The limited foresight of creative geniuses: George P. Mitchell and fracking
George P. Mitchell has died, the pioneer of fracking and the promoter of sustainability. His legacy will be shadowed by the opposition to fracking, the technology he invented for getting natural gas out of rock formations. Science magazine recently confirmed that fracking does cause many small earthquakes and could trigger big ones on certain kinds of shale formations. This is the result of re-injecting massive quantities of toxic waste water used in fracking into nearby deep wells, which presumably lubricates a fault. Fracking can also degrade and pollute the land near the drill sites with methane releases.
The Huffington Post article, “George P. Mitchell, Texas Oilman and ‘Father Of Fracking,’ ” Dies at 94, 7/26, fails to mention that Mitchell was the main early promoter of sustainability; in fact he pushed the term on America and the world through the annual Mitchell Prize for the best strategies for implementing sustainable practices. Many prominent environmental thinkers received support from his prize. The Mitchell Foundation has awarded millions to environmental programs over the years (See the Mitchell Foundation web site at: http://cgmf.org/p/current-initiatives.html). This was not guilt money since the dangers of fracking were not clear when Mitchell pioneered the technology. He is a great man, an American success story, and a philanthropist of the first order.
I won a Mitchell Prize in 1979 for devising a plan to promote sustainability in Ventura County through the formation of the Sustainability Council. On a personal level, it led me, an English professor, to connect literature, the arts and science in whatever ways I could as a teacher, writer and community activist. Over the years, the Council held meetings and got grants to promote the idea of sustainability, which now may have become a bit overused and murky since it is too inclusive — it originally meant something that is nontoxic, renewable and helped meet human needs. The Council produced the first formal analysis of the environmental footprint of the city of Oxnard, which we discovered needed to meet goals then in housing, transportation and in energy use that still are unmet today. Every city these days seems to have a Sustainability Division, whether or not it has the courage or resources or vision to implement environmentally friendly practices, though it is a good thing to have that idea out in front.
Mitchell symbolizes our current dilemma when it comes to innovations we really need — such as the cheaper natural gas that fracking provides for much of the “green” technology we use today. No beneficial innovation is without drawbacks and unforeseen negative consequences. Geothermal heat extraction also can produce quakes, and wind turbines have potentially damaging effects on birds and the visual landscape itself.
If we assault Mitchell, what should we do to Henry Ford who started this need for endless oil — condemn him, the motor car and the Ford Foundation as well? Or maybe we should revile McAdams, who figured out how to pave modern roads with asphalt and got people moving away from home? Or Edison and electricity, which got people out at night so crooks could burgle their homes. Or what about Leonard Kleinrock, who invented the Internet; or Steve Jobs, inventing the personal computer — what destructive wizards they turned out to be, distracting good folks from the joys of family, friends and the physical connection!
That’s the trouble with wizards — we can’t foresee the consequences of their imaginative inventiveness. Galileo borrowed a telescope and discovered that the earth moved and was almost put to death for changing everything. But why stop there? What about the anonymous guy who shifted from hunting and gathering to agriculture, millennia ago — he ultimately caused world populations to explode. Or was it a woman?
That Mitchell gave many millions to others to find ways to preserve the environment and improve human lives is a testament to a heroic person with creative genius and courage. Like all the rest of us, he had limited foresight, though he worked to find and funded ways to ameliorate the negative impacts of his beneficial discoveries.