A company shows up to someone’s house in Pennsylvania. For a few hundred bucks a month, a family leases its acreage to a fracking well operation, all in the interest of providing cheaper natural gas to help power the engine of America’s resurgent economy. And then bad things happen; the water turns brown, the dog loses his hair, the faucet shoots flames, people get asthma, maybe cancer. It’s like the movie Poltergiest. And it’s a parable for what is happening to all of us.
It’s not the fault of the family that rented their property. It isn’t really the fault of the company that drilled the well, or the company that provided the poisonous fluid that was injected down it. It isn’t the fault of the public officials charged with regulating the process. The fault lies with the every consumer of natural gas or oil in this country, which, unless you’re an organic vegan bicyclist living off-grid, is all of us.
Why not blame the Houston-based oil and gas developer? Well, for example, Cabot O&G is, like all its competitors, a corporation. Corporations are simple economic organisms that blossom like mold on the bready substrate of our society. And like any organism it is designed first to survive, and then to thrive through replication. As such, corporations are not immoral but rather amoral. A little bread mold can save your life as an antibiotic. It can make a delicious cheese. Or it can trigger a fatal asthma attack. It’s not that mold is intrinsically good or bad.
As many others have pointed out, we have become as a society addicted to fossil fuels like an individual becomes addicted to, say, crack cocaine. The more you use, the more you need, and so on and so forth. The addiction model can be extended to just about everything a consumerist culture embraces, from Mobil gasoline to Nike shoes. And feeding the addiction means that everything we do as a society, depends on increasing our purchasing power. In a nutshell, in order to buy what we think we need, we will sell whatever we have, whether that be our health, our children, our souls.
An addict makes classically bad choices. And just as an addict would sell grandma for crack, we trade what makes our lives worth living in exchange for increasing our ability to buy stuff. For starters, as Americans at the voting booth, we choose economic growth over all other considerations. This means, for most of us, jobs, and we will vote for more jobs even at the expense of public health or environmental devastation. If you don’t believe me, just go to anyplace in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, or a oil and gas refinery, or an industrial pig farm. You’ll encounter salt of the earth American citizens who will rationalize the dangers they face, their cancer clusters and polluted air and groundwater, all in support of the economic base these industries provide.
Perpetual economic growth is an academic fantasy turned into an accepted political reality on both sides of the aisle. Economic growth is the rush, the high that keeps America knocking at the dealer’s door (right now, the candyman lives in China). It has led us as a society to value jobs and monetary gain to the point of endangering public health, to the point of environmental devastation, to the point of spiritual hypocricy and philosophical sterility.
This is the downward spiral. It starts when we succumb to the powerful psychological lures of advertising and branding. We equate our well being with the ownership and use of objects. We trade away the stability of unions and domestic manufacturing for cheaper products made with indentured foreign labor. In order to acquire these cheaper goods, we trade away entire communites and ecosystems of small businesses and tradesmen in favor of efficient shopping supercenters. And in order to provide the jobs that we need to pay for these perceived-essential products, we trade away what’s left- the environment we live in. Grandma’s been sold. And it’s not Wal Mart’s fault, or Chinese factories, or the energy companies. It all starts with how we spend, because in the final analysis, how we spend is really how we vote.
The irony is that the one bogeyman that most Americans can agree upon as the enemy, Islamic fundamentalism, is the most glaring repudiation of our consumerist culture. That’s what makes the Taliban brand of terrorism so scary, as opposed to say, the Zeta brand of narcoterrorism. The Taliban does put a serious damper on commerce, whether it’s entertainment or fashion, tourism or technology, and as such, nurtures the real seeds of destruction for what is becoming Western Civilization.
I am in no way an apologist for theocracy. I believe that the one thing all religious fundamentalists, be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish, can agree upon is how to put women down. The next thing they all agree on, in varying degrees, is how best to perpetuate social inequality through general ignorance. What I’m saying is that we have to somehow delineate progressivism from the consumerism that permeates it. Our liberal way of thinking actually could use some theological fracking. As much as many on the left feel that all religion is poisonous, an good injection of it may be just what the left needs to dissolve the consumerism that keeps us in circular political policies.
This is hardly a call to reject progressivism in favor of nostalgic pre-scientific theology. That would be like trying to run a Subaru on charcoal. We need the economic and social equivalent of solar power, a truly sustainable system, not one that trades away our quality of life for more cheap, branded stuff. And certainly not one based on the fallacious principle of bottomless economic growth that’s at the heart of our societal malaise.
Most Americans can agree that a life based on things bought at the mall is a hollow one. Religious economics as God-given fruitful multiplication is now embodied by the hypocritical paradox of a Christian Religious Right. Our best hope may come as a religious reformation in America, much as Martin Luther did in Germany five hundred years ago. A new type of Christian leadership, one that embraces Jesus’ own progressive notions of stewardship of the earth, the commitment to social justice and most importantly, a rejection of monetary materialism, may turn out to be the game changer America needs.