Fossil Fuel Abolitionists
The Rev. Leah D. Schade
November 9, 2012
I recently took part in a presentation about slickwater hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to a small clergy group in Lycoming County, PA. My presentation followed that of a geologist who owns a fracking company. A genial and soft-spoken man, he spent nearly 90 minutes extolling the virtues of not just of natural gas and the fracking industry, but also his company which he believes to be operating under the highest ethical and moral standards.
I then gave my presentation entitled, “Where Would Jesus Frack?: A Christian Ethical Perspective,” in which I pointedly critiqued his presentation by pointing out the detrimental and destructive effects of fracking and how it harms God’s creation, communities and public health. I also provided a biblical and theological framework for clergy to engage the issue of fracking, including principles of creation care, eschewing idolatry, honoring Sabbath, prophetic justice, Jesus’ command to care for “the least of these,” and sacramentology. [The Powerpoint slides are available, should anyone be interested in learning more – just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The group then engaged in a lively discussion with both the geologist-fracker and me, in which they raised several good questions and points. One comment was, “I know we should get off of fossil fuels, but I just don’t see how it’s possible. Our entire economy is built by and runs on fossil fuels.” Later in the discussion another clergy person said, “The problem is that this issue is just overwhelming. There are only so many things that people want to make ethical decisions about. It’s exhausting.”
And it occurred to me that these are the same kinds of comments people would make in the days before the abolishment of slavery. Think of it: for 200 years our economy ran on “slave-fuel.” It was powered by subjugated human labor. Not only was it inconceivable for our country’s economy to function without slaves, there was also biblical and theological rationalization of the practice. But a small group of Christians began to question the morality of slavery. At the beginning they met in people’s homes, had private conversations, and little by little began to network with each other. Eventually the abolitionist movement was born. Yes, it was exhausting and overwhelming. But their commitment to the cause was indefatigable. Today, while equality of the races is still far from reality, the idea of owning slaves is simply abhorrent. No one would say that slavery is an acceptable practice in today’s world.
With that in mind, I believe that we are now in the midst of a fossil fuels abolitionist movement. Currently most in our society simply cannot conceive a way for our economy to be powered by anything other than fossil fuels. But there are small groups of concerned citizens who are actively working to bring about a new reality, a paradigm shift. Some of us are compelled by our religious convictions, some by science, some simply by a commonly held set of ethical and moral standards that convince us that the fossil fuel economy needs to be completely abolished. We meet in homes, houses of worship, and coffee shops. We are connecting over the Internet, through Facebook and emails. We travel to protests, speak at public hearings, and write letters to our legislators and newspapers. We are fighting a well-funded system of what St. Paul would term “the powers and principalities.” This “domination system” (using Walter Wink’s phrase) seeks only its own profit and self-perpetuation at the cost of the subjugation of the entire planet and those most vulnerable who are now bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, pollution, and toxic water and air. But I believe the day is coming when the idea of powering our world with fossil fuels will be simply abhorrent. There will come a time when no one will say that extracting and burning fossil fuels is an acceptable form of energy.
As for the geologist-fracker who firmly believes that his company is one of best out there in terms of its ethical and environmental standards? He is the equivalent of an 1850’s slave owner bragging about how well he treats his slaves. His entire livelihood and life’s calling is built on seeing the earth as an extractable resource, its dark shale a tight treasure trove of saleable gas and its fragile surface simply a barrier to the crude oil underneath. In the same way slave owners looked on human beings from Africa as nothing but an extractable resource, their dark bodies a treasure trove of saleable labor.
Before I left the clergy gathering, the geologist-fracker, who is a Christian, said to me and all of us, “I have read the Bible cover to cover many times. And I have not found within it anything that tells me I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.” To which I replied, “Isn’t that interesting. Because I have also read the Bible cover to cover many times, and I have come to the exact opposite conclusion.”
Slave owners quoted Scripture’s passages about owning slaves as legitimation for their evil practices. Many of them were upright citizens who loved their families, and made sure their slaves were housed and fed. Many of them were learned men and successful business owners. Most of them were Christians. But the institution of slavery was (and still is – because it continues to thrive in the shadows of society) evil, plain and simple.
In the same way, this geologist-fracker is not an evil man. He loves his family. He treats his employees well. He is a scholar of rocks and legitimate business owner. And he is a Christian. But the business he is in is evil, plain and simple.
For 200 years our economy has run on fossil fuels. But that time is coming to an end. To all of you “fossil fuel abolitionists”: take heart, keep up the good fight, and know that, in the words of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”