Promised Land, a new film co-written by and starring Matt Damon, comes out on Dec. 28. Do as you like, but based on what I know, I will not be rushing out to see it.
The subject of Promised Land is the potential damage of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on a small Pennsylvania town. An unbiased treatment of this subject would contribute to the nation's understanding of hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique whose recent technological advances have transformed America's energy future. Such an unbiased consideration would reflect the fact that of the 50,000 oil and gas wells that have been drilled using the technique, none has resulted in significant groundwater pollution. Nor is there evidence of adverse effects of air pollution on humans or animals living in the vicinity of fracking operations (just the sort of damage that apparently plays a central role in this film).
There is, however, incontrovertible evidence that fracking has the potential to transform America into the world's largest energy-producer. That evidence was the basis of the International Energy Agency's recent projection that the U.S. would surpass Saudi Arabia in oil and gas production by 2020 and achieve energy-independence by 2035. Maybe that is why, according to credible reports, Promised Land has been partly funded by Abu Dhabi, a major exporter of natural gas.
Could it be that the desert sheiks want to turn American public opinion against fracking so as to ensure their own influence over the gas market? Abu Dhabi, after all, controls an estimated at 9.4% of the world's total gas reserves. How much more valuable will those reserves be if America turns its back on fracking and fails to develop its own energy resources?
Middle Eastern oil and gas producers aren't the only ones behind Promised Land. There has been plenty of interest from environmental groups. As the Huffington Post reported in April, environmentalists have become absolutely "giddy" over the film project. Then there is Hollywood itself, never shy about taking on causes it doesn't understand, especially if those causes are fashionably correct and profitable.
Unfortunately, the left never gives up its animus toward Big Oil, and Hollywood never foregoes the opportunity to make a buck by pandering to the biases of fear-mongering liberals. The China Syndrome was a box-office hit 33 years ago, raking in more than $50 million (in 1979 dollars) while simultaneously doing great harm to the American nuclear industry. Since 1979, not a single new nuclear plant has been constructed.
The freezing of nuclear power did enormous damage to America's economy by forestalling development of a reliable and efficient form of energy. It would appear that Promised Land seeks to do the same for oil and gas development. The film's plotline simplistically contrasts two futures for the rural town it depicts, and by extension for America as a whole. One is the continuation of the status quo: a slow-growth future of high unemployment, dysfunctional schools, and zero wage growth. The other is the future promised by oil and gas leasing agents Steve Butler and Sue Thomason (portrayed by Damon and Frances McDormand): newfound wealth for local landowners, increased revenue for government, energy-independence, and prosperity for all.
While the straw-men leasing agents in Promised Land make some of these points, they are dismissed by the avuncular schoolteacher Frank Yates (played by Hal Holbrook). With insufferable self-righteousness, Yates lectures the leasing agent played by Damon on just how harmful fracking is. That "harm," of course, is sheer myth, but it is a myth so familiar that any third-grader can recite it. (In most public schools, they are required to.) It is the myth that nature in its primeval state is idyllic and that it is human industry and development that have disrupted the natural balance.
If humans would only leave things alone and stop producing more stuff, the earth would heal and return to the happy state it enjoyed before the rise of homo sapiens. It is the building of more homes, factories, and offices, and the production of more energy to run them, that is evil. Leave us to subsistence farming and genteel poverty -- the kind that exists in the village portrayed in Promised Land -- and all will be well. Better yet, rid the earth of its human pests and return it to primeval forest. Schoolteacher Yates is an old man, and he is wise in the ways of the earth and anti-capitalism.
It would appear that Promised Land as a whole is little more than an all too familiar type of "thesis film." Variety called it "a somewhat dubious drama" that "uses a familiar story arc." Familiar indeed, and, as Variety goes on to say, "inauthentic."
It seems that the film's producers have already made up their minds on fracking. So too, it seems, has Josh Fox, the creator of Gasland, another film examining the practice of hydraulic fracturing. Reportedly, Fox stated that the purported problems associated with fracking -- none of which has been documented -- "can't be solved." Think of it: no matter what technological improvements are made, fracking will never be acceptable -- not because it is harmful, not because it is dangerous, but because it will not.
Perhaps that sort of blanket dismissal of technological development is what makes films like Promised Land so familiar. For the left, fracking is evil because it is the latest manifestation of what William Blake called the "dark Satanic Mills." Granted, the industrial mills of Blake's time were rather dark and satanic, but they were also an integral part of the industrial revolution that raised real living standards by 800% in Britain during the 19th century and that went on to raise per-capita GDP by 1,000% in the U.S. in the 20th century. There is every indication that fracking will contribute to that advance in human well-being. Imagine Americans in 2112 living ten times better than we do today. That is the real promise of fracking and other new technologies.
And that is the reason why fracking has become an object of attack. For the left, the real threat of fracking is that it creates wealth that flows into the economy and strengthens the middle class, making it less likely that America will become a socialist state. National prosperity is the last thing the left wants, because prosperity stands in the way of collectivism.
What the left will never admit is that American energy-independence really is the "promised land." Those familiar with biblical history know that the alternative to the promised land is slavery. And slavery is what the left has in mind for the American people.
Dr. Jeffrey Folks has published many books and articles on American culture, including his recent book, Heartland of the Imagination (2011).