Shut Up or the Kid Dies. What the Frack?

When hydraulic fracturing goes wrong, people get sick and corporations silence them. What the Frack? Climate Justice and Our Culture was the highlight of my final day at SXSW Eco 2013. This five-member panel was led by Dr. M.K. Dorsey, director of the Climate Justice Research Project at Dartmouth College. I was stunned by what I heard in this session; here are some highlights.

If you're not familiar with hydraulic fracturing, click here for a simple summary.

Hundreds of chemicals are mixed with sand and water, and millions of gallons of this mixture are blasted into the ground until the earth to cracks. Natural gas is collected as it escapes through these cracks, and much of the chemical cocktail remains in the earth. Details of the poisonous mixture are kept secret by gas companies, but about half of the ingredients are known. Many of the chemicals have been linked to cancer and others are known to cause respiratory damage. Some of this stuff can short-circuit the way your brain communicates with your body, it can also impact your fertility. We don’t know exactly how these chemicals affect children, but we do know that this crap has caused serious illnesses.

During this session, Michael Green told a story so appalling that I thought it could only happen in some third-world country that I’m too lazy to read about; he explained how gas companies silence their victims. Green is some bigwig from the Center for Environmental Health, which is dedicated to protecting children from toxic threats. His story resembled that Erin Brockovich movie, but there’s more poison, less ethical behavior, no Julia Roberts and zero justice.

When fracking goes wrong people get sick, particularly children. The illnesses vary, and doctors don’t know how to care for the children because they don’t know what’s happening to them. Doctors need a wide range of information to treat patients that have been exposed to toxins, but gas companies are determined to conceal the most important information, the ingredients of their chemical cocktails. Fortunately, a few states will help doctors access the list of chemicals used by their friendly neighborhood gas companies, but only if the doctors sign an agreement to keep the list secret. If the doctors agree, they get information that will help them prescribe treatment, but they can’t share it with anyone. They can’t tell parents what the hell poisoned their kids.

The prescribed treatment usually involves what I’ll call “Moveitall:” doctors tell families to leave their homes and settle elsewhere. Unfortunately, most parents can’t afford to move out of harm’s way or pay for endless medical treatment. Fortunately, the folks from the gas companies are willing to help…if the parents and children promise to shut the fuck up. That’s right, Mother Fracking Inc. gets the family to sign legally binding gag orders, which last forever, in exchange for a few bucks.

Since the parents and their children are bound to silence, they can’t warn their neighbors, the dangers of fracking are swept under the rug, gas companies can claim that there are no documented cases of contamination and the poisoning continues. Green helped me realize that this blend of toxicity and corruption festers when people aren’t paying attention; it exists in a void created by ignorance and indifference. We have to stop it, but how? Another member of the panel shared his optimism and suggestions.

The Rev. Lennox Yearwood’s portion of the session was optimistic and compelling. He believes that the fossil fuel industry is on the verge of crumbling and that people can organize to accelerate its demise. Yearwood is focused on broadening the movement to stop people who profit from destroying Earth. He’s currently president of the Hip Hop Caucus, a powerful organization that engages and mobilizes young folks. Somehow he simultaneously exudes strong leadership and humility. Watching him speak is captivating, his words are compelling, he knows how to connect with people, and he knows how to command a room, or a hallway, or kitchen table, even if it were made of wicker.

Yearwood said, “This is more important than the civil rights movement.” A statement like that will get anyone’s attention, especially if the person who said it is black and you’re white. Yearwood already had my attention, but that statement gave me a new perspective and got me thinking. With the gears in motion, I listened as he shared tips for engaging people.

Yearwood explained that a message or campaign has to be hard-hitting, inspiring and empowering. He didn’t seem to be a fan of using guilt to motivate people, which is all too common with environmentalism. Yearwood didn’t sound like someone who says, “Look what you did.” He seemed like a “Look what you can do” kind of guy. And like any activist, he knows the value of reaching out to people with grassroots tactics, but he stressed the importance of a polished appearance, “You can’t do it any old way.” If you’re trying to connect with people watching B.E.T., your message needs to have the same style as what B.E.T. viewers are used to seeing. Sure that sounds elementary, but it’s something that eco activists seem to forget.

Paul Miller spoke next; within his humble demeanor lives a reverence for creativity. He refers to the imagination as “the ultimate renewable resource,” and he’s been putting it to work for decades. I first met Miller in the mid-90s. Back then he was “DJ Spooky,” a popular underground musician. He’s still dialed in to the underground, but now his artistic influence extends far beyond the warehouse music scene. Miller is the first Artist in Residence at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and his music, film and writing projects have been featured in major museums and publications around the world. He’s the executive editor for Origin magazine and founder of the Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation, which combines his creative talents with his passion for activism.

In his usual matter-of-fact tone, Miller explained that art is essential to any social movement. He discussed the landscape interventionism of Frederick Olmsted (the dude who designed NYC’s Central Park) and Caspar Fredrich (he painted some cool shit). Miller reminded the audience, “Music isn’t music; it’s information.” American protests during the Vietnam era and the rise against apartheid in South Africa prove that music is a powerful force that drives change. He is confident that creativity can help restore the balance of social justice.


Ignorance is really, really profitable

                                                                    – Paul Miller

Corporations wield unprecedented amounts of money to act with impunity. “If I say the sky is blue, and they have enough money to fund a huge media blitz saying that the sky is gray, you get a bunch of zombies walking around saying, ‘The skyyy is graaay.’” That might sound silly, but I know people who still think climate change isn’t happening. How is that possible? Miller says that citizens don’t have the bankroll required to fight the misinformation spewed by these high-powered perception manipulators, but, in the post-Snowden world, we have to think about information in every dimension, apply our cultural capital and out-imagine those fracking bastards. Miller encouraged everyone to use the media against itself. He closed with this, “The facts are there. The science is there. Now we need to take it to the reality of the imagination.”

The session ended with a Q&A, and the most human moment I’ve seen at any conference. The Rev. Yearwood shared a poignant experience he had at the funeral of a 14-year-old girl who succumbed to respiratory issues caused by a landfill near her home.

He recalled delivering the eulogy while a grief-stricken mother screamed in agony as she attempted to climb into her daughter’s coffin. Once again, Yearwood had my attention. And the room, packed with SXSW Eco attendees, was perfectly silent. Yearwood’s lips tightened, and he lowered his head as he tried to maintain his composure. His voice cracked when he spoke again, “When you see that, a mother trying to climb into a coffin with her child…” He didn’t need to finish the sentence, we understood. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to see Yearwood tell this story, he shared a lot more than mere words. What would happen if more people shared stories like this?

Shut the fuck up or the kid dies.




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