Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Corporatization of American Democracy: Slickwater Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing and the Extortion of “The Good American”

Below is an updated, white paper style, version of a somewhat older paper. It includes a bibliography for more convenient sourcing, and updated examples of my argument that advertising for the natural gas industry is both a cynical ploy to manipulate concession to the industry's destruction of our air and water--and thereby a wholesale debauchery of the promise of American democracy. As the years of the liquidation of our forests, farms, and fen have worn on, and reports of water and contamination become ever clearer, natural gas industry propaganda has become even more desperate to appeal to patriot-saturated fear-mongering over "national" security" and "energy independence"--both of which are actively undermined by the industry's hell-bent-for-leather exports to a global marker where the highest bidder determines the price of that gas.

The Corporatization of American Democracy:
Slickwater Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing and
the Extortion of “The Good American”

Of all the potential crises that threaten to undermine the grand experiment called “America Democracy,” I’ll argue that those which pose the greatest danger involve the emergence of the Too-Big-To-Fail Big Energy corporation’s bank-rolled gambits called “shale play,” that is, horizontal, slickwater, hydraulic fracturing for shale-bound natural gas. Sponsored by some of the biggest and most morally compromised industries flying the American flag—Exxon, Shell-Mobil, Chesapeake, Halliburton, BP, Chevron, PVR, Cabot, Williams—the threat posed to clean water, breathable air, private property, public lands, and community integrity is becoming more and more clearly established at the same time such corporations are posting record profits and donating millions to the political campaigns of policy-makers. It’s thus no surprise that such corporations appeal to the patriotic sentiments of citizens, that they exploit what I’ll call the rhetoric of “the good American” to extort consent.
Consider, for example, Chesapeake, who advertises itself as “America’s Champion of Natural Gas” who’s “fueling America’s future,” or Exxon, who just bought Canadian drilling corporation, Celtic Exploration Ltd, for $2.59 billion1, and who insists that hydraulic fracturing is “the process [that is] is helping America unlock our vast supplies of domestic energy” despite the fact that the corporation’s stated goal is to ship natural gas not to American sites of use, but to global markets—especially the Asian pacific.2 Or Cabot, who sponsors Mom, apple pie, baseball, flag-waving events in Susquehanna County, PA—near Dimock,3 one of the major film sites for Josh Fox’ Gasland).4 Or lastly, consider FrackNation, the industry-funded Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney film which appeals to image after image of American flags and flag-waving Americans to directly attack Gas Land, and to promote natural gas development5.
These examples are a dime a dozen, and their rhetoric resonates not only with Americans, but particularly with those American who live in the most environmentally vulnerable locations for fracking, folks living in rural counties and municipalities like Columbia County, PA. Right now, we are twenty-five minutes downstream from a 7,800 gallon chemically drilled frack operation, 45 minutes from several compressor stations, including the Central new York Oil and Gas (CVYNOG) Janet Hock Road, Davidson Township, Columbia County site I’ve been photo-documenting for the past several years.6 We’re 20 minutes from a fracking-water withdrawal station on Route 11 directly adjacent to the Susquehanna River, one hour from an enormous water withdrawal near a Jersey Shore site that required the evictions of 32 economically vulnerable families thanks to Aqua America7. We live directly on Williams Partner’s Transco Pipeline, now the site of a new proposed FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) application for an expansion called the Atlantic Sunrise8.  Moreover, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) is now open for business to fracking corporations via SB 367 that makes state lands—including campuses—available to all forms of mineral extraction and their infrastructure operations.9
Over the last several years, fracking and its multiplying ancillary enterprises, compressor stations, dehydration stations, water withdrawals, chemical manufacturers, explosive manufacturers, spill clean-ups, trucking enterprises, plastic lining makers, engineering business like Larson Design10, sand transport services, drill bit makers, etc., have promoted themselves as a kind of panacea for the recession—and in some cases as the answer to restoring revenue to cash-strapped municipalities and other public-sector institutions (like PASSHE) suffering under the governor’s steep budget cuts. Revenues to date from Act 13’s impact fee is $630 million from all corporations engaged in fracking in PA as of 201411. Sounds like a fair chunk of change, but when you consider that (a) this represents nearly 30 corporations including Chesapeake, Exxon, and Cabot, (b) this is for the entire state, (c) a single accident can exhaust any municipality’s entire share, (d) even the more modest among these corporation’s profits may well be into the billions by the time export depots like Cove Point Maryland’s are operative, and lastly, (e) that until parts of the Act 13 law were overturned as unconstitutional in July, 2014, it preempted virtually all local decision-making in municipalities, it becomes very clear that the cost to environment, human and nonhuman health, community integrity, roads and bridges, and public institutions like schools, nursing homes, and town parks, outweigh benefits accruing to a very few.12  Even the promise of jobs is only as reliable as the boom to bust cycle of the extraction industry’s history, particularly when the facts are that this promise is a hollow one—even during the boom.13 When you factor in that the real cost in risk and accident for many gas well workers is among the highest in the nation, (especially for truck drivers),14 that the gas boom has generated a virtual renaissance in work for lawyers pursuing accident claims,15 the gap between the real beneficiaries—lawyers, CEOs, shareholders—and those who bear the real costs—everyone else—becomes obvious.
The language of “energy independence,” “energy security,” “free enterprise,” “the entrepreneurial spirit,” and even “national security” were quickly appropriated by corporations like Chesapeake who promise “Cheap, Abundant, and American” in their advertising and who insist that they can be trusted because, after all, they’re American too. Those who dared to challenge this appeal to patriotism were cast as un-American,16, anti-capitalist, anti-progress Luddite enemies of the state,17 an image easily promoted through industry propaganda to further justify the state’s legislative usurpation of the prerogatives and responsibilities of townships and municipalities to regulate “shale play” via Act 13. Films like the American Petroleum Institute’s “Truthland,”18 and aggressive advertising websites pretending to offer expert testimony and advice like Energy in Depth19 are saturated in patriotic images and slogans which make clear that fracking is the American way—and that anyone who questions the authority of either state governments who subsidize the industry or the industry itself is ripe for target as, for example, a “socialist,” or “Communist.” Or worse. As reported in Common Dreams March, 2012,20 anti-fracking activists are increasingly the targets of FBI surveillance (even as reports of “eco-terrorism” are on the decrease), and the use of state and local police to insure industry prerogatives is becoming commonplace.21
            Despite the obvious risks, however, a growing movement of activists, fracktivists demanding not a moratorium but a ban, has begun to take hold in Pennsylvania, galvanized by a first-hand experience and an informed understanding that fracking threatens not only the environment in its aesthetic and recreational dimensions, but the very water, air and soil necessary to life, that it threatens a way of life—especially for rural and semi-rural Americans. It’s ironic that many of these folks would not identify as environmentalists. In fact, notions like “sacrifice for country” are for them powerfully persuasive in light of their rural, military, and working class experience. Nonetheless, as the evidence of the real risks of fracking mounts regarding the safety of the process, the pollutants involved, the damage to community infrastructure, the long-term health effects, and the destruction of hunting lands/fishing waterways, even some of the staunchest of patriots have begun to find themselves at town hall meetings sitting across from Big Energy executives—but not on their sides.
To be clear these risks include at least the following sixteen items:
1. The toxicity of the chemicals involved in the fracking process itself, and the veritable certainty that these will migrate eventually along fissures in well-casings into ground water.22
2. The necessity of deep injection wells for the permanent disposal of wastewater that is no longer usable by human beings.23
3. The actual earthquakes the USGS associates with deep injection wells, and the potential dangerous fissures to well casings caused by a repeating pattern of seismic activity.24
4. The already patent environmental destruction, pollution and noise hazards caused by compressor stations, transmission lines, and water withdrawal facilities near public schools, hospitals, and other community assets.25
 5. The nearly complete absence of regulation in “Class One” rural areas with respect to the construction and monitoring of transmission lines in and out of compressor stations.26
6. The destructive consequences for the sensitive ecologies and endangered species.27
7. The potential extinction of whole species of microorganism—some of which likely remain uncatalogued or even undiscovered—and who make their home in shale deposits.28
8. The actual erosion of roads and bridges due to increased heavy truck traffic.29.
9. The actual emission of diesel and other carcinogens from trucks idling for long periods at frack sites, water withdrawal stations, and compressor stations.30
10. The risk of carcinogen exposure to human and nonhuman health from the frack site wastewater deposit pools and from compressor stations.31.
11. Community conflict destined to erupt between those who lease and those who refuse to lease, some of whom now claim they’ll have to be shot before the state can take their land under the guise of recognizing the lease of mineral rights to energy corporations.32.
12. The erosion of private property rights by those who would decline a gas lease and who are then subject to compulsory condemnation, forced pooling, and the appeal to eminent domain by the state--all in the interest of allowing the gas corporations to not only frack on such properties, but construct roads, waste pits, and transmission lines in and out of a fracking operation.33
13. The effective neutering of municipalities and township boards to govern the infrastructure of their communities under, now overturned, Pennsylvania’s Act 13 that would have shifted the power to determine fracking operations from the municipality to the State Attorney General’s Office.34
14. The actual use of fracking wastewater as road de-icer in winter despite its carcinogenic properties.35
15. The harmful effects of Act 13’s gag order which prevents physicians from releasing vital information to patients exposed to frack fluids in the event of illness.36.
16. The potentially hazardous effects for neighboring towns, municipalities, and even states of items 1-15.

While it is important to be clear about these hazards, my aims here are not about—at least directly—the hazards per se—all of which are well established and publicly available. My claim is that fracking is a concrete, visually compelling epitome of the much bigger crisis of American democracy, namely, the corporatization of state and federal government through, among other tactics, appropriation of the patriotic and thereby disarming discourse of the “good American.” The consequences of this appropriation include not only a fundamental and potentially irrecoverable corruption of the very language and imagery of the public good, but substantial risk to the conditions upon which this good depends—clean water and breathable air.

Unlike other current dimensions of the crisis—the collapse of the banks, or the wreckage of the housing markets, for example fracking endangers the conditions of life itself, not only in terms of toxins and other irrecoverable pollutants, but in virtue of
(a) the permanent removal of water from rivers, ponds, and lakes, and
(b) the concentration of pollutants in the what water remains.
Fracking effectively converts a necessary condition of life into a marketable and unrecyclable commodity, and it’s no real wonder that this demands a propaganda campaign that can either conceal this fact or make sacrifice to it seem worthy and honorable—even a patriotic duty. The cynical and mercenary appropriation of catch-phrases like “national security” and “standard of living” reveals an industry whose key decision-makers know the dangers of their production processes, and thus know that their “justificatory” rhetoric must include a strategy for neutralizing those who would organize to resist it. What better strategy than the appropriation of the “good American” against which—especially in the contemporary political climate—those who resist can be cast as “Leftists,” environmental whackos,”  “tree-huggers,” “Communists,” or “un-American”? As anti-patriots against whom the police, the National Guard and the Army can be deployed? Traitors to country who can, if necessary, lose their lives for the sake of “national security”? Or at least arrested and detained.37
On March 9, 2012 President Obama signed into law a bill, H.R. 347,38 that makes protests at political events at which Secret Service agents are deployed to protect anyone one present illegal—even if the presence of the agents is unknown to the protesters. The bill effectively makes even non-violent protest subject to police harassment since the protesters have no way of knowing whether they are in violation of the law. Not only, then, does government have a new means by which to repress dissent, it will have one more tool for identifying the Good American—he or she who does not engage their first amendment rights at all:
The US House of Representatives voted 388-to-3 in favor of H.R. 347 late Monday [2.6.12], a bill which is being dubbed the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011…Under the act, the government is also given the power to bring charges against Americans engaged in political protest anywhere in the country…In the text of the act, the law is allowed to be used against anyone who knowingly enters or remains in a restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so, but those grounds are considered any area where someone — rather it’s President Obama, Senator Santorum or Governor Romney — will be temporarily visiting, whether or not the public is even made aware. Entering such a facility is thus outlawed, as is disrupting the orderly conduct of “official functions,” engaging in disorderly conduct “within such proximity to” the event or acting violent to anyone, anywhere near the premises. Under that verbiage, that means a peaceful protest outside a candidate’s concession speech would be a federal offense...39
The critic might, of course, object arguing that protests in isolated settings like remote forests or deserts are still an option, but this, of course, defeats the purpose of bringing public awareness to the issues connected to fracking. Though perhaps at first blush not obviously tethered to the corporatization of government, such a bill
(1) effectively criminalizes protest—including that engaged by anti-fracking activists—since there is no way of knowing whether a Secret Service detail might not be present at a politically sensitive event attended by CEO’s of  Big Energy corporations, and
(2) makes dissent against government sanctioned corporate policy that much more unlikely—protecting corporations under the guise of protecting the public.
            Consider, for example, a recent event at Kutztown University, Kutztown PA, where Lt. Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Cawley defended the claim that state universities should be willing to “work with the gas companies” who may want to drill on college campuses in the state. Among the members of the audience were anti-fracking protesters, one of whom, Sean Kitchen (who stood with his back to the Lt. Governor and his panel), made the claim that “[w]hat you're saying is that you endorse poisoning college students across the state?” In combination with an increasingly dominant national rhetoric that identifies the good of corporations with the economic health of the country, protesters like Mr. Kitchen are not only likely to be criminalized but, in fact, worse—cast as outside American citizenship. Laws that effectively criminalize protest send a clear message: the place of a citizen is acquiescence. To protest government sanctioned corporate enterprise is to take up a position against the government. The good American does not behave this way.40
Such a democracy, I suggest, is not merely in crisis; indeed, to the extent that the very narrative of citizenship has been co-opted to ends having naught but coincidentally to do with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and everything to do with profits and share-holder portfolios, “democracy” has itself become just another advertising slogan: we are free to wave our flags while bulldozers take down our trees and tear up our land to make room for access roads, frack pads, compressor stations, and transmission lines. In fact, if you’re lucky enough to live in a class one region of Pennsylvania—fewer than ten houses per a square mile—you’re free to imagine yourself in a kind of Wild West. No regulations govern the construction of gas transmission lines where you live at all. And according to the new national patriotic narrative, only he or she who fails to have the nation’s interests at heart or who simply does not understand the immense benefits to the economy would deign to complain that this is not “freedom,” much less stand and accuse the gas industry of poisoning American citizens for profit.
Such a citizen-dissenter is not Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of the nation’s largest energy corporation, Chesapeake Energy, who deploys the rhetoric of the Good American at least indirectly by appealing to economic and energy security. As reported by Jeff Goodell of The Rolling Stone “To hear him [McClendon] tell it, the cleaner-than-coal fuel he produces will revive our faltering economy, free us from the tyranny of foreign oil and save the planet from global warming.”41 McClendon’s appeal to love of country, however, conceals a very dark underside, one surely about “country” and “love,” but not about democratic decision-making, much less the good of his fellow citizens. Goodell continues:
[W]hat McClendon leaves out is the real nature of the business he's in. Fracking, it turns out, is about producing cheap energy the same way the mortgage crisis was about helping realize the dreams of middle-class homeowners. For Chesapeake, the primary profit in fracking comes not from selling the gas itself, but from buying and flipping the land that contains the gas. The company is now the largest leaseholder in the United States, owning the drilling rights to some 15 million acres – an area more than twice the size of Maryland. McClendon has financed this land grab with junk bonds and complex partnerships and future production deals, creating a highly leveraged, deeply indebted company that has more in common with Enron than ExxonMobil. As McClendon put it in a conference call with Wall Street analysts a few years ago, "I can assure you that buying leases for x and selling them for 5x or 10x is a lot more profitable than trying to produce gas at $5 or $6 per million cubic feet."42
It turns out, in other words, that even the patriotic rhetoric of “cheap and abundant” natural gas is simply a cover story for the acquisition and marketing of land—land that used to be rural America. This rhetoric demotes the national interest, the common good, to transferable real estate. To identify the good of this corporation with the health of the country is to identify the health of the country not with the freedom of its citizens, not with the stability or strength of its democratic institutions, but with its market value—fifteen million acres in McClendon’s case. The state, moreover, has not only become an enthusiastic player in what Arthur Berman, respected energy consultant, calls a Ponzi Scheme, it is now engaged in the erection of laws—including laws that criminalize protest—aimed at protecting what now must be called America, INC.
This is death-by-profiteering for the country and for its citizens—literally—and no industry more pointedly epitomizes it than Big Energy. Corporate appropriations of patriotic rhetoric are, of course, by themselves nothing new. It’s also nothing new that the “good American” is expected to lay down her/his life for the sake of country or national interest. Such is the oath of the soldier. It’s not even new that such soldiers have been co-opted to fight and die in wars for the sake of preserving and advancing corporate interests wrapped—also literally—in the flag. Such is the case in Iraq. What is new, however, is that because the process for extracting natural gas in the Marcellus or Utica Shale Formations involves massive quantities of an essential resource—water—whose contamination requires its permanent exclusion from any use other than fracking, “sacrifice” can only be measured in terms of what lack of access to clean water means for those who are dependent on that access, namely, human beings, farm animals, wildlife, crops, forests, etc—in other words, living things.  It is at least a crisis for democracy that, as good Americans, we are being asked to sacrifice not merely clean water but water per se. That the rhetoric of this sacrifice should be cast in the language of “energy security” by entities that stand to make billions of dollars not only from it but from the enormous swaths of land required to pursue it, is more than a crisis; it is, I think, either the democracy’s death sentence or, if we’re lucky, its clarion call to foment revolution.
To cast as un-American—and to codify this as law—those who’d resist the assault on access to clean water not only discourages the exercise of a basic right to freedom of expression, but makes effectively traitorous the public recognition of facts. One is not required for the sake of being a good American merely to lay down for one’s country, but to die for an instantiation of “country” owned and operated by corporations. The “good American” consents not merely to being fracked, but to those specific kinds of death which accrue either to the consumption of contaminated water or—for those even less fortunate—to lack of access even to that. While fracking corporations deny the mounting evidence for the connection between, for example, fracking and cancer, compressor station emissions and asthma, they insist, for example that the physician nondisclosure section of Pennsylvania’s Act 13 which prevents doctors from revealing the composition and amount of chemicals present in frack fluids making their patients sick is rightly protected by proprietary rights statutes. Moreover, as of this writing there are no studies that track possible health effects to fracking operations, compressor stations, compressor station explosions, open waste pits, land-fills that take frack “cake,” or other varieties of exposure. Hence, it’s no surprise that fracking-promoters insist that no ill health effects will follow from fracking,43 and some even insist that fracking will improve water quality.44
One response, of course, to my argument is that there are lots of dangerous fossil fuel extraction processes, and that some danger just is the price we have to be willing to pay for energy. This premise, however, is faulty—we only have to pay this price if we insist on our current levels of consumption, refuse to develop alternatives, and forego conservation. But the state and corporations like Chesapeake are not the only players in this genocidal drama, and, I suggest, would not be able to legitimate their own dictatorial program without the cover of other complicit institutions, particularly the university. As fracking corporations “partner” with universities to conduct the basic science (at tax-payer’s expense), develop extraction methods, and provide expertise and basic labor (in the form of graduate students), so does the state promote the university as a undemocratic institution no longer acting as a public trust. But as the recent case of Penn State’s participation in an industry-sponsored and disputed study of the economic benefits of natural gas production shows, “public trust” is itself part of an advertising campaign designed to protect the image of a public research university, while its commitment to unfettered inquiry and critical investigation die on the vine.45 As the watchdog group, Food and Water Watch document:
Reports out of Penn State and the Public Policy Institute of New York project tens of thousands of jobs will be created as a result of natural gas development; the MSC calls for hundreds of thousands. Two reports released today by the watchdog group Food and Water Watch show that those projections are optimistic at best, and based on flawed numbers. They refute the last point the natural gas industry used to defend its practice of drilling wells and releasing underground methane gas using sand, water, and chemicals, in rural and wild areas.46
Moreover, the lion’s share of the profits likely to accrue to fracking are already destined for foreign markets: “the major players in shale gas are multinational oil and gas companies with plans to export U.S. shale gas outside of the U.S., likely to Asia.”47
A particularly striking example of the use of patriotic rhetoric to promote industry objectives, as if these were consistent with the university mission, comes in the person of Penn State Professor of Geoscience, Terry Engelder, “father of Marcellus Shale” who describes the state-university-corporation alliance this way:
Engelder doesn’t just talk up the Marcellus Shale. “I have to make a bit of a sales pitch for Penn State,” he says. He repeatedly points out the quote, “symbiosis between the gas industry and Penn State,” and asked them to invest in research at Penn State, quote, “The type of research that’s necessary to answer some of these questions that are going to be so critical to the future of Marcellus development,” the type of research that he, himself, will be doing… Engelder has started a research project. 10 oil and gas companies are paying about $40,000 each so students can map the Appalachian Basin, showing companies where best to drill. Engelder also has a multimillion dollar project to help engineers figure out, among other things, how much pressure they need to frack wells. Penn State depends hugely on industry money, and not just on the oil and gas industry, on pharmaceutical companies, and on weapons manufacturers, and on the government. All major research universities do, not just Penn State. But Penn State’s got one of the oldest and best gas and petroleum engineering schools in the country. Without industry money, the school might not survive. Flip through this year’s awards banquet program for the Energy and Mineral Engineering students, and it’s an industry roster. They’re getting money from Chesapeake Energy, Consol Energy, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil. Some of these students will go on to work for these companies, and make lots of money, and give it back to Penn State, which is great for the university. But if you take a close look at how some of these donations work, you can see how entwined the university is, not just with the gas industry, but also with state government, and how all three of them are united on the topic of drilling.48
The “symbiosis” to which Engelder refers is precisely another unholy alliance.  In a piece titled “The Unholy Alliance of Big Energy, Big University, Big State: My Exchange with Terry Engelder”, I put the point this way:
This is not the story of a university; it’s the story of a university beholden to an industry that has come to dictate key aspects of the university’s mission. Penn State has effectively forfeited its responsibility to act as an independent agent for the public good, and uses the professorial status of one of its celebrity own—Terry Engelder—to legitimate it…Professor Engelder is beholden not to Penn State (other than to legitimate his status), but to those corporations who fund his research into the Marcellus Shale, who fund his graduate student’s future careers, who donate enormous sums to his university—and to his place in history. Engelder’s own claim was that “the discovery [of natural gas] could be worth $1 trillion.” To be clear: I am not claiming that Professor Engelder profits monetarily through his association with the Natural Gas Industry. He may; he may not. I don’t know. What I am claiming is that Engelder epitomizes the forfeiture of academic integrity consequent on the corporatization of the university—and that in the end this impugns Penn State as a public trust. This could not be better represented than in Engelder’s own words concerning the abuse of the state’s eminent domain, takings, and mineral rights laws to appropriate private property through forced pooling: “I suspect that if the commission were to word their recommendations for pooling in a clever enough way, this would provide political cover for the governor himself…Engelder knows that his appeal as a university academic offers the best possible propaganda to the industry and, as a bonus, offers cover to a state government—the Corbett administration—that’s as deeply compromised by fracking dollars as are its appointments to key agencies and positions hail from Big Energy.49
Key to my argument here, however, is the rhetoric Engelder deploys to legitimate this alliance. He explicitly appeals to the true patriot’s willingness to sacrifice for the nation’s “energy security”:
”This [fracking] is a new technology. The gas industry is learning as they go along and we need to give them a chance to get it right.” He then quoted John F. Kennedy, telling those of us in the audience to “ask what we can do for our country” and thanking us for our patriotism for living in the heart of what he called ‘the sacrifice zone.”50
The appeal to John F. Kennedy is especially striking, given that the language he used about what one can do for her/his country was directed not at the forfeiture of our rights, but rather at instantiating democratic principle in the form of service. To suggest that allowing the appropriation and potential contamination of one’s land and water counts as such a service or that the offer of a chance “to get it right” is somehow owed to the fracking corporations betrays, I think, precisely the perversity of this unholy alliance.
            Engelder recognizes the violation of property rights suffered by landowners and farmers, but regards the sacrifice as “necessary,” in other words, essential to the American way of life. “If we want to talk about sacrifice, then we look to Dimock,” he said, referring to the best-known Pennsylvania site for drilling accidents”51 
To characterize the irreparable losses of Dimock citizens as “sacrifice,” as if the their deliberate and collective will were to give up their water, opens the door to genocide. Here’s why: The citizens of Dimock were not asked whether they wanted to make this sacrifice. It was, in fact, forced on them. It’s irrelevant whether the gas industry—Cabot in this case—intended to contaminate their wells. It didn’t. What’s clear is that Cabot knew this was possible, and continued to frack regardless. This is the story of every fracking operation, every compressor station, every transmission line, and every water withdrawal station: unlike even the pollution produced by coal, hydraulic fracturing destroys water in massive and irreplaceable quantities. To cast this kind of violence in the language of patriotic sacrifice—to draft laws to reinforce it—is at once to recognize it as violence—recast as sacrifice—and to conceal it behind the good American—she or he who lays down her land to a Ponzi scheme, his water to a deep injection well, and her life to an America owned by folks like Aubrey McClendon.
            To bring this point home one more time: SB 367 (sponsored by Republican Don White who received received over $94,000 in campaign contributions from the industry52) authorizes PASSHE university presidents, under the advisement of the chancellor, the option of leasing PASSHE campuses to Big Extraction. I recently argued that
[e]xtraction is merely one piece of the transmogrification of PASSHE schools, converting what is an essential public good in the creation of thinking citizens into effectively privatized for-profits whose aims are not education, but the next generation of workers laboring under the tutelage of those who can afford to send their children to far more expensive private institutions. That Cavanaugh applauds the wholesale dismantling of Antioch College and the firing of tenured professors for the sake of “cost-savings” and “efficiencies,” that his “wish list” in the on-going negotiations with the PASSHE faculty union, APSCUF (The Association of Pennsylvania College and University Faculties) is a recipe for union-busting—including the creation of a poorly paid underclass of non-tenure “lecturers,” the reclassification of department chairs as “managers,” and the conversion of “brick and mortar” classroom education into “executive model” on-line courses –makes clear that what the chancellor values is not education, but the manufacture of workers most attractive to the industries he welcomes to your kid’s campus via his presidents, or rather, your kid’s campus-factory where he or she can expect to see the liberal arts demoted to “service curricula” and programs which serve the extraction industries front-page-promoted on university websites.53
The Frack-U bill, in other words, pretends to be a way to save public education from the budget cuts the governor “had” to impose, but the facts tell a very different story, one that could spell disaster on campuses like Lock haven, Slippery Rock, Mansfield, IUP—and Bloomsburg. Imagine, for example, the disaster awaiting the student who inadvisably tries to cross Rt. 487 on some foggy morning between public school buses, fracking sand trucks, perhaps a chemical explosives crew truck, and a frack-waste hauler taking “cake” to the White Pines landfill. I have already begun to photograph this escalating traffic.
We're the biggest frackers in the world," declares Chesapeake’s Aubrey McClendon proudly over a $400 bottle of French Bordeaux at a restaurant he co-owns in his hometown of Oklahoma City. "We frack all the time. What's the big deal?”54 I think the big deal is death. Death in virtue of the “big deal.” And this, I think, epitomizes not only the crisis of American democracy—but that of a future for which “sustainability” is in danger of becoming just one more advertising slogan on the way to ecocide.


46. Ibid.
47. Ibid.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Environmental Cultism, the "Endgame," and the "It's just a different strategy" Vocabulary: Why Movements Fail

Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee

In light of some very thoughtful recent remarks on an older piece posted at THE WRENCH, I have returned to thinking about environmental cultism. But--serendipitously--it's not only these remarks that have generated this return. 

I have been confronted by a truly disturbing strain of environmental cultism masquerading as "the professional activist" that I find both interesting philosophically--but troubling ethically. This form of cultism personifies a Derrick Jensen-like Endgame willingness to deploy a "by whatever means necessary" manipulation, name-calling, fear-mongering, misrepresentation, and exploitation in the name of the anti-fracking movement--but to ends far more self-interested and prosaic--but self-deluded and arrogant. 

While it's certainly true that we sometimes do appeal to ends we hold to be laudable to justify means with which we have discomfort, and while there are good questions to be asked about what ends justify what means--the committed cultist appears to believe that the ends of preserving the entitlement presumed to accrue to the cult/group/ideology justifies whatever means are necessary to achieve that end.

Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee
The trouble is that it does not--especially when the means involve the violation of values we'd all agree were worth preserving--honesty, forthrightness, humility, compassion, courage, thrift

These are issues that return me to philosophy--not that I've never left--but with some renewed interest in that fraught connection between thinking and action, ideals and activism. 

Movements can be fertile ground for a kind of cultism in the sense that the sheer urgency of the issues--and fracking certainly provides that--make for many of its elements: a siege mentality, an insistence to conformity to a certain ideology--in this case, an incoherent ideology about how the movement must be willing to include virtually every point of view, even manifestly self-undermining and/or inconsistent ones in order to reflect a commitment to "diversity" or "tolerance." 

I think this is deeply mistaken and misplaced.

Such notions of "diversity" or "tolerance" are at least very shallow. "Let's just all get along," and "we're a rainbow of perspectives" may reflect a diversity of attitude--but they will not achieve any objective other than the status quo. Anti-Apartheid activists did not "just get along" with that regime's violent enforcers. A firestorm ensued on these pages when I insisted--and still insist--that the "responsible drilling" message of the Responsible Drilling Alliance was wholly inconsistent and self-defeating for an anti-fracking movement (THE WRENCH: Of Aristotle and Anadarko: Why “Better Laws” Will Never be Enough). This is not to say that RDA exemplifies the cultism I am exploring here, but only to suggest that one characteristic of a cultist group dynamic is the insistence that whatever are its values--say, diversity and tolerance--that they're beyond critical examination even where their application results in inconsistency--and sometimes actions that may be positively harmful

Such notions are also self-defeating because they prevent that movement from adopting a clear message or objective. They fundamentally fail to make the vital distinction between differences of strategy and difference of objective. We must encourage and sustain the former; we cannot afford to brook the latter and be a movement. 

Let me put this another way: while there are no objectives that we ought to regard as beyond the pale of critical review, there are objectives upon which we can take a firm stand. Banning fracking is one. Prosecuting sex-traffickers is another. Acting to mitigate climate instability is yet another. What makes these objective clear are the moral arguments combined with the compelling scientific evidence that supports them. 

Strategy is another matter altogether. There are often many roads that lead to Mecca--actively encouraging these--in light of the objective that's clear-- is surely the very stuff of a successful movement.

A sure characteristic of cultism is the propensity to demonize those who'd argue for that unifying message as "purists," as "intolerant," or even as the enemy. This is a variety of the fallacy of projection: projecting onto others qualities undesirable or ethically problematic in oneself.

The other very troubling feature of this tendency to cultism is that, having adopted the legitimating narrative of the cult's ideology and thereby acting in the name/interests of that ideology, one is legitimated in assuming that the ends virtually always do justify the means, and that critical self-reflection about whether in any particular case this follows can be conveniently forgone. That, I'd argue, can lead to the rationalizing of very bad behavior--deception, omission, manipulation--all in the interest of reinforcing ideological hygiene.

Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee

So I have also been thinking a good deal about language. This new word--"purist"--seems to have recently entered the anti-fracking activist vocabulary, and it is used to disparage those of us who take a resolute stand that we must be unified on message--even if varied in strategy.

It is not purist, but rather simply coherent, to argue that the claim that fracking must be banned is inconsistent with the claim that it can be regulated and/or mitigated. Fracking cannot both be banned and regulated. Regulated fracking is fracking--hence not banned. Indeed, the concession to regulation and/or mitigation undermines every effort we make to realize that ban. That is not a "purist" position. It is simply true. 

Moreover, a unified message does not preclude the possibility that we could discover that we are wrong. The Ancient Greeks had a marvelously well-articulated view of the universe--and copious evidence to support it mathematically, observationally, and technologically--that was dead-in-the-water wrong: geocentrism. We must always remain open to this possibility. That is called humility before the facts, and while the likelihood that we are wrong about climate instability and the dangers of continued extraction is profoundly unlikely--we must remain vigilant and self-critical. 

This self-reflection includes whether fracking should be banned. The evidence weighs heavily on the side that fracking must not only be banned, and that the notion that it even can be regulated in non-sensical. If we do not become unified--thoughtfully, self-reflectively--about that message, this movement is doomed.

And this leads me full-circle--for now. A movement must be FOR something. The end of fracking is like the end of apartheid or concentration camps or sex-traficking. It is not purist to insist that there is no compromise; it is the only position that, on the current well-established evidence, has moral credibility. 

Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee

To claim that there's room for everyone in the movement is like claiming that the Ku Klux Klansman should be welcomed into the struggle to achieve racial equity, that the God Hates Fags member should be welcomed into PFLAG--that the gas industry CEO should be welcomed onto the board of the grassroots environmental organizations. 

To then be called the "purist" because I reject this "inclusion" as incoherent and paralyzing suggests that there is some other motive for the name-calling, that something else is being protected. And that leads me back to the environmental cultists.

More of this later.