Make No Impact, Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace Impact Nature Paxson Woelber
Image Credit: Paxson Woelber

Those of us that enjoy hiking through the woods, kayaking down rivers, and general spending time in nature hold one philosophy above all others: Leave No Trace.

It’s a simple concept; while you are enjoying wilderness without signs of human presence, take steps to ensure that those who come after you can enjoy nature in the same way. Pack out all of your trash. Minimize impact from camping and fire building. Travel only on durable surfaces where your footsteps will not damage the flora. Respect wildlife and leave what you find. It’s a courtesy to those that will follow you.

But even for those of us that are so careful to limit our impact in the “natural world,” these principles are dropped once we return home. When the view of trees and rolling hills gives way to skyscrapers and city blocks, we mistakenly believe that we have left nature.

The waste we were so careful to minimize outdoors begins to overflow in our trash cans. Litter that we were meticulous to pack away in nature slips from our pockets in the city. Human waste that was handled with extreme thoughtfulness is now whisked down the toilet to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind facility. Consumption that had been kept as low as possible festers to create mounds of wasted resources.

This pattern of behavior traces back to the fallacy that humans are somehow separate from nature; the idea that we can keep the natural world at arm’s length. It’s a long-held fallacy about humanity’s superiority over the natural world; that we are better than it. We are separate from. We are above. It leads us to separate the “natural world” from our cozy homes in our snug cities. Even our language reflects this fallacious concept; being in the “natural world” versus being in “civilization.” As if they were totally distinct and separate phenomena.

Inevitably, that leads to the idea that our actions in the “human world” don’t effect the “natural” one. We begin to decouple the role that nature plays in our lives and the impacts that we have back on it. People begin to unravel the tapestry that holds the entire planet together while simultaneously insisting that there is no tapestry at all.

But, of course, there is. The plastic microbeads that we use in our apartments inevitably find their way into the stomachs of marine life. The palm oil for the cookies that we have sitting in our pantry came from decimated rain forests. The fuel for our cars causes environmental degradation both when we gather it and when we use it.

Nothing we touch or consume is without an impact to our planet. It’s unfortunate that we can be so attuned to this reality when “in nature,” but have it be obscured when in our “normal lives.” Especially because the impacts that we create when “away” from nature always come back around to impact us somehow.

Those plastic microbeads can go from your face scrub to a fish’s body and then onto your plate. The palm oil cookies were made by damaging the ability of rainforests to absorb CO2; of which higher levels means an ocean less supportive of marine life and more severe storm seasons on land. And, of course, mining your car’s fuel damages natural resource economies like fishing and timber while the exhaust it ends up as contributes to surging asthma rates and heat waves.

We need to kill the concept of “the natural world”. As I sit here in this air-conditioned apartment in the middle of a town with paved roads and bustling coffee shops, I am in the natural world. When I drive my car to meetings in Baltimore, I am in the natural world. Boarding a plane to visit family and friends and to eat cookies made with palm oil, I am in the natural world.

I cannot leave it. You cannot leave it.

So we must keep the ideals of Leave No Trace in mind even when our surroundings have traditionally told us not to bother. Because Leave No Trace is about leaving the world as unmarred as possible for others to enjoy hundreds of years from now.

That means knowing our impact so we can limit it. It means fighting for governmental and business practices that make it simple for individuals to take lighter steps through this world. It means adapting our societies to the ways of the natural world and not pretending like we are somehow separate from it.

“Leave it better than you found it,” my parents would tell me. That doesn’t just apply to a campsite or a backwoods trail; that applies to the earth as a whole. Even… No, especially when you are sitting in the air conditioning.

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.

Denton’s Struggle for the Individual Voice

©2015 Julie Dermansky
©2015 Julie Dermansky

“It’s stressful and it makes it to where I can’t sleep at night,” Sergeant Scott Jenkins’ voice cracked through my phone late on a Friday night, “But for someone in their thirtieth year in law enforcement, this has been a really important assignment.” An undeniable sense of pride shone through the accumulated exhaustion of his previous week policing protests against oil and gas operators. Born and raised in the north Texas town of Denton, Scott Jenkins will tell you that he takes immense pride in his city, his state, and the constitution.

It’s that pride, displayed on a sunny Monday afternoon, which gives context to an action that has perplexed many onlookers. Minutes before arresting three anti-fracking protestors for trespassing, Sergeant Jenkins bent over and shook the hands of all three he was about to handcuff.

“I told them that they had achieved a great victory. I thanked them for their service to the community,” the Sergeant recalled.

“You can show respect to people even when making an arrest. We don’t have to denigrate those we come in contact with. These are our own citizens.”

He explained to me that regardless of his own views, beliefs, and political opinions, his deep respect for “that most venerated of American documents” guides him to balance the expression of rights by all sides in his policing: anti-fracking protestors, pro-fracking protestors, oil and gas workers, interested citizens, passersby, and media personnel. All people deserve a voice when an issue involves their homes, their families, and their livelihoods.

Denton had previously been the sight of a democratic show down involving oil and gas producers during the November 2014 elections. After the Denton City Council had initially voted down a motion that would have banned fracking within the city limits, local groups rallied and placed a referendum on the November ballot that would allow the citizens to directly speak to how oil and gas extraction in their community could occur. With almost a sixty percent majority, they voted as a community to not allow fracking in their borders. While there were those who condemned the vote in the strongest terms, the democratic process had spoken.

But the recent signing of HB 40 by Texas governor Greg Abbott stripped municipalities of the ability to explicitly or effectively ban types of oil and gas extraction. With Denton’s ban stripped away by the swishing of the gubernatorial pen, some Denton residents have taken to enforcing the ban themselves. As crews attempted to re-enter work zones, protestors sat in the roads to their work sites, blocking drillers and their trucks from getting back to work.

These competing laws, each backed by equally intense emotions and passions, set the stage for what some on both sides are calling ‘the battle to defend Denton.’

The debate that surrounds issues of petroleum extraction methods (fracking in particular) tends to see the creation of vast fields of strawmen; appearing real but ultimately being one dimensional. If the deafening debate is to be believed, those who operate fracking wells are greedy, heartless villains who twirl their mustaches while counting the money bought at the price of others’ lives. On the other side, but just as one dimensional, those who would oppose fracking are idealistic and stupid youths who would see society fall to economic ruin just to find a false sense of accomplishment.

But if you take the time to dig down into the complicated realities of the issue you quickly unearth something that is undeniably human. You may find a fourth generation, small town oilman weeping as he describes what he sees as the outlawing of his family’s business. He fears that new laws will force him from the only community he has ever known. The very next person you uncover may be a woman who bitterly describes the unjust suffering of her children caused by pollution from drilling rigs that drifts over her house. She will try to steady her voice as she describes the vulnerability and anger she feels every time she looks out her kitchen window at the drilling rig not three hundred feet from her door.

Which of these emotions can be said to be more legitimate? While legislative change will always benefit some and cost others, the ability to speak and to be heard should serve as the irrevocable core of our democracy. It’s that core which Sergeant Jenkins sees himself as upholding.

“We want to facilitate the expression of people’s opinion; the expression of their freedom of speech, their freedom to assemble, the freedom of the press, the right to redress grievances without violating the rights of anyone else.”

In fact, Sergeant Jenkins was selected specifically for the protest assignment because of his knowledge and focus on the constitution. For years he has taught fellow officers about constitutional law through continuing education courses.

“What we teach our officers at the police academy,” he told me, “is that regardless of what the issue is, when one group is opposing another group, our primary responsibility is to focus on the constitution. Especially in protest situations.”

Time after time in our discussion, he emphasized the community aspects of this issue. Everyone, on all sides, lives and works in the same space. They depend on each other every day to support and uphold the community. Each of them playing different roles and being vital to the community of Denton in their own way. So when conflict arises, it is critical they can speak or even disagree with the same cordiality that a police officer can display while arresting protesters.

“Just because you have interacted with someone in a predictable circumstance before doesn’t mean you know what the outcome will be this time.” That quip, spoken by a worn down yet resolute veteran police officer, serves as a perfect reminder of why the local debate should never be take for granted. If you erect strawmen of the other side, you rob that person of their voice. No person should ever be robbed of that ability. That is the principle that Sergeant Jenkins has instilled into the core of his policing efforts and those around him. That is the principle that everyone, from the CEO to the state senator to the green protester, should revere as an inalienable democratic imperative.

Everyone has a story.

Everyone has a voice.

It’s Not Fair!

Image Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons
Image Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

The very first time a new born human opens their mouth to cry they employ the simplest of all arguments: “It’s not fair.” While the phrasing of “it’s not fair” may sound juvenile, it is none the less the foundation of nearly every argument and disagreement that our species has. Oh sure, we can employ much more complicated ways of making this protest, but objection to personal slight is still the base of many of our complications. And while the content of our arguments may change and complicate with the same rapidity as our society, this primitive form persists.

For instance, take the recent laws passed in Texas and Oklahoma that prohibit local municipalities from banning certain types of oil and natural gas extraction; fracking being the most notable. The most prominent argument for these state bills is that they protect the ability of individuals to capitalize on the mineral rights that they own. Taking that away, to quote one operator at a recent Stillwater, Oklahoma city council meeting, “is like taking food right out of [his] kid’s mouths.” This concept of taking is so prominent that it has become the name of this particular discourse: the takings argument.

Because these arguments have been constructed in response to fracking it is easy to think that they must be just a novel as that very extraction method. But at its core, the takings argument objects to personal slight. For many small oil and gas opporators who find their small businesses caught up in the protest to multibillion dollar corporations, this complaint is easy to understand. It is not complicated, nor is it new. In fact, it was the same argument that was used one hundred years ago when the Taft administration, in the name of national security, limited the ability of wildcatters to stake a claim on any oil they could reach.

As the twentieth century opened America began to emerge as a burgeoning superpower. This can be partly credited to the transition of our Navy from coal burning ships to oil. While this fuel proved to be superior to the old style coal steamers, there was concern among “oil conservationists” that unregulated drilling would lead to a premature depletion of domestic oil. As such, a legislative effort ensued to ensure the Navy’s future oil supply by establishing strategic reserves. In 1909, under executive order by President Taft, large tracks of federal land were deemed untouchable to drillers. Many drillers at the time saw this as a power grab by the federal government that violated the “first to prospect; first to profit” nature that had ruled oil discovery in the American west. Previously, if any prospector had hit oil on public lands, they had the right to develop that oil. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that many westerners employed a takings argument; saying that the over-reaching Feds were robbing them of future opportunity and prosperity.

Eleven years later, the Wilson administration instituted a permitting system under which operators had to bid on leases in order to produce petroleum on federal land. These terms were signed into law by President Wilson as a way of trying to reopen the West. But to most drillers, even this intended compromise resembled interference. Drillers saw any form of restriction as a destruction of their livelihoods that had killed the open spirit of the West.

One of the biggest scandals in US history would eventually result from this feeling that the Feds were abusing their power and stealing oil from those who would develop it. Included in the lands that Taft placed in the Naval Reserve was an oil rich spot in Wyoming known as the Teapot Dome (seen in the header image). But as Wilson won the 1912 election, the change in administrations came with the inevitable change in cabinet members. Among the new blood was a Republican senator named Albert Fall who was appointed to Secretary of the Interior. As a senator from New Mexico, he sympathized with the oilmen of the west. After convincing the Secretary of the Navy to shift management of the oil reserves to the Department of the Interior, Fall accepted bribes to allow those oilmen close to him drilling permits without going through the bidding process. Once Fall’s dealings were discovered, the resulting fallout of the Teapot Dome scandal sent Fall to prison and permanently marred the Wilson presidency.

One hundred year later, when the Texas city of Denton voted to ban fracking inside of its borders, the calls of taking broke out again. When the Oklahoma city of Stillwater looked poised to outlaw the practice as well, it was met with an overwhelming pushback from the industry fearing a new president. This resistance took the form of a takings argument. After both states prohibited their cities and towns from passing such bans, state lawmakers echoed some form of the takings argument as justification. The residents of Denton continue to fight for their ban and those in Stillwater still push for tougher restrictions on oil producers. But it is worth noting that while these methods may be new, the arguments are as old as we are. It was the first argument all of us implemented in life. It is an argument that we all understand on a primal level, even if we don’t want to admit it.

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.

On Humanizing Climate Denial

Image Credit: Paul Townsend
Image Credit: Paul Townsend

Imagine you worked at a men’s shirt store, making the world’s most luxurious and stylish shirts. Day after day you stitch together, by hand, plates of fine Egyptian cotton for your clients. Your father did this, as did his father, and his before him; countless generations of clothiers perfecting the art of the dress shirt. The hands of your forefathers guide your fingers as you place stitch upon stitch upon stitch into sleeves and cuffs, chest plates and collars. One day, sitting in your shop you hear the bell over the door ring. The din of traffic on your street grows momentarily. You look up to see a man who you assume is looking to be fitted for one of your shirts. Suddenly, before you can speak, the man rushes over to the counter and throws his body towards you. His vise like hand ensnares your collar and he rips you from your seat dragging you up and over your workstation and towards the door. When you ask him why he is doing this, he tells you that making shirts is bad for the city. He says that for the good of all people you must now become a fitness consultant. You struggle against his grasp but you are still overpowered in every way. This store was not only your life, but it was your father’s and grandfather’s lives. Apparently, without your input, that rich history has been bleached from the tapestry of time and you are powerless to fight it.

Lately, I have been wondering if this is how at least some of the people who deny climate change feel. Fossil fuels are a deep and integral part of the United States’ history. Nearly all of the industries that bore this country from struggling colonial settlement to world super power were either fossil fuels themselves or industries that directly depend on them. Large parts of the American east were built up by the coal those regions produced. Fortunes, and the communities built on its heels, were made off of oil in Texas. The automotive industry, ever a source of national pride, depended on the oil trade for fuel. The steel industry that gave rise to the mighty cities of the nation was dependent on coal. The railroad companies that bound the nation together depended on both steel and coal to move the most important people and the most important goods of their time. This is a deep, deep history and a source of American pride. The entire American dream of being able to start with the shirt on your back and build an empire is spelled out time and again in oil and coal; in steel and train tracks.

But now, people come on to the scene suggesting nothing less than one of the most radical paradigm shifts imaginable. It sounds to those who deny climate change like climate advocates are telling everyone to abandon a ship that has served us for so long. It sounds like a call to dive in to the cold and murky waters of the unknown without a clear sense of direction. It sounds like a terrifying proposition and I wonder sometimes if that is why people are willing to forgo solid scientific evidence and hold fast to an incorrect assumption. Humans have evolved to be afraid of change. If the known is working adequately, why change to something that is unknown and potentially dangerous?

This is why it’s important for climate advocates to be conscientious of how we present data. I feel like I will always be harkening back to Chris Mooney’s Washington Post op-ed about how resistance to many things in science (vaccines, climate change, nuclear power, evolution in schools) is framed as a science issue but is truly an issue of emotion and trust. Telling people in fossil fuel industries that their trade is killing the planet leads to them taking up a defensive stance. People do not listen when they are worried about being dragged from what they have known their entire lives.

If climate advocates want to help the world change, we must realize the magnitude of what we are suggesting. We must then realize that, while the path may look simple to us, to others it is an unnecessary one filled with danger and uncertainty. It is our job not to oppose these people, but to work with them. Not to force their views in line with ours, but to gently guide them onto a better path. Sometimes good science should be presented like a sledge-hammer; shattering preconception and false observation. But other times it is important to realize that when dealing with people there are many competing and conflicting emotions. This may be the greatest challenge of being a climate change advocate. It is undoubtedly a part of the challenge we face.

I shouldn’t have to say, however, that we must face it.