Friday, March 30, 2012

Banning Fracking

When I drive through upstate New York, I’m always in awe of the natural beauty of the state of which I am proud to call myself a citizen.  I’m also greatly appreciative of the fairly stringent environmental regulations of New York State that have created a reservoir system in which water is so pure that it doesn’t even require filtration.  It’s actually the largest unfiltered surface water supply in the world!  Very few states in the country can boast that kind of achievement.

That’s why I’m particularly disturbed by a plan that’s underway that would permanently scar some of the most pristine natural areas of the state and at the same time threaten the integrity of our state’s water supply.  What is this nefarious plan, you may be wondering, and what sort of villains are behind it? 

The plan is to open up large parts of upstate western New York to hydraulic fracking for natural gas.  And the villains behind this plan—besides the usual suspects in the gas and oil industry—seem to be our own elected officials in both political parties. 

What is Fracking, Anyway?

In case you’re not up on this issue, the Marcellus Shale is a black shale rock formation that extends from Ohio and West Virginia through Pennsylvania and into western New York.  For years geologists have known that this shale formation contained large supplies of natural gas, but the depth and tightness of the shale made gas extraction difficult and expensive.  Recently, however, the development of  hydraulic fracturing—or fracking, as it is commonly called—has made it possible for corporate interests to get their greedy little paws on this gas, which potentially could mean billions of dollars in revenue for them. 

In order to drill for gas, shale gas companies come into an area, buy up drilling rights from landowners, and then raze large patches of land in formerly undisturbed natural areas. The process of hydraulic fracking itself injects thousands of gallons of water, toxic chemicals, and sand into horizontally-drilled wells under high pressure to release the natural gas from shale. 
The Fracking Procedure
Dangers of Fracking
While this process does indeed have the potential to extract large amounts of natural gas, there are some significant problems associated with fracking that have led most environmental groups to condemn the practice.
  • With each frack 80,000 pounds of toxic chemicals are leached into the land.  Seventy percent of fracking fluids, furthermore, stay underground and are not biodegradable.  Methane and other toxic chemicals used in fracking can then leach into groundwater, posing a huge health risk for those who depend upon this water (and please remember, millions of people in New York City depend upon drinking water from reservoirs that potentially could become contaminated).
  • Recent studies suggest that toxic chemicals released into the air during the process of fracking may pose a serious health risk to human beings.
  • Fracking activities can cause seismic faults that can lead to earthquakes (as was the case recently in Ohio). 
  • The chemicals used in shale drilling may be linked to increases in cancer rates found among those who live near drilling sites.
These are just a few of the many environmental and health risks associated with hydraulic fracking.  Now, you will hear representatives from the oil and gas industry claim that the dangers of drilling for gas are overstated.  The industry, furthermore, has recently spent huge sums of money to convince people in the areas that could be affected by drilling that the procedures that they have in place for extracting gas are perfectly safe.  Of course, these were the same people who claimed that there was no possibility of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, and we are still paying the price for their lies. 
So What Can We Do?
As I write this, New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, is deliberating about whether to allow fracking to go ahead in New York State.  The signs don’t look positive:  Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos have already blocked a proposal for an independent health impact study of hydraulic fracking and are under continuous pressure from gas and oil interests to allow them to rape and plunder the natural resources of our state.     

But what can any one of us do in the face of the millions of dollars that the gas and oil industries have available to distort public opinion and buy compliance from our elected officials?  Individually, we can’t very much.  But collectively we have the power to sway public opinion, force our elective officials to work for the common good, and prevent further degradation to our natural environment. 
So here are a few simple things you can do if you care about this issue:
  • Inform yourself about the issue, so you understand fully the price that all of us will have to pay if fracking is permitted in New York State.  A good place to start is at the No Fracking site, which contains as much information as you could ever want to know about this issue in addition to many useful links.
  • Sign an on-line petition to persuade Governor Cuomo to ban fracking in New York State.  Or even better, call the Governor’s office directly to voice your opposition.  The Working Families Party has a hotline that makes it easy for you to do this. 
  • Talk to your friends and family about this issue and get them involved. Remember, collectively we have a voice and the more people who commit to a cause, the greater the likelihood of success.
Of course there are alternatives to drilling for gas and oil that could eventually supply most of our energy needs in the future, make us energy independent (i.e., no more wars for oil), and have almost no environmental impact.  These are renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal.  As the price of gas and oil continue to rise—as they inevitably must with world demand increasing annually—these alternative energy sources will become more economically viable and will have the potential to transform our planet. 

So if you really want to stop the environmental degradation and human suffering that comes from gas and oil drilling, then please,
  • support the concept of renewal energy both as a personal choice and as public policy.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Population, Continued.

Overpopulation is one of my obsessions.  That may be because I live in one of the most crowded cities on the planet, but it's also because I've seen what human population expansion has done to wildlife and to ecosystems around the country.  Sure, there are people who will tell you that human population growth is slowing down, but I think that at 7 billion people, the planet is already beyond sustainable carrying capacity.

You don't have to take my word for it, though.  I found this fabulous site from the University of Michigan that lays out the numbers in a way that just about any idiot can understand.  Check it out:

Population Growth Over Human History

The rate that our species is growing is simply unsustainable and has to be reduced.  This can be through personal choices that all of us can make (choosing not to have children or to limit family size), but it also has to be done through public policy initiatives (public funding for birth control and support for Planned Parenthood, for example). 

Limiting population size won't be enough to turn back the clock on the harm that our species has caused the planet.  We also need to live much more sustainably.  But unless we get a handle on population growth, everything else that we try to do to live more sustainably will probably be futile.

Let me know what you think about this issue...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Creating Something Special

I'm really happy to be part of something positive and life-affirming like EcoBlog.  Sometimes it seems as though all there is on the web is angry, ugly, divisive ideas that leave you feeling like there's absolutely no hope for the future.

That's not to say that I'm not fearful about what we're doing to our planet.  Climate change has been having an impact on the Northwest, just as it has on the rest of the country.  But coming from a progressive part of the country, I've also seen what can happen when committed people work together to make a difference.  Believe me, change can happens.  Sometimes it happens at a maddeningly slow pace, but it does happen.

I was doing an outdoor art class recently with a group of fourth graders and I was totally blown away by how important they thought caring for the environment was.  These kids have grown up understanding that we are all part of nature and that you can't trash the planet without it having a negative impact on all of us.  That gives me cause for hope in the future. 

That's why I agreed to be part of Ecoblog.  I think that when people really begin to understand the problems facing our planet and are offered more sustainable options for living out their lives, they will respond in positive ways. 

The new Ecoblog that is currently under construction will offer simple, practical steps that everyone can take to live with less of an environmental impact.  Please let us know what you think and offer your own suggestions about what you'd like to see on this site.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Roots of Our Consumerism

"Homo Consumens is the man whose main goal is not primarily to own things, but to consume more and more, and thus to compensate for his inner vacuity, passivity, loneliness and anxiety….He mistakes thrill and excitement for joy and happiness and material comfort for aliveness; satisfied greed becomes the meaning of life, striving for it a new religion. The freedom to consume becomes the essence of human freedom."

Erich Fromm. “The Application of Humanist Psychoanalysis to Marx's Theory" in Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium. New York: Doubleday, 1965.

I like to think that I’m totally immune to the lure of consumerism. After all, I’ve spent the past 15 years lecturing students on the importance of voluntary simplicity both as a means to prevent further environmental degradation to our planet, but also as a way to find greater happiness in life.

That latter benefit of reducing consumption is often lost on 20-something-year-olds who have grown up fervently believing that meaning and happiness in life are connected to the ability to buy whatever one wants, whenever one wants, whether one has the funds to do so or not. I’ve found that, even when I show these students hard data from the field of human psychology clearly demonstrating that the “need to always have more” is linked to personal unhappiness and that the happiest people on the planet are actually those who are the most immune to the lure of consumption, they simply don’t buy it (no pun intended).

But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am setting a positive example for my students, right? After all, I’m living in a house that is much smaller than I could afford, I drive a 17 year old car (by choice), rarely eat out in restaurants, and generally wear clothes till they fall apart (literally!). On the surface of things, I am the poster boy for the voluntary simplicity movement.

And yet, deep in the marrow of my being, I am as easily seduced by the lure of American consumerism as the most fashion-conscious student in my environmental ethics class. Just recently, for example, I found myself wanting to replace the perfectly adequate cell-phone that I had been using for about four years with a smart new Iphone. The new phone cost hundreds of dollars more than the old phone did and that new plan that I had to take out to get it was also more expensive, but at least I could now say that I had the smartest, most sophisticated, most stylish cell phone on the market. And I was ever so happy—that is, until I saw a colleague of mine with the new Iphone 4s with even cooler features than the model I had. And then I found myself becoming envious and thinking that my own Iphone just didn’t seem quite as special any more.

Then there’s the issue of my car. I am adamant about the fact that I will not buy a new car until the one I have—a 1995 Toyota Corolla—starts to become unreliable or cost more to maintain than it is worth. 17 years later, I still have the same car, and it is still chugging along perfectly fine. There are absolutely no mechanical issues with the car, but it certainly doesn’t provide as smooth and quiet a ride as a new car would, and lately, the paint on the roof of the car has begun to wear off, making the car look rather shabby. In fact, I’ve been told that I have the ugliest car on campus, and that’s probably true: I doubt that even the most cash-strapped freshman would ever be caught dead driving a car as aesthetically challenged as mine. 

Now, when someone asks me about my car, I tell them proudly that I’ll be damned if I ever get suckered into buying a new car before I absolutely need one. But, in fact, I’m starting to feel just a little self-conscious about being seen driving a car like mine or parking it at the Mall amidst all the shiny new SUVs that people on Long Island tend to own. And this year, I’ve even begun fantasizing about getting a new car—not anything excessive mind you, but something small, cute, and fun like a Honda Fit. Every time I see someone driving one of these cars, I almost automatically think to myself: “Why should they get to drive a nice new car, while I am forced to drive this piece of crap! “After all,” I reason to myself, “I am a college professor and do have a reputation to maintain.”

So you see, although I would like to believe that I am impervious to the insatiable desire for more than I need, this really isn’t the case. I am as much a part of the species homo consumens as anyone. The only difference is that I’ve read enough to know what the root causes of our consumerist desires are. I think that these causes are threefold:

1) Contemporary Americans have come to identify who they are as human beings with what they own. The more trendy things I own, then, the more worthy I am as a human being. Conversely, if I live in a modest house, don’t wear the latest clothes, and don’t drive a nice car, then something is wrong with ME as a human being. In 21st century America we are judged, not by the “content of our characters,” but by the stuff we possess.

2) We have been convinced by modern advertising that we should have as much as our neighbors do. In the past, however, our neighbors could only afford to buy things if they saved for them. But the advent of the credit industry means that ordinary people can buy things they don’t have the actually money for. We don’t know, for example, that our neighbors really can’t afford to live in the McMansion that they recently built or drive their new Lexus, but we think they can, and that makes us feel inferior. So we too are compelled to take out loans and live well beyond our means, just to “keep up with the Jonses.” 

3) In the absence of authentic religious belief, Americans have made a religion out of consumption. If we really believed in God and were convinced that this life is not all that there is, having so much stuff wouldn’t mean quite as much to us. After all, how could owning even the most sophisticated things in the world—fancy jewelry, designer clothes, etc.—ever compare with what we have to look forward to in the next life? Objectively, then, if Americans really believe in anything, it is that salvation comes from buying power—the ability to satisfy our insatiable desires with more and more stuff. God is dead, but at least we have Walmart—or Neiman Marcus, if you prefer—to provide us with ultimate meaning in life.

These are just a few thoughts that came to me as I reflected on the roots of our consumerism in the United States. I’d love to hear what you think about this. Is the problem of consumerism really as bad as I think it is (do you personally fall victim to it?)? And what do you think that the ultimate root of this need to always acquire more and more is?   

Popular Posts