• Warning from the Woods of Pennsylvania

    Josh Fox came to town the other week, banjo in tow, as part of a screening of his new film ‘Gaslands 2’. It’s a deeply insightful, doggedly researched and brilliantly produced piece of work. Inevitably of course, the film cannot be but full of the sense that we’ve been here before. What’s most obviously changed in the three years since his first film came out is that, if anything, the threat posed by fracking has only escalated even if resistance to it has exponentially mushroomed as well. In a way it’s a kind of cranking up the alarm call, though the tone of the film is far from shrill – more of a kind of steady drip feeding of grounds for disgust. There’s a sense of quiet disbelief over the scale with which the shale gas industry is ploughing ahead, the total horror of its latest moves and seemingly all-the-more-encroaching inroads into the heart of energy making policy in the US.

    A few salient points stick out from what is a seriously information laden documentary: the plastic pot-plant beneath the plaque that declares the scene of one interview to be the Rachel Carson Hall being just one. Though an off the cuff observation, it somehow still spoke volumes about the Environmental Protection Agency – whose hall it was and whose employee had just been interviewed, stating emphatically that they were about to get on top of the situation. Though no doubt seriously intended at the time, such statements were later made to appear mournfully ridiculous by ensuing backspinning by the regulator in the face of Obama’s decision to put fracking at the heart of his energy policy in both his State of the Union address in 2012 and in a further speech at Georgetown University this June. EPA employees were thereby compelled, under orders from ‘higher ups’ to declare over again that fracking was safe even as they privately advised affected residents not to drink the water in question.

    Then there were the lesions appearing on people’s skin after fracking locally had begun, the swathe of blighted properties and broken dreams and the just general screwed-upness that comes when officialdom and an industry join hand in hand to comprehensively devastate the environment for the sake of very dubious returns. In the US certainly, the industry is largely regarded as being sustained on the back of a self induced bubble reliant on an ever growing amount of drilling sites (the average depletion rate on any given drill site is typically around 69% for the first year and 94% over the first five years). Rapidly exhausting the wells, the frackers can only move on.

    Perhaps the most startling impression I came away with was the sense that this might be only the beginning, that fracking has been chosen - in the US at least - as the cure all to the affliction of looming energy resource shortages at large. It speaks then of a kind of desperation, from the knowledge that conventional oil is a dwindling resource and that governments must do what is required to keep the lights on. Frackers then become the silver bullet, the all-too-friendly energy fixers who are busy marketing even in schools to present the best face of their business. It’s not surprising, in hindsight, that the addict that modern industrial society so surely is should go to any lengths to get it’s fix.

    But if there is a sense that the industry as it stands presents an unprecedented attack on the purity of our air and water – and on a global scale – there’s a sense too, hard to see at times but singing out from nights such as the screening last week, to say nothing of the determined struggle outside the Stumblewood compound’s gates in Balcombe this summer, that all of this presents a kind of unique opportunity. Suddenly climate change is rendered more immediate than the occasional storm and memories of summers under siege from all the rain. Suddenly the issues of energy constraint are more pressing than a looming problem somewhere down the line. We are faced with something here and now, something that risks screwing things up so fundamentally that ignoring it is simply not an option.

    Less anyone should think that fracking is still somehow pragmatic - however double edged - and that the renewables sector we’re repeatedly pointed towards is compromised in its capacity to deliver the kind of energy levels we need, have a look at examples from the continent; in Germany for instance where renewable energy accounts for more than 23% of the energy mix, is growing rapidly year on year and has caused wholesale electricity prices there to plummet. Or look at Denmark who achieved 40% renewable energy two years ago. Equally, this is not somehow an ideological struggle played out over our method of energy fix, whereby the unstated endgame is a return to the past and a doing away of everything modern and useful. It’s more of a question of the need for moderation and refinement, not the comparative ‘heating of the streets’ that so much of our energy infrastructure embodies in the charging ahead with an untenable business as usual. And, rather than stemming from any kind of rational weighing up of the options, fracking represents the sheer craven pull that the lobbyists, muted panic or a kind of demented pigheadedness appears to have cast over our elected representatives.

    But somewhere in all of this there’s a very real hope – one that does not come down from edicts on high, be they from our often seemingly crazed cabinet or from the President of the US himself. It’s a hope that rests on the knowledge and the empowerment it can bring if people come together and shine in the face of the threats we are faced with. It gives us the chance to call with clearer voices for the alternatives – be they renewables or the very necessity of looking with greater scrutiny at how things are done in this monolithic industrial beast built as it is on so many years of cheap fossil fuels.

    That is the challenge and that is the hope. Shale gas and a host of related techniques are bearing down on us even as I type these words. But even now there is a choice and the great groundswell of dissent could not clearer. But if the industry we’re facing can crank up the pressure, stoking the lobbyists like so many personifications of the climate fire itself, there’s a clarion call for us all to do likewise.

    If dark clouds bring waters when the bright bring none, there is certainly a silver lining to be had in being faced with such an undertaking – that this immediacy itself might be the dynamic that saves us. If society or mainstream politics ever seems jaundiced or stuck, the people at Balcombe have helped carve out a very necessary counter-narrative this summer – one that refuses to accept our government’s wish to sell us all short for a ‘transition’ fuel that is clearly the worst of all options.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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