Strangers in their own land: anger and mourning on the American right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press, 2016)
This nonfiction book written by a respected sociologist (her tenth book) is as readable as a novel. A resident of Berkeley, California, Dr. Hochschild spent the past six years visiting Louisiana, interviewing people on the political right and getting to know their culture. Her goal was to try to understand what she calls the Great Paradox. Red states that have the most industrial pollution and environmental damage consistently elect the most right wing Republican and Tea Party candidates. These politicians eliminate or fail to enforce environmental regulations, while offering incentives for fossil fuel companies to relocate to their states. Over the past twenty years states such as Louisiana have become havens for oil refineries, fracking operations, and all kinds of polluting industries. Hochschild takes a very personal approach in which she tries to “scale the empathy wall” and truly understand people whose political values are very different from her own. By visiting people’s homes, churches, and businesses, she gradually builds up a “deep story” about why people on the right end of the political spectrum prioritize jobs, their Christian faith, and their communities over the very real health impacts (such as cancer) that local environmental degradation is causing themselves and their families. Part of it is a deeply ingrained loyalty to the free market system and pride in being able to take care of themselves; part of it is a hatred of the federal government dating back to the Civil War. A key factor is that the South has an insular culture (most folks don’t ever travel far from home) with a heavy dependence on right-wing media sources like Fox News and talk radio. I recommend this book highly to liberal and progressive readers open-minded enough to want to understand people on the other end of the political spectrum.
Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh (Harper Collins 2016)
This book may have the distinction of being the first novel about the impact of fracking on the lives of ordinary Americans. Fracking is a new technology for extracting natural gas from deep in the earth which has disrupted the lives of residents of Pennsylvania, New York, and the Dakotas over the past ten years. Heat and Light is set in western Pennsylvania, in a fictitious town in the region of the Marcellus Shale geological formation. Jennifer Haigh tells the story from the points of view of several people: a worker in the fracking industry, a local prison guard and his family, a fracking activist, and a couple that owns a dairy farm. The local residents are initially thrilled to be offered money by the company that wants to drill under their land for natural gas, but there turn out to be unforeseen consequences.
Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale by Tom Wilbur (Cornell University Press, 2012)
Tom Wilbur was a reporter with the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin when he started reporting about fracking in the Marcellus Shale, and the story turned into a full-length book. Binghamton, New York is a city in southern New York just north of the Pennsylvania border, which you reach if you take I-81 north (as I have done many times) through the Endless Mountains region of northeastern Pennsylvania. I found this book to be very enlightening. Wilbur explains that the Marcellus Shale is a geologic formation underlying the Appalachian Mountains containing a great deal of natural gas. However, retrieving the gas was impossible or unprofitable until very recently, when hydraulic fracturing (fracking for short) began to be employed. Wilbur describes the advent of fracking in northeast Pennsylvania and southern New York from the perspectives of the property owners it affected and the local and state governments who were called upon to regulate it. It is particularly interesting to see how differently the states of New York and Pennsylvania reacted. Wilbur notes that many landowners are thrilled to get the money paid by the gas companies for drilling on their lands, and still feel that the initial problems were insignificant. On the other hand, he points out two major areas of contention between the parties: the secretive and inconsistent manner in which the leases and payments were negotiated, and the environmental issues that resulted in significant loss of property values for some unfortunate landowners. Although I have read of earthquakes being attributed to fracking, that issue was not mentioned by Wilbur. Instead, he focuses on documenting known cases of explosions and methane contamination of ground water, which form an important public record since gas companies often deny that these things occurred.