Vox Populi

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A Conversation with John Detwiler

Vox: John, unlike most environmental activists you have a strong background in industry and business. You received a PhD in engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, and you worked in the steel industry for many years. So, you seem to have wound up in a very different place. Could you tell us about your journey?

John: Well, it has been a change! Like a lot of people, my wife Claudia and I didn’t start as “environmentalists”, but we’ve become conscious of the environment, and are trying to play a constructive role in it. We all bring whatever life experiences we’ve had; and each of us contributes in our own way.

For my part, I happen to have spent a lot of my time learning and practicing techniques of engineering and management; others have taken completely different paths in life – many much more rugged than mine. But the combined experiences of all of us, together, are deeper and broader than any one person could possibly accumulate in a single lifetime.

Looking back, one of the most gratifying aspects of my career has been the rich variety of places and industries in which I’ve been immersed. I enjoy learning new things, and I’ve been allowed to do that in my professional life.

Along the way, I’ve gotten to know people (and organizations) in hospitals, steel mills, weapons plants, banks, electric utilities, and pharmaceuticals, as well as in government from municipalities to Federal agencies. I’ve been an owner-executive of a small business and at other times an employee of some of the biggest multi-national corporations – including IBM. So I’ve had a chance to see what’s unique to various segments of the business world, and also notice what they all have in common. Now, when I look at the fracking issue, here are some principles that I recognize from the other industries:
1. Workers at all levels are proud of the work they do, and the skills they’ve mastered. So, we won’t get very far by arguing that geologists or well pad workers don’t know their jobs.
2. People do what their organizations reward. If top management says one thing in public, but rewards something else in the pay envelope, workers will “follow the money”.
3. Like individual workers, organizations learn – quickly and continuously – to find ways to prosper in a changing environment. Whether you call that “innovation” or “gaming the system,” you should expect any legal loophole or any new marketing angle to be fully exploited by imaginative, relentless players.
4. Following from the previous point, an organization will say what it needs to say. And if one spokesperson becomes disillusioned or discredited, the organization will simply put someone else forward to carry its message.

Now I tend to look at organizations as complex, self-optimizing “machines,” sort of like chess-playing robots. Once they grasp the rules of the game, they are relentlessly focused on finding ways to win. We should expect corporations to maximize profits – as they are designed and intended to do. It’s foolish to believe that an energy company cares about the environment, any more than a microwave oven cares what you fix for dinner. Environmental impact is an externalized cost, and – by definition – that’s outside the scope of the corporation’s control or consideration.

Vox: As a professional engineer, you have special insight into the dangers of fracking. Why are you so opposed to it? Many people argue that the economic benefits outweigh the health and environmental risks.

John: I think you’re right, that my engineering background contributes to my convictions about fracking. An obvious benefit of engineering training is to understand the language of documents like permit applications and inspection reports. So I can see what the DEP has taken into account when it grants a permit, for example. And I can read what the technical documents actually say, to see past the spin from the public relations teams.

In general, though, as an engineer, I’ve been steeped in Murphy’s Law – Whatever can go wrong, will. That’s not just a cynical complaint, it’s a real design principle; it says that, if there is a failure mode that you haven’t accounted for, then you can be guaranteed that nature will not spare you. So, as an engineer, I don’t look at the “risks” of fracking as hypothetical – they will come to pass.

On the other side of the argument, there is no evidence regarding “economic benefits” – we have no data by which to measure any such thing. The “economic benefit” is a tale that we tell ourselves because we wish to believe it. It sounds convincing, but it doesn’t meet any standard of rigor, let alone that which the advocates of drilling demand when we warn about “risks.” So, what we have right now is the “precautionary principle” stood on its head: maximum credulity about “benefits”, maximum skepticism over “risks.”

But, ultimately, economic considerations are immaterial – nature is real, our economy is an abstraction that we all in the Western world share like a folie à deux. Observation and logic tell us that the climate cannot bear our current level of fossil fuel consumption and support life as we know it. So, we can choose to stay fixated on “what’s good for our economy,” but that won’t matter if we don’t change where we’re headed.

Vox: For quite some time, you’ve been involved in Protect Our Parks and Marcellus Protest. Please tell us about these organizations.

John: Marcellus Protest started as a counterpoint to the first fracking industry convention and trade show in Pittsburgh in 2010. We held a demonstration and march outside the Convention Center; and then, after the industry’s event, we stayed together to work for the ban in the City of Pittsburgh, and we’ve never stopped. Through our online presence, monthly newsletter, and calendar of events, Marcellus Protest has become sort of a hub for other grassroots groups to connect with each other.

Marcellus Protest stands for a total ban on fracking – everywhere. We realize that such a decision isn’t on the table now, but we believe that a ban is inevitable and that the concerted efforts of people such as us can both help to bring it about and help to minimize the damage to the environment while a ban is yet to come.

Marcellus Protest is now a project of The Thomas Merton Center, which acts as our fiscal fiduciary and supports the tax treatment of donations to Marcellus Protest as a 501(c)3 organization.

Protect Our Parks is coalition which includes Marcellus Protest along with other grassroots and mainline environmental groups. It serves as a specific focus for action, aimed at stopping fracking of public parks in Allegheny County. Although not all of the member organizations have the same ultimate goal as Marcellus Protest, they all agree that fracking doesn’t belong in or under County parks.

Vox: With Allegheny County Council’s recent approval of a contract allowing Range Resources to extract gas beneath Deer Lakes Park, POP suffered a setback in its fight against fracking. What is POP’s strategy now?

John: POP doesn’t see the vote as a setback. We knew that the odds were against us from the beginning, and we accomplished a great deal in the nine months leading up to the vote on Deer Lakes Park. The County Executive and the majority leadership had expected their lease to slip through Council as business as usual. But POP’s persistence brought many Council members around to seeing the dangers of fracking, and made the whole County take notice that something important was being decided.

And, of course, while the Deer Lakes Park decision was still pending, the PA Supreme Court ruled in Robinson v Commonwealth that local government had an obligation of due diligence. So POP brought that to Council’s attention, too. We’ve seen the County fail miserably in its obligation, but they cannot say they didn’t know about it.

Going forward, POP has engaged a team of attorneys to explore legal options, and we’re kicking off a fund-raising campaign to pay the costs of whatever strategy we decide to follow. We think that the Deer Lakes Park decision may yet be reversed; but, even if it isn’t, we want to establish the inadequacy of the County’s decision-making on Deer Lakes Park so that it cannot be used to rubber stamp drilling leases in the County’s other eight parks.

POP will continue to work to protect the parks, as long as there is fracking and as long as there are parks.

Vox: Because Pittsburgh is at the center of the Marcellus gas play, your activism is very important, but there are also national organizations such as the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action which are fighting against fracking. What do you see as the relationship between local and national activists?

John: Both local and national organizing are important.

For many people who are new to “activism,” or who are battling their own sense of despair over fracking, a local grassroots group is an important source of “moral support.” A local group also can give opportunities for everyone to have a voice in the strategies and the “message” of the group. And, if the tactics of a particular group are less successful, a different group may spring up to pursue another path.

On the other hand, the national organizations have staff and name recognition in the halls of power. National organizations sometimes have the financial resources to hire expert researchers and public relations consultants to hone their message for a mass audience.

So we need both.

Vox: What is your vision for the future? In your opinion, what is the best case scenario for Western Pennsylvania and the country? What is the worst case?

John: I would like for people come to recognize the impact that we have as a species and the responsibility that we have brought upon ourselves for the direction of the entire planet.

I can see this awakening among the younger generation – in the young population as a whole, and particularly in our own adult children and our grandchildren. I hope that, with the enthusiasm of youth, that they will find environmental responsibility as stimulating and not debilitating.

I am convinced, however, that there will eventually be a worldwide ban on fracking. As far as I know, no town, state or nation who has adopted a ban has chosen to reverse it. So, the tide is moving consistently in just one direction. How much of Western Pennsylvania will be ruined before that ban arrives here? That’s the open question.

Vox: What can concerned citizens do to help in the struggle for the environment?

John: Whatever you know how to do – do it. If you don’t know what to do – do something; and, then, if that doesn’t feel right, do whatever feels more right. For example, show up at meetings in your own community; and, if there aren’t meetings, start one. (Marcellus Protest will be glad to talk with you about sending speakers.) And you can go to the Protect Our Parks website and make a donation to the legal fund.

As Sandra Steingraber says, “We are all musicians in a great human orchestra, and it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony. You are not required to play a solo, but you are required to know what instrument you hold and play it as well as you can.”

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