A talk with ‘Betting the Farm on a Drought’ writer Seamus McGraw
It might come as a surprise that the man whose past two books were about fracking and climate change, respectively, is an optimist. Though they might read like novels, they’re nonfiction. When I read a Kirkus review stating that in his latest book, “Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change,” he “provides plenty of reasons for optimism,” that struck me as unusual. The book title itself doesn’t sound so cheery, after all, and really, how many optimistic environmentalists can you think of? Maybe he’s trying to talk himself into being hopeful, I figured, or trying to inspire hope in readers, who might in turn effect change.
But when I finally talk to Seamus McGraw — who prefers to not be called an author or journalist or anything aside from Seamus — I realize, this is real. His optimism punctuates the conversation, whether in offhand remarks or when he speaks deeply and passionately about something — which he does a lot. He’s the guy who sees the silver lining while keeping both feet firmly planted on the ground.
I hear him lighting cigarettes, pulling in the smoke and exhaling as he talks through a rough, charismatic voice that seems animated from the moment he answers the phone. There is movement in his voice, a contagious kind of energy. Before we talk about his new book, released this month, he wants to provide some background by telling me about his 2012 book, “The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone.” He wants to break it down for me.
THE REALITY OF FRACKING
The average American uses 18 pounds of coal a day, and 16 times that amount has to be removed from the Earth, he said. That said, we were burning over 19 pounds a day back in 2007, he added (silver lining); as the economy has gotten better, we’ve actually used less coal.
“The largest reason is the growth of natural gas,” he said. But “for all the risks, anyone who tells you this process (fracking) will be done safely, with no danger to the environment, is either misinformed or intentionally misleading you.”
McGraw ultimately decided to allow fracking on his land in Pennsylvania, a process he chronicles in “End of Country.” The fracking company has since developed five out of six wells, and McGraw has had no problems with anything like methane contamination or surface spills.
Because state and federal governments have demanded a greater need for safety, fracking practices have gotten better since the ‘60s, McGraw pointed out. “The technology is evolving on a daily basis.”
BOOKS ARE NOT ARTIFACTS BUT CONVERSATION GENERATORS
“End of Country” became required reading for college freshmen, he said.
His favorite book review was a tweet from a student at American University that said something along the lines of “Seamus McGraw is a douche and should never have written a book.”
That tweet went out to a lot of people.
“We live in a world where a book is just the beginning of a conversation,” he said.
At his book talks, he doesn’t stand in the front of the room and lecture the crowd; he goes for conversation, and encourages the audience to speak up. And he gives everyone his email address and phone number — not just his Twitter handle and website.
“The book is not an artifact. It’s an ongoing conversation. … My whole purpose in all of this — well, first and foremost is to pay my mortgage, but my real purpose in all of this is to facilitate conversation. That’s what I do. … I’m just the conduit in all of this.”
FRACKING IS A METAPHOR
While he’s on book tours (often by motorcycle, reducing his carbon footprint), he’s often surprised by the great divide over issues like fracking and climate change, because he thinks if everyone just looked a little more closely, they’d realize we’re all sort of swimming around together in a big gray area. It’s a misconception that these issues are black and white.
“Fracking is sort of a metaphor for communities. … What’s happening below ground is a mirror image of what’s happening above,” he said, explaining that the process exploits existing fractures in underground rock and splits them apart further.
“If I know where you stand on fracking, I can probably tell you where you stand on five or six other hot-button issues,” he said — same-sex marriage, climate change, guns, abortion. “And you know what?” he added. “That’s a f— tragedy.
“I cannot think of a greater danger than climate change,” he continued, “except our inability to talk to each other. … If we can find how to talk, we’d realize there is much more common ground.”
For his current book, McGraw interviewed people around the country who are directly impacted by or otherwise involved with climate change — paleoclimatologists, evangelists, Republican activists, fishermen. One of them, a farmer in Illinois, started the interview with McGraw by saying he’d never met a liberal before.
“His whole vision of a liberal like me is based on what he’s heard on conservative talk radio,” McGraw said.
They talked for four hours about same-sex marriage, abortion, gun control and other issues in our culture, and by the end of it, McGraw realized that about 85 percent of the time, they agreed; 10 percent of the time, they disagreed but understood one another’s viewpoints; and 5 percent of the time they thought the other was a complete idiot.
“And that 5 percent is all we ever talk about.”
After speaking with people and hearing their insight regarding climate change, McGraw wants to help bridge this massive, if imaginary, gap. Climate change “is no longer a conservative/liberal issue,” he said. He and the farmer are just two guys sitting together on a porch, talking, and maybe getting somewhere.
McGraw also spoke with geologist Richard Alley, who shares his optimism about changing the direction we’re headed. McGraw is “tremendously optimistic precisely because there are people out there … who are breaking this away from a partisan issue.”
You can’t look at nature as being only what it is now or what it was long ago, he said. “It’s a living thing and it changes every moment.”
The land surrounding his home — thousands of acres of wilderness — has been clearcut three times in the past 200 years. The trees are no older than his father. But there are bears, bobcats, 10 times the number of deer than there used to be. It’s as wild as it ever was.
“You want to know why I’m optimistic?” he asks, and I imagine him leaning in closer, as if I am sitting there with him. “Because I live in nature. I see how resilient she can be with a little bit of care. A little bit of care.”
Originally published April 23, 2015, in The Frederick News-Post.