Yours, Mine, or Ours

‘Up to Heaven and Down to Hell’
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Hydraulic fracking at a natural gas well in rural Lycoming County, Pennsylvania (Alamy)

“How the world is named and narrated,” writes Dr. Norman Wirzba in his book From Nature to Creation, “is of the greatest theoretical and practical importance, because the way we name and narrate the world determines how we are going to live within it.” Wirzba’s words kept coming to mind as I read Colin Jerolmack’s new book, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell. The book considers fracking, property rights, and community in rural Pennsylvania. But at root, the book is a poignant consideration of what we choose to name as either “mine” or “ours.” Jerolmack considers how these two divergent (and often contradictory) classifications impact local governance, ecosystems, and the people who depend on them.

A professor of sociology and environmental studies at New York University, Jerolmack wanted to better understand the spread of fracking throughout rural areas of the United States. In discussing the subject with his students (who universally opposed fracking), he learned that none of them had set foot on a property where drilling was taking place. Neither had he. At the same time, Jerolmack noticed that many anti-fracking activists and other environmental advocates lived in urban areas, not in the rural communities that are often the sites of resource extraction, whether of coal or natural gas.

So in 2013 Jerolmack moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a once-prosperous lumber town that in the mid-2000s became the center of a fracking boom. Jerolmack lived there full-time for eight months, then spent six years traveling back for extended visits, documenting the rise (and ensuing fall) of fracking in the town and surrounding Lycoming County. Up to Heaven and Down to Hell considers fracking through the eyes of the Lycoming County residents Jerolmack came to know, offering up their specific struggles and frustrations: local townspeople who must battle gas companies for safe roads and drinking water; farmers worried about the impact of drilling on their soil; fracking enthusiasts grown disillusioned after their land (and property rights) suffer.

Choices surrounding fracking are entirely up to individual property owners, even though the consequences of those decisions are borne by all.

One such enthusiast, George Hagemeyer, is a bachelor who sees himself as a steward of his family’s farmstead. He enthusiastically leased his land’s mineral rights to an energy company in 2013, confident in the gas industry and excited about the royalty money he would earn from participating in the “fracking lottery.” By leasing his land, George “finally [broke] free of a lifetime of relative deprivation.” He also exemplified a “fiery individualism” that Jerolmack sees as indicative of the region (and, indeed, of many rural regions throughout the United States). At one point, George tells Jerolmack that “it’s my land. I’ll do as I damn well please.”

Jerolmack takes the title of his book from the Roman jurist Accursius, who once said “Cuius est solum ejus est usque ad coelom et ad infernos” (“Whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to heaven and down to hell”). In most countries, property law is not this expansive. But Jerolmack argues that “American freehold law still comes the closest of any legal system in the world” to achieving Accursius’s maxim. Choices surrounding fracking—and all the shared resources, such as water, that it affects—are entirely up to individual property owners, even though the consequences of those decisions are borne by all. Indeed, most residents in Lycoming County “saw nothing unusual or troublesome about the fact that landowners had near-total autonomy over this land use decision.”

But, as Jerolmack observes, “fracking is intimate.” Leasing one’s mineral rights might have consequences both for the planet and closer to home. Over time, landowners throughout Lycoming County—both those who leased land and those who chose not to—began to grapple with the unintended (or at least unexpected) fallout: unsafe drinking water, radon, foul odors, heavy traffic, and roadside spills, among other consequences. Fracking impacts the quality of life in the area to such a degree that many residents began moving away.

Other locals, like Cindy Bower, are forced to negotiate a new relationship with the land they once saw as a refuge. A “silver-haired environmentalist” who moved to rural Pennsylvania in the hope of cultivating a quiet sanctuary, Cindy repeatedly turned down offers to lease her land for drilling out of concern for “the ecological damage wrought by what she described as America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels.” She joined the Responsible Drilling Alliance (RDA), a local anti-fracking advocacy group, and volunteered with the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation. She even puts a conservation easement on her land. But one summer day, Cindy makes a “startling confession” to Jerolmack: despite all her condemnations of fracking, she and her husband have followed their neighbors’ lead and leased their land. Resistance felt futile, Cindy explains. As the land surrounding her property, her rural refuge, was drastically impacted by drilling, “she concluded that her principled holdout did nothing to allay the devastation caused by fracking in the area.” The bonus from the lease was “the only possible compensation” for her deteriorating quality of life.

 

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the nineteenth century that private-property ownership did much to cultivate Americans’ “habit of always considering themselves in isolation.” Still, even as the idea of “mine” abounded, there were places in the United States where a robust understanding of “ours” existed and flourished, countering the harmful tendencies of individual self-interest. Local associations—such as labor unions, farming cooperatives, mutual-aid societies, and churches—as well as robust local governments worked to keep people connected (and accountable) to each other. In Tocqueville’s eyes, those mediating institutions encouraged “a constant habit of benevolence,” motivating Americans to congregate and serve each other despite their self-interested individualism.

The power of local governments to protect the commons was constantly circumvented by larger, stronger outside powers, policies, and regulations.

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

Colin Jerolmack
Princeton University Press
$29.95 | 336 pp.

Published in the October 2021 issue: 

Gracy Olmstead is the author of Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind. Her writing has been published in the American Conservative, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

This story is included in these collections:

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