Community Conflict Around Marcellus Gas Drilling

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Tompkins Weekly – September 6, 2010
By Sharon Anderson

“I don’t understand why anyone would do that!” came the exasperated comment of a participant at a program on shale gas drilling. I’ve hear similar reactions from both opponents and proponents of gas drilling activity. As an environmental educator working toward building a more sustainable community, the sentiment worries me.

How different the comment would be if instead of incredulity there was curiosity and a wish to understand. Why does a person make such different choices? What does the world look like from another’s point of view? Seeking to understand another’s perspective does not necessarily mean having to change one’s mind or give up a deeply held belief. It can mean developing respect for someone with a different interest or belief. It can mean developing better decisions and building a stronger democratic process.

In the next several decades, shale gas drilling may take place in the Southern Tier at greater intensity than previous gas exploration. Other states facing a similar increase in gas extraction have experienced substantial changes in population, land use, environment, community and economy. The breadth of potential change is very large and there is controversy about how positive or negative the transformation may be.

Shale gas drilling is an important issue with potentially far-reaching consequences. If our community becomes deeply divided over the issue, that could also have far-reaching consequences. Can we use the issue as a way to work towards building community rather than fostering divisiveness? For those of us interested in sustainability, I hope the answer is a resounding yes. Finding ways to build community through understanding different perspectives should be part of what we strive for.

Accurate information is needed as the foundation. It allows people to engage in dialogue and make sound decisions that anticipate, shape, and respond to complex challenges. But information alone is not enough. There needs to be a venue for people to talk about sticky issues, like shale gas. Those conversations need to go beyond the people who agree with each other to include people with different points of view.

Even if opinions are not changed, there is value in being able to understand perspectives contrary to one’s own. In his speech at University of Michigan Commencement, President Obama stated, (A) “ way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate. These arguments we’re having … should arouse people’s passions, and it’s important for everyone to join in the debate, with all the rigor that a free people require.

But we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. ….It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning… For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we will become more polarized and set in our ways. … But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from… in the process, you’ll help make this democracy work.
(Quotes from the text of Obama’s speech as posted on

Engaging with and building a strong community appears to be in one’s own self interest as well. A recent study of people in more than 150 countries revealed five universal elements as determinants of wellbeing over the course of one’s lifetime. Financial and physical wellbeing was expected but the fifth was a surprise to the Gallup researchers: community wellbeing. Community was one of the five elements that were universally necessary. Let’s use shale gas as an opportunity to learn how to tackle tough issues and strengthen rather than divide community. Progress we make can be applied to other far reaching issues like energy transitions, food security, racism and more.

What you can do:
Seek out people with different points of view and listen in order to understand. Assume the other person has good motives and ask questions to deepen your understanding. Look for interests that are in common, sometimes referred to as finding common ground. This may lead to defining the problem differently, which in turn can lead to different possible solutions. Be open to reconsidering and broadening your own opinion. Intervene when you perceive a person’s integrity rather than idea is being questioned.

Later this year, Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County intends to offer a forum to bring people together to civilly dialogue about shale gas. If you are interested in learning more or in serving on a planning committee, contact Sharon Anderson, Environment Program Leader, or 607-272-2292.

Sharon Anderson is the Environment Program Leader at the Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

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