Chapter 6: Natural Resources and Social Change

In Chapter 6, “Natural Resources and Social Change,” we review how land and landscapes have had a major impact on the rural economy. Natural resources in rural areas affect, and are directly affected by, economic activities, community structure, and community mobilization. This chapter focuses on some of rural America’s traditional extractive resources such as oil, gas, and minerals, as well as the iconography of rural spaces being marketed for amenity-related production. New sorts of resource extraction are also becoming more prevalent in rural spaces, especially “green” technologies such as wind, biofuels, and solar power. This chapter unpacks the social implications for such resource extraction, outlining the process of boomtowns and bust cycles. Aside from reviewing the conflicts associated with natural resource development, this chapter discusses the great uncertainty regarding the ways in which natural resources and the environment shape the social, political, and economic structures of rural communities.

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Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

1. This chapter details how natural amenities have become a basis for economic and population growth in some rural areas. How might a rural community take advantage of its natural environment to encourage development? What are the pros and cons of a development strategy based on exploiting the natural environment?

2. Various states have supported the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas while other states have prohibited this practice. What are the social, economic, and environmental arguments for and against fracking? Which arguments do you find most compelling? Why?

3. Rural areas will be the sites of production of most forms of green and renewable energy. What are the various types of green and renewable energy? Which forms do you think have the greatest promise for replacing carbon-based fuels? Why? What are the social and economic implications of green and renewable energy development for rural people and communities?

4. In almost every instance, the development and extraction of natural resources involves some degree of conflict over the control of resources, the rights of local communities and residents, and private interest vs. public good. What are the impacts of natural resource exploitation on rural communities? In what ways can natural resource exploitation lead to social exploitation?

5. One of the headings in this chapter is “Resource Extraction as a Social Process.” In what ways can we consider resource extraction a “social process”?


1. Unpacking Environmental Racism. In this chapter, environmental racism is defined as “the disproportionate exposure of ethnic and racial minority groups to environmental hazards in comparison to more socially and economically privileged groups,” (p. 136). Develop a research strategy to empirically examine the presence and extent of environmental racism in the community where your school/college is located.

2. Debating Hydraulic Fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is an extremely controversial practice for extracting natural gas. Well-entrenched groups have marshalled compelling arguments as to fracking’s social, economic, and environmental costs and benefits. Divide the class into two debate teams, one supporting fracking and the other opposing it. Have the teams research their respective positions and articulate the pros and cons in the form of a 2-page issue brief. If time permits, have representatives of the two teams debate this issue in class.

3. Discursive Framing of Energy Development. We often refer to the ways in which social phenomena are talked about by particular interest groups as “discursive framing.” This refers to the ways in which particular language, symbols, and imagery are used to shape perceptions of phenomena and shape public attitudes and beliefs. Examining in particular the discursive framing around hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, used for unconventional oil and gas extraction, analyze the websites of pro-oil and gas industry groups and anti-fracking groups. What are the positions of each group? What are the language, symbols, and imagery used by each to discuss and describe unconventional oil and gas extraction?

For pro-industry groups you may consider:
The Marcellus Shale Coalition
American Clean Skies Foundation
Center for Responsible Shale Development

For anti-fracking groups you may consider:
Americans Against Fracking
Pennsylvanians Against Fracking
Frack Free Colorado

4. Local Control, Land Use, & American Indian Sovereignty. Conflicts over energy and natural resource development have recently clashed with issues regarding tribal sovereignty and who controls public and tribal lands. Examples include the demonstrations at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline, the move to privatize and develop Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, and the impacts of the development of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota on the residents of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Identify at least five popular press articles (e.g., magazine, newspaper) on these or related conflicts regarding energy development and tribal lands, people, and/or sovereignty. What are the core issues associated with the conflicts? Who are the major actors in the conflict? What are the positions taken and what does this conflict tell us about how land use decisions are made when energy and tribal interests are at stake?
Bonus Activity: Take your research further. How are these issues similar and/or different from other land use and sovereignty disputes, like the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the secessionist State of Jefferson movement, as described in Chapter 3?