In 2013, New York environmental studies professor Colin Jerolmack moved to the ‘down-on-its-luck Appalachian rust-belt community’ of greater Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The state was being called ‘the Saudi Arabia of natural gas’ amid a boom in shale-gas extraction (known as ‘fracking’) fuelled, in part, by landowners’ leasing their mineral rights to private companies. Although many of Jerolmack’s students were critical of the industry and those behind it, none – nor Jerolmack himself – had ever seen a gas well or met a lessor. Realising that the issue spoke to the USA’s rural–urban divide, and eager to burst any possible ‘filter bubble’, Jerolmack sought to hear directly from those involved. The result is a deeply considered ethnography, fusing an anthropologist’s eye for detail with a sociologist’s sense of how social structure shapes individual action.
Only in the USA, Jerolmack writes, do ‘private citizens own the majority of the mineral estate’ and have ‘the exclusive right to enter into private negotiations with a third party to extract subsurface gas and oil – and profit from it’. This contributes, in the case Jerolmack describes here, to a classic resource dilemma, whereby the ‘pursuit of self-interest results in the degradation of a shared resource’. There seems no better illustration of this than Jerolmack’s description of an environmentalist who had nonetheless leased her mineral rights, as the resulting bonus seemed ‘the only possible compensation’ for the effects of her neighbours leasing theirs: noise, anxiety, shattered peace. Meanwhile, even those who leased to express their liberty (and property rights) could feel shackled by the ensuing indignities: signage, traffic, guards at the gate.
But this doesn’t mean that those affected felt like victims or dupes. Indeed, the ‘fractivism’ of liberal outsiders could alienate locals, who were protective of individual choice and community, and fiercely alert to paternalism. Nor can lessors be crudely condemned; the resource dilemma they face is the result of a ‘legal and political structure’ (and anyway, many of us make choices – flying, eating meat – that limit others’ ability to ‘enjoy environmental goods’). ‘Live and let live’, Jerolmack shows, has its costs and contradictions. The fracking story has evolved, but his work reminds us that no man, nor property, is an island. As climate change advances, we deny this at our peril.