What the Debate Over Shale Gas Might Tell Us About the Future of Politics
The use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas drilling has ignited a fiery political debate. Advocates tout natural gas as a clean-burning, cheap, and abundant fuel that can boost economic growth and energy security. Detractors question these benefits and point to a host of risks, from water and air pollution to negative impacts on communities and property values. Interest groups—from America’s Natural Gas Alliance to the devotees of Josh Fox (the director of the popular anti-fracking documentary Gasland)—are marshaling their experts and evidence to sway policymakers in their preferred directions.
We at the UNT Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity have been tracking this debate in Denton, Texas, which is home to 1,300 gas wells on the Barnett Shale. The city has been rewriting its drilling and production ordinance since late 2009 when three controversial gas wells were approved next door to a hospital and across the street from homes and a park. In talking with the people involved, we started to notice something odd: We could not reliably predict where someone stood on the ordinance (for example, more or less restrictions) based on his or her political affiliation. Perhaps this debate, we began to wonder, does not fit into the traditional liberal and conservative boxes. As technology evolves, so too may the ideological arena.
Then we came across a column by the social epistemologist Steve Fuller. He argues that as political issues hinge more and more on complex technologies, we may see a seismic shift in the ideological landscape. The old divide between the left and the right might give way to a new divide between proactionaries and precautionaries. The former believes in the beneficent and redemptive power of technological change. The latter focuses on the potential of technology to outstrip our capacity to understand and control it. The proactionary camp might attract both free-market conservatives and technocratic liberals, while the precautionary camp might attract cultural conservatives and liberal egalitarians.
Could this ideological realignment explain the political debate about shale gas? There is some evidence for this, especially with the left split between those who support natural gas as an alternative to coal and those who denounce hydraulic fracturing as an environmental hazard. But as one of us, Adam Briggle, has argued, it is not yet clear that Fuller’s new ideological axis is entirely helpful in sketching the contours of this debate. His idea remains an untested hypothesis.
So we are going to test it. Over the coming months, we will be conducting empirical research in Denton to try to answer some key questions: How can we tell if people do indeed identify with the proactionary and precautionary alignments? What values and beliefs explain one position or another? Might socioeconomic factors affect whether one holds a proactionary or a precautionary worldview? Could religious beliefs play into this? Is this new ideological axis (if it exists) a better predictor of people’s positions on shale gas policies than the left-right axis?
Fuller’s hypothesis offers an intriguing new way to understand the politics of the day. The public debate may be more about controlling society’s technological floodgates than about being liberal or conservative. But this descriptive work leaves open the evaluative question: Is it better to be proactionary or precautionary?
The problem with this question, however, is that both camps nurture a naïve element of faith, neither better than the other. Proactionaries trust in what Julian Simon calls the “infinite resource” of the human mind—that we will always find a way to engineer ourselves out of a bind and into a brighter future. Also part of the proactionary view is “cornucopianism”—the belief that the Earth’s resources are infinitely plentiful and that we should never worry about exhausting them. Working together, these ideas support the popular narrative about endless human progress. But our progress may undermine itself by leading to problems such as scarcity or destabilizing feedback cycles (such as human-caused carbon emissions leading to warmer temperatures leading to melting tundra, which in turn releases methane that accelerates global warming further) that outpace our ability to adapt. A strictly proactionary stance could lead down an environmentally or technologically unsustainable path—or worse, a dead end.
Precautionaries may seem far more sober, perhaps even Malthusian, by comparison. But they harbor an equally problematic faith in the power of science to settle questions of risk prior to experimenting with technology in society. The problem is that the precautionary principle only encourages us to reduce risk. It is not clear if we should be cautious of action or inaction. Acting and not acting are both risky, so if the point of precaution is just to reduce risk, then the precautionary principle actually directs us to do neither. The precautionary principle, as Cass Sunstein argues, ends up becoming the “paralyzing principle.” Moreover, even if there is consensus in the scientific community about the risks of technology, there is no guarantee that its conclusions won’t be politicized and contested—as seen in the debate over climate change.
In short, proactionaries believe technology will save humanity despite its gambles, while precautionaries presume that science can point us to a path so certain that we won’t need rescuing. But neither principle is all that helpful. If this really is how the future of the ideological debate is taking shape, then we may be replacing the current intractable left-right dichotomy with one that’s just as useless.
Jordan M. Kincaid is a Visiting Fellow at the University of North Texas Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity and a second year Master’s of Science candidate at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy. Adam Briggle is a faculty fellow at the University of North Texas Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity and co-author with Carl Mitcham of the forthcoming book Ethics and Science: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press). Image: Courtesy Chicago Council on Science and Technology.
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