Saturday, January 18, 2014

The End of Country

What would you do if someone told you that your unsuccessful farm was sitting on top of one of the world’s largest natural gas deposits? What if this someone was standing at your front door, with the paperwork in hand to lease access to your land for drilling, and promised you unimaginable riches? What would be the many implications of your decision? The End of Country by Seamus McGraw looks at a community of Pennsylvania farmers who struggled with this very scenario.

Without guidance from the United States government or lawyers, and under pressure from the eager natural gas corporation reps at their doorsteps, these homeowners wrestled with this dilemma both individually, and as a community.

What were some of the entanglements of this overly idyllic situation? Environmentally, the cost was extensive; the drilling machinery caused injuries, there was resulting noise and air pollution, and toxic taints to the land and to the water table accumulated as the drilling continued. Water wells even exploded from trapped gas. But the most difficult of the consequences to navigate were the rising tensions between neighbours with differing views on the evolving situation, since each landowner was able to make his or her own decision unilaterally, without consulting the community.

In The End of Country, McGraw goes beyond the predictable cheering for the underdogs. He doesn’t just malign the money-hungry natural gas corporations but looks with a critical eye at the costs of the choices made by all involved. This is a great read, full of humour and affection for all the varied personalities that stepped up in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.

There was one particular part of the book that brought home to me the author’s intent. McGraw, who had grown up in Susquehanna County, met up with Ken Ely, one of the ad hoc leaders in the community. “I remember you.” Ely had said. “You owe me a hundred bucks for gas and bullets.” McGraw recalled:

“I didn’t remember that. As far as I knew, I had paid Ken every cent I ever owed him. But I wasn’t going to dispute it. Ken Ely had a long memory. I didn’t have a hundred dollars on me, but I promised I’d write him a check. ‘Don’t bother,’ he told me. ‘I don’t need the money anymore. Wait till you get rich on the gas and then give it to someone who needs it.’”

McGraw doesn’t even let himself off the hook. He, too, profited from the good and the bad through the writing of this book and owns up to it.  He’s a class act.

 Discussion Questions

  1. There were a few recent films that looked at this and similar issues: feature film Promised Land (2012) with Matt Damon, documentary Gasland (2010) with Josh Fox, and even Erin Brockovich (2000) with Julia Roberts edges in close with big business carefully misleading the affected public. How do these films depict the negative longer term effects on the public? How is the audience made to feel about the decisions made?
  2. In a community, how important is it to consider the implications of your decisions on your neighbourhood?
  3. Is personal gain ever worth the loss of respect of your peers? What would motivate you to make such a choice?
  4. How could the Pennsylvania situation have been better managed? How much power can a community-led coalition wield? Should the government have intervened? If so, what level of government?
  5. How can other communities best benefit from the hard and assorted lessons learned in Susquehanna County through this experience?

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