December 08, 2015

New book on #fracking falls short of title's promise

A Field Philosopher's Guide to Fracking: How One Texas Town Stood Up to Big Oil and GasA Field Philosopher's Guide to Fracking: How One Texas Town Stood Up to Big Oil and Gas by Adam Briggle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full of potential in the title, falls short of reality

As someone who took philosophy classes as part of an undergraduate major and minor, and in graduate school, and who's familiar with the idea of "field philosophy," I was very much looking forward to this book when I saw it.

That's doubly true as someone who is an environmentalist, who has serious concerns about fracking, and who used to live in various locations in and around the DFW Metroplex, and has reported as a journalist on gas well permitting at edges of the Barnett Shale.

Unfortunately, in various ways, the reality of the book fell short of the title on both the issue of field philosophy in general, and on the issue of fracking.

On the philosophy side, he could have brought more to bear on ethics, such as issues of civil disobedience as discussed, and even espoused by, philosophers in the past. He probably also could have had more of a philosophical look at things like cost-benefit analysis, as well as related issues such as whether or not some things can even be priced, and from there gone into issues of political and economic philosophy.

There are useful tools to apply to field philosophy in general in this book. However, Briggle wasn't writing about field philosophy in general, he was writing about field philosophy as applied to a very specific issue.

On the activism side, his lateness to accept that a fracking ban, not just greater control, as being what Denton needed, is a bit disconcerting. I don't know if he was trying to "fit in" with Denton, even though he'd clearly already lived there, and contra one reviewer on Amazon, is a Denton resident and a part of Denton just as much as other Denton residents, or he generally has that non-confrontational of a personality, or what.

But, at the point the Denton City Council rejected even moderately tighter controls on fracking by a 6-1 vote, it should have been clear what was needed next.

Shortcomings on just one of the two sides of the coin wouldn't have been too serious, and I would have given the book a fourth star. But, the shortcomings on both sides cost a second star.

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To expand on my Goodreads review, and focus on Briggle's take on field philosophy issues in general, Briggle starts by narrowing down his field philosophy issues of political philosophy. (Some of this may be incorporated into a longer piece at a philosophy and culture webzine.)

Briggle’s book is ultimately about how philosophy can be brought to bear on a variety of issues all related to citizen participation in government, especially participatory democracy. Because of this, I found it interesting, and even thought-provoking for two, related main reasons, and a few minor ones, themselves partially connected to the second main reason, despite some of his failings on the specifics of field philosophy issues for the matters at hand, and despite his naivete, or whatever, about the Denton City Council and related issues.

I consider myself a politically active citizen of my state, as well as the United States, and using practical ideas from the world of philosophy to shape the development of, then the presentation of, my thoughts on political issues is always of interest. As a newspaper editor, writing editorial columns at times about local and state political and social issues, these same issues are of professional importance.

Related to that are issues of political economy and political science that Briggles raises.

A good starting point is to note Briggle’s own starting point: the classical Greek philosophers. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, after all, were all citizens of a democratic city-state. Many of the issues they wrestled with, points they pondered, and questions they raised were about what was right for the government and citizenry of Athens, and how to achieve that. Beyond that, in his most common, if not totally accurate, English translation, Aristotle did say that we as a species are a “political animal.”

Given that the “polis” here is an actual city, the city of Denton, Texas, Briggle and others who banded together to eventually start a successful petition drive to ban fracking had their obvious political background.

However, it’s not as obvious as it seems.

Even in a city in Texas that is called a “home rule” city, with power to write many of its own ordinances and regulations, or similar levels of cities in other states, such power is neither absolute nor guaranteed. The state of Texas, or other relevant state, reserves many powers to itself, some directly by banning them from cities, others indirectly by defining the terms on which cities can create municipal regulation — including, pun intended, the terms used in definitions of some of those regulations.

And, what about people who live in unincorporated communities, but are united by some bond such as a common rural water district, a common volunteer fire district, or similar?

For them, Briggle brings out the classical Greek word “deme,” calling it “the first voting district.” For modern-day demes, especially in unincorporated land, he proposes that they might be temporary and situationally based. For example, a deme might be formed within one-half mile of a proposed new fracking site, wastewaster disposal site or similar issue of concern.

Briggle, because he is focused on one issue, and one with specific geographical and physical place, doesn’t extend thoughts on how “demes” would apply to modern times as much as he could. Certainly the Internet, with new kinds of connectedness, and its use for various forms of activism, indicate that this classical idea could be pondered further for today.

Next, he moves into more modern times, using selective references to various philosophers. He starts with Thomas Hobbes and his analysis of “double vision,” noting that in modern America, there can be two polarized sides on issues.

Briggle did miss a point here to note that, even when a populace has double vision, that double vision is not necessarily right. I think in particular of philosopher Idries Shah’s best-known quote:
“To 'see both sides' of a problem is the surest way to prevent its complete solution. Because there are always more than two sides.”
A public policy issue may be more good than bad, or bad than good, and more than two sides may arise based on how much more good than bad, or bad than good, it is perceived as being. Briggle himself notes that he initially didn’t support pursuing a full ban on further fracking in Denton, as noted above. Unfortunately, he doesn't really get into why he remained optimistic something less would work for so long.

Briggle also shows in this book that philosophy can’t operate independently of science. If the issue of proactivity versus a precautionary stance is considered to be a principle of ethics, for example, on an issue like fracking, where scientific measurements of air and water quality can be and are made, a number of related ethical issues spring up.

On the issue of issues often having more than two sides, and of getting beyond Hobbes’ double vision, Briggle probably, with a bit more emphasis on the philosophy side, and generalizing beyond fracking, could have talked about how clarity in what ethical background stance different individuals and groups are using is also important for bringing philosophy to bear on public policy.

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