Ask me what GasLand, a documentary that lost at the Oscars, is about, and I will probably tell you it’s about how you define the United States of America, and if that definition has any real pull on your actions.
First we need to deal with a word that’s relatively new. Definition from sourcewatch.org:
Fracking (also often referred to as hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking) is a process in which a fluid is injected at high pressure into oil or methane gas deposits to fracture the rock above and release the liquid or gas below.
Natural gas sounds like such a great thing, right? There’s that word natural we’ve already talked about. Natural gas companies almost always have calming blue logos to match that friendly ring of fire we get on our stovetop ranges. And we’ve got lots of natural gas in America, as politicians love to remind us, so that means we have to deal less with dirty Middle Eastern tyrants, and bastards like Gaddafi, a guy we just can’t seem to bring ourselves to punish for killing people.
The problem, or one of them, is that fracking can blow up your house.
The image one remembers most clearly from the film would have to be the explosive tap water. In several settings we see people hold a flame up to their running tap water (in their house) and then it ignites. The water ignites.
That idea takes a little while to get used to. Although perhaps this is just my ignorance. Reading blogs and articles against GasLand, and they are not hard to find, you might read things like this: “Guess what: methane is common. If you live off well water, you deal with it.”
Maybe there is someone out there with more experience with well water who can tell me if this is true. Is flaming water just one of those things city slickers like me don’t know about?
Because Josh Fox, the director and a self-professed neophyte to the documentary form, believes this specifically comes from the fracking going on in Colorado and other Western states, and which now threatens to infect water supplies throughout New York, Pennsylvania and beyond. It’s not just flaming water, either. It’s brown water. And bad air – days of toxic fog around your house. And your pet’s hair falling out. And your loss of taste and smell. And headaches, maybe brain damage. These are the other effects alleged by those exposed to fracking on or near their land.
The film doesn’t get into the details of whether these good people were paid for their trouble – the whole quest starts when Fox gets a monetary offer for use of some of his familial land – but we can assume they never signed up for the nasty side effects. So where’s Erin Brockovich, you ask? Every now and then her spirit pops up: you hear about some people getting settlements from the gas companies. But it can be very difficult to get any legal traction, because you have to prove causality.
Remember, everyone who ever took Psych 101 or read Freakonomics, correlation does not imply causality. There’s fracking going on around you. Your water’s browner than usual. But can you prove that the one caused the other?
Well, no, not usually, because for one thing you don’t even get to know what kinds of fluids are being used in the whole fracking process. For this you have Dick Cheney to thank. The Bush-Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave loopholes to gas and oil companies that even Richard “Clean Air Act” Nixon would have balked at. Specifically, gas companies are allowed to keep their fracking fluids secret, like the Coke formula. Want more Cheney bashing? How about the fact that he let gas companies use public land – land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), land that we, in theory, all own. It’s on some of this BLM land, being used for fracking, that Fox gives us his other indelible image, that of him playing the banjo with a gas mask on.
So you see it comes down to this thing we call the United States of America. GasLand shows us lots of those so-called average Americans, lots of Joe the Plumbers. And that’s what usually makes documentaries (and reality TV) so damn interesting, the peep factor: seeing regular folks, and not just the character actors Hollywood trots out when they need a commoner sidekick, like this lady:
GasLand, then, asks us just how much we care about these people. There are so many things to care about, to give money to, to raise awareness for. Do we need to give special attention to the things going on in our country, even if the people to whom it’s happening are completely out of our personal spheres? Does a man in Colorado have any kind of tie to me, moreso than a man in Cameroon, because we live together in this thing some people decided to call a country?
Kurt Vonnegut, we know, thinks that countries are granfalloons, false families. There is nothing much that binds two fellow Americans more than any two fellow humans in his book. And, well, even the worst-affected family in Colorado hit by the alleged abuses of fracking has it a lot better than the 1.4 billion people living on $1.25 a day, right? So where should this issue fall on our totem pole of shit-giving?
Of course it could happen to us. It could creep into our backyard, as it does Fox’s. It could blow up our tap water, someday. But we already know this, right? It’s why we go on blindly driving the distances we drive, using the amount of air conditioning we use, fully knowing that things cannot continue this way indefinitely. What price, mobility? Will we turn our country into one where we have to drink out of bottled water all day long, or will we willingly constrict ourselves to a ten mile radius first?
That’s the future I see, when I decide to get Philip K. Dick about our energy options. I see us all having to slouch back to a town and village society, giving up on air travel and extensive car travel, settling for what’s around us. Something’s gotta give. So what is America to you? If it’s Joe the Plumber or the Woody Guthrie stuff, we start making serious sacrifices, right? If it’s just the place where you get your you on, then we keep this party going until we’re all waist-deep in discarded plastic, right? Until all of our mountains have no tops (because coal is also clean, in Bushspeak) and our valleys filled with rubble.
You may think I’m coming down in favor of the green grass and Margo Martindale (she’s the white trash lady above), but I’m not. I like flying to New York for a few days when I feel like it. I drive a long distance in heavy traffic to be in a show. It’s certainly easy to rage against the energy machine – one of my favorite parts of GasLand is when an EPA guy chews Fox out over this very idea – but we’re being faced with no easy decision here, especially when even the information is up for grabs. This guy says gas is clean, this guy says it gives you brain damage. This guy says nuclear’s the way of the future, this guy’s Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome. It’s not like we can all just have a hundred windmills in our lawns and go about our day.
Something’s gotta give. And like I said, I think it’s up to your definition of America and Americans – or the general earth and earthlings, if you’re in Vonnegut mood – that will influence how you feel about energy.
In Georgia we recently got iced in to our houses and local areas for a few days. It was almost like olden times. And I think most of us, after a few days, nearly went crazy.