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The following excerpt is from Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town by Colin Jerolmack and was reprinted with permission of Princeton University Press.
The story of fracking is often told as a parable of Main Street versus Wall Street: rapacious corporations threaten to crush Middle America’s soul (the journalist Seamus McGraw’s The End of Country falls squarely in this genre). Otherwise, fracking is presented as a “wedge issue” that tears towns in half or leads communities to rise up in solidarity, as in the Matt Damon–starring film Promised Land. But most shale communities do not easily fit into either of these narratives. Greater Williamsport is one of them. I was surprised at how uncontroversial fracking was here. Very few people mobilized against it. And almost everybody leased, so I did not find a community divided between lessors and holdouts. I now know that more shale communities responded like greater Williamsport than not.
Surveys indicate that the majority of people residing over shale plays do not merely condone fracking. They endorse it. What was it, I wondered, about rural political and community life that led communities like greater Williamsport to enthusiastically support what armchair analysts categorize as a “locally unwanted land use”? Certainly, locals had concerns. But they were much more likely to complain about truck traffic and noise, which to them made the country feel like the loathsome city, than they were to worry aloud about pollution and health. Was fracking less disruptive to the land and local communities than fractivists believed? Did locals simply have other priorities? And what happened to generations-deep bonds among neighbors, I wondered, when one struck it rich while the other struck out in the fracking lottery?
It was only after getting to know lessors like George and Cindy that I began to understand the social dynamic set in motion by land leasing as a rare opportunity to observe the unfolding in real time of a resource dilemma. A resource dilemma arises when the pursuit of self-interest results in the degradation of a shared resource, harming the common good. An oft-cited example is the abrupt collapse of the codfish population off the Atlantic coast of Canada in the 1990s after decades of unchecked overfishing, which crippled the marine ecosystem and put as many as forty thousand people out of work.
In the absence of external regulation or mechanisms that promote collective decision-making, understanding how people choose between self-interest and the community is critical for preventing resource dilemmas that endanger the planet. Yet researchers are usually forced to simulate resource dilemmas in a lab: they present subjects with a tangible and mutually exclusive choice set—hoard money or contribute to a collective pool—that forces them to deliberately choose between putting themselves or the group first. Such behavioral games can reveal important insights: for example, that the prospect of being shamed can make people more likely to act altruistically. But knowing whether or not someone in a lab setting will donate a dollar that a scientist gave them to a group of strangers hardly seems like an adequate way of predicting how they would respond to a community resource dilemma. Though nobody talked about fracking this way, I began to see it as a quasi-natural experiment: the “exogenous shock” of fracking forced people to choose between themselves and their neighbors. The stakes were palpable and high, and the fracking lottery created winners and losers largely based on geology and geography. The lived experience of the people of Lycoming County offered important real-world lessons that behavioral games could not uncover.
Behavioral scientists would explain lessors’ decision to lease their land (or not) as a rational strategy aimed at maximizing their utility: many locals leased because they needed the money. On the one hand, it’s important not to treat such a verdict, if correct, as indicative of human nature: if lessors had some say in how fracking transpired in their communities, or if the government took a more active role in regulating mineral leasing and the process of fracking itself, local landowners may have responded to fracking differently. On the other hand, much like classical sociologist Max Weber observed that the “Protestant ethic” of asceticism and capitalism’s logic of accumulation mutually reinforced each other, my research in and around Billtown convinced me that certain so-called American values played a distinctive role in enabling the resource dilemma associated with fracking.
Echoing nationalist public discourse about energy independence and the vaunted conservative principle of minimal governmental interference in the private sector, people like George firmly believed they had not only the God-given right to total autonomy over how they used their land but also a duty to realize its productive potential. They saw no conflict between gas drilling and so-called traditional values; fracking dovetailed with their ideals. After all, while citizens consent under the Rousseauian social contract to cede some independence to a higher authority in exchange for protection of their remaining rights, the US constitution enshrines personal liberty and property rights as inalienable. Exercising these rights and retaining any benefits that accrue from them is more than permissible—it is moral, perhaps even patriotic.
The moral language that lessors like George used to defend private land-use decisions that have planetary consequences reflects the libertarian ideology that, according to cultural observers like Colin Woodard and Kai Erikson, reaches its apex in Appalachia: government distrust is rampant, individual sovereignty and private property are exalted (and protected, if need be, with guns), and privacy and self-reliance are prized. Yet it is worth bearing in mind that this worldview isn’t a fringe political position. It is the product of a distinctively American mindset that has deep roots in our country’s pervasive cultural veneration of individualism.
In his landmark study Democracy in America, written over 185 years ago, the French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville noted Americans’ peculiar “habit of always considering themselves in isolation” and “fancy[ing] that their whole destiny is in their hands.” Americans feel that they “owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody.” (One need only imagine the archetypal homesteader, forty-niner, or entrepreneur.) This sentiment, Tocqueville observed, “disposes each citizen to . . . withdraw to one side with his family and friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.” American property rights are a tangible and distinctive manifestation of this bootstrapping sensibility: one’s land is her fiefdom; a freehold title holder is free to dispose of the soil and subsurface at will, and to hoard the fruits of her labor. Woodard credits Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, as the founding father most responsible for the abiding libertarian vision of America as a “republic of free and self-sufficient individuals whose economic and civic decisions would, in aggregate, produce a thriving economy [and] an ideal society.”
Yet Tocqueville also observed that Americans’ fear of government tyranny led citizens of all stations in life to display an unusual zest for self-governance and volunteerism. He perceived his subjects to be “forever forming associations”—from service organizations like the Rotary Club to school boards and civic groups—to foster local self-reliance. Such participation, Tocqueville deduced, created a civic-minded citizenry committed to the common good. Citing Jefferson’s nemesis Alexander Hamilton, who rejected the doctrine of laissez-faire and persuaded his colleagues that “the accomplishment of great purposes” required that individuals cede some sovereignty to a centralized federal government, Woodard claims that communitarianism is also a cornerstone of America’s political heritage. The US remains “an individualistic outlier among liberal democracies.” However, there are notable times and places in its history where cooperation aimed at advancing the general welfare and ensuring equality of opportunity triumphed over private interests.
From the Constitutional Convention to the present day, political life in America has hinged on the problem of how to balance individual freedom and the commonwealth, which, in the words of constitutional and environmental-law scholar Jedediah Purdy, can be understood as “the general good or the well-being of the whole community.” The question of independence versus community is an existential as much as an ethical question. And, despite the fact that conservatives are seen as prioritizing personal liberty while liberals are viewed as favoring the common good, it sometimes transcends traditional left-right politics. It is at the heart of debates about whether parents have the right to exempt their children from vaccines when doing so endangers population health, whether the invasion of privacy is justified in the name of national security, or whether citizens should be able to own assault rifles. And it explains why physical distancing and wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic became such an explosive political issue in the US.
The advent of fracking imposed this political dilemma on rural communities in an acute form. Almost all residents felt they should be free to do what they wanted with their own property. On this principle, private leasing was nobody else’s business. But they also believed others were equally entitled to that same right and in being a responsible community member. On these grounds, neighbors’ interests warranted consideration since private leasing often impacted their quality of life.
Many prominent public intellectuals have concluded that Americans’ emphasis on self-reliance and privacy has eroded citizens’ involvement in the public sphere and isolated them from one another. According to the well-known political scientist Robert Putnam, membership in voluntary associations, from the Lions Club to bowling leagues, has declined precipitously, as has voting, attendance at town hall meetings and public hearings, and churchgoing. If “the ultimate ethical rule is simply that individuals should be able to pursue whatever they find rewarding, constrained only by the requirement that they not interfere with the ‘value systems’ of others,” sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues lament, there is no common purpose that unites us as a polity.
Concerns about excessive individualism and the apparent decline of associational life have become a recurring theme in our national public discourse. Yet missing from the conversation entirely, at least until President Trump exited the Paris Climate Accord, in 2017, is how the trend toward what could be called civic dissociation may impact Americans’ commitment to protecting the commons—the finite natural resources that equally belong to all, like air and water. In the pages that follow, I ask how American individualism and property law color people’s stance toward resource management on both private and public (i.e., state) land. I explore how environmentalism’s failure to craft a message that resonates with Middle America relates to the movement’s generalized antipathy toward self-governance. And I conclude by considering how our nation’s reverence for liberty and independence is implicated in America’s halting response to climate change.
Colin Jerolmack is the author of Up to Heaven and Down To Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town. He is also a Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at New York University and the author of The Global Pigeon.
Excerpted from Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town by Colin Jerolmack. Copyright © 2021 by Colin Jerolmack. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.