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Mark Ruffalo: We Can Go Gracefully Into a Green Future, Or We Can Go Kicking and Screaming, But There Is No Choice

Actor and activist Mark Ruffalo discusses his new organization Farmhearts, fracking, protecting our water and the future of our country.
 
 
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The following is from Sabrina Artel's Trailer Talk: The Frack Talk Marcellus Shale Water Project. Listen to the complete program here.

I've traveled the country with the Trailer Talk BeeLine camper talking to people about fracking. I stopped in Yellow Springs, Ohio over Labor Day to share Trailer Talk's Shale Project and create a Bill of Rights for Water with community members fighting back against the industry landmen knocking on doors throughout the area. I was reminded of the threat to our farms as I drove past acres of farmland with sunflower fields and beehives with No Fracking signs standing fiercely on the road. Heading west I traveled through tornado-flattened Joplin, drought-desperate Oklahoma and Texas, and a dismantled Route 66, recognizing the desperate economic situation this country is in and how enticing drilling can seem to those barely scraping by.  

I've driven to Buffalo through New York's Finger Lakes, which are slated for fracking. I passed thousands of acres of farmland with pro and con drilling signs in their fields. I've tossed and turned at night, marched, spoken about and researched the situation, as I try to grasp this infiltration taking place on my hometown soil. As the anti-fracking community in the Sullivan County Catskills battles fiercely and volunteer groups have formed and evolved over the last three and a half years, the culmination of this pushback is resting on the just-released final draft of the SGEIS environmental review from the Department of Environmental Decision (DEC). The DEC has plans to hold public hearings sometime in November and the contested public comment period is open through December 12. Scientists are signing petitions to New York governor Cuomo demanding further studies and scientific data to prove the safety of fracking before another state is victimized.

Farming is central to this battle. Farmhearts, a new non-profit organization formed in the Catskills, recognizes that in the face of drilling, farmland will change its land use from agricultural to industrial, destroying not only a vital American tradition but something we rely on to live sustainable lives in our towns. Actor Mark Ruffalo, a resident of Sullivan County, New York and the founder of Farmhearts, joined me for a conversation about the organization’s mission, farming, water and fracking.

Sabrina Artel: I'm in Callicoon, New York, at the Callicoon Youth Center. This is "Haystock," a benefit for Farmhearts. Mark Ruffalo, actor, director, environmental advocate, and Catskill, New York, resident, joins me at the kitchen table of "Trailer Talk" to talk about Farmhearts, a nonprofit farm advocacy organization he helped found whose mission is to help local family farms by lending assistance in grants, helping to bring added value to a farm's existing products, offering grassroots and Internet support, and opening the door to the next generation of young farmers. They are committed to lending a hand to the hands that feed us, and their mission is to help local family farms survive and thrive.

We talk about home, farming, and what New York is facing with fracking for natural gas. The Department of Environmental Conservation, the DEC, has just released its SGEIS regulations, and environmental groups are pushing for an extended public comment period as the state faces fracking as early as the beginning of 2012. What happens if a community loses its farms and agricultural land?

Mark Ruffalo: My teacher believed in this great George Bernard Shaw quote that she would say repeatedly,"You should have to pay to go to church, and the theater should be free." She really did see the platform as a place where people learned an enormous amount about themselves, about humanity, about a place in the world.

SA: And this platform is the stage ... something that's elevated.

MR: It's elevated. And she believed that the moment you walked on a platform, you carried an enormous responsibility, that you were elevated, and that you were instantly made better than yourself. You're assuming a sort of mantel, and it's a 5,000-year-old tradition. It predates many of the religions, and it's been used as a connection to our humanity from the very beginning. And so, that's very heady stuff in a world that makes acting very cheap and entertainers very inconsequential.

But for me, I never really forgot that I am part of a 5,000-year-old tradition, and that I do have a responsibility. And so, a lot of my work comes out of that.

SA: So, here we are. It's a benefit for Farmhearts. So, how is that connected, then, to these beliefs?

MR: The mission statement is to give a hand to the hand that feeds ... a helping had to the hand that feeds. As I've been in Sullivan County almost 15 years now, I've become very aware of my relationship to my food, where it comes from, the people who grow it -- and I'm really proud of that and I really love that. It's something I brag about as I travel to other places where they don't get to enjoy that. I've become increasingly aware that our farmers are in great need. We've heard about it with Farm Aid and all these things over the years. I've gotten to witness it firsthand, and they're very desperate right now, and they do need a hand, and they're very proud people, and they don't like to say they need a hand.

They're dying out. Our family farms, or these kind of small operations, are slowly dying out. That's a real shame and it would be a travesty if we allow it just to happen.

Through hydrofracking and that fight, we've developed this kind of real grassroots movement and a grassroots kind of understanding of our legislature how to affect change through grassroots movement. So, we're sort of applying what we've learned in saying no to something like hydrofracking, gas drilling, in New York State, and applying it to a more positive thing like, how do we help these people who are so desperately in need who look to the gas industry as a helping hand -- as their only alternative at this point?

SA: Right. And to realize how interconnected they are. What the oil and gas companies are attempting to do throughout the state is so connected to the resources we have with our farmers and farmland, and that could be lost.

MR: Yes. If there's a mass industrialization of New York State, which we're looking at right now, a good portion of our viable farmland will be consumed by it. As I talk to these people and I hear their concerns, a lot of them are ready to sell out. A lot of them are tired; a lot of them are ready to move on; a lot of them are facing mortgages that are crushing them, and the only income that they see that could possibly pull them out of the situation they're in is these leases in the hopes that one of these wells actually hits.

And so, it's endemic -- it's everywhere.

SA: It is everywhere, and who can blame someone? And that's where I just feel like, you know, it can't be the burden of an individual being faced by a very compelling landman who can make almost anyone feel that they're part of something great and important and wonderful -- part of a community -- as part of their salesmanship. And also, people for so long have been profiting in that way, and so it's not right that an individual would be faced with something like that. I mean, who wouldn't? It's not fair at all.

MR: No. And so, I have an enormous amount of sympathy for them, and a lot of compassion. And I have friends who have leased who are farmers, and I can't give them a hard time about it. You know, I can ask why, and I understand why.

There's that, and there's the collateral damage -- there's a whole other aspect to it, like, "Okay, that's fine, and if this thing only affected you and your land, I could live with that. But the fact of the matter is, and what we're seeing all over the nation where they're doing this, is that it doesn't just stay on one person's land. It happens to affect everyone else around them. And that's not right. It just isn't right."

And so, although I can understand it, there's also a greater truth there that has to be respected. It's not okay for one person to profit at the expense of another. This is an enormous thing. It's a fundamental thing. It isn't, "I'm losing just property value." Actually, the people's wells -- their whole lives are being ... You know, there's no more fundamental thing than our water, and that seems to be the biggest problem. Okay, yes, we have air; we have trucks; it totally changes the whole character of the place. "Yes, I could see your well -- it's outside my window. Yes, the noise, yes." Those things are in a strange way not as deep as water.

SA: Speaking of water, I've been asking people three questions about water, and I haven't had the chance to ask them of you ... because water is so essential. And I think that so many of us -- myself included -- have taken it for granted and it's easy to do that. But, to imagine what it's like when we lose it, and when we can no longer turn on our tap, and when it has to be trucked in and we don't know even where it's being trucked in from, and to think of places throughout the country and the world where people are carrying water for hours every day to survive.

So, I've been asking three questions because I think we also have histories connected with the water in our lives. So, I'm wondering, Mark, what the closest body of water to you was growing up, and what your relationship was with it.

MR: I grew up in Wisconsin, in a small town, Kenosha, Wisconsin, which was on Lake Michigan, and I happened to be growing up there when Lake Michigan had been terribly poisoned by PCBs -- endocrine disrupters. When I would go to the beach, I'd see fish with these horrible growths on them -- these cancerous sort of tumors on them. And this whole movement started to take shape when I was a young boy, which was to save Lake Michigan and clean it up.

And so, I saw this movement happening, and I saw it become clean, and there was a huge shift. I saw them change it, and it had a profound effect on me. But I never forget seeing these fish swimming sideways because they had these huge growths on the side of their heads, and knowing that that was wrong, and having an innate understanding that that was pollution ... that was something that was manmade, that that was unnatural.

Then living throughout the United States, in California, where there is no water, and you could only turn your sprinkler on for 15 minutes a week, and to know what water scarcity really looks like. And to see people who can't drink from their drinking faucets, who innately know that the water that's coming out of their faucets isn't clean. Even the poorest people -- you see them in line getting bottled water. It's something that is so part of all of our lives, that so desperately is needed, and something that so quickly alarms people ... so quickly when they know their water's not good -- it's very, very alarming. And even the poorest people in Los Angeles are lined up at clean water dispensers.

SA: Even being in Los Angeles myself, growing up there, being there for some of the earthquakes, and knowing that if there's an earthquake, in your emergency kit you're supposed to have water. And being in Los Angeles and seeing the brown contaminated water in the toilet and coming out of the faucet, and knowing, "Whoa, time is limited if we don't have drinkable water."

And what about the body of water that is the farthest away from where you live, that you've had some sort of experience with that you remember.

MR: Probably the Pacific Ocean, I mean, as far as the United States goes. I'll never forget driving into California when I was 18 years old and seeing the Pacific Ocean open up in front of me, and La Jolla, and this big, beautiful, blue, shimmering, gorgeous cliff-lined mother. And all of its power and its beauty, and its kind of sadness in a strange way, and limitlessness. And I was a surfer then, so I had a very, very intimate connection to the water.

I lived in the water. That was my passion. And that was when we were cleaning up the bay ...

SA: Heal the Bay in San Monica?

MR: Yeah, Heal the Bay in Santa Monica. That was a big movement at that time. And I saw the character of the ocean change because of our understanding of man's effect on it. This whole idea that man is not affecting our environment -- it's such a ridiculous idea.

I keep saying to the climate change people who say that we don't have any effect on our waters, "If you had a fish tank and you put a hose from the exhaust of your car into your fish tank, how long do you think it would take before that action actually killed every living thing in that fish tank? Do you think that it wouldn't happen?

And so, what's the difference between doing that, and extrapolating that to millions and millions and millions of times of that amount of pollution going into our environment all around us. How can you say that that doesn't exist? How can you look at a fish tank that's being strangled with the fumes of a car and not see that that's actually just happening on a much bigger scale. Now, what kind of ideological mental shutdown, mental deadening do you have to permit yourself to go through in order to have something that makes so much sense be denied?

The same with the gas drilling. You can't put those kind of chemicals ... You can't put that kind of stuff into the earth, into our environment, and not expect it to affect you. It doesn't disappear. It's this idea that it's disappearing -- it just goes away. You can't put that kind of stuff into our environment and not have it affect the environment around you. It's impossible; it can't be done.

SA: And are you finding when you talk to people -- because now you're shootingThe Hulk in Albuquerque, and you are traveling with your work and you're meeting all kinds of people -- are people receptive to sharing what you're facing here, what we're facing?

MR: I have people coming to me all the time and saying, "I really appreciate what you do" -- people who don't have anything to do with this at all. This is not just this issue. First of all, our water is under attack. It's under attack globally; it's under attack nation-wide. We're dealing with a lot of problems with our water, and water is the first thing to go in our madness for concentrated energy forms.

And so, we're going to see more and more water destroyed as we get more and more desperate to extract concentrated energy forms, carbon energy forms, that are increasingly becoming less and less easily available to us. And that is going to be what our generation is going to be dealing with for the next 30 or 40 years, until we get off of it.

Mankind's been carried to this point; all of our technology -- all of our development -- everything -- it's been perfect. This concentrated energy has been a gift to carry us to this very moment. And this very moment has given us the technology that we need to leave those fossil fuels behind. And now is the time we're either going to move into our future, which is our legacy, which is our destiny, which has been offered to us with some grace and some willful insight; or, we're going to be dragged kicking and screaming, but we're going this way. We are at peak oil; we are peak energy. That's why we have the Deep Water Horizon; that's why we're having the accidents that we're having; that's why we're having hydrofracking; that's why we're even entertaining the idea of pouring hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic waste into our ground is because we've gotten to a point where our energy is waning.

At the very same moment, we have the technology to leave it behind. The unfortunate part about America is that we've been led by our noses from the energy company. We see it in our subsidies that we're paying them; we see it in their enormous profits; we see it in the wars that are being carried out throughout the world; we see it in the cost of our military protecting these energy investments. And so, there's an enormous amount of money and power concentrated into this one sector of the American economic scene that is dictating that we stay in the fossil age. The rest of the world is leaving us behind.

And it's happening. People are waking up. I was just talking to a farmer here today. He put solar panels in in New York State. It's not exactly the mecca of solar energy that anyone would believe. He put solar panels on his barn in August. For two months, he dipped into the negative; now he's 2,000 kilowatts above. He's blown it away. He's so far in the green right now, and he's telling the farmers around him who are saying he was an idiot, and now they're thinking about solar. It can be done. It's happening all over the place.

It's happening. California's doing it. California's really moving ahead on energy. They're making this happen. They have a model that's actually working there. And New York has a chance to do it, too, and we have a governor who actually happens to be an incredibly ambitious man, and if someone could crack this nut -- if someone could create an economy that's tied to a green energy manufacturing implementation with a whole reworking and reinvigoration of the way we deliver this energy, that is a multi-billion-dollar economy that's sustainable, that's local, that will change the face of this nation.

All of the money -- all of the untold taxes that we pay for our energy -- if we knew what we really paid for a gallon of gas, we would be appalled. I'm sure it's up to $30 a gallon. When you look at the wars, you look at the security, you look at the subsidies -- you back all of that into what we're paying for our energy here -- then solar, wind, geothermal, wave and hydro begin to look like a serious, serious alternatives, and I'm telling you, it's only a matter of time 'til the well dam breaks on this. It's happening all around us.

SA: So, you're talking about so many essential things -- farming; your commitment to fight fracking and to push for regulations; scientific studies to stop unsafe gas drilling. You're talking about the green economy, and that we're at peak oil, and that it's essential, again, that we move in that direction.

Can you share with us what it's like here in Callicoon, New York, in the Catskills, in upstate New York, what your home is like? -- why where you live is moving you forward in your message and in being a part of this movement to say, "We can't destroy our water; we have to stop fracking; we cannot move in this direction, and here's why."

MR: This is America. This place is essentially America at its best, I think. The people, the unspoiled beauty; the ability for us to take from our land to feed ourselves. In this particular place, we happen to have everything that we need to live the American dream -- to be happy, to be able to sustain ourselves. It's possible here. And we're two hours from one of the biggest, greatest cities in the world that will pay anything for good food and good drink. It just is a place that has everything that we could possibly want or need for what I think would be as close to some sort of utopia. It has all the promise, I think. We have water; we have people; we have people who aren't afraid to work, who work very hard, who care. We have land; we have vital land. We have beautiful clean skies; we have mountains; we have farms that are already functioning here.

I've been here for 15 years and I've seen this place grow, and I've seen it wake up in a way, and all the elements are in place here. We have the people to facilitate wind power generation -- a community-based wind power generation. We have the people to facilitate organic sustainable farming. We have people who are creating value-added products from their farms. We have people who are savvy enough with social media to create social media movements that actually bring about legislative change, that bring about political change. We have great lawyers. We have the artisans here who are making their own scene of their own art, important art. It's this incredible melting pot, and everyone -- I think for the most part -- forward-leaning people -- people who still believe there's something great and that believe in community, and they believe that we're on the edge of something fantastic, something magical.

There's a movement to try and attain that. There's energy to do it. And I see that happening here. I see it happening everywhere. You know, I see it happening throughout the world. When you topple a 7,000-year-old power structure like they have in Egypt, that's a leaderless movement; that's a movement that comes out of the collective consciousness of the people, of the community, and why they put themselves at risk -- why they exert that amount of energy -- is because they see something better. They believe in something better for themselves and for their children. And it's under that same belief, under those same principles, under that same vision, that I move forward in the world ... and that all of these people move forward in the world, you know? -- that all these people are here tonight. It's tangible. It's doable. We're fortunately at a place where we can realize these dreams.

To find out more about Farmhearts, visit www.farmhearts.org. You can listen to the entire audio interview with Mark Ruffalo at Trailer Talk's Frack Talk Marcellus Shale Water Project

Sabrina Artel is the creator and host of Trailer Talk, a weekly radio show that engages the community through conversations about culture, politics, the arts and the environment. To find out more about Trailer Talk's Frack Talk Marcellus Shale Water Project visit Trailer Talk.
 
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