How Stories Make Us Dumb

September 29, 2013

by Jimmy

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

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

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

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

Learning to climb at NC's Table Rock.

Learning to climb at NC’s Table Rock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stories we tell ourselves are powerful things.

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

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

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

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

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