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Healing a Fractured Nation

Mar 14 2017
Sara Button

On March 1st, journalist and poet Eliza Griswold came to Stanford as part of the Writer’s Workshop, an initiative led by the McCoy Center that gives nonfiction writers without an academic appointment the opportunity to talk about their current book project and hold a manuscript workshop. Her presentation, “Healing a Fractured Nation: The Future of Poverty and Energy in Rural America” stemmed from her forthcoming book, which revolves around the ethical questions related to the promise of  American energy independence.

Eliza Griswold is a natural storyteller, so it felt fitting that she told us a story. Guided by photos she had taken over the better part of a decade researching the social, environmental, and economic impacts of resource extraction on a Western Pennsylvania community, Griswold introduced her audience to some of the narrative’s real-life protagonists. We met Stacey Haney, a nurse and single mom whose home is located 1500 feet from a gas well. Haney first started questioning the impact of extraction after her son became mysteriously ill. Problems snowballed--their neighbors lost animals to strange diagnoses, and the drinking water became contaminated (the diagnosis for her son’s mysterious illness? Arsenic poisoning from the contaminated water). Soon enough, she figured out that the air itself had become unsafe. Nearby, people were working in hazmat suits; only a few hundred feet away, Stacey and her neighbors tended to their animals in street clothes.

But Griswold is not out to demonize the oil and gas industry, just as she’s not out to demonize the people who lease their land to these companies. This story went so much further than just thinking about health effects. This story was also about the costs and benefits of resource extraction. In Appalachia and other parts of the region, people have been living side-by-side with resource extraction for 200 years. Fracking, unlike other methods, allows them to profit from it. A downside is that the technique itself presents many dangers.

The situation is nuanced, and awareness is crucial. “As Americans,” Griswold said, “it behooves us to learn more about the context of what’s going on, as opposed to just being incensed by this hot button word [fracking] that we don’t understand as well.” It’s not as simple as pointing a finger and saying these people just want to earn a buck, regardless of the environmental costs. According to Griswold, Stacey Haney felt it was her duty as an American to prevent US troops from being sent abroad to fight for foreign oil; in part, she was proudly serving her country by signing a lease with the oil & gas company. The money was a bonus.

This story was not just about the financial benefits of resource extraction, either. This story was also about identity and the lived realities of people from a region that has been disenfranchised for generations. From the Ulster settlers who were forced west in the 18th century to coal miners and steel plant workers, Griswold reminded us that tension between the educated, non-educated, disenfranchised, and liberal elite is centuries old in this part of the world...Part of my job as a reporter and listener is to restore and articulate the complexity of identity that others hold as well.”

This story was a little bit about hypocrisy, too. Griswold summarized one perspective, that of Jason Clark, a pig farmer and self-proclaimed “Deplorable”:  “Energy extraction, like butchering, is something that urban america doesn’t want to see. We have relied on rural america to feed our appetites out of sight for a long time. We want to flick on our light but we don’t want to see what coal looks like. We want a pork chop, but we don’t want to see a hog butchered.”

It was the first time she had spoken about her manuscript to the general public, and there was a lot to cover, so many audience members had questions that went unanswered during the Q & A. But like any good story with so many moving parts, Griswold deftly moved us in time--back hundreds of millions of years to explain the fundamentals of coal, to the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion to shed light on historical context regarding people’s feelings about federal regulation in Washington County. She helped us care about these individuals, who all spoke in some way to the bigger thematic questions Griswold seems to want to raise in her work. And all along, she asked, “How is it that corporations internalize profit and externalize cost?” In other words, how do we negotiate the paradox that people living in the most resource-rich areas are often significantly disadvantaged by that resource?

Overall, “Healing a Fractured Nation” was a testament to the power of storytelling, and how it can give abstract ideas like environmental cost or resource extraction a name and a face. How it can humanize individuals whose lived experiences may feel far different from our own--and why we should care about it.

SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.