As I write this, threats to our lands, our environment, our oceans, and life on earth seem greater than ever before. As I write this, water protectors in North Dakota are getting beaten, arrested, tear-gassed, and jailed. As I write this, many folks are having difficulty understanding the decisions of so many Americans, decisions that potentially threaten our lands. As I write this, community after community finds themselves in a place of needing to take a stand to those with more power and resources to defend their rights to clean water, personal safety, and a clean environment. But in many other places, people have different views–they have welcomed fracking and other energy extraction into their communities and they welcome logging and industry. It seems hard for those who are in an earth-centered and earth-honoring viewpoint to understand what would possess people to support–or even welcome–life in the extraction zone.
The “extraction zone” is a metaphor that I’ve heard a few friends and colleagues use here in Western PA. It suggests that we no longer live on land that is whole or protected, but that everything is up for extraction and removal–at severe cost to the land and the people’s physical, spiritual, and mental health. It is when the removal of resources, of any kind, is promoted actively over the well-being of humans and lands. People too, can have their own resources–time, energy, money–extracted for the benefit of others. I think this is an unfortunately useful way of thinking not only about our experiences here among the fracking wells but what is happening across our entire planet, of which resources are being extracted at an alarming and unsustainable rate.
In the druid tradition, a common exercise is working to find alternative perspectives. One of the ways we do this is by working to turn a binary into a ternary; that is, finding a third perspective. Another way is to look for understanding beyond our immediate frame of reference. In honor of the druid tradition, today’s post explores some of the reasons and issues for acceptance of life in the extraction zone and helps to, I hope, humanize those that fit on the “other side” of this debate. While I’m focusing my comments on fracking and energy extraction because that is the physical reality in which I live, I think you’ll see parallels between this analysis and more broader social patterns and political decisions about extraction of all kinds.
I’ve been working on the thinking behind this post for a while, and I decided this week was the time to share it, especially given the major shifts and upheavals in the political climate. (Note: This is another post in my fracking series which I haven’t been writing on too frequently because these are hard posts to write, and, I’m sure, to read. Earlier posts on this series are here: lines upon the landscape and a druid’s perspective on fracking – why we should care. I’d suggest reading those two posts first!)
Worldviews that Support Extraction Zones
A multitude of worldviews exist at any point in time, but several dominant ones have emerged at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. Wendell Berry, in his Unsettling of America, talks about these as the difference between nurturing worldviews and exploitative ones. Now–I want to distinguish here that these are worldviews and actions and not people. Many modern humans exist somewhere in the nebulous (or unaware) spaces between these two worldviews or only semi-consciously support an exploitative worldview.
Cultivating a nurturing worldview, especially in these times, is a very conscious choice; it manifests core values and work in the world (through goals, livelihood or interactions) as healing, regenerating, and maintaining. Idealized by Wendell Berry as a small-scale organic farmer, but applicable to anyone, the nurturer is concerned with the long-term health of the land and its people and she makes decisions accordingly. Berry suggests that the nurturer isn’t concerned with efficiency or profit as she is with working “as well as possible” with an emphasis on care, health, and quality. Those of us seeking an earth-based spiritual path and making lifestyle changes understand how hard this nurturing work is to do in the world, but we keep striving to do so!
Exploitation, epitomized by Berry in the image of the strip miner (and I would add those activities nearly any other fossil fuel or resource extraction), abuses the land for short-term profits made with as little work or investment as possible. Unfortunately, this is the model that capitalism has given us, and the model that is dominant in industrialized cultures throughout the world, certainly here in the US since the first European explorers landed. Exploiters are concerned with the land only in how much and how quickly it can be made to produce profits—the land is literally viewed, and used, like a machine. Exploitative policies aren’t limited to the land, rather, exploitation works throughout all levels of a system: workers in minimum-wage and factory jobs producing and selling goods, the procurement of raw materials, the disposal of waste streams, the treatment of animals.
Exploitation is now so ingrained in our lifestyles, society, and norms that it’s not even seen as exploitation any longer. It is seen as normalcy. For example, in starting to look for land to purchase a new homestead, and I see listings say things like “18 acres, timber sold and to be cut, no mineral rights.” Here we see it as the previous owner making as much money as he or she could get before selling the scrap of soil that remains—stripped and bare. This is a practice that is common, everyday, justified and perfectly acceptable on a cultural and community level.
Case Study: Western Pennsylvania
One of the things that confuse many (especially those living in more wealthy urban areas) is why a community would willingly allow fracking or other extraction activities, especially in communities that otherwise embrace the land through hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pastimes. The complexities of this are where we now turn.
Here in Western PA, fracking is supported in most communities wholeheartedly as are any other forms of resource extraction. We also have various other kinds of noxious plants and factories, including two coal-fired power plants within 15 miles of where I live (one of which is listed on the super polluter lists). When I first got to Indiana, PA, I asked local progressives about organizing around the plant. I was told that we couldn’t say anything about the plant, even the very mention of opposing it was met with fierce–and institutionalized–opposition. I’ve also heard plans for an ethanol plant being built, without resistance, in a poor rural community about 30 miles away. Some progressives quietly talk about their fears in organizing any kind of resistance, but that’s as far as things typically go in this area. It is nigh impossible to address an issue like poisoned waterways without community support.
So why exactly do people support life in an extraction zone? It is a complex web of economic, historic, and physical roots; I’m going to cover each of these points in turn, using Western PA as a case study but also talking about broader US and global patterns.
Where I live in Pennsylvania, exploitation fuels every major economic boom: from strip logging that took place over the last part of the 19th and early 20th century and to the present, the coal mining that leaves our rivers and streams toxic and lifeless due to acid mine runoff and miners dying of black lung, the policies that exterminated or forced native peoples to relocate, and the current fracking industry that cares nothing for the quality of water systems or streams. These systems and practices are concerned with only one thing: extraction of resources to drive profit.
This is why I believe the most important reason that extraction is so embraced here is simple: the people in most rural areas here have no other means of sustaining themselves economically. Neoliberal policies that essentially stopped USA from protecting its own industries (see JMG’s discussion here for a good introduction) have gutted most of the rural parts of the US and sent the once-proud working class into spiraling poverty. This economic disempowerment gives them few choices other than embracing extraction and the jobs that it brings.
People in rural Western PA laugh at the national statistics that talk about hundreds of thousands jobs being created–they certainly haven’t seen new industries open up that are outside of the energy industry. In fact, most of rural America is in the same boat. Working-class people–including many of my own family and grandparents–were proud to earn wages for a hard day’s work and proud to support their families and knew that they had a job in that industry for life. They didn’t want handouts; they wanted to stand on their own two feet and do good work. With the industries, all leaving this area in the 1980’s and 90’s to move primarily to Mexico (thanks to neoliberalism) combined with the decline of coal and steel, the once-proud working class have been relegated to low-paying service jobs and folks struggle to make ends meet. When this happens on a regional level, when the town you grew up in sees factory and mill close one after another–it hits not only individual families hard, but whole communities hard. Depression sets in, drug use rises, and suicides go up. Where are folks to go? What are they to do? How can they provide for their families? And so, when the oil and natural gas companies come in and offer good-paying jobs for the extraction of resources, they are welcomed with open arms.
Ultimately, it comes down to economics–people are willing to put up with a lot of environmental pollution in order to put food on the table for their families. They are willing to give up a lot, and tolerate a lot, in order to have work. This, I believe, is the single most important driving factor fueling the lack of resistance to any kind of extraction activity. This same factor, I believe, was part of the major shift in US politics this last week.
Historically, since the start of colonization, people here have been employed in industries that focused on resource extraction. Logging stripped this state nearly bare by the turn of the 20th century. Coal mining has a long history here, of course, as well as other mines (like a salt mine in Saltsburg, PA). Steel mills were located in many towns near prosperous mines–and it is why those towns still stand today. And so, we have an historical precedent of people extracting resources from the land, making good money doing so, and feeding their families. I think, to many working class folks here, fracking is seen as just another manifestation of what we’ve always done.
Other areas may have different histories, but throughout the western world, extraction at the expense of others is a common occurrence. When its “just what we’ve always done” it becomes more acceptable and allowable, especially in poor communities.
The final piece I’ll discuss today has to do with the “physical normalcy” of degraded ecosystems. I’ve written on this blog before about the boney dumps and sulfur creeks that dot the landscape, of the forests routinely logged (even our own public lands). This is not someone else’s back yard–this is our own. We had a sulfur creek running across the street from where I went to high school; I played on boney dumps and went past them every day on the bus. When you grow up in this environment, this idea of these remnants of life in an extraction zone becomes part of the “normalcy” that one experiences. I remember when I left Western PA for the first time and couldn’t understand why the rivers were clean and there were no boney dumps. Now, by this time, I had graduated summa cum laude from a good state university–and still, this physical normalcy of a damaged landscape was so built into me that it took time for me to understand that not all landscapes looked like where I grew up. I can’t help but believe that part of the acceptance of fracking here and its environmental consequences, has to do with growing up with this stuff being part of the physical landscape.
The truth is, at least here in the USA, few of us know what a landscape that hasn’t had severe degradation due to human extraction activities. All around the world, we see these ecosystems: farms that are monocropped, lawns, logged forests, concrete wastelands, polluted rivers and factories. This is very much part of our physical reality, and growing up with this physical reality and seeing it every day makes it feel more “normal” and sane.
A second piece of the combination of physical reality and history here concerns rights to the land itself. Many of the “mineral rights” to the land no longer are attached to the right of physical occupancy; mineral rights were historically sold off in huge chunks for pennies on the dollar, and now with the fracking boom, new mines and new wells are being created. Because people don’t own the actual physical right to their lands, there is nothing that can be done. This is part of why some of our Allegheny National Forest here in PA is being fracked–the conservationists did not secure all of the mineral rights when they bought the property. Around here, if you don’t own the mineral rights, you only own the surface of the land and anyone who does own the mineral rights has a right to disrupt the surface, as they see fit, to get at the minerals. Its a complex part of our physical reality; I suspect that other places have similar complexities.
A Way Forward
I think that if we are going to work to end these exploitative cycles that seem to continue to loop back around again and again in our own history, its not enough to “raise awareness” or go “protest” some new fracking well or other extraction.
If we want to solve these issues, we have to address the roots of them, and those roots are economic, historical, and physical. Historically, it is useful to understand the complexities that have shaped our physical landscapes and ownership of those landscapes. Physically, it would be helpful for us to work to regenerate landscapes, even on a small scale, to demonstrate possibilities and offer alternatives to degraded ecosystems. Economically, if people had other viable options for making a decent living with an honest day’s work, I believe we could really put a stop to many of these destructive practices. In permaculture terms, we have to not only engage in earth care, but people care as well. I think a lot of us are trying to figure out right now what that might look like–certainly, localizing economies, localizing food systems, and building stronger communities are part of that work. Other parts include education of others about the land, spiritual practices and pathways.
To close, I’ve seen a lot of well-intentioned people, both within the earth-centered communities and outside of them, say things like, “why would people ever allow this?” I hope I have begun to answer this question. There’s a tremendous amount of work to do to help address these issue, not only in terms of awareness-raising but also in terms of economics and regeneration.