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
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 9, 2012
I need some help. I’m trying to understand the ebb and flow of people’s attitudes toward natural gas development in north-central PA for some research I’m working on. In my way of thinking, we learn things in two ways—through lived experience and what we learn from words. I would argue that the latter makes up most of what we know, and much of what we’ve learned about natural gas development has come from encounters with various media, that is, words. Your assignment is to help me think about this. Let me elaborate.
In grad school, I read Kenneth Burke’s Definition of Man, a definition I’ve chewed on ever since. Burke defines humans as symbol-using animals, animals who use words (symbols) to create much of our understanding of the world and our place in it. He also raises questions about reality:
“What is our ‘reality’ for today (beyond the paper thin line of our own particular lives) but all this clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present?”
Of course, these days Burke would include blogs, list-servs, websites, conversations, etc. I often spend a lot of time at the beginning of my writing courses asking students to think about what Burke means here. Like I said before, words make up a large percentage of our reality. I’m a physical being living in a physical world, yes, but I understand more about my “reality,” who I am and where I live, from what I read.
Let’s think about this in terms of natural gas development. The way I see it, the natural gas industry and the public are arguing about how we should perceive and thus use north-central PA, and the argument is evolving. The industry wants people (locally and nationally) to see this area as a resource. Many locals want people (locally and nationally) to see this area as a place people call home, that is, as more than, or something different from, a resource. (Of course, locals’ desires are complicated. Many locals want what the industry wants. Many want something else. I see locals as categorized loosely into three groups: pro-frack, anti-frack, and sorta-frack.) This “conversation,” if you will, has involved websites, press releases, lobbyists, TV and print advertisements, letters, contracts, phone messages, billboards and signs, news coverage, blogs, art (see here), protests, books (see here and here), bills, policy statements, scientific research, list-servs, public meetings, etc. That’s a lot of words being thrown around. In all the reading I’ve done, it appears that these groups are using words to shape attitudes in ways that point toward PA-as-resource, PA-as-home, or PA-as-something-else.
Think about the times you eat out, read the paper, watch TV, talk with your friends and family, sit in the dentist’s office, walk down town (wherever that is), ride your bike, tend bar, slam some beers at your favorite watering hole, whatever. Got it? Good. Now, what moments, words, phrases, images jump out at you when you think about natural gas? Got that? Awesome. Now, what would you say those moments, words, phrases, or images incline people to think about natural gas development? Put another way, what stands out to you about a) the way the gas industry has used words to shape people’s attitudes toward Marcellus shale development and b) the way locals have used words to shape people’s attitudes toward the Marcellus shale development? I realize this is a huge question, and it’s one I’ve been thinking and writing about for almost three years. The way I see it, there’s a constant give-and-take between all the concerned parties as we argue for and struggle toward our vision of what this place is becoming. We, industry and locals alike, are working toward a competing, but connected, reality, a reality constructed largely by words, but that has very real physical effects. What will north-central PA look like? What does it look like now? How did we get here?
I’m also wondering, as much as it pains me to say this, whether words can really make a difference. I believe that they can, and I believe that they have been. Witness some of the timid but nonetheless steps in the right direction taken by our politicians in asking the gas industry to pay to play here. But when I see stories about places like Cogan Township in Lycoming County, where the Township Supervisor cut down trees to stop Range Resources from using a road, I can’t help but wonder why the industry has such a hard time working with people at times.
What has stood out to you about the way the industry has characterized and continues to charaterize the development of the Marcellus shale and the way that locals have responded and continue to respond? I look forward to hearing from you.