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Fracking Humanity

{Editors’ note: Environment and Human Rights Advisory recently released a report on the human rights implications of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas production. The report’s author Tom Kerns, Executive Director of EHRA, and Tina Lynn Evans, who organized the network of individuals and organizations that brought the report to fruition, reflect on the intersection between environmental damage and damage to human health. They call upon us to consider the fundamental moral implications of fracking and to use the concept of universal human rights as a defining feature of our engagement with the environment and other people.}

I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man;
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.

— Bob Dylan

“It’s the economy, stupid.” That refrain from the 1992 presidential election would aptly describe the subject of most concern to many in the U.S. today. This is not surprising in the aftermath of the bursting housing bubble and the larceny committed by the banks (with government assistance), and it’s not surprising in an atmosphere of crushing unemployment and myriad underwater mortgages.

But we should know that “the economy” as we knew it (even in the times of Clinton-era government surpluses) had largely been transformed by free trade and other policies into a financial sector casino economy. We know also that the boom that preceded the economic crash of 2008 had been sustained in part by ever-mounting personal and government debt. Many of us know as well that, in an atmosphere of dwindling global oil supplies, high oil prices, and continued oil price volatility, returning to economic growth as we have known it in recent decades will be extremely challenging — if it’s even possible.

Within this volatile social context, the natural gas industry has some easy cards to play: promises of jobs, income from mineral leases, and energy independence. It’s tough for many to resist the allure of these promises to provide a quick fix for what ails us. We may be reluctant to look the industry’s gift horse in the mouth.

Many of us are also understandably focused on the economic and financial mess we’re in at present. We may feel we don’t have the time or energy to consider the long-term implications of the gas industry’s drive to open up extensive drilling operations in the watersheds of many of our largest cities. Some of us are ready to dismiss the experiences of more remote areas in the West and in the farmlands of Pennsylvania where individuals and communities have pointed to widespread hydraulic fracturing as a source of toxic contamination that has degraded their lives and made them sick.

But colluding with the gas industry as a means to fix to our current problems could mean signing a devil’s bargain. In the process, we may trade away our individual and collective health, and risk compromising the moral integrity that is fundamental to our humanness. Most would agree that empathy and concern for others are important aspects of our humanity, and that a fundamental baseline for moral engagement with others is the refusal to knowingly impose harm upon them without their knowledge and consent.

In addressing complex social and environmental issues like fracking, one way that we can lose sight of moral challenges to our humanity is by looking at the dilemmas we face through only one lens — perhaps the economic or jobs lens, or the energy independence lens. In doing so, we risk “the danger of the single story,” a risk laid out so well by Chimamanda Adichie when describing her life growing up in Nigeria.

When we look at fracking through just one lens, we can overlook the myriad other dimensions of the issue, including risks to drinking water wells, aquifers, ambient air quality, soils, agriculture, and farm animals. We can also overlook the adverse impacts of a short-term boomtown economy on local social service agencies, public safety, schools, businesses, infrastructures (e.g., roads, power grids, water treatment systems), and more. Viewing fracking through a single lens may also mean not considering long-term risks such as late-developing adverse human health effects, the not insignificant contribution of fugitive methane emissions to climate change, and the permanent removal (in a water-challenged age) of several billion gallons of water per year from the earth’s hydrologic cycle.

The modern human rights movement offers us a values-oriented lens for examining and addressing complex social and environmental issues in ways that uphold our moral integrity and our humanity. This movement captured and gave voice to the moral outrage at the end of World War II ignited by the horrific events in Germany that, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), “outraged the conscience of mankind.” These atrocities had taken place in a modern Western-world country with a democratically elected government and an educated populace. They were also implemented according to legally enacted ordinances and were regulated and overseen by legally created agencies. If such atrocities can be committed within the rule of law, what means might people use to confront such inhumanity and create a framework for moral treatment of others in the modern world?

The moral values expressed in the UDHR and codified in all the treaties, declarations, and conventions that followed it embody an attempt to lay down a set of fundamental moral norms, more fundamental even than the laws of nation states, that can serve as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples” (UDHR Preamble).

Even though the so-called “relativity of moral norms” has always been a challenge for humankind, something genuinely unique came into the world with the signing and adoption of the UDHR; never before in human history had a document about moral values been conceived, written, and endorsed by representatives of virtually every nation on earth. René Cassin, one of the drafters of the UDHR (who, for his work, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968), is quoted as saying that, with the UDHR, “something new … entered the world.” It was, he said, “the first document about moral value adopted by an assembly of the human community.” {Quoted in Morsink, Johannes. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting and Intent. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1999, p. 33.}

While it would take some decades before the human rights movement and environmental activism would discover each other and come to appreciate their deep relevance to one another, when the realization finally did come, the connection ignited a rapidly growing movement that has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of environmentalists. During the past four or five years, several books and articles taking a human rights approach to environmental issues have been published. Several conferences have been held, and more have been announced, and there is now a Journal of Human Rights and the Environment and a Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment. New undergraduate college courses and courses in law schools now address this convergence, and recently a book was published on the history of the environment and human rights movement. {See Boyd, David. The Environmental Rights Revolution: A Global Study of Constitutions, Human Rights, and the Environment. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2012.}

We are witnessing the emergence of a new dimension of activism that has the potential to reshape the way we think about many environmental issues. This morally grounded movement has the power to inject new energy into environmental activism by acknowledging and underscoring basic human intuitions about right and wrong. It also offers a new platform for addressing environmental issues, including fracking, that are undertaken (as corporations and industry representatives are fond of saying) “in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.” This emerging movement has the power to articulate, validate, and give voice to the sense of moral outrage people feel about the extensive and long lasting damage being done to our earth, to human health, and to the well-being of families and communities around the world. The environment and human rights movement recognizes that what we are doing to the earth we are ultimately doing to ourselves and others, and that many environmental issues are, at their core, also human rights issues.

Fracking poses clear and significant risks to ecosystems and human health, risks that are most often imposed without the knowledge and consent of those placed in harm’s way. And so, with every drop of water and every grain of sand used in fracking, we may be shattering more than underground rock formations; we may be compromising our moral integrity as well. Only the will and the agency of individuals and communities can stop the poisoning of people and place for profit.

The collective voice of humanity worldwide made itself heard in the aftermath of the massive collective violence of World War II. A line was drawn with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Must we wait once more for the terrible legacy of our actions and our complacency to reveal the error of our ways, or can we build upon the existing intellectual and moral framework of universal human rights to draw a line in the sand to protect our humanity and our home?

Tina Lynn Evans, Ph.D., teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on energy systems and socio-ecological sustainability at Prescott College and Fort Lewis College, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. She earned her doctorate in Sustainability Education at Prescott College, and currently resides with her husband and cat in the town of Durango, Colorado, where she grows and gathers a good deal of her own food and teaches and writes on sustainability issues and ideas.

Tom Kerns is a semi-retired professor emeritus at Seattle Community College who teaches online courses in Philosophy, Bioethics, and Environment and Human Rights. Dr. Kerns is the author of Environmentally Induced Illnesses: Ethics, Risk Assessment and Human Rights (McFarland, 2001) and served as commissioner on the New Zealand People’s Inquiry (2006). Tom is Executive Director of Environment and Human Rights Advisory and on the board of Beyond Toxics and of Concerned Citizens for Clean Air.

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