But as social observers like Robert Putnam have documented, mediating institutions have struggled over the past century. As part of his research, Jerolmack attended regional township meetings, board hearings, and other gatherings, many of which were about limiting the scope of fracking in the community. These forums are where private individuals might still be convinced to think collectively—where a sense of community spirit might help temper or fight a tendency toward apathy or self-interest. But these days, Jerolmack notes, “new industry-friendly laws enacted by the Republican-dominated government in Harrisburg neutered municipalities’ ability to use zoning to control how fracking proceeded within their jurisdictions.” The power of local governments to protect the commons was constantly circumvented by larger, stronger outside powers, policies, and regulations.
What’s more, the sociological impact of fracking on the Lycoming County community “was a noticeable turning-inward among residents, a heightened sense that they were going it alone rather than in the same boat.” In nearby Hughesville, five neighbors jointly sued a gas company that tainted their water, but after the gas company insisted “that they accept individual, and disparate, settlements,” the group began drifting apart. “Forced into a situation where the optimal strategy was to defect rather than cooperate with one another,” Jerolmack writes, “their sense of interconnectedness and mutual obligation withered.”
This matters deeply to Jerolmack, because local collective action is one area in which he thinks the Left and the Right, the rural residents and the city dwellers, the progressive environmentalists and the conservative pro-business advocates might still come together. Turning an environmental cause into a local cause is one way that opposing groups could find both compromise and collective action.
Ralph Kisberg—a Williamsport native, environmental advocate, and co-founder of the RDA—shows us what this advocacy might look like. Though he opposes fracking, Ralph’s approach is to respect both sides, in part by acknowledging the positive benefits fracking can bring. He tries to live with a foot in both worlds, but this sort of activism—and the modest, empathetic thinking that undergirds it—is unpopular in a time of fractious partisanship. Because of Ralph’s determination to serve as an emissary between two disparate worldviews, he experiences severe pushback. As both “fractivism” and support for fracking become politicized, the symbolism of the fight becomes more important than actual accomplishments or reforms. By the end of the book, opposition from other RDA members and activists forces Ralph to step away from the organization he helped create.
It’s not surprising, then, that both Jerolmack and Ralph struggle with frustration and disillusionment by the end of the book. Opposing fracking in a place like rural Pennsylvania is, in Ralph’s words, “like being against air.” Still, Jerolmack does offer some hope, both for a clean-energy future, and for a different vision of neighborliness and collective action. There could (and should) be greater regulations on an industry that often preys on individual property owners. Environmentalism could become a local cause, one which captures and revitalizes the brilliance of Tocquevillian institutions. Reinvigorated home rule could create spaces where people like George and Cindy can meet and strengthen their shared vision of stewardship. And people could be more like Ralph: working to build common ground apart from partisan feuds.
If Jerolmack’s book lacks anything, it’s a fuller understanding of humans as indebted and interdependent, as obliged to their communities, even those with whom they disagree. This is, in some ways, a religious argument, and thus difficult for many in our world today to understand. But it helps explain why so much of Jerolmack’s book is dedicated to disagreements about private property rights. In the United States, the way we draw property lines tempts us to think of our lived experience as segmented into neat little packages, in which each person is free to act without consequence. But as Up to Heaven and Down to Hell documents, each action within a local ecosystem inevitably bleeds into others, slowly helping or harming the whole. “America’s legal and political privileging of individual sovereignty and property rights sanctions the usurping of the commons, frays the fabric of communities, and undermines the social contract,” Jerolmack writes. He’s identifying, I think, our refusal to see the world as given—and thus our inability to treat the world, or our fellow humans, with the deference and care they deserve.
Christians “have accepted an industrial and consumerist naming and narration of the world as a massive pile of ‘resources’ waiting to be exploited by us,” Wirzba writes in From Nature to Creation. If we are to begin loving the earth and our neighbors better, we have to begin thinking of it differently: not as something we own, but rather as something we’re given. The challenge, perhaps, is to continually ask ourselves this question: “How do I love my neighbor in the way I live, here and now?”
Up to Heaven and Down to Hell
Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town
Princeton University Press
$29.95 | 336 pp.