To Frack or Not to Frack

The survey component of To Frack or Not to Frack is now closed–many thanks to all who participated. Results will be publicly available here and through Bard CEP. Stay tuned…

To Frack or Not to Frack

A survey of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas

Dear energy consumers,

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas plays an important role in the debate about our energy future. As an energy consumer, you may have beliefs about, or beliefs that relate to, the use of hydraulic fracturing technology. Given the prominence of natural gas in today’s energy discourse, I am using my Master’s thesis at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy to study the political and ideological dimensions of hydraulic fracturing. My goal is to develop a more thorough understanding of the relationships between socioeconomics, political alignments, philosophical beliefs, and support or lack thereof for the use of hydraulic fracturing technology – but my research depends on your participation. Here and below you will find a link that directs you to a survey with questions related to the current debate about hydraulic fracturing and natural gas:

To Frack or Not to Frack

To help me with my research, I ask that you complete the survey and then share this message and link with your friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and other contacts so that they might do the same. If you have any questions please email them to and I will answer you promptly. Thank you for your participation.


Jordan M. Kincaid

Geo-ancestral politics

Steve Pinker recently published this NY Times piece on the geo-ancestral cultural roots of contemporary political divisions – my advisor at BCEP was kind enough to bring it to my attention. The underlying point of Pinker’s paper is common sense: understanding our nation’s geo-ancestry can help us understand the political divides of today. We are all vestiges of cultures past. But our cultural heritage stems not just from people, but also from place or topos (hence, “geo”-ancestry). Depending on where your ancestors came from, there’s a certain likelihood that your political allegiances will take one form or another because that place so influenced your ancestral culture and way of life that its remnants have trickled through history all the way to you.

I really recommend reading this piece for yourself because the next few thoughts won’t do his reasoning or research justice (nor will it fully capture all of his ideas), but the upshot is this: Pinker contends that if your colonial ancestors were from England, they were probably farmers, and moved to the Northern/Northeastern US, which translates today into a form of left-wing progressive liberalism. On the other hand, if your ancestors were Scots-Irish, they were probably herders, and moved to the Southern colonies/states, which translates today to right-wing (religious) conservativism.

Of course, many (if not most) Americans hail historically from places other than England, Scotland, or Ireland – this, I presume, is part of why Pinker’s next generalization is useful: forget particular countries; if the place and culture shared by your distant family was herding-based, chances are your ancestors’ relationship with the state partly resembled anarchy. If your family’s heritable culture was farming-based, it’s likely that your ancestors lived somewhere that the government’s role was more prominent. The former (herding and anarchical cultural heritage) corresponds with conservative and libertarian beliefs. The latter tends to correspond to left-wing progressive liberalism. So, the relevant political question then becomes: were your distant relatives herders or farmers?

And then, post-colonialism, Pacific-bound trailblazers were re-exposed to the anarchy of Westward expansion, reinforcing conservative and libertarian views in the mountain and southwest desert states. So this adds yet another dynamic to the system.

At the root of it all, however, Pinker and political philosophers theorize, is a contest between views about human nature – that is, whether you think human nature is fixed, flawed, and must be controlled as if by a strict parent through tried-and-true cultural and religious practices, or if you think human nature is malleable through wisdom and reason, and that public institutions can guide the progress of society like a nurturing care-taker. Pinker refers to these points of view, respectively, as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision of human nature. The Tragic Vision, he suggests, grows out of the anarchical experience, whereas the Utopian Vision stems from living in closer relation to the state. Both of these, again, he says are largely determined by one’s geo-ancestry.

So this line of thought is an interesting one! But how accurate is it? How does it hold up “on the ground?” How about a case study?

In fact, I think I personally make for an odd case for Pinker’s theory — my Scottish ancestors (herders) moved to West Virginia (a northern state) in the early-to-mid 1800s. My relatives moved to Louisiana in the early 20th century, and then my grandfather moved the family to Texas in the 70s (both southern honor culture, with Texas culture being especially anarchical). So how does my geo-ancestry line up with my politics and ideals today?

I think something in between the Utopian Vision of humanity and the Tragic Vision of human nature is probably closest to the truth: human nature is malleable by reason and cultivated skill to an extent, so certain tendencies like violence, while innate and a constant struggle, are largely suppressible or ready to be channeled in constructive ways like martial arts.

I would say children are closer to being Rousseau’s noble savages than Hobbes’ nasty brutes (re: Montessori education). I believe that free markets usually make for freer people than command economies – the state is not omniscient, or really even close enough to make reliable guesses with economic policy. I believe faith has the potential to make individual people nicer and more compassionate, but I certainly don’t think religion has proven to be a work-around for shortcomings like violence and intolerance writ-large. I believe in the purity and sanctity of the body (both human and Earth), and I believe that providing care and avoiding harm are both important.

If you believe the character of the state should be parental (and I’m hesitant to admit that it should), we probably need it to fill both parental roles: one strict, the other nurturing. I think protecting the environment is among the most fundamental, non-arbitrary interests we can fulfill. I believe that a powerful military is necessary and desirable. And I believe that individual freedom in culture and sexuality is paramount for a healthy society.

So, maybe Pinker’s “herder-shepherd : right-left” analogy is more flexible than a strict dipole – beliefs from one set aren’t necessarily inconsistent or incompatible with beliefs from the other. I for one seem to fall on both sides of the distinction in terms of topos and present beliefs. In either case, it’s an interesting topological framework through which to conceptualize today’s politics – here’s to contemplating the politico-ideological impacts of geo-ancestral heritage! What story does your geo-ancestry tell?


JM Kincaid

Ambiguous policy language

“…as is feasible…”
“…as nearly as practicable…”
“…as needed…”

Environmental policy language of this sort creates loopholes that undermine the strength of regulation. The problem is a lack of consensus on the meaning of terms like “feasibility” and “practicability.” What we have here is a Confucian problem of naming; the meaning of labels like “feasible” and “practicable” hinge upon the values of the interpreter. We ought to openly discuss these underlying values, but more to the point, we should avoid wording of this sort in policy language so that regulations are enforceable. At a principle level this is a contest of values, and at a policy level it is a problem of enforcement.


A letter to the Denton City Council

Denton is knee deep in revising its natural gas drilling ordinance. A draft of the revised ordinance was released for public comments on October 2, and I thought y’all might like to read the comment I submitted — it should give you a good picture of what it’s like on the ground down here.


To the Denton City Council:

My name is Jordan Michael Kincaid. I live on S. Carroll Blvd in Denton, TX.

I have two comments regarding the draft of Denton’s natural gas drilling ordinance released on October 2, 2012.

1) Please extend the public comment period on this draft of the gas drilling ordinance. This is an extremely dense document. It takes far longer than 11 days to properly understand its intricacies. This is especially true for non-expert citizens. Public comment periods should last at least eight weeks so that each draft of the ordinance released can be fully assessed by the public, and so that the public can return constructive, informed comments to the Council. As it stands, extending public comment periods would require a revision of the current timeline for rewriting the ordinance, as well as an extension of the moratorium, but these actions are in the City’s best interest. Longer public comment periods would mean more informed and more useful comments. Additionally, the draft released on October 2 was only released in English. 20% of Denton speaks a primary language other than English; releasing the current draft only in English disenfranchises 20% of the Denton population. The public comment period should be extended and the draft should be released in both English and Spanish. Thirdly, the first attempt on October 2 to release the current draft of the ordinance was botched — the first release had indistinguishable MS Word Track Changes embedded in the text, meaning that old language was sitting jumbled amongst new language, making the document impossible to decipher. This problem was not remedied until October 3, thus effectively eliminating one of the already too few days for public comments. Because the first release of the current draft was botched, the public comment period should be extended. The three arguments in bold-face text above are why I believe the public comment period should be extended. I also believe that the draft should be released in both English and Spanish. This is especially true given the insufficient provisions of the current draft ordinance, which brings me to my second point:

2) The current draft does not accurately reflect the recommendations of the Task Force, nor does it reflect recommendations of the Task Force Minority Report, the EPA Natural Gas STAR program, or the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group (DAG). The draft released on October 2 is insufficient to protect public health and safety. I will include 5 specific cases of insufficiency below:

a) Vapor Recovery Units (VRU). The Task Force and the DAG recommended that VRUs be installed at each gas well, but the draft ordinance currently exempts wells emitting up to 137 lbs of VOCs per day, as well as similar numbers for other pollutants including methane. This exemption compromises air quality, public health, and will exacerbate climate change.

b) Venting and flaring. The DAG and the Task Force recommended that venting and flaring be prohibited, but the draft ordinance only reasserts state regulations, which permit venting and flaring during all production activities and up to 10 days after production is complete. Denton’s drilling ordinance must prohibit venting and flaring in the city to protect air quality, public health, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

c) Compressor stations. The DAG recommended banning compressor stations from the City and the Task Force recommended regulating them, but the draft ordinance contains no new provisions banning or regulating compressor stations.

d) Private water well testing. The Task Force and the DAG recommended that operators submit results of private water well testing to the City, but the draft ordinance doesn’t require operators to test private water wells or to report the results. This compromises water quality and public health.

e) Closed-loop systems. To avoid the environmental and public health hazards of open waste pits, the DAG recommended that the City ban open pits and require operators to use closed-loop systems when producing natural gas. The Task Force also recommended the use of closed-loop systems. Despite these recommendations, the draft ordinance allows for several kinds of open pits, and stipulates only a “close-loop mud system.” This provision is insufficient to protect public health and the environment from the hazards of production waste.

In sum, I submit to the Council two requests for reasons explained above and summarized below:
1) Please extend the public comment period to 8 weeks and release the draft in both English and Spanish.
2) Please revise the gas drilling ordinance so that it reflects the recommendations of the City appointed Task Force, the citizen-lead Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group, the Task Force Minority Report, and the EPA Natural Gas STAR Program.

Jordan Michael Kincaid

Non-arbitrary v. arbitrary – axiologically speaking

I was asked for an explanation of what I mean by “arbitrary,” so I’ll make the distinction again below. I’ve also touched on this distinction in The problems of society, The roots of oppression, and Is electricity a non-arbitrary need?

Here’s another quick explanation:

When we confront and answer the normative question (what should we do?) we make a value judgment about what’s worth doing. To put it another way, we judge what end is good enough to be worth our time. Some of those judgments are arbitrary, some of them are non-arbitrary. Non-arbitrary value judgments are rooted in human ontology, which, to me, means that if the good you decide to pursue is necessary to survive or to fulfill a biological precondition, then the value of that good is non-arbitrary. An “arbitrary” value judgment, on the other hand, is made when the value of a good you decide to pursue is nonessential to survival or fulfilling biological precondition. “Arbitrary” is a sort of catch-all for values that don’t pertain to necessity — an “everything other than, until proven otherwise” set. For example, the judgment that decorating is good and the subsequent decision to decorate in a particular way are arbitrary. You would be perfectly fine if you did otherwise, so decorating is arbitrarily valuable. If you could prove that decorating in a particular way is ontologically necessary, then perhaps it could be considered non-arbitrary, but I think decorating is a good example because it’s so heavily based on personal preference. On the other hand, the judgment that eating is good and the subsequent decision to eat are non-arbitrary. Eventually you’ll die if you decide otherwise, so eating is non-arbitrarily valuable. I would also argue that the life-enabling environmental conditions of the Earth are non-arbitrarily valuable.


Is electricity a non-arbitrary need?

I’ve previously discussed the arbitrary v. non-arbitrary distinction in the problems of society, as well as more recently in the roots of oppression. This distinction creates two categories, that is, “arbitrary” and “non-arbitary,”  in which we can group and understand the value judgments we make when puzzling over the normative question — when deciding what is worth doing.

Human beings, like other animals, have certain basic biological needs that must be fulfilled for survival: we forage for food and drink, seek out shelter from the elements, search for mates, and sleep. Because these needs are rooted in biology rather than preference, the value judgments one makes when deciding to fulfill them are non-arbitrary — basic biological necessity is a mark of the non-arbitrary.

However, distinct from other animals, humans have become extremely proficient in accomplishing our non-arbitrary ends, and so many of us are left with large gaps of free time each day. Most importantly, we seek to fill this free time with purposive activity so that we feel our lives are spent doing something meaningful. But what purposes are meaningful, the answer to the normative question what should be done? depends both on who you’re talking to and what his or her cultural, social, and historical context provides. As such, the answer to what should be done beyond fulfilling non-arbitrary needs will be based on one’s own personal sentiments about what’s valuable in life – that is, based arbitrarily on one’s own judgments about what is worth doing. Of course, such judgments are partly shaped by cultural, social, and historical context, but these factors are contingent, in that they could have been anything, and so answering the normative question by appealing to the culture, society, or history you were originally thrown into remains arbitrary – indeed, upon seeing that there’s more than one’s native culture, society, or history (history as hermeneutical) out in the world, the culture, society, or history that one decides to look to in answering the normative question will, again, be a matter of one’s arbitrary preferences and judgments about what is valuable in life.

So, in short, our non-arbitrary needs are food, drink, shelter, sleep, and sex (because while individuals can survive without sex, human beings as a species could not). Every purpose beyond fulfilling these biological preconditions should be seen as arbitrary by default unless it becomes clear that some new element has become necessary for survival. If, for instance, you were born on an island where the only source of food is located high atop a rock wall, then the ability to climb would, in these circumstances, become non-arbitrary, as being able to climb well would be necessary for survival. So you can see how activities and judgments that would otherwise be arbitrary can work their way into being non-arbitrary depending on the conditions one faces. With this in mind, I turn to electricity.

Is electricity a non-arbitrary need? Is creating electricity a non-arbitrary purpose? Life has become, and is becoming, increasingly energy intensive, particularly in the realm of electricity consumption. But has the need for electricity become non-arbitrary? Obviously there are people living today who get along without access to electricity, and in theory one could survive in developed society without being “on the grid.” But to the extent that agriculture, medicine, sanitation, and home heating rely on electricity, and because an insignificant number of Western households are self-sufficient in those regards, I’m confident that without electricity, billions would starve to death, die of otherwise preventable or treatable disease, and freeze to death in their homes. Because electricity has become so essential to survival and the fulfillment of basic biological necessities, the need for electricity can no longer be understood as an arbitrary one. Like the need to climb rocks well on the hypothetical island considered earlier, electricity has worked its way into being non-arbitrary. How one thinks we should produce electricity (ie – with renewables and/or non-renewables) is a function of other values and judgments about the human place in nature, but whether it’s through solar power or natural gas, our ways of living, our very lives themselves, non-arbitrarily require electricity.

So, with some confidence, I think we can expand the list of non-arbitrary human needs to include food, drink, shelter, sleep, sex, and electricity. And we must be open-minded to adaptations of this sort, for there was a time in evolutionary history when the bacterial human ancestor was autotrophic, reproduced asexually, and knew nothing of shelter or sleep. As we evolved into modern humans, so too evolved our non-arbitrary needs. We certainly cannot imagine ourselves as the end of evolution, and so as life itself changes, we must be willing to change our minds about what counts as non-arbitrary. Electricity, it seems to me, has made the cut.

JM Kincaid