Josh Fox, the documentarian behind Gasland and Gasland 2, likens his five-year-old campaign against fracking to pulling on a root.
"You keep tugging and tugging, and eventually you end up at the center of the earth," he said, speaking on the phone from his home near Milanville, Pa., in the Delaware River Valley.
This root has led the filmmaker from northeastern Pennsylvania to Colorado's Front Range to Fort Worth, Texas. It has led him from hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting natural gas from underground rock formations, to a host of related issues, including the political clout of the fossil-fuel industry and the perils of climate change.
The Gasland series is widely credited with spurring a grassroots movement, and Fox has achieved celebrity status as a banjo-picking muckraker with a mordant sense of humor. He will appear Friday at Power Shift, a biennial gathering of environmental activists, in Pittsburgh.
Now that Fox has finished the second installment of the Gasland series, the 41-year-old is poised to be a full-time environmental activist. Although his property is safe from fracking — less than a month after Gasland 2 premiered, the industry withdrew from the Delaware River Valley — the experience of making the documentaries introduced Fox to the threat of a warming planet and shifting weather patterns.
Fox noted that his 19.5-acre plot of land, which borders a tributary of the Delaware River, had begun to manifest the symptoms of climate change. He expressed concern about the balmy fall weather — "I'm standing on my deck in a t-shirt!" — and mentioned that Hurricane Irene had toppled a massive black cherry tree on his property.
"We're still under threat, not from the drilling industry, but from climate change," he said. "We could chase the frackers away forever and still lose everything we've ever loved to climate change. We're already seeing certain species of trees that are in trouble."
For now, the amiable woodsman must adjust to the notoriety of being the country's best-known anti-fracking crusader. The natural-gas industry, which disputes the veracity of the Gasland films, has tried to discredit his work by portraying him as a self-aggrandizing rabble-rouser, rather than an aggrieved homeowner.
"The fossil-fuels industry likes to beat up on me," Fox acknowledged. "They love to scapegoat and single out people. The demonization of me makes me uncomfortable, but I don't really care about that as long as the people whose lives have been destroyed by this industry are getting attention."
"It's not about me. When you have this kind of information, you are obligated to work with it. It would be a disservice to all the people who have spent hours and hours pouring their lives out to me on camera "¦ not to tell their stories in the loudest way possible."
Fox added that the industry's decision to drop 100,000-acres worth of leases in the Delaware River Valley is a testament to the power of grassroots organizing. "We've chased them out of town. It's proof that citizen movements do work. When you're cornered, when you're invaded, people organize very, very quickly. It's proof that when you have democratic participation, you can fight off the largest corporations."
Nationwide, states are still debating the environmental risks associated with fracking. Some, like Texas, have embraced hydraulic fracturing with gusto. Others, like New York, are more circumspect. The Empire State has never permitted fracking within its borders, although Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is reevaluating a five-year moratorium. On Saturday, activists will stage a "Global Frackdown" to protest the controversial technology in communities around the world.
As for Fox, his next project is a half-hour film about the death rate and abject working conditions of workers in oil and gas fields.