It is both fascinating and alarming to watch how the arguments undermining the path to sustainability in the United States are steadily and expertly being constructed by interests opposing it.
First we have a deafening silence with regard to the far reaching potentials of energy efficiency and conservation. That too is part of the strategy. It is an established fact that the public cringes at the idea of sacrifice especially after decades of gains, while behavioral modification is not easy if there is no immediate crisis. Long term planning has been abandoned for decades because of short-term political cycles, the limited attention span of the media, a consumer driven culture and the financial power of special interests.
Enter fracking, which is being presented as single-handedly addressing energy demands, able to reduce payments to oil producing countries which may or may not be America’s friends, while creating jobs right here in the United States.
The debate over fracking is well under way and the pressures to allow it everywhere on the East Coast are mounting. The business stakes are very high and therefore pundits, debaters, writers, commentators, former politicians, active politicians, advertisers, oil companies and media outlets are mounting an all encompassing offensive.
An example of one such move took place on Steven Colbert’s show (http://www.colbertnation.com/full-episodes/thu-june-9-2011-tom-ridge) launched by an eloquently misleading Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania Governor, First Secretary of Homeland Security and current consultant to the gas industry. He described fracking as follows: “Pennsylvania is sitting on top of something that could lead to a Renaissance in America not only with regard to energy but also in terms of creating jobs and making us more secure, less dependent on foreign sources,” and continued to say that his paid job “consists of developing this resource in a way that is consistent with workplace safety, with environmentally sound principles…” Though Colbert’s questions were pointed, Ridge came out looking genuine and likeable; though acknowledging some risks, he attributed them to natural factors (such as methane in water).
The rhetoric all sounds great, patriotic, and innovative. We have our own gas, we don’t need to import. Why give billions abroad when we can drill right here?
In recent years, natural gas is being pushed as a form of clean energy and therefore as not contributing to the problem of global warming. If it’s not part of the problem, then logically it is part of the solution. And it’s plentiful. However, this logic deliberately obscures all the grave risks involved the greatest of which is long term contamination of our drinking water supply with toxic chemicals that lead to cancer and birth defects. It creates millions of gallon of contaminated waste water such as that which recently polluted the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people in the Pittsburgh area. One would think that this would be a great concern for Homeland Security.
For those of us who strongly believe in a new economic future based on principles of sustainability, innovation and the transition to a low carbon economy, it is essential to pay close attention to the way the arguments are being developed to capture the public’s imagination or to lull the public to sleep. Pushing fracking on the East Coast is just one example, similar campaigns are being launched by the food industry, industrial agriculture, and against renewable energy sources.
If America has any hopes of preparing for the challenges in the 21st century, economic, social, and environmental, then we need to not only pay close attention to the mainstream discourse, but also build an arsenal of counter-arguments that the public can embrace. The art of persuasion through rhetoric is still at the forefront of how decisions are made and how plans are laid out in politics and the economy.