Our Forgotten Sustainability Culture

Depression
Image Credit: Robert Hoge

Disposable take-home containers. Single use coffee pods. Fast fashion. Cleaning pads that hit the trash after one room. This type of convenience based consumption has become commonplace in American life. But for many of our parents and grandparents, this pattern of buy, use, trash, buy, use, trash would be beyond embarrassing; it would be treasonous.

By the culture that arose after the stock market crash of 1929, we would all be traitors. To our families, to our communities, and to our country. The crippling financial crisis of the Depression forced all people to think more deeply about the consequences of their consumption. Thrift became both virtue and necessity. Waste could not be tolerated. Sustainability had to be the model.

There was a focus, then, on making the very most of all of your resources. Knowing how to alter and mend clothing became a valuable skill that could ensure you got all you could out of a pair of pants. More families took advantage of the natural resources that surrounded them as they hunted, fished, and collected their own wood for cooking and heating. Simple, filling meals became the norm as a way to limit waste. Community gardens sprang up and people ate what was in season. The first thought if a pair of shoes became worn was of how to mend, not where to buy.

If some of the above ideas sound like relatively new concepts, then you’re in the same place I was when I started researching for this piece. Surely, community gardens and the trend toward local food were ideas that originated with the environmental movements of the 1960s and 70s. The ideas of the makerspace and the “right to repair” are relatively new concepts as well, right? The shift toward simple, non-processed, meals made fresh at home is most definitely a departure from America’s obsession with all things pre-cooked, fast, and easy.

All of these concepts have roots in the Depression era, if not further back in time. The ideas of sustainability then were undertaken out of economic necessity. Today, those same American ideals are being used out of ecological necessity. The movement toward buying locally grown, in-season food averts the monstrous carbon footprint of cargo ships bringing fresh limes, in December, to Boston. Our growing interest in repairing the things that we own, as well as buying quality goods to begin with, gets us away from the ecologically and morally troubling trend of importing cheap stuff made in developing nations. Cooking simple meals at home, our growing interest in “clean” and “natural” food, and a general aversion to fast food avoids the waste impact of all those carry-out meals. Same story with the trend toward reusable water bottles and coffee cups. There is even a movement among intrepid “invasivores” to only eat meat harvested from invasive species as a way to put food on the table while controlling the spread of these animals.

Those living through the Depression may not have been familiar with “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” but they did abide by “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do.” And while I would never hope that those measures of sustainability are necessitated again by economic turmoil, we can use that mentality to address our environmental woes. As our climate changes and our oceans fill with plastic, those waste reduction measures common in the Depression have been rediscovered to fight an environmental crisis global in scope.

So as municipalities pass laws to ban plastic bags and more of us carry reusable coffee mugs, don’t see these measures as a new wave of environmental liberalism. Rather, see them as the reemergence of patriotic thrift. We have become accustomed to convenience and disposability in our recent past, but these attributes are far from the core of our historic American identity. The ideas of consumption that older generations held can leave us personally fulfilled and keep both our individual and planetary homes tidy. The type of self-sufficiency and purposive consumption that we embraced in our past is, thankfully, an idea that we are starting to get back to.

After all, it’s the patriotic thing to do.

NIMBY and the Social Gap Collide

Solar Power and Tractor
Image credit: Alan Levine

Previously, I wrote about the surprising lack of conflict in Woodward, Oklahoma over the introduction of wind energy to a historically oil-soaked community. People in Woodward were already familiar with energy production and that made the new-fangled wind turbines look a lot less alien. I also noted that this introduction was set against a backdrop of the most highly concentrated pocket of climate change denial in the country. Wind turbines there were not viewed as clean energy specifically, but as just another form of energy production. And more production is always better.

~~~

Recently, I packed up all my things and moved halfway across the U.S. One thing that remained constant is that I still live in a rural area. Just like Oklahoma, the Eastern Shore of Maryland is a largely rural, agricultural place. Both are long on history and nostalgia; they scoff at “big city folk” and pine for a less complicated era.

But the introduction of clean energy into both couldn’t have been more different.

Unlike Woodward, my new home of Kent County readily sees climate change as a real and imminent danger immediately needing to be addressed. It’s definitely caused by humans and we definitely need to dedicate legislation and tax money to address it. But when utility scale solar companies recently tried to install a solar array across a number of agricultural fields in the area, they ran headlong in the infuriating enigma that is the social gap. If my new home was so ready to address climate change, why did so many local people line up to oppose the very projects they supported in theory?

The answer many gave was that solar panels just “don’t fit” in the landscape. Ours is a historic, agricultural place and planting a crop of alien power generators would ruin that history. When you ask for specific reasons why solar would be a bad fit for the county, you hear of solar farms breaking up the scenic, rolling hills and making good quality farmland unable to grow food. So while those in Woodward saw wind power’s effect on aesthetics as negative but necessary, those in Kent County see solar’s effect as negative and wholly unnecessary.

That is in fact the very case they made to a judge who rejected a license to a solar development company: this is unnecessary. But, if the county as a whole is in favor of dedicating resources to increasing clean power, then why was this project beaten back so feverishly? The social gap rears its head again. While some would place the blame for this behavior on NIMBY, I would wager that the discrepancy is due to what is missing from Kent County’s history: energy production.

If you have a one-hundred-year history of extracting energy as Woodward does, you are used the presence of the looming contraptions that undertake that work. But without that social familiarity, the introduction seems only to have negative impacts.

Unfortunately, that perception is at odds with the emerging future of our electricity production. Rooftop solar, the grid of the future, home storage, and low-capacity but numerous power generating stations; all signs point to decentralization. Historically, our power has been generated by the gigawatt at stations far out of sight. But our future seems to hold much smaller, more numerous stations that individually generate less power. Where historically electricity has flowed only from the utility to their customers, a two-way street is beginning to emerge.

Right down to the solar panels (or even just shingles) mounted on a roof that create enough power for just one house, the generation of our electricity is becoming a local matter. Interestingly, this idea of reclaiming local production has emerged in Kent County in different arena: food. There has been a push on the Eastern Shore (and, indeed, the world) to take a keen interest in where our food is coming from, to consume as much local food as possible, to eat from farms that are cognizant of their environmental impacts, and to demand a reexamination of our entire food system. So it’s not the desire for positive change that is missing from Kent County, but rather it is the physical manifestation that change takes which is troublesome. While Kent County has the social familiarity with agriculture to encourage the localization of our food sources, it lacks that same familiarity with electricity.

This puts proponents of clean energy in an awkward position. On one hand, the desire of those living here needs to be respected and changes to a place should only proceed with the general consent of the communities that inhabit it. On the other hand, our system of energy production is becoming more local which means that everyone will soon live near (or even in) their local power plant. But, having to reconcile these two factors is not simple in a rapidly changing world.

The days of large corporations building power plants that are unquestioningly deemed necessary is rapidly ending. So, too, are the days of not having to worry about where your electricity comes from. So a hybrid solution must be adopted. As we demand that energy developers become more aware of their impact on the environment, we must also become more willing to live near their operations. We need to train ourselves to see our new, clean power plants not as an unsightly necessity, but as a source of local pride and autonomy. Our new, increasingly sustainable world means more local production of everything. Of clean water. Of food. And, now, of electricity.

Community Solar Can Overhaul Utility Assistance Programs

solar-instalation-us-department-of-agriculture
Image Credit: US Department of Agriculture

Complacency might well be the most insidious force in the world today. The cessation of the attempt; failing to reach further for what is better. Never yearning to remix and remake our world for the future. Or, just sitting back and failing to acknowledge when the changes that are happening around us are recursive for the majority. Where a once blossoming promise has withered at the expense of the many, complacency can be found skulking in the shadows.

The complacency with our electrical supply systems has been holding my attention lately. Not just the physical infrastructure itself, but the financial and policy frame works that prop it up. How we get our power and how much control we have over that process turns out to be a very interesting topic for the future facing citizen.

It’s a popular suggestion that families that cannot afford to keep their homes heated in the winter should get assistance from the government. After all, shivering children should make no one giddy. But the ways in which utility bill assistance programs operate are ripe for a rethink. No matter how the money is distributed, funds for these programs ultimately come from tax payers. It is then given to the utilities to make up for a portion of the bill that families cannot afford.

But something is amiss under the surface. The shift since the 1980s to privately owned utilities means that citizens have less and less control over how their power is generated. Utilities, always with an eye to the bottom line, choose the cheapest fuel mix possible which often means a large proportion of carbon sources. When you consider that the production of fossil fuels is already subsided in the United States to the tune of $4 billion a year, the tax money used for utility assistance programs re-subsidizes those polluting energy sourcing with more public money. And when you consider that this money often comes from pots meant to modernize our energy production, this doubling down on the old is all the more egregious.

There are better solutions to making sure that people can afford to keep their lights on and homes heated. There are solutions that give communities more say in how their energy is produced. Solutions that let town halls, and not board rooms, lead on energy modernization.

Community solar is an idea that has increasingly been seen as a solution to addressing the problems of residential solar power. In short, communities build a solar array either in a field or by using the suitable roof space in town. Those for whom rooftop solar is out of reach are then able to subscribe to a portion of the array’s output. For example, even those who rent small apartments could subscribe to the output of one panel. The energy produced from that panel would then come off of their energy bill as if the panel was on their roof.

This type of system is also of great value to those in need of utility assistance. Instead of using assistance funds to simply pay off part of the bill, those funds can be used in an innovative way by giving families in need subscriptions to community arrays. It grants these families more ownership of their energy sourcing and avoids the double subsidization of fossil fuel companies. Community solar can wrest control away from the shareholder and return it to the hands of those actually flipping the switch.

This arrangement also opens a pathway to greater community cohesion as residents could elect to donate some of the power generated by their subscription to families in need within their own town. Producing power where it is consumed also grants a sense of local autonomy; the sort of do-it-yourself sufficiency that Americans mourn the loss of in the modern-day.

These are the kinds of rethinks that will drive our energy future. As utilities, both private and public, prepare for a decentralization of energy production they set the landscape for local sufficiency. Communities are beginning to demand traceability for their electricity. Doors are being opened to new ways of envisioning how we power our homes. And as we install this new, localized future of ours, we are finding innovative methods to provide for everyone in our communities. Beyond just expecting the government to help those in need, we can preserve both the environment and the humanity of those around us. Community solar is a step we all should dare to take.

Our Failed Climate Change Defense

23895675202_020686fda2_z
Image Credit: Claudia Dea

Let’s talk about legal defenses that should not work. You get pulled over. You get asked if you’ve been drinking. You have. You try to deny it. You conjure up all the rationale and excuses you can find in your ethanol addled mind to explain why this isn’t what it looks like. But when the officer asks you to step out of the car, you, with vapors of gin and whisky stumbling off your tongue, come up with the perfect legal defense: You can’t be drunk because you weren’t paying for the alcohol. “Solid point,” says the officer, and lets you on your way to continue careening down the freeway; endangering everyone that shares the road with you that night.

For the past thirty years, the United States has been employing this same defense as to why it shouldn’t be held responsible for the emissions that we spew into the atmosphere like a debauched club goer. The language should sound familiar. “But China won’t do anything!”  Employed by politicians and everyday people alike, the argument goes how can we be expected to act when our actions will only be a drop in the bucket as compared to the big polluter that is China? Or India? Or Russia? Putting aside that fact that the U.S. still emits far more per capita than China (16.4 kilotons per person to China’s 7.6), a large portion of the United States’ carbon bill is actually paid for by China. This is because the groups that tally up carbon bills use the same method that a bar does: Whoever directly creates the carbon spewing activity gets the tab. But what happens if that activity is slid down the bar to the U.S. who has convinced other nations to buy the drinks? The carbon emitted for all of the TVs we buy, the clothes we wear, and all of the cheap chachkies we mindlessly consume gets charged to China even though we get the physical goods. And, for the record, all of the emissions cause by shipping those good across the Pacific on heavily polluting bunker oil don’t get charged to anyone. They don’t really get tracked or accounted for at all.

In this way, the United States (and, indeed, all developed nations) have found a way to hide a sizable part of our total emissions within other nations ledgers. The demand originates in the rich nations, the items are consumed in the rich nations, but the pollution, including the carbon dioxide, is burdened by the developing world.

Yet we wonder what on earth is wrong with nations like China when they can’t seem to get their air pollution under control. “If only they could be environmentally conscious, like those of us over here, they wouldn’t have to suffer under a hazy smog that is literally choking the life out of them.” And so, confident in our assessment that we can’t do anything until China does something about the pollution that we have put there, we tell ourselves that we might as well wait until they get their act together. After all, it’s only fair. Meanwhile, our world continues its slide into a future where the environment is so chaotic that we can’t fully predict how many (or even how) humans may live on it.

Now, in case you’re thinking “we don’t force this on China. It’s their choice to engage in this type of global trade,” you must remember that this problem of outsourcing environmental consequences while importing physical goods isn’t isolated to one country. The history of globally produced consumerism is clear on the business model: park in the cheapest country with the loosest labor and environmental regulations for as long as possible. When that country decides to improve the standard of living for their people, you move on to the next nation. This migration is easy to track based on who the stereotypical producer of cheap stuff is. Japan, to Korea, to China, and now to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The wave of consumerism sweeps from developing nation to developing nation while we hide our pollution in their skies.

But how can consumers be expected to curb this dangerous cycle of climate blame laying? To be sure, the average American consumer has no power in the court of the World Trade Organization. But they do have a wallet, and the solution to rampant, mindless, climate-destroying consumerism can oddly be solved by some of the rallying cries of American capitalism itself. “Vote with your wallet.” “Buy American.” “Shop local.” All credos of the same lawmakers that abhor any attempt to place the needs of the planet before that of the bottom line. But buying local goods cuts down on untracked cargo ship emissions. Buying American ensures that we must bear the pollution burden of our consumption. Voting with your wallet by buying products that are mindful of their impact helps us internalize our personal impact. Alternatively, voting by not opening your wallet for all of those cheap chachkies may be the most socially and environmentally sound vote you could cast.

Personal responsibility. Another rallying cry of the laissez-faire politician. But in this they are correct: when we take seriously the responsibility to balance our consumption with our environmental impact, we can improve ourselves. When we insist that the products we consume are made with the same attention to planetary preservation as we are in selecting them, we can improve our world. And when we tally up this mindful consumption in whole, acting with sober mind and clear understanding, we can save our future.

The Epitaph of NIMBY

A wind turbine and petroleum pump, side by side
Image credit: Grant Samms

“How dare you stick your liberal-loving, clean-energy-producing, scenic-view-destroying wind turbines on my prime oil land!”

Or something like that. I think that’s what I was expecting to hear anyway.

For the past year and a half I have been wrestling with an idea that I have come to call energy identity. Having gone to grad school in a state where oil enters into nearly every political and economic conversation, I was sure this green energy/traditional energy dichotomy was a totality. On the right? Frack away. On the left? Wind for days.

So it was a bit of a shock when one of my grad school professors told me that there was a town in western Oklahoma that was styling itself as the “Wind Energy Capitol of Oklahoma.” Not only is western Oklahoma (or, indeed, all of Oklahoma) extremely oil soaked, but extremely conservative. Why would a conservative town in a conservative state that depends heavily on oil and gas revenue embrace something I saw as “green” and “liberal”?

The town in question was Woodward, Oklahoma and it would become the topic of my master’s thesis. The town does indeed have a past dripping in oil. Or, at least in the anticipation of it. When the first well was attempted in 1903, it came up dry. While a producing well wouldn’t been seen until 1956, residents spent those intervening fifty years dedicating their own time and resources into encouraging oil exploration on the surrounding plains. Now, another fifty years in the future, oil is all the more important to the area.

So to hear that the city had embraced the new-fangled wind industry was very surprising. Shouldn’t clean wind energy be rejected by their oil identity? Especially since the area so roundly rejects climate change; an issue that wind turbines are meant to address. In fact, in a Yale study, only 51% of the county’s residents believe climate change exists at all. Only 40% believe that humans are the cause. That’s the lowest level of belief anywhere in the United States.

I spent over a year digging up research, interviewing people, and crawling through archives documenting an expected case of collective identity conflict. And when I asked people how they felt about the turbines that had surrounded their city, the answer I got was, “we’re proud of the fact that we’re the hub of wind energy.”

Wait. That can’t be right. Let’s try someone else. “I love looking at them out there.”

Uh-huh. Anyone else? “I’ve heard us called the Saudi Arabia of wind. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Confusion was my reaction for quite a while. In fact, through my entire study, I only met one person who was expressly against wind power. Everyone else was either ambivalent or saw it with some shade of positivity. My confusion was finally reconciled by one respondent who told me that the town “has always had oil. Now we have wind. We’ve always been an energy town.”

And there it was.

“We’ve always been an energy town.” The city most definitely had an energy identity, but it wasn’t the narrow, method-specific one I had envisioned. Instead, it was one of supplying energy in all of its forms for the entire nation. This concept of being a place that specializes in the extraction of energy generally was one I heard over and over from people. “Climate change may be a falsehood,” they might say, “but Woodward will take all of the oil, natural gas, and wind extraction you could give us.” And they wanted more. I heard from people who wanted solar and geothermal and hydroelectric as well.

There’s a concept in sociology for this whole episode. It’s known as Sense of Place. People don’t just merely live somewhere; they form attachments and relationships with that place. In the case of my confusion, residents of Woodward didn’t see their heritage and identity as oil producing specifically, but rather as energy producing in general. So when you slather the landscape with wind turbines, they are seen as just another type of energy extraction.

What’s interesting about this concept is that it helps to explain a problem in the study of energy known as the social gap. Why is it that so many Americans say they support the expansion of clean energy, but react negatively when installations start to go up near their homes? Historically, the explanation to this has been the NIMBY phenomenon: Not In My BackYard! But NIMBY has a number of problems. Chiefly, it assumes that people are either for or against something based on primarily selfish reasons: if something will affect me negatively, then I don’t want it.

But under this model it is impossible to explain the case of a person I met who no longer uses their hunting lodge because of noisy wind turbines yet supports them for the positive impact they see made in the community. Or the case of a hunter I spoke with who lost a favorite hunting spot to transmission line construction yet still supports wind’s expansion. In both of these cases, individuals supported the very thing that had a sharp negative impact on them personally. But when that impact is in line with the culture of an area the power of Sense of Place shines though.

This pattern of reaction to change, based on familiarity and context, is a powerful way to examine and predict reaction to energy development more broadly. Especially as the world finds itself in the throes of a clean energy boom, understanding how and why people react to development the way they do will be critical to the success of the clean energy revolution. In the future, I’m going to discuss more examples of how energy development and society collide and what can be learned from these cases.

For now, it’s important to realize that we should always hold our own heuristics with suspicion. For me, wind energy is a symbol of the fight against climate change and the environmentally destructive fuels at its core. For many in Woodward, it’s simply a way for their town to stay economically competitive in an ever-changing world. My error was in assuming political leaning was the only data point I needed to understand them.

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.

When the Facts Cease to Matter

Image Credit: Progress Ohio
Image Credit: Progress Ohio

This is part two in a three part series of social factors on fracking in Oklahoma. Read part one here.

Anybody who follows national politics will know that there are many, many times in which facts do not matter. Emotions and dogma often carry the day more than evidence and reason. In other words, often does the subjective outweigh the objective. While it may be easy to dismiss out of hand this type of blind, emotional reasoning; it is worth noting that its wide pervasiveness gives it power. What must then be considered is whether a person wants to try to convert most people to a method of objective logic to achieve their goal or work through those subjective hazes to reach an accomplishment? Unsurprisingly most organizations and advocacy groups choose the later approach. But it is important to recognize that this level of compromise, the ability to recognize the power of and work in the realm of the subjective, is as relevant in all walks of life as it is in politics.

Often when speaking with community activists or studying industry communications on hydraulic fracturing, I find that there really are six factors that matter equally as much: the objective positives of fracking, the objective negatives of fracking, what the subject thinks are the positives, what they think are the negatives, what they think their antagonists see as the benefits, and what they think their antagonists see at the negatives. Whew! So much for simple right and wrong. But the fact of the matter is that so often important decisions are made with emotion at their core. And while these emotions could be ignored, recognizing why certain parties are saying certain things can lead us to better communication and a better understanding of the total dimensions of our problem.

For instance, a common rallying call for anti-fracking activists in Oklahoma is that the practice should be banned because it creates earthquakes. To break down this argument into the six factors I mentioned above, the objective truth is that, while the actual fracturing of the rock does not lead to earthquakes, the injection wells that are commonly used for the disposal of waste water have been shown in many, many studies to create induced seismicity. While the activists are very much aware of this distinction, the technical inaccuracy of “fracking causes earthquakes” is something that industry has exploited as I will note later. This is one of the central pillars, joined by others such as water contamination risk, air pollution risk, damage to local roads, water usage, and the effects of methane and CO2 on the climate. To the average activist, these aspects all pose very present and realistic fears. When they are combined with the often dismissive attitude of local, state, and industry officials, it leads to a large amount of fear, anxiety, and anger toward oil and gas companies. It is rare that activists will offer up anything positive about fracking. When considering the views of the oil and gas companies, activists often see the companies as pressing forth a litany of false positives while conveniently and consciously dismissing their wrong doings. Under the surface of all of these claims lies a feeling of deep seated injustice. Activists feel as though their government turns a blind eye while the oil and gas industry abuses the state’s land and water and then leaves broken communities in its wake.

On the flip side, the industry sees itself as a champion of the state’s economy. They frequently advertise all the money and jobs that they add into the economy. As I mentioned last week, the claim by the OERB (a government board to propose oil and gas regulations voluntarily funded by oil and gas companies) is that oil and gas is responsible for a third of Oklahoma’s Gross State Product. The industry often expresses the view that the biggest problem with fracking is that people don’t know enough about the process and would recognize how great it is if they only received good information. This, at least, seems to be what they publicly see as the positives and negatives of fracking. But what is actually said behind corporate doors is anyone’s guess. The industry says that activists are just extreme factions that make completely baseless claims and are waging a war to smear the industry and all it does for the state. They often resort to straw man tactics to make their antagonists appear baseless in their claims. Regarding the “fracking causes earthquakes” claim from earlier, industry representatives often say that there has never been a link shown between fracking and earthquakes. While this is technically correct, it assumes that activists are only talking about the physical cracking of the shale when, in fact, most activists use “fracking” to mean the entire process and all it entails. The actual objective facts here though are hard to parse out. While it is undeniable that the industry plays an important role in the state economy both directly and indirectly, all of the data comes from the industry and bodies that they fund. Economic studies have shown that the figures these groups come up with often do not account for costs of their presence with any accuracy. For instance, they often fail to account for the cost of damage to roads and the opportunity costs to the economy caused by their damage. As for the other evidence against their activities, they often find technicalities that make the evidence less absolute. Sort of like how smoking has never technically been proven to cause lung cancer.

In the end, it is harder to take stock of the subtext underlying a faceless corporation’s activities. But if I had to guess, I would say that behind closed doors they are scared and anxious of the activists they publicly dismiss. Recent examples from Denton, Texas and Longmont, Colorado show that grass-root activist organizations can mobilize entire towns in even staunchly conservative places to outlaw one of the industry’s most lucrative practices. It isn’t hard to imagine the industry in a war for the hearts and minds of the people when they need their land and mineral rights.

So by taking into account how differing parties subjectively view a situation and paring that with an understanding of the objective facts, we can start to draw a much more accurate picture of the problem that Oklahoma faces with fracking. Perhaps if this where a dry academic issue the facts would be all that mattered. But this is not academic; it has become a deeply emotional and polarizing social issue. Recognizing this is critical to understanding the deep implications of any suggestion that is made for Oklahoma. But what suggestions can be made when so much hangs in the balance of every decision? Industry wants to proceed unopposed which would not be without serious consequence. Activists want to see that activity severely crippled or outlawed which would also come with a heavy price. So what beginning steps could Oklahoma take to start it toward the goal that any observer of climate science knows it needs to get to? Paths forward into that future will be the subject of the last part in this series to be published next week.

You can read part three in this series here.