Richard Hofstadter Would Recognize Today’s Right-Wing-Nuttery as Part of the “Paranoid Style” in American Politics

I hear that the dominant force driving the recent surge in gun sales is the widespread fear that Obama plans to take away all our guns, as part of his overall socialist agenda.

Such right-wingnut ideas are not new.

Sean Wilentz, in his 2007 Introduction to the Vintage edition of Richard Hofstadter’s 1965 book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” says that he [Wilentz] spent some time going through Hofstadter’s research notes for that book:

Hofstadter spread his net widely, gathering in everything from newspaper articles to official campaign bulletins from the Goldwater-dominated Republican National Committee. There is a press report about a professor’s claim that Soviet taskmasters had assassinated President Kennedy, because he was too slow in effecting a communist takeover of the United States. Another report includes a description of federal gun control laws as “a further attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government.”

The Agenda 21 paranoia fits right in here as well, with its obsession with the U.N. as a ginormous socialist threat to our property rights and other freedoms.

But that’s a story for another day.

Too Soon to Tell: The Case for Hope

What Comes After Hope

By Tom Engelhardt

I worked for years as an editor at Pantheon Books. Its publisher, maybe the most adventurous in the business, was André Schiffrin. Among his many accomplishments, he “discovered” Studs Terkel (already a well-known Chicago radio personality), published his first oral history (Division Street: America), and made him a bestseller.  Sometime after I arrived at Pantheon in the mid-1970s, he asked me to take a last look at a new manuscript by Studs. It was the equivalent of sending the second team onto the field, but it began my own long relationship with the famed oral historian. He was an experience — a small man who, when he wasn’t listening professionally in a fashion beyond compare, never stopped talking. In doing so, he had an almost magical way of making those around him feel larger than life. Later, I would be the editor for two of his oral histories, one on death and the other on hope (in that splendid order and the second with the Studs-appropriate title Hope Dies Last).

Last October, Bill Moyers interviewed me about the dismal state of American politics.  As our conversation was ending, he suddenly asked: “What keeps you going against all the evidence?” At that moment, Studs came to mind. I mentioned editing “one of the greats of our world” and responded this way: “It turned out that when he wrote his book about hope, it was all about activists and the basic point he made was: in good times you could just be hopeful about your life. You didn’t have to be an activist. You didn’t have to be an anything.  In bad times, if you want to be hopeful, you have to take a step. You’ve got to take some step to do something in the world. And in that sense, TomDispatch is my medicine against despair.  So what makes me hopeful is doing TomDispatch.”

All true. But I realize now that it wasn’t quite a full response. I had left out one crucial figure in my life: Rebecca Solnit, who taught me how to hope in a world that seemed dismal indeed.  She was the one who — I’ve written about it before — slipped through the barely ajar door of my life in May 2003, at a moment as grim and dreary as any in my political experience. The largest antiwar movement ever to protest a war that had yet to happen had just packed its tents and gone home in despair, while Baghdad was occupied by American troops and George W. Bush and his top officials were in their “mission accomplished” triumphalist mode.  Many activists then feared that they would remain so forever and would have dismissed out of hand someone who suggested that their Pax Americana dreams of domination would begin unraveling in mere weeks (as happened), not decades or centuries.

Ten years ago, exactly to the day, I published Rebecca’s miraculous piece “Acts of Hope,” which she would later expand into her book Hope in the Dark. It was written to welcome that “darkness” which seemed already to be enveloping us.  It was written with a sense of how the expectable unravels, of how the future surprises us, often enough with offerings not of horror but of hope.

With few people can you ever say, she (or he) changed my life, changed the very way I understand our world. For me, she’s one of the few — and she’s still doing it with her miraculous new book (out in June), The Faraway Nearby.  She taught me how to look into that future darkness with hope. Like Studs, she taught me that acting, even while not knowing, is a powerful antidote to despair. So it means the world to me that she’s returned to the subject of hope to celebrate the tenth anniversary of her arrival in my life and at TomDispatch. Tom

Too Soon to Tell 
The Case for Hope
By Rebecca Solnit

Ten years ago, my part of the world was full of valiant opposition to the new wars being launched far away and at home — and of despair. And like despairing people everywhere, whether in a personal depression or a political tailspin, these activists believed the future would look more or less like the present.  If there was nothing else they were confident about, at least they were confident about that. Ten years ago, as a contrarian and a person who prefers not to see others suffer, I tried to undermine despair with the case for hope.

A decade later, the present is still contaminated by the crimes of that era, but so much has changed. Not necessarily for the better — a decade ago, most spoke of climate change as a distant problem, and then it caught up with us in 10,000 ways. But not entirely for the worse either — the vigorous climate movement we needed arose in that decade and is growing now. If there is one thing we can draw from where we are now and where we were then, it’s that the unimaginable is ordinary, and the way forward is almost never a straight path you can glance down, but a labyrinth of surprises, gifts, and afflictions you prepare for by accepting your blind spots as well as your intuitions.

The despairing of May 2003 were convinced of one true thing, that we had not stopped the invasion of Iraq, but they extrapolated from that a series of false assumptions about our failures and our powerlessness across time and space. They assumed — like the neoconservatives themselves — that those neocons would be atop the world for a long time to come. Instead, the neocon and neoliberal ideologies have been widely reviled and renounced around the world; the Republicans’ demographic hemorrhage has weakened them in this country; the failures of their wars are evident to everyone; and though they still grasp fearsome power, everything has indeed changed. Everything changes: there lies most of our hope and some of our fear.

I’ve seen extraordinary change in my lifetime, some of it in the last decade. I was born in a country that had been galvanized and unsettled by the civil rights movement, but still lacked a meaningful environmental movement, women’s movement, or queer rights movement (beyond a couple of small organizations founded in California in the 1950s). Half a century ago, to be gay or lesbian was to live in hiding or be treated as mentally ill or criminal. That 12 states and several countries would legalize same-sex marriage was beyond imaginable then. It wasn’t even on the table in 2003.  San Francisco’s spring run of same-sex weddings in 2004 flung open the doors through which so many have passed since.

If you take the long view, you’ll see how startlingly, how unexpectedly but regularly things change. Not by magic, but by the incremental effect of countless acts of courage, love, and commitment, the small drops that wear away stones and carve new landscapes, and sometimes by torrents of popular will that change the world suddenly. To say that is not to say that it will all come out fine in the end regardless. I’m just telling you that everything is in motion, and sometimes we are ourselves that movement.

Unstoppabilities

Hope and history are sisters: one looks forward and one looks back, and they make the world spacious enough to move through freely. Obliviousness to the past and to the mutability of all things imprisons you in a shrunken present. Hopelessness often comes out of that amnesia, out of forgetting that everything is in motion, everything changes. We have a great deal of history of defeat, suffering, cruelty, and loss, and everyone should know it. But that’s not all we have.

There’s the people’s history, the counterhistory that you didn’t necessarily get in school and don’t usually get on the news: the history of the battles we’ve won, of the rights we’ve gained, of the differences between then and now that those who live in forgetfulness lack. This is often the history of how individuals came together to produce that behemoth civil society, which stands astride nations and topples regimes — and mostly does it without weapons or armies. It’s a history that undermines most of what you’ve been told about authority and violence and your own powerlessness.

Civil society is our power, our joy, and our possibility, and it has written a lot of the history in the last few years, as well as the last half century. If you doubt our power, see how it terrifies those at the top, and remember that they fight it best by convincing us it doesn’t exist. It does exist, though, like lava beneath the earth, and when it erupts, the surface of the earth is remade.

Things change. And people sometimes have the power to make that happen, if and when they come together and act (and occasionally act alone, as did writers Rachel Carson and Harriet Beecher Stowe — or Mohammed Bouazizi, the young man whose suicide triggered the Arab Spring).

If you fix your eye on where we started out, you’ll see that we’ve come a long way by those means. If you look forward, you’ll see that we have a long way to go — and that sometimes we go backward when we forget that we fought for the eight-hour workday or workplace safety or women’s rights or voting rights or affordable education, forget that we won them, that they’re precious, and that we can lose them again. There’s much to be proud of, there’s much to mourn, there’s much yet to do, and the job of doing it is ours, a heavy gift to carry. And it’s made to be carried, by people who are unstoppable, who are movements, who are change itself.

Too Soon to Tell

Ten years ago I began writing about hope and speaking about it. My online essay “Acts of Hope,” posted on May 19, 2003, was my first encounter with Tomdispatch.com, which would change my work and my life. It gave me room for another kind of voice and another kind of writing. It showed me how the Internet could give wings to words. What I wrote then and subsequently for the site spread around the world in remarkable ways, putting me in touch with people and movements, and deeper into conversations about the possible and the impossible (and into a cherished friendship with the site’s founder and editor, Tom Engelhardt).

For a few years, I spoke about hope around this country and in Europe. I repeatedly ran into comfortably situated people who were hostile to the idea of hope: they thought that hope somehow betrayed the desperate and downtrodden, as if the desperate wanted the solidarity of misery from the privileged, rather than action. Hopelessness for people in extreme situations means resignation to one’s own deprivation or destruction. Hope can be a survival strategy. For comfortably situated people, hopelessness means cynicism and letting oneself off the hook. If everything is doomed, then nothing is required (and vice versa).

Despair is often premature: it’s a form of impatience as well as certainty. My favorite comment about political change comes from Zhou En-Lai, the premier of the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao. Asked in the early 1970s about his opinion of the French Revolution, he reportedly answered, “Too soon to tell.” Some say that he was talking about the revolutions of 1968, not 1789, but even then it provides a generous and expansive perspective. To hold onto uncertainty and possibility and a sense that even four years later, no less nearly two centuries after the fact, the verdict still isn’t in is more than most people I know are prepared to offer. A lot of them will hardly give an event a month to complete its effects, and many movements and endeavors are ruled failures well before they’re over.

Not long ago, I ran into a guy who’d been involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, that great upwelling in southern Manhattan in the fall of 2011 that catalyzed a global conversation and a series of actions and occupations nationwide and globally. He offered a tailspin of a description of how Occupy was over and had failed.

But I wonder: How could he possibly know? It really is too soon to tell. First of all, maybe the kid who will lead the movement that will save the world was catalyzed by what she lived through or stumbled upon in Occupy Fresno or Occupy Memphis, and we won’t reap what she sows until 2023 or 2043. Maybe the seeds of something more were sown, as they were in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968 and Charter 77, for the great and unforeseen harvest that was the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the nonviolent overthrow of the Soviet totalitarian state in that country.

Second, Occupy began to say what needed to be said about greed and capitalism, exposing a brutality that had long been hushed up, revealing both the victims of debt and the rigged economy that created it. This country changed because those things were said out loud. I can’t say exactly how, but I know it mattered. So much that matters is immeasurable, unquantifiable, and beyond price. Laws around banking, foreclosure, and student loans are changing — not enough, not everywhere, but some people will benefit, and they matter.  Occupy didn’t cause those changes directly, but it did much to make the voice of the people audible and the sheer wrongness of our debt system visible — and gave momentum to the ongoing endeavors to overturn Citizens United and abolish corporate personhood.

Third, I only know a little of what the thousands of local gatherings and networks we mean by “Occupy” are now doing, but I know that Occupy Sandy is still doing vital work in the destruction zone of that hurricane and was about the best grassroots disaster relief endeavor this nation has ever seen. I know that Strike Debt, a direct offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, has relieved millions of dollars in medical debt, not with the sense that we can fix all debt this way, but that we can demonstrate the malleability, the artifice, and the immorality of the student, medical, and housing debt that is destroying so many lives. I know that the Occupy Homes foreclosure defenders have been doing amazing things, often one home at a time, from Atlanta to Minneapolis. (Last Friday, Occupy Our Homes organized a “showdown at the Department of Justice” in Washington, D.C.; that Saturday, Strike Debt Bay Area held their second Debtors’ Assembly: undead from coast to coast.)

Fourth, I know people personally whose lives were changed, and who are doing work they never imagined they would be involved in, and I’m friends with remarkable people who, but for Occupy, I would not know existed. People connected across class, racial, and cultural lines in the flowering of that movement.  Like Freedom Summer, whose consequences were to be felt so far beyond Mississippi in 1964, this will have reach beyond the moment in which I write and you read.

Finally, there was great joy at the time , the joy of liberation and of solidarity, and joy is worth something in itself. In a sense, it’s worth everything, even if it’s always fleeting, though not always as scarce as we imagine.

Climates of Hope and Fear

I had lunch with Middle East and nonviolence scholar Stephen Zunes the other day and asked him what he would say about the Arab Spring now. He had, he told me, been in Egypt several months ago watching television with an activist. Formerly, the news was always about what the leaders did, decided, ordained, inflicted. But the news they were watching was surprisingly focused on civil society, on what ordinary people initiated or resisted, on how they responded, what they thought. He spoke of how so many in the Middle East had lost their fatalism and sense of powerlessness and awoken to their own collective power.

This civil society remains awake in Egypt and the other countries.  What will it achieve? Maybe it’s too soon to tell. Syria is a turbulent version of hell now, but it could be leaving the dynasty of the Assads in the past; its future remains to be written.  Perhaps its people will indeed write the next chapter in its story, and not only with explosives.

You can tell the arc of the past few years as, first, the Arab Spring, then extraordinary civil society actions in Chile, Quebec, Spain, and elsewhere, followed by Occupy. But don’t stop there.

After Occupy came Idle No More, the Canada-based explosion of indigenous power and resistance (to a Canadian government that has gone over to the far right and to environmental destruction on a grand scale). It was founded by four women in November of 2012 and it’s spread across North America, sparking new environmental actions and new coalitions around environmental and climate issues, with flash-mob-style powwows in shopping malls and other places, with a thousand-mile walk (and snowshoe) by seven Cree youth this winter. (There were 400 people with them by the time they arrived at Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa.)

Idle No More activists have vowed to block the construction of any pipeline that tries to transport the particularly dirty crude oil from the Alberta tar sands, whether it heads north, east, or west from northern Alberta. Each of those directions takes it over native land. This is part of the reason why tar sands supporters are pushing so hard to build the Keystone XL pipelinefrom Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Thankfully, the push back is also strong. Our fate may depend on it. As climate scientist James Hansen wrote a year ago, “Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas, and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.”

The news just came in that we reached 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the highest level in more than five million years. This is terrible news on a scale that eclipses everything else, because it encompasses everything else. We are wrecking our world, for everyone for all time, or at least the next several thousand years. But “we” is a tricky word here. Some of the people I most love and admire are doing extraordinary things to save the world, for you, for us, for generations unborn, for species yet to be named, for the oceans and sub-Saharan Africans and Arctic dwellers and everyone in-between, for the whole unbearably beautiful symphony of life on Earth that is imperiled.

Part of what sustains me in the face of this potential cataclysm is remembering that, in 2003, there hardly was a climate movement. It was small, polite, mostly believed the troubles were decades away, and was populated with people who thought that lifestyle changes could save the planet — rather than that you have to get out there and fight the power. And they were the good ones.  Too many of us didn’t think about it at all.

Only a few years later, things have changed. There’s a vibrant climate movement in North America.  If you haven’t quite taken that in, it might be because it’s working on so many disparate fronts that are often treated separately: mountaintop coal removal, coal-fired power plants (closing 145 existing ones to date and preventing more than 150 planned ones from opening), fracking, oil exploration in the Arctic, the Tar Sands pipeline, and 350.org’s juggernaut of a campus campaign to promote disinvestment from oil, gas, and coal companies.  Only started in November 2012, there are already divestment movements underway on more than 380 college and university campuses, and now cities are getting on board.  It has significant victories; it will have more.

Some countries — notably Germany, with Denmark not far behind — have done remarkable things when it comes to promoting non-fossil-fuel renewable energy. Copenhagen, for example, in the cold gray north, is on track to become a carbon-neutral city by 2025 (and in the meantime reduced its carbon emissions 25% between 2005 and 2011). The United States has a host of promising smaller projects.  To offer just two examples,Los Angeles has committed to being coal-free by 2025, while San Francisco will offer its citizens electricity from 100% renewable and carbon-neutral sources and its supervisors just voted to divest the city’s fossil-fuel stocks.

There are so many pieces of the potential solution to this puzzle, and some of them are for you to put together. Whether they will multiply or ever add up to enough we don’t yet know. We need more: more people, more transformations, more ways to conquer and dismantle the oil companies, more of a vision of what is at stake, more of the great force that is civil society. Will we get it? I don’t know. Neither do you. Anything could happen.

But here’s what I’m saying: you should wake up amazed every day of your life, because if I had told you in 1988 that, within three years, the Soviet satellite states would liberate themselves nonviolently and the Soviet Union would cease to exist, you would have thought I was crazy. If I had told you in 1990 that South America was on its way to liberating itself and becoming a continent of progressive and democratic experiments, you would have considered me delusional.  If, in November 2010, I had told you that, within months, the autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who had dominated Egypt since 1981, would be overthrown by 18 days of popular uprisings, or that the dictators of Tunisia and Libya would be ousted, all in the same year, you would have institutionalized me.  If I told you on September 16, 2011, that a bunch of kids sitting in a park in lower Manhattan would rock the country, you’d say I was beyond delusional.  You would have, if you believed as the despairing do, that the future is invariably going to look like the present, only more so.  It won’t.

I still value hope, but I see it as only part of what’s required, a starting point.  Think of it as the match but not the tinder or the blaze.  To matter, to change the world, you also need devotion and will and you need to act. Hope is only where it begins, though I’ve also seen people toil on without regard to hope, to what they believe is possible. They live on principle and they gamble, and sometimes they even win, or sometimes the goal they were aiming for is reached long after their deaths.  Still, it’s action that gets you there. When what was once hoped for is realized, it falls into the background, becomes the new normal; and we hope for or carp about something else.

The future is bigger than our imaginations. It’s unimaginable, and then it comes anyway. To meet it we need to keep going, to walk past what we can imagine. We need to be unstoppable. And here’s what it takes: you don’t stop walking to congratulate yourself; you don’t stop walking to wallow in despair; you don’t stop because your own life got too comfortable or too rough; you don’t stop because you won; you don’t stop because you lost. There’s more to win, more to lose, others who need you.

You don’t stop walking because there is no way forward. Of course there is no way. You walk the path into being, you make the way, and if you do it well, others can follow the route. You look backward to grasp the long history you’re moving forward from, the paths others have made, the road you came in on. You look forward to possibility.  That’s what we mean by hope, and you look past it into the impossible and that doesn’t stop you either. But mostly you just walk, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. That’s what makes you unstoppable.

Rebecca Solnit’s first essay for Tomdispatch.com turned into the book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, since translated into eight languages. Portions of this essay began life as the keynote speech at the National Lawyers’ Guild gala in honor of attorney and human rights activist Walter Riley, whose own life is a beautiful example of unstoppability. Solnit’s latest book, The Faraway Nearby, will be published in June. 

Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit

The Downwinders

Reprinted from TomDispatch.com

Fracking Ourselves to Death in Pennsylvania

By Ellen Cantarow

More than 70 years ago, a chemical attack was launched against Washington State and Nevada. It poisoned people, animals, everything that grew, breathed air, and drank water. The Marshall Islands were also struck. This formerly pristine Pacific atoll was branded “the most contaminated place in the world.” As their cancers developed, the victims of atomic testing and nuclear weapons development got a name: downwinders. What marked their tragedy was the darkness in which they were kept about what was being done to them. Proof of harm fell to them, not to the U.S. government agencies responsible.

Now, a new generation of downwinders is getting sick as an emerging  industry pushes the next wonder technology — in this case, high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Whether they live in Texas, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, their symptoms are the same: rashes, nosebleeds, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, joint pain, intestinal illnesses, memory loss, and more. “In my opinion,” says Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “what we see unfolding is a serious health crisis, one that is just beginning.”

The process of “fracking” starts by drilling a mile or more vertically, then outward laterally into 500-million-year-old shale formations, the remains of oceans that once flowed over parts of North America. Millions of gallons of chemical and sand-laced water are then propelled into the ground at high pressures, fracturing the shale and forcing the methane it contains out. With the release of that gas come thousands of gallons of contaminated water. This “flowback” fluid contains the original fracking chemicals, plus heavy metals and radioactive material that also lay safely buried in the shale.

The industry that uses this technology calls its product “natural gas,” but there’s nothing natural about up-ending half a billion years of safe storage of methane and everything that surrounds it. It is, in fact, an act of ecological violence around which alien infrastructures — compressor stations that compact the gas for pipeline transport, ponds of contaminated flowback, flare stacks that burn off gas impurities, diesel trucks in quantity, thousands of miles of pipelines, and more — have metastasized across rural America, pumping carcinogens and toxins into water, air, and soil.

Sixty percent of Pennsylvania lies over a huge shale sprawl called the Marcellus, and that has been in the fracking industry’s sights since 2008.  The corporations that are exploiting the shale come to the state with lavish federal entitlements: exemptions from the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Clean Drinking Water Acts, as well as the Superfund Act, which requires cleanup of hazardous substances. The industry doesn’t have to call its trillions of gallons of annual waste “hazardous.” Instead, it uses euphemisms like “residual waste.” In addition, fracking companies are allowed to keep secret many of the chemicals they use.

Pennsylvania, in turn, adds its own privileges. A revolving door shuttles former legislators, governors, and officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) into gas industry positions. The DEP itself is now the object of a lawsuit that charges the agency with producing deceptive lab reports, and then using them to dismiss homeowners’ complaints that shale gas corporations have contaminated their water, making them sick. The people I interviewed have their own nickname for the DEP: “Don’t Expect Protection.”

The Downwinders

Randy Moyer is a pleasant-faced, bearded 49-year-old whose drawl reminds you that Portage, his hardscrabble hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania, is part of Appalachia. He worked 18 years — until gasoline prices got too steep — driving his own rigs to haul waste in New York and New Jersey. Then what looked like a great opportunity presented itself: $25 an hour working for a hydraulic-fracturing subcontractor in northeastern Pennsylvania.

In addition to hauling fracking liquid, water, and waste, Randy also did what’s called, with no irony, “environmental.” He climbed into large vats to squeegee out the remains of fracking fluid. He also cleaned the huge mats laid down around the wells to even the ground out for truck traffic. Those mats get saturated with “drilling mud,” a viscous, chemical-laden fluid that eases the passage of the drills into the shale. What his employer never told him was that the drilling mud, as well as the wastewater from fracking, is not only highly toxic, but radioactive.

In the wee hours of a very cold day in November 2011, he stood in a huge basin at a well site, washing 1,000 mats with high-pressure hoses, taking breaks every so often to warm his feet in his truck. “I took off my shoes and my feet were as red as a tomato,” he told me. When the air from the heater hit them, he “nearly went through the roof.”

Once at home, he scrubbed his feet, but the excruciating pain didn’t abate. A “rash” that covered his feet soon spread up to his torso. A year and a half later, the skin inflammation still recurs. His upper lip repeatedly swells. A couple of times his tongue swelled so large that he had press it down with a spoon to be able to breathe. “I’ve been fried for over 13 months with this stuff,” he told me in late January. “I can just imagine what hell is like. It feels like I’m absolutely on fire.”

Family and friends have taken Moyer to emergency rooms at least four times. He has consulted more than 40 doctors. No one can say what caused the rashes, or his headaches, migraines, chest pain, and irregular heartbeat, or the shooting pains down his back and legs, his blurred vision, vertigo, memory loss, the constant white noise in his ears, and the breathing troubles that require him to stash inhalers throughout his small apartment.

In an earlier era, workers’ illnesses fell into the realm of “industrial medicine.” But these days, when it comes to the U.S. fracking industry, the canaries aren’t restricted to the coalmines. People like Randy seem to be the harbingers of what happens when a toxic environment is no longer buried miles beneath the earth. The gas fields that evidently poisoned him are located near thriving communities. “For just about every other industry I can imagine,” says Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, coauthor of a landmark study that established fracking’s colossal greenhouse-gas footprint, “from making paint, building a toaster, building an automobile, those traditional kinds of industry occur in a zoned industrial area, inside of buildings, separated from home and farm, separated from schools.” By contrast, natural gas corporations, he says, “are imposing on us the requirement to locate our homes, hospitals and schools inside their industrial space.”

The Death and Life of Little Rose

Little Rose was Angel Smith’s favorite horse. When the vet shod her, Angel told me proudly, she obligingly lifted the next hoof as soon as the previous one was done. “Wanna eat, Rosie?” Angel would ask, and Rosie would nod her head. “Are you sure?” Angel would tease, and Rosie would raise one foreleg, clicking her teeth together.  In Clearville, just south of Portage, Angel rode Little Rose in parades, carrying the family’s American flag.Turse_BookIn 2002, a “landman” knocked on the door and asked Angel and her husband Wayne to lease the gas rights of their 115-acre farm to the San Francisco-based energy corporation PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric.) At first, he was polite, but then he started bullying. “All your neighbors have signed. If you don’t, we’ll just suck the gas from under your land.” Perhaps from weariness and a lack of information (almost no one outside the industry then knew anything about high-volume hydraulic fracturing), they agreed. Drilling began in 2002 on neighbors’ land and in 2005 on the Smith’s.

On January 30, 2007, Little Rose staggered, fell, and couldn’t get up. Her legs moved spasmodically. When Wayne and Angel dragged her to a sitting position, she’d just collapse again. “I called every vet in the phone book,” says Angel. “They all said, ‘Shoot her.’” The couple couldn’t bear to do it. After two days, a neighbor shot her. “It was our choice,” says Angel, her voice breaking. “She was my best friend.”

Soon, the Smiths’ cows began showing similar symptoms. Those that didn’t die began aborting or giving birth to dead calves. All the chickens died, too. So did the barn cats. And so did three beloved dogs, none of them old, all previously healthy. A 2012 study by Michelle Bamberger and Cornell University pharmacology professor Robert Oswald indicates that, in the gas fields, these are typical symptoms in animals and often serve as early warning signs for their owners’ subsequent illnesses.

The Smiths asked the DEP to test their water.  The agency told them that it was safe to drink, but Angel Smith says that subsequent testing by Pennsylvania State University investigators revealed high levels of arsenic.

Meanwhile, the couple began suffering from headaches, nosebleeds, fatigue, throat and eye irritation, and shortness of breath. Wayne’s belly began swelling oddly, even though, says Angel, he isn’t heavy. X-rays of his lungs showed scarring and calcium deposits. A blood analysis revealed cirrhosis of the liver. “Get him to stop drinking,” said the doctor who drew Angel aside after the results came in. “Wayne doesn’t drink,” she replied. Neither does Angel, who at 42 now has liver disease.

By the time the animals began dying, five high-volume wells had been drilled on neighbors’ land. Soon, water started bubbling up under their barn floor and an oily sheen and foam appeared on their pond. In 2008, a compressor station was built half a mile away.  These facilities, which compress natural gas for pipeline transport, emit known carcinogens and toxins like benzene and toluene.

The Smiths say people they know elsewhere in Clearville have had similar health problems, as have their animals. For a while they thought their own animals’ troubles were over, but just this past February several cows aborted. The couple would like to move away, but can’t. No one will buy their land.

The Museum of Fracking

Unlike the Smiths, David and Linda Headley didn’t lease their land. In 2005, when they bought their farm in Smithfield, they opted not to pay for the gas rights under their land.  The shallow gas drilling their parents had known seemed part of a bygone era and the expense hardly seemed worth the bother.

With its hills and valleys, the creek running through their land, and a spring that supplied them with water, the land seemed perfect for hiking, swimming, and raising their son Grant. Adam was born after all the trouble started.

Just as the couple had completed the purchase, the bulldozers moved in. The previous owner had leased the gas rights without telling them. And so they found themselves, as they would later put it, mere “caretakers” on a corporate estate.

Today, the Headleys’ property is a kind of museum of fracking. There are five wells, all with attendant tanks that separate liquids from the gas, and a brine tank where flowback is stored. Four of the wells are low-volume vertical ones, which use a fracking technology that predates today’s high-volume method. A couple minutes’ walk from the Headleys’ front door stands a high-volume well. A pipeline was drilled under their creek.

“Accidents” have been a constant. When the well closest to the house was fracked, their spring, which had abounded in vegetation, crawfish, and insects, went bad. The DEP told the Headleys, as it did the Smiths, that the water was still safe to drink. But, says David, “everything in the spring died and turned white.” Adam had just been born. “No way was I exposing my kids to that.” For two years he hauled water to the house from the homes of family and friends and then he had it connected to a city water line.

All the brine tanks have leaked toxic waste onto the Headley’s land. Contaminated soil from around the high-volume tank has been alternately stored in dumpsters and in an open pit next to the well. The Headleys begged the DEP to have it removed. David says an agency representative told them the waste would have to be tested for radioactivity first. Eventually, some of it was hauled away; the rest was buried under the Headleys’ land. The test for radioactivity is still pending, though David has his own Geiger counter which has measured high levels at the site of the well.

An independent environmental organization, Earthworks, included the Headleys among 55 households it surveyed in a recent study of health problems near gas facilities. Testing showed high levels of contaminants in the Headleys’ air, including chloromethane, a neurotoxin, and trichloroethene, a known carcinogen.

Perhaps more telling is the simple fact that everyone in the family is sick. Seventeen-year-old Grant has rashes that, like Randy Moyer’s, periodically appear on different parts of his body. Four-year-old Adam suffers from stomach cramps that make him scream. David says he and Linda have both had “terrible joint pain. It’s weird stuff, your left elbow, your right hip, then you’ll feel good for three days, and it’ll be your back.” At 42, with no previous family history of either arthritis or asthma, Linda has been diagnosed with both. Everyone has had nosebleeds — including the horses.

Five years into the Marcellus gas rush in this part of Pennsylvania, symptoms like Randy Moyer’s, the Smiths’, and the Headleys’ are increasingly common. Children are experiencing problems the young almost never have, like joint pain and forgetfulness. Animal disorders and deaths are widespread. The Earthworks study suggests that living closer to gas-field infrastructure increases the severity of 25 common symptoms, including skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and nausea.

Don’t Expect Protection

DEP whistleblowers have disclosed that the agency purposely restricts its chemical testing so as to reduce evidence of harm to landownersA resident in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Washington County is suing the agency for failing fully to investigate the drilling-related air and water contamination that she says has made her sick. In connection with the lawsuit, Democratic state representative Jesse White has demanded that state and federal agencies investigate the DEP for “alleged misconduct and fraud.”

In the absence of any genuine state protection, independent scientists have been left to fill the gap. But as the industry careens forward, matching symptoms with potential causes is a constant catch-up effort. A 2011 study by Theo Colborn, founder of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange and recipient the National Council for Science and Environment’s Lifetime Achievement Award, identified 353 industry chemicals that could damage the skin, the brain, the respiratory, gastrointestinal, immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine (hormone production) systems. Twenty-five percent of the chemicals found by the study could cause cancers.

David Brown is a veteran toxicologist and consultant for an independent environmental health organization, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. According to him, there are four routes of exposure to gas-field chemicals: water, air, soil, and food. In other words, virtually everything that surrounds us.

Exposure to water comes from drinking, but showering and bathing makes possible water exposure through the skin and inhaling water vapor. “Air exposure is even more complicated,” says Brown. The impacts of contaminated air, for example, are greater during heavy activity. “Children running around,” he says, “are more apt to be exposed than older people.” What further complicates the emerging toxicology is that chemicals act not as single agents but synergistically. “The presence of one agent,” says Brown, “can increase the toxicity of another by several-fold.”

Brown deplores the government’s failures to heed citizens’ cries for help. “No one is asking, ‘What happened to you? Are there other people who have been affected in your area?’ I teach ethics. There’s a level of moral responsibility that we should have nationally. We seem to have decided that we need energy so badly… that we have in almost a passive sense identified individuals and areas to sacrifice.”

Circles of Trust

No one I interviewed in communities impacted by fracking in southwestern Pennsylvania drinks their water anymore. In fact, I came to think of a case of Poland Spring as a better house gift than any wine (and I wasn’t alone in that). Breathing the air is in a different universe of risk. You can’t bottle clean air, but you can donate air purifiers, as one interviewee, who prefers to be unnamed, has been doing.

Think of her as a creator of what a new Pennsylvania friend of mine calls “circles of trust.” The energy industry splits communities and families into warring factions. Such hostilities are easy to find, but in the midst of catastrophe I also found mutual assistance and a resurgence of the human drive for connection.

Ron Gulla, a John Deere heavy equipment salesman, is driven by fury at the corporation that ruined his soil — his was the second farm in Pennsylvania to be fracked — but also by deep feeling for the land: “A farm is just like raising a child. You take care of it, you nurture it, and you know when there are problems.”

Gulla credits Barbara Arindell, founder of the country’s first anti-fracking organization, Pennsylvania’s Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, with teaching him about the dangers of the industry’s efforts. Now, he is a central figure in an ever-widening network of people who are becoming their own documentarians. Everyone I interviewed brought out files of evidence to show me: photographs, videos, news reports, and their own written records of events.

Moreover, in the midst of ongoing stress, many have become activists. Linda Headley and Ron Gulla, for instance, traveled with other Pennsylvanians to Albany this past February to warn New York State officials not to endorse fracking. “A lot of people have said, ‘Why don’t you just walk away from this?’” says Gulla. “[But] I was raised to think that if there was something wrong, you would bring it to people’s attention.’”

“You have to believe things happen for a reason,” says David Headley. “It’s drawn so many people together we didn’t know before.  You have these meetings, and you’re fighting [for] a common cause and you feel so close to the people you’re working with. Including you guys, the reporters. It’s made us like a big family. Really. You think you’re all alone, and somebody pops up. God always sends angels.”

Still, make no mistake: this is an alarming and growing public health emergency. “Short of relocating entire communities or banning fracking, ending airborne exposures cannot be done,” David Brown said in a recent address in New York State. “Our only option in Washington County… has been to try to find ways for residents to reduce their exposures and warn them when the air is especially dangerous to breathe.”

In the vacuum left by the state’s failure to offer protection to those living in fracking zones, volunteers, experts like Brown, and fledgling organizations like the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project have become the new protectors of citizens’ health. Growing numbers of fracking victims, including Angel and Wayne Smith, are also suing gas corporations. “If I could go back to 2000, I’d show them the end of the road and say, ‘Don’t come back,’” Angel told me. “But we’re in the situation now. Fight and go forward.”


Ellen Cantarow first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. A TomDispatch regular, her writing has been published in the Village Voice,Grand StreetMother Jones, Alternet, Counterpunch, and ZNet, and anthologized by the South End Press. She is also lead author and general editor of an oral history trilogy, Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change.


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Copyright 2013 Ellen Cantarow

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