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Monday, July 30, 2012

Aliens in the attic

I presented a story to my writing group last week. It was well-received, better than I expected, and I was given lots of constructive feedback, including suggestions to tighten it, expand it, and rewrite it in at least two completely different styles. I might just act upon every suggestion.

The plot of the story was completely preposterous, which is understandable, since it was dictated entirely by a dream I had a while back. To summarize: in a slightly-worse version of our own world, in a time when the economy has completely collapsed, strange things start appearing in the attics of vacant homes. While seldom seen, the unofficial consensus is that they are some sort of alien life form. Their presence is treated with little more regard than if  you were to find out that the vacant house next door was occupied by pigeons or feral cats or a colony of bats. No one is particularly worried, mainly because most people are focused on everything else - the economy, rampant unemployment, getting food, and all the other day-to-day concerns that face us in the real world. So while everyone is busy ignoring what should be a terrifying or at least curiosity-inspiring situation, further developments come into play that may lead to the total breakdown of human society - and maybe the end of humanity itself.

The dream left me with such a feeling of dread, doom, and despair that I really didn't know what to do with it, how to get over it. After a while I thought about the levels of detail involved in the dream, and I realized that this was basically a self-contained story that just needed to be written out.

It wasn't until a few weeks later that I started to realize the allegorical nature of this dream, and the metaphors hidden in it. Aspects of the dream captured many of my deepest fears: the fear that someone might break into and squat in my house; the fear of all the vacant houses in town, and who and what might be living in them; fear that the economy might worsen, that unemployment might increase, that things might go from worse to worst. My mother died in the dream, too, and I wasn't able to do anything to prevent that from happening - so there are those fears as well.

The environment played a role in this dream. There was a sense of oppressive heat - much like what we've been experiencing for real this summer. It's hard to shake that aspect of the dream.

There was a pervasive sense of apathy. No one was especially worried about the sudden appearance of aliens. No one cared enough about what was going on to actually do anything about it. Everyone was focused on other issues, things they believed were more important.  In the end it turned out everyone was wrong, but by then it was absolutely too late to do anything about it. Anything at all.

So what would you do if you found out there were aliens living in the attic of the vacant house across the street? Do you think you would be totally blasé about the issue, ignoring it because it didn't directly affect you?

Because we're doing that very sort of thing.

It's not aliens. They're not living in an attic. But there are slow, preventable, reversible disasters going on that we are collectively choosing to ignore.

You know what they are. You've heard about them, over and over. The gradual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is already well above levels that will eventually lead to a disaster is just one example. But there's another one that's very important, and hits close to home - but will eventually affect everyone.

 Methane is an excellent fuel source. It burns hot, burns clean, and results in lower carbon dioxide emissions when burned than other fossil fuels - contributing less to greenhouse emissions than coal or oil.

But methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas. Released unburned into the atmosphere, it is, according to the EPA, twenty times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. If you want to accelerate the greenhouse effect, it's not a bad strategy to pump methane into the atmosphere.

The Marcellus Shale formation (or "play," in industry parlance) is located in a region that underlies much of Pennsylvania (except the southeast and central regions, containing the major population center of Philadelphia and the capitol, Harrisburg), Upstate New York, Ohio, Maryland, and portions of several other states. Vast stores of methane may be trapped within this formation, and vast amounts of the gas are being liberated and captured using hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") techniques - particularly new methods that have opened up previously inaccessible deposits.

Sounds great, doesn't it?

The problem is: these new fracking techniques were developed in a totally different region, geologically speaking, than the place where the're being used. Oklahoma, Texas, the Gulf Coast - the rock strata of these regions is completely different from what it is in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

This produces some interesting results.  Fracking drills deep belowground, pumping a witch's brew of chemicals - drilling "mud," mineral oil (to dissolve rocks), water under extremely high pressure - to shatter the rock and liberate the methane in a manner that allows it be recoverable. In theory, anyway.  In practice, Pennsylvania's complex geology - coupled with defective and inadequately-designed wells - has resulted in the uncontrolled liberation of vast quantities of methane.  The Susquehanna has been bubbling with methane for well over a year. More recent incidents have resulted in methane bubbles forming in other creeks and streams. And those are just the places where we can easily see the gas escaping. It takes more sophisticated detecting equipment to spot the plumes  of methane rising up out of the ground.

And it's not just methane that's the problem. Fracking is supposed to avoid contaminating water tables  and ground and surface water. But as the saying goes, where there are trains, there will be train wrecks. And there have been train wrecks, as the fracking technique, coupled with the chemicals used, has produced surprising results - including a large area near a drill site that appears to have undergone liquefaction, a condition that turns solid earth into a supersaturated state that can act like a liquid at the slightest provocation, and then return to a solid state, trapping anything that has sunk into it. (Think quicksand for the 21st century.) And of course there has been the wellwater contamination, and the accidents (and intentional acts) involving trucks and truckers employed by the Marcellus Shale industry, including an incident of intentionally dumping of chemical waste on state game lands, and another that involved a water tanker tipping over onto a nearby vehicle, killing the driver and badly injuring his daughter, who saw her father die in front of her.

"We all know that more drilling is good," quipped a CNN anchor the other day, talking about how a glut of natural gas on the market has resulted in lower prices and less incentive to drill. Indeed they do: every commercial break on CNN features two or more commercials paid for by the fossil fuels industry. Count on CNN - and other media outlets that take money from the fossil fuels industry - to continue to provide the biased coverage they've been paid to provide. Don't expect to hear much at all about the problems - past, future, and ongoing.

But we know there's a problem. Folks like Don Williams at the Susquehanna River Sentinel have been going on about this issue for years. If you aren't educated on this issue, it's not for lack of available information. It's really just much easier to ignore it, especially if you don't live in Marcellus Shale territory, and just go on along with your lives.

In my dream the problem became obvious when a mysterious pink slime begins to emerge from alien-occupied houses, a slime that forms a thin film everywhere. Soon the nature of this slime becomes apparent as steel rusts, aluminum pits, paint peels, tires flatten, engines leak, and roads crumble. In a short time period the aliens go from being an ignorable curiosity to being the harbingers of the unmaking of human society and all its works. By the time people realize there's a crisis it's far too late to do anything about it.

We've got a crisis. We've got a disaster going on right now. But people would rather think about other things, and disregard this crisis. It doesn't affect them, not immediately, and they've got lots of other things on their minds. Yet the impact of the disaster may affect - well, everyone, everywhere. Will enough people take note to actually get anything accomplished? Or will we collectively ignore this ongoing disaster until it's far too late to do anything about it at all?

There are aliens in the attic of the vacant house across the street. What are you going to do about it?

1 comment:

Don Williams said...

Harold:

We are gonna hit 'em...HARD!

Don