossil fuel source for most greens.  If the South Africans had found oil or, worse, more coal, the wailing and weeping and rending of garments would be almost too much to bear.

Meanwhile, there’s a much more interesting story much closer to hand to report.  The Times seems to be suggesting that abroad the Obama administration is the chief global cheerleader for fracking, putting on the full court press to get poor innocent third world countries to let Halliburton pollute the purity of their last precious aquifers.  Yet at home the administration is fighting the fracksters.

If this is true, there’s a story.  Is the administration cynically pressing foreign countries to adopt a desolating technology as part of its corporatist alliance with big oil, or is it pandering to delusional greens by blocking a perfectly safe and acceptable procedure at home?  Inquiring minds want to know.

show comments
  • David

    Michael Klare is a professor of”Peace and.World Security Studies” at Hampshire College. Asking a NYT reporter to contact an academic energy expert from a place like Texas A&M or Colorado School of Mines would be like asking him to split his summer vacation between Vermont and Branson Missouri.

  • Richard Quigley

    That farmer is overstocking the land. A cardinal sin on fragile soils and sure to cause desertification.

  • Don Fulano

    A quick check shows that the price per head for sheep in that neck of the woods has been over US$500. That makes the poor shepherd’s flock worth over US$700,000.

    The poor NYT reporter grieves.

  • Kansas Scott

    The whole concept of weighing risks and rewards seems to have been sucked out of the universe. If I am for something and I can identify one reward, then everyone must agree to be for it. However, if I am against something and I can point to one risk, then all must be opposed. Not only that, those who don’t follow along are bad, bad people probably after something even more bad like a profit.

    Thank you for another well-written example of how a formerly well-respected media outlet has lost its way.

    On another note, I did notice the cheap Buffalo Commons reference without acknowledging that the only true such Commons was envisioned for the great plains states such as Kansas. Another example of a solution for excessive resource consumption proposed by an academic in the east that involved the homes of people far away living in a manner the professor finds unsustainable. For some reason, the idea was resisted. Probably another failure of a risk/reward analysis.

  • joe

    Will no one think of the deserts and preserving them for future generations?

  • Eurydice

    Well yes, it’s complicated – the NYT reaction, that is. There are the usual green politics, and left-wing politics, and the cynical manipulation of the news – plus, the first world “elite” assumptions about what’s good for the “little people,” and some kind of lingering romanticism that longs for the purity and poetry of the rural life. Perhaps the NYT might like to satisfy that longing with season in the desert tending a flock of thirsty sheep. A good dose of heat stroke can make natural gas seem positively lyrical.

  • Nick Grealy

    Interesting how all the anti-frackers in South Africa are white. In a twist on the US experience where the shale debate is led not by the rural residents themselves but by nimby incomers or Manhattan part time residents who dream of a sylvan paradise populated only by a cheap source of waiters for organic restaurants, the Karoo opponents are really scary right wing Boers of the old school.

    These guys care a lot about the environment because it’s the only place they can still practice the good old days of apartheid. More here

  • CJ

    A worthless desert in South Africa, largely inhabited by drought-stricken sheep and a handful of marginal farmers, turns out to contain rich natural gas reserves that could bring a new wave of economic growth to South Africa and provide huge numbers of well paying jobs for poorly educated workers.

    Get me rewrite!

    “A barren frozen wasteland in Alaska, largely inhabited by migratory caribou and a handful of unemployed Eskimos, contains rich oil reserves that could bring a new wave of economic growth to America and provide huge numbers of well paying jobs for Americans.”

    A head start on Prof. Mead’s next post. I think I got that right, but the story of fracking is a much bigger story. Fracking, for those who don’t know it yet, means not just the end of the “energy crisis” in North America but probably the extension of gas and oil supplies worldwide for centuries. BTW, I personally know people who worked on drilling projects using early fracking techniques in the 1970s (with the company Canadian Fracmaster in Alberta, Canada) and the process has been happening on a large scale in British Columbia for the last ten years without any environmental devastation.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    Sidebar: the Karoo has been fruitful with some very old pre-dinosaur fossils of land dwelling vertebrates. I hope South Africa has some spare paleontologists to send along with the gas prospectors.

  • Kris

    “Big gas find; women and minorities hardest hit.”

  • Mkelley

    Any journalist/lefty activist has a rolodex full of other lefties to put down as “sources” for the usual propaganda. That’s why I never trust them any more.

  • Walter Sobchak

    The NYT was having way too much fun to stop with South Africa, not when they have Baja California to kick around:

    “Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals” By Elisabeth Rosenthal*

    It seems that the Baja has committed green sin by selling too much food to Whole Paycheck and other US merchants — they have sold out the movement. Damn Mexicans. Don’t they know, the only things they are allowed to export to the US, are drugs and refugees.

    * My guess is that Ms. Rosenthal is a legacy. There are a number of NYT bylines like that these days. The institution is becoming terminally inbreed as it enters its death spiral.

  • Jeffersonian

    Even worse, the wonderful tapestry of indigenous culture will be similarly shattered when the locals get wealthy and decide they like things such as XBox, Bruce Willis movies and T-bone steaks. The NYT editors will then have one fewer authentic culture to defend from the horrors of Western civilization.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I’m not entirely sure the Times has gone downhill so much as its cultural monopoly has been diluted and outed by our radically evolving media structure. I started reading it in the mid 50s (before TV had entirely altered the media structure) and one of the first thing my father explained was the Times was important because it was the only readily accessible source of the actual transcripts of important speeches, white papers, etc. . He said, “Always read the transcripts, not just the news story. They don’t always match.” He’d been reading it since the 20s, and although he never mentioned Durranty or his whitewashing the Soviets he always spoke of Stalin’s slaughter of the Kulacks with the indignation of a man who had ben lied to. In my turn I became convinced by the Times that the bearded gentleman in Oriente province was a Social Democrat determined to bring democracy and social justice to the oppressed people of Cuba. Back in those days I think it fair to say that The Times was the best single source of news in the US. It was clearly the key player in the still dominant print news media. Currently they still have a strong hold on a certain segment of the ..ahem.. intelligentsia, but are being openly challenged and ridiculed by members of the Eastern Intellectual Establishment like WRM. In today’s media structure where we have a much more open marketplace for ‘print journalism’ their gross manipulativeness gets outed quite regularly. According to a presentation at the media’s self congratulatory Newseum in Washington DC over half the population doesn’t trust journalists in general. People really are getting it that they are being lied to. They notice the predictable memes and drift away. Still the combination of a dominant player (The Times), determining what is news, feeding a medium dominated by the visual and which consequently has the power to mimic first hand experience keeps a large number people living in la la land.

  • Shane

    But…you don’t understand. The environmental movement expect us all to live like starving Africans. What not racist, it’s martyrdom for a greater cause. Have you no care at all for the planet, Mr. Mead? Where are your priorities?

  • Richard Wooding

    Have you actually ever been to the Karoo? Describing it as a useless desert is very innacurate. Stick to writing about what you know.

  • Toni

    Hey, folks! Look at what’s happening in plain sight! Via Meadia is becoming the antidote to the elitist, deadly cabal led by the NYT.

    I don’t think “deadly” is hyperbole, at least as applied to humans. Sheep dying of drought are more important than more prosperity and hence more funds to, say, improve infant mortality rates.

    Prof. Mead and his interns and us lowly commentators are providing an alternative to the Times cabal. Ten cheers for him, five for his interns, and a few for us. Viva Via Meadia!

  • teapartydoc

    Corrupt governments find ways to exploit resources in ways that don’t benefit the general population of those countries all the time.

  • Alfred Kruger

    The Karoo is a beautiful, pristine location. Full of glorious live and a fascinating holiday destination that provides sustenance to the soul. Mr Mead, try to go there some time – you will change your mind about that “worthless” part.

  • Sam L.

    Well, I’m agin it! There’ll be so much more money coming in for the government to steal and keep from the poor sheepherders!

    Kleptocrats will rejoice!

  • Tom Murray

    Malthus was right in the generality (If benefit is detached from responsibility appetite for a commodity will exceed availability). The free lunch of the welfare state has exceeded the ability of the taxpaying public to support it.

  • Glen

    Might I recommend Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene?

    Ronald Bailey reviews this new book by environmentalists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus at Reason Magazine.

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