01/17/2013 04:40 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

What's Fracking Our Minds? Reality, Imagination and What Is Below the Surface

The word "Impact" standing alone could be good or bad -- or both. Crashing into something is not the same as transforming it, and in a media rich world there is a constant flood of conflicting data and confusing innuendo. This seems to be particularly true around the issue of fracking (the fracturing of deep layers of rock to unleash cheap natural gas). Ironically, it seems Matt Damon kind of lied when interviewed on NPR about his latest movie built around the issue of fracking: Promised Land. Asked why he would make a movie about fracking, he implied that he just happened to pick the topic because it seemed to be the best way to highlight current polarized American characters. Can we believe the discarnate voice of the smart Harvard guy-next-door on our car radio when he says it is not a personal passion of his? No fracking way! He is the co-founder of after all. So what was going on? By the way, it gets even more complex when considering his description of the anti-hero he plays, the everyman, Steve, a super salesman for natural gas, who, Damon says, develops a feeling both for and against fracking and ends up promoting democracy: i.e. let the farm towns of America vote pro or con on the opportunity to sell their souls to the devil. But this is not how it goes in the movie at all... so what gives? Is he cleverly pretending to be evenhanded just like the powerful money interests who are pushing natural gas in the movie and for real? It is hard to trust the facts of anyone who clearly is not being straightforward.

So are we all being fracked? Drilled into and force-fed illusions to break us apart on a deep level, releasing sub-conscious toxicity together with some powerful natural energy at the same time? Is life inherently compromised, with every choice paired in layers of good and bad, harm and benefit, being and nothingness? Does "impact" always create a fracked downside along with every positive change? Is original sin so woven into the human story that we have to keep making mistakes to wake up a little more? Damon is a "gifted" artist and if we can learn from Lewis Hyde's classic book on culture, The Gift, we can realize that art is an embodiment of the culture in which it is embedded. Perhaps that is to say we are a culture that is fractured, literally, in body and mind.

One image of internal and external disconnect is the suicidal leap of a rural Chinese worker separated from their family and traditions when suddenly thrust into a material and technological world that is a contradiction to the life they knew. I cannot defend Apple, but wonder if these suicides may in part reflect this overwhelming culture shock. Another example of disconnect can be explored in the way we generally invest financially in a toxic world we don't love, to grow assets to provide natural energy for ourselves and our loved ones. If art is an embodiment of culture, then investment is an expression of values, and laissez-faire is not enough. Investors like consumers need to express what matters to them. Mostly, the financial experts have the investors confused.

To return to the focus on fracking, Robert Kennedy, after an inspiring environmental talk to the Riverkeepers of North Carolina last year, surprised the audience by saying that fracking is inevitable because natural gas is so abundant and therefore so cheap. He had agreed to serve on Governor Cuomo's appointed committee to figure out how to frack without harm. The guy who fought successfully to clean up the Hudson River now voting yes to fracking because it is cheap! Well, in full disclosure, I cannot truly distance myself from that decision, for I had had my own Faustian dilemma about fracking:

In an advisory committee meeting for a water technology fund called Meidlinger Partners, we were considering a technology company that had developed a way to isolate Selenium in the waters of coal mines in West Virginia. They were speculating that their proprietary technique could apply to fracking waters and were offering a good chunk of their company for a song. My guideline for decisions of this kind is based on a reworking of the premises of the Natural Step, which teaches that if we want to end environmentally caused cancers we should avoid extraction, chemical compounds and general degradation of the environment. In order to be proactively positive, our approach is to invest in natural alternatives to extraction, clean-up of the environment (aha!), and essential products and services. So explaining away the conflict about extraction, and focusing on clean-up (and seeing profit potential), we voted yes.

After his talk, as Kennedy descended from the podium, I tried to buttonhole him to see if he knew about this fantastic technology. He zombied past me, assuming I was just another Steve-type promoter; and he was right, but may have missed something important for his fracking committee. However, questions of impact remain. Are we encouraging extraction by focusing on ways to clean up the mess? Is the fact that natural gas burns cleaner enough of an offset to the toxins released in an imperfect mining process? By facing the issues honestly and with positive intent, perhaps we can begin to heal what is fractured. That, in itself, would have a positive impact on our world.