Saturday, August 25, 2012

DON'T FRACK N. Y.: Scenes from the Sidewalk

On Wednesday, August 22, in response to an email alert from CREDOAction, I went down to the Sheraton Hotel on 7th Avenue and 53rd Street. Governor Cuomo was holding a policy summit there, and some 400 demonstrators took time out from their day to gather across the street and push for a ban on fracking. For anyone who wants to know more about fracking beyond what you may get from this post, you may scroll down to find my earlier posts on the topic: “David Brooks and Fracking: Marketplace Trumps Environment,” November 5, 2011; “When I Was a Boy,” September 28, 2011; “Our Water and Fracking,” February 6, 2011.

And then, for anyone as concerned as we all ought to be about the effects of fracking on our environment and our water supply,  do as this “Ban Fracking Now” poster suggests: text “frack” to 69866. This poster is courtesy of the Food and Water Watch, whose mission is to ensure the safety of the food, water and fish that we eat and to work towards insuring that these essential resources remain accessible to all and sustainably produced.

Food and Water Watch strives for a world in which all people can meet their basic needs and in which “governments are accountable to their citizens and manage essential resources sustainably.” It also tries to keep abreast of such hidden manipulations as the attempts by some Wall Street, multinational finance firms to take over and privatize municipal water and sewer systems--just one more way in which private enterprise would enrich itself at the public, governmental trough while bleeding the local, tax-paying citizens.

You may also enjoy testing yourself with the Food and Water Watch fracking quiz.

Here we see some of the crowd of demonstrators across the street from the Sheraton, which looms in the background--an appropriate metaphor of the personal and individual pitted against the impersonal and corporate.

This detailed view, looking up at the Sheraton, gives us a sense of scale as well as underscoring some of the building’s irregularity and asymmetry. In terms of scale, at 51 floors, it is one of the tallest hotels in New York City and remains one of the world’s 100 tallest hotels. At the time of its completion in 1962, it could claim the title of the tallest concrete structure in the city.

Its asymmetry was something of an anomaly in 1962.  After all, architects as well as architecture in the 1950s and 1960s were wedded to the slab--visualize the United Nations Secretariat (1952, by Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier) or the Seagram Building (Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, 1958).  The irregularities of the Sheraton (originally the Americana Hotel) marked its architect, Morris Lapidus, as an infidel to the modernist aesthetic. For starters, how dare he design a bent slab shape, and how dare he apply such decorative elements as yellow-glazed brick facing under the horizontal layers of steel-framed windows!

Poor Lapidus, who studied architecture at Columbia but also was attracted to theatrical set design, found himself exiled to Miami Beach [not so bad, eh?] where he made his reputation as the designer of “Neo-Baroque” Miami Modern (Fontainebleau, Americana, Eden Roc).   He designed over 1,200 buildings, including 250 hotels around the world, and outlived most of his collegial detractors.   In his autobiography, Too Much is Never Enough (1996), he takes a little revenge against the ultra-modernist, Mies van der Rohe, and his dictum, “Less Is More.” Meanwhile, the postmodernists of the later 20th century have more than resurrected Lapidus’ architectural reputation.  And, even if New York never really got a full-blown piece of Miami Modern, it has a building that remains visually interesting today and whose details, like the yellow glazed brick lintels, have held up very well.

While the demonstrators on the street were chanting, “You can’t frack your way to the White House, Cuomo,” the governor and the democratic big-wigs were meeting above in one of the large ballrooms.   Could it be that this was not “news fit to print,” since the New York Times wrote nothing about the meeting nor the demonstration either in Thursday’s or Friday’s newspaper?

However, thanks to our other great, local media outlet, WNYC, we know that two protesters, a man and a woman, slipped into the ballroom, stood a few tables away from Governor Cuomo, and suddenly interrupted the discussion and unfurled a banner in protest of fracking.  The woman “collapsed after pretending to drink a glass of poisoned water,” while the man was quickly escorted outside.

Apparently, these two managed to unfurl that banner out of the ballroom window and I got a shot of it, which we can see in this as well as the previous photograph.   When I glanced up a minute later, the banner had disappeared!

One might say that Governor Cuomo finds himself caught in the horns of a dilemma.  Some landowners and businessmen support fracking as a potential source of jobs and economic growth (or personal, short-term gain for certain landowners).   Many others, locals, environmental groups, and artists, oppose fracking as a major threat to our land, water and air.  

In a Siena College survey, 39% of voters supported fracking, while 38% opposed it.   State Senator Thomas Libous (R, Binghamton) claims that his “southern tier” is in favor of “environmentally safe drilling” (an oxymoron?).  State Senator Tony Avella (D, Queens), on the other hand, warns of the obvious political future of a decision in favor of fracking: “Governor Cuomo, if you allow hydrofracking to occur in this state, you own it. And if you want to run for president, all it’ll take is one incident, one contamination, that we know will happen, and your dream of running for president is over. It’s over.

Now, I have never withheld my vote at election time.  I consider voting an almost sacred exercise of our democracy.  But I am not sure that I wouldn’t withhold my vote for candidate Cuomo, were he to run for president in 2016, and here’s why.

Besides Avella’s dire warning of an accident--and one is likely to occur in spite of all the assurances by drillers and oil corporations that they won’t--it appears that the Cuomo Administration has created an “unlevel playing field.”  Firstly, it gave the gas drilling industry access to unpublished regulations which it kept hidden from local communities, public health, or environmental groups. This “inside information” enabled the drillers to anticipate and lobby to weaken certain regulations.   Secondly, this information came from the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation), and the director of its Division of Mineral Resources is Bradley J. Field.   

Field is a “climate denier” and signer of the Global Warming Petition that calls on the United States to reject any limits on greenhouse gases, because “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.”   Furthermore, the petition makes this amazingly Panglossian statement:   “we are living in an increasingly lush environment of plants and animals . . . an unexpected and wonderful gift of the Industrial Revolution.”   Are we to really believe, as Field seems to, that “we must cultivate our garden” by hydro-fracking New York’s natural environment?

The last quotation regarding our garden, of course, appears near the end of Voltaire’s Candide, when Candide realizes that Dr. Pangloss’ moral lesson, “we live in the best of all possible worlds,” is false. And so, as the banner hanging down from the Sheraton pleads:   “Cuomo Don’t Frack N. Y.”

Meanwhile, down on sidewalk level, the party proceeded apace. Here, the front line greeted pedestrians as they crossed 53rd Street, all the while chanting ditties such as, “Once you frack, you can’t go back.”

One of these “greeters” was Brooke, an artist from Brooklyn, who dressed like a part of the abused, fracked earth, her face and clothes scored with the fissures of the fracking process.

Brooke is part of a group calling itself the Radical Art Initiative. It was founded in Brooklyn in 2008 in response to our economic crisis and attempts to raise awareness of our “global crisis” through visual and performance art.  We can turn to another artist, actor Alec Baldwin, who has put together a very informative piece he calls “The Truth About Fracking.”

Another of the front line demonstrators is Marunn, also from Brooklyn.  She may look like a co-ed on spring break with her camouflage fatigue cap and her clever “freakin’ frackin’” alliteration, but she’s no dummy, even if people like ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson claim that the public is ignorant about the issues of fracking.

The truth is that the public knows a lot more about fracking than the drillers and oil corporations wish they knew.  That is why, for example, oil company lobbyists have pushed through a new law in our neighboring state of Pennsylvania that will ban medical doctors from giving their patients any information regarding the chemicals used in natural gas extraction through the fracking process.  If this isn’t as egregious an example of the tail wagging the dog, I don’t know what is.   The corporate logic would seem to be, if they know too much, then we need to shut them up!

I found Julie and Natalie, both from Queens, farther into the crowd of demonstrators. They are representatives of NYPIRG, the New York Public Interest Research Group. This is a state-wide, non-partisan organization that is controlled by a student-run board of directors.   It really represents the future of advocacy in America and it had its beginnings in 1973, both in New York as well as around the country, having been influenced by Ralph Nader and his book, Action for Change of that same year.

NYPIRG carries out research and advocacy on environmental protection, consumer rights, higher education, government reform, voter registration, mass transit, and public health--sounds to me like the whole ball of wax when it comes to efforts at social improvement.

I applaud these gals and their work--they truly are out future. May they become the next generation of Erin Brockoviches.  And, speaking of Erin, watch this video of her addressing the concerns of fracking on HuffPost Live, where she argues that "water is on the table for every single one us. When it's gone, game over. I don't care what company you run; I don't care if you're Republican or liberal."

Brockovich ends with this statement, which ought to be everybody’s mantra: "This is our country, our water. We're entitled to a good life.  It's a human rights issue.  Let's stop the bullshit and get down to finding some solutions to our problems."

Kristina, from Brooklyn, offers a clever paraphrasing of Smokey Bear:  “Only you can prevent faucet fires.”   I’m sure many of you have seen the videos of flammable water issuing from faucets in regions where fracking is under way, or have seen Josh Fox’s film, Gasland.    If this “most unnatural” phenomenon is new to you, here are two videos to bring you up to date in exactly 30 seconds: This one lasts 16 seconds, and this one lasts 14 seconds.    Let’s hope that these poor people have found asbestos gloves to use when they wash their dishes!

“Another Mother & Human with a Brain Against Fracking” gets me thinking back to the demeaning statements by Rex Tillerson about our igorance.  This sign says it all.  All of us have brains and most of us see the world from a much broader perspective than those corporate CEOs who make most of their decisions from the narrowed vision of the “bottom line.”

This mother wants her children to inherit a clean and healthy world, not a destroyed landscape out of some computer game dystopia.  As Riverkeeper notes,every time the gas industry fracks, the public loses. We forfeit an enormous amount of fresh water from our rivers, lakes and streams, and we get a toxic waste disposal nightmare in return.”

To cite one of the other chants that rang out on Seventh Avenue on Wednesday, “New York water, keep it like it oughter.”
Keep in mind that between two to eight million gallons of water are required to frack a single well, and this is our water, which we otherwise would use for drinking, cooking, farming and recreation. And then, although the frackers in many states are required to report which chemicals they use in all of their wells, it has been reported that “energy companies failed to list more than two out of every five fracked wells in eight U.S. states from April 11, 2011 [to August 2012].

This mother, Julie, Natalie, Kristina, Marunn, Brooke, and the other people seen here demonstrating represent the future of our country, if we are to have a future.  The real problem is that the drillers, the gas and oil company executives, and the other promoters of fracking lack the imagination needed to lead us into the future.  They know how to make money. but only in one, traditional way.   They are lazy and self-satisfied.  They are, in fact, like people who know no better and soil the same space in which they live and sleep--our earth.  

The irony and tragedy is that they have the wherewithal to help develop new forms of energy but lack the imagination and initiative to take these new directions.

At the center of the sidewalk gathering was the Rude Mechanical Orchestra. Here, maybe, were seven of what is sometimes a “30-odd piece New York City radical marching band and dance troupe.”   They employ music and performance to support social justice among people and within communities.

The Rude Mechanical Orchestra was formed in the spring of 2004, during the March for Women’s Lives, held in Washington, D.C.  To simply quote the last sentence of their very inclusive mission statement: “Through our musical selections, we pay tribute to the world’s cultures and the revolutionary role music has played throughout history.”

They offered inspiring musical accompaniment to “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” while I tried to make my way through the crowd in order to get some sort of decent shot of them.  To quote Thomas Carlyle, “All deep things are song. It seems somehow the very central essence of us, song; as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls!”

As the crowd repeatedly chanted, “End fracking now...Cuomo, End fracking now...Cuomo,” I found my last shots: Pat from Manhattan, blind but swept up in the song, the chant. Here, on the sidewalks of midtown Manhattan, is more humanity than ever could gather in the ballrooms of the Sheraton or the halls of Congress.

If only our political and industrial “elite” would descend to the level of the street.

Other Sources:

If you would like access to some particularly good sources on the issues of fracking, here are two extremely thoughtful and informative pieces:

Energy-Vision, Hydrofracking FactSheet3.pdf (open, and then click on the second item down on the left, “Hydrofracking” to access the pdf file);

Bill McKibben, “Why Not Frack?,” The New York Review of Books, March 8, 2012.

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