Friday, July 16, 2010


Gasland (2010)
Documentary by Josh Fox
Watched on July 4, 2010 at home on HBO OnDemand

(post written longhand on July 12, 2010, while on vaca and away from my computer)

I've put off writing about this because I thought time would bring clarity but it has really done the opposite. I'm more ambivalent than ever.

Gasland is a documentary by Josh Fox, following his fourney to understand how hydraulic fracture natural gas drilling has effected the lives of people who lease their land to be used to frilling, as Fox himself is asked to do in the beginning of the film by a natural gas company hoping to frack for gas in Pennsylvania near the Delaware river. With the aid of colorful but simple graphics, he gives an overview of the hydralic fracturing processes and the largely unregulated and not completely retrieved chemicals used. The audience is also treated to footage of Fox's efforts to contact first well-known figures in major natural gas drilling companies in the US, then just someone, anyone who will talk to him, but he never really gets anywhere. Instead, he relies on local reporting, both in print and on television, in locales where drilling has been going on for years to guide him to locals who might talk to him. The audience follows Fox as he meets and gets to know families who's natural gas contaminated well-water can be lit on fire as it comes out of the tap, who have physical illnesses (usually either neurological problems from water toxicity or respiratory problems from chemicals that have evaporated into the air), who's water wells have exploded. These average, working-class folks, hardly people who are anti-corporations or anti-oil and gas (at least before these things), cheerfully show Fox their homes, land, and animals, most relating their stories with a mix of "if you didn't laugh, you'd have to cry" attitude and a sense of disbelief that no one, not the government or the companies, either will or can help them. They also allow Fox to take water samples from their wells. Fox also attends a NY state congressional committee meeting on opening up more land in NY state for drilling in which the men from the natural gas companies testify again and again that it has never been proven that their drilling processes harm the groundwater or the people, animals, and plants around the drilling sites. If I remember right, there were four representatives from the natural gas companies and only one environmental scientist, who was largely ignored when he disagreed with those in the oil company reps. He also talks to the head of the department of environmental protection in PA who steps around much of Fox's questions but does admit that compromises must be made so that people get the energy they want while we try to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Also, while he won't say that the wells people claim are contaminated are actually contaminated, the bueracrat won't drink any of the water from any of the wells that Josh Fox as collected during his travels. In the end, Fox has no real hard answers, though the knowledge that he gains leads him to decide against leasing his lands for any future drilling, no matter how much money they offer him.

By the end of this movie, I was overwhelmingly sad. Not mad, which is what I would have been in previous years, as I'm sure the filmmaker might have anticipated, a sense of righteous indignation that might drive the audience to push politicians and bueracrats to tighten and enforce regulations and to pull back our energy use. Nope, just really sad. And completely helpless. How can I actually change any of this? I don't live in a drilling area. I doubt I could convince my parents to switch from natural gas to another energy source, not that it would help as electricity here is made from burning dirty coal. I have no say in PA or NY where the current debate on to frack or not to frack is happening. Sure, I can vote on representation in and from my state but is there any chance that anyone who is pro-regulation and strong oversight really win in a conservative area in a conservative state, especially given the current pro-corporate stance of the Republican party? If that person did win, would they be able to get any laws through? The same, and then some, goes for the president.

I recently read an op-ed article in the NYT in which the writer suggested that we should think less about whether we want kids but more about if the world needs more kids, that it would be nice for individuals to forstall a kid or two to help not contribute to worldwide overuse of resources and to overpopulation. The writer specifically stated that he didn't want a mandatory government program of any kind, just a voluntary thoughtfulness. Now, I'm pretty sure I do not want any children, for a variety of reasons, but, though I've usually kept this to myself, I've also questioned the wisdom of growing the world's population, especially as we worry about how our way of life harms the planet and the population. So I'm on board with the guy who wrote the op-ed. But after watching this movie, feeling so sad and helpless, I wondered if just not having kids wasn't enough? How about a mass die off? Sometimes this happens to animals accidentally - their population grows too fast for the area they live in to sustain them, their waste pollutes their water supply leading to illnesses, etc. The black plague is often credited with thinning the human population in Europe, but large wars also help humans thin our own herd.

Ok, ok, so I know that by now you are saying, "A mass die off is too extreme. It could lead to genocide, since the majority would pick a disliked minority group to do most of the dying, or people with the 'worst' lives, whether through discrimiation or socioeconomic situations, would volunteer, creating a defacto genocidal situation. Plus, we are working as hard as we can on new energy sources and we can always cut down on our use. And it's not like you're the epitome of environmentally friendly." And I'm not. But I guess I have a harder time staying motivated for these things when I see larger forces working against it. There are people working on 'green' technological advances, but those companies in Gasland, and other large corporations, who make their huge profits on non-green, dirty energy sources, have more money, more lobbying power, more clout with politicians on both sides who have recieved large campaign contributions from them, and can quickly buy off the little guys who are hurt. They have a vested interest in keeping the energy status quo and blocking green energy and I feel helpless in the face of that. There was a day when I would have found this documentary a call to arms. Now I feel that I can't help the situation in a big picture way and I continue, in my own little way, to make it all worse, just by my everyday living.

A friend recently told me that, to her, in many instances, ignorance is bliss and that's why she doesn't watch the news. She doesn't worry about going into a neighborhood that others have told her are "bad" because she doesn't want some crime stat, or someone's opinion of what a bad neighborhood is, to get in the way of her living her life. Somedays, I do wish I could be more like that.

Gasland's movie site

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