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

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4 Responses to “Thinking Like a Rock”

  1. Ellen Blais said

    great essay, Jimmy. I’ve always loved that Gary Snyder quote!

  2. David said

    Thanks for putting in in such clear perspective. We might be young ‘uns but oh what short sighted brats we be. I’m afraid the rocks will win.

  3. […] prof Jimmy Guignard’s latest blog, “Thinking Like a Rock,” uses  The Sierra Club’s acceptance of $25 million from the natural gas industry to […]

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