How Stories Make Us Dumb

September 29, 2013

by Jimmy

A few weeks ago, philosophy professor Adrianne McEvoy and I were chatting after her Methods of Inquiry class for which I had guest-yammered about the writing expectations in different college disciplines. She’s a new Mom, and she’s thinking about moving to the country so her boy can grow up eating dirt and wrestling bears. Adrianne talks occasionally to me about what it’s like being a country mouse in the midst of the gas industry. At one point during our conversation, Adrianne asked me, “Are the gas industry folks evil or dumb?”

I had to think about that one. After a moment, I said, “Neither, I don’t think. They’ve got to be smart to do what they do. And I don’t think they’re necessarily malicious, though some may be. The problem, as I see it, is that they are trapped in this box of language that they’ve created. They use language in ways that prioritize what they want to happen and that overlooks a lot of other concerns.” Even as I reeled this off, I wondered if it were really clear. That’s one of the problems with using language to talk about language—it’s all we got, and it can be about as clear as frack water sometimes.

Though I have no doubt that some in the industry are “evil” and don’t give a shit about anyone (Aubrey McClendon comes to mind), I think things tend more toward the dumb side. Not dumb in an I’m-not-capable-of-learning way—to handle that technology, you’ve got to be smart in some ways—but dumb in Aldo Leopold’s sense of not knowing or being ignorant. We’re all dumb in some ways (don’t ask me anything about engines or pop culture or hunting), and I think this dumbness grows in part from the stories we tell ourselves about what we value.

Cthulhu knows, it affects me. I learned to rock climb in North Carolina in the late 80s. There are dozens of climbing areas in the US, and the way people go about climbing in each depends on what the locals decide. North Carolina climbers believed in what is called a traditional ethic, which means they believed the best style of climbing was to go from the bottom to the top with no fixed (permanent) protection and no prior knowledge of a route. Called “on-sight climbing,” this approach gave NC a reputation for being a bold and adventurous place to climb, because climbers often faced long leader falls onto sparse protection. A leader fall occurs when a climber, belayed by another, climbs a rock, placing and clipping protection (pro) as he climbs. Since the rope is running up to the climber, instead of down from the top, the climber falls the distance he is above his last pro x 2 (5’ above equals roughly a 10’ fall). It’s a big step for a climber to start leading, because the mental game becomes more intense and more rewarding.

Learning to climb at NC's Table Rock.

Learning to climb at NC’s Table Rock.

NC climbers I knew talked about the NC style of climbing in reverent tones and heaped praise on climbers who did it well. (“Did you hear about Local Toughguy’s ascent of Pucker Factor? That guy is badass!”) As I was learning to climb, I wanted to be talked about that way, too. I internalized the stories, bulking up my attitude on the right way to climb like my forearms accumulated muscle from hanging onto small holds. I dismissed places with a different approach to climbing as not really climbing. To say I was judgmental at the time would be an understatement.

My buddy, Sean, and I bumbled through a lot of climbs, and we climbed with local climbers, like Woody, JoJo, Mike, Byron, Alex, Scrappy, Burton, Mark, and a host of others who told us more stories. We met rock god Doug Reed, one of the strongest climbers in the US at the time and not afraid to “run it out” (which means climbing hard moves way out from his protection, facing big falls). We heard tales of strong climbers taking serious risks to do first ascents in good NC style. Everything I heard I considered gospel. Over time, Sean and I started taking on some of those risks ourselves, driven by the on-sight, no-falls ethic.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t fall, but they were few and far between. I still remember the first leader fall I took at Stone Mountain. I slipped off some tiny holds and slid 10’ down a rock face. It happened so quickly, I didn’t get scared. Hanging about fifty feet off the ground, I looked down at Sean, who was belaying me. He dangled a couple of feet off the ground. Kicking his feet, he deadpanned, “Hey, man, this shit works. It worked.” I laughed, choking down the adrenalin rush, and finished the route. As I got stronger, I would hang out for 45 minutes on a 60’ climb, climbing up and down, trying to figure out how to unlock a move without falling, that NC ethic driving my choices and behavior. I worked my way slowly and methodically through the climbing grades (difficulty ratings), and I rarely lead climbed a route if I thought I had a chance of falling. The upside is that I would put off doing risky routes until I thought I was ready, which led to some rewarding ascents. Another upside: I never got hurt. The downside is that I didn’t climb nearly as hard as I was physically capable of because of the story I told myself about the way climbing should be, a realization that now haunts this 46-year-old. The stories I heard and told myself held me back.

Three or four years after the other pic, I'm totally locked into the NC climbing ethic and becoming a legend in my own mind.

Three or four years after the other pic, I’m totally locked into the NC climbing ethic and becoming a legend in my own mind.

I realized how powerful the NC ethic was when Lilace and I moved to Reno in 1999 and started hanging out with west coast climbers. Ross, Bill, Dave, Scott, Jennifer, Chris, Jackie, Adrian, Russell, and Liz taught me to think about physical difficulty coupled with safety, not pants-filling NC run-outs. In NC, I believed in the sacredness of the on-sight ethic. In Nevada, I enjoyed pushing myself on harder, safer climbs without worrying about falling, because I heard a different story and practiced climbing differently. None of the people I climbed with out west were into climbing scary routes, they were into difficulty and fun. I had a blast, though I still carried that NC ethic around like a climbing pack loaded down with too much gear. This was driven home one day at Big Chief, a climbing area with fixed protection in the Sierra Nevada. All climbers do there is clip bolts (permanent protection) and climb. In other words, super safe, super fun climbing. We’d been climbing an hour or so when I decided to lead a route I hadn’t led before. As usual, I futzed around at the crux, taking way longer than I should have on a route I knew, that NC ethic rattling around in my head like a loose rock. After I clipped the anchors which marked the end of the climb (no falls! woohoo!), Ross lowered me to the ground. I stood there untying the rope, basking in my post-climb success, when a Swiss climber said to me, “You are strong. You would climb much harder if you climbed faster.” Ouch! But he was right. That NC climbing style born of stories from all those years ago kept me from adjusting the way I climbed to meet the demands of a new climbing area. In other words, it kept me from seeing other possibilities and adopting new behaviors.

I changed as a climber in Reno, going so far as to take practice lead falls at the climbing gym and falling more outside, but I never really overcame those earlier lessons from NC.  Doesn’t really matter—I was just climbing rocks—but it illustrates how the lessons we absorb from the language associated with a sport or job or group of people or an extractive industry has a powerful effect on the way we interact with the world. Lilace didn’t carry my baggage, and she kicked ass out west. (I realize now that my NC ethic caused me to raise doubts when I shouldn’t have, like on Mary’s Crack at School Rock. Sorry, honey.)

People working in the natural gas industry live their stories the way I lived the NC climbing stories. The stories keep the industry from seeing other possibilities. The industry dismisses many of the concerns people have about drilling the way I dismissed climbers outside NC who climbed differently from me (until I moved to Reno). The industry doesn’t hear the concerns or see other possibilities, because they are used to doing things a certain way, a way embedded in its stories.

The stories we tell ourselves are powerful things.

The stories we tell ourselves are powerful things. Same goes for the stories we are told. Photo: Wiki Commons

There’s one big difference between the way I let the NC climbing ethic shape me and the way the industry lets what we might call the Oil and Gas Ethic shape them—when I went climbing, I didn’t change the people or the rock. In the scheme of things, my influence was tiny, if not non-existent. I was a pebble sitting at the base of El Capitan. That’s not the case for the gas industry. They are working on El Cap’s scale (and would probably try to frack El Cap if they thought gas was there). The industry changes this place in a huge way, the extent of which we don’t know yet, and they owe it to the people who live here to understand that. The stakes are high for locals, like climbing above your protection into ground fall range, and we all didn’t make the choice to start up that route. The industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise spread out over thousands of acres that affects people’s lives for good and ill. They need weave those lives and the place more completely into their stories, emphasizing the bad at least as much as the good. Instead of trying to control the story that gets told to the public (see non-disclosure agreements), the industry needs to tell itself (and us) everything, and now. No matter what goofy rules rock climbers follow, they generally don’t screw up land, air, or water. The industry can follow their own rules (which, though not rigorous  enough in my view, are not arbitrary) and still screw up. They need to quit suggesting otherwise.

To go back to Adrianne’s question, I don’t think the industry is evil, but it has created a story for itself that makes it dumb. (Red, White, and Bluewashing explores three of these stories.) Since the industry created the stories, it can, and must, change them. It’s necessary for a public who is sacrificing for them (a part the industry tries to leave out). The aggrandizing stories the industry tells itself has led to arrogance and created a host of problems for them. (I describe part of that process here.) Arrogance is just another way of being dumb by thinking you have all the answers and the authority to do what you damn well please. Drilling’s too complex for Dick and Jane storytelling.

Worst of all, the stories the industry tells itself (and us) makes it difficult for us to learn what’s really going on. I always feel like I’m getting only part of the story. Adrianne feels the same way. She told me, “Having a PhD doesn’t make me intelligent. It makes me a bloodhound, and I know how to go research things and look at them closely. What’s worried me about the gas industry is that I can’t find answers.” The industry could stop fouling the waters, so to speak, and provide these answers. But that will require an unflinching look at the stories the industry tells itself (and us) about drilling for gas. If only they would frack those.


11 Responses to “How Stories Make Us Dumb”

  1. Michael Renner said

    A wonderful essay. For my part, I think a big part of this story — and most environmental disaster stories — is explainable because our society, through laws, policies, and economic incentives like tax codes, has allowed the real costs of activities to be obscured, and this can facilitate having them be offloaded onto to others or deferred to the next generation. Most damaging is when gains are short-term, and costs are long-term. The best at playing the game are those that get in and claim the short-term payoffs, and then exit the game before the bill comes due. It’s the same whether it be fracking, air pollution, carbon load, or any of a thousand other stories.

  2. Gees Midway Homes said

    Jimmy – This  was very interesting from my perspective.  Thanks for pressing on.   Denise Gee

  3. Mac Genson said

    Aubrey is not evil. The man is the energy industry equivalent to Steve Jobs. He has personally saved you hundreds if not thousands of dollars by lowering our energy costs. Everything is made from hydrocarbons. That’s what people don’t understand, over 90% of your car, cell phone, computer, or anything else you have that is made of plastic or rubber is a derivative of natural gas. Plastic is made from etelyene which is made from ethane which is extracted from natural gas. You can’t make any of those things with wind, solar, or nuclear power. You will always need hydrocarbons and Aubrey has made the United States the number 1 energy producer in the world. So next time you log on to your computer to blog about natural gas realize that the very keyboard you are typing with was made from natural gas and it’s likely the electricity powering the device was too.

    • Thanks for your comment, Mac. Maybe “evil” is too strong a word, but McClendon is hardly as pure as snow either. Read Zuckerman’s The Frackers to find out how he played fast and loose with money and leases, to the point of nearly driving his company into the ground. I also find the comparison with Jobs interesting. Jobs drove the design of some nice products, but his treatment of workers (especially cheap Chinese labor) was not impressive. Likewise, McClendon made promises to people in the form of leases and then reneged on the his end of the deal. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t get away with that, and I’m not willing to give so-called “important” people a pass on how they treat others.

      I reckon what I’m trying to say is that I have problems with stories people tell themselves (and I’m including myself here) if those stories suggest there’s only one course of action. I think McClendon tells himself those kinds of stories, and I think he thinks he’s doing the right thing. I also think there are other alternatives, and we need to be thinking about those, but McClendon and many others in the gas industry don’t want us to do that.

      Thanks again. Take care.

  4. Mac Genson said

    Don’t get me wrong Aubrey has done some shady and shrewd business moves over the years but never anything illegal that I know of. I’m glad you brought the Chinese workers issue up with Apple. I think people tend to give some companies a pass when it comes to social issues but other companies get demonized due to their industry. Even though people exploit the benefits of energy industry more than all the other types of other industries combined.

    McClendon is not perfect but he truely is a visionary. While it’s easy to point out the flaws with natural gas as an energy source the overarching trait most environmentalists have in common is that they are long on complaints and short on solutions.

    If we could massively lower our carbon footprint by using natural gas for the next 15-20 years while researching and developing economic sources of green energy then I think nat gas is the best solution for a bridge fuel. I’m tired of sending billions to OPEC and other terrorist harboring nations.

    Anyways good blog but I would encourage you to do some more research on the benefits of domestic energy and I promise they far out way all of the small negatives which have been largely fabricated by the powerful machine that is liberal media. The problem is that most of the media is negative because of the agenda backing it. So it’s hard to separate the real stories from the ones we make ourselves believe.


    • Thanks again, Mac, for your reply. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. Aubrey might be a visionary, but, it seems to me, only in a narrow definition of the term. Our problems seem to be too big to give natural gas that much credit for solving them. And, if we look at the problem of climate change, I’m not sure we’ve got 15-20 years to mess around. The best thing, I think, is to reduce consumption in a big way, but I’m not sure we have to political or economic will to do that.

      I’m not sure what you mean by the benefits of domestic energy. Yes, it seems to make more sense to keep energy local, but that does not seem to be what’s happening. Two days ago, I read an article about the Marcellus Shale Coalition arguing that we need to export energy to preserve security. Ok. That can be seen as a benefit, but that seems to contradict the arguments from a few years ago about how drilling for gas will give us energy independence. And none of these arguments seem to acknowledge very seriously the fact that it requires more and more energy to get less and less energy. Such a complex issue.

      As an aside, I study the media pretty closely, and I don’t buy the idea that the media is “liberal.” Most of our media outlets are owned by five or so large corporations. If they were liberal, I would expect more honest coverage of climate change, worker’s rights, and more liberals on the Sunday shows. I would expect there to be channels dedicated to worker’s rights, just like we have three (or more?) cable channels dedicated to business. Are some shows more liberal and some more conservative? Yes. But taken collectively, the media itself is hardly liberal.

      Thanks again for your perspective.


  5. tfristrom said

    Well, McClendon has had plenty of legal problems. Though I find it bitter sweet that the ones that caused him to step down as CEO of Chesapeake had nothing to do with the companies rapacious development of gas lands. It was the usual white collar issues of which funds were used on his house, which employees were used to manage private finances, which hedge funds, which personal interests he encouraged Chesapeake to invest in, etc.

    The word is still out I think on whether he’s going to be remembered, but for the most part, I think he will be remembered for speed than vision. There is little doubt that he has been an effective advocate for gas, and I found his arguments fairly convincing in 2008, when we signed with Chesapeake in Dimock, PA, but less so today. Part of that is, well, Dimock. They said there would be a handful of wells, now we have 190 in a 24 square mile township, mostly developed even after the massive methane migration scandal of the same year. Admittedly the scandal had more to do with Cabot than Chesapeake, but Chesapeake sold most of their mineral rights to Cabot back in 2008 because of their financial difficulties. Sure, one can make the argument that Dimock, or much of Susquehanna and Tioga counties are sacrificing themselves for the greater good, and I’d be willing to accept that, but I don’t have enough confidence in the greater good at this point to think that it should drive rapid development.

    McClendon’s central talking points then and now were “Natural gas is better than foreign oil” and “Natural gas is better than dirty coal”. Such broad claims are well worth considering. Better at what? Better for whom? But if we can get full answers to those, it’s still a bit of a language trap, because this isn’t an either/or question. We’re going to be using both, and the question is how/much and how fast we should use them. When Pennsylvania started using more natural gas in it’s power plants, it didn’t stop producing coal; it just exported it for other uses. While CO2 has gone way down in the process, and resulted in better test results for the air quality in the state, those tests look at CO2 alone. As most people know by now, natural gas is a green-house gas in it’s own right, and not all of it makes it to the power plant. So air studies or emissions studies need to account for methane as well. Cornell’s studies suggests that the escaped gas is more than enough to balance out the reduced CO2, but even if its in doubt, that would be my point, there’s doubt here. There’s more to an industry’s footprint than CO2, and with so many vagaries out there, why was McClendon so bent on speed? Surely the public health risks, the risks to the water supply, the vagaries of which chemicals end up where, the overload of recycling centers and dumping sites, justify caution, closer study, greater transparency, and slower development. McClendon doesn’t represent any of these. I’m not going to miss him.

    • Speed is one of the things that has bothered me most about the industry. I think it’s a part of their rhetoric.

      I’d be interested to hear more about your experiences in Susquehanna County. And, I agree, there are way more question than answers about the gas industry.

      I have to say, being a Tioga County resident, I’m deeply bothered by the “sacrifice” framing. It seems to me we don’t have to do that, nor is it fair to the people who are trying to build lives here. I think the issue relates back to the speed with which the industry moved in. But the idea of sacrificing a place also seems to imply a tacit admission that place is not worth caring for. Given the state of the globe, I’m not sure we can afford that kind of thinking anymore.


      • tfristrom said

        Agreed. I should be up front about the fact though that while my wife and I spend a good part of our time in Susquehanna, we’re not residents. My wife grew up in Dimock, and we own a share in the farm that she grew up on; it was a family farm going back five or six generations, but it stopped being a functional dairy farm in the 80s. As far as locals go, I’m treated well enough because I had the good sense to marry Ann, but I suspect they wouldn’t think of me as a local anymore than they would the leaf peepers or the road crew for Yoko Ono’s bus. So I tend to be cautious in speaking for others. But I think Seamus McGraw did a pretty good job of covering it all in End of Country, though plenty of his own character injects itself into the story. Ann gets across a pretty good sense of what it was like signing in a review that she wrote of Promised Land. I’m hoping she’ll write more. I’ll probably try writing some myself too, but in the mean time I’ve been sticking mostly with teaching some of the issues and trying to document some of the changes in the area with photographs.

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