On November 7th, voters in Denton, Texas took the extraordinary step of banning shale gas production, commonly known as “fracking.” As many know, the process of shale gas production is highly controversial since enough evidence has linked fracking to earthquakes and polluting groundwater. The production process also requires vast amounts of fresh water, where
nationally over nine billion liters (2,377,548,471 gallons) of fresh water are contaminated each day. There also is air pollution generated by the process, and recent studies showed that fracking for natural gas may be worse than burning coal.
But, then there is the other side: We cannot decouple energy and economic robustness – yet. I am not speaking of the mantra from the right that proselytizes job growth from energy production. One only needs to look at the potential jobs created by the Keystone Pipeline project to realize that this argument is suspect. The bald truth is that nations are significantly weakened without a consistent, affordable source of energy. A number of Balkan countries, for example, faced economic collapse in a week when Russia shut off the energy to them in both 2006 and 2009.
To take this thinking a step further, all life needs energy to function, and the wonderment of nature is that energy is exchanged in such a miraculous process of health and balance. Energy is produced and exchanged to the beneficial health of all life in the system, thereby allowing the system to foster perpetual strength and development. It is not a commodity to be manipulated into a form of capital; energy is lifeblood that must be exchanged freely as the system is only as strong as its weakest link in this web of life.
In this light, humanity finds itself in a dilemma of existential proportions. Most obvious is that we crave forms of energy destructive to all life, and what we produce is distributed in such an inhumane way. Those that “control the means of production” are bound to a logic that cannot help but injure life in some part of the system. But, perhaps more haunting is that we cannot feel how destructive we are. Unlike nature, humanity does not live to benefit all, where health is a function of interconnectedness. We refuse to see that our strength is dependent on the strength of others. We cannot accept that all deserve adequate energy nourishment if we wish for a world in harmony. And the result of this sociology is that vast amounts of energy is used to wall ourselves off from the world we are profoundly connected to.
Denton is the loci of a dynamic that fits the perfect definition of a tragedy, being trapped in an issue with no good solution. From both sides, feeling fear is understandable as the vote on banning fracking carries hardship. This said, a substantial theme of human existence is our journey through trouble. Do we reach out solving challenges together, or do we retreat to the fortress of ourselves? Do we embrace challenge as an opportunity to move beyond, or do we retreat to only what we know? Do we collapse into fear, or explode into love?
In a National Public Radio interview, a woman in Denton perhaps conveyed the trap and conventional wisdom all too well. In her words, “I’m a Newt Gingrich, drill-baby-drill kind of person. So I support drilling, unfortunately. And it sounds very self-serving – I don’t want it in my back yard.” Simply, drill all you want, but just not where I live.
My goal is not to derail this woman. In fact, part of my sadness with her derives from my belief that she is a kind and generous woman. I believe she loves her family, and wants to do the best by her circle of friends. Her opinion did not convey smug defiance, but rather an intelligent person who was grappling with a moral issue born from science. It’s just that her actionable world view only can extend as far as her back yard.
Her fortress mentality is not unique to this debate. Those in the “Denton Drilling Awareness Group” (DAG) are literally fighting for their backyard, noting they are “dedicated to educating the public about the dangers of gas well drilling and its related processes to the public health, the environment, and property values in the city of Denton.” Unfortunately, even this very local scope is too much for Texas, as now DAG must “ensure Texas lawmakers do not try and take away Denton’s right as a home rule municipality.”
Yet fracking is a national if not a global issue. When water is contaminated its effects are not contained to the location of the well. When Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s), Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs), and Mono-Nitrogen Oxides (NOx} are released into the air, it affects a region. When Green House Gasses (GHG) enter the environment it affects a globe. This is not considering the other deleterious effects such as fresh water depletion, noise pollution, or light pollution. And then there is the most obvious point: We cannot use the earth’s abundance of fossil fuels without creating a toxic planet.
Perhaps another tragedy for Denton is that a local problem exploded into a national issue, and now they cannot escape national criticism no matter which way they turn. Nevertheless, Denton offers to us all interminable questions about how we love the world outside even when we cannot see our connection it. Perhaps the joyous journey of life is understanding how we are much more than the product of our back yards.