May 12, 2021
America has clearly delineated public and private domains: the public domain is regulated, and the private domain is not. A public-private paradox occurs when a decision made in the private domain creates issues in the public domain. In the case of fracking, choosing to allow drilling in your land is a private decision. That decision creates many externalities such as overuse of roads, unwanted sights and sounds, contaminated well water for the neighborhood, which harms the public good.
The Tragedy of the Commons explains how individual decisions pertaining to common resources can lead to degradation of that resource, hurting everyone. It’s in everyone’s own best interest to use as much of a common resource as possible, because if they don’t, someone else will. Unfortunately, when everyone does this the shared resource is often quickly degraded. In the case of fracking, many landowners decided to lease land because their neighbors were doing it, and choosing not to lease would mean absorbing the externalities of fracking without any compensation.
American landowners own their land “up to heaven, and down to hell,” meaning they own both the air and subsurface rights along with their land. This is quite different from almost all other countries, where subsurface mineral rights are owned, regulated, and sold by government bodies. Landowners in the US make entirely private decisions to allow oil and gas drilling on their property without the consent of their neighbors, and in some cases without any regulation from local, state, or federal governments.
Colin Jerolmack is a professor of sociology and environmental studies at NYU, where he also teaches courses on human-animal relations and chairs the Environmental Studies Department. His first book, The Global Pigeon explores how human-animal relations shape our experience of urban life. His second book, Up To Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town follows residents of a rural Pennsylvania community who leased their land for gas drilling in order to understand how the exercise of property rights can undermine the commonwealth. He also co-edited the volume Approaches to Ethnography: Modes of Representation and Analysis in Participant Observation with Shamus Khan. He lives in New York City with his wife and two sons.
You can follow Colin on Twitter @jerolmack.