Potential negative psychological impacts of intense shale gas mining should not be neglected
The people of this province have been divided on the issue of shale gas exploration and development for well over two years now. The controversy has taken on epic proportions with one side claiming shale gas exploitation could be the salvation for our economically moribund province and the other side warning that it could destroy our province environmentally and socially.
If much of the debate has taken on dramatic proportions, there have been efforts to boil the issue down to science and reason. Part of the scientific argument has come from reputable researchers and public officials such as the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. Eilish Cleary.
Dr. Cleary recently published her long awaited report on the public health issues surrounding the hydro-fracking industry. It was meant to provide further information to help guide the provincial government in its effort to adopt a regulatory framework for the industry. Her report received a lukewarm reception by government, perhaps because of its conclusions which are full of cautionary advice about going forward with large scale development.
Indeed, there is obvious resistance by government to acknowledge a public health angle to this debate. No doubt it would be much easier to simply pit the economic arguments against the need to protect nature. The public health issues bring a different component to the debate whereby the government must acknowledge that there may be many more factors to consider before making a decision as to the development of the shale gas industry. Government now has the heavy burden of either disproving or mitigating the issues raised by the chief medical officer.
Now, what if we were to add to the debate scientific arguments that the psychological well-being of New Brunswickers is also at risk? Dr. Cleary’s report does not go into those types of arguments, but studies in the United States are beginning to raise such concerns.
A case in point: A recently published article in the peer-reviewed journal Ecopsychology suggests there may be serious psychological impacts on Americans living with the reality of mountaintop removal coal mining in Central Appalachia.
Mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) is a form of surface mining frequently utilized in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. MTR is plagued by controversy since mountaintops are removed to expose coal seams for cheap extraction. It has long been demonstrated that MTR coal mining takes an environmental and physical toll on those who live in its wake. Now, there also seems to be evidence of psychological impacts such as solastalgia, stress and eco-anxiety.
“Solastalgia” is the term used by the authors of the article to describe the psychological effect on some residents after these types of operations begin near their homes. It is a place-based distress engendered by unwelcome environmental change. It is especially distressing for those who directly witness the destruction of their home environment and who feel intimately connected to the place in which they are rooted. “Since their very landscape is altered they no longer know what to expect from their environment. They may no longer have access to clean water, they experience unusual patterns of flooding, the types of wildlife that the ecosystem can support have changed, and they may not be able to participate in the recreational activities that the ecosystem once afforded them.” In short, their sense of place has been undermined even though they have not left their home.
People experiencing MTR are often also stressed by worries about the impact of mining on their health. For example, MTR blasting creates stress for residents dealing with the upsetting noise of blasting. These people also worry about potential or real damage to their homes and wells. As the authors state, the stressors produced by MTR are best conceptualized as ambient stressors. These are defined as “chronic, pervasive, intractable, and aversive conditions of the environment to which people must adapt.”
In addition to these stressors, say the authors, the existential stress or “Eco-anxiety” of environmental change may also be a problem for people near MTR sites. Eco-anxiety can be understood as “the feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty about the future associated with environmental problems. This stress or anxiety can sometimes lead to eco-paralysis, a condition which is characterized by a sense of apathy, disengagement, anger, or denial regarding ecological problems.”
It is further suggested that the conflict between those who support the coal companies and those who oppose them often creates insurmountable rifts in once tight-knit communities. “Many residents fear speaking out against coal companies when these companies serve as the sole employer in the region that pays a decent “breadwinner’s” wage, no matter how few of those jobs are actually available to community members. Those vocal in their opposition to MTR have been subjected to threats and violence at times by neighbors and coal mine employees who support the practice.”
And so, can it be said that there are sufficient similarities between MTR and shale gas exploitation to raise the prospect of New Brunswickers being vulnerable to the psychological effects described here?
Like Appalachians and others in largely rural cultures, New Brunswickers do tend to have a strong sense of connection to their land. More specifically, they have a sense of historical and spiritual place attachment to their land, to their ancestors who lived on that land and to their children who they hope will inherit that land. Since this place attachment usually serves as a grounding source of strength, the potential or actual destruction of their land by shale gas exploitation could very well manifest itself by negative psychological effects.
I believe it is time for our government to face up to the potential psychological impacts of shale gas development on New Brunswickers.