Thomas W. Pearson. When the Hills Are Gone: Frac Sand Mining and the Struggle for Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 256 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8166-9992-6.
Reviewed by Justin Fisher (University of Saskatchewan)
Published on H-Environment (November, 2020)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
The twenty-first century shale oil revolution, led by the United States and based on the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, fundamentally rearranged global energy markets and had a profound impact on communities across North America. When the boom in oil prices that made fracking on a broad scale viable busted in the middle of the last decade, communities that had rapidly expanded in the preceding years were in many cases left overextended with the local economy facing a rapid downturn. Moreover, as Thomas Pearson demonstrates in When the Hills Are Gone, this episode deeply affected many communities far from where fracking actually took place. Focusing on a link further up the fracking commodity chain and highlighting a sort of web of extraction underpinning the modern economy, Pearson explores the issue of frac sand mining in western Wisconsin. In the process, he examines aspects of grassroots environmental organizing, corporate power, local democracy, and the ties between landscape, identity, and well-being, highlighting the pervasive and divisive influence of extractive economies especially on small and rural communities.
The landscape of western Wisconsin, famous for its dairy farms and rolling hills, was dramatically altered after 2008 when fracking began to expand rapidly. Indeed, Pearson demonstrates that Wisconsin sand—a critical component of the fracking process that is blasted underground to help make shale oil extractable—served as “the key that unlock[ed] the dramatic promise and peril of America’s unconventional energy boom” (p. 4). Home to just a few industrial-scale sand mines prior to the boom, by 2015 the region hosted 129 mining and related infrastructure sites. Such developments brought with them new investments and employment opportunities, along with environmental hazards and an extensive alteration of the landscape as mining literally flattened hills. Unsurprisingly, such rapid change proved to be highly contentious within local communities.
Pearson is an anthropologist with a background in studying environmental activism, and that experience clearly informs the approach taken in When the Hills Are Gone. After an introduction that contextualizes frac sand mining within both the fracking commodity chain and Wisconsin history, three of seven chapters focus on an intimate portrayal of local grassroots organizing and alliance-building around the issue. Another two chapters examine issues of place and identity, and another the corporate strategies mobilized by mining companies in their pursuit of new mines and associated infrastructure. The book closes with a brief examination of the aftermath of the bust in frac sand mine development following the 2016 crash in oil prices and the spread of the community rights movement that may help communities maintain more local control when the next extractive wave arrives.
The book’s three chapters on activism stand out as distinct from the rest and are a particular strong suit of the work. Pearson became personally involved in the effort to “save the hills” from mine development and that involvement provides the author with an intimate perspective on community efforts to limit the advance of mining interests. Drawing on newspapers, records from town and county meetings, interviews, and personal observations, Pearson explores the efforts of many local farmers and townspeople—who ranged from local generational descendants to recent retirees newly relocated to enjoy rural life in the area—to mobilize local institutions to conserve local land and ways of living. Pearson begins with an examination of the Save Our Hills campaign that ultimately stopped a mine development adjacent to the Hoffman Hills conservation area in 2007 at the outset of the boom and before the author lived in the area. The book then traces the development of other groups and regional alliances as development proposals ramped up significantly in subsequent years. Pearson offers extensive observations from tense town meetings where local activists, passionate about protecting the landscape and weary of the introduction of unknown health hazards, worked to counter the discourses of mining representatives and navigate the complex web of interests informing decision-making. These sections highlight just how difficult it became for locals to stem mining development as corporations pursued the paths of least resistance and forced activists to shift their focus from stopping development to monitoring environmental and health impacts.
The author notes a long tradition of anti-mining activism in Wisconsin but explores what made organizing around frac sand mining unique, principally its small and dispersed character and its disconnection from mainstream “environmentalism.” Indeed, Pearson notes that the issue “cannot easily be labeled as an environmental dispute,” as organizers tended to have little to no experience in environmental activism and were inspired by highly localized concerns (p. 72). However, Pearson arguably focuses on what has since been coined “small green” environmentalism. By offering an in-depth case study of the types of historical episodes explored in Environmental Activism on the Ground (2019), Pearson’s work can serve to further expand our conceptions of what the environmental movement is by including highly local struggles grounded in material concerns of community well-being and quality of life. While the characters at the forefront of Pearson’s story are worlds apart from those in, say, Keith Woodhouse’s The Ecocentrists (2018), they form another important part of a broad movement that, as Pearson demonstrates, continues unabated in the twenty-first century. Pearson’s approach of offering portraits of numerous organizers also serves as an important reminder of the motivations of the individuals who make up movements and offers a model of highlighting individuals and small groups of characters within larger stories and impersonal processes. Although Pearson notes that there has been less Indigenous organizing around frac sand mining than other kinds of mining in Wisconsin, he merely mentions the important role of the Ho-Chunk Nation to the frac sand issue (pp. 22-23), and the book would have been enriched by including some of that story.
The three middle chapters, which focus on local identity, displacement, and corporate strategy, feel disjointed from the narrative around organizing, but they have their own strengths. Pearson offers a compelling deconstruction of both community and corporate narratives surrounding the environment, identity, community, and prosperity, while highlighting how the clash of such narratives proved highly divisive within local contexts. Pearson does not hesitate to draw attention to some of the class- and race-based privilege entwined with notions of landscape purity that may be at the heart of some anti-mining discourses. The author does a particularly good job of exploring competing conceptions of rural landscapes as productive and consumptive, and how such conceptions may inform support or opposition to mining. Pearson also puts a spotlight on corporate tactics designed to create, exploit, and exacerbate local tensions, particularly those that drew on corporate firms’ ability to mobilize large sums of money to entrench their “distinctly moral claims about history, nature, and economic development” (p. 148). Altogether these chapters present a less personal but nonetheless important examination of the discourses informing actions—and causing divisions—on the issue. That examination will doubtless be familiar to those who have studied rural extractive economies elsewhere, and provide important insights for understanding them. For example, the similarities in discourses around Wisconsin sand mining and strip-mining for coal in southern Saskatchewan are striking.
An intriguing and underdeveloped thread through this middle section of the book is the intimacy with which locals understand and connect to familiar landscapes. Although Pearson does not draw directly on the concept of “embodied histories,” the author’s description of “a type of experiential knowledge that some people struggle to put into words” is highly reminiscent of it (p. 84). Indeed, the focus on the dislocation caused by “unseen dangers” and transformations of intimately known landscapes resembles and complements Joy Parr’s case studies of the intense personal displacement brought upon locals through the development of Canadian megaprojects in the postwar period. Further work done with this framing in mind could contribute much to our understanding of how humans come to know their environment and perceive and react to environmental change.
The central theme running through When the Hills Are Gone is the tension between various levels of government and corporate interests and in particular the weakening of local democracy. Pearson deftly explores the competing strategies of activists and corporations to conserve and develop the land, and demonstrates convincingly that local decision-making is undermined by corporate influence within these complex webs of extraction. This analysis makes clear the necessity for more historical analysis of the intersections between extraction and governance at the local level.
When the Hills Are Gone highlights a very recent episode in the volatile history of the modern energy regime. It should be of great interest to environmental and energy historians curious about energy commodity chains and the important linkages between landscape, identity, and well-being. Moreover, historians of the environmental movement will be interested in this episode of organizing that appears to fit the “small green” label and shows how it continues to respond and adapt in the twenty-first century. With this book, Thomas Pearson reminds us of the far-reaching consequences of our energy choices and of the need to grapple with their influence on governance and community health.
. Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper, eds., Environmental Activism on the Ground: Small Green and Indigenous Organizing (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2019).
. Joy Parr, Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Justin Fisher. Review of Pearson, Thomas W., When the Hills Are Gone: Frac Sand Mining and the Struggle for Community.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|