The Shire, painted by JRR Tolkien himself.

The Shire, painted by JRR Tolkien himself.

Among the numerous problems with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy (“They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25” according to Tolkien’s son Christopher), to me one of the most significant is the omission of the penultimate chapter of the trilogy: “The Scouring of the Shire”. In this chapter, Frodo and his companions have returned home after the defeat of Sauron. What they find there is an evil smaller in scope than the one they’ve just defeated though perhaps no less horrifying to them. The Shire, once a simple, agrarian community of hobbits with simple tastes and ambitions, has become an industrial wasteland, exploited by avaricious locals and dominated by outsiders. What had once been a place of careful stewardship and a recognition of limits has become a place viewed as a means to an end, a set of resources to be exploited, by both locals and outsiders with no long term interest in the health and prosperity of the land. Although Frodo and his friends ultimately drive out the usurpers, the chapter is a reminder of how quickly a healthy, beautiful place can be turned to ruin.

My family and I live just outside the emerging Marcellus shale belt of Northeastern Pennsylvania, and I think of “The Scouring of the Shire” whenever I think of the controversy surrounding fracking. I am concerned about the long term environmental impacts of fracking, particularly the accidents which inevitably happen in such an industry. But I am perhaps even more concerned about the underlying attitude to the land which fracking assumes: that our land and water are resources to be exploited rather than gifts to be protected and cherished.

The proponents of fracking argue that it is safe, creates jobs, and funnels money into rural regions desperately in need of economic development. I agree that it likely is safe, except for the inevitable accidents which one never expects and yet which seem to regularly occur, accidents whose consequences and sometimes irreparable, no matter how much money is thrown at them. And it certainly creates jobs, at least in the short term. And certainly rural places are in need of economic development. Yet, it seems to me that many of these arguments are smokescreens, positive PR for an industry motivated by the same thing that motivates most economic activity: greed. Ultimately, those who will benefit most from fracking are not local landowners and local communities, but the companies doing the fracking, companies who have no long term interest in the places where they now do business. At bottom, their interest is purely economic, whatever their PR might argue to the contrary. The proof of this is that if a well dries up or doesn’t perform, the company packs up and leaves, care for the local community suddenly evaporated.

Even if one could predict a future in which fracking has no negative environmental impacts, I would still be opposed because of the attitude to the land which fracking depends on. Long before the term sustainable came into use, proponents of agriculture practiced with care talked and wrote of “permanent agriculture”, agriculture which could go on indefinitely. Their vision was not for the short term profit of the next quarter or even next decade, but for the flourishing of generations to come. They knew that agriculture which undermined its ability to perpetuate itself was a kind of economic and cultural suicide. Yet, fossil fuel extraction represents such an economic suicide by its very nature. The very essence of fossil fuel is that it is not permanent, that it is the using up a finite resource, no matter how abundant it may appear. It is temporary by its very nature. To my mind, our relationship to the places we inhabit and the economic activity which allows us to survive and even thrive in them, ought to be based on activities which are permanent. Agriculture, properly practiced, is just such an activity. When fracking companies argue that fracking is good for agriculture because it enriches farmers and allows them to stay on the land, I don’t know if I want to laugh or cry. If frackers really cared about the economic health of local agricultural communities, they would buy local agricultural products and pay a premium for them so that farmers can actually make a living farming. They would preserve farmland and oppose thoughtless and ugly development. Likewise, if they really cared about local jobs, they would create jobs that are stable and lasting, not which have an inevitable expiration date. It is astounding and sad to me that a region like Northeastern Pennsylvania, still suffering from the boom/bust cycle of coal would so quickly jump on another fossil fuel bandwagon, destined to repeat the same pattern experienced decades ago.

As in the Shire, what is at stake here is how we view our relationship to the land we inhabit. As in the case of the Shire, we have invited into our region outsiders with no intention of staying for the long term. We have been seduced by short term profits to the neglect of our long term environmental and economic health. I am deeply grateful that my family and I live just outside the Shale belt because though I like to believe we would refuse the economic gains of drilling on our land, I know the temptation would be great. I am certainly in no place to judge those who have allowed drilling on their land. There are myriad reasons why such a decision might make sense in a particular situation. My concern is not with individual landowners’ choices, but with an attitude which has no long-term commitment to a place, but views our land not with an eye to stewardship but an eye to exploitative profit. 

Frodo and his friends, fresh from their defeat of Sauron, knew the power that lay in their hands. I wonder if we can claim that same sense of empowerment, and work to replace the temporary benefits of fracking with the more permanent benefits of sustainable agriculture and other sustainable economic activity?