Op Ed: The Fracking Humanities

Good science alone cannot prepare us to regulate fracking capably...

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By Darrick Nighthawk Evensen via The Cornell Daily Sun, 2/13/13

“Regulation must be based on sound science!” If I had a dollar for every time I heard this, I’d be richer than my fellow trustees. I’ve been studying how people develop knowledge and beliefs about natural gas development via hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” for short — for two years. On this issue, policy wonks and activists incessantly demand “sound science.” I am a scientist and value informed decision-making. Nonetheless, I do not appreciate the implication that good science alone prepares us to regulate fracking capably.

Fracking has dominated much dialogue on campus, in Ithaca and across New York’s Southern Tier. I’ve read 1,000 newspaper articles, 50 scientific articles, endless blog posts and magazine features, listened to a dozen radio programs and attended more than 20 municipal meetings focused on fracking. Yet, in all this discourse, I’ve heard almost nothing about the role the humanities can (and, I would contend, must) play in studying and regulating fracking.

Yes, the physical and life sciences help us understand the potential effects of gas development on water, air quality, soil, public health and municipal infrastructure. The social sciences can reveal the potential impacts on economic well-being, community character, crime rates, aesthetics, long-term socio-economic sustainability and housing value and availability. Nevertheless, much of this research does not deal with facts in their purest form; it is often normative science — research built on value-based assumptions that imply a policy preference. Particularly because of these assumptions, we must move beyond the science, examining not only how the world is, but also how it ought to be. Good science is necessary but insufficient for making justifiable normative claims about fracking regulation.

Even if we were certain of the science, which is rarely the case, we would need a good measure of philosophy to use that science for regulation. Some scientists contend that their research demonstrates that fracking either should or should not be permitted in N.Y. When these researchers offer any “justification” for their recommendations, most argue that the risks of fracking outweigh its benefits, or vice versa. Even if we accept this consequentialist approach as valid, we still must deal with the sticky situation of how to measure these risks versus benefits. How, for example, do we weigh one “unit” of air pollution or water contamination against one “unit” of increased tax revenue for a municipality? Against one farmer being able to use lease payments to keep his land?

To make an informed decision on fracking, we must consider at least 30 to 40 potential impacts on the environment, the economy and society simultaneously. It is not within the realm of the engineer, the biologist, the economist or the sociologist to articulate a justifiable approach to weighing the risks and benefits — that falls to the philosopher. I am a social scientist who studies risk, and while it is certainly within the purview of the sciences to describe risks, humanists are best suited to elucidate ways of valuing them.

Philosophers could have myriad useful thoughts to contribute on fracking regulation. Distribution of risks and benefits (who gains versus who is harmed), equity, voluntariness of risk, special obligations (to local citizens and/or future generations), rights to property, rights to information — all of these facets must be thoughtfully considered if we hope to generate sensible regulation. None are addressed by the physical, life or social sciences. Science can powerfully inform us about what fracking is and what effects it may have, but it will never provide normative answers to questions of what actions our society should take.

Besides philosophy, other humanistic disciplines can contribute to the conversation on fracking.  History, for example, could reveal why some communities and regions respond differently to gas development. What role does the historical presence or absence of extractive industries within a community play in shaping general ethos on fracking? How is the effect of that history mediated by the environmental, economic and social legacy of that extractive industry?

I have great appreciation for the humanities’ ability, like science, to add to our understanding and to make the world around us a better place.  The question of what to do about fracking is fundamentally one about how humans ought to live. How can we answer that question without humanistic inquiry? As N.Y. State, individual municipalities and Cornell move forward in determining their positions on fracking, I strongly urge each entity not to be myopic in its evaluation of this issue. Let us continue to consult the economists and the hydrologists, but let’s not exclude the historians and philosophers.

Darrick Nighthawk Evensen is a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and the graduate student-elected trustee. He may be reached at dte6@cornell.edu. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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