Column: Struggle

“After two and a half years work, my book about the opposition to shale gas in the Netherlands, Tussen hoogmoed en hysterie (Between Arrogance and Hysteria), was finally published. ‘A revealing, and sometimes sobering glimpse behind the scenes of the modern media democracy’, as it is described on the back cover. ‘Where perceptions rule, framing is widespread and hardly anyone can separate fact from fiction – with all the consequences this entails.’

In no time, employing the holy trinity of all successful opposition – fear, uncertainty and suspicion – environmental activists and the public have managed to get shale gas banned. There has been no debate, or anything resembling one. The voice of reason was conspicuous by its absence. Objective factual information was soon submerged in a deluge of opinions, rumour and half-truths.

As I was frequently reminded in The Hague, political decision-making isn’t based only on fact – emotions also play a role. That’s true – but with the emphasis on ‘also’. In practise, it is largely emotions that are at the root of generally held views. The fact that reason is largely lacking in today’s black-and-white culture and debate is because those who represent the voice of reason are less and less inclined to take part in discussions. As in the case of shale gas. Why damage your reputation if you’re not a stakeholder? Why allow yourself to be scoffed at in a debate when even the industry itself has serious doubts about whether it can ever be developed in the Netherlands? No thanks.

But the struggle over shale gas is not about gas. It’s about losing sight of the facts. It‘s about engineers being written off as idiots, simply because they sometimes do the sums. It’s about a broad view versus blinkers, optimism instead of fear, and curiosity instead of a closed mind. In short, it’s about the essence of a safe, secure and prosperous society.

I often heard it said in the ‘reason and rationality camp’, that if you just wait long enough, things have a way of working out. ‘Just watch how quickly public opinion changes when the lights go out or electricity bills go through the roof.’ That’s right, But those who hold this resigned approach forget that every gloom-and-doom scenario relating to technology will result in even greater resistance to technological innovation next time around. ‘When in doubt, don’t do it’ – the final nail in the coffin. Anyone who wants to let the facts speak as well as his heart will have to man the barricades in order to defend considered argument against the whirlwind of emotions that dominates many a debate on technology, and to issue the clarion call to occupy and defend, with fire and sword, the now-deserted middle position.”

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