I have a party to tell you about. It will include pizza and a movie screening and dancing, yes.
And it will also be part of the statewide, national and global movement to ban fracking.
By now you’ve probably heard of fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing — a process of drilling deep into the earth’s surface and then sending millions of gallons of high-pressured water, sand and chemicals into the well to crack the underground rock formations and release petroleum and natural gas.
Currently the largest harvest from fracking is shale gas, recoverable reserves of which the U.S. Department of Energy estimates could total around 1.8 trillion barrels — a potentially staggering amount of energy that could help to contribute to U.S. energy independence and boost the economy for decades. That is the argument made by fracking advocates.
Those of us who have neither seen nor felt the direct impact of fracking likely have little concept of the sheer magnitude of the practice or the viscerally destructive, devastating quality of it. Fracking requires a mind-boggling volume of water — each well uses some three million gallons and may be refractured several times — and wells bore thousands of feet horizontally and vertically through the surface of the earth. Forests and public lands are cleared for drilling sites, trucks bearing heavy equipment and toxic waste trundle in and out of communities, and wastewater leaks into open pits. This large-scale production happens within hundreds of feet of schools, parks, reservoirs and homes throughout the United States, with nearly 500,000 wells in total nationwide.
Hydraulic fracturing has been practiced for decades, but new technological advancements to tap hard-to-reach shale reserves have increased the fracking frenzy in the past decade. In California, an epicenter of fracking is the Monterey Shale oil reserve in the Central Valley, where oil wells coexist with our most fertile agricultural lands. In Colorado, where a friend of mine helped to lead an unprecedented citizens’ vote to ban fracking in the town of Longmont, tensions are high as the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, backed by the state of Colorado, engages in a distinctly lopsided political battle to access the gas and oil under Longmont.
There have been numerous citizen reports of air contamination through methane leaks, failures in the cement walls that isolate gas wells from water sources (leading in several cases to house explosions when gas leaked into tap water) and residents near fracking sites experiencing water contamination so great that they are literally able to light their tap water on fire. For the most part, however, these reports have gone unproven as the multibillion-dollar energy industry — ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute included — continue to insist that there are no contamination risks associated with fracking. At the same time, companies have sealed the details of suspected contamination cases from public review by privately settling lawsuits with landowners and plaintiffs.
So, about that party.
Organized by Underneath Us Performance Project, the anti-fracking party happens tonight in Oakland to serve as a conversation-starter. The gathering features pizza and discussion from 6:30 to 8 p.m., followed by a screening of Dear Governor Cuomo, a film that documents a protest concert organized to convince Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking in the state of New York.
It was this film that originally inspired party organizer Jote Mahern to do something about fracking. “Fracking is an issue that encompasses land and water and air, so it threatens basically everything,” she said. “The film moved me to tears over and over.”
Mahern and co-organizer Utam Moses are interested in a model of movement-building that acknowledges the intensity of emotion that political and environmental issues can often elicit in people. Their aim is to include somatic and emotional exercises into their events, to interrupt what Mahern calls “negative feedback loops” that keep people too overwhelmed to act.
“First there’s outrage at learning about fracking,” Mahern said, “then determination to do something, then the feeling of overwhelm at the sheer magnitude of the problem, then folding back into normal life until you become re-outraged and re-overwhelmed. A lot of people shy away from the environmental movement completely because they don’t want to feel the intensity of the emotions or have their day derailed. So we’re trying to engage in pleasurable activities like performances and dance parties and connect to the element of celebration, too.”
Mahern and Moses first met through Kundalini yoga, which they say has a particular focus on the nervous system. Both also come from backgrounds in contact improv, theater and expressive arts, so combining all of those elements into a performance-based social change movement is the focus of their performance project, Underneath Us.
“We found that the basics of the [intentional movement] practices were extremely effective in changing spaces really quickly,” Moses said, “so we integrated that into our contact improv and theater practices.”
Along with tonight’s party, Underneath Us plans to host two experimental theater salons about fracking in July, both in Berkeley, that will each entail interactive installation pieces and audience participation. They are also hoping to organize more film screenings and informational house parties throughout the summer and will be participating in a Dear Governor Cuomo-like “festival of resistance” at Richmond’s Chevron Refinery in August.
Each of the upcoming events, naturally, will conclude with a good dance party. Tonight’s party will feature live sets by local groove-friendly musicians Meg Anderson and Moko Salados, among others. It’s the practice of using physical movement to build a sustainable political movement.
Underneath Us is also hosting experimental theater salons on July 5 and July 13, and welcome involvement from anyone who wants to host a party or film screening and/or participate as a performer in the salons. They are also looking for dancers to join them at the protest at the Chevron Refinery on August 3.
For more information, visit underneathus.org or contact email@example.com.
Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.