Of Our Being

It happens every year. What with my commute schedule and personal disposition, I read a lot. This blog and Goodreads are my accounting system for keeping track of the thoughts that arise during all of this. Every year I get stopped by my first really important book that I’ve read since December’s roundup of last year’s titles. Paul Bogard’s The Ground beneath Us is this year’s first such book. Subtitled From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us about Who We Are, this tour of several fascinating locations is a wake-up call. Divided into three sections—Paved and Hallowed, Farmed and Wild, Hell and Sacred—Bogard’s book offers a kind of travelogue with the additional reminder that how we’re treating the land is the most terrifying example of what lack of foresight imaginable (why, Prometheus?) looks like. In a world with a rapidly growing population, we’re paving and building at unprecedented rates. World harvests, experts say, will last only another sixty years. Then we starve.

A dilemma I’ve struggle with here before is the fact that nobody owns this world. Nobody but those driven by money. There’s little that can stop them. This is exemplified by his chapter on fracking in my native Appalachia. Companies protected by loopholes—nooses, actually—devised by Dick Cheney can take over a town and destroy its environment. And this was even before Trump. And this is only but one example. Those who look soberly at where we’re going—and the melting permafrost in the northern hemisphere is about to make the globe nearly uninhabitable for our species—are ignored because they stand in the way of profits. Everybody loses. As a species we have neither the will nor the power to prevent it. Epimetheus reigns.

Not just doom and gloom, The Ground beneath Us is a thoughtful reflection on the human spirit. The titles of the subsections reveal that sacred ground—one of my recurring themes on this blog—is very real. Bogard isn’t a religionist, so you can’t accuse him of special pleading. His moving accounts of visiting sites hallowed by any number of factors, whether violence or simple belonging, reveal what home really means. What a dangerous, maybe even sinful, concept ownership can be. With chapters covering areas as diverse as Mexico City sinking under its own weight, to Ames, Iowa where what we’re doing to the soil is studied, to parts of Alaska accessible only by air, Heaven and Hell are daily and plainly played out before us. This is a very important book. We can only hope enough people will read it before it’s too late.

Peak Oil

Having no control over where we’re born, people nevertheless often feel a connection with their native region. My family had no roots in western Pennsylvania, and the consensus on why we ended up here focuses around jobs. My grandparents settled here because of a job. While working here on a job my father, from the south, met my mother. My brothers and I all consider ourselves Pennsylvanians. One of the places we liked to visit as children was Drake Well. We knew that the oil industry began in western Pennsylvania, and we knew that famous people like George Washington had traveled through the region during the various wars of the nation’s early years. The towns where I grew up are not exactly affluent, and one of them seems in danger of becoming a ghost town. Drake Well, however, the birthplace of commercial oil, still draws visitors from the region and from around the country. On a recent visit to the site, I was interested to see how religion interplayed with petroleum in Victorian Era western Pennsylvania.


Among the displays was one showing the various means used to find oil. In the days before geological surveys, finding something hidden underground required more than just technical knowledge. More precisely, it often utilized different forms of technology—some scientific, some not. Dowsing was popular, and spirits were consulted. Access to the supernatural world was not uncommon. The oil industry really took off during the same era that spiritualism began to become popular. Religion and science co-existed in a way that is difficult to imagine today. Indeed, Drake Well was established in 1859, the same year Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. The means used to reach the oil were, however, unabashedly scientific and technical. Nitroglycerin fatalities were just another fact of life.

Looking over the triumphal displays about fracking, it became clear that in the realm of petroleum production the spirit has made way for a technology with unknown consequences. The museum at Drake Well is pretty straightforward that other energy forms pose a threat to an industry that was, and currently remains, massive. We have technologies that can utilize cleaner forms of energy, but powerful oil interests have maintained the focus on more and more invasive ways to keep things going the way they are, pulling in more profits while the limited supply lasts. We know petroleum will run out. We’ve deeply integrated it into our way of life and instead of looking ahead to the next step, we’ve been reaching back to pad our fat pockets. Gone are the dowsers and spiritualists and in have charged the corporate executives. And in western Pennsylvania, the towns where the industry began struggle to stay alive as thinking that allowed for spirits has acquiesced to that which has loyalty to Mammon alone.


HydrofrackingGenies can’t be put back into bottles, I’m told. They are one of the many things that once done cannot be undone. I had that sense throughout my reading of Alex Prud’homme’s Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know. Prud’homme does an admirable job in attempting a dispassionate, fair treatment of a subject that is divisive by nature. And destructive. Fracking, once done, cannot be undone. Those who are already against fracking will probably come away from this little book with a sense that ex cathedra statements are slightly more difficult to sustain. The further you read, however, the darker the palette becomes. Yes, fracking provides domestic, fairly clean fossil fuels, reducing dependency on foreign oil. It also has long-term results that remain unknown, with indicators pointing to the worrisome side of the dial. Enough negative correlations exist to give us pause for rumination. Is fracturing the shale a mile underground really a good idea? What about when we run out of shale? And the tremendous waste of water.

Environmental concerns are, by definition, ethical issues. What we do to the environment effects others, and when we effect others ethics is involved. Or should be. One of the startling facts about fracking is that it has been around for a long time. Since the 1940s. Growing up in fracking-friendly Pennsylvania I had no idea that oil companies could move in, break up the ground under my feet, and siphon out the gas and oil they found. It is an industry without strong federal regulation. In fact, due to Dick Cheney’s influence, oil companies are not required to declare what chemicals they are releasing into the environment. Trade secrets can be deadly. It feels like awaking to find Deepwater Horizon in your back yard, not having been aware that the technology to do such massive operations even existed. Who granted permission? The mighty rex lucre.

Prud’homme points out that fracking is not about to go away. Too much money is at stake. Once we’ve learned how to build atomic bombs, incendiaries will ever after seem quaint. We can’t unlearn how to frack, even as we can’t undo the process once it’s done. We have, however, abundant sources of renewable, sustainable energy, but not the will to harvest them. Our economic thinking embraces the myth of excelsior—ever upward! Fracking may not be as dirty as coal or as scary as nuclear waste, but it does leave scars forever beneath the surface. Its genie has escaped its bottle and it is far too capitalist an idea to be suppressed once it has tasted opportunity. Prud’homme’s book is rightly subtitled What Everyone Needs to Know. That which you don’t know can indeed cause harm on a scale we can’t even calculate.

Fracking Insane

Do yourself a favor. Watch this video:

I have spent most of my lifetime living the fantasy of the helpless victim. Raised in a faith that insisted I really deserve Hell, and that if I manage to escape it will literally be a miracle, I guess I just internalized it. That kind of “Christian” thinking gets reflected and refracted through the lens of experience, and soon I was reading everything in its light. My parents’ divorce? Deserved. That move at the vulnerable early teen years? Inevitable. The verbal abuse of an overly stressed step-father? It should’ve been worse. Add to that the numerous rejections after professions of true love, and being fired from two jobs for no discernible cause—you start to get the picture. So when I learn that fracking is going on all around me, it seems like this is the fate of the perpetually sinful. Destroy the planet. Do you think you deserve better?

Life-denying religions walk a very thin line. When, like Siddhartha Gautama or Rishabha, the denial is a decision made after serious, personal reflection, this may be called enlightenment. When it is cast at you by a non-negotiable, self-despising cleric freely dispensing divine damnation to those incapable of much reflection, it is quite another beast. Children, although possessing freer minds, are easily impressed by authoritative adults. If that adult talks to God, you’d better sit up at the table and listen. So it is that generations are taught that “God” gave humans—let’s be literal here—man dominion over the earth. Pillage and plunder are part of the fracking package. If it’s down here below heaven, God wants you to use it up. After all, the sign on the door says “Back in Five Minutes.” (Dated 33 C.E.)

In a moment of weakness, I must confess (and I am told by religious experts that it is good for the soul), a few weekends ago I found Jesse Ventura’s Conspiracy Theory on YouTube. It was like eating Lays; you can’t stop at one. By the end of the afternoon, besides a nasty headache, I had a noggin full of improbable scenarios, courtesy of Jesse, “the Body,” Politic. Although a good night’s sleep at the rationality of another unapocalyptic dawn washed away his most outlandish claims, fracking is more frightening than a conspiracy. It is legal, it effects everyone who lives on earth where it is being done, and its record speaks for itself. I’m not proud of having wasted a few hours on humanzees and Bilderbergers reducing the world population to 500 million. But I am afraid that, if left to its own devices, however, “dominion over the earth” may be more than even the literalists bargained for.

Yes, that looks like a good idea...

Yes, that looks like a good idea…

Don’t Let Them Frack You

One of the consequences of having been born into a post-industrial society is the sense that others have managed to set the parameters even before I became aware of them. In the summer of 2010 I learned about the Deepwater Horizon accident. Prior to that, I had no idea that semi-submersible, deep-water drilling was even possible, let alone already happily lining billionaires’ pockets. I felt violated. This is my planet too. That same year, while attending a FIRST robotics competition in Trenton, the high school kids were greeted after the event by a lone protestor wearing a sandwich board warning of the dangers of fracking. In New Jersey it is very easy to find people protesting. Sometimes their nemeses are purely delusional. “What’s fracking?” I asked one of the kids (all of whom are arguably smarter than me). He didn’t know. I looked it up once I got home, and once again had the feeling that somebody was messing up my planet without me knowing.

Sure, human habitation has a tremendous impact on the environment. It is part of the curse of consciousness. Nevertheless, at some level we must know that our actions threaten not only other species, but also our own existence as well. A story on CNN about fracking, back in my own oil-industry state of Pennsylvania, demonstrates the dangers all too clearly. I grew up in the shadow of a petroleum refinery—Pennsylvania is where the oil industry began. Unfortunately it also has a history of poisoning its own environment. The CNN story highlights the dilemma of Dimock, a tiny town with water contamination caused by fracking. Not even a hundred miles away to the south lies Centralia, still slowly asphyxiating from its fifty-year old mine fire. Our lust for fossil fuels—and more importantly, the wealth they bring—has bankrupted our sense of responsibility to our planet and to each other.

I am certain free-market entrepreneurs would characterize what I sense to be injustice as mere complaining. But there comes a point at which we have to ask if the extra energy is worth the cost. Maybe we could do with a little less. I know that’s blasphemy in capitalist ears, but it is a truth whose scars scrawl across the landscape of this nation. Just about 150 miles southwest of Dimock lies Three Mile Island, a testament to our love of power. Over on the western edge of the state sits the ghost town called Pithole. An oil boom town, it ran out of steam when deeper pools were discovered elsewhere. When I stand in its deserted streets, returned to nature after the many decades of neglect, I realize that it is a silent symbol of human ambitions. We should not give up on our earth, lest it give up on us. It is not too late. Yet.

Borrowed from the National Fuel Accountability Coalition