Shale gas drilling and the many faces of interdependence

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I just finished “The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom Is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food,” by Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald. It’s got me thinking about interdependence, the reality that we are all connected through myriad threads, whether we acknowledge it or not. This book is full of gripping stories of people whose lives have been turned upside down by shale gas drilling in their pristine, rural communities.

On one level, it’s a nine-chapter slog through egregious practices by sloppy, greedy drillers and their disregard for farmers and for public health, as well as their shocking ignorance of the laws of physics (I mean, who really believes it’s fine to spread toxic wastewater on roads to “keep the dirt down”?).

The authors include story after story of loss: lifelong dreams, businesses, livelihood, personal health, beloved pets, and children’s health. There are few things more stressful than your child being gravely ill, especially when the illness can’t be properly diagnosed and the causes are ongoing and right next door. And, worse, you can’t prove it because there’s not enough good data.

Want to talk about unfairness? Many of the sufferers are not in financial arrangements with drillers; they’re just unlucky enough to be in the fallout zone from their neighbors’ leases. And even the neighbors experience changes to their land far greater than advertised and may not be receiving royalties yet (or ever).

The authors were careful to set out such evidence as they gathered from these people and resist making definitive claims of cause and effect. After all, correlation of events and symptoms is not proof. As scientists, they knew to let the gap stand between evidence and conclusions. But they also sensed that the stories would speak for themselves — and they did, loudly.

There are stories of two dog-breeding businesses failing; colts too weak to stand; stillborn calves; healthy dogs dying suddenly; a teen in and out of hospital over a year, eventually diagnosed with arsenic poisoning; a man bleeding from his nose, eyeballs, and ears; and a woman with recurring leukemia, seizures and renal failure, among many others.

The stories include leaking impoundment ponds, flaring wells, wastewater blowouts, non-disclosures, harassment, incomplete water and air testing, regulatory agencies biased towards industry, dream homes becoming worthless, carving up prime fields and pastures with access roads and drilling pads, backups of heavy diesel-exhaust-spewing truck traffic on narrow country roads, and the burden of expensive testing and proof being placed on the victims.

One of the best aspects of this book is its truth-telling, always from the perspective of systems and networks of interdependence:

“Many proponents of gas drilling consider families such as these sacrificial lambs. They have lost their way of life so that the rest of us can continue to enjoy ours. We can purchase our 100,000 BTU barbecue grills and heat our poorly insulated homes to 75 degrees in the dead of winter. They are told that they are being patriotic, supplying the energy needs to our country so that we do not have to import oil from the Middle East. At the same time, multinational corporations are purchasing leases in Pennsylvania and planning to ship the gas to China and other lucrative markets. In most cultures, lambs that are sacrificed are treated with some respect, objects of reverence before the ultimate deed. Our sacrificial lambs are objects of derision that are cast aside and made to beg for water.”

Environmental exposé books in the 1990s and 2000s tended to follow a pattern. They would have ten chapters detailing the many ways that humans are fouling the planet with our industry, our ignorance, and our ingenuity. The final chapter was always the “happy chapter,” with empowering lists of what you, what we all, can do to turn it around and get us on the road to “sustainability.” It’s not too late! You just have to buy organic! Replace your gutters with rainbarrels! Drive a Prius! Lobby your congressman!

This book comes up to the edge of that in the Epilogue, with its recommendations about policy and zoning and testing, about who should bear the costs of protect public health, of the moral obligation to safeguard air, water and soil, not to mention the safety of agricultural products for human consumption beyond these toxic messes.

Instead of a “Ten things you can do to save the earth list,” however, they write from the awareness that we are all connected and interdependent. They’ve already admitted to being shocked, angered, and dismayed at the plight of their subjects, as well as impressed and inspired, sometimes awe-struck, by their strength and courage in the face of enormous adversities and heartbreak. Such heart-based honesty is unusual in a book that also contains long lists of multi-syllabic, carcinogenic and endochrine-disrupting chemicals, medical diagnoses and peer-reviewed scientific studies. It’s a welcome mix, one that drew me in both intellectually and emotionally.

In this final chapter, they point out that the energy we all use has to come from somewhere. After seeing the effects of extracting this particular energy source, they are moved to take specific actions, starting as small as sending a check to a community church that makes daily water deliveries to low-income families whose water is too toxic to drink. They also tackled their own energy use, reducing it where they could: in home heating, transportation, and electricity use.

These actions are framed as ongoing personal choices, not a one-size-fits-all to-do list. Its effectiveness comes from being in the much larger context of the continuing environmental injustices of shale gas drilling — a cataclysm so great, they are well aware that they alone cannot fix it, much as they might wish to.

I admire this effort to speak out, to lay out the science and the evidence, incomplete though it may be. As these authors demonstrate, no one individual can do it all, but we each have a role to play, and together we might make a huge difference. Even if not, their example reminds me that I am by nature a compassionate person. I can bear witness to the suffering of others and let it move me to help them where I can. I can also take a hard look at how I live, and where I waste the precious energy that comes at such a high price.

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