Friday, October 30, 2015

Some Evenings are Unforgettable, or: Property is not Land--and Land is what Matters.

On the way to Chihuahua, Mexico, 10.15. Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee
There are some evenings--some days too--that are simply unforgettable. Saturday, October 3rd, 2015 was one of these. 

First, Friday, October 2nd: I recognized my fine friend and ally, David--even tough we'd never met in person--when he pulled up in front of the El Paso, Texas Airport in a well-utilized truck with Mexican plates. The flight had been arranged fairly hastily, and I was already counting the hours before my class the following Monday afternoon at 5PM.

But all of this--the flight, the class, the country--soon gave way to that delightful and all too rare gift called conversation, the kind we have with old friends, even the ones whose faces are new to us. Wending our way through the gorgeous spareness of Chihuahua, Mexico's  highland desert is bounded by the endless Sierra Madre, and is one of the most biologically diverse desert eco-regions on the planet ( 

It's also among the most endangered by a host of industries flying the flags of NAFTA's free trade beneficiaries--and most recently by Pemex (Petroleos Mexicanos) whose intention is to begin fracking despite what are now well-established hazards to the ecologies, the habitats, the communities and the peoples whose voices they routinely ignore. 

With an estimated 600 Trillion cubic feet of "recoverable" shale gas, the only wonder is why we haven't seen more gas rigs already (

But this is because Pemex and its corporate colleagues are going to have a real fight on their hands.

In Veracruz they already do.

Crossing the border into Mexico, David and I were on our way to the city Chihuahua, Chihuahua for the Foro Binacional: En defensa del desierto y el agua. No al fracking, where I was scheduled to speak to an audience of activists, insurgents, organizers, indigenous people all gathered to discuss, strategize, share ideas, and work out conflicts in the interest--I soon came to understand--no so much of protecting property, but of defending land.

Property--that is a thing owned whose value can be commodified as the price paid to transform it into the primary instrument of capital; it is the space of exchange and labor, a site for the creation of wealth and the disposal of waste. 

Land--that is the soil which makes possible the place, the life, the ancestral sensibilities, the culture of long-rooted human and nonhuman communities whose own ebb and flow reflect the living ecologies to which they pay tribute.
Photo, Chihuahua, Wendy Lynne Lee, 10.15.

Property is not land, and land is not property. 

Yet it's "property" that continues to dominate the discourse of too many American anti-fracking activists who, even when they advocate for environmental protections for state parks seem to think more in the horse-trading terms of one mile set-backs, negotiated subsurface agreements, and the salvage of wood lots surrounded by well pads, than in terms of the organic, the historical, the aesthetic, or the experienced.  

We seem to think only in terms of surfaces, parcels, and right of ways-- when there is far more to be said about ways of life whose peoples know the earth by its very texture and smell.

I don't know--would not pretend to know--what might have been on the mind of one young indigenous woman who smiled at me from across what seemed centuries of culture and tradition at the Foro Nacional. Unmistakable, however, was her pondering sober gaze from behind a scarf whose bright colors bespoke a world as old as it was rich and living, a world of land.

Photo, Wendy Lynne Lee

Still, I knew her to have travelled a long ways with her husband and baby because she understood intimately--no doubt in her very blood--the threat Pemex and its multinational analogues pose to her rootedness of place in the world of her family, her plants, her animals, her life. 

By the time I had finished what offering I had to make to Foro Nacional, by the time I had struggled through countless conversations outside an auditorium alive with strategy, planning, and new ideas, I had come to realize that Socrates really was right when he asks us in The Apology for what we're willing to give up our lives.

None give up their lives for mere property.

We give up our lives for land.

So, when an evening riotous with dancing and loud music and revelry and good beer and laughter and hugging and hope--all in language I cannot speak, but understood just as well in that beautiful Mexican night--finally drew to a close...when the morning came and my friend David made sure I was safely on a gray bus through a gray city on a gray road...I knew that I had learned something.

And that I would keep it.

What follows is a presentation I am very honored to be able to give October 3rd, In Chihuahua, Mexico, at the Foro binacional: 
“En defensa del desierto y el agua. No al fracking." 
The conference description is as follows:
"Chihuahua vs fracking, la Alianza Mexicana contra el Fracking y la Fundación Heinrich Böll convocan al foro donde especialistas, organizaciones y comunidades afectadas por la fractura hidráulica o fracking y por gasoductos informarán con datos científicos y experiencias sobre las consecuencias que esta práctica conlleva."
The paper itself, part personal reflection from the Pennsylvania shalefields, part factual survey of immediate destruction and likely future impacts, and part analysis of continuing fossil fuel extraction in light of climate change, stems from my current book project: "Eco-Nihilism: The Philosophical Geopolitics of the Climate Change Apocalypse," available, I hope in later 2016, Lexington Press.

From Activism to Insurgency:
Civil Disobedience is an Act of Self-Defense

Wendy Lynne Lee
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

Presentation and Photographs:

I remember a time when I’d take my daughter, Carley, on meandering Sunday morning drives through the thousands shades of green that color the hills and valleys, the farms and forests of rural Pennsylvania. I’d grown up in the Southwest United States amidst riotous transformations from desert pinks to shimmering grasslands to the indigo of the Rockies at night, but I’d also grown to love the explosions of rust-red, Marigold-yellow, and pumpkin, the incredible show that Autumn in the Northeast U.S. puts on every year. Even though the Granite of the Colorado Rockies had to make way for ancient Appalachian Basin shale beds, geology has long signified something permanent, historical, and all-but-immutable for me; it had been a source of both wonder and consolation—at least until the drill rigs, sand cans, waste water tankers, armies of roust-abouts, engineers, and project managers showed up in their shiny white trucks with their Texas and Oklahoma plates.

It’s hard to exaggerate the extent to which Pennsylvanians were caught off guard by the invasion of gas companies like Cabot, Chesapeake, XTO, Range Resources, or “Wildcatters” with catchy names like Inflection or Penneco. It felt like a military offensive; only instead of tanks and armored personnel carriers, we watched tractor-trailers carrying gigantic drill bits, immense engines and turbines, huge silica-conveyors, and literally thousands of white trucks with diamond plate boxes full of chemicals and explosives rambling down two lane country roads, ripping them up from stem to stern along the way to acres and acres of flattened mountain top—“pads” converted from forest and wildlife habitat into parking lots for the monstrous machinery of gas production.

The Marcellus drilling boom began in earnest in 2005—but was no doubt on the drawing boards of the big oil and gas companies years earlier spurred on by weak environmental regulations, a long history of resource liquidation, pollution, corporate abrogation of responsibility, and a culture of resignation to political turpitude and regulatory neglect.  The Marcellus is the fourth largest shale play in the U.S. as of 2012 ( Global Solutions,LP - The Seven Major US Shale Plays.pdf), and is likely to move up that list once the hundreds of miles of new or upgraded transmission and gathering pipeline are completed along with compressor facilities and export depots. As reported by the Pipeline and Gas Journal as far back as 2011:

More than half of the interstate natural-gas pipeline projects proposed to federal energy regulators since early 2010 involve Pennsylvania — at a cost estimated at more than $2 billion, the Associated Press reported on Aug. 15. That means hundreds of new miles of transmission and gathering lines as part of the network that extends through Pennsylvania and neighboring states, as well as dozens of new or upgraded compression stations. (
It’s an easy thing to tell you what you already know—horizontal, slickwater hydraulic fracturing—fracking—is bad. According to Global Witness, environmental activists in Latin America and Southeast Asia in have taken the lead in bringing the public’s attention to the serious environmental, wildlife habitat destruction, and human health issues associated with what restoration ecologist Kevin Heatley has called “dispersed industrialization,” namely, an industrializing process unconfined to a particular location of manufacture, but instead dispersed throughout wide regions of extraction, processing, and transport. With at least forty documented cases of environmental activists murdered in Mexico from 2002-2012, and more than 908 worldwide, we all know how that the stakes are high. You know it; the oil and gas industry knows it; the politicians and policy-makers know it. Indeed, the only stakes higher than the prospect of billions of petrodollars filling the pockets of some of the world’s most mercenary and ruthless corporations are the existential conditions of the planet itself.
What I want to make sure I impress on you, however, is that although the risks you’ve taken to expose this criminal enterprise are tremendous, they’re of equally tremendous value. Fact is, I wish I could get my own fellow Americans to take this crisis as seriously as you do, as did 448 murdered Brazilians, 109 Hondurans, and 67 Phillippines, among others.  The stakes really are that high. Defined narrowly, hydraulic fracturing

is the process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well. The process is carried out vertically or, more commonly, by drilling horizontally to the rock layer. The process can create new pathways to release gas or can be used to extend existing channels. (

 But that’s only a tiny sliver of the story. Fact is, once you account for the full scale of environmental, health and community cost you realize that “fracking” is just shorthand for a process of industrialization that—since 2005 and 500,000 active natural gas wells in the U.S. alone—is responsible for
·      The damage or destruction of at least 360,000 acres of land. 
·      The permanent contamination of at least 250 billion gallons of water. (enough water to supply 20,591,781 people for a year)
·      The injection of at least 2 billion gallons of chemicals, many of them carcinogens, deep into the ground. 
·      The emission of 450 tons of air pollution. 
·      The emission of at least 280 million gallons of wastewater, a substantial portion of it radioactive.  
·      4000 documented cases of contaminated ground water, and 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide or methane emissions from completed wells.
The amounts vary widely, but anywhere from 2 to 16 million gallons of water per frack are necessary to the drilling process according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale play, the typical number of gallons is 4.5 million/ (, requiring 400 tanker trucks, often idling, emitting diesel fumes ( According to one university study,
[t]he large fleets of diesel trucks…required to support the fracking process significantly increase ground level ozone and particulate matter as well as the risk of traffic accidents. Ground level ozone is a potent pulmonary irritant responsible for reduced pulmonary function and the exacerbation of asthma and emphysema.  Elevations in particulate matter are responsible for an increased incidence of asthma, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cancer. (
Eack frack on average requires 40,000 gallons of chemicals to “stimulate” the well. These include benzene, lead, uranium, mercury, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, among a host of other carcinogens, toxins, and neurotoxins.

Methane—a potent greenhouse gas—leaches from the fissures produced by chemically induced explosions intended to release the gas. As of 2013 there were over 1000 documented cases of drinking well water contamination in the U.S. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this is a dangerous business, especially when you consider that a well can be fracked up to 18 times, and that less than half the “produced” waste-water is recovered ( No one really knows where exactly the rest of it goes, and the industry not only ignores this issue, but once the wells are sealed and the site “restored,” the company packs up and leaves. It’s important to note that “restored” means little more than planting a cosmetic layer of grass, and that “pack up and leave” is typically followed by significant economic hardship for communities whose ancillary businesses—hotels, restaurants, and taverns—have become dependent on the dollars spent by gas-workers imported from Texas, Oklahoma, or Louisianna—and I haven’t even addressed the increase, ranging from chemical to mechanical—of exposure to hazards affecting gas industry workers. We could also talk for a good while about the uptick in crimes associated with alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual assault, and sexually transmitted disease in communities that host gas-related “man camps” (, the many regions across the U.S. who’ve experienced a surge of drilling and/or waste-water injection well related earthquakes, and the community division that results from pressures on hospital emergency services resulting from all three of these ( Earthquakes eported in Texas and Oklahoma, along with similar reports from regions with scant history of seismic activity like Ohio, Colorado, and California have not to date produced documented fatalities, but what experts suggest is that smaller quakes are likely to be followed by larger ones. The point, of course, is that any and all of these issues characterize “fracking” (

But even these facts represent only a fraction of the real and potential future hazards associated with fracking—especially in light of extremely poor reporting by an industry left largely to police itself, the illegal dumping of waste fluids and other hazardous materials well beyond the documented cases, the unknown hazards associated with the combined effects of chemical interactions in frack waste water left at the drill site, and the effects of the massive use of biocides in the drilling process for human and nonhuman species.  Benzene alone is associated with rashes, severe nose-bleeds, dizziness, difficulty breathing, gastrointestinal distress, vomiting, and headache, and fatigue ( One scientist at Villanova University estimates that “[o]f the more than 350 [chemicals used in fracking] that were investigated further, 75% were found to potentially affect the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems, the liver, and various sensory organs. Moreover, more than half of these chemicals could affect the brain and nervous system” (

The only really relevant questions, then, about fracking are what can be done about it beyond hand wringing and bewailing the fates of our children, and I’d argue that this latter—the fates of our children—invests us with an incorrigible moral duty not merely to inform ourselves of the facts, but to work in concert with others—locally, regionally, and globally—to agitate for the only kind of enduring change that will matter: an end to the domination of the multinationals and their analogues in government whose systemic exploitation of our resources, our labor, and our communities leaves us with a hundred choices of catsup at Walmart and a wasteland where once there was a mountain, a desert, a river, a vista. The continuation of fossil fuel production will leave our ecologies desolate, our health deteriorated, and our hope potentially damaged beyond repair. We can’t let this happen. What this means is that we too must change from insensible consumers to informed citizens, from fearfully short-sighted to ferociously future-oriented. I know that many of you have already undergone that transformation.

Equipped with some experience as an activist for women’s civil rights, nonhuman animal rights, and environmental preservation, I came to the anti-fracking movement with high hopes that, organized, vocal, and persistent, a fledgling movement would be able to make our elected representatives see and hear what was happening on the farms, the roads, in the state parks and the towns of rural Pennsylvania. I organized protests, I participated in occupations, I took literally thousands of pictures of frack pads, well-heads, pipeline cuts, compressor construction, forest liquidation, truck traffic, polluted streams, chain link fence barriers—and angry activists all over the state. I made these widely available through social media. I gave speeches beseeching my representatives to act on behalf of the constituents that elected them. I delivered carefully researched commentary to the FERC—the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. I wrote letters, went to countless hearings, and signed petitions. I wrote an incendiary blog dissecting the industry as the reckless profiteering Behemoth it is. I gave interviews to Mother Jones, National Public Radio, Democracy Now, American Prospect, and Alex Chadwick’s BURN, among others. I’ve been investigated by the state police and the FBI Eco-Terrorism Task Force. My phone’s been tapped and my house vandalized, my dogs let out the gate of my modest quarter acre. This was not fun.

I learned some very valuable lessons—that’s indeed, the last thing I hope you’ll take away today. They’re pretty straightforward, and I now regard them as crucial not only to ending the domination of the oil and gas industry, but to making possible a future worth the immense sacrifice that will be required to realize it:

·      First, in all likelihood, the agencies charged with the power and responsibility to protect our water, air, and soil are either corrupt, incompetent, impotent or all three. Appealing to them in hopes that they’ll act on our behalf may assuage our conscience, but it will not put an end to the liquidation of our ecologies and communities. The naïve belief, moreover, that environmental and labor law is drafted to protect and promote our interests needs to be scrapped. Nothing could make these facts clearer than NAFTA and now TPP.

·      Second, all the petitions, letters, blogs, speeches, comments, hearings, etc, in the world are for naught if we do not become a massive, global movement of insurgents united around a single uncompromising and unwavering message: all forms of unconventional oil and gas extraction must stop. They must stop now, and they must stop entirely. We must demand equally uncompromising action on climate change and the recognition that virtually all of the planet’s current misfortunes—including the migrations of refugees, poverty and starvation, the emergence of more virulent disease and disease vectors, terrorism, species extinction, international and internecine war, and the perilous loss of clean water—have as their foundation the deterioration of our environmental conditions. Environmental integrity is the only soil in which justice can grow to maturity; it is the only ground in which just institutions can become rooted and enduring.

·      Third, although we’re routinely fear-mongered into believing that acts of civil disobedience are inherently violent in virtue of their violation of the law, the fact of the matter is that this is a falsehood intended to intimidate and silence us. Indeed, we must become more willing than ever to absorb the pepper-spray, the baton blows, the verbal assaults and the bullets of governments who deploy law enforcement to insure the uninterrupted flow of petroleum and petro-dollars into the bank accounts of its corporate benefactors. Like those of the American Civil Rights Movement, our actions must be timely, well-planned, creative, loud, and enduring. But they must be more. They must be global in their scope, their inclusion of marginalized voices, and in their objectives. They must take the rights of communities seriously—but not at the forfeiture of organizing across borders—geographical or ideological. Our insurgency must, I think, take as its galvanizing point of departure the clear understanding that an industry willing to extract profits—quite literally—from the bone marrow of the planet at the direct expense of its capacity to support life is essentially nihilistic. Our concerted and relentless protest is thus an act of self-defense.

·      Lastly, unlike many in the Pennsylvania anti-fracking movement, we must not give up hope. This “giving up” come in at least three varieties:

o   The first is that of the “fracktivist” who satisfies her or himself that signing the next petition will be sufficient to make a difference. They know better, but insofar as denial is a form of resignation, such “activism” is more like walking away from the struggle than onto the battlefield.

o   The second is the well-meaning organizer who has bought into the false belief that acts of civil disobedience are beyond the pale of legitimate protest; they too know that without a massive presence holding up signs and giving speeches in front of government and/or corporate offices will not likely be effective. Even the 400,000 at New York City’s March for Climate Action has accomplished fairly little because its events—however large—were predictably scripted; its organizers suitably intimidated by the prospect of arrest.

o   Third—and perhaps most troubling—are those among the “professional organizers” who depend on the continuation of the crisis, whose careers are tethered to being heroes of a “movement,” and whose incomes derive not from the hope that a better future is possible, but from the anxiety and terror of a volatile present. The Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Audubon Society, and several others—these are not our allies, and they will gladly use us—characterizing us as terrorists and radicals—to make their own compromising corporate-friendly positions appear sensible and good. Our first responsibility, then, is to the kind of critical analysis that permits us to see through hype and propaganda to the only hope worth pursuing—that which offers to our children a future worth their own.

On this last note, however, I realize I’m speaking not so much to you, but to my fellows in the U.S., people for whom my heart breaks. For even though we may not face the prospect that we could be murdered for speaking out against this criminal activity, we face the culpability of being citizens of one of the most powerful nations on the planet, a nation whose flag is deployed as propaganda by Exxon-Mobil, Anadarko, Chesapeake, and Chevron—among so many others. What you face is violence; what we face is shame. Which is worse, I’m not sure I know.

Wendy Lynne Lee