A Healthy Challenge to Fracking Groupthink?

Two weeks ago, 50 environmental funders, non-profit leaders, and allies came to the Nathan Cummings Foundation offices for the taping of our web video series, Summits on Tenth. I moderated a discussion between Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute and Kate Sinding of the National Resources Defense Council. The topic was fracking.

You can watch highlights from the debate and read reactions from several environmental leaders on Alternet, our partner in this series.

New York State sits on Marcellus Shale, which contains large quantities of natural gas. New fracking technology has enabled oil and gas companies to more easily access this gas. Rising prices has made drilling more cost effective. Some states on Marcellus Shale, like Pennsylvania, have rushed to begin drilling. New York has been more cautious.

Kate supports the cautious approach; Michael is the more aggressive one.

We hosted this debate as we approach the 10th anniversary of a paper co-written by Michael and Ted Nordhaus, provocatively titled "The Death of Environmentalism." It was a searing critique of the strategies and tactics of the environmental movement, written by two men who identified as leaders in that movement. The paper was funded by The Nathan Cummings Foundation.

The debate between Michael and Kate reflected this critique.

Michael's and Ted's paper provoked reactions from all corners. Today it is clear that it had an impact, leading many social change leaders -- in the environmental movement and beyond -- to question assumptions, silos and other previously unexamined habits that were hindering our collective success.

Personally, I'm not confident that we know how to manage the methane leakage associated with fracking. I don't know how much cleaner natural gas from fracking is when compared to coal. But I share Michael's concern that we all, at times, allow our passions and habits to obscure our reason, and even our compassion.

For example, those of us concerned about climate change should pay more attention to the urgent energy access needs of the global poor. Two billion people around the world suffer miserably because they are energy poor. Getting these people access to energy is a progressive value, as it was when the Tennessee Valley Authority electrified the South. Our challenge is to make sure that energy is as cheap and clean as possible.

During the debate, Michael and Kate were asked what they would say to a coal miner in Kentucky who is suffering as we replace coal with natural gas. Michael was right not to sugarcoat the consequences of leaving coal behind, but used the question to underscore the importance of a strong safety net. We need to catch workers when they fall during a transition from one line of work to another. And we need to respect the pain felt by communities, like coal miners, for whom their livelihood and culture are closely interwoven.

And yet, iconoclasm can have its limits. How can we critique our own work and the work of our allies in a way that prompts then to reflect and maybe even adjust rather than retrench? How are we tough on the problems but soft on the people? How do we help each other bring our "A" game?

To those of us who support innovation and risk taking, these are important challenges. Investment in innovation can become idolatry and the obsessive worship of it is the opposite of innovative. And risk taking can devolve into a posture that involves no risk at all; simply an infallible certainty that forecloses conversation and ultimately, change.