Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 15, 2010


Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 6:54 pm

Perhaps you may be aware that I grew up in one of the country’s most beautiful regions, the Catskill Mountains. My home county, Sullivan County, as well as some adjacent counties supply the drinking water for New York City and most of New Jersey, coming from local reservoirs that are fed by some very famous rivers and streams, including the Neversink River. When I was young, I used to ride my bike along the Neversink, captivated by its sparkling water.

The Neversink River

Now it turns out that the Neversink is a tributary of the Delaware River that borders New York State and Pennsylvania, and that we encounter at the beginning of Josh Fox’s Gasland, opening today at the IFC Center in New York. As the film begins, Fox has just gotten an offer of $25,000 per acre for drilling rights on his land from an oil and gas company—the total pay-off will be $100,000 for this Milanville resident, who ended up in rural Pennsylvania when his hippie parents chose this neck of the woods rather than Vermont or New Mexico.

The natural gas companies have swooped across eastern Pennsylvania, headed now into my ancestral home in upstate New York, trying to nail down the right to exploit the ample resources that some powerful players in the energy industry like T. Boone Pickens regard as the magic bullet that will deliver us from the curse of foreign oil.

Until I saw Gasland, I hadn’t given much thought to natural gas drilling but I was aware that it had become a hot potato up in Sullivan County. In nearly every issue of the Middletown Record and the Sullivan County Democrat, two hometown papers I read online, you can find an article about whether drilling would benefit the county despite the risks. This is from a recent issue of the Democrat:

On one side are the residents signing leases with natural gas companies and setting up signs in their yards proclaiming themselves “friends” of the natural gas industry.

On the other are the people who say they fear for the future of the very children singing along with Liberty High School grads Justin Sutherland and Erin Slaver as they played out the tune of Woody Guthrie’s famous ode to the earth.

Sutherland and his mother Justine had borrowed Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” for Saturday night’s free screening of the documentary “Gasland,” adding lyrics that spoke directly to the people of Callicoon.

“This land is our land; it’s not gas land,” their song went. “Think of our future, it’s all in our hands.

Meanwhile, the May 18th Middletown Record reported on the pro-drilling faction:

The pro-drillers say their voices have been drowned out by a gushing of anti-drilling publicity. Elitist, deep-pocketed environmentalists have put drilling on hold in New York, they say, made the federal government again study its safety and forced politicians to turn against it or sit on the fence. They say the anti-drilling publicity machine has turned the spotlight on the few drilling accidents, not the thousands of wells that have been safely drilled across the country, and in New York. All this despite the fact that nearly twice as many people favor drilling as oppose it, according to last week’s Record poll.

The pro-drillers say drilling the gas-rich Marcellus shale beneath Sullivan County – and leasing their land at thousands of dollars per acre, with royalties up to 20 percent – will pump millions into the state’s dying economy, and their pockets. It will allow farmers in places like Sullivan to save dying farms and the green landscape. It will allow overtaxed landowners to save their property. And it will revive struggling counties like Sullivan by creating thousands of jobs.

The arguments for drilling are basically the same being heard for mountaintop removal in West Virginia and Kentucky, issuing faux populist appeals on behalf of the poor.

As you see the hapless victims of rural people in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Colorado and the far outskirts of Fort Worth coping with water so contaminated that it catches fire, you realize that the “race to the bottom” in American society has not just involved runaway shops. People desperate for a pay-off from a petroleum corporation will sign away their lives. In exchange for a royalty payment, they sacrifice their health, from low-level aches and pains up to brain lesions.

In many ways, Gasland’s closest relative in the world of documentary is the 2008 Crude that showed how little Chevron cared about the environmental consequences that drilling had on the waterways of largely indigenous poor peasants in Ecuador. The remarkable thing about Gasland is how much the self-respecting middle-classes in the US are getting just as royally screwed. Over and over again, the ranchers and farmers tell Josh Fox that this is a democracy and that this should not be happening to them. They are particularly incensed at the inability or unwillingness of the agencies assigned to protect their well-being to do anything. One imagines that some of these good people of Wyoming and Colorado are exactly the sort of people who had voted for Bush and Cheney in the hope that their taxes would be reduced and that their right to bear arms would not be threatened.

What they got instead was the Energy Policy Act of 2005 drafted by Halliburton ex-CEO Dick Cheney that exempted natural gas drilling companies from the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Acts. As we see the embittered rural folk spilling out their guts to Josh Fox, ready it would seem to storm the barricades, we cannot help but think that Karl Marx was right when he said that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

In addition to interviewing people who are the victims of “fracking”, a term for hydraulic fracturing—the chemical-laced process that releases natural gas from rocks deep beneath the earth’s surface, Fox meets with their public defenders like scientist Theo Colburn.

Colburn is a leading authority on the impact of chemicals on our endocrine system. In an interview on Amy Goodman’s radio show, she explained what consequences the byproducts of “fracking” might have on our health:

But what endocrine disruption does, basically, these are the chemicals that we now understand better—by the way, that are made from natural gas, believe it or not—the plastics that—and pesticides and other industrial chemicals. These are the chemicals that can get into the pregnant woman and enter the womb, while her baby is developing in her womb, and alter how those children are born. And this is our big concern today, because we’re facing major pandemics of endocrine-driven disorders—

simple things like ADHD, autism, diabetes, obesity, early testicular cancer, endometriosis. These are all endocrine-driven disorders that we’re very concerned about.

And these products are being injected underground, for centuries, maybe, to stay before they surface, and also coming back up. So the big problem is—with natural gas, is dealing with the water when it comes back up.

Toward the end of Fox’s film, he visits New York City to find out what local politicians have to say about the possible impact of “fracking” on upstate reservoirs. City council member Scott Stringer makes the essential point that people generally choose draft water rather than bottled water in restaurants because it is pure and delicious. As someone who has spent time in Los Angeles, I can attest to you that this is not the norm for major American cities.

The idea that what comes out of our tap might lead to early testicular cancer should make it clear that the stakes are much higher than we ever could have realized. My strong suggestion is that New Yorkers go see Gasland, which opens today at the IFC Center. You should also see the movie’s website that contains a trove of information about how you can get involved in a campaign to resist the squandering of one of our most precious assets: water.


This Counterpunch article makes a  very useful point, namely that the movie ignored the grass roots movement against drilling. I should have noticed that myself. I guess I was too swept up in the story of what the drilling was doing to pay attention to what was missing.


  1. This is a huge issue in Pennsylvania, with tons of money and plenty of corruption involved. The state anti-terrorism agency (Pa Dept of Homeland Security) recently paid a private entity to spy on all sorts of groups, presumably to prepare for mass protests. Former governor Tom Ridge has been hired by the gas companies to lobby for them, to the tune of about a million a year. He was the first head of Homeland Security. This is all pretty unsavory.

    See http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2010/09/post_122.html for the story.

    A showing of Gasland was monitored by the company. Governor Rendell has apologized and said he was not aware of all this. Butr he has been a gung ho supporter of the drilling.

    Comment by michael yates — September 16, 2010 @ 1:13 am

  2. In western Pennsylvania near the New York border people are being offered $100 an acre for the first year and $25 an acre for subsequent years. It’s not unusual in that area for people to own 50 or more acres. Many are signing up. Five grand in your hand is a lot of money with the economy in the shitter, so the success of the gas companies is hardly a surprise.

    Comment by Richard Greener — September 16, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

  3. There are several “fracking” schemes starting up in Britain now, based on the same technique, developed by US venture capitalist companies.
    Exploiting marginal carbon fuel reserves is attractive to these companines because it offers windfall profits, as long as they aren’t responsible for the long term effects!
    Besides groundwater pollution, these include long term release of methane into the atmosphere.
    Although it breaks down to CO2 within 10 years, it’s a much more potent Greenhouse gas.
    So generalising this technology widely could be dangerous.
    Wind Power, Concentrating solar power, Carbon Sequestration and continet wide HVDC grid systems are a far better way to spend the money. But the infrastructure investment is beyond these prospecting companies.

    Comment by prianikoff — September 16, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

  4. Louis,

    Hi hope you are well. I would personally like to thank you for this article. It is individuals such as yourself that bring relevant and important issues to light. For example in New Jersey we are having a problem with Seton Hall University wanting to build a stadium and destroying prescious old growth trees in the process.

    That is the madness of capitalism. We are on a “Road to Nowhere”. We are building and producing goods while in the process destroying God’s green Earth. There is a bridge that will be built in Florida flooding Seminole land. The list of evils is very long.

    I started reading Lenin and found him very intelligent, articulate and made sense. I once tried to read Max Weber and was confused. Lenin is not hard to understand at all. The short article was his first pamphlet he wrote. What must be done? is next in the anthology. The Anthology mentioned that Lenin changed view points over time. I wonder what your thoughts on that are.

    Also the article said Lenin was for a Democratic government in Russia, yet when he came to power he closed the assembly. At this point, not basing this on extensive knowledge, I believe one of Lenin’s major faults is that he did not trust the proletariat enough. He should have empowered the Soviets more. Perhaps then Stalin could have been adverted.


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by john kaniecki — September 17, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

  5. Dear John:

    Please pick up a copy of “Ten Days That Shook The World” by Jack Reed, an American journalist living in Russia during the Russian Revolution.

    Lenin didn’t close “the assembly” per se but rather he replaced it by empowering the “Soviets” (which is the Russian word for “unions”) because the “assembly” (similar to our own Congress which primarily represents the wealthy) was for continuing the slaughter of WWI.

    Per Trotsky’s painstaking, 1st hand analysis in works like “The Revolution Betrayed” — Stalin wasn’t the product of the machinations of individuals like Lenin but rather a byproduct of the inevitable reaction that historically follows profound social changes, which tends to wipe out significant gains made by revolutions, but not all of them, which is unfortunately more often than not how progress is agonizingly made.

    So for example the great French Revolution was followed by the Thermidor reaction of Napoleon Bonaparte whose ruthless armies plundered Europe, making a mockery of the revolution’s tenets but abolished Feudalism along the way, just as Stalin was maiming socialism while abolishing capitalism.

    In a more contemporary example it’s no accident that in the USA a reactionary old goat like Ronald Reagan, a congenitally racist union-buster, was elected after the tumult of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Unfortunately his counterrevolution’s been quite strong so his rancid ideology still thrives today, so much so that even Obama gave that stupid rotten bastard needless praise.

    One of the great insights of Marx was that he showed it’s not indivduals that make history but rather the masses. That’s why historical epochs are deliniated by wars & revolutions, both of which require the masses to participate. Thus, John, if you really want to understand Stalinism don’t fall for the tired old trick of picking out some action of Lenin’s as it’s a dead end. Start instead by understanding the effect that relentless imperialist intervention, encirclement, strangulation, blockade, sabotage and profound enmity had on a starving & illiterate slave revolt society ruined by years of imperialist war, that nevertheless, in just 70 years, created a society with full employment, free health care & education with an industrial capacity 2nd only to the USA (the secret to its success being the plunder & economic enslavement of the majority of Earth’s inhabitants, not to mention the head start of free land stolen from Indians and over a century of free slave labor to work the land.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 21, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  6. Karl,

    Hi hope you are well.

    The book I read on Lenin was full of contradictions and lies. It was written by an American in 1964. For example it identified Lenin as a total dictator with absolute power. However as soon as Lenin had a stroke the power vanished and Stalin had it.

    There were other inconsistencies in the book. It is like when I read the book In The Sprit of Crazy Horse. I really believed what was written until a few years later I discovered it as written by somebody in the CIA. I wouldn’t have questioned the validity of the book if the author was upfront about his history. No I doubt it all.

    Also regarding Lenin other lies were that Stalin poisoned him(it was taught as not doubtful, that Lenin’s revolution was a fluke, it claimed his writings were not good, he had several mistresses (who knows).

    Did Lenin support Stalin to rob banks when the party agreed that it would stop?

    So many lies out there!


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by john kaniecki — September 21, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

  7. […] having seen the powerful documentary Gasland that shows the impact of “fracking” on households across the United States, including […]

    Pingback by Clifford Krauss: propagandist par excellence « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 7, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

  8. […] remain: The Pat Tillman Story, Budrus, Julia Bacha’s tale of Palestinian resistance, and Gasland, a powerful exposé of “fracking”. Indeed, just about every documentary I reviewed this […]

    Pingback by Three 2010 documentaries « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 6, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

  9. […] your tap ignitable by a cigarette lighter as was dramatically illustrated in the documentary “Gasland“. No matter how baleful the consequences, you will always find land-owners—particularly […]

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