THE BLOG
01/08/2015 08:07 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

Keystoning the Culture of Extraction

Beyond the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, the politics of the Keystone XL pipeline are likely to be in news this week in America. The Republican controlled U.S. Congress is poised to pass legislation to jump start construction, and President Obama, according to his Press Secretary, is ready to exercise his veto pen, which would kill this particular piece of legislation and set off yet another round of partisan bickering in Washington, D.C. The low key histrionics of this latest event in a longstanding political soap opera obscures a set of much more important anthropological questions about our orientation to the world.

Just as the capture of three terrorist gunmen in France will not alter the balance of power in the world, so the presence or absence of the Keystone XL pipeline is not likely to determine the fate of humankind. While both events seem seriously important in the here and now, they become relatively insignificant notes in the global symphony that constitutes the culture of extraction.

Why are we so eager to "move forward" on projects that take extreme measures to extract increasingly finite fuels -- oil and natural gas -- from the environment? The environmentally devastating practice of fracking, for example, has been widely practiced in the U.S. despite the fact that scientists have shown that its highly toxic cocktail pollutes water tables, increases the chance of earthquakes and appears to create hot zones for cancer. In a November 14, 2014 post, Chip Northrup summarized the findings of particularly troubling study.

A new study published in Environmental Health reveals air pollution data on major, in some cases previously underestimated, health risks from toxic contamination at gas production sites related to fracking. Air samples gathered around "unconventional oil and gas" sites by community-based environmental research teams contained unsafe levels of several volatile compounds that "exceeded federal guidelines under several operational circumstances," and that 'Benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide were the most common compounds to exceed acute and other health-based risk levels.'

This suggests fracking may bring risk of cancer, birth defects and long-term respiratory and cellular damage to local towns and farms. Building on other studies on drilling-related water contamination, the air pollution research may stoke growing opposition from communities near drilling sites, who must weigh the industry's promises of new investment and jobs against the potential cost to the human health.

In Ohio scientists have linked the increased incidence of local earthquakes to fracking activity in the Buckeye State. Local earthquakes, seemingly linked to fracking, have worried residents in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. Many of these citizens want their regulation-wary Red States to regulate hydraulic fracturing. Citing the results of numerous scientific studies, New York State banned the practice in 2014.

In the future, fracking may well be a bit more regulated, but such regulation probably won't stop this -- and other -- extractive practices -- all of which have significant environmental ramifications -- polluted waterways, the depletion of water tables, dirty air, contaminated food, dead soils spreading across expanding wastelands, increasing global temperatures which are melting the polar ice cap, raising sea levels, and producing unimaginably devastating storms that have washed away billions of dollars of property -- and the hopes and dreams of millions upon millions of ordinary people. Despite this recent uptick in climatic and environmental devastation, despite incontrovertible evidence that burning fossil fuels makes people sick and can lead to untimely death, we do nothing, placing our faith in the power of technology to save us from ourselves.

How can we deny the inevitable consequences of our culture of extraction? The answer is deceptively simple. Globally, we are immersed in a culture of extraction that is based upon the assumption that human beings can conquer nature. The notion of the conquest of nature dates to the 17th century philosopher, Francis Bacon, initiator of empiricism and the notion of progress through the control of nature. Combine these ideas, as Naomi Klein demonstrates in her important new book, This Changes Everything, with the steam engine and we get the emergence of the Industrial Revolution and the effervescence of capitalism -- all based on the notion that we can dominate nature. This ongoing cultural belief means that if resources become more limited, we'll be able to use our technological ingenuity to find ways to extract them (fracking, for example). If our environment becomes unbearable, we'll be able to design technologies to reduce the pollution or reverse the climate changes that our extractive practices have triggered.

The culture of extraction has a bearing on our social behavior. If our task is to dominate nature, then we have the strong (those who dominate) and the weak (those who are dominated). In the competition of life we have winners (the rich) and losers (the poor). If you are in control of a situation, you are "on top of it." For the best part of 300 years, the culture of extraction has led us to widespread economic and social inequality and frequent warfare -- often over access to extractive resources. It has led to widespread human insensitivity and to the development of societies -- like our own -- that tend to reward competition as an example of dominant strength and castigate cooperation as an example of timid weakness.

If we can believe the testimony of scientists who are motivated by the search for truth -- however inconvenient -- we are today at a global tipping point. Either we change our cultural orientation to the world, or we will inevitably destroy ourselves.

What to do?

There have been legion calls for grassroots organizing, for environment protests, for aggressive information campaigns. A few of these succeed in loosening the corporate stranglehold on our regulation of extraction. Because the problem is a cultural one, the solution lies not completely in political reconfiguration, which is obviously important, but in a designing a different way of living that fits with 21st century realities. Anthropologists, for example, have long described examples of non-western living in the world in which nature is considered with respect, in which people cooperate to reach their social and economic goals with efficiency and effectiveness. Could one of these be a model for the future?

It's hard to know if we can change entrenched economic and social behavior based on extraction and domination to fashion an equitable society. The mindless debate of the Keystone XL pipeline casts a shadow on that possibility. But shadows shift and winds eventually change direction. Indeed, when I look into the bright and eager eyes of my students, who will soon inherit the earth we bequeath them, my hope for the future is powerfully restored.

The Keystone XL pipeline may or may not become a reality. In time another terrorist cell will commit a savage act. These are blips on history's screen. The greatest task for the next generation is not economic or political; it is cultural: the development of a set of beliefs and actions to save us from ourselves.