by Jimmy

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.)

Nonfiction

  • 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.)

Fiction

  • 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.)

Poetry

  • 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

Films

  • Gasland (documentary)
  • Gasland II (documentary)
  • Promised Land (feature)
  • Split Estate (documentary)
  • Triple Divide (documentary)

Egghead Books

  • 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

by Jimmy

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.

Drill rig flying Old Glory.

Drill rig flying Old Glory.

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.

The Netherlands are in Bradford County, right?

The Netherlands are in Bradford County, right?

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.

Patriots indeed.

Thinking Like a Rock

April 1, 2012

by Jimmy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Gary Snyder