by Jimmy

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.

Kenneth Burke. Dude understood a lot about words.

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.