Sunday, August 19, 2012

Fracking Has To Happen

I went for a run last week and my route took me out of Tompkins County and into Tioga County in the Eastern Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York.  The land here is beautiful.  It is a mix of flatlands and forested hills that pop up 800 or 1000 feet above the lowlands.  The hills are covered in trees—many of the trees where I was running (in the Caroline Hills) were planted by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s. 

Aside from the natural beauty, I noticed two other things as I ran.  One was the obvious disparity in wealth represented by some of the properties along my path.   Close by the road there were trailers with peeling paint and junk cars scattered through the yards.  The word “Appalachia” came to mind right away.  The other was all of the signs in favor of or opposed to fracking.  The Marcellus Shale runs under this area and contains a lot of natural gas.  The method used to force this gas out of the rock is called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Fracking has become quite contentious in this area, (as in many others), due to uncertainty about its long term environmental impacts, including its effects on air quality, water quality, and climate change.  Towns, counties, and states are working through the tough process of coming to some agreement about the regulations they will adopt regarding fracking.  Drilling companies are having their say, as are environmental groups and landowners.  In some places it is getting nasty, with neighbor against neighbor.  On my run the way this played out was dueling lawn signs.

When I paid close attention I noticed a strong correlation between the state of the house and the position on fracking.  The worse off the house and property looked, the more likely the sign on the yard would be in favor of fracking.  The fracking debate reminded me of other places I have lived and other discussions about natural resources.
Years ago I spent a summer in Heart Butte, Montana on the Blackfeet reservation.  The hamlet sits at an altitude of 4,500 feet above sea level, exactly where the Great Plains become the Rocky Mountains.  It is a pretty spectacular setting, with Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness close by.  Heart Butte is small and poor.  In the 2000 census the government counted 698 people living in Heart Butte, 45% of whom lived below the poverty line and 93% of whom were Native Americans—mostly from the Blackfeet tribe.

The reservation itself comprises 3000 square miles east of Glacier National Park.  This makes it larger than Delaware but smaller than Connecticut.  In the 1800s the reservation was more than twice its current size, but US Government actions and policies shrunk it to its modern-day boundaries while handing land to non-Indians.  Today there are around 10,000 people living on the reservation, with an estimated 69% unemployment rate and widespread poverty.  Deep below the Blackfeet Reservation sits large deposits of natural gas trapped in shale.  Members of the Blackfeet tribe are in sharp disagreement about whether to tap this resource to bring jobs and development to the reservation.

I have also lived on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in the Southeastern corner of Montana.  The land there is very different from the land in the Finger Lakes and the land near Glacier National Park.  Southeastern Montana is far dryer and less forested than either Glacier or Upstate New York.  There are exposed red rock buttes and scrublands as far as the eye can see.  And under all of this 700 square miles of stark beauty lies an estimated 23 billion tons of coal.  The Cheyenne tribal members have not yet allowed any coal mining on the reservation, but some members want that to change.  Some mining companies want that to change, as well.

Now that I live in Tompkins County, I am going to have to come to a position of my own on fracking.  I do not own a few hundred acres of land here, so I am never going to be offered a lease for fracking on my land.  But I can absolutely understand the attraction for landowners.  Especially those who have no money and limited prospects.  A ban on fracking might feel like the one thing of value I own has been taken from me.  Just like a Blackfeet or Cheyenne tribal member might feel like tribal reluctance to tap into the natural resources available to them is equivalent to economic suicide. 

It struck me while I was running that it is a luxury to be able to think about the long-term health of the environment.  Not everyone has that luxury.  Some people are hungry.  Some people worry about their ability to provide for their children.  Some people just want some economic security, and fracking or mining look like viable ways to get there.   To these people it is strictly an economic issue.

To the many people who do not stand to benefit directly from resource extraction, it is an environmental issue.  It is about poisoned water, truck traffic, clear cuts, sludge ponds, and pollution.  It became clear to me on that run that fracking is one issue where the opposing sides are not even speaking the same language.  The only way to get to some sort of d├ętente on the issue is to have the appropriate state agency, in this case the Department of environmental Conservation, complete a review of hydraulic fracturing and then write regulations for how to go ahead with the permitting process.  No amount of talking is going to change anyone’s opinion at this point.

It is a messy business, but the only solution is already clear on an issue like this where two entrenched sides can’t even agree on what the issue is about and talk past each other in lawn signs.  There has to be a compromise and neither side will like the final result.  The cost of banning all fracking is continued poverty for many rural landowners and continued reliance on foreign sources of energy.  The cost of allowing fracking to happen anywhere is severe environmental degradation.  What we need is a process in place that will allow drilling to happen in the most productive way possible while still protecting the air, water, and land of the Finger Lakes.  It won’t be pretty, but it does have to happen.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Can a Pregnant Woman Drive in the Carpool Lane? (or Why I Cannot Vote For Paul Ryan)

Yesterday Mitt Romney announced his choice of running mate.  By all accounts Paul Ryan, U.S. Representative from Wisconsin, is a serious man with actual knowledge of how national budgets work.  It is clear that Mr. Romney has engaged in some vicarious learning based on John McCain’s choice of a running mate in 2008.  Paul Ryan is someone who could be President Day One if he had to be.  He is also someone who will energize the Republican base.  It seemed as if many Republicans were going to vote for Romney out of duty rather than excitement.  Come Election Day they were going to lie back, stare at the ceiling, and think of England as they cast their half-hearted vote.  Now those same lukewarm supporters might actually wake up on Election Day hot and bothered and eager to do the deed.

To be honest, I do not think that Mitt Romney’s choice of a running mate had the power to swing this election his way.  Mitt is just too different from the average undecided voter to actually convince them to change horses midstream.  He comes across as what he is—a very rich man who has no idea how most of us really live.  In the interest of full disclosure I feel obligated to say that I do not think Mitt Romney would be a terrible President.  Based on his performance in Massachusetts and his willingness to adopt any position at all, (even if it is in direct contrast to an earlier position), I think his guiding principle would be pragmatism. 
His term or two as President would probably look a lot like Barack Obama’s.  He would propose all sorts of middle-of-the-road policies, some of which had enjoyed wide support from Democrats in the past, and the Democrats would oppose them all as too radically conservative.  He would manage the country just fine.  Given the choice in November I will certainly be voting for Barack Obama, but I would not be moving to Canada if Mitt Romney were to win.

Having said that, Paul Ryan scares me.  He is not a pragmatist.  In his own quiet, competent way, he is a right wing bomb thrower.  His economic policies, based on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, are so radical that they would be unacceptable to most Americans. 
But I am not going to talk about Ryan’s economic policies today.  Instead I want to focus in on his beliefs about reproduction.  Paul Ryan is as far right as a politician can be when it comes to limiting Americans’ right to make choices about their own reproductive lives. 
If you follow this link you can see the details of Ryan’s many votes over his years in the House.  I want to home in on two of his positions that make it clear Representative Ryan wants to dictate what women should do with their eggs.  Paul Ryan co-sponsored the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which states  “each human life begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent, at which time every human has all legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood.”  He also co-sponsored a bill that would grant the pre-born equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

Taken together, this position that a fetus is a person with full rights leads to all sorts of ridiculous situations.  For example, does a fetus need a passport?  Can a pregnant woman drive in the HOV lane? Can she claim a fetus as a dependent on her taxes? Can she buy life insurance on a fetus and then cash it out after a miscarriage?  Can a woman going through fertility treatments be charged with a crime if some of her embryos are frozen or discarded before implantation?  Can a fetus have a Social Security number? Can a corporation be a fetus?  Can a fetus who resides in a woman who is in prison sue for illegal imprisonment?  Paul Ryan may be a smart man, but this position that a fertilized egg is a citizen of the United States with all the rights and protections guaranteed in the United States Constitution is just plain bonkers. 

Another Ryan position I want to mention is his belief that ALL abortions should be illegal.  He makes no exceptions for rape, incest, or medical risks to the life of the mother.  Ironic that even if a girl or woman gets pregnant against her will, she is then forced to have the baby against her will as well.  Just who is it that holds Ryan’s all-important freedom in these cases.  Apparently, freedom belongs to rapists and the state in Paul Ryan’s dream country.  An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says,  “Ryan said he opposes abortion, period.  He said any exceptions to a ‘partial birth’ abortion ban would make that ban meaningless.”  

Here is what Ayn Rand has said about abortion:

"A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn). Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered."

I would be willing to hope for the best with Mitt Romney in the Oval Office—I do not think he would push the abortion issue.  Being practical, he knows it would really only energize the left and take away a perennial Republican issue while squandering any possible chance at bipartisanship.  But if something awful were to happen and Paul Ryan were to become Chief Executive, I fear he would forget his Objectivist roots and instead tap into his Talibanist tendencies and push to make all abortions illegal.

Maybe we can talk about all of the holes in the Romney/Ryan budget plan another day.  For now, I just needed to vent a little about my fears of Paul Ryan in the White House, a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, and what that would mean for the ability of women to choose to have a family or not.  Paul Ryan reminds me of some of the protesters who stand outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in New Haven with their pictures of dismembered fetuses.  I walk my dog by them sometimes and sometimes, when I am feeling strong, I engage them in conversation.  I genuinely try to get to the point where we can see some common ground.  

People who are pro-choice are not pro-abortion.  Of course we would all like to see a reduction in the number of abortions performed in this country each year.  One way to do that is to provide easy access to low cost birth control and reproductive health consultations with trained nurses and doctors.  When I mention this to the protesters, they often freak out and take an all-or-nothing position.  They say it is God's plan that we not have sex outside of marriage and that we carry to term any children that result from the sex we do have.  While idealistic, this belief is at odds with millions of years of biological imperative and ignores people's reproductive realities.  Paul Ryan has shown through his numerous votes and public comments about abortion and family planning that he is willing to impose his narrow religious view on all Americans, in spite of what the Constitution guarantees in the First Amendment.  This is not the only reason I would not vote for a Romney/Ryan ticket, but it is the reason that bubbled out first when I heard Ryan was chosen yesterday.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Year of Living Dangerously

It’s now been six weeks since my year as Isabel’s teacher ended with her graduation from Cold Spring School.  The graduation ceremony itself was a lot of fun.  The students decided to perform a series of skits based on their years at the school.  This year’s group had twenty students and they all took part in the brainstorming, writing, editing, and sharpening of each skit.  As you can imagine, it was quite an involved process.  I am not a big fan of group writing endeavors, since they are very hard work and often the final product sounds like it was written by a committee.  In this case, however, the final scripts were far more focused and funnier than the early drafts and the improvement was due to the input of everyone.  It was great for me to see the process play itself out with such entertaining results.

            It was also great for me to see Isabel’s role in the whole process.  She had some valuable ideas that really worked, and she also had other ideas that needed to be cut.  She handled both situations with grace and aplomb.  And because I was her teacher, I got to see firsthand how it all played out.  I saw the give and take in the group as people took the risk to put their ideas out and have their peers pronounce judgment on them.  I got to see what very few parents ever get to see—I watched my own daughter just be herself in the classroom and on the playground and on field trips.  In the end, it feels like I got a huge gift this year.

In addition to the unusual circumstance of having me as her teacher, Isabel also suffered through the fact that Erica was in Ithaca and San Diego for big chunks of the school year.  Not only was I Isabel’s teacher, I was also her single parent.  There were days when we spent every waking minute together.  The poor child.  I would not wish that on anyone.  I have already told her this in private, but I want to thank her out loud and in public for making this past school year go as well as it possibly could.  This could have been a very hard year and instead it was a pleasure.

I am a firm believer that we are all born with a temperament that is at the root of who we are our whole lives.  Our basic orientation to the world does not change.  What does change is the expression of that temperament.  We are creatures of context.  For as many discrete groups of people there are whose opinions we care about, we have that many different expressions of our personality.  We are not the same with our co-workers as we are with our siblings.  We act differently alone on the subway than we do in the car with a spouse.  And we are different with our friends than we are with our parents.

More times than I can count I have told parents about the behavior of their child in my class and they have said something like, “Wow. She is nothing like that at home.”  Nine times out of ten, the school behavior is more in keeping with what they hope their child will be like.  Especially with twelve-year olds, how a kid behaves at home is the worst of all their many expressions.  Generally, this is healthy.  It means home is where they feel most secure and they can let out the nastiness that they know would be out of bounds in the rest of the world.  Many researchers and teachers refer to 12-, 13-, and 14-year olds and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde for this very reason.

Another benefit of the year was that Isabel got to see me doing my job.  I never got to see my father at work.  He sold insurance and worked in an office and it would not have been practical, nor would it ever have crossed his mind to bring me to work with him.  I really like teaching and over the years I have gotten to the point where I am not awful at it.  There were times this year when I certainly forgot my daughter was in the class.  She became just one more student in the group.  And just as she has a school personality that differs from her home personality, I have a work personality that is not the same as my home personality.  I can’t help but believe that it was good for Isabel to see me doing my job and truly liking it. 

What I got this year was access to the Isabel I would not have ever seen otherwise.  She was still recognizably herself, but she was different, too.  The Isabel I saw in school was more helpful, more conscientious, more empathetic, more outspoken, more of a leader, and a little bit more of a troublemaker than the Isabel I see in other realms.  There were times during the year when Isabel simply forgot her father was in the room.  I was instead her teacher.  And from this new position I was both farther away and closer.  Farther away, because Isabel wasn’t saying to herself “What do I want my parents to see of me?” and closer, because Isabel wasn’t asking herself “What do I want my parents to see of me?”  She was “unfiltered” in a way, or at least “differently filtered.”  The Isabel I got to see was the one she brings out into the world when she is away from me and Erica.  For this and many other reasons, this was my best teaching year yet.