Monday, July 25, 2022

Existential Dread and the Democratic Party

I’ve always lived in Pennsylvania. Until 2016, my life in the commonwealth was ordinary as far as following local government and politics. I voted in every election, even the municipal ones in odd-numbered years, but I didn’t pay much attention. A township supervisor lives a couple of doors down from me. Her son lives next door and the house I live in used to belong to her daughter. For years, I voted for this woman to represent me on a board of supervisors I thought didn’t have much power beyond keeping my short cul-de-sac street oddly well treated in the winter. One election year, my neighbor supervisor stood in front of the polling place when I went to cast my ballot. I smiled and said hi to her and some other candidate. “Do the right thing,” she said to me in a gruff, ominous tone. I went in and voted for her, the only Republican I’d select in any race for decades.

The thing that jolted me into political awareness was the 2016 election. After that shock that we really all should have expected, I reached out to the local den of political power, the West Deer Democratic Committee (WDDC), and said I wanted to help. I wanted to do “more than listen to Pod Save America,” I told the guy that replied to my email. He thought I was a perfect fit and I was soon appointed to represent my voting precinct.

WDDC was tiny and scrabbling for traction in West Deer, a place where the majority of people were registered democrats that voted republican. Trump won the majority of votes in 2016 and 2020. A large number of homes displayed Make America Great Again gear and when their re-election campaign was unsuccessful, the MAGA stuff gradually receded to give way to giant “Biden Sucks” flags and “Let’s Go Brandon” merch. 

Our little fledgling committee tried to do the work of political organizing without advertising our “liberal” ideas. It was a righteous campaign led from the shadows, foredoomed to fail. We did get a few Biden signs in yards for the 2020 election. Huzzah!

Outside of the dismal political landscape, West Deer is an average representation of exurban southwestern Pennsylvania. At the northern edge of Allegheny County, most people aren’t eager to be included in county business. “We don’t really want to be advertising that, do we?” the Chairman of the West Deer Planning Commission once asked laughing as the header for the township’s website was projected onscreen. West Deer Township is printed on one end with Allegheny County PA on the other, the two separated by only a silhouette of a non-native deer. Allegheny County imposes things like a ban on open burning that’s viewed as a nuisance to people that still view their community as a rural place even as the population grows with each sprawling housing plan.

2010 census information listed on the township website identifies the racial makeup of the municipality as 98.8% white. By 2020, West Deer demographics reported by the census bureau found the township to be 98.2% white and 97.7% white alone, not Hispanic or Latino.

It took many years in this environment, which is notably nearly identical to the extremely rural part of southern Washington County where I spent my youth, to realize that I had little idea what my neighbors thought about anything. That is to say, before the Trump signs showed up, I figured we were all moving through life, doing our best, wishing each other well. And it occurred to me during the fierce disagreements of 2016, that I was able to believe this because we never talked about anything of substance.

I was very involved in the community, a Girl Scout troop leader and a Sunday School teacher and the person that spent all year organizing Vacation Bible School. It’s been my life experience that once I notice something, I can’t stop seeing it. A stain on a shirt or a cobweb in the corner or white silence. These are all things that I’ve never been able to ignore again after they’ve caught my eye even if I don’t do anything to clean them up. I still keep seeing it.

And I noticed amid all my community volunteer busyness that we carefully observed polite conversation. It was known that I had a history of mental illness, but I wasn’t one of those “weird” people, so I got to cosplay as a good white woman. This made me uncomfortable, but it wasn’t until the church, a pillar of West Deer community, tackled the mental health crisis caused by two high school student deaths by suicide with rubber bracelet handouts emblazoned with the phrase “You Matter” that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I found the nearest exit and never went back. Metaphorically. As it happens, you can’t actually get very far away from the crushing assimilation of this place while still living in it.

After finishing my standing volunteer obligations, I pulled back to just WDDC. I thought I might find the courage to use the committee to achieve some change or have hard conversations. We weren’t courageous in the least though and our conversations were only nominally more substantive. We mostly existed in an echo chamber, swallowing the moderate Democrat policy platform as though it wasn’t quickly killing us all.

This is where I was in early 2020, not thinking about fracking and feeling inadequately equipped to fight something I’d only recently noticed. I was disappointed in the place I’d chosen to call home and hard at work emotionally disconnecting myself from it. Perhaps, I thought, I can sleep here and make a stand for social justice with like-minded people in Pittsburgh. That was before the call that would send me and my husband, Tim, in a new direction for the next several years.

We were called to fight fracking and we did that almost exclusively for two years. Now, after the Dionysus decision, there's a lull. We're no longer in the throes of constant activity and research. We can take time to reflect and rest before the next well pad. Here in this time, I'm not even on the democratic committee anymore. I used the May 2022 election cycle as a natural stopping point and if I had more energy I might get involved with DSA or the Allegheny Green Party. Even though that doesn't seem right quite yet, I do feel less apt to swallow the moderate Democrat policies that are quickly killing our planet. I want to rebel against the moderacy, even knowing as I do that I'll have to cast votes for Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman in November to avoid hastening our collective demise.

Maybe that's part of the dread or just a necessary stop on the way to the next thing. Either way, before too long, there will be another well pad hearing. That will be enough.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Fracking Denied

Line art oil rig labeled "Dionysus" surrounded by a red circle with a line through it and the word 'Denied' underneath in red
There was a partial conclusion to our fracking fight last week. On December 15, 2021, the West Deer Township Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to deny the conditional use application for the Dionysus Deep Well Site.

In short, plain language: we won.

The driller will probably appeal the decision. They could submit a whole new application for another pad. We still have a public hearing for the same operator to build the Leto well pad in an even worse location. There's so much work left to be done, but for these few days in December, we can rest easy knowing that we did something here. We gathered over 100 of our neighbors and spent 40 hours in public hearings. We stressed and struggled and worried. And we won.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Moving in a New Direction with (Hopefully) Cleaner Air

White air purifier that many people think looks like a giant iPod shuffle. Lots of stuff visible in the room around the unit.
The Coway Mighty HEPA Air Purifier
Right around the time the pandemic started making headlines for being "a thing" in the United States, my husband and I got sort of nominated by default to keep an eye on plans for two frack well pads proposed for our exurban northern Allegheny County, PA township. And that was a new thing for the two of us to undertake though fracking is nothing new in Pennsylvania. My parents live about an hour south in Washington County and historically the drive to visit them was miserable until the other side of Bridgeville. When fracking really got going in the 2010s, the miserable part of the drive shifted more to the Houston exit where you'd often get mixed in with convoys of water trucks and Ford F150 brigades speeding by as a sign of fracking induced "economic prosperity." Even Allegheny County had a few well pads in the outer reaches where crowded subdivisions give way to open forest and farmland. I'd been tangentially aware of all of this for quite some time. I thought that too many people live in my community for there to be fracking close by.

I was wrong.

Since I found out my error early in the process for these two specific well pads, there was plenty we could do to force the drilling company's plans into the spotlight. Being tenacious people (or as our 16-year-old puts it: annoying), Tim and I began to drown ourselves and our neighbors in information. We scrutinized the township ordinance and the conditional use application. (After first learning that the ordinance and conditional use application exist and what each required of companies that wanted to do business here.) I went to an environmental webinar every night and before long I was either a climate activist or a community organizer or something. Whichever name I picked or had assigned to me, I was something new. Life had once again shifted and I was off in a new direction. I've been keeping notes on our frack fighting experience. When this new great adventure is over, I hope to put that information somewhere that people might read it.

The board of supervisors will render a decision on the first of the two frack pads this week and as I strive not to look at that outcome as a referendum on my life's work for the past two years, it kinda will be. This ending (or half ending, there's still another hearing and decision that will happen in early 2022) is an apt time for reflection. Getting really informed on one environmental topic brought all kinds of new issues into my life. I've been thinking about the way I interact with the world, what difference I can make, and slingshotting wildly between hope and despair. My growing tendencies toward anti-consumerism and desire to #breakfreefromplastic have been reinforced by the climate action community and decimated by modern life in the real world. Here are just a few victories and setbacks experienced during two fairly isolated pandemic years.

  1. There is no way to realistically #breakfreefromplastic in southwestern PA. Taking the advice of very wise Twitter advice-givers, I picked a couple of things and tried to replace them with zero-waste alternatives. The results were mixed.
    Eco-Strips Laundry Detergent: A delightful concept, a cardboard sleeve of pre-measured detergent is delivered in eco-friendly packaging. Each load of laundry takes one sheet of detergent stuff. No measuring liquid. No plastic. Should be wonderful. It was for a while until I noticed that the washing machine smelled like death. Or sewage. Or dead sewage. Now I have to use old-fashioned Tide most of the time and earth-saving laundry strips occasionally. The clothes (and washing machine) smell good, but it all feels like failure.
    Dish Washing Block: Sort of weird to use because it's bar soap. For dishes. I got over this and learned to lather and then wash and it worked for a while. It seemed like it clogged the kitchen drain and made it so the water backs up unless the disposal is running. Obviously, this might not be the dishwashing block's fault, but I went back to mostly using Dawn in the plastic bottle of failure. The sink is back to draining moderately better than it did during the dish block trial.
    Eco Bamboo-Charcoal Floss: The little plastic floss container isn't creating a whole lot of waste, but I did read that the Oral-B Glide floss preferred in our home was full of carcinogens and then I just couldn't enjoy oral hygiene. Enter bamboo floss in an adorable refillable glass container. This has been an absolute delight and a total victory.
    Seventh Generation Dishwasher Packs: Another attempt at consuming less chemicals. Did you know that dishwasher tabs interact with the specific water chemistry in your home and either make the fats from dirty dishes into little globs that rinse down the drain or alternately turn your dishwasher into a grease coated hellscape? I do now! I actually called the company and got my money refunded for this failure.
  2. Just not buying stuff. Not buying stuff is a bit too subjective for the failure/victory narrative. Do we still buy stuff? Yes. Is it usually stuff we can eat or otherwise use to keep ourselves relatively healthy? Yes. Do we still have way too much stuff? Yes. It's fair to say that we're consuming less since we're putting out less than half the garbage at the curb each week than we were two years ago. Unrelated fun fact: we now pay twice as much for garbage pickup. Yay!
    1. Knowledge is power that sometimes forces you to buy stuff from the devil's Amazon. Much of the frack fight is centered around the health impacts of the extraction industry. Air and water quality are adversely impacted and the air in Allegheny County already isn't great. But I'd been soldiering on in the face of copious reading on the illnesses brought on by benzene exposure and TENORMS and whatnot. I made it through two summers without allergy medicine (mostly because allergy medicine started giving me migraines, but still). I was drinking lots of water, not thinking about what might be in it, and feeling good. Then I started with sinus symptoms in November. A few weeks later, the sinus pain had a good friend in ear pain and a corresponding headache and I started to think this might be related to the plume of woodsmoke that rushes into our home every time the door opens. We can identify at least four neighbors burning extremely smokey fires to heat their homes. Those particles are in here, says the internet. There's no way to keep it out. And so, environmentalism led me to the purchase of a HEPA air purifier made in China. Hopefully, not Uyghur China, but I didn't think of that until the friendly unit was already here. Buying a big hunk of plastic to counteract actual smoke from one's neighbors: fail.
    Not that the world needed me to prove that individual action is not the answer to the climate crisis, but my list does lean in that direction. It seems we're all looking for a way to feel good, physically and emotionally, while waiting on the sweeping systemic change that could really make a difference. It won't be sweeping, but for now, I am cautiously optimistic that next week's vote on one well pad in one tiny part of SWPA will be affirming of the work I've done outside of these failed "green" consumer purchases.

    Thursday, June 4, 2020

    More Than a Protest Sign

    Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) suggested a way for white people to support protestors after the murder of George Floyd was to stand in front of local police precincts with a sign that says: End White Silence.

    We probably should do that here where I live, but the silence around white supremacy and systemic racism is thick in our community. I don’t even think people would understand the message.

    I can imagine someone yelling something, anything so they could declare, “I did it. I’m white and I make noise all the time.”

    White posterboard with 'end white silence' painted in large black letters. One of the protestor's hands is visible as well as a tie dyed shirt.

    The SURJ advice didn’t seem quite right for me or my immediate neighborhood, but I made the sign anyway and took it on a 30 minute journey to the city where there was a peaceful vigil for victims of police brutality. I hadn’t even figured out where to stand when a black man approached me and asked:

    “What does that mean? White silence? What would it mean to end it?”

    I’ve thought through this question extensively and was immediately able to offer an explanation with about four examples. This, you should know, is unusual for me. I’m a writer. My brain to mouth connection is really weak. Ask me “what do you do for fun?” and I’m likely to sputter until you give up and walk away.

    But on this day, I explained that sign easily because white silence has been my life.

    White silence prevented the little community church where I used to give so much of my time from issuing a statement condemning 45s racist “go back” tweet last summer. Other churches made statements, but we don’t talk about those things here. The pastors are sure to give extra time for silent prayers. Those are our favorite kind.

    White silence made me too uncomfortable to push back when a fellow volunteer announced she didn’t want to hang a flyer in the Tarentum Family Dollar store even if they do have a bulletin board because “we don’t want those people coming to our event.”

    “I think we want everyone to come, Heather,” I said. But I knew by ‘those people’ she meant black people. We can’t make each other feel uncomfortable though and I used to tell myself that if I pushed too hard, I wouldn’t like what was said next about ‘those people.’ Better to let them keep it in. Better if they’re silent.

    White silence allows the MAGA hats and flags and signs to pepper our suburbs and rural areas along with “support the police” and thin blue line flags. No one pushes back, even when it’s a confederate flag flying. We don’t ask what it means to the person displaying it or what it is they like about the current occupant of the White House.

    White silence is advertised on our township web site in a series of high definition videos touting our police force (we have a lot of 'em) and our safety (did we mention we have so many police?).

    Our white silence ensures the kids in our community will grow up just the way we did. We can't change what we don't acknowledge, and that is obviously the point.

    What would it mean to end white silence? Lots of uncomfortable social interaction. Deep conversations. Self-examination. But at the end of it, we'd emerge from our fear. We could fight against injustice. We could make America great for the first time.

    I brought the sign home and kept it. Perhaps someday I will have the courage to take it to the township building. That would definitely start a conversation.