Silent Winter, Silent Spring
I think Gasland is a ‘Silent Spring‘ for this decade. Somehow, it manages to remain uplifting and life-affirming, even while setting out a tale of environmental devastation, corporate greed, the corruption of public institutions, and the potential end of multicellular life on this planet.
The scenes of the exploding water are horrific and iconic. Although there are more sombre moments than this in the film, the scenes of methane explosions from drinking water supplies are exceptionally shocking. There is something supernaturally terrifying about those scenes: perhaps it’s that the people in frame are filmed expressing genuine fright and dismay. These scenes are almost too successful. We start to look for psychological buffers to lessen the shock, and this leaves us vulnerable to corporate propanagda.
Things have moved on since Gasland was released (2010, airing on HBO June 2010); shale gas fracking has now started in the UK; but it has been banned in France; and there has been a fightback against the film led by nauseating industry PR firms, which has latterly faltered as the film’s claims have been vindicated by academic and regulatory studies.
Semantic Sewage: Inside the Mind of a PR Officer
In some ways this industry PR movement is what fascinates me the most; perhaps I take it too personally. I want to know what sort of person can shill for psychotic biocidal corporations. I find their existence a personal affront.
A couple of general points might be helpful in paddling through this lagoon of intellectual sewage. As always, the tense semiotics of corporate propaganda leads to odd sentence constructions containing redundant words — these are the tell-tales of disinformation.
Take this phrase, for example, from Tim Yeo MP (no relation, I guess, to the yoghurt), chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, signing off a report allowing fracking to proceed in the UK with minimal or no regulatory oversight.
“There appears to be nothing inherently dangerous about the process of ‘fracking’ itself and as long as the integrity of the well is maintained shale gas extraction should be safe.”
The first few paras of the report have a similar tone:
“The inquiry found no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing process involved in shale gas extraction – known as ‘fracking’ – poses a direct risk to underground water aquifers provided the drilling well is constructed properly.”
“Nothing inherently dangerous about the process of ‘fracking’ itself“; why the adverb, and why the timorous reflexive pronoun? Why not say “Fracking is completely safe”? Why say that fracking poses “no direct risk” aquifers? Are we to understand that there is much *non-inherent* danger, and that it poses severe indirect risks? Answer: Yes. It’s as tedious, simple, and wicked as this. The report effaces the truth without making itself culpable of a lie; and the semantic contortions show that they have done this knowingly.
The counterpropaganda mounted by the industry depends on making a distinction between the act of fracking a deep gas well — that is, the moment at which water is forced into the well to open up the fractures — and the overall process of drilling for shale gas (so says Josh Fox, Affirming Gasland, p. 5; Scientific American confirms this, though the article is now behind a paywall). This is a childish semantic game which allows one to pretend to convince oneself that fracking does not affect water supplies: it’s not the fracking which does it, it’s the release of the gas after the fracking, combined with the existence of fractures or disused mine shafts in the geological layers above the shale, which allows the gas to migrate into the aquifer. This is the hidden meaning behind Yeo’s ‘not inherently dangerous': for some reason, he can’t bring himself to lie; so he hides in these pathetic word games.
Science and activism in the social networking age
Josh Fox makes an interesting point to Amy Goodman in his recent interview on Democracy Now! He says that the science on the dangers of fracking is trailing the journalism; it’s the journalists who are uncovering the effects, and that the scientists are running somewhat behind. Arrogance? In fact, this is what we should expect in the internet age: it’s possible for activists to assemble and marshall the evidence on an issue faster than academic scientists have. The lag time in universities is significant: it may take a year to get the funding or the research leave to look into something; another year to write it and two more years for the publication to emerge. In the interim, the field is open for the corporate propagandists.
We should realise that there is this lag time; otherwise we leave our minds undefended. A standard industry phrase is: ‘There is no proven instance of fracking contaminating water': yes, there will be no ‘proven’ instance (in an academic sense of ‘proven’) until the journals are published: those precious years are all the industry needs to get established. Meanwhile what are we to do with the massive, consistent, and overwhelming personal testimony to environmental devastation?
The Missing Issue: Climate Change
My only semi-criticism of the film is that it doesn’t (to my memory) go into climate change. It concentrates on the human stories and the tangible cases of environmental destruction, and dwells on the laughable perfidy of the gas industry representatives and their paid-off small town politicians; but these are minor sins compared to what would happen if all the shale gas were exploited and burned. Known reserves of petrochemicals cannot be exploited without runaway climate change wiping out all the major lifeforms on the planet. The real danger illustrated by shale gas goes beyond the destruction of forests, landscapes, livelihoods and animals: it is the economic mechanism whereby scarcity of hydrocarbon energy drives up the price and so makes it economically reasonable to exploit more of it. A fine piece of free market rationality which has already killed tens of thousands in floods, fires and droughts; and will do for the rest of us given a little more time.