November 4, 2021

Colin_Jerolmack_with book cover up to heaven down to hell

Colin Jerolmack (Ph.D. ’09, Sociology) last month published an unusual and particularly gripping piece in The New York Times about a married couple in a rural Pennsylvania town who wound up with a contaminated water well thanks to fracking, yet didn’t want to cause trouble for their community. 

The couple are also featured in Jerolmack’s latest book, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town. Jerolmack has carved a niche for himself in the relatively new field of environmental sociology; his previous book, The Global Pigeon, was based on his dissertation. Jerolmack was recently named a full professor at NYU, where he holds joint appointments in the sociology and environmental studies departments — an accomplishment he credits to the encouragement he received as a Ph.D. student. “The Graduate Center is an incredibly special place,” he said. “And it got me my dream job.” 

Jerolmack near Pennsylvania's Tiadaghton State Forest, the site of gas drilling.

Jerolmack near Pennsylvania's Tiadaghton State Forest, the site of gas drilling. (Photo courtesy of Jerolmack)

The Graduate Center: The couple at the heart of your essay say they don’t like how people from other places, like New York, come to their town and protest against fracking. Do you think there are any ways that people on opposite sides of this issue can find common ground? 

Jerolmack: People who lease their land for fracking make money from doing so, so there’s this idea that that’s why so many people lease — and if you take away the economic incentives, then you take away what makes people support it. What the Times article and the many stories like it in the book get at is how limited this economic argument is. Politically, a lot of people in this region are conservative. They’re distrustful of government regulation and they’re certainly not in favor of property-rights restrictions.

Regulating fracking would mean restricting their capacity to decide what to do with their own land. What’s so powerful about this story is you see that this couple leases their land, and they don’t really make that much money from doing so, and they wind up with contaminated water from a neighbor’s gas well, and still they don’t come out against drilling. That really demonstrates how it’s not just the economic argument. The essay really emphasizes the commitment to the community, and the political aspect.

There were two big events in this town, where protestors from Philadelphia and New York City and other places came into the community to protest against gas drilling. This really embedded locals’ perception that those who were against fracking were not from the community. My own political disposition is that to avoid catastrophic global warming you’ve got to leave fossil fuels in the ground. I have the same worldview as these protestors who came in, but I do think there’s something to the locals’ concerns. 

The greatest source of heating in New York State is fracked gas from Pennsylvania. New York has banned fracking and sometimes we congratulate ourselves for that, but many of the buildings in New York City are heated from fracked gas from Pennsylvania. New York State is still laying all these pipelines to bring the fracked gas from Pennsylvania to New Yorkers. 

A lot of local people that I met, while they’re not in favor of centralized government regulation, see themselves as land stewards and as people that love the environment. They just have different ideas about what the appropriate response is to environmental problems. For a lot of people, it’s about local control. There would be permit hearings for new gas wells, and a lot of locals would turn up and talk about their concerns and the ways that they wanted their elected representatives to ensure they were safe. It wasn't that they just wanted the petroleum companies to be able to do whatever they wanted. 

I think this could be one potential tool for environmentalists that I’ve not really seen them use — helping communities figure out how to use zoning to restrict fracking. A lot of conservative communities don’t want to ban fracking, but they are in favor of greater regulations than what their state requires. In Pennsylvania and many other states like Texas and Colorado, the state legislatures, which are very pro-fracking, have taken away municipalities’ ability to use zoning to restrict how and where fracking happens. There’s a big opening, I think, for environmentalists to work with communities to restrict fracking in ways that harmonize with what the locals I met called rural values.

GC: How did you wind up researching pigeons for your sociology dissertation?

Jerolmack: My dissertation was about human-animal relationships, and for sociology that was pretty outside the box, to say the least. I used the pigeon as a way to think about how animals come to be categorized as so-called nuisance animals, and what the way we make or deny non-human animals space in the city says about what we think about the relationship between civilization and nature. I don’t know that there are any other Ph.D. programs in sociology that would have allowed me, let alone encouraged me, to do such an esoteric project that seemingly isn’t about the core of sociology.

In my second year, I took an urban ethnography class in which we had to do original research. I thought I was going to do a project on conflicts over public space in lower Manhattan, and I started doing observations of parks in the area. At the time there was a major crackdown on pigeon feeding and anxiety about disease from pigeons. This was when the city put all of these Do Not Feed the Pigeons signs in every public park. I wrote a little paper titled “How Pigeons Became Rats,” where I was just thinking through why we hate pigeons so much, and what does this say about how animals come to be constructed as nuisance animals? I thought it would be a one-off paper, but a number of my professors said you’re onto something here.

That project led me to think about environmental issues. The work I did at the Graduate Center is really what pushed me from thinking that I was going to be an urban sociologist to being a community and environmental sociologist. I have so much love for the Graduate Center.

GC: Do you have any advice for academics who are trying to write for a mainstream audience?

Jerolmack: I've certainly tried before [the Times essay] and wasn’t successful. But what I would say, even if it sounds a little trite, is to really write the essay you want to write. This essay is over 2,000 words, it’s not an op-ed, it’s not really making a clear argument or recommending a series of policies. It’s a complicated, nuanced story about this couple and what happened to them, which hints at a lot of larger issues around the rural-urban divide.

I’ve been published one other time in The New York Times Sunday Review, which was tied to my first book. And really, I did the same thing — I wrote about an old-timer who bred and flew domesticated pigeons on his rooftop, and who, after my book came out, died. Basically the essay is a eulogy to him, because I thought he was such a special person but he’s not somebody who was going to get a eulogy in the Times

GC: There’s so much terrifying and sad news about the environment. Is there anything that is giving you a little hope? 

Jerolmack: Yes, there’s a number of things. One is, if you just take the context of United States and look at survey questions about the environment, you find that the vast majority of people, including conservatives, care about the environment and are concerned that we’re not doing enough. So the hard nut to crack is how you separate environmental protection issues from the partisan warfare that seems to be destroying our ability to do anything. It’s not just about environmental problems, right? It’s education issues, it’s guns. The partisan bickering and conflict tend to suck everything in. But environmental protection is actually a pretty bipartisan issue.

If you look specifically at fracking, it wasn’t that long ago, even in the 2016 presidential election, that Democrats would not say anything against it. And now the tide has totally turned. Almost no Democrat will publicly support fracking and investors are fleeing it. You’re seeing shareholders revolting against petroleum companies, saying that it is a losing proposition financially, not just environmentally. You’re seeing a lot of pipelines that petroleum companies fought for 20 years to be able to build now being canceled after they’ve finally gotten permits, because they’re not economically viable.

One of the things I was really struck by is how many conservative, rural communities in states like Pennsylvania, Texas, and Colorado are actually trying to fight for more restrictions on fossil fuel extraction than the state allows. These are conservative, business-friendly, petroleum-company friendly states that have basically said, Drill, baby, drill. But a lot of communities are fighting for the right to enact — not necessarily ban — but to enact much greater regulations. 

If you take those local fights, and you combine it with the survey data about strong bipartisan support for environmental protection, and with the economic declines of petroleum drilling and the shareholder revolts, I think there’s a lot of reason for optimism. The question is, now that there seems to be this solidifying broad sentiment that we need to do something, how can we speed up removing the obstacles to actually doing it? Which is of course a big question. But I think there are a lot of reasons for optimism.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing