Fed Up With Washington, Environmentalists Decamp to Hipster Enclave

Documentary filmmaker Josh Fox discusses this year’s Power Shift event in Pittsburgh.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
Oct. 15, 2013, 9:50 a.m.

As the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment enters its 15th day of shut­down, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are pre­par­ing to look bey­ond the City on a Hill to the city of bridges, hip­sters, and steel.

This year’s Power Shift, a bi­en­ni­al meet­ing of thou­sands of en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists from around the coun­try, will be held on Fri­day, Oct. 18 in Pitt­s­burgh, the first time the event has been held out­side of D.C. since it began in 2007. It’s a move that one young Pitt gradu­ate de­scribed as sym­bol­ic of a shift from polit­ic­al lob­by­ing to grass­roots or­gan­iz­ing and maybe, just maybe, be­ing cool.

“The polit­ic­al angle we’ve been try­ing to take hasn’t really been work­ing,” Seth Bush, who works as a cam­pus or­gan­izer for the Si­erra Stu­dent Co­ali­tion at Pitt, told The Pitt­s­burgh Post Gaz­ette. “We’re work­ing on a bet­ter, clean­er, more just-en­ergy fu­ture, and that could start here in Pitt­s­burgh.”

An­oth­er reas­on to choose Pitt­s­burgh: It’s at once at the heart of build­ing the green eco­nomy and the first city to in­sti­tute a ban on frack­ing, a fo­cus for Power Shift this year. “It’s a chance for young people to come to­geth­er and talk about what it means that the pres­id­ent sup­ports nat­ur­al gas,” said Maura Cow­ley, dir­ect­or for En­ergy Ac­tion, which is or­gan­iz­ing the four-day event.

The nat­ur­al-gas in­dustry has re­vo­lu­tion­ized the U.S. en­ergy in­dustry, but it has also raised ser­i­ous con­cerns about safety and sus­tain­ab­il­ity. The pro­cess is thought to con­tam­in­ate drink­ing wa­ter, and ex­cess gas is of­ten ven­ted off, pro­du­cing air pol­lu­tion. The dis­pos­al of frack­ing wastewa­ter un­der­ground also ap­pears to be linked to earth­quakes in Ohio and else­where.

Much of the reg­u­la­tion around frack­ing takes place at the state level, but en­vir­on­ment­al­ists note there’s much Pres­id­ent Obama can do, in­clud­ing ban­ning frack­ing on pub­lic lands and re­open­ing the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to frack­ing-con­tam­in­ated ground­wa­ter in Dimock, Pa., Pa­vil­lion, Wyo., and Park­er County, Texas.

A pe­ti­tion by act­or Mark Ruf­falo ur­ging Obama to re-up the in­vest­ig­a­tions has garnered more than 99,000 sig­na­tures, and he’s not the only star to high­light the is­sue. Among this year’s fea­tured Power Shift speak­ers is Josh Fox, the con­tro­ver­sial doc­u­ment­ary film­maker who achieved something ap­proach­ing celebrity status fol­low­ing the re­lease of his frack­ing doc­u­ment­ar­ies, Gasland and Gasland 2.

“It’s my con­ten­tion and be­lief after mak­ing Gasland 2 that we can­not have demo­cracy as long as we have con­tin­ued de­pend­ency on fossil fuels,” Fox told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an in­ter­view Monday af­ter­noon. “Cur­rently, we don’t have demo­cracy on these is­sues; we have a sys­tem that’s bent in every pos­sible way — at the state level, at the loc­al level, and at the fed­er­al level — for the gas in­dustry over the people.”

Fox, who has fol­lowed the Mi­chael Moore tem­plate of film­mak­ing in which artistry and act­iv­ism go hand in hand, said the pri­or­it­ies of this year’s sum­mit are very much in tune with what he learned mak­ing Gasland.

“For a pres­id­ent who was elec­ted by a grass­roots move­ment to be ig­nor­ing the largest grass­roots en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment in dec­ades is in­cred­ibly dis­ap­point­ing,” Fox said.

The White House did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment, al­though it’s pos­sible the spokes­man was fur­loughed.

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