Words We Drill By
September 18, 2011
I recently read an interview with Chesapeake’s CEO Aubrey McClendon where he characterized the people at a protest outside a gas industry conference in Philly as anti-drilling extremists. He said: “Remind me: What value have the protesters outside created? What jobs have they created? You know the answer and so do I. So it’s time that we contrast what we do for a living with what they do for a living. . . . What a glorious vision of the future: It’s cold, it’s dark and we’re all hungry.” Talk about painting with a broad brush. I mark those kinds of comments in my students’ writing all the time.
For the record, I wasn’t at the protest in Philly. I identify with the protesters, though, because I was labeled a “vigilante” by industry lobbyists for training to be a Pine Creek Waterdog. The lobbyists painted with the same broad brush, and amid an outcry, retracted the label. But using the term “vigilante” was motivated in part by the same thing that motivates McClendon’s statement: looking at the world from the perspective of a gas driller.
What fascinates me about McClendon’s comment (other than it sounds a bit hysterical) is the way it shows how important natural gas drilling is for him. The key word is “value.” If you are not creating jobs or working for the gas industry, his comment suggests, then you create nothing of value. It’s a limited definition of value, framed in economic terms, and it suggests that anything else one might do has little or no value. So much for teaching people how to write. So much for raising kids. So much for supporting my community. So much for riding my bike. Damn! I guess I’m not worth much. Thanks, Aubrey. You’ve made my day.
Last I checked we live in a democracy where people are allowed to voice dissenting opinions. (This appears to be changing, but that’s another subject.) Protest itself is valuable—think Civil Rights, Vietnam, women’s voting rights, Wisconsin and Ohio governance, gay marriage, Keystone Pipeline. Protests are driven by values just as much as values drive those who slam the protesters. That’s how we move ahead as a society—by raising issues based on what we value, arguing about them, and reaching a compromise.
Let’s face it, though: no matter what your values are, if you don’t have clean water and air, your values won’t matter. Values are a distinctly human thing. So we could say that everyone is linked by the need to live in a clean environment. I don’t see that as a value as much as a right. But then again, I’m not Aubrey McClendon. My view of the world is shaped by a different kind of work.
That we look at the world in terms of our work is something McClendon and I share. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth remembering that a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. McClendon looks at the world from the perspective of a gas industry CEO; I look at the world from the perspective of a college professor trained in rhetoric. We can’t help it. In fact, I’ve been dying to use the term “occupational psychosis” the entire time I’ve been writing (there, I used it), jargon that in my field basically means our work, whatever it is, shapes the way we see the world. That’s the academic in me. But the problem with looking at the world in terms of one’s work occurs when we let those terms hide other issues or possibilities. At best, our work-tinted views are a partial view of the world itself. His use of language (in this quote and elsewhere) seeks to limit possibilities. By making such statements, he tries to turn very real concerns about the here and now into an obsession with the past (the Dark Ages), rather than an interest in the future (progress). His quote creates a sense that, “OMG, without gas, I’ll be like the cavemen trying to start a fire in Night at the Museum. Save me, Aubrey, save me.”
For many, rhetoric is a bad word, the equivalent of bullshit. But actually all language is rhetoric, the good, the bad, and the Aubrey. My discipline teaches people how words can shape attitudes which, in turn, shape behaviors. For better (think Martin Luther King) or worse (think Hitler). My field teaches people that words are powerful, and words can use us just as much as we use them. My field also teaches people that words can be used for seeing multiple possibilities or solutions to any issue. That’s the cool part, because it opens up a world of choices, negotiation, connection, compromise. Because of my work, I’m suspicious of any language that simplifies complex situations like gas drilling. That’s my own occupational psychosis. The more possibilities I see, the higher the likelihood of making decisions that will help me create the world I want to live in. On some level, McClendon understands this when he questions the value the protestors “outside” have created. (“Outside” is another important word carrying literal and metaphorical meanings–you’re either with ‘em or agin’ ‘em.) By framing “value” in such narrow terms, he creates a difficult atmosphere in which to have a conversation about genuine concerns, and it works in the industry’s favor. He knew he would be quoted, and he knew that his words would divide people (insiders and outsiders) that, in a different context, like raising kids or drinking beer, probably identify with each other. My discipline has trained me to recognize that things change over time, and what might work in, say, the California oil boom of the early twentieth century, might not apply now. McClendon doesn’t want things to change (except in ways that ensure his company and industry has unfettered access to land for drilling), because it works well for him and the industry. Other concerns aren’t worth bothering about.
More than anything, I find McClendon’s comment amusing, and I doubt that he fully believes it. He appears to be reacting in part to the growing mistrust of the industry. I think that mistrust is growing because the industry hasn’t done a good job of actually talking with—rather than at—the people who live here. That’s the industry’s fault. People around here are intelligent—they talk to each other, they learn, and they expect (and deserve) respect. Many people want the industry to see this place as more than a resource, and comments like McClendon’s don’t do that because the only value he will acknowledge is economic. In the world his rhetoric creates, the economics of gas constitute the only meaningful value. That probably satisfies many people, but not me. I value many other things besides money. Of course, McClendon has the right to try to create any world he wants, even one driven primarily by economics. But his is not the kind of world I want to live in, so I’m going to join the conversation and offer other possibilities, like the protesters were (and are) doing. The world created by McClendon’s rhetoric is a real world, but it’s only one version. Lilace and I are working to create another version. It’ll be partial, like McClendon’s, but it will align with values that extend beyond economics. Rhetoric enables us to do that.
When I worked construction, I bought a 28 oz. Estwing framing hammer that I loved to use. I’d swing that hammer all day if I could, but it wasn’t always the right tool for the job. Not everything is a nail. Likewise, just because there’s gas under these hills doesn’t mean their only value is as a resource. And there is absolutely no reason why the land cannot be an economic, environmental, public health, and recreational resource at the same time. It takes compromise, creative problem solving, and conversation. McClendon might get a lot further with his work if he’d acknowledge that there’s more to the world than drill, baby, drill. I might have listened to him then.