Free people have to dance, play and wrestle with difficult (#fracking) ideas

“All that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed—by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law.”

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Yesterday, some Fracktivists put up a petition to stop the Penn State Reads program from requiring the freshman class from reading The Boom by Russel Gold. In short, they say the book “glorif[ies] an extractive technology that is contributing to climate change and harming Pennsylvanians and our environment in the process.” They call on Penn State to divest from fossil fuels and cut its ties with fossil fuel companies. This whole thing is pretty complicated, well-intentioned and misguided. I wrote about it yesterday and want to continue it here.

There are three things to think about. First, what is The Boom about and what isn’t it about? Second, what is the role of a university in general and Penn State in particular? Third, and finally, what does this petition seek to do and what can we do in light of it? The short answer: Penn State is a land grant university that seeks to serve the Commonwealth through teaching and discovery. To do so, it should create opportunities for all those it serves to grow intellectually, emotionally and ethically. The Boom is a very good opportunity for the university to accomplish those goals.

Before I get into the problems, let me do two things. First, since I work at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute I am actually developing curriculum about The Boom. So I have some skin in the game. But I am not speaking for anyone at Penn State much less the institution. Second, I want to get into a heated agreement with the petitioners. I want fracking to end (read here).The natural gas industry is contributing to dangerous climate interference. As it grows and the longer fugitive methane emissions are poorly regulated the larger the climate impacts will be. Human climate disruption threatens the integrated wholeness of the world that has supported human civilization. Perpetuating the natural gas industry at the current and projected scale will only worsen that disruption. Penn State should transform its energy infrastructure as rapidly as it can to get out of fossil fuels and remove fossil fuels from its investment portfolio.

Attacking The Boom will not get us there.

I’ve read The Boom. I suspect most of the petitioners have not. Their attack is like the cavalcade of 1-star reviews by folks who have bashed Michael Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars on Amazon but seem not to have read it. I suspect that if they read The Boom they might find something more productive to complain about. In fact, Gold writes that natural gas is at best a bridge fuel to renewable energy but that it’s not being treated like one. He cites the International Energy Agency among others who warn that natural gas is not a climate solution and could be hamstringing renewable energy. So Gold makes half of the protestors’ argument for them. (See here for another example.)

There are other things to note about The Boom, some good some not. I was engaged by Gold’s foray through fracking’s history from the 19th century to the present. He shows us who developed the technologies that have made horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing into shale possible. And he digs into Aubrey McClendon, former CEO of Chesapeake and gives us a good picture of some of the bad actions some of these men have taken. No one in this book is an angel. But there’s still plenty the book doesn’t cover: health impacts on people and animals, gag orders, habitat fracturing, manipulation of the Pennsylvania state government by natural gas industry and the resulting poor enforcement. I have to admit that I got pretty miffed about it.

But we do meet a few people, John Trallo for example, who have been fighting fracking because it ruins peace of mind in Sullivan County. And the section with Trallo goes over a rather famous contentious pair of presentations between Drs. Terry Engelder of Penn State and Tony Ingraffea of Cornell. Engelder invoked the notion of sacrifice for the greater good which evoked an intense reaction from a lot of people (me included). Ingraffea was the clear winner for the common person in the room that day. Those pages in the book make for good learning.

See, I think The Boom is about the people and the processes that brought about the shale gas revolution. It’s a 30,000’ sweeping view that other books don’t have. I love The End of Country by Seamus McGraw but it doesn’t have the breadth. Its narrowness is its strength. That also makes it less ideal for general liberal education.

American higher education institutions have long used a model of liberal education. The American Association of Colleges and Universities says liberal education “requires that we understand the foundations of knowledge and inquiry about nature, culture and society; that we master core skills of perception, analysis, and expression; that we cultivate a respect for truth; that we recognize the importance of historical and cultural context; and that we explore connections among formal learning, citizenship, and service to our communities.” This means that a liberal education should foster integration, synthesis, and connectedness of knowledge, examine values in issues and disciplines, master linguistic, analytical, critical, and computational skills and foster personal qualities such as tolerance and empathy. We do this so that people can continuously learn, think independently, and become responsible for their own lifelong intellectual, moral, emotional and social development. The Penn State Reads program is doing those things.

And as is the case in any sufficiently powerful and/or authoritative institution, stakeholders—including the natural gas industry and fracktivists—seek to mold higher education in their image. This has happened during the Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation, Anti-Vietnam, and early Environmental movements in the 60s and 70s, globalized free trade and diversity in the 80s to 2000s, and now the sustainability movement. But the vying of one group’s ambition, evidence, ethics and rhetoric against the other in a university’s free intellectual space makes good decision-making possible. It creates a crucible for democracy and sustainability.

Some, like the petitioners, will question whether that crucible can happen at Penn State. They worry that the whole place is rife with corrupt money from the fossil fuel industry. That’s a good worry. I can’t say that every part of it is not because I can’t prove negatives. But the Consadine study debacle at Penn State exposed something to worry about. We also have plenty of reason to believe that “the funding effect” pushes scientists who take money from the oil and gas industry to underreport groundwater contamination. There are some nagging ethics issues around the role natural gas and fossil fuel money and proponents play. As part of a group of faculty and staff with real concerns about fracking, this isn’t something I or we shy away from. It’s something to lean into and work through with persistence, courage and honesty. And counter to the petitioners’ belief, that’s one of the things The Boom gives us an opportunity to do.

Every freshman and the faculty guiding them at Penn State now has the chance to critically develop their awareness by exploring an issue deeply. They can collectively and individually reflect on our energy past, present and future. They can investigate claims. For those of us who wish the fracking boom would go silent and fizzle out through a widespread energy conservation and cleaner renewable energy revolution, we are called to enter into the fray. We must stomach our opponents’ ideas and speech, work through omissions and push for deep civic education.

And for those of you who think this is propaganda: What did you think of the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project at the Palmer Art Museum? It was seen by thousands upon thousands of people. A supplementary gallery with included photos of some of you an me at an anti-fracking protest that we organized on Memorial Day 2014 in the wake of Tom Corbett’s decision to open state parks to fracking. Steven Rubin took it. Maybe the image of Dana Leigh Dolney, face pressed against the glass waiting to testify to the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission was meant to elicit anti-corporate sentiment. With no clear opposing viewpoint photo, that could be propaganda. Maybe that should be censored. Classes went in there and wrote about those pictures.

Or what about Julia Kasdorf’s poetry? She quotes the people who cannot speak about fracking’s impacts on their family because of gag orders. Kasdorf’s poetry gives them a voice. Is that propaganda? Is it subversive speech? Is she not part of the discussion? Should those who like fracking call on the university to stop Kasdorf?

Any direction we go this is a slippery slope. Though the answers may not be easy, the John Stuart Mill quotation I opened with guides us to a good answer. We need restraints on our actions so that we can live together. Harmful, pernicious and clearly misleading speech—threats, libel and propaganda—must be prevented, avoided or shut down by rule or by opinion. Since The Boom is none of these, we should invite it. At a university worth the name, we have to do more than entertain difficult ideas. We have to dance, play and wrestle with them. We must meet them. To do otherwise is cowardice.

Rather than seeing The Boom as a problem that requires censorship, I see it as an avenue for the kind of education we need. Thoughtful reflection and deliberation on it will teach us something about who we are and who we want to be. If you want students to become good citizens then you have to trust them. I do.

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