Is leasing your oil rights a personal or community decision?

By Kevin Smyth

This piece that was originally published in the Athens News Reader’s Forum of Jan. 23, 2012

One of the more troubling things about the fracking controversy is the notion that the decision to frack is a private decision and not a community decision. If it’s going to affect community air, water, roads and quality of life, then it is a community issue, isn’t it? So what is going on here?

Ecologist Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” describes a situation where a number of shepherds are sharing a large pasture. One of the shepherds reflects thusly: “this pasture is huge. I could put out a few more sheep, and no one would even notice. It wouldn’t make any difference at all. And I could sure use the income.” And so he adds a few sheep to the pasture.

The trouble is, all of the shepherds are thinking the same thing and so each one continues to add a few more sheep and then a few more, and then a few more… and eventually the pasture is ruined. Of course, the devastation of the pasture is not deliberate. Each shepherd is only acting “rationally” by increasing the size of his flock. His intention is to improve his lot, to care for his family, etc. Expanding his flock seems to be the “right” thing to do.

A tragedy, according to my old Webster’s dictionary, is “a dramatic composition… in which, typically, the leading character is by some passion or limitation brought to a catastrophe.” The Greek word for this “passion or limitation” is hamartia; it is one of the main elements of dramatic tragedy, as defined by Aristotle. Hamartia is commonly translated as “tragic flaw” or “tragic error.” Othello’s jealousy and Hamlet’s indecisiveness are two classic examples of hamartia.

What might be the “flaw” or “error” that leads to the destruction of the common pasture in Hardin’s example? The author gives us a clue later in the same paper when he observes, “…natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial. The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth, even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.” Denial and greed comprise the “tragic flaw” that leads to the ruin of Hardin’s pasture. Here we are referring to the sort of greed that is active in each and every one of us – the instinctual animal selfishness which must be successfully managed if humankind is ever to reach its full potential. We live under a backwards economic system that thrives on greed and denial, and so this “tragic flaw” is encouraged and rewarded.

I have been perusing with great interest the list of 400 or so Athens County landowners who have signed fracking leases with Cunningham Energy (the affidavit listing these names has been posted on the county Auditor’s website). Some real surprises, I must say – but I harbor no ill will toward these people. Each of them is only aiming to improve his/her lot in life, to take care of his/her family and so forth. Each is doing “the right thing” – from his/her individual perspective. Each is merely adding a few more sheep to the common pasture. And yet what would be the result of 400 deep frack wells in our county? What about 500? A thousand? Where do we draw the line? And who decides?

A true tragedy always ends in catastrophe – an unexpected and profound downturn in one’s fortune. As Webster’s explains, “the final outcome of the dramatic tragedy was seen as an ‘overturning’ because it usually marked a complete reversal, or inversion, of the status that the protagonist enjoyed at the beginning of the drama.” Great examples of dramatic catastrophe can be found in Oedipus Rex, Hamlet and Othello. But the tragedy discussed here is a collective tragedy, where the protagonist is humanity as a whole and where all of us will suffer the coming catastrophe together.

As Hardin puts it, “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest…” Only by working collectively, as a community, do we stand a chance of mitigating the coming environmental and economic catastrophe. We need to talk.

Kevin Smyth is a mental-health counselor who lives in Bern Township with his wife, Elise.

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