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Sunday, September 09, 2012

"Fracking" vs. Hydraulic Fracturing: A Case of Competing Narratives

Audio / Podcast. The case of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a strange one. How can two groups be so intractably out of touch and so unable to listen to each other? And, when they do listen to each other, they do not believe what the other is saying. One group swears that hydraulic fracturing, when performed correctly, is perfectly safe for the environment. The other group claims that “fracking” will pollute aquifers and introduce toxic chemicals into the environment.

What can one make of the inflammatory rhetoric? What should you believe? What should you dismiss?

The answer may be in the narratives themselves. 

It is worthwhile to analyze the narratives that surround media responses to hydraulic fracturing, and proposes explanations for the way in which the depictions of hydraulic fracturing are framed. Hydraulic fracturing, which can be considered a "Black Swan" event -- an event of extreme impact on society and ways of looking at the world, which was not expected, but, when reviewed in retrospect, seemed predictable, even unavoidable. An excellent way to understand the often highly emotional reactions is to use discourse analysis to identify different types and genres of narratives, and the kinds of purposes they serve, and how they contribute to the meaning-making process.

As a "Black Swan" event, hydraulic fracturing is essentially a paradigm shifter, and the new technologies that make hydraulic fracturing possible are game-changing. Like many paradigm shifting game-changers, the first response is one of adoption, to be followed by narratives of resistance. For Americans, the responses accompanying hydraulic fracturing should be nothing new; after all, they are part of a long tradition of responses to new technologies, and they reflect anxieties about the essential dual nature of technology. While technology can be used for the good, there is also the potential for misuse and harm, along with unexpected consequences of the technology itself. These anxieties about technology have been described in many works of American art, literature, and philosophy. 

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For some, technology is ultimately nihilistic, and foregrounds the ultimate uselessness of human artifice, or it leads to the destruction of an idyllic vision of nature. In the case of the U.S., there is the notion of the Edenic paradise of the American West, and the concept of self-reification and infinite promise represented by a boundless frontier. This narrative was heightened by the discovery of gold at the western edge of the North American Continent's rainbow (California's gold fields), and the dark side introduced stark depictions of machines and dangerous mining, manufacturing, and transportation technology in the 19th century. The anxieties and duality persist throughout the 20th century, reflected by any number of writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Robert M. Pirsig, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, and more.

In the case of hydraulic fracturing, narrative can be classified in the following ways:

Apocalyptic narrative:  largely fear driven, focusing on the end of the world due to the iniquity of humanity. There is usually a charismatic leader who promises safety and security to the "true believers" who often have to make sacrifices and show their loyalty (often to the death).

Archetypal narratives:  Jung, Neumann, Campbell, and other psychologists can be viewed from the point of view of the fact that archetypal narratives exert a deterministic force on the meaning-making process. One who looks at Jung might suggest that the media employs archetypes such as the trickster (the oil company) and the hero (the activist) to portray the cast of characters involved in hydraulic fracturing.

Deconstructive philosophy:  Foucault, Derrida and other philosophers suggest that reality is a not an absolute, but is determined by collective forces. For the deconstructivists, social norms and rules are constructed by society and enforced formally and informally by the people in charge and the "powers" in society.

Gamer thinking:  Jane McGonigal, a video game designer and professor at Stanford suggests that to "game" rather than stay in reality, in order to create a sense of involvement, urgency, and to imbue one's life with "epic meaning" as they move toward the next level and potentially an "epic win." 

Heuristics and Biases:  One problem with strong leaders and their followers is that they can often suffer from delusions.  The inability to see past one's biases can be very difficult to overcome. Daniel Kahnemann has explored the phenomenon extensively in his Nobel prize-wining work and he suggests that one of the best ways to de-bias oneself is to obtain an outside view or perspective.

The problem with narratives in hydraulic fracturing is that they often dominate the discourse and perception.

As a result, individuals may be caught in "narrative crossfire" as the media largely unconsciously attempts to cast individuals and events into a predetermined narrative trajectory, which can have the unfortunate effect of blocking the pursuit of objective reality and reasonable discussion. A case in point is that of Dr. Chip Groat, the associate director of the University of Texas's Energy Institute, which released a 411-page report on the impact of hydraulic fracturing and water quality. It determined that hydraulic fracturing, when done properly, does not result in damage to water supplies. However, the fact that the director, Dr. Groat, received more than $400,000 to be on the board of directors of Plains Resources, a company involved in drilling and hydraulic fracturing, raised the spectre of conflict of interest. 

In all cases, the narrative itself exercises a deterministic effect on the way that the world is perceived, and the way that meaning(s) can be created. 

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