Hydraulic Fracturing: Images from Under Ground

My tongue-in-cheek comment on the language of hydraulic fracturing was intended to get at the ways in which metaphors and images can affect – and sometimes skew – our understanding of risks and responsibilities.

This effect can work in any direction, for or against any particular position, and it can be especially pronounced when the problem situation within which people are making decisions – and disagreeing with one another over what decisions to make – are not well understood.

One theme that emerged early in our first workshop on hydraulic fracturing was that nearly every available image of hydraulic fracturing is inaccurate in ways that may exaggerate or, at least, misrepresent the risks involved in the process – and this is true even of images on websites of those who should know better, and on websites of organizations generally favorable to the use of hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas extraction.

One of the students on our project team came across an especially egregious example of the type, an image used in the film, Gasland: Continue reading “Hydraulic Fracturing: Images from Under Ground”

Hydraulic Fracturing: The Project

As I have been hinting, I’m currently caught up in a collaborative project on engineering, ethics and policy related to hydraulic fracturing.

The idea for the project began to take shape in conversations I was having with my colleague, Chloé Arson, who is over in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech. We were exploring opportunities for new directions in engineering ethics education.

I cannot now say which of them emerged first, but there are twin intuitions at the heart of our discussion:

  1. Most interesting problems in engineering – and for ethics and policy related to engineering – involve not only risk but also uncertainty, because the underlying dynamics of the problem situation are poorly or only partially understood; and
  2. We should aim to prepare engineers-in-training to engage in ethical inquiry and policy inquiry at the same time they are engaging in empirical inquiry and in design.

I joked at the time that the second intuition goes both ways: we need engineers who can think like ethicists and ethicists who can think like engineers. Continue reading “Hydraulic Fracturing: The Project”

Some Notes on the Side

I’ll be attending the 2015 International Conference of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, next month, in California. My presentation for the conference is a progress report on an collaborative project on hydraulic fracturing, about which I really will post some things this week.

In the mean time, I’ve got something of an experiment brewing for the conference: I’ve proposed, and the conference organizers have agreed to support, an after-hours acoustic music session and tune swap.

The main point is just to play some tunes with people. Beyond that, I’m curious to see what, if anything, getting some people together to play some tunes might contribute to the life of the conference and of the association.

In the deeper background, of course, is my own interest in possible metaphorical and experiential overlaps between playing music and ethical living.

I’ll report back on how the experiment goes.

From the Archive: Oil Liberation!

As an over-the-weekend teaser for a couple of posts I’m planning for next week, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek entry from my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, from April 7, 2014.


Oil Liberation!

A longtime friend posted a link on Facebook to an article bearing the headline:

Vast oil trove trapped in Monterey Shale formation

The article describes the difficulty of extracting the oil while still turning a profit, with passing mention of some of the environmental and social concerns associated with the extraction processes that might be involved.

This is not a blog post about hydraulic fracturing, per se, but a brief comment on the use of language: the headline reveals a way of framing the meaning of shale oil that cuts off any debate about the advisability of extracting the oil before it can get started.

It comes down to a matter of metaphor.

To trap something is to confine or limit it when it would otherwise move freely.

To say the oil is trapped is to suggest that oil in its natural state is free. The oil would be free, could be free, and should be free but for the damned, cruel, oppressive shale formation holding it back!

What’s proposed then is not “fracking” – such an unpleasant word, “fracking” – it’s Oil Liberation! Continue reading “From the Archive: Oil Liberation!”

From the Archive: A Phenomenology of Driving, and Other Matters

Continuing along the thread of music and the experience of systems and of movement, here is a post that appeared on my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, on November 11, 2011. In it, I draw from half-remembered conversations from grad school to inform an elucidation of the fluidity of movement and the transparency of technical artifacts when we are using them.

(This post was followed, a few days later, by a more technical post based on an attempt to read Husserl.)


A Phenomenology of Driving, and Other Matters

Yesterday morning, I was discussing risk and risk perception with my engineering ethics class, focusing on the distinction between the risk expert’s quantitative approach to risk (risk = probability of harm x magnitude of harm) with the lay public’s qualitative and experiential approach to risk.

There are a number of reasons, I noted, why Americans regularly accept the relatively high risk of injury or death from automobile accidents (with ~40,000 car-related deaths in the United States every year), but are skittish about flying in airplanes and exposure to other risks that are, statistically, of much lower probability.

People are generally more likely to accept risks they take on voluntarily, for example, than risks that are imposed without their consent. People are also more likely to accept familiar risks than those that are novel. They may also, I speculated, be more willing to accept risks when they have a sense of being in control of their own fate. In fact, when we are in a familiar circumstance with a sense of being in control, we may not even perceive a given activity as risky at all.

There is little in American experience more familiar than driving and riding in automobiles, and we seldom feel more in control of our own fates than when we are behind the wheel. Continue reading “From the Archive: A Phenomenology of Driving, and Other Matters”

The Music of Movement

Thinking about the convergence of ethics and music, I was reminded of a passage in Oliver Sacks’s A Leg to Stand On.

The book recounts Sacks’s own experience as a patient, recovering from a severe injury to his left leg.

He describes experiencing his leg as an alien thing, little more than a pillar of chalk attached to him but unconnected to him, no longer part of his bodily experience of himself. Then, in an extraordinary ten-minute period during a physiotherapy session, his sense of his own leg began to come back to him, dramatically and, at first, erratically.

But then his therapists urge him to walk, and he simply cannot imagine how it is to be done. With some prompting, he is able to move a few steps, but only hesitantly and mechanically, relying entirely on visual cues.

. . . as if I was operating a peculiarly clumsy, and unstable, robotic contraption, an absolutely ludicrous artificial leg. I cannot convey, except in this way, how strange this pseudo-walking was – how entirely lacking in any sense, and, conversely, how overloaded with a painstaking mechanical exactitude and caution. I found it a matter of the most elaborate and exhausting and tedious computation. It was locomotion of a sort, but unanimal, unhuman (p.144.)

Continue reading “The Music of Movement”

The Music of Systems

As I continue to mull over possible connection between ethical experience and music, I came across a passage suggesting that systems have a kind of music to them.

I provided students in my environmental ethics class with a few excerpts from Donella M. Meadows’ very useful book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer. The last chapter, “Living In a World of Systems,” provides insights from general systems theory as to how best to go about working to change systems of all kinds.

One section in particular caught my eye:

Getting the Beat of the System

Continue reading “The Music of Systems”

What a Field Guide Is For

Thinking about my maybe-project of writing A Field Guide to Basic Values, it occurs to me I should be ready to say something about the very idea of a field guide.

When I first took up birding, at the age of 12, I leaned very heavily on the battered old field guide I had available to me, at least until I could save up enough allowance to get my first Peterson guide.

Every new discovery would send me shuffling through the book, nearly at random.

I figured out almost immediately that water birds were at the front of the book and songbirds at the back, with hawks and owls in between, but for finer distinctions I was stumbling around blindly. Continue reading “What a Field Guide Is For”


In the political philosophy course I taught, last semester, one of the books I had the students work through was Iris Marion Young’s Inclusion and Democracy.

It’s fair to say that most of my students are male, and most of those are white, English-speaking, native-born Americans.

Many of the white guys had some difficulty grasping what Young was saying about social structure, the ways in which people may be situated differently within that structure, and the difference situation makes in life prospects and in opportunities to participate in political processes.

At one point, I said to some of them, partly out of exasperation:

The basic problem is that white guys like us are so well situated that we don’t even know we’re situated.

Some of them may have begun to understand, but I’m not sure any of them were fully convinced of it.

In saying it, I began to understand it better myself: one of the most basic and insidious privileges of the well situated is that we can be oblivious to our own privilege, oblivious to the very idea that one can be situated or that the ease with which we move through the world is the product of anything other than our own freedom and our own effort.

(As an odd side note, at least a handful of my students referred to Young as “he” in their distillation exercises. Hmm.)

Reading Old Books with Engineers

In yesterday’s post I described an approach I developed for encouraging and helping students to read old books and, more to the point, to derive understanding from them.

In a political theory course, last semester, I tried something different. In the first half of the course, I set students to work together on understanding three texts in democratic theory: Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Young’s Inclusion and Democracy.

I provided relatively little guidance, other than ideas on how to use books to develop understanding. After they had worked through each of the books, I set them an in-class, individual exercise I dubbed a distillation, in which they could use only the book and a pen or pencil in filling out a worksheet on which they were to set down an interpretation of the core ideas of the book.

I was impressed and encouraged by the way students took up the task. They would spend whole class sessions flipping back and forth, reading passages and debating their interpretation.

In the syllabus for that course, I described the distillation exercise as follows: Continue reading “Reading Old Books with Engineers”