November 27, 2013, by ICCSR

Doing the Business 2013 – Gasland II

In the fourth and final instalment of this year’s film series, we showed Gasland 2 (2013) directed by Josh Fox. In order to confidently introduce the sequel I also watched Gasland (2010). Josh Fox’s first documentary about hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’. The rather moving and personal story of Gasland strongly reminded me of Rachel Carson’ the Silent Spring (1962). It is now over fifty years since she published her book about the pesticides in the American countryside. This is arguably the most influential environmental book written. The book starts with a description of an imagined country side, which could be anywhere, or soon nowhere:

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillside of orchards, where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up blaze of colour that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mist of the autumn mornings.

Carson continues to describe the beauty of the countryside in a couple of paragraphs before the writing dramatically change mood, with her depiction of environmental damage:

“Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death…There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example – where had they gone?”

Gasland (2010) is similarly about the land, the landscape and the environment. Something has dramatically changed; there are chemicals that are not supposed to be there.  Josh Fox tells a personal story developed after he got a letter from a gas company to explore fracking on his land. Gasland has sensational footage illustrating the potential consequences of fracking: air pollution, water contamination, exploding gas tanks, and poisoned springs and ground water. The documentary mentions the politics of fracking, but the potential environmental damage appears to be the main rationale for the movie.

Carson’s the Silent Spring was met with furious resistance from corporations, mainly from the big chemical companies and the scientists they employed. The resistance was not about the claims in the book, which were very modest. Rather the attacks tried to destroy Carson’s scientific credibility and undermine her personal reputation. She was portrayed as a fanatic responsible for crop destruction and an environment filled with pest and vermin. A quick search on the Internet suggests she is still held responsible in certain quarters for millions of deaths from lethal diseases since the publication of the book. Even so, the Silent Spring got the environmental movement going and during the late 60s and 70 there was a range of federal regulatory legislation introduced in the U.S. despite corporate opposition, such as, the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. 1970 was also the year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed. During this time period, similar types of environmental legislation were introduced in many Western liberal democracies.

However, since the 1980s there has been a corporate counter-movement, with a substantial expansion in the amount of corporate political activity that firms engage in as part of an effort to ‘manage’ legislation. These efforts to influence and minimize government legislation of corporate activity can be seen as enactments of the broader neo liberal project of changing the conditions for capital accumulation in Western democracies. It is often much cheaper to change the legislation than to come up with a new product or follow the current legislation. Consequently, we have seen a movement towards a more relaxed regulatory framework in particular industries. For example, since the 90s there has been a range of exemptions and amendment to environmental legislation for the exploration of natural gas. In the UK, the government has provided forms of tax rebates for the industry.

While Gasland was about the environment, Gasland 2 is mainly about the changed political landscape. In the documentary, Fox illustrates a range of corporate political activities to influence politicians, such as, lobbying and campaign contributions. He also points out the problem of revolving doors, where the legislators are the legislated. There are also more direct political activities towards the community, such as, sponsoring schools and sports events. A similar fear campaign mobilized against the Silent Spring is used in the politics of fracking, where environmentalists or activists are seen as terrorists (in Carson’s time, the catchword for a ‘baddie’ was instead communist), any corporate regulation is seen as destroying the economy, hampering employment and it suggested that it necessarily means higher taxes.

We recognise these corporate tactics from previous campaigns against second hand smoking, climate change legislation, and any regulatory framework around resource extraction or re-distribution.  It has been suggested by Colin Crouch that this uneven democratic representation due to corporate influence and resources means that we are living in a post-democracy. An alternative frame to understand this is the shift from a market in society to a market society, where all other activities are valued according to the rules of the market. Here the environment is valued in strictly economic terms. This shift follows through with turning the citizen into a consumer. University students and hospital patients are now customers in the markets of higher education or healthcare. The citizenry responsibility is through consumption; if you don’t like it don’t buy it.

Gasland 2 is not a subtle documentary about different point of views. People who disagree with Fox are ridiculed or not interviewed. There is no interest in showing the complex economic system underlying the promotion of fracking. Gasland 2 is a call for action, with Fox hoping to entice a regulatory double-movement echoing what followed Silent Spring. He is calling for a mobilization of people questioning our Western democracies and, in the case of fracking, demanding a stronger regulatory framework as precaution for environmental destruction. Asking people to be more engaged citizens, rather than consumers, can only strengthen a democratic society.

By Daniel Nyberg
Professor of Sustainability, ICCSR, Nottingham University Business School.

Doing the Business is a season of films exploring the role that social and ethical issues play in global business.  Other screenings included: Something Ventured, introduced by Rob Carroll; We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, introduced by Francesca West and Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night & The Phantom of the Operator introduced by Professor Laurie Cohen.

Posted in EVENTS at the ICCSR