July 14, 2015
Back in town after a long trip out west with Lilace and the kids (which was awesome). I have been trying to catch up on work and other stuff when I saw that Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone has appeared at the TAMU Press website. You can check it out here. You can also pre-order on Amazon or from your local bookseller. My go to place for books: From My Shelf Books & Gifts in Wellsboro, PA.
On the way back, we drove through the “Energy Capitol of the Nation”: Gillette, Wyoming. I’m scribbling a blog post about that. I have another post cooking up about my ASLE presentation and a few in the works from guest bloggers. More soon!
August 31, 2014
I haven’t been here in a while, because I was in the throes of finishing my book for Texas A&M University Press called, tentatively, Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale. The manuscript was due July 1, and I’m happy to say I met the deadline.
Because my book is largely about how words and images shape perceptions of the Marcellus, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about books (and other texts) that shaped my own views of living in the frack zone. I won’t have room to include these titles in the book itself, so I thought I’d share them with you. I’ve attempted to break them up into categories (nebulous at best), and each of these books (including some films) shaped my thinking in some way over the past four years. (Note: This list does not include the blogs and academic articles I read.)
- Rick Bass, Oil Notes (Bass was a geologist searching for oil before he became an environmentalist and activist. After reading this book, I understood the attraction of drilling for fossil fuels. A bonus: the guy can write.)
- Robert Bryce, Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence”
- Walter M. Brasch, Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting with Disaster (Tons of research in this book.)
- Alexandra Fuller, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant (Absolutely awesome writing. Read this book.)
- David Gessner, The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill (This book played a tremendous role in my thinking about my book.)
- Russell Gold, The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World (
I’m reading this one. Slowly.Done. Great book.)
- Daniel Goleman, Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy
- Stephanie C. Hamel, Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage (Raises some interesting tensions about a married couple with differing views on leasing.)
- Richard Heinberg, Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future
- James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
- Lisa Margonelli, Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline
- Seamus McGraw, The End of Country
- Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
- Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
- Bill Powers, Cold, Hungry, and in the Dark (Focuses on past production rates and markets.)
- Vikram Rao, Shale Gas: The Promise and the Peril
- Sandra Steingraber, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (Includes a chapter on fracking.)
- Tom Wilbur, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (Wilbur has a good website, too.)
- Gregory Zuckerman, The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters (Interesting read, though I’d be put in jail if I pulled some of the crap these guys did.)
- Lamar Herrin, Fractures (A bit didactic, though it captures nicely the tensions created among people when gas leasing is involved.)
- Nick Hayes, The Rime of the Modern Mariner (A modern graphic novel version of Coleridge’s famous poem set in an environmental apocalypse, and beautiful to behold.)
- Melissa Miller, Inadvertent Disclosure (A fun, formulaic read about a female lawyer who uncovers a small-town conspiracy to capitalize on the gas boom.)
- Upton Sinclair, Oil! (This was the basis of the film, There Will be Blood. As I read it, I often felt Sinclair was writing about Tioga County in the twenty-first century. Plop an energy boom down in any century and the same shit happens, it seems.)
- Brian Wood, The Massive (A comic book series involving a black ops-soldier-turned-pacifist-leader of an environmental group called Ninth Wave and set in an apocalyptic future. They are aboard the Kapital searching for their sister ship, The Massive. I’m still early to this series, but I’m digging the issues it raises. The colorist, Dave Stewart, has worked on Mike Mignola’s Hellboy.)
- Mathew Henderson, The Lease (Fantastic.)
- Ogaga Ifowodo, The Oil Lamp
- Julia Kasdorf’s poetry on the peopile living above the Marcellus shale. (I don’t think she’s published her natural gas poems yet, but they are fantastic for the way they capture the complexities of living above the Marcellus shale. A privilege for me to read.)
- Lisa Wujnovich, Fieldwork
- Gasland (documentary)
- Gasland II (documentary)
- Promised Land (feature)
- Split Estate (documentary)
- Triple Divide (documentary)
- Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives
- Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives
- Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method
- Sharon Crowley, Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism
- Kevin Michael DeLuca, Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism
- Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen E. Schell, Rural Literacies
- David Ehrenfeld, The Arrogance of Humanism (I read this a long time ago, and this book changed everything for me.)
- Terry Gifford, Pastoral
- Don Duggan-Haas, Robert M. Ross, and Warren D. Allmon, The Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale (New.)
- Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy
- Norman J. Hyne, Nontechnical Guide to Petroleum Geology, Exploration, Drilling, and Production (2nd edition) (Great reference book.)
- Jimmie Killingsworth, Appeals in Modern Rhetoric: An Ordinary-Language Approach
- Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline S. Palmer, Ecospeak: Rhetoric and Environmental Politics in America.
- Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Another book that changed everything.)
- Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea in America
- Robert W. McChesney, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century
- Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
- John D. Ramage, Rhetoric: A User’s Guide
- Terre Ryan, This Ecstatic Nation: The American Landscape and the Aesthetics of Patriotism (Super.)
- Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics
September 29, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
July 24, 2013
The first spring we lived in the Whitney House, I heard a noise in the field to our west that drove me nuts because I couldn’t figure out whether I was hearing a bird or a frog. I only heard the eeent in the evenings, right around the time the peepers cranked up, meaning dusk. I’d listen and listen, trying to make the noise with my nose and mouth and transcribe it in letters. I asked friends who knew more about the local fauna than I did what it might be. Some suggested a type of frog; others shrugged. Even though I looked for it, I never saw what made the noise.
The second spring, nothing.
The third spring, I heard the eeent in a field on the east side of the house. I paid more attention this time around, noting that the eeents started right as the peepers wound down and the birds had settled in the for the evening. Each night I heard eeent, I wrote down the times: 7:15 p.m. 7:37 p.m. 7: 49 p.m. I asked some local friends (again!) if they knew what it was, but no one did. I searched the net and our field guides. No luck.
Then one Sunday night after a couple of beers, I decided I was going to track the source of that eeent, no matter how long it took. I sat on a downed willow branch on the east side of the yard facing the field around 7:50 p.m., listening to the peepers and songbirds settle for the night and watching the trees turn from green to gray. I waited, sure that the maker of the eeents would take the night off, but determined to sit there until complete darkness fell.
Eeent. I looked at my watch. Eeent. 8:03 p.m. . . . Eeent. I stood up and began walking straight toward the sound, trying to make my way as silently as possible through the briars, small trees, and piles of brush that separate our property from the field. Eeent. After walking a log and crawling through some briars, I popped into the edge of the field, just in time to see a bird take off near a rotting stump about 4’ high. A bird! I exulted. At least now I know it’s a bird!
Sure that I had spooked it for the rest of the night, I walked over to where I saw it take flight. Moments later, I heard eeent about 50 yards further up the hill. I looked at the ground where I saw it before, hoping to see something that might help me identify it. Maybe a nest. Anything.
I saw nothing.
I stood and turned to zero in on the bird’s position when I heard a weird twitter circling the field. I turned again, trying to follow the sound, wondering if it was the same bird. Staring up at the nearly dark sky, I saw a darker shape against the sky flash across my line of sight, like Batman zipping across the Gotham night sky. Then I saw a small bird land fifteen or so feet away. I froze. Eeent. Damn! I thought. I read about these birds in A Sand County Almanac. What did Leopold call them?
It was too dark to see the bird well. I noticed it was about the size of my fist, and when it turned away from me, I lost it completely in the not-yet-green grass. Until it launched. I stood there for twenty or thirty minutes, listening to eeents, seeing the launch, and hearing the twittery call circling the field and transforming into the water-trickling-through-rocks sound that preceded the bird tumbling out of the sky. While the bird didn’t land that close again, I began to feel the rhythm of its ritual and got better at predicting where I would see it silhouetted against the sky.
Once I had bothered the bird enough, I walked back to the house and pulled out my copy of A Sand County Almanac. Under Leopold’s section called “Sky Dance,” I read once again about the American woodcock’s mating ritual, the very thing I witnessed. Leopold called the eeent a peent, and he said that, though he enjoyed hunting woodcock, he never shot many because he couldn’t imagine his Wisconsin farm without the sky dance. I picked up a bird book and looked up the American woodcock. It’s a small brown bird with a long bill that relies on camouflage for protection. (One of my students told me that, if you can spot them, it’s possible to gig woodcocks like you would a frog. Camouflage is the bird’s defense. He also says they’re delicious.)
I returned to the field several nights after that to watch the sky dance. Every time I stepped out the back door around dusk, I now heard the twitter that accompanied woodcock’s flight. I noted how the weather affected the dance—clouds meant no dance—and noticed one moon-bright night when Lilace and I returned home after seeing Kris Kristofferson that the woodcock still peented away at 11:00 p.m. This little bird connected me to this place in unexpected ways, snapping me out of my human world and reminding me that creatures live by rhythms and rituals different from my own. My experience watching and listening to this bird has given me a history with this place that I did not have when I moved here. Now, I feel closer to the land, more connected, the same way wading the creek, getting into a yellow-jackets’ nest, catching brown and rainbow trout, and eating turnip greens and shelly beans grown in the garden made me closer to my grandparents’ land in NC. These experiences give me a sense of community, a rich context in which to live my life.
So, how does a place like this become a “zone,” ripe for drilling? One way is when legislation gets written that takes the three-dimensional world we and the woodcock live in and turns it into two dimensions. Such an act of language abstracts a place.
Take Act 13. Act 13 states that unconventional wells must be sited 500’ from houses or water wells, unless given permission otherwise by the land owner, and that well pads must be sited 300’ from residential buildings. Like other bills, Act 13 spends much ink defining terms, stating clearances and environmental expectations, explaining the permitting and other bureaucratic processes, and so on. What the bill does not say is that Jimmy Guignard watched the sky dance of an American woodcock in April 2012, he learned something, and he created a memory which connects him to that place in ways that should be respected. He has a richer history here now.
As measured with my trusty 100’ steel Stanley tape, I watched the woodcock 271’ from my back door. Potentially, that means the woodcock had a whopping 29’ buffer between himself and the edge of a well pad. To the person siting a well in an office down the road, they see numbers enshrined in language that they apply to a map which then becomes a well pad. The dimensions on a page transfer to dimensions on the land. Since I live here, I see wildlife trying to make its way in the world the same way I am and my kids will—as best it knows how. The memories are written into the landscape. Those are two different ways of knowing. The former is abstract—the gas companies can transfer ACT 13 dimensions to any piece of land anywhere. The latter is not—though I may see woodcocks elsewhere, I cannot transfer my experience in the Whitney House to another piece of land as easily. For starters, the mystery won’t be involved.
One could argue that building the pad and drilling is not abstract at all, and they’d be right. I’ve pushed down trees with a bulldozer, and there’s nothing abstract about it. But the issue I’m trying to hone in on has to do with our attitudes before we unload one dozer. Act 13 tells us to look at the land as a zone marked by numbers. It’s abstract and inclines us to focus on only one thing—extracting gas. In contrast, my experience tells the story of me seeing the land and its inhabitants as players alongside my own attempt to create a meaningful life. It’s holistic, one that stresses community.
We all have experiences of places, like my experience in the field next to our house, that give those places meaning to us. And we have all experienced the distress that accompanies something changing a place that holds those meanings for us, especially if whatever is built or drilled shows little or no regard for our history with a place. These feelings run deep. To this day, my aunt in North Carolina refuses to go to a grocery store built ten years ago on the flank of Grandfather Mountain because “they tore up part of the mountain.” Mind you, it’s a small part of a big mountain, but I get where she’s coming from. (They also destroyed a rather poorly-built, but lovely, trail straight up the side of that big mountain.) I’d like to figure out how to inject more awareness into bills like ACT 13 so that they more deeply take into account the places or communities they disrupt.
I don’t expect bills like ACT 13 to include my experiences. That’s impossible. But I do think such bills and the people who enact them need to recognize more carefully that they aren’t working on a blank slate. It’s easy to inflict damage on places we see in the abstract, as containing only one thing we need, like natural gas. Leopold writes, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relationship to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land. . . . Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land.” Act 13’s dimensions encompass all kinds of daily dramas, big and small, but the language flattens out the details of those dramas, the consciousness of them. Though I don’t know how to to do this, we need more bills written with Leopold in mind. He took what was seen as a worthless piece of Wisconsin farm land and made it come to life in deeds and words. He took a zone and made it a community. “As a land-user thinketh,” he wrote, “so is he.” Peent.
Conference Presentation, ASLE 2013: Red, White, and Bluewashing: Visual Rhetoric and Fracking the Marcellus Shale
June 10, 2013
I recently attended the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment’s Biennial Conference at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. (First conference I’ve travelled to for which I bought carbon offsets.) While there, I gave a version of my research on how the gas industry uses the images of the American flag, the roughneck, and the pastoral to appeal to deeply held cultural beliefs, thus simplifying a complex issue. I call it red, white, and bluewashing, and I wrote an earlier post about it in which I focus on language instead of images. This is the image version, and I’m posting it because an audience member requested I do so. My notes mingle with the images from my PowerPoint slides. Long post, lots of pictures.
Now, imagine you’re sitting in Fraser 119 on the Jayhawk campus. I start to speak. Brilliance ensues:
Have any of you seen Matt Damon’s movie Promised Land? [Few to no hands go up.] It’s about a landsman who goes into a small town much like mine and begins leasing property for future gas drilling. Not a very good movie, I don’t think, but worth watching for the way it portrays how the natural gas industry works to control the message when it comes to gas drilling. I live in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, right above the Marcellus shale. Our county is has the second or third highest number of wells in Pennsylvania, and this presentation focuses partly on how the industry uses certain images to control the message about natural gas. [A woman interrupts to ask where exactly Tioga County is.] That would be helpful to know, wouldn’t it? North-central PA, about fifteen miles south of the New York border. Sorry about that. OK. I want to talk a bit about how the industry works to control the perceptions of natural gas development and the places it occurs, and how this affects people who live above the gas. I’m going to argue that they confuse the issue by oversimplifying it and making it hard to get good information. Today, I’m going to focus on three images the industry uses—the American flag, the roughneck, and the pastoral—to examine how they shape public perceptions of natural gas development.
Images serve as visual terms or shorthand for a set of values that apply now while drawing on key associations or definitions from the past. These are terms that can apply in many contexts, and often seek to promote a particular message. Images often make something complex seem much simpler. The images discussed in this presentation draw on two deeply-held cultural beliefs in America: nature as a resource and nature as something to preserve. In the end, I hope to show how these terms function to create a particular perception of this place, one that is conducive to gas development.
First, let’s talk about patriotism, as represented by the American flag. Here’s is a photo of Shell Appalachia, about a mile from my house. Notice the American flag flying, even though they are based in the Netherlands. In the middle left of the photo’s background you can see a fresh water pit they built and use to store water for fracking.
Patriotism means, well, being patriotic or showing devotion to or belief in one’s country. It’s a complex word used in a number of contexts, depending on what we need. It’s hard to criticize “patriots.” Companies flying the American flag may be sincere in their beliefs, but the flag also acts as a shield to blunt questions or ciritcism. We don’t question patriots, especially in time of crises. Here’s a billboard from Chesapeake. Notice the flag prominently displayed in front of the drill rig.
Flags represent nations, not places. In other words, they serve an abstracting function. I don’t fly the Guignard flag in my yard, or the Whitneyville [my town] flag, or the Tioga County flag. I fly the American flag. It marks me as a part of something larger, someone devoted to the idea of a nation. Patriots make sacrifices—think soldiers going to war. Think American citizens during WWI and WWII. Terry Engelder of Penn State has called this place a “sacrifice zone.” Engelder sees this as a “duty.” Quite honestly, Engelder’s statement pisses me off, but I haven’t seen him to tell him that yet. [Yes, I said “pisses” during my presentation. It’s accurate.]
On to the roughneck. “Roughneck” is the term used to describe people who work in oil and gas fields. This guy appears on the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s website. He’s a big, burly guy with an upturned collar, hardhat low over his eyes, and serious expression on his face. He’s clean compared to many photos of roughnecks you see. Roughnecks are associated with hard physical work that is often dangerous. The image appeals to the strand of rugged individualism that runs through our culture, and taps into our belief in personal freedom, physical toughness, self-reliance, minimal government, and free competition. Upton Sinclair’s Oil! portrays the idea of the roughneck well.
The image of the roughneck draws on the Turner thesis, the idea that the taming of the American west created a new kind of American identity. The image of the roughneck is a masculine one, representing a man’s world that draws on our cultural strands like taming the frontier, cowboys, and the Wild West. The roughneck above reminds me a lot of this guy.
The image of the roughneck draws on the cultural belief that masculine work counters the “feminization” of men that many of our leaders, like Teddy Roosevelt, associated with cities and desk jobs. Our modern rugged individualists ride Harleys, climb big mountains, and make it big in business, among other things.
Now, the frontier is buried over a mile underground.
Let’s move to the pastoral. The pastoral is associated with farming, rural life, simplicity, peacefulness, and hard but satisfying physical work. The pastoral evokes longing for a simpler life in the garden. Yes, Eden matters here. The pastoral can be represented by this farm, located in the Morris Township in Tioga County. Notice the corn and soybeans between the camera and the barn.
Tioga County is a pastoral landscape, that is, a middle landscape, caught somewhere between civilization and wilderness. Not New York city, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, but not the Rockies, the Tetons, or the Sierra Nevada either. And while many people from urban areas may romanticize the place, seeing it a kind of “escape” from the city and work, those actually working the land know that it can be hard to live here, involving long hours, hard work, and little pay.
In the next slide, we introduce what Leo Marx calls “the machine in the garden.” That is, we introduce technology in the form of a drill rig, trucks, storage tanks, etc., into a landscape previously seen as simple and peaceful.
It’s worth noting that the industry often frames these rigs with forest or farms to draw on our pastoral impulses while also appealing to our deep-seated desires to use such resources. Things appear harmonious. The press presents similar images, which draw on similar framing but sometimes suggest that the process is not as clean as we might think. Here are examples from the New York Times and Propublica.
The two photos suggest that the drilling process might not be as clean as we hope it is. However, I would argue all three images of the drill rigs contribute to what I would call an “industrial pastoral” or a pastoral landscape in which the rural and technology come together in seemingly benign ways. Such images help us reconcile the contrary impulses of preserving nature and using it. Couple this with the idea of the roughnecks working on the rigs—good, masculine work—and we begin to see how such images serve to present a particular view of the industry that ties into deeply held cultural beliefs.
Taken collectively, the images of the American flag, the roughneck, and the pastoral work by drawing on cultural beliefs, embedded in the American psyche in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, of using nature and preserving it. The three recurring images draw power from each other, reinforce each other, and derive meaning from each other. These images serve an abstracting function, that is, they tap into cultural beliefs from long ago that still resonate deeply with us and serve to transform a community into a zone that needs taming, similar to the way we saw the west during Manifest Destiny or the desert southwest during the nuclear tests of the 50s (for which the government defined people living there as a “low-use segment of the population”). Once a place is abstracted, it’s easier to industrialize it. The industry recognizes this.
We are more willing to develop a place, perhaps even destroy it, if we see it as a blank space on a map.
Drilling for natural gas a complex process that calls for nuanced conversation about multiple concerns—social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental. By drawing on images like the American flag, the roughneck, and the pastoral, the natural gas industry makes it more difficult for the public to understand fully the stakes of drilling for natural gas. Further, the industry’s use of these images works to persuade people not from this region to view gas development favorably because the images tap into national narratives rather than telling the stories of the people who live in this place. The way we view places is the way we use places. Thank you.
I cut two images from the New York Times and the Wellsboro Gazette, because I don’t have digital copies of them. The NYT ad portrays natural gas in the abstract, while the WG ad, bought by Chesapeake Energy and is titled “This Is Our Home,” suggests that the gas industry has close ties to this place.
Two books super important to this research: Terre Ryan’s This Ecstatic Nation: The American Landscape and the Aesthetics of Patriotism and Kevin DeLuca’s Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism.
Thanks to all who attended, asked questions, or made comments (especially the woman who talked about religious imagery in the NYT ad that you can’t see) and to my co-panelists Jimmie Killingsworth (Texas A&M and the dude who envisioned the panel) and Diana Ashe (University of North Carolina, Wilmington). I learned a lot.
One Saturday, my six-year-old daughter woke up and crawled into bed with me. Enjoying not getting up at 5 a.m., I ignored her until she said “Daddy, my throat hurts, my head hurts, and my tummy hurts.” I rolled over thinking, Shit. What’s wrong?
“Does your throat hurt inside or outside?”
“OK, let me feel under your jaw.” She lay there quietly as I felt the glands under her jawbone. They seemed a little swollen, the way mine feel when I get sick. Neither of my kids get sick very often, so I figured my daughter wasn’t faking. “OK, honey, thanks. You can go get dressed now.”
“I’m going to put on a turtleneck for my throat,” she said, and walked out of the room. She did not ask to watch TV. Hmmmmmm.
I rolled over, weighing whether I should go back to sleep. Wretching from my daughter’s bedroom answered for me. I jumped up, my daughter meeting me at the doorway.
“That’s ok, baby. Go to the bathroom.” She turned around, trotted into the bathroom, puked a couple more times, and then walked past me while I cleaned up her room. She finished dressing. “You feel better?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Can I watch cartoons?”
I’m no doctor, at least not the medical kind, and I couldn’t help but wonder if her illness was somehow connected to gas drilling. A few years ago, I would have wondered what disastrous bug was upon us, like when she spent a long night trooping in and out of the bathroom with a stomach bug. Should we call the doctor? She kicked the bug in 24 hours. I kicked it in five days. That event was BNG—Before Natural Gas. Now, I see my kids’ health ANG—After Natural Gas. That changes things.
I’m sure my reaction will seem hysterical to some people, a term we usually save for women who question things we don’t want to hear (see Rachel Carson). This place seems cleaner, less dusty and brittle, than it has in a couple of years, partly due to the cleansing power of winter’s snow and partly due to the slow down in drilling activity. Even though I don’t believe the industry has affected my kids’ health (at least, not yet), I’m amazed at the power of this impulse within me every time one of my kids complains now of an upset tummy or a headache. In the U.S., we have a terrible record of protecting our kids from environmental toxins. Researchers determine the toxicity of chemicals based on adults, not kids, and we now know that kids are more susceptible to toxic crap than adults. And few tests are done on fetal effects or whether toxins cross the placenta. That’s further complicated by the fact that kids develop physically over many years. For instance, our brains stop developing in our early twenties. Anything that affects development early affects development later. It’s like starting up a long hill on a bike in too big a gear and out of breath—you won’t fully recover. You’ll be a long way behind everyone else.
I’m amazed at the power of a culture that values the rational so damn highly. I’m a guy. I’m expected to be rational, to control my emotions. Back when I climbed a lot, my climbing partners appreciated the fact that I didn’t get flustered when shit turned bad. I could keep my act together, like when Lilace and I got caught in a lightning storm at Lovers Leap too far off the ground to get down safely with one rope. I led a pitch in the rain, belayed her as she climbed up to and then past me to the top. I untied and yelled at her to pull up the rope and run for it while I finished the climb. The climbing was easy, but the lightning and the rain made it nerve-wracking. When I popped onto the top, I saw she had left me a coiled rope. Badass, especially since she was seven months pregnant with our son. She doesn’t freak either.
Lilace doesn’t freak about the kids’ health as much as I do. I walked downstairs and told her about our daughter’s puke episode. She looked up from her book, “She probably picked up another strain of the crap that’s going around.” Back to reading.
I know some of my fears are rational. I know that environmental causes of illness exist. There are too many books out there, too much research, for anyone rational to believe otherwise. I see my kids’ health through the terms of these books. I see their health through the experience of watching my eight-year-old cousin die of childhood brain stem glioma (benign) when I was around fourteen. (My eleven-year-old brother would not go into my aunt’s house for a long time after Sarah died there.) To my great comfort, my family has a history of living long lives, especially the women. My Aunt Mary is 102. My great-grandmother died at 98, my Dad’s Dad at 93, my Dad’s Mom at 92, my Mom’s Mom at 91 (and she had diabetes). I see my kids’ health through that lens, too, and I want my kids to get the same chance as Aunt Mary, Nana, Papa, and Nanny.
A few weeks ago, I read “The Lorax” to my daughter’s class at school. As happens every time I read that story, I breathed deeply through the first few pages, trying to control the hitch in my voice as fifteen wide-eyed kindergartners listened, entranced by the story. (Guys don’t cry, right? Especially not in front of kids. It ain’t rational.) I fought my default question of “What are we doing to y’all?” by focusing on the way Seuss changes the background colors over the arc of the story from yellows and greens to grays and blacks, moving from playful to somber, hope to despair, finally landing on hope: Unless. About the time the Whisper-ma-Phone slupped down, I found my groove, trading comments with the kids (one little guy in glasses said, “I really like your beard”) and marveling at how “Thneed” sounds so whiny, like the gas industry when someone proposes regulations they don’t like. I finished, my daughter gave me a hug, and the kids clapped and thanked me in that sing-song chirp of five- and six-year-olds. I left the class abuzz, charged on the energy of kids in the hall laughing about stories they had heard earlier as they got into lines to go wash up for lunch.
Seuss was brilliant enough to put his fears of dirty air and water and destroyed forests in a story that ends hopefully. Plant the seed! Water it! Grow that truffula tree!
We value kids. This I know. We show it in different ways, from hugs to elaborate birthday parties to praising their efforts at building or drawing or writing to steering them away from maguro at the sushi bar. Somehow, we need to translate these daily acts of valuing to a larger context, like when the camera close-up of a racing cyclist zooms out to encompass the entire race. But even that macro shot may not be large enough, though we have taken the long view before when we stopped using DDT, PCBs, and lead-based paint. We need more of those seeds.
But how rational is it to plant seeds in a National Sacrifice Zone? This is the question I ask myself.
March 18, 2013
Not surprisingly, the gas industry has its own lobbying groups or cheerleading squads or whatever you want to call them. Two prominent ones are the Marcellus Shale Coalition and Energy in Depth. That these groups exist is not news, given the long-standing American tradition of pumping money into groups to argue for particular political, social, or economic outcomes. Such groups are a fact of life, like getting slower on the bike. But lobbyists like MSC and EID pollute the waters of good information. One way they do this is through red, white, and bluewashing.
MSC is located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and its board and members are people employed by the gas industry and associated businesses. Its spokesperson is Kathryn Klaber, who is widely quoted throughout PA in the press. MSC maintains a slick website that contains a lot of information about gas drilling. I’ve learned a lot there. The main page states:
The Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) works with exploration and production, midstream, and supply chain partners in the Appalachian Basin and across the country to address issues regarding the production of clean, job-creating, American natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays.
We provide in-depth information to policymakers, regulators, media, and other public stakeholders on the positive impacts responsible natural gas production is having on families, businesses, and communities across the region.
These statements frame natural gas development favorably. Again, no surprise, but you don’t have to push too hard on the language to begin to see cracks. For starters, MSC addresses “issues” about developing the resource of natural gas. “Issues” implies that there are, well, issues with gas drilling, and that questions surround the development of gas, the answers to which may not always be good. Yet, in the next statement, MSC explains that they are interested in providing “in-depth information” about the “positive impacts” of natural gas production. Now, when I have issues with something that means I have questions. I’ve never had an issue with anything that I saw only as “positive.” But MSC glides right over the issue part of “issues” and heads straight for “positive impacts.” It’s a crafty move, and one I would mark in any first year composition paper I read, because it’s sloppy.
I wonder how MSC can give “In-depth information” when they focus only on the “positive impacts” of gas development. When I encounter in-depth information, it usually includes good and bad, and parts that are not settled and may even be controversial. In depth means everything. When information excludes the negative, I see that information as compromised or incomplete, because, as much as I may wish otherwise, most “issues” are complex. MSC flushes the nuance out of their information by focusing on the positive. Things aren’t usually all positive or all negative. Life don’t work that way.
Partly, MSC fills these cracks by wrapping itself in the flag. I love how “clean, job-creating, American natural gas” echoes the industry’s most prominent selling points for developing the Marcellus. Environmentally sound? Check. Economically sound? Check. Patriotically sound? Hell, yeah. Those five words serve as shorthand for, as we have been told over and over, all that is righteous about gas.
Many of us know better than to buy what MSC is selling, but such language has a way of shading the public conversation about natural gas. Energy is a complex issue, and focusing only on the “positive” aspects oversimplifies the issue while admitting that there are issues. I should use that kind of logic when I think about my teaching.
I am not a perfect teacher, and I know it. I constantly analyze my classes, ask students what they are learning, read articles and books about teaching writing, and share my writing projects with students to help them understand that writing is not easy for anyone. Students see me make errors. In one exercise on style this past semester, a student found an error in a page of my dissertation, announced it in class and then, he said later, on Facebook. I laughed, proud of him for catching the error and willing to point it out. It was a “teachable moment” that led to serious discussion about the difficulty of writing well. I also made a mental note to mark every single error I could find in his papers. Like I said, I’m not perfect.
Now, I should be careful here, and not equate “positive” with “perfect,” but the thinking is similar—ignore anything that may cast aspersions on me or my work or my actions. Thinking positive all the time can distract us from looking at serious problems. (Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about the problems of focusing on the positive. Her take? Looking at the bright side all the time means that we often don’t call bullshit when we should.) If I created my own little lobbying group called the Best Educator EveR, or BEER, a group who excluded all comments questioning or criticizing my teaching while gushing about my awesomeness, then I would become a less effective teacher and threaten the learning opportunities for my students. Hearing only the positive, the students and I would lose perspective on what really occurs in the classroom. I would like to assume that my teaching works well and meets all my students’ needs all the time, but I know it doesn’t. Education is too complicated. Too many variables. Same with gas drilling and production. I would love nothing more than to know that gas drilling impacts are always positive. But that’s not the case.
I appreciate MSC telling me up front that they are not interested in reporting anything negative, because it tells me that they are not considering carefully any evidence that might challenge the story of gas they build through their rhetoric. That’s sloppy thinking, unscientific, the kind of poor analysis I hammer my students (and myself) on all the time. But MSC is not paid to think carefully, except for the way that they spin evidence to maximize the goals of the gas industry. They do it well, celebrating anything that puts gas drilling in a positive light while challenging anything that questions their rosy world view of gas drilling and wrapping it all in the flag. That is red, white, and bluewashing.
Red, white, and bluewashing shuts down discussion or possibilities. It focuses attention on a part, on what our reactions might be as loyal, smart Americans, not the whole. It takes the complex and makes it appear simple while calling to mind deeply held beliefs about our country. Because of this tendency, the academic in me claims red, white, and bluewashing is unethical. It uses language in ways that asserts certainty where none exists, using patriotic impulses to divert our perceptions. The dude in me who lives here calls red, white, and bluewashing bullshit, because it leads to confusion and uncertainty by injecting misleading information into the bedrock of the communities. It fractures them, like shale, and I’m convinced it’s intentional, a sort of PR frack drilled from two well-funded well pads. I have never lived in a place where I experienced so much day-to-day confusion about so many things, admittedly not all of it coming from the gas industry. I believe that when it comes to our day-to-day muddling along, the more we know the better. Our sense of security comes from accurate information, and our lives depend on it. Knowing more helps us see more possibilities, more options, which helps us make better decisions. Knowing more can get maddening—sometimes I just want to make a decision dammit—but my best decisions come from knowing a lot about, say, my teaching. Or shale gas drilling.
Nothing would suit the gas industry more than to have a bunch of Americans waving the flag in a sacrifice zone. It’s a unifying image that would make the industry’s work easier. That the communities are split over the gas works well for the industry, too, because people spend time arguing with each other, rather than clearly understanding the issues. What the industry doesn’t want: communities unified against them—see New York. So the MSCs and the EIDs construct a language that spews the story they want and to hell with the evidence. Unfortunately, by looking only at the positive, the cheerleaders create an illusion of red, white, and blue goodness that poisons knowledge like thermogenic methane contaminates water.
Then there’s the question of who’s really the patriot here. MSC’s Board Members and Associate Members are made up of American companies and companies from the Netherlands (Shell), Norway (Staoil), Talisman (Canada), Japan (Mitsui Oil Exploration), and France (UGI Corporation and Schlumberger). Then there’s the push to export gas, touted on MSC’s site, since it’s worth around four bucks here but fourteen bucks elsewhere. The story keeps changing—“energy independence!” to “patriots export!”—depending on which way the economic winds blow.
January 30, 2013
I rolled down our snow-covered drive to Ore Bed Rd. on the Mocha Stout and headed left to meet Tom for a couple of hours of winter cruising. Snowflakes blew northeast as I pedaled through slushy snow, past a Budweiser can, a goat chewing his cud, and a couple of shaggy horses crunching hay. The temps were mid-thirties, and I wished I had remembered my fenders as cold, muddy water and cinders flew onto my feet, legs, ass, and into my face. Wet mid-thirties rides are the coldest: snow melt soaks you, challenging the limits of high-tech clothing to keep you warm. You bake on climbs and freeze on descents, and your fingers freeze while sweat pours from under your helmet. Rides like these are uncomfortable and weirdly fun, and remind me that I’m not nearly as much of a badass as I think I am.
Plus, I needed to ask Tom, builder of beautiful bike frames and the local guru of all things bicycular, a question about bikes and drill rigs. I value Tom’s thoughts. Many rides ago, he provided me with an insight into cycling that I’ve come back to repeatedly, the idea that bicycles amplify our experiences of a place or landscape. It seems obvious in hindsight, which is probably why I didn’t figure it out years ago, and I buy it. On a bike, cold feels colder, heat feels hotter, roads feel longer, hills feel steeper, trees, bears, and beer cans appear in more detail, and my body’s limits feel closer. Bikes get me out there and into my body at the same time.
As we coasted down Moore Rd. toward Hollow Rd. with a vague plan to link back roads to Arnot, I asked Tom: “Are drill rigs an extension of the bike?” The question relates to my previous post about getting comfortable with gas (not the bean-induced kind) and understanding the rhetoric of drill rigs, pipelines, and compressor stations. That is, the rhetoric of them as things. We coasted a few yards before Tom answered: “Yeah, I guess, if you think about drill rigs as being like a farm for our mechanized society, to keep it running. I mean, farms supply cyclists with food so they can ride.”
“I can see that,” I replied. “I guess what I’m mostly thinking about here is the way that bikes extend human power in the same way that drill rigs do. I mean, I can ride farther than I can walk. I can drive a car farther than I can ride. If we compare riding a bike up Firetower Rd. [a two-mile stretch of gravel road that climbs 1000’], I can ride up it faster than I can walk up it. In a car, I can climb it even faster. Gas helps me do a lot of things I couldn’t do otherwise, or at least not as easily.”
“True,” Tom said. “But riding a bike up Firetower is really hard compared to walking up it. I don’t know about running. A car’s easy.” By then, the bitter wind blowing northeast and amplified by our descent chilled my hatless head (not helmetless!) into a screaming headache. I could no longer talk or think because it felt like a spoke was being driven into my brain. Thankfully, the pain subsided quickly once we started climbing Hollow Rd.
My conversation with Tom also relates to my earlier post on the seductive power of power and perhaps explains why our machines—bicycles and drill rigs—are so damn attractive. Both literally extend us, that is, they amplify and magnify our power or what we can do with two feet and two hands. I rode 3000 miles last year spread out over 200 hours of saddle time. It would take me 1000 hours to walk the same distance. The bike makes it possible for me to cover a mile in about four minutes. Walking, I cover a mile in about twenty minutes. Technologies like bikes and drill rigs extend what we fragile humans can do, which gives us a sense of power out of proportion to our physical capabilities. Instead of building a fire, I turn on the stove to warm that lovely venison stew Lilace made, which means I can do something else, like write this blog post or open a beer. Of course, the deer was killed by another technology that extends power.
One aspect of the rhetoric of bikes and drill rigs appears to be the same as that of the roads: Use me. Make me work for you. That’s one way bikes and drill rigs connect. Each is used in ways that affects us differently, sure, but the connections are becoming clearer to me. There’s a problem that arises when we begin to focus on the differences between the bicycle and the drill rig at the expense of seeing the connections. As long as I consider myself to be a badass for riding my bike to work in single-digit temperatures, I am working actively to distance myself from fossil fuel users and fossil fuel extractors, both of which I am connected to and need to understand. This is not to say that bikes and drill rigs are the same. They aren’t. The way each uses resources creates possibilities and limitations. Part of the reason I ride a bike is because I understand that the way I live has consequences, but I also ride a bike because the bike itself extends my physical power. I like both those feelings.
Focusing on the differences between those technologies at the expense of seeing the connections is a problem. Part of the message I project while riding my bike is a green one, though I also project a message about the possibilities of human power. But my bike could care less about what kind of message I project. The message it projects: Ride me. Ride me to work, for fun, to escape zombies, whatever. Just ride. In that sense, riding my bike is not much different from driving a car. (Of course, our cars project images of us as well, but the cars as things don’t care.) Add a drill rig to the mix and we have three technologies that serve the same basic purpose—magnifying human power. If I had to feed and clothe myself without access to bikes, roads, cars, rifles, or natural gas, I would have to work a lot harder and I would accomplish fewer things. I would also have a smaller footprint. But thanks to these technologies that extend my power, I can do way more than my physical body could ever accomplish on its own and still have time left over for other stuff, like drinking bourbon or roughhousing with my kids.
Kenneth Burke’s work suggests that language performs two basic functions: it brings us together and it divides us. We have to figure out ways to guard against the divisive nature of language, because that’s when we run into problems dealing with our problems. I want to see differences between bikes and drill rigs, and much of the rhetoric we encounter encourages this. When we examine the rhetoric of the industry, the politicians, and the public, we see those functions swing primarily, I would argue, toward the division end of the continuum. (I’ve given examples in other posts.) Instead of seeing how we connect, we see how we don’t. That works in the industry’s favor. As long as we see broken links, we find ways to avoid identifying with others which means that we find ways to overlook the bigger picture—how we are all part of a larger environment that makes demands of us. I’ll never move completely back to the land, give up my bikes or books, but I do need to look closely at how I’m connected to industrial processes I don’t trust fully. I want to feel like I’m conserving resources and making the world a better place for my kids, so I ride my bike, teach students to write, study environmental rhetoric, and think green thoughts. Focusing on the differences instead of the connections leads me to be more comfortable with myself and my actions, a comfort that is misleading because it hides how drill rigs are, in one sense, nothing more than elaborate bikes.
I’m not naïve enough to think I can live with zero impact. I know better. The key is to be mindful of my impacts and to fully account for them. That’s why I eat locally (as much as possible), process chickens, ride my bike to work, keep the heat set at 65 degrees, live in a smaller, more weatherproof house, and mow the damn grass as little as possible. Part of that mindfulness has to come from resisting the urge to get comfortable with my choices, from being bamboozled by my own rhetoric (“You’re a fine moral example, Jimmy, for riding your bike to work when it’s seven degrees to avoid burning gas!”). Perhaps if we saw the connections between bikes and drill rigs more clearly, we’d take things like climate change more seriously, because we might recognize our deep-seated urge to pedal further or drill deeper. But the connections get buried under the surface of the stories we tell ourselves, only popping out here and there, like gas lines, when we look for them.
Somewhere along Mudge Rd., I told Tom about the bound copies of the St. Nicolas Magazine my cousin gave me this past summer. Published in 1887, February’s issue has an article called “Among the Gas-Wells,” written by Samuel W. Hall, and March’s has a rejoinder, “More About Gas-Wells,” written by G. Frederick Knight. When I first skimmed the magazines, what grabbed me were the illustrations of the rigs (viewable at the links), the pipelines, the flared wells, and how much they resemble drilling today. We’re probably in some ways safer today; in others, not so much. Even as we work to make drill rigs more efficient, the lack of basic structural change suggests to me that these technologies work and that we are comfortable with them. Bike tech works the same. As Tom said, “Bikes haven’t really changed all that much either.” Those crazy cool frames built of space-age material these days are based on the same old design.
We need technologies that say something other than “Use me.”
Then I see my son outside with a shovel, digging a tunnel for his sister through the snow piled at the end of the driveway. Of all the things he could choose to do, he decides to pick up the shovel—a tool that extends human power—and dig. Who knows what motivates him to dig, but I do know this: if the shovel didn’t exist, he wouldn’t use it. But he would find something else. We need to think more carefully about the rhetoric of things. They are saying something to us, something seductive. And once we understand that message clearly, we need to make some choices. What technology are we using? How? What are the ramifications? What’s sustainable? Where do I draw the line?
So far, physics is answering them for us.
January 12, 2013
On a recent cold and sunny day, I pedaled the Mocha Stout, my singlespeed, up Ore Bed Rd., out for a casual spin. As I pedaled up a climb, I spied a shiny Miller Lite can in the ditch beside the road. Unlike most beer cans I pass, this one looked like it had been tossed there about a minute ago, the can crisp and clean, glinting in the sunshine. I thought: Who was the bastard that threw that out? Then I thought: I am a bastard who has flung beer cans from cars—well, trucks—in the past. So I’m guilty, too. (Now that I’ve matured enough to drive without drinking, I don’t fling cans anymore. Southern habits die hard.) But I’ve noticed that the older I get, the less tolerant I am of beer cans on the side of the road. I’ve always despised all other sorts of litter—I carry twice as much trash out of the woods as I carry in. My buddies and I used to drag garbage bags through Grindstaff Caves in Tennessee in order to clean out the trash. We usually brought out twice as many beer cans as we took in. All empty, of course.
I pedaled on up the hill, thinking about beer cans, staring at the gravel road in front of me, dodging potholes and wondering: why do I see beer cans and not the roads? Why do beer cans strike me as out of place, unnatural, while roads meld into the landscape? Both are unnatural, that is, both were put there by people with some sort of purpose in mind, be it tossing the evidence or traveling from point A to point beer store. What’s interesting to me here is the way that I don’t question the presence of the road, don’t see it for the disturbance that it is, yet an empty beer can strikes me as litter now that I’m not the one tossing it out. I see beer cans as pollution, but not the road. Both beer can and road change the landscape; both can be removed. Both alter the way we see a place. What gives?
(I encountered a similar phenomenon when I worked construction: smokers don’t see cigarette butts as trash. While a job superintendent, I was mystified by guys who would pick up every speck of trash, every single nail when we cleaned up a job site—except cigarette butts. The roads are my butts, I reckon.)
Not surprisingly, for me, this is partly a language issue. We see signs that say “No Littering” and “No Dumping” planted by the roads, which turns our attention toward the litter alongside the swath of asphalt or concrete or gravel that cuts through the mountains or across the plains. Road signs direct our attention differently: “55 mph”; “Bridge Ices Before Road”; “School Zone”; “Ore Bed Rd”; “Charleston Township”; “Lane Ends Merge Left”; “Pipeline Rd 7.” Such signs are designed to help us move, heading toward our destinations while avoiding all the other people heading toward theirs. Road signs don’t say “No Driving” or “No Road Building.,” though some do say “Stop.” Although roads change the landscape much more than beer cans, roads are seen as acceptable, necessary, as a price we pay for living in this car-centric world. We aestheticize them in ads and abstract them in maps. Taken together, these signs create what I call the rhetoric of the road: Go somewhere. The medium of the road is its message.
I appreciate roads for the way they get me to and from wherever I am going and enable me to ride my bike all over the countryside witnessing all kinds of cool things while physically experiencing the landscape itself. But there’s something wrong when a beer can on the side of the road bothers me more than the road itself. It’s as if the road has become an aesthetic part of the landscape—not something to carry the machine into the garden, but a part of the garden itself. Like Gandalf the Grey, I believe in the importance of the little things, but my tendency to lose sight of the road while staring at a beer can disturbs me. It’s too comfortable.
The problem here is that, as we get more familiar with something, more comfortable with it, we begin to see it as a given or a sort of truth. Research has shown that people who hear a false statement repeated enough times begin to believe it. I believe there’s a similar process at work in physical experiences. When I teach mountain biking, I have to ratchet my ride expectations waaaay down. A ride that may take me 70 minutes will take my class 150 minutes. A trail that seems like a sidewalk to me will appear full of hazards to my students. Part of the issue is that I see only what I need to see to keep my bike on the trail while my students see a confusion of trees, roots, rocks, hills, creeks, and mud, most of which will not affect them unless they pedal off the trail. Which they are more likely to do than I am. The reason I see what I see is because I’m comfortable. We see beer cans beside the road only so often, but we see the road all the time.
Of course comfort can bite us. I crashed my bike in November 2011, breaking my collar bone, three ribs, and knocking myself unconscious. I blame the crash on being distracted by the gas industry, work, and other shit that goes along with living a busy life. But I’ve realized now that I wouldn’t have been comfortable enough to let my attention wander so far away on a route I didn’t know well. I was looking at the road, but not seeing it. If bikes have a cruise control, I was on it and thinking about stuff other than what was in front of me. Bike, meet pothole. Jimmy, slam road. Being comfortable holds consequences.
I resist the urge to get comfortable with, to become acclimated to, the damage that occurs around me from drilling for gas. Like with roads, this is difficult. The comfort doesn’t come from being satisfied with the process or the politics of drilling. If anything, I’m getting more pissed. (Case in point: William Bennett advocating for opening more state and federal land to drilling. I missed the tale in Bennett’s book about the virtue of giving public land to private companies.) I’ve seen the industry of drilling every day now for several years, and while I still get angry, I’m becoming comfortable with it. I see a pad go in, a flurry of activity to drill and frack it, and then it becomes a few Christmas trees among a graded field, ready for the deer to reclaim. Flooding Tioga and the surrounding counties with the stuff of gas drilling is undoubtedly part of the industry’s rhetoric—bombard the community, the landscape, with drill rigs and trucks until we get used to them. Until we get comfortable. Until the industry’s presence becomes a kind of truth. We’re like the proverbial frogs in the gradually heating pot of water. A myth, I know, but there’s wisdom in it.
Not long ago, I imagined a drill pad going in between our house and the house east of here. The lot between the houses is roughly ten acres, well pads require “only” five—why not? I could hear the clatter of the dozer carving out the pad; the rattle of dump trucks hauling in gravel and other materials; the beep of the semis backing the various rig structures into place; the thrum of the cranes as they lifted the rig; the grind of the drill bit as it bored through the aquifer toward the Marcellus; the roar of the frack. I could see the tank trailers parked around the pad, like beer cans scattered around a campfire. I imagined what I might do to track the progress and make myself a pain-in-the-ass, like recording the hoopla via a 24-hour well pad cam. I imagined what it would be like to sleep through the drilling and whether my kids would be able to do it. I imagined the arguments Lilace and I would have—yelled over the frackin’ fracking noise—about whether to stay at a friend’s or what a brilliant move it was buying this house the country.
That has to be what the industry wants—people imagining pads on undeveloped land. I’m a guy who almost never imagines building anything in any sort of undeveloped place. (A small cabin in the piñon pine forest on the west side of Owens River Gorge near Bishop, California, would be cool. All that sweet rock climbing right there. . . .) I always prefer the trees or the dunes or whatever nature builds. That I can imagine a well pad going in freaks me out. It means I’m getting more comfortable than I want to be, a comfort bred from nothing more than familiarity.
November 25, 2012
I finished reading Upton Sinclair’s Oil!: a Novel the other day. The novel’s about the US oil boom in the early 1920s, and it’s a fascinating read. Maybe better than The Jungle, and scary for the way Sinclair’s portrayal of the oil boom sounds like our very own natural gas boom. (A “boom” sounds healthy, doesn’t it?) As I did with Carson’s Silent Spring a while back, I thought I’d share a passage or three. By the way, if you’ve seen There Will Be Blood, you’ve seen a loose translation of the book. The movie is worth watching—more eerie echoes of today—but doesn’t some close to capturing the complexity of Sinclair’s story, which involves mule-driver-turned-oil-baron J. Arnold Ross (aka “Dad”), his Socialist-sympathizing playboy son Bunny, evangelical preacher Eli Watkins, bodice-ripping movie star Vee Tracy, and union-organizer Paul Watkins, to name a few. Their story unfolds primarily in California, but trips to Washington, Canada, and Europe make up part of the plot as well. Sinclair uses the novel to explore and expose the way labor, politics, energy, and social class interact. Things haven’t changed much.
Without further ado, here’s Sinclair:
Once more the valleys and gorges of Guadalupe Grade resounded to the flying echoes of honking horns. This time it was not one car, but a whole fleet of them, a dozen seven-ton trucks, broad and solid, with broad and solid double wheels, and trailers on behind, that carried even more tons. The first load towered high, a big stationary engine, held in place by heavy timbers bolted fast at the sides; that truck went carefully around the curves, you bet! Behind it came the ‘mud-hogs’ and the ‘draw-works’; and then the ‘string’ of drilling tools, hollow tubes of the best steel, that were screwed end to end and went down into the earth a mile or more, if need be. These tubes extended over the end of the trailers, where red flags waved in warning; on the short curves they swept the road, and if you met a car coming in the opposite direction, you had to stop while the other car crept carefully by; if there was not room enough, the other car would have to back to a place where the road was straighter. All this required a continuous clamor of horns; you would have thought some huge flock of prehistoric birds—did the pterodactyls make noises?—had descended upon Guadalupe Pass, and were hopping along, crying ‘Honk! Honk! Honk!’”
After the slow down this past summer, traffic is not this bad now, though it seems to be picking up again. But I remember similar experiences two summers ago when driving or pedaling up the two-mile hill west of Mansfield on Highway 6, cycling on Packard Road and out past Bungy, and in other parts of Tioga County. Sinclair again:
All this summer and fall, Dad and Mr. Roscoe [another oil baron] had been carrying a heavy burden—they were helping to make over the thinking of the American people. A presidential campaign was under way; and the oil men, having made so bold as to select the candidate, now had to finish the job by persuading the voters that he was a great and noble-minded statesman. Also, they had to pay part of the expense, which would come to fifty million dollars, so Bunny learned from the conversations at Paradise [Dad’s oil field] and at the Monastery [Mr. Roscoe’s mansion on the coast]. This was several times as much as would get recorded, since the money went through local and unofficial agencies. It came from the big protected interests, the corporations, the banks—everyone that had anything to get out of the government, or could be squeezed by politicians; the process was known as ‘frying out the fat.’ The oil men, having grabbed the big prize, were naturally a shining mark for all campaign committees, county, state, and national. Dad and Mr. Roscoe received visits from Jake Coffey, and from bosses of the state machine, and listened to hair-raising stories about the dangers of the situation.
It was necessary to persuade the American people that the Democratic administration for the past eight years had been wasteful and corrupt, ignorant and fatuous—and that was easy enough. But it was also necessary to persuade them that an administration by Senator Harding was likely to be better—and that was not so easy. Naturally, the chairmen of campaign committees wanted to make it appear as difficult as possible, for the more money that passed through their hands, the larger the amount that would stick. As the campaign drew to a close, Bunny had the satisfaction of hearing his father swearing outrageously, and wishing he had taken his son’s advice and left the destinies of his country to the soap manufacturer who had put up the millions for General Wood!
The senator from Ohio was a large and stately and solemn-faced person, and conducted what was called by the newspapers a ‘front-porch campaign.’ That is to say, he did not put himself out to travel on trains and meet people, but received deputations of the Hay and Feed Dealers of Duluth, or the Morticians of Ossawotomie. They would sit in camp-chairs upon his lawn, and the statesman would appear and read an imposing discourse, which had been written by a secretary of Vernon Roscoe’s selection, and given out to all the press associations the day before, so that it could be distributed over the wires and published simultaneously on fifty million front pages. That is a colossal propaganda machine, and the men who run it have to lose a lot of sleep. But the majestic candidate lost no sleep, he was always fresh and serene and impassive; he had been that way throughout his career, for the able businessmen who groomed him and paid his way had never failed to tell him what to do.
Bunny now dwelt upon an Olympian height, looking down as a god upon the affairs of pitiful mortals. Dad and Mr. Roscoe let him hear everything—being sure that common sense would win in the end, and he would accept their point of view. They had a philosophy which protected them like a suit of chain-mail against all hesitations and doubts. The affairs of the country had to be run by men who had the money and brains and experience; and since the mass of people had not sense enough to grant the power freely, the mass of people had to be bamboozled. ‘Slogans’ must be invented, and hammered into their heads, by millions, yes, billions of repetitions. It was an art, and experts knew how to do it, and you paid them—but by Jees, the price made you sweat blood!
Those four paragraphs sound so much like now I don’t know where to begin. So, onward! From the conclusion, called “The Honeymoon.”
It was the morning of election day: the culmination of a campaign that had been like a long nightmare to Bunny. Senator LaFollette had been running, with the backing of the Socialists, and the great issue had been the oil steals [based on the Teapot Dome scandal]; the indicted exposers of the crime against the criminals in power. At first the exposers had really made some headway, the people seemed to care. But the enemy was only waiting for the time to strike. In the last three weeks of the campaign he turned loose his reserves, and it was like a vast cloud of hornets, the sky black with a swarm of stinging, burning, poisoning lies!
It was the money of Vernon Roscoe and the oil men, of course: plus the money of the bankers and the power interests and the great protected manufacturers, all those who had something to gain by the purchase of government, or something to lose by failure to purchase. Another fifty million dollar campaign; and in every village and hamlet, in every precinct of every city and town, there was a committee for the distribution of terror. The great central factories where it was manufactured were in Washington and New York, and the product was shipped out wholesale, all over the land, and circulated by every agency—newspapers and leaflets, mass meetings, parades, bands, red fire and torchlights, the radio and the moving picture screen. If LaFollette, the red destroyer were elected, business would be smashed, the workers would be jobless; therefore vote for that strong silent statesman, that great, wise, noble-minded friend of the plain people known as ‘Cautious Cal.’ And now, while Paul Watkins lay gasping out his life, there was a snowstorm of ballots falling over the land, nearly a thousand every second. The will of the plain people was being known.
That’s just three of many passages that echo my experiences with and knowledge of petro-culture now. Though Sinclair was writing about the past (I’m quoting from the Boni edition of 1927), the book reads like he was predicting the future. I can’t decide if it’s depressing that we’re dealing with the same old shit or satisfying that I recognize what’s happening. Maybe both.
In case you were wondering, the first passage came from page 50; the second, pages 364-365; the third, 514.
Update: I’m not surprised (which bothers me) about the news that potential Secretary of State candidate Susan Rice holds investments in TransCanada, the Canadian oil company responsible for the Keystone XL Pipeline. But the timing of the reports–appearing not long after I posted this–echo Sinclair’s story in Oil! much more loudly than I’d like it to.