As a part of my efforts to gauge public opinion on sustainability topics, I follow a lot of groups and individuals on Twitter. (If you want to say hello, I tweet on @Capacified…) A recent announcement caught my interest, and led me to Burnley, Lancashire where Friends of the Earth were running a training and strategy event for people concerned about gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’. I went along primarily as an observer: somebody from out of town, not a member of Friends of the Earth, and not entirely sure where I stand on shale gas extraction. On the one hand, it appears to offer a solution to the gloomy refrain of my adult life, that North Sea oil and gas are running out; on the other, I know that giving our present-day economy access to more fossil fuels could be analogous to buying an alcoholic a bottle of whisky.
The path to meeting these folks did not run entirely smoothly. When I followed the link to register my interest (using the Eventbrite service) it acknowledged my booking but generated a ticket that gave the date and address for a similar event in Preston, twelve days later and at a different time. Fortunately, I checked my facts, and went to the right one… although I waited by the front entrance while all the regulars knew to go around the back. Things are a little ad-hoc, it seems.
While my students would crucify me for such vagaries, this is actually kind of cool. Gaining admittance to the meeting felt like slipping into a prohibition era speakeasy, or contacting a resistance movement – which is basically what it is. I had passed the test, if test it was, and gained admission.
Ultimately, there were thirteen of us, who I will attempt to categorise (with apologies if I misrepresent anybody’s position, but this is how it seemed to me…) as two staffers from Friends of the Earth, nine ‘deep green’ citizens from various groups, a geologist who described himself as “ambivalent” on fracking, and your humble narrator. We all introduced ourselves. Nobody tried to lynch me or the geologist. So far, so good.
Now, people who care enough to give up their evening for campaigning tend to be the passionate ones. They’re vocal, and they don’t always follow the agenda. Organiser Tim Atkinson did a good job of keeping things more-or-less on topic, but it wasn’t always easy. People wanted to talk about the evils of fracking in general (with the exception of the geologist) and didn’t always follow instructions when asked to participate in activities. At one stage, a roleplaying exercise saw our group selecting and briefing a ‘local councillor’ who would meet with representatives from the other group, the anti-fracking campaigners. Our guy would talk about local employment, “keeping the lights on”, and so on… but few of the people on our side wanted to come up with any arguments in favour of the exploratory fracking that’s now taking place. This is understandable, but I feel that one should at least try to anticipate the likely arguments of the ‘bad guys’, even if you can’t condone their position.
There was an elephant in the room, too: that of party politics. There seemed to be a consensus between all present that the political left were inherently well-disposed to listen, understand and do the right thing. This is borne out by the fact that the Green Party of England and Wales are socialists in a big way, and allies of the anti-fracking movement. For example, Green Member of Parliament Dr Caroline Lucas was arrested during a protest against Cuadrilla Resources’ fracking operations in Sussex – and subsequently found not guilty. It should be noted, however, that the Green Party have a relatively minor influence in UK politics: Dr Lucas provides the only representation in the House of Commons.
It’s true that the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition have granted licenses to drill for shale gas, but on a local level some Conservative councils have ruled against shale gas exploration on their patch. Fylde Borough Council’s development management committee decided to oppose an application the same day I met with the activists. Can a Conservative voter or public servant not be a ‘green’, at least as far as this issue is concerned? Will they always protect big business at the expense of citizens? I’m troubled by this “four legs good, two legs bad” simplifying of the political spectrum: when I think of all the environmental catastrophes of Soviet era heavy industry, it really doesn’t follow that socialism can always be equated with environmentally sound policy. Are the anti-frackers potentially turning away a lot of support because they combine the issue with a wider political one? I don’t know.
That said, the resistance movement has achieved a great deal, despite its volunteer roots, limited budget and the immense funding of their rivals. In August this year a council consultation saw an unprecedented 14,000 objections to Cuadrilla’s plans. One thing that impressed me about the protesters I met was that nobody appeared to be there only to ensure that their own hillsides and waterways should be defended: although organised into local groups, the aim is national and even international.
“Not NIMBYs but NOMPs,” our facilitator told me: “Not On My Planet”.
Where fracking proposals have been defeated, I am told, activists transfer their support to campaigns in other counties. In the face of such opposition it seems that the energy companies can’t hope to emulate the rapid uptake seen in the USA. Instead, it’s going to be an uphill battle, of the kind that makes investors nervous. The British respond instinctively to the plucky underdog; it’s part of our national myth, going back to the days of the Spanish Armada; maybe further. The group aroused in me a sympathy of the kind that you get for the rebels in Star Wars (1977) in their rag-tag struggle against the brute force of the Empire.
They’re real people, but they’re not ordinary people; ordinary people don’t understand the legislative landscape. Most folk couldn’t name their local councillors, nor tell you how to get an item onto the agenda at a public meeting. I suspect that the average ‘man in the street’ knows very little about the legal and civic processes of lobbying. I know I don’t: I’d have to think hard to remember the name of my MP, and I certainly couldn’t tell you who represents us in Europe. My own interests are centred upon establishing the sustainable supply chain by example – I want to make companies better because being less wasteful is more profitable. I regard legislation as flawed, in that it often solves the wrong problems, or gets derailed, or closes the stable door long after the horse has bolted. In this I think I share Jonathan Swift’s opinion of politicians:
“…that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”
– Jonathan Swift, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726)
There’s a dichotomy developing, as we see that ‘ordinary people’ have greatly increased ability to broadcast their thoughts, courtesy of the Internet… but a lot of the population seem to think that clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook page means they’ve done their bit. (This limited degree of involvement is called Slacktivism, and with good reason.) Apathy is a double-edged sword, though, because in an age when so few people take an interest in local affairs and politics, a small group can achieve a great deal. If a local councillor or Member of Parliament gets a hundred letters on a subject, it’s very influential. Such a postbag could be very persuasive, even though it might be achieved by mobilising a group of people attending just one large school or church. This was the key message of the training event: that each person should propagate the message, not simply taking part in events, but persuading others to take an interest.
By providing contact details for the relevant legislators, plus form letters for those who are struggling to express their concerns clearly, Friends of the Earth do what they can to make it easy for citizens to object.
Are those objections reasonable?
Are they based on good science?
I don’t know, yet. Some of the evidence against fracking – eloquently and passionately shared though it was – appeared to be only anecdotal. For example, I was told that a UK contractor was “caught fly-tipping used fracking fluid” – apparently they dumped a tanker-load or two into a canal? Well… that would be sensational. That would be a ‘smoking gun’, and the national newspapers would be all over it. And since used fracking fluid is a soup of unusual chemicals, often made mildly radioactive by its trip below ground, I’d expect to be able to prove that claim with ease, even weeks later.
For now, the only comment I can offer on that story is that Google doesn’t seem to want to share any such news item with me. Prove me wrong; send me the links I haven’t been able to find… but for now, I can’t endorse that particular part of the case against fracking. Meanwhile, in an effort to get some hard facts, a quick look on one of our library databases revealed 284 peer-reviewed academic papers that contain the word “fracking”.
It appears that I’m not going to be short of reading material for a while.