Are the Amish Getting Fracked?

According to an article in the New Republic, “The Amish Are Getting Fracked” by energy companies that exploit an Amish religious prohibition against lawsuits, especially companies involved in unconventional shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

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Curious about these claims, I decided to do a bit of research. One of the books I read was The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, Steven M. Nolt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). In turns out that, indeed, the Amish refuse “to initiate litigation or use the law aggressively to defend themselves” because they “view such as coercion, which violates the nonresistant teachings of Jesus to love enemies and avoid retaliation”; in most Amish communities “transgression of this deeply held belief will trigger excommunication” (Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner, & Nolt, 2013: 353).

In addition to confirming this tidbit, I found The Amish to be extensively researched and beautifully written. It offers a rare blend of detailed academic scholarship coupled with a compelling human narrative. The overall organization of the book is excellent, with a total of 22 chapters (!) organized into five major sections: roots; cultural context; social organization; external ties; and the future. The text is rich in detail, nuance and sophistication. The authors somehow manage to be exhaustive without appearing to have done violence to their topic, subjects and setting.

Academic readers are sure to revel in the endnotes. As just one example, consider Chapter 7 on “Symbols and Identity.” The third paragraph (p. 116) notes: “Amish cultural norms prescribe how to act toward and think about moral objects–material items, ideas and activities. Like other societies, the Amish distinguish between desirable or ‘clean’ moral objects and forbidden or ‘dirty’ ones. Boundaries and labels distinguish between things that purify the community and things that pollute it…” Of course, this sounds (to me) like something Mary Douglas might have written, especially her work on Purity and Danger, but also Natural Symbols, Risk and Blame, etc. And neatly tucked away in the endnotes (p. 435, en 1) we find the following: “Our analysis of distinctions in a group’s moral order rests on the classic work of Bourdieu, Distinction; Douglas, Purity and Danger; Wuthnow et al., Cultural Analysis; and Wuthnow, Meaning and Moral Order.”

In sum, Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner and Nolt have offered us a highly readable and thoroughly engaging lens into The Amish, and in doing so offer readers an opportunity to reflect on themselves and their own cultural milieu. What’s more, academics from diverse backgrounds will also see themselves in this book — including anthropology, culture studies, ethnography, geography, history, political science, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and many more I am sure.

National Geographic Bakken Shale Cover Story

The March 2013 issue of National Geographic proclaims: “America Strikes Oil: The Promise and Risk of Fracking.”

201303 National GeographicInside is a 32-page story entitled “The New Oil Landscape” by Edwin Dobb, with photographs by Eugene Richards. You can read the story online and view an album of the photos.

In his introductory column, editor-in-chief Chris Johns framed the stakes this way:

Flip a coin. Heads or tails? The odds are fifty-fifty either way. Make a bet and take your chances. A gamble is just that–a decision that has risk attached to it. Someone wins. But someone loses. When it comes to fracking–the process of extracting otherwise unreachable oil and natural gas by driving fresh water mixed with other substances, some toxic, into layers of rock–the bets become less mathematically clear…

As with other unconventional formations, such as the Barnett, Haynesville and Marcellus, extracting hydrocarbons from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation depends on a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. What’s different about the Bakken Formation is that it produces shale oil. (Though considerable natural gas is also produced, it is often flared).

[A]dvances in drilling and extraction technology bave made it possible to remove oil from deep, widely dispersed deposits. Since early 2006, production from what’s known as the Bakken formation has increased nearly 150-fold, to more than 660,000 barrels a day, moving North Dakota into second place among domestic suppliers, behind Texas and ahead of Alaska.

But clearly more than technology, geology and economics are at stake. Early in the article, Dobb asks:

[C]an the inestimable values of the prairie–silence, solitude, serenity–be preserved in the face of full-throttle, regionwide development, of extracting as much oil as possible as fast as possible?

After reviewing the evidence firsthand, by the end of the article, Dobb concludes:

To believe the old lifestyle will survive intact is to ignore the wrenching changes that have already reshaped this corner of the prairie.

Note: In August 2010, National Geographic published a package of stories — “The Great Shale Gas Rush” — on the Marcellus Formation.