Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It

January 9, 2012

by Jimmy

I need some help. I’m trying to understand the ebb and flow of people’s attitudes toward natural gas development in north-central PA for some research I’m working on. In my way of thinking, we learn things in two ways—through lived experience and what we learn from words. I would argue that the latter makes up most of what we know, and much of what we’ve learned about natural gas development has come from encounters with various media, that is, words. Your assignment is to help me think about this. Let me elaborate.

Kenneth Burke. Dude understood a lot about words.

In grad school, I read Kenneth Burke’s Definition of Man, a definition I’ve chewed on ever since. Burke defines humans as symbol-using animals, animals who use words (symbols) to create much of our understanding of the world and our place in it. He also raises questions about reality:

“What is our ‘reality’ for today (beyond the paper thin line of our own particular lives) but all this clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present?”

Of course, these days Burke would include blogs, list-servs, websites, conversations, etc. I often spend a lot of time at the beginning of my writing courses asking students to think about what Burke means here. Like I said before, words make up a large percentage of our reality. I’m a physical being living in a physical world, yes, but I understand more about my “reality,” who I am and where I live, from what I read.

Let’s think about this in terms of natural gas development. The way I see it, the natural gas industry and the public are arguing about how we should perceive and thus use north-central PA, and the argument is evolving. The industry wants people (locally and nationally) to see this area as a resource. Many locals want people (locally and nationally) to see this area as a place people call home, that is, as more than, or something different from, a resource. (Of course, locals’ desires are complicated. Many locals want what the industry wants. Many want something else. I see locals as categorized loosely into three groups: pro-frack, anti-frack, and sorta-frack.)  This “conversation,” if you will, has involved websites, press releases, lobbyists, TV and print advertisements, letters, contracts, phone messages, billboards and signs, news coverage, blogs, art (see here), protests, books (see here and here), bills, policy statements, scientific research, list-servs, public meetings, etc. That’s a lot of words being thrown around. In all the reading I’ve done, it appears that these groups are using words to shape attitudes in ways that point toward PA-as-resource, PA-as-home, or PA-as-something-else.

Think about the times you eat out, read the paper, watch TV, talk with your friends and family, sit in the dentist’s office, walk down town (wherever that is), ride your bike, tend bar, slam some beers at your favorite watering hole, whatever. Got it? Good. Now, what moments, words, phrases, images jump out at you when you think about natural gas? Got that? Awesome. Now, what would you say those moments, words, phrases, or images incline people to think about natural gas development? Put another way, what stands out to you about a) the way the gas industry has used words to shape people’s attitudes toward Marcellus shale development and b) the way locals have used words to shape people’s attitudes toward the Marcellus shale development? I realize this is a huge question, and it’s one I’ve been thinking and writing about for almost three years. The way I see it, there’s a constant give-and-take between all the concerned parties as we argue for and struggle toward our vision of what this place is becoming. We, industry and locals alike, are working toward a competing, but connected, reality, a reality constructed largely by words, but that has very real physical effects. What will north-central PA look like? What does it look like now? How did we get here?

I’m also wondering, as much as it pains me to say this, whether words can really make a difference. I believe that they can, and I believe that they have been. Witness some of the timid but nonetheless steps in the right direction taken by our politicians in asking the gas industry to pay to play here. But when I see stories about places like Cogan Township in Lycoming County, where the Township Supervisor cut down trees to stop Range Resources from using a road, I can’t help but wonder why the industry has such a hard time working with people at times.

What has stood out to you about the way the industry has characterized and continues to charaterize the development of the Marcellus shale and the way that locals have responded and continue to respond? I look forward to hearing from you.


8 Responses to “Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It”

  1. Karen said

    Okay…this might not be what you’re looking for, but I feel obligated to chime in. Having lived 20+ years in Houston, Texas (and, in the case of my mother, who lives with me, 29 years), one thing we liked about this area when we first moved here in the late ’90s was that we didn’t have to deal with the gas and chemical fumes that aggravated our sinus allergies. In the past 2-3 years, the allergies are back…and it’s all because of the natural gas extraction, because the fumes leak out (no matter how hard they try to stop it). So to us, it’s not an environmental issue as much as a health issue–and I suspect there are other people who are now suffering the same affliction (but don’t realize it because they didn’t have previous exposure).

    The “plus” side as I see it is that there is an economic boom because of the industry. The “minus” side is what this boom has done to the quality of life (and economy). Yes, we now have a Sheetz. But we also have high rents for apartments, torn up roads, increased traffic, etc. I used to joke that I moved here to get away from pickup trucks with Texas license plates (well, the job at MU was the main factor); now I add “but they followed me here.”

    • Karen,

      That’s an interesting bit of personal history. I’m always trying to figure out how to balance those pluses and minuses out (not that I think we can ever do such a thing), and you’ve helped me think about it a bit more. Your post reminds me that the gas development is as much a physical experience as one mediated by language. Thanks.

      I hope those sinuses back off.


  2. Danielle said

    It probably isn’t really an answer to your question, but you should check out BP’s commercials regarding tourism and the gulf coast as an exemplification of this place/resource issue.

    Also, you live in a very impoverished part of the state(s). Seeing the surrounding environment as a cash resource isn’t going to change any time soon. This economic gas boom may degrade the local sense of place, but a new sense and place identity is developing out of this. Right now, like Nebreska, PA has a multifaceted definition of what makes it what it is, both locally and nationally. The words and texts used by the gas industry has (re)shaped how we (nationally and locally) read the place, and like the current BP propaganda of the gulf coast, PA will never be read the same again (locally or nationally). No matter what, even when the gas industry pulls out, PA will always be a part of the fracking fight.

    • Fascinating ad, Danielle. That pristine look sure does clash with the images I have in my head of the plume. Rightly or wrongly, the economic framing does carry a lot of weight, doesn’t it? The ad recognizes that tourism is big business, something that could’ve been the case here a few years ago. I’m not so sure now.

      As your response recognizes, defining a place is a complex issue. Much of what I love about this place is still here. What I find particularly interesting right now is the way that people are trying to make sure that PA is defined as more that a resource for natural gas. I think the message is getting out.


  3. I’m firmly in the anti-frack camp, and two phrases that come to mind are “industrial zone” which is what we are fast becoming (don’t know where I heard it first but it struck home) and “sacrifice zone” which is what Terry Engelder, the Penn State professor who got the whole boom started by his gas predictions, called us at a public presentation in Laporte last January 14th. As Engelder put it we are being sacrificed for the greater good of the nation to help solve the energy crisis and should just suck it up, and he was the pro-gas speaker!

    As for industry framing, just look at the difference in billboards. Down state, you’ve got messages showing green farms with messages of clean gas and energy independence. Around here the billboards are for safety training, fire extinguishers, insurance companies, lawyers and truck transmission repair.

    • Wow, Emily, I hadn’t heard the Engelder quote. Damn. Just damn.

      I haven’t seen the difference in billboards, but I haven’t traveled down state in quite a while. It reminds me of the national ads run on TV and in newspapers like NYT, where the images are soothing greens and blues, suggesting clean air and water and energy independence. Those types of ads prompted my Dad, who lives in NC, to ask me how clean gas drilling really was. I told him the ads took some liberties.

      Thanks for sharing. Good stuff.


  4. Kathy Thorne said

    I heard two completely different sets of words on my holiday visit to Wellsboro. From my former students, who work for the gas companies of service companies, I heard “opportunity”, “higher income”, “responsible corporate behavior”. From people who weren’t profiting from the presence I heard “lost property value “, “traffic concerns” and “gasholes”.

    Engeler’s quote is right on the mark geographically speaking. It’s one of those darned counter-intuitive things that make Geography so interesting. Places that rely on natural resources for their income are typically the poorest areas in any region – consider West Virginia. I may be back later with a pair of maps to show the visual correlation.

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