by Jimmy

In my previous post, I explored the problem with short-term thinking and the need to think like a rock. I suspect part of the reason we have trouble doing this is the seductive power of power.

My Dad was a truck driver. Over his lifetime, Daddy estimates that he drove around four million miles. His Daddy owned a trucking company. With Papa’s drivers, my Dad began driving from North Carolina to California when he was about fifteen. This was before interstates, and Daddy needed blocks taped to pedals to reach them. (When I said drive, I meant drive.) My brother and I followed in Daddy’s tire tracks, so to speak, when we were around four or five years old and began taking trips with Daddy and other drivers, a practice that continued through college. I still remember the trip I took with Daddy to Florida in my cousin’s red conventional International. (My cousin owned a trucking company, too.) We hauled empty Coke cans to a Coke plant down there, then hauled chip potatoes back to New Jersey. I ate a bag of potato chips made from the potatoes we hauled. But what I remember most was my turn behind the wheel.

The truck I drove looked something like this.

Southbound, Daddy drove I-95 deep into Florida. It was around 2:00 a.m. Reflecting the truck’s lights, the white lines receded into the distance, creating the sensation of driving on a treadmill. Few other cars or trucks broke the monotony. Over the roar of the diesel, Daddy asked: “You want to drive this thing?”

“Yeah.”

“OK. I’ll set the cruise control, stand up, and you can slide in front of me and grab the wheel. See that rivet in the middle of the hood? Keep that on the white line and you’ll know you’re good. And check your mirrors. If the trailer’s outside the lines, you’ll know you’re not in the lane.” He stood up. Because the engine was mounted in front of the cab, we had room to walk around between the driver’s and passenger’s seats and the bunk beds in back, a small, travelling hotel room. I could stand up without bumping my head. I shuffled over to the driver’s seat and, careful not to bump his arm, slid into it and grabbed the wheel. Eyed the rivet and white line. Checked the mirrors. He turned off the cruise control, and I pressed the accelerator. The Cummins roared and the turbo whined as I steered that 65’ truck south. Just like that, I was driving 40,000 pounds of aluminum, steel, and fiberglass down the interstate. After I settled in, I marveled at the power. I felt huge, transformed from a skinny nineteen-year-old into a badass cowboy like Clint Eastwood, riding my horse across the prairie with an itchy trigger foot. I suddenly understood one reason Daddy loved driving so much.

We drove north the next day loaded with potatoes. The truck was heavy now—roughly 80,000 pounds. Steady traffic accompanied us. We switched seats again, and I drove for about two hours, taking great pleasure at flipping on the Jake brake (BLAAAAAPPPPPPP) and pushing cars doing 55 m.p.h. out of the left lane. Slowpokes blocking traffic. (Asinine, I know.) At one point, I checked the driver’s side rear view mirror and noticed a sheriff’s car half in the lane, half in the median. I pulled into the right lane pronto and watched as he raced by, lights flashing. The police car following pulled up beside me, the cop leaned over to the passenger window, shook his finger at me, and then took off in pursuit. Chastised (I had been speeding) and a bit rattled (no CDL), I stayed in the right lane until we pulled off for a piss break. That was the only time I’ve driven a truck other than around my cousin’s shop when I worked there, but that delicious sense of power stays with me to this day.

Fast forward a few years. I worked for a general contractor out of Charlotte as a job superintendent. I didn’t know a damn thing, but I learned fast and listened. One of my jobs was raising a spillway outside York, South Carolina. One day I showed up at the job site, only to find out our grading contractor was short a dozer operator and needed someone to clear trees from the borrow area (the place where we got the dirt to raise the spillway). The sub’s boss, Eddie, had known my Dad for years, and he and I had become drinking buddies. We were talking about the problem, when he asked, “You ever run a dozer?”

“No.”

“Well, it ain’t hard. I’ll show you.” We walked over to the International TD-15, he gave me instructions (you let off a pedal to accelerate a dozer), and I clattered off across the dam to push down trees. A TD-15 is a big dozer. The blade is about three feet high and around ten feet wide. Once I clackclackclacked across the dam, I turned toward the trees, most of which were between forty and eighty feet tall. In the next couple of hours, I pushed down and cleared away twenty or so trees, cutting the roots on one side with the corner of the blade, backing down between trees in order to push them out toward the newly cleared area (didn’t want a tangle of downed trees), driving straight up onto the tree as far as I could (dared!) until it leaned precipitously, backed off, lowered the blade and drove forward, catching the root ball with the blade and popping the tree out of the ground. Trees that had been growing for thirty, forty, fifty years, bam, felled in minutes. I relished the work, the roar of the diesel (much louder than Daddy’s truck), the clatter of the tracks, the controlling of something much more powerful than me. Although I’ve always preferred bicycles to diesels, I understand the pull machines have on a person. They made me feel powerful in a world bigger than me.

TD-15 dozer. I could make a mess with one of these.

I was in no way a skilled operator. I tried to put a swale on grade with a TD-8 once (a baby dozer), but all I got was laughed at. Eddie, on the other hand, could work magic with a bulldozer. Daddy was the same way in a truck. They were both skilled with their machines the way Lilace is skilled with writing. Their skills are a gift, they made the most of it, and many people benefited.

I suspect there are people as gifted operating tractors, trucks, dozers, track hoes, and drill rigs around here, and I admire them for that. There’s something seductive about the kind of power we see on display in Tioga County, and no matter how much I question the process, I think I understand part of the drive as well. My Dad said once in jest, “Hell, in my twenties, I would have driven a truck for free.” He felt that power in his bones.

We’re weak sauce without our fossil fuels. Compared to many other living things, we’re downright fragile. Soft-bellied. Slow. Fossil fuel power belies that, makes us feel like gods. It’s an illusion, but so seductive.

I wonder if we’ll ever see the power in saying no.

Thinking Like a Rock

April 1, 2012

by Jimmy

There’s a bit of a kerfuffle occurring on the net over at Orion Magazine. Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream and Having Faith, has broken up with the Sierra Club.  Her reason? The Sierra Club accepted $25 million from the natural gas industry to help support its fight against coal-fired power plants. (The money came from Chesapeake. Smart move, Aubrey.) Needless to say, the acceptance of the money creates all sorts of credibility problems for the Sierra Club, but they can deal with that. I’m interested in the comments that follow the post and why the Sierra Club took the money in the first place, because they raise an important issue for me—how long is a long time?

In the comments, gas industry employer Michael Knapp has a lot of fun telling the Sierra Clubbers how wrong they are not to thank the gas industry for being so green and helping enable the closure of coal-fired power plants. Perhaps we should be thanking the industry, if we compare only the burning of natural gas to the burning of coal. But what’s lacking with his math are the external costs. I don’t see where he’s figuring into his math all the impacts of extracting gas, like burning diesel fuel, building and repairing equipment, etc. (The same can be said of coal or windmills. Windmill blades are made of carbon fiber and imported. I once asked the manager of the local wind farm who was touting the benefits of wind-power how the environmental effects of making carbon fiber blades and shipping them here figured into his math. He didn’t know.) There are various reports about environmental impacts out there from Duke, Cornell, Penn State, Carnegie Mellon, the EPA, and others that offer differing views on the impact of drilling and extracting gas. But as far as I can tell, there is not enough disinterested science to make many definitive statements one way or the other. I have yet to see the preponderance of evidence concerning hydraulic fracturing that we see for, say, global warming. Natural gas research just ain’t there yet.

That’s where Knapp’s industrialist defense of natural gas extraction and the Sierra Club’s acceptance of natural gas dollars converge. Both are thinking short-term. Knapp’s right about what he says, if we compare burning coal to gas, but once we put his assertions in the larger context of fifty or a hundred or a thousand years down the road, what happens then? He’ll say we have nothing to worry about. I disagree. Pennsylvania may use more water for nuclear plants or golf courses than it does for hydraulic fracturing, but fracking takes water out of the our ecological system, either by leaving it several thousand feet underground or filling it full of toxic stuff. It looks like we have a lot of water, but it’s mostly moving downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. As a geography professor friend of mine points out, “All the water in Tioga County goes somewhere else.” Plus, how do we extract all the crap that’s left in the water after it is used for hydraulic fracturing? Knapp claims a filtration system will work. That may be the case, too, but it’s a technological fix. We won’t always be able to engineer our way out of everything. For example, C02 lives in the atmosphere 200-300 years, which means we are dealing with C02 that was created before anyone had a clue about global warming. What’s to say an issue like this won’t arise from natural gas extraction? We simply can’t foresee that, not based on the science we have so far, which like pesticide use in the 50s and 60s, lags far behind industrial accomplishments. At some point, we have to respect time and limits.

The formation of the earth compared to a 24-hour day. We're young 'uns.

The short-term thinking that undermines Knapp’s arguments also undermines the Sierra Club’s decision to accept natural gas money. The Sierra Club has been fighting against coal-fired power plants for so long that they were desperate for any solution. Along comes natural gas—problem solved. They were, in a sense, beguiled by gas industry rhetoric and driven by their desire to do something, anything, to mitigate the impacts of coal. (I’m sure there were other factors, too.) That’s a problem with the issue of energy today. The solutions are super complex (remember C02?), yet our primary way for framing the issue is economic, which means we think in the short-term. This kind of money-driven thinking permeates our culture like the air we breathe and the water we drink. The issue always comes back to money, which means it always comes back to short-term thinking.

We need to think like rocks—in geologic terms, not human terms. We haven’t been here long, yet our brains and fossil fuels have enabled us to have an impact all out of proportion to what we could do before the Industrial Revolution, which is a micro-blip in geologic time.

My question to you: How do we start thinking long-term?

As the crickets’ soft, autumn hum
is to us
so are we to the trees
as are they
to the rocks and the hills.

—Gary Snyder