For Want of a Favorable Reality

Image Credit: Grégory Tonon
Image Credit: Grégory Tonon

The coal industry of West Virginia had found themselves in a crisis. Coal had become unimportant to the economics of West Virginia. Well, that really wasn’t the crisis; exports could take care of that. The real crisis was that the people living near their operations were starting to know just how unimportant the industry really was. While the industry was only responsible for employing around 5% of the state’s workers and generating 7% of West Verginia’s gross state product, they needed people to think their industry held colossal importance to assuage public pressure for stricter regulation. So industry leaders met with a corporate intelligence company in Shanghai, China to create the “Friends of Coal” campaign. The goal of the campaign was make their industry artificially important so as to scare away the specter of being forced to actually comply with established laws.

~~~

Last I wrote, I discussed how Otherism can be defined as the exclusion of a person based on a perceived deviation from an acceptable norm. Otherism is the engine that drives all of the hate, bigotry, and malice that humanity has ever and will ever produce.

But Otherism presents an intrinsic problem to human groups. As soon as a group of people lay down the boundaries of what thoughts and behaviors distinguish the in-group from the other, they must find a way of enforcing this boundary. This is done by way of a social hegemony; a set of written and unwritten rules held in the collective conscious that must be obeyed. Violating these rules would mean that an individual may face exile from the group and lose all of the benefits that belonging to that group entails.

This all may sound like the incessant drone of some bespectacled anthropologist surrounded by dust covered tomes in his dingy, basement office. However, we see the effect of this social enforcement every day. Take an adult visibly picking their nose in a restaurant. That individual will likely draw public ire and risks being asked to leave the restaurant for violating the social hegemony that governs that social space. A two-year-old picking their nose, on the other hand, would likely not be seen as a violation. This is the nature of the socially constructed hegemony.

While social hegemony in and of itself is not necessarily negative, its generation can have wide reaching consequences if defined by those with ulterior motives. Recently, industries have learned that they can short circuit these social processes for their own financial gain.

The targeted generation of these hegemonies is a tactic that has been used by industries all over the world to protect their economic prospects at the cost of transparency and public safety. For instance, the formation of the “Friends of Coal” campaign in West Virginia, mentioned earlier, was in response to mounting pressure on local governments from the public to actually enforce weight limits on coal trucks making their way out of the mountain top removal coal sites. Industry ignoring these limits had led to the deaths of several people as overweight, speeding coal trucks tipped over on winding mountain roads causing collisions with residents.

But following the established law is just so darn inconvenient. So the coal industry created the “Friends of Coal” campaign to convince people that without the coal industry, West Virginia would be indistinguishable from some God forsaken wasteland in the middle of a lawless hinterland. If the public felt the industry was their one and only savior, no one would dare question the industry’s practices. The trick was to appear as a grass roots campaign by put bumper stickers on the backs of West Virginian’s minivans, contracting local celebrities to sing the praises of the industry, and having “everyday people” (read: actors) hand out buttons and can cozies at high school football games. It was one of the first times that an industry had ever deliberately engineered a social movement for the sake of their own checkbooks. So unique was it that social researchers gave in the moniker of an “Astro-turf Movement”: something that looks genuine from afar, but upon closer inspection is only synthetic.

The idea that was concocted in that Shanghai conference room was to use the historic importance of the coal industry to create and enforce an artificial social hegemony to their own benefit. After all, who would question the environmental and public health catastrophes that the industry had wrought upon their state if everyone was (falsely) convinced that the industry was of the utmost importance?

This tactic was so successful that it was picked up and used in other regions of the world to enforce an artificial social consensus that was only to the benefit of a select few. The petroleum industry in Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and elsewhere readily synthesizes the appearance that immense poverty and joblessness would follow any law or ordinance that might inconvenience them. Recent bills passing through both the Texas and Oklahoma governments would take power to regulate oil and gas activities away from local municipalities and place it solely in the hands of the state legislature where the industry can exert more direct control over legislation. The nuclear industry in Japan and France has continually generated this type of social importance to enable them to shrug off accidents and secure their finances in the midst of societal change.

This is the power of industry learning to pervert social processes. Often they insist that they want to work with citizens to make sure that everyone is safe and happy. Unfortunately, their definition of every one is often limited to investors and members of their board. The rest of “everyone” is left to pick up the pieces of a broken environment, broken infrastructure, and broken communities that extractive industries leave after they are done with an area.

This power to pervert the face of reality has become a tactic employed by industries across the globe as a means of distorting the true impact they have and to secure their financial security in the face of increasing criticism. The publication of inflated economic impact statements; charging protestors as terrorists; the use of local celebrities to push decidedly false narratives; convincing the FBI to pay unannounced visits to the homes of critics. These are all part of the modern tool kit for ensuring that your multi-billion dollar corporation can profit without worry for laws, regulations, public criticism, or common human decency.

~~~

It is the new age of industry. We are not in the business of selling you goods. We are in the business of selling you a particular brand of reality. One that benefits us and cares not for you. But we want you to think that we care. Because if we have that, we can do anything we want. Your willing consent is more valuable to us than any bit of oil or coal that we can scrounge out of the chunk of earth you so inconveniently call home.

Where Does Fracking Leave Oklahoma’s Future?

Image Credit: Grant Samms
Image Credit: Grant Samms

This is part three in a three part series on fracking in Oklahoma. Read part one here and part two here.

For the past two weeks, I have written about the state of fracking in Oklahoma and the socio-political quagmire that surrounds the issue. The impetus for all this digital ink was the ban that New York recently placed on fracking in that state. This ban led some to wonder why the same type of ban could not just be placed in Oklahoma. The reasons why that request is, unfortunately, oversimplified and unrealistic were my previous subjects. However, a few people mentioned that I had failed to be critical of fracking and had not emblazoned some of its more demonic implications. This is true. My goal in the past two weeks was simply to be descriptive; to try to explain the situation with as little interference from my own bias as possible. But this week I aim to move away from the descriptive tack I have been taking and become more proscriptive. How can Oklahoma, with all the issues and forces that it contends with, ever hope to ban fracking? My suggestions here will have to be implemented at various times and by a variety of actors. While the ultimate goal of a fracking ban will only reasonably play out in the long term, we can seek better communication and peace of mind for residents today that will build toward a better energy future for the state in later years.

One of the first actors that has to be considered for change would be the industry itself. Energy companies, like Devon and Continental which heavily frack the shale plays in Oklahoma, frequently run publicity campaigns to make themselves appear to be the champions of the state. They often bluster on about how they help the communities that they work in and about all the money they bring to the state. But many of the citizens affected by the work, especially the ones that receive no direct financial compensation, often feel that their communities and daily lives are violently disrupted by the industry. It is common for feelings of resentment and betrayal to be aimed at those companies who residents see as the source of their distress. At public meetings, people have broken down into tears as they describe the legal ability of gas companies, in the right situation, to erect a fracking platform, complete with methane flair, 125 feet from their door and drill under their house without having to obtain their permission or even advise them of drilling activities. Frustrations are frequently aired over the destructive nature of heavy truck traffic on roads and the timing of drilling activities to avoid ordinance enforcement by government overseers. If the industry is sincere in its PR declarations about helping the state and communities, it would limit these behaviors and make itself aware of the true needs of people. In the pursuit of profit, gas companies often ignore the fact that they are operating in areas where human beings permanently reside; human beings who need to be able to sleep and drive to work the next day. This tone deafness to the actual needs of communities has made gas companies the enemies of many, not the heroes. It is not unreasonable for people to expect information about the extent and duration of drilling activities under their land nor for them to expect the roads and bridges on which they rely to be respected by all who use them. This communication and curtesy should become a part of the industry’s best practice lest they see themselves continue to be the enemy of those whose lives they impact.

The second group that we should examine is the role of the state government. While a cynical part of me wants to dismiss the government as being in the death grip of the petroleum industry, there are signs some in government would be willing to vote against the unfettered run of the land that the industry has had. Government hearings about the effect that drilling and waste water disposal practices are having on state residents have started to occur. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees petroleum activities in the state, stated in a press release on man-made earthquakes that, while a “definitive link of oil and gas activity to the current major seismic events in Oklahoma has not been established” they are “not waiting for one” to take action. Their steps include mandating an increased amount of well monitoring and increasing the amount of integrity tests that are run on large volume injection wells. Some lawmakers have also expressed interest in proposing legislation that would impact a wide array of issues that arise due to fracking in the state. This kindling of legislative energy to regulate the state’s defining industry is not only a positive shift for the state, but is also an opportunity to seize on for the future. My single most desired action for the government to take would be an interim study on diversification of energy generation and subsequent economic security. While Oklahoma has great potential for clean energy generation, the opportunity is oftentimes used as a way to generate conflict with the state’s energy identity: Oklahoma is an oil state and wind power threatens that identity. But the correct framing could see this improved upon, especially as more and more people are becoming disillusioned with the petroleum industry. While a hearing might seem simply like a bureaucratic time waster, its attention by the government would yield a small amount of legitimacy to clean energy in the state and serve as a starting point for an overhaul. If paired with a PR campaign for the new jobs and new economic opportunity that solar and wind would provide, a clean energy push could be made that would maintain the state’s energy identity. Combined with the possibility of attracting out of state investors and selling excess electricity to other states, an ad campaign about how ‘Oklahoma keeps America moving’ could serve as a transition into a new energy paradigm.

Lastly, the people of Oklahoma itself hold more power than they are often given credit for. Many residents think that they are powerless against the mighty forces of the industry, but the recent small shift in the government’s tune is proving they have some power. The change in government attitudes that I outlined above have been credited to pressure from common people. The city council of Stillwater, Oklahoma is currently and seriously considering a proposal to ban all mining operations (including fracking) within the city borders. That would be a huge step for the state and would be the direct result of constituent pressure. If grass roots resistance to the industry and pressure on government continues to grow, it is not unreasonable to assume that citizens may get their way by sheer force of number. But in this change, it would be important to ensure the debate does not become too polarized. While that outcome certainty is a possibility, there is plenty of ground that the majority of Oklahomans can find in common. Man-made earthquakes have been one of those places. I think that a push toward clean energy framed in terms of economic security and job growth could be another.

Oklahoma is extremely far from the type of fracking ban that New York has put in place. I cannot debate this. However, there is some reason to hope for change. A growing mass of people are demanding more regulations for the industry and more protections from the government. It would be foolish to underestimate this kind of populist pressure. Another thing I cannot debate is the fact that Oklahoma is an energy state. Any push to ban fracking is going to have to take this into consideration. All of the emotion; all of the identity; all of the history will have to be taken into account. But these forces can also be brought to bear to create change. Any ban will have to offer an alternative in its place. That alternative has to be set up in ways that will appeal to energy workers and to the general public. But I hope, as these forces begin to swell, that one day they will be able to overtake the fossil fuel industry in this state. We may see a fracking ban in Oklahoma yet.

America’s Blood Stone

Image credit: Rachel Molenda
Image credit: Rachel Molenda

Last week I was holding a freshly dried Roundtree and York blue stripped button down shirt when I had a sudden realization so severe that my vision began to fade to the soft gray light that signals the onset of a loss of consciousness. A connection was made that was so visceral, so astounding, that my body could not decide if vomiting or passing out was the correct course of action. Standing there in my apartment complex’s laundry room, holding my warm, crisp shirt, I realized that the garment was stained with blood. It wasn’t mine or from anyone that I knew. The blood wasn’t even physically present, but rather was a price for the state of the cloth that I held by my fingers. It wasn’t the blood of the Sri Lankan workers who stitched it together. It wasn’t the blood of workers who harvested the cotton comprising 68% of the shirt’s weave. It was the blood of my own countrymen. My shirt was stained with the blood of other Americans.

 ~~~

The jewelers of the world had a problem in the nineteen nineties. More and more people were becoming aware that more and more of the diamonds showing up in western markets were so-called “blood diamonds”. Clearly, a person discovering that the diamond engagement ring they just bought had been mined to sustain genocide was not good for the diamond business. Or, I guess, humanity. So the United Nations, spurred on by NGOs like Silent Witness, enacted steps to try to ensure that diamonds entering the global trade were being mined cleanly and legally. These diamonds could be certified as being clean of the blood of civilians that had their lands stolen and their bodies mutilated to satisfy a global lust for crystalized carbon. It is still unclear how effective these measures were or how effective they continue to be. Luckily for the diamond business, people have stopped caring as much. So has the diamond business.

 ~~~

“Ok, enjoy your life in Hell!” These were the parting words of a coal industry representative to West Virginia resident Andy Winter. Andy has lived in Lindytown all his life. His family had lived there all of their lives. It was only when Andy refused to sell his family’s portion of Appalachia to the coal companies that he was condemned to the ninth circle for betraying… someone. The companies wanted the land for something called Mountaintop Removal mining, or MTR. As opposed to traditional mining, MTR involves the literal leveling of mountains to gather the coal out from amongst the rubble. It is estimated that more than 500 mountains have been erased from the landscape through this kind of mining.

But mountains don’t simply come down like they do in a window display at an outdoor store. Their demolition commends a heavy price. Mountains have to be cleared of all timber. This leaves only jagged scars where old growth forest used to be. Rarely is this timber even taken to market; it is buried or burned. Rubble blasted from mountainsides is discarded in streambeds, the act of which destroys aquatic habitats millions of years in the making. These streams will not become viable again on any timescale that concerns the juvenile species that doomed them. Entire aquatic communities are lost, and the fish that survive are subject to greatly increased levels of selenium, a toxic by-product of MTR that is supposed to be contained in specially designed pools. Scores of fish with deformed spines and jaws bring the soundness of these pool’s design sharply into question. The EPA, by the way, was recently persuaded by the coal lobby to raise the maximum amount of selenium pollution allowed in rivers near mining operations.

And lest you think the price to be paid for this rock is measured solely in disrupted natural communities; human communities also share in this burden. Coal companies use technically legal yet morally objectionable practices to snatch up all the land they can. Entire towns, including churches and cemeteries, are dynamited to extract the other black gold that lies amongst the smoldering remains of both natural and human communities. Residents that keep their lands, residents like Andy Winter, must contend with living on an increasingly poisoned property. Studies have found that humans living near mining operations are 50% more likely to die of cancer and 42% more likely to be born with birth defects. All of this while blasting can legally take place only a thousand feet from their front door.

 ~~~

Standing there, holding my warm shirt in my fingers, I noticed the sickening blood stain. Humans like to convince themselves that the members of our species who commit atrocities are vastly different than we are. It is only in the savage wilds of Africa that people have their lands seized and their bodies mutilated in the name of the blood diamond trade. Those things could not possibly happen in America. But with 45% of America’s electricity coming from coal and most of that coal coming from Appalachia, the fact is America has a blood stone of its own. And nearly all aspects of my life, and of your life, depend on this trade. It is not just my clothes that have been ruined with blood, but nearly my entire life. I’m still not sure if passing out or vomiting is the correct course of action.

The Conservation of Public Perception

Image Credit: Sascha Wenninger
Image Credit: Sascha Wenninger

The bluish haze of cigar smoke hung over the crowd like that which would soon drift out of the barrels of their freshly fired guns. The men sat tense as if the very animal on which they were bidding was to be released into the room. Some of them sat with pearly sweat beading on their brows. Seven bidders alone had left before the bidding had begun. Slowly the auctioneer rose on to the stage to take his place behind the podium. He spoke in words of restrained and harsh excitement.

“The next item up for auction is an invitation from the former colony of Namibia to go on a once in a life time hunt. To track down one of the great majestic beasts of the untamed African savanna. A chance to pit the helpless man against the ravages of a savage land. A chance to hunt a Black Rhinoceros. Bidding will start at one hundred thousand US dollars.”

I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that this was a scene from a novel set in 1800s London. But, in fact, this was the scene late this last December in Dallas as a group of people bid for a license, granted by the Namibian government, to hunt and kill a critically endangered Black Rhino. Admittedly, I have no idea if anyone at the event was actually smoking a cigar (doubtful given public health laws), but this still seems like something you would read about from imperial England.

The ultimate winner of the license was international hunting consultant Corey Knowlton. He won the license with a bid of $350,000 dollars which the Dallas Safari Club, the organizers of the auction, have said will be donated to rhino conservation efforts in Namibia. It may not surprise you to learn that Mr. Knowlton has received a considerable amount of vitriol over the internet including death threats to both him and his family. In his own defense, Mr. Knowlton has stated that this is an issue of conservation. He has said that the particular rhino he will be hunting down is a post reproductive bull and is likely to be killed and eaten by lions without human intervention.

Surprisingly, he does seem to have his science correct. Although, after listening to interviews he has given it seems to me that he has backed himself into the correct science. There is a concept in Population Biology called effective population. This is the number of animals in a population after you remove all those too young or old to breed and adjust the number based on the genetic diversity of the population. The particular animal that Mr. Knowlton is going to hunt is a post reproductive bull that is known for getting into conflicts with other, reproductive bulls. The game wardens at the park where this particular animal is kept may very well have to put the animal down at any rate in order to protect their effective population. The conservation fact is that since Black Rhinos are not social creatures and because this individual poses a threat to the future of reproduction in the Namibian population, it is a drag on the population as a whole. In most conservation management strategies, this individual would be culled.

It feels odd to agree with the killing of a member of a critically endangered species, but the proper conservation strategy would be the hunt. However, there is still something that bothers me about this episode. Corey Knowlton is a co-host on the Outdoor Channel television program “Jim Shockey’s The Professionals”. The show focuses on group of professional hunters who travel around the world to hunt some of the world’s most difficult and elusive species of big game. The trailer for the show makes it seem tense and fraught with danger. In an interview with Piers Morgan, Knowlton stated that this hunt could “make [him] a dead man.” It may very well.

While no link has been made between the show and Knowlton’s bidding on the rhino license, I find it impossible to believe that the producer of “The Professionals” is doing anything but getting ready to shoot some nearly impossible to reproduce television. This raises one extremely important question. A question of context. If Mr. Knowlton is as dedicated to the conservation of this species as he says he is, he should go on the hunt quietly and return quietly. No cameras. No trophy. But he has already stated that he wants to bring the hide back to the United States.

Corey Knowlton, it would seem, is stuck in a past as archaic as my introduction to this article. His motivations, despite the gesture of his donation, seem to come from an old, imperialistic ideal. Nature, it would seem to Knowlton, is a savage land waiting to be conquered by humans. But the scientific fact is that humans have already conquered and subjected all but the largest systems of our planet. There is a reason that this episode has been surrounded by controversy to begin with. The issue surrounding this hunt is a question of conservation. But it is a question more of publicity than of science. The gun that Knowlton will hold could very well be pointed at the public perceptions of rhino conservation. With a record-breaking 1,000 rhinos poached in South Africa last year alone, conservation seems to be losing the battle.

So go, Mr. Knowlton. Hunt your rhino. But do it quietly and without fanfare. If you really care about conservation, you will be mindful of the wake that you leave.

Strive to be Ready for When the Change Comes

Image Credit: USDA
Image Credit: USDA

“Be good, children, all of you, and strive to be ready for when the change comes.” -Andrew Jackson

I am consistently amazed by the degree to which human responses to change are comparable to that of other animals. For all of our blustering that we with our enormous brains are superior to the lesser beasts, we manage to fall into a lot of the same patterns as our imagined underlings. The population of Ireland in the early seventeen hundreds, for instance, was limited by the fact that agriculture was difficult and crop yields were typically low. This pinned the population at around two million. However, with the introduction of the potato the population of the small island exploded four fold. The crop was ideally suited for growth in the wet, temperate climate and gave great yields on small plots of land. Even the poorest of peasants could farm large potato crops on their meager lands and stuff their family full of the tremendous tuber.

This population response to a sudden increase in resources is found in every species. Every individual in every population has an energy budget that needs to be fulfilled. If you can only find enough food to sustain the body mass that you already have, you are not going to add more mass let alone spend precious energy reproducing. However, if the potato gods, in the form of Sir Walter Raleigh, gifts your island with an abundance of metabolic energy for every individual, then mating will commence posthaste. And it’s not just humans that follow this pattern. Muskrats, damselflies, right down to bacteria all fall in to this resource usage pattern.

The inverse of this pattern is also true. Take away precious resources from a system and the individuals, now faced with a scarcity problem, with compete for what is left. Some species will go as far as hoarding resources so that they are self-insured against future resource depletion. Here again is a trend that humans fit perfectly. Today we have complicated systems of wire, light and electricity to transfer our stock of resources from smartphone to bank server to ATM. Still, however, the concept remains the same. Not to mention, it was only seconds ago by evolutionary standards that people did have to physically hoard their resources and protect them from others.  In fact, the entire notion of capitalism is based on the fact that resources are finite so you better get as much as you can because you just never know when there will be a shortage.

This stands in comparison to my favorite near utopia, the United Federation of Planets, in which molecules can be taken from anything and arranged into anything else. The result is that money is a non-existent thing because, when your own waste can be turned back into food, resources are effectively infinite.

But until we arrive at that glorious point in the future where I can command my tea to be earl grey and hot, questions of a scarcity society will continue to plague us. Some of our scarcity questions we seem capable of solving. I would wager that we already have the technological components that we need to solve our fossil fuel scarcity question. Others questions are considerably more frightening. With only an estimated 2.5% of earth’s water being fresh, and less than one percent of that being available for human use, how will we solve that most biologically basic scarcity issue? With rivers now failing to reach oceans and aquifers drying up, will we hoard our resources and fight each other over what is left? Or, will we follow the model that we have set for ourselves time and time again, adaptation. At the point in history when enough food could not be gathered to feed a village, we cultivated our crops and made cities. When we could not cultivate enough to feed the city, we irrigated those crops and made nations. Now we face a choice; not just in water usage, but in nearly all realms of scarcity questions. We can remain as we are and watch as our countries wither. Or we can adapt, innovate, and build a world.