Pace Perspectives: Hydrofracking
I bring a social science perspective to this subject, examining people’s attitudes and behaviors. My goal is to help students understand the underlying issues related to sustainability or “going green,” and how environmental problems are related to culture, economics, politics, and communications, as well as the behavioral and social sciences. Teaching both environmental and non-environmental majors, I strive to pique student interest by emphasizing the relevance of sustainability to students’ daily lives both in school and at home; I help students recognize the many ways they can make a difference despite their youth and status as college students. At times students seem discouraged by what they perceive as lack of external support for environmental action, and lack sufficient motivation or ability to counteract this perception with confidence in their own power to create change.
When introducing the topic of energy in my classes, we typically focus on cultural and historic attitudes toward nature-as-resource as well as issues of climate change. I introduce the subject of renewable energy—solar, hydro, wind, geothermal—along with a discussion of nonrenewable energy from fossil fuels, including hydrofracking for natural gas. We also review the role of nuclear power, although I openly acknowledge my concerns about this technology despite its advantage in addressing the problem of carbon emissions vis-à-vis climate change.
I am a realist regarding use of non-renewable energy in today’s world, as transition to more sustainable energies will take time. It is essential that students have the library skills required for finding relevant information about these complex subjects; they must know how to evaluate reliability of their sources and use critical thinking skills to make responsible decisions with the vast amount of information available. My objective in the classroom is to create an atmosphere which invites open exchange of ideas, attitudes, and concerns, as well as sharing of knowledge. We examine how our own behavior contributes to the problem—such as driving from dorm to classroom on the Pleasantville Campus—and consider what sacrifices we might be willing to make to increase our own energy efficient behavior and conservation strategies.
Several years ago I used a textbook called Planet U for my Sustainable Living course. In this text the author emphasized the university’s broad responsibility for what he termed “sustaining the world.” It is typically assumed that universities will conduct scientific research to address energy problems. Research has been and will continue to be conducted across a wide spectrum of disciplines, contributing to progress in development of energy-saving technologies; improving renewable energy technologies (think car batteries); designing technologies to reduce emissions from existing power plants; analyzing the ecological impact of oil spills in order to improve clean-up efforts; and so on. But as large institutions that use energy themselves, universities can and should serve as engines of change by shifting their own energy consumption patterns. Pace, of course, is no exception.
Universities such as Pace are major employers with hundreds of commuters; they design, construct, and operate buildings that consume power; their endowments invest in numerous energy-related businesses; and both food and supplies purchased by the University have energy footprints as well. My students have examined sustainability practices at Pace with the College Sustainability Report Card http://www.greenreportcard.org/ and, as of last year, the STARS program https://stars.aashe.org/. They reviewed pages on Pace’s website which describe the University’s sustainability efforts, and made recommendations for keeping students well-informed and fostering increased participation in environmental activities both on and off campus.
I first became aware of hydrofracking in early 2011 with the release of the movie Gasland. As a member of Tarrytown’s Environmental Advisory Council I helped arrange a showing of the movie at our public library, and was delighted when Pace Law Professor Nicholas A. Robinson was in the audience and contributed his in-depth knowledge of the subject during our follow-up conversation with community members. Later that year I was invited by Tracy Basile, a colleague in Pace’s Environmental Studies program, to work on an Earth Day hydrofracking program featuring her film The Unfractured Future. This month I look forward to participating in the Fracking Forum sponsored by Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, hosted for both NYC and Pleasantville students through videoconferencing. The Fracking Forum has been specifically designed to inform students, staff, and faculty about this critical issue from diverse perspectives, and to encourage active engagement as the state of New York moves forward on this issue.
Given this essay is appearing in a University publication, it may be blasphemous to inform readers that decades of social science research have proven that knowledge alone is not sufficient to change environmental behavior. Ultimately, what we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels—whether oil, coal or natural gas—is to change both attitudes and behavior. But knowledge is certainly an excellent starting point, especially for those already committed to creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable world. Working together across departments, programs, and schools at Pace, I believe there is enormous potential to harness the passion, skills, knowledge, and talents of myriad students, faculty, and staff to make a difference solving intractable energy problems including those associated with hydrofracking, which is arguably the most important environmental issue to confront New Yorkers this decade.
Want to know more about fracking? Join members of the Pace Community on April 9 for a multi-campus discussion on the controversies surrounding hydrofracking in New York. Please RSVP online at www.pace.edu/paaes/events.