What does it look like when fracking comes to town? For folks in poor rural areas, parts of Trump Country before we had Trump Country, fracking can mean opportunity, wealth, and autonomy for some, destruction and ruin for others.
Journalist Eliza Griswold tells a story that begins in the Niger delta and brings her to the doorstep of a family farm in southwest Pennsylvania in the midst of the energy boom. There, in the towns of Amity and Prosperity, she learns about the intimate and complex reasons why people chose to bring fracking to their town, and the crisis they face when mysterious illnesses begin to appear.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: This is Trump Country. I've been out there for seven years so I've been out there long before journalists came looking for Trump voters and I've watched it.
CHRIS HAYES: Did you watch like... Did you actually? Is that a thing that happened?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Oh.
CHRIS HAYES: Like you say journalists start to come in looking for Trump voters?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Oh my gosh, my Hilton Garden Inn where literally I've spent seven years being like, I am the only person in this hotel, like maybe an oil and gas executive. Suddenly, it's overrun but what I saw back when I was just starting to understand these tectonic plates, I saw a level of hostility and rage at urban America at the urban elite that surprised me.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. So there's this genre of reporting that I think is probably pretty familiar to you and the term I use to think about it and I cannot remember for the life of me whether this is my creation of someone else so let me know on Twitter or email the origin of it. It's a genre of reporting I call "Trump pastoral" and Trump pastoral is this genre of reporting in which the reporter goes to quote-unquote Trump country. It might be in Youngstown, Ohio, it can be in Appalachia, it can be in Wisconsin, even north of Minnesota, the places where Trump over performed, places that have a lot of what pollsters call white, non-college. That's white voters without a college degree and talks to them about their lives and their perspective and how Trump captured their frustrations on we discussed et cetera and it's like a very over determined genre. You can, as I'm telling you this right now, you can conjure in your head all the tropes of that kind of reporting.
And there's a lot of things that are frustrating about this and one of the things that are frustrating is that in some ways it's kind of represents a media effort in a time when media's consolidated into large metropolitan areas more and more because the media ecosystem in local areas has been eviscerated. So you got reporters concentrated in big cities more and more, not because reporters are bad people or liberal elitists but because the economics of local reporting has been devastated and so that's where the media jobs are in big sort of national publications and it represents the Trump Pastoral effort and sometimes they're really well intentioned effort sort of get out of the bubble and go into Trump Country and talk to real people, et cetera, but there's always something so kind of transactional and over determined about the whole thing.
And you get the sense that it feels like a thesis in search of a few supporting quotes, you know? I've been a reporter for a long time and there's a kind of story you read a lot where you don't get the sense that the reporter is building off of what they found to make a point or to tell you a story but rather had a story in mind and they're going out to get the quotes that will then make the story work. The person I'm talking to today is the opposite of all that. She is just a phenomenal reporter. I've known her for years. Her name's Eliza Griswold and she wrote this incredible book called "The Tenth Parallel," which was about the kind of clash between Islam and Christianity and Muslims and Christians at different places along the tenth parallel around the world and she's an unbelievably courageous and intrepid reporter, has reported from some of the most dangerous places on Earth, was a foreign reporter for years in war zones risking very literally life or limb and is an incredible observer and thinker and writer.
And after she spent all this time abroad, she came back to the United States and she spent seven years in southwestern Pennsylvania in Trump country. Now she started before people called it Trump country, before Donald Trump was even a glimmer of an idea of a political figure because she reported this for so long and what she did was she went on the ground in southwestern Pennsylvania to report about a story about a woman and fracking in southwestern Pennsylvania. And what that fracking did to this woman's life, to her kid's life, to her neighbor's life, to the community she lived in and the two towns right near each other that are called, poetically enough, Amity and Prosperity. And what's so remarkable about this tale is that in many ways it turns a lot of the tropes of Trump pastoral on its head and in many ways it reinforces a lot of those tropes but what it is, is a story told at the granular, ground level unconstrained by the preconceptions of seeking out some political point about what it looks like to live in America in the 21st century in places that are poor, in places where money rushes in, in places where the business of fossil fuel extraction that powers modern life happens day to day and what it looks like and smells like to live in the midst of that.
It's a story about what America is right now, that is so much deeper than a day or two spent talking to Trump voters and it's a story I think everybody needs to hear to understand where we are as a country and where we are headed.
So you were a foreign kind of war correspondent. You wrote this incredible book about these regions in the country where sort of like the access of conflict between Islam and Christianity, what made you wanna come home and write about America?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: So this book was actually born in Nigeria. I was trying to get across a river in northern Nigeria some years ago while reporting the tenth parallel and the bridge had collapsed over the river and I was doing what we do as journalists, which is ride an empty oil barrel across the river because I had to get to the town on the other side.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, I do that all the time too just for everyone listening to this podcast because it's what you do as a journalist like Chris Hayes who is as intrepid as Eliza Griswold.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Who is a badass in many, many ways. A father of three really, come on.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: That's impressive. So okay, so I was headed across this river and it was maybe two weeks after I35W had collapsed, that bridge in Minneapolis. And 13 people had been killed and it was rattling around in my head for a long time that the same social ills that were plaguing the rest of the world were happening here in America too and it was really time to come back and take a look at them.
CHRIS HAYES: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
ELIZA GRISWOLD: And what I wanted to do, I actually wanted to write about infrastructure like how does crumbling infrastructure realize our collective poverty and statistically there were the most crumbling bridges in America in western Pennsylvania, around Pittsburgh. So I set myself out there and I like hard hat, flashing vest, looking at I-beams with engineers being like, "How am I gonna tell this story of these bridges? How does this tell the story of our lifeline systems?" And these engineers were very patient with me but it was pretty obvious that I did not know an I-beam from any other piece of bridges anatomy. So I was also actually looking at locks and levies because there's so much crumbling infrastructure in America that is so important and these levies in Pittsburgh are more than a hundred years old and they collapse all the time, they flood towns and I was working with an army corps of engineers, which has a really good reputation in Pittsburgh as opposed to New Orleans, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: So a biologist with the army corps of engineers asked me one day if I wanted to drive with her from Pittsburgh down to Morgantown, West Virginia — it's about an hour — to attend a meeting of people who lived in a watershed where oil and gas operations had really been disrupting them. And we headed down to the Morgantown Airport because in a lot of these little communities there is no public space to meet, it's part of this public poverty.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: So they'd taken over the airport for the day and...
CHRIS HAYES: The meeting was in the airport?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: In the departures lounge.
CHRIS HAYES: Really?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yes, that was their makeshift press conference. Yeah. I mean, all the time, a few days ago on book tour, I was in a place called the Strawberry Center in this little town of Washington and in addition to being an event space and really the only event space in town, it's a center for trans youth who get kicked out of their homes. Like when they built the center they built showers there so that kids who get kicked out of home for being gay or trans have somewhere to stay because there isn't. In so many of these communities, it's just private home, private home.
CHRIS HAYES: No public space. So they're having a meeting in the Morgantown Airport?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yep.
CHRIS HAYES: You have now come from the Niger Delta where you're doing this incredible reporting. By the way, I just wanna just say for people who don't know your work who are listening to this, you're standing in front of me, you're not like a physically intimidating person.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: You wanna go? You wanna go?
CHRIS HAYES: No, I don't actually because I do not. I just wanna say you are a person who has tremendous courage and incredibly intrepid, has been in unbelievably dangerous situations and just a testament to you as a professional but the trajectory of going from the Delta to thinking about infrastructure to being, "I'm gonna do something really cool about bridges and I-beams and levies." And then you get driven down and there's this meeting that's happening in Morgantown in the only public space they could find was the airport about what?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: About water, about what was happening to the collective water, to the commonwealth, to the rivers and the streams as well as to private drinking water. And I was sitting in this crowd and a few rows ahead of me there was a girl who was maybe 11 years old. She was wearing her pajamas, she was incredibly grouchy, complaining to her mother that she was hungry. Her mother was scolding her for not eating breakfast. I reached into my bag and grabbed some disgusting organic cardboard bar that I always carry and offered it to her and she met it with appropriate pre-teen disdain and then the mom got up and she was addressing the crowd and her name was Stacey Haney. And she's a single mom, she's a nurse, she's lived on the same family farm for more than a century. She's now since abandoned the farm but back then she knew that here kids were sick and she was sick and she had done some testing because she worked at the hospital. She knew that they had benzine and toluene in their bodies.
Her son had been diagnosed with arsenic poisoning and she had discovered about a quarter of a mile from their house, there was a massive industrial waste pond and she didn't know much else about what was going on but she suspected whatever was happening in that pond and up at that gas site was impacting her and her children.
CHRIS HAYES: She's the protagonist.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Of this book, "Amity and Prosperity," which is set in these twin towns, Amity and Prosperity in southwestern Pennsylvania. Before we talk about her story and about what happens when fracking comes to town, which is the trajectory here, one thing that I thought was really interesting about the book is just setting the baseline in this place and actually this comes back to being really relevant in the court cases, which is just decades and decades of fossil fuel extraction and chemicals and people pulling stuff from the ground. Like when the shale boom happens, it's just a new iteration of something that has been happening for a hundred years in this region.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Absolutely. And that's what I found as a reporter most interesting. I mean, so for me, this book is really about how over centuries, rural Americans have paid for the energy appetites of urban Americans, like, how has that happened? But to outsiders, we would come in and be like, "Oh, how can you sign that gas lease?" And people were like, "Screw you, we've been signing these leases for more than a century. This one actually promises to give us something. Coal mines have come under us and taken our water for a hundred years and we've gotten nothing in return." So the shale boom for people living there actually promised to bring some wealth back and for many of them that's why they signed these leases.
CHRIS HAYES: And the shale boom, fracking is this intense political issue and I have to say that this book crystallized it in a lot of ways. I've covered it and I know about it and there's something about the story of what happens to this one family that makes it concrete in a way that I think a lot of the statistics and even the stories haven't. Just the focus, I mean, you spent how long reporting?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Seven years.
CHRIS HAYES: Seven years.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Seven fricking years, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Why? Why did you do that?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Because that's what it took to do it right, being with this family over this period of time. When I first met Stacey at the airport, I went up to her after she talked, I asked if I could come out to her house. I didn't know what I was gonna do. The only reason she really said yes to me was because I didn't have a daily deadline. I didn't have an agenda. I was just like, "Can I come out? I'm a reporter but I don't know what I would even do with this story." So that made me a lot less threatening. She, at the time, was worried that the gas company if she spoke out publicly, if it was covered, the gas company at the time was supplying her water and she was afraid that they would retaliate and take her water away. So for that reason I was a safe person to talk to.
CHRIS HAYES: I just wanna say that itself is such a story about the importance of this kind of journalism, which there's increasingly a hard to find a market or support for, just going to talk to someone and being around their lives and not having like, "I'm gonna blow up your spot tonight at 8PM," which would be my ... Right? Like if we called her, she's not going to talk to us because we're on national television at 8 and she can't. But being able to do that is so important.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: It's not just that. I mean, one of the things that has been so startling to me has been that over the seven years that I've been there, the local paper, the Observer Reporter, this year alone has lost a million dollars in ad revenue. It has almost no local reporting, it can't afford it anymore. They do have paid content from the oil and gas companies and when local people read the paper, they're like, "What is this? Why is the paper... This reporting is junk." Because they don't understand what paid content is so this gutting of public systems, whether it's the crap bridges or the roads that are pocked from hundreds of trucks going over them every day, human health, all of these aspects are just eating away at what is the commonwealth in this area? And talking about press coverage, it's exactly one of those things 'cause it's a matter of money.
This is expensive kind of reporting to do. I paid for it by sleeping on my friend's floor in Pittsburgh over many years doing other reporting, not being able to be there all the time 'cause I would do other magazine work to cover it. Driving our crap car down six hours with an infant in the back seat and having the privilege to do that because I didn't need to put a monetary value on it right from the start.
CHRIS HAYES: So you've got an area that's used to fossil fuel extraction. It's been the story of that place and there's a great riff about how the fossil fuel got there, the dinosaurs dying and forming this layer and then fracking comes to town and there's a little bit of a rush towards these leases. She signs a lease, her neighbors sign a lease, everyone signs a lease and it is just so classic, it's like classic Greek tragedy or Faust, right? Like you know there's a scene where they're signing a lease and she and the neighbor are looking at each other like, "I feel something uneasy." It's like, "Oh God, you know what's gonna happen here." What happens?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Well, what...
CHRIS HAYES: Oh, god, you know what's going to happen here. What happens?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Well, what happens is, so she signs that lease for a couple of very specific reasons. She signs that lease because she believes... First of all, she wants to build a dream barn. It's going to nine grand, and for the lease she'll get about $8,000. She also signs it because she believes it's her patriotic duty. He dad is a Vietnam combat vet, and she wants to keep American soldiers out of harm's way and out of foreign entanglements over oil. So American energy independence, returning industry to Appalachia. Her dad is also an out-of-work steel worker. All of these things go into her signing that lease.
She sees it as her role as an American to do it, and what happens over time ... She doesn't think she's going to get ridiculously rich. She thinks she's going to build this barn for these goats and some pigs, and what happens is just the opposite. It costs her everything. I mean, it costs her in the form of her kids' health, which is the most important issue to her. For more than a year, she is distraught because her son, this very charismatic, basketball-playing, adorable young boy, won't get off the couch. She's never known him like that, and she cannot figure out what's wrong with him. This is long before she even understands what's going on up the hill.
Trucks start passing their house. More than 200 a day, because the neighbor is counting them. They're diesel trucks. They're coming by 35 feet from the house itself because the house sits very close to the edge. At that time, the road was unpaved. Those trucks are kicking up dust that's laden with diesel particulate matter. The kids are coughing. She's coughing. The goats are coughing.
The book begins and ends around the county fair because the idea of animals, of having farm animals is part of this rural identity that they really hold onto. This is why we are here, to have animals. And they love their animals crazy amounts. They talk about them like they're family members. So they're afraid that these goats are going to cough so much that they're not going to make weight for the fair, they're not going to weigh enough, and that turns out to be true.
That coughing is just the beginning of what become a series of health problems. As I said, Harley gets arsenic poisoning, and the kids have other pieces of gas-related chemicals in their bodies.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, it's a nightmare. It's like a horror movie. It's like a horror movie that where some secret, unseen force enters into your life and begins to twist it in these increasingly grotesque directions, and you can't figure out what the unseen force is.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: It's a horror movie because they can't tell... Stacey is smart as hell, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, that's very clear in the book.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: And she's also... she's suspicious of anybody with any kind of ax to grind, which is another reason... This area, the people in Amity and Prosperity do not like outsiders. They do not like people with a political agenda, especially if those people are coming from urban America with a liberal political agenda. She was not looking to be an activist in any way, so she overlooked a lot of things at first thinking this couldn't possibly be the problem. And she thought with the truck traffic... The roads get torn up pretty badly. She gets nine flat tires, she breaks an axle, and the company paid her for some of these problems.
And all of this, she's like, "This is the price of doing business." And that's a phrase one hears a lot. There's a joke people around Amity and Prosperity make a lot about the smell of a pig farm, which really reeks so god-awfully. And when you smell that smell, a pig farmer will say, "Smells like money to me." And there is that transactional nature.
CHRIS HAYES: Totally.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: On top of that, though, there's also this understanding that with progress comes a cost, and people love talking about what it was like in Washington, which is the big near town, which is it's... This is all located in Washington County, and the name of the nearby town is Washington. That's the county seat. When their curtains were black in Washington from coal soot and from steel mills, that was an era of prosperity. So there is this —
CHRIS HAYES: That's the bargain.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: That's it.
CHRIS HAYES: The bargain is extractive industry that produces externalities that everyone's going to live with.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: That's exactly right.
CHRIS HAYES: The smell, the coughing, the soot, whatever. And in exchange, the deal is some source of revenue, livelihood, economic dynamism.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: That is exactly right. That is exactly how it goes, that there is an acceptance of this company's going to come in, they're going to privatize profit, they're going to socialize cost, they're going to put those negative externalities onto us, and we're going to deal with it because we are going to have jobs, and that's going to be okay. And I think what's happened is the scale of industry just, it dwarfed anything they'd ever experienced before.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that... I've found this when I've talked to fracking folks in other reporting, is the trucks. It's the biggest first thing that everyone starts to... There's all this stuff about, in "Gasland," there's the lighting the faucet, but before you even get to any of that, it just like, it takes so much water. The only way to get the water to and from is trucks, so the...
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Trucks and pipelines, temporary pipelines that both bring freshwater and also wastewater that often crack and leak. That happened in the course of this reporting, leaking toxic chemicals into fields and into streams. You asked why this book took so long. Because I —
CHRIS HAYES: I didn't say it like that. I wasn't like, "Come on…"
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Come on, so okay. But why did this book take seven years? It took seven years because fracking has become a political football. Depending on where people sit on either side of the aisle, you know what they're going to say about it, and I did not want this book to be that. I want it to be the opposite. I want it to be so carefully reported, reported from the sides of people who loved fracking, who were supportive of the industry and who didn't like it, but just constantly returning to the facts of the land and the very practical...
I mean, fracking, part of the reason it's such a hot button word is that people see fracking as the two-week period of... The oil and gas industry, when they talk about fracking, they're talking about this tiny period of time after the actual drilling happens when they're actually stimulating the well and getting the oil and gas up out of the well. That's fracking.What we need to do is restore a systemic understanding of what fracking is. It's putting an industrial site, in this case, a few hundred feet from somebody's home. And the industrial site is as much problem... It's actually more of a problem than the actual fracking itself.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, it's the waste pond here that goes septic at some point, and it's off gassing some gas I hadn't heard of.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Hydrogen sulfide.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. That phrase, they've got this wastewater site they've built on the farm, and then the water's just sitting there, and it "goes septic." It's the grossest fucking thing I could imagine.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Mm-hmm. It's —
CHRIS HAYES: And that has nothing to do, just to be clear, that's not the thing being released by the fracking.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: No, no.
CHRIS HAYES: That's the wastewater's come out, and that's just sitting there as a kind of part of the process.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Mm-hmm. Because what happens is that the power goes off. So what they are doing in that pond is they are running aerators, which actually spew the chemicals up into the air, so suddenly these volatile chemicals are airborne, and then the power goes off, and the aerators can't work. And when the pond doesn't get significant oxygen, it starts to rot like a wound. It's infected, and it's —
CHRIS HAYES: That's the line they talk about like, "It smells like a wound everywhere all of sudden."
ELIZA GRISWOLD: It's bad. It's bad, and it's a hydrogen sulfide outbreak, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: So this stuff is happening... Pause for a second about... because I want to start getting to this story about what happens and how she kind of starts to fight it, but talk to me about the politics for a second.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Okay.
CHRIS HAYES: Because the book is not a political book at all. Scrupulously not. But talk about what the kind of political posture of the people is down there.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Sure. Sure, okay. This is Trump country. Washington County voted for Trump by a margin of three to two. I've been out there for seven years, so I've been out there long before journalists came looking for Trump voters, and I watched-
CHRIS HAYES: Did you watch actual... Is that a thing that happened? You saw journalists start to come in looking for Trump voters?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Oh, my gosh. My Hilton Garden Inn, where literally I've spent seven years being like, "I am the only person in this hotel, maybe an oil and gas executive," suddenly it's overrun. With the election of Conor Lamb, because this was... my Hilton Garden Inn was all over CNN. Yes. This is suddenly everybody is right there. "What's going on? Let's take the pulse of America here in Washington County." So absolutely.
But what I saw back when I was just starting to understand these tectonic plates, I saw a level of hostility and rage at urban America, at the urban elite that surprised me. For instance, I showed up at a farm in Amity. This wonderful farmer who sadly died in the course of the reporting, really crusty, old guy, and he said to me, "Well, where are you from?" And I knew that New York City was probably not a good answer to that question, but I thought Philadelphia would be a good answer because we were fellow Pennsylvanians.
CHRIS HAYES: You didn't just make that up. You're actually from Philadelphia.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: My family had lived on the same land since before the Revolutionary War. George Washington actually billeted his troops on our land at a place called Camp Woods, so this is —
CHRIS HAYES: Wow.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yeah, this is old school.
CHRIS HAYES: Whoa, I didn't realize.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: But what this farmer said to me when I said, "I live in New York City, but I'm from Philadelphia," he said, "Well, that's two strikes against you." Right?
CHRIS HAYES: Mm-hmm.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Okay, so what is that based on?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, what is that?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: It has a romantic history that dates back to before the Revolutionary War when the Quaker elite of Pennsylvania sent newly-arrived Scots-Irish settlers out to this western frontier. They weren't allowed to own land. They carved their initials into trees establishing by what's called tomahawk rights their right to this land that was Native American land, and they fought bloody battles with the Native Americans on this frontier. The Quaker elite back in Philadelphia gave them no support, derided them widely for what they were doing, and the settlers saw the Quakers, saw the city people as hypocrites. "We are your buffer, and you give us no support, and screw you." They actually marched on Philadelphia at one point, and Ben Franklin actually stopped them and turned them around.
So this divide between east-west is old, and it's fraught, and it really has this element of... It gets worse after the Revolutionary War when we have... In one of his last laudable acts, Alexander Hamilton passes a tax on the whiskey of the western Pennsylvanians, and they rise up, and they launch a rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion. And if you drive down Main Street in Washington, Pennsylvania today, and you peer into the window of Mingo Creek whiskey distillers, you will see Alexander Hamilton's portrait hung upside down. They hate the federal government, and they tie that history... That is a living reality, the federal government is rapacious.
Okay, that's the romantic history. What's the practical political history? For lots of these guys, they struggle to maintain small family farms, and the federal government gets involved with regulation in a way that feels to them deep hypocrisy because what it happens is... A pork farmer who I spent a lot of time with, he's actually the president of the pork association in Washington County, Jason Clark is his name. He says, "Look, here's how this works. I need to give my pig a shot. Costs $100. Why? Because I've got to get the vet to come out and be here every time I give that pig a shot. That's federal regulation. But I get sick, I get hurt on the job, I drive 10 miles up the street to MedExpress, and I get Oxy, and nobody's there. It's more regulation for my pigs because it benefits the government than there is for me."
So these kinds of gaps in how regulation actually works, people suffer under regulation in ways that really baffled me. I had not understood that. I, coming from where I do in urban America, had seen regulation as a benevolent force that kept us all in line.
CHRIS HAYES: It's funny you say that because I think one of the things that happens in city and urban environments is that the mass coordination of that many people side by side requires an extremely high level of regulation as a practical matter. It's a little like... I mean, we're doing a little work on our house right now, and yeah, it's like a red tape... It's crazy the amount of red tape.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Well, you live in Brooklyn. I mean, people are a lot —
CHRIS HAYES: Well, I live in Brooklyn, but it's also like, we're all crowded in next to each other, so it should be a lot of red tape because if I pull a beam out, it's going to screw... There's a subway underneath me. I don't mind. Is it a pain in the ass? Yeah, it's a huge pain in the ass, but this is a funny thing. There's a place that we have up in the country, and I got a summons for a little garbage shed I built. And dude, I went crazy right-wing in my head like, "Who do these people think they are telling me I can't build a garbage shed on my land?" And I just felt it all of a sudden, and part of it was because in the urban environment, I'm thinking about, we're all packed together, we got to kind of keep everything... And up there, it's like, "Well, it's my land. I'll put a garbage shed where I want to put a garbage shed."
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Did you arm yourself? Did you tar and feather the local regulator?
CHRIS HAYES: I did not, but I did... It was the first time I felt that pin prick of that kind of feeling, you know?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yeah. Yup, absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: And particularly because it was in this rural environment in which in my head it was like, "Look, who"... It was a kind of like, "Who cares? Who cares where I put my garbage shed?" Like, "Why does that matter?"
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Absolutely. And I will say, as much as, as an urban American, I have been schooled and humbled by some of the prejudices I carry without knowing by these rural Americans, they have prejudices, too. They assume that urban Americans really hate the country, don't care about the land because we live all packed in. I get all the time, "You live all packed in with people in the city. You obviously don't care about being outside." And we don't see it that way. We see, well, this is the reality, and in fact population density is actually good for the environment in a lot of ways, right?
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: I mean, a lot of what I hope this book does is translate. We have overlooked what rural Americans have to say because it's convenient for us to overlook it. Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: But there's also... Okay, so there's that part of it. There's this urban-rural divide, which by the way, we should just say... We talk about this. When you look at a map, it's the first thing that pops out at you. Look at a map of counties, what do you see? You see huge swaths of rural America is conservative, and all of the cities are liberal. It's one of the biggest —
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yeah. Yes, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: That's also maybe the oldest social or political division in human civilization. You know what I mean?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: That this is a very fundamental human thing, right?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: But what is interesting here is that what it ends up being is the dynamic that you get in the book is, "You the fracking company are not an outsider." They're not seen as outsiders. Like, "You're one of us. We have a deal across the table. Us. Us people. And screw those people that come from outside and the cities and Washington want to tell us what to do." But it's like, the fracking company's not-
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Benevolent.
CHRIS HAYES: And not even like that local. They came to the Marcellus Shale from wherever they were headquartered because that's where the stuff was. And yet, they do culturally pull it off somehow.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: And it's part of their marketing. I mean, it's not an accident that they show up at the county fair and start bidding up the price of 4-H animals. And they bond over an identity that is in many ways constructed. Right? Jeans, and I'm salt of the Earth. And the idea, part of what happened with my spending so much time there, I never... I am a complete outsider. That's just fact. But at the same time, those boundaries blurred. It wasn't like, oh, here comes an outsider for five minutes. Seven years is a long time to be around to watch what's going on there. And I did very much see over years how their behavior at the farms was different. There's one character in the book who is just in there tangentially. Toby Rice is his name, Rice Energy.
CHRIS HAYES: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yeah. And he's the son of a Boston hedge fund manager. Right? But he's out there in his Carhartts.
CHRIS HAYES: Totally.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: You'd never know it.
CHRIS HAYES: The performance of that cultural affinity is extremely clear throughout.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yep.
CHRIS HAYES: Even as the deal that gets made across the table becomes more and more horrific, nightmarish, and macabre. So then the trajectory is like, there's a cause sitting up on the hill, and there's an effect down here. Can we connect them?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Absolutely impossible to connect them.
CHRIS HAYES: That's what's so crazy. It's just like-
ELIZA GRISWOLD: It's so crazy.
CHRIS HAYES: By the way, I just want to say this is a great book that people should go buy. It is punishingly depressing.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Thank you, Chris.
CHRIS HAYES: Just unremittingly.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: And what a hopeful, uplifting message, especially in a time that is so laden with hope. What happens here is tough. What happens here is tough. And I was in Washington, as I said, last week. A couple weeks ago, I was in Washington at the strawberry center. And the sister, Stacy's sister, Shelly, got up to say something. And Shelly is, she's a moonshiner. She keeps wild bees outside. She loves her T-shirt that says, "My kid shot a deer while yours was working to get on the honor roll." She's funny and so smart. And she said, "What has happened to us here happens to people every day, all around the world." So we can't look away. We can't look away. And Obama helped us look away on natural gas, this idea. I know for myself, being like, "Oh, if the Obama administration is so pro fracking, it's got to be okay. It's got to be adequately regulated, or we he would be on it." Not at all.
CHRIS HAYES: In fact, the Obama EPA shows up in this book and not as a hero in any way, shape, or form.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Not at all. I mean, we can and must talk about... In our moment, we must talk about Scott Pruitt and his lotion and his mattresses, and the more egregious crimes that he's committing. We must. At the same time, the gutting of our public welfare and the gutting of the EPA, so predates Pruitt. And we just weren't paying attention. So with Obama, this notion that natural gas was a necessary bridge fuel between dirtier forms of fossil fuel and renewables, we had to go through this era, is a fallacy. You talk to, on Wall Street, energy analysts, they're going to tell you that the fastest growing segments of the energy market are renewables. And that's the hopeful message of the book.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay. But then it's also like, look, part of the thing is that... I want to articulate this in a way so there's a way that people, I think liberals particularly, will talk about Trump country in a way that I find really morally odious. It's like, well, they voted for it and they... It's the H.L. Mencken line, which is, democracy is the theory that people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. And there's a little bit of that. You see that a lot, this impulse. Right?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And I hate that. Right? These are my fellow human beings and my fellow citizens. I want the best for them, whoever they voted for. And we've got to figure out how we can all live together in a way that lifts us all up.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Totally.
CHRIS HAYES: That said, it's also the case that they do go in eyes wide open. What happens there is terrible.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yep.
CHRIS HAYES: But it also doesn't seem to radically alter the consciousness of the area about what's going on.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Not at all.
CHRIS HAYES: It is kind of like, look, this is the deal. We weren't suckered. We get that the spoiling is part of the thing, and this is the deal we made at the table in fracking. And it's the deal we made when we pull the lever.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: That's right.
CHRIS HAYES: We're not rubes here.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: No.
CHRIS HAYES: We're not getting swindled.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: No. And this is what sets fracking apart from previous generations of resource extraction because it's fracturing communities because there is a huge difference in what neighbors believe about fracking. And people who work for the companies will tell me. Listen, you want to know why people feel differently about fracking? Look at the paycheck they're getting. Right? People who make more money are pro this industry. And I think, in particular, of the farmer, Ray Day, who I visited over seven years, a remarkable human being. He's the one who told me, "We do not read The New York Times around here." He also said to me, "You haven't asked me what my job is. You think I'm a farmer. You think that being a farmer would be possible in these days. No. I was a science teacher in a middle school for decades," so he has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars off of fracking on his 300-acre farm that allowed his mom to die at home because he could build her a bathroom on the first floor. She couldn't go up the stairs anymore. Put new roofs on the barn, tractors. He has been able to do what he sees as the greater good, which is, keep his farm going. Right?
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: So it is extremely complicated. And that idea, one of the tragedies, one of the myriad tragedies in this book, thanks Chris for pointing out, is that the idea of the common welfare of the community is destroyed because this is a community that supported one another over time because that's what farmers did anyway. You'd have to harvest. Well, let's all collectively go to so and so's farm today. But then they supported one another through the economic downturn that came with the collapse of the steel industry. So during bust periods, they found common ground because they helped one another. And that's one of the remarkable stories in this piece of Appalachia, is that the women went to work.
Stacy's mom became a housekeeper. Stacy and her sister are nurses because really, the medical — meds and eds they call it — doctors and hospitals and institution. Universities have really saved this area and brought it economic viability again. So you had this idea of community, we in Amity. Was it a bit of a construct? It was. It's not like Amity is one unified thing. People groused at one another over everything. Small country prattle. But this is different. This has really riven people one from the other.
CHRIS HAYES: And basically what happens is the set of people, Stacy and some others, and they find this lawyer couple. They file a suit and they try to basically go to war, legal war, to say, "You've caused this for us." And one of the kind of... Not to spoiler alert, but the kind of dramatic irony here is that the basic conclusion is the place was so despoiled already. It is impossible to divine the cause of what has happened to you.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Bingo. That is exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: It's a really intense. That's literally in the legal ruling is, buddy, I don't know, man. You guys got so many fricking toxins floating around hundreds of years, people pumping chemicals left and right. There's a junk yard over there. I can't help you.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: That's what the judge says, literally. There's no question that some of these actions have been horrific. But in terms of being sure of establishing a causal link here, we can't do it because for a couple reasons. Because there's been so much industrial pollution in this area and because there's no before and after. There's no, they call it a pre drill. But there's no testing that says what was in this water before we came. So how can we be sure these toxins weren't here? And part of that, again, we're going to be back at regulation because in Pennsylvania, private water wells are not regulated. And people like that because regulation is expensive. They don't want somebody coming to peer into their well and saying it's going to cost $300 to have an ultraviolet light to kill bacteria. Nah, they've been drinking it for years. They don't want to pay it. Even on this very basic issue of protecting drinking water, there are complicated positions on it.
CHRIS HAYES: One of the takeaways for me is just this specific... There's another book that's an amazing book called "Killers of the Flower Moon" by David Grann.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Which is a completely different story, except it's set in the heart of a county that depends on fossil fuel extraction. And we did a lot of reporting in coal country for the show. There's something about the particular political economy and the social effects of these places that are centered around fossil fuel extraction that are distinct and really messed up. And I guess part of my takeaway was: What does the universe look like? What's the country look like in a world where we don't have that?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Well, I think one of the reasons this place was so resonant to me is because of so many years in Africa and Asia reporting. Since the 1990s, economists have cast this idea, really on the global South and Africa and Asia, saying there's this thing called the resource curse, which is people who live on land riches in natural resources tend to be the poorest. Sometimes we call it the paradox of plenty. It applies in America too. Obviously, it applies nowhere more so than in Appalachia. What would it look like without? It's so hard. I did a lot of reporting here on coal also, and had county commissioners say to me, "What are we going to do without this coal revenue?" We're going to have an Amazon distribution warehouse. We're supposed to love that. We know that's automated in four years. But at least it gives us four years. So what does it look like? What kind of system is sustainable? I don't know. I should've just said to that, "I don't know."
CHRIS HAYES: No. I don't know either. I mean, I think that figuring this out is one of the great social challenges of our age, really, across the world. Particularly, let's be clear, particularly in the places in the world that are the most energy poor, like for instance Sub-Saharan Africa, where basically the climate and carbon trajectory of the world will depend upon whether they do what they did with telephone technology, which was leap frog dial up lines and go right to cell phone.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: And they do that at scale on renewables, or whether they get on the fossil fuel train and basically it's everybody's toast.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Exactly. Exactly. And having worked with missionaries in Nigeria who carry solar powered laptops so people can watch the Jesus film, I have some hope on renewable energy.
CHRIS HAYES: That's amazing. That's amazing. That's amazing detail.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yeah. It was pretty amazing. Unfortunately for that guy, he hadn't properly charged his laptop, so he got to the little Muslim herding village and tried to show the film, and it didn't turn on. Didn't go very well. That said-
CHRIS HAYES: Cut off after he died. No, no, he comes back. No, wait. He comes back.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Actually, the herders were more like, "And did you bring us medicine? Because if not, you and your Jesus film can hike a doodle." This question of solutions is the question. And can we think farther than our preconceptions? Many people would be like, "They can build solar panels." Is that sustainable? What does true sustainability look like in these rural places? And that is an open question.
CHRIS HAYES: My other big takeaway is just... And this I feel like is a really important lesson. And I felt this way through my reporting career. In some ways it's harder to maintain this because of the exigencies of my job, that I'm at the table every night. Although, I'm reacquainted with it when I'm in the field, which is like, people's politics and world view are just much more interesting and complex and weird, and weird.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Yes, and weird.
CHRIS HAYES: At the ground level than they are once they get run through the analytical frameworks that we deal with at the top. People's politics are really weird. You scratch a little bit and everybody's got weird stuff. They believe lots of weird stuff, contradictory stuff, fascinating stuff, beautiful stuff, horrible stuff. That's all in there in a person's politics at the ground level.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: That's 1000 percent true. Most of Stacy's family voted for Trump. Most of the people I know in this book voted for Trump. I have spent days and days freezing my fingers off in hunting blinds listening to people talk about their beliefs. Regulation is a perfect example. I'm like, "Come on. Are you really going to vote for Trump over regulation?" And then I hear Jason Clark talking about the cost of raising these pigs. Right? I think for me, the hope is in the human story. The irreducibility of human connection and actually getting to know these people is, for me, the hopeful piece.
CHRIS HAYES: Let me end on something that I think I want to start asking everyone that I do these conversations with, so I'm going to start with you. What's something you changed your mind about?
ELIZA GRISWOLD: I guess I thought I understood better than the people in Amity and Prosperity, why they were making mistakes with their choices to support oil and gas. And what I learned is, those choices were not monolithic. They were individual. They were much more complex. They had to do with building a first floor bathroom. They had to do with sophisticated understanding of mineral rights. They had to do with a century of resource extraction. And in learning that, that in itself was humbling. And I think that is often what we learn as reporters, what we take to be the story is just not at all the story.
CHRIS HAYES: Eliza Griswold, who is just both a phenomenal reporter and an exceptional writer. The new book is called "Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America." It took too long, but it's still a very good book, Eliza. Thanks for coming on.
ELIZA GRISWOLD: Thank you so much for having me, Chris.
CHRIS HAYES: "Why Is This Happening"? is presented by MSNBC and NBC News THINK. Produced by the All In Team, music by Eddie Cooper. You can get more from "Why Is This Happening?" by visiting nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.