The underworld is alive!

Sandra Steingraber spoke this week in Santa Fe, and as usual her words were disturbing and rousing at once. I’ve admired Sandra for years—her decades-long work as an Earth-advocate, first researching and writing about the public health dangers of everyday toxic chemicals and more recently working to end the insanity of fracking. This week she urged us to see these two huge issues as two trunks of a single “tree of crisis,” a tree with its roots in fossil fuels. “Our ruinous dependence on fossil fuels,” she said, underlies both of these Earth-killing crises.

Steingraber is a biologist, and she spent an early part of her talk outlining the mechanics of climate change because, as she explained, in one survey 350 well-educated people were asked to describe the process, and “exactly no one got it right.”

But where Sandra’s talk really came alive for me was when she described the ecosystem of shale, the deep rock a mile underground where fracking is done. The shale is full of methane bubbles, which are actually, she explained, the fossilized bodies of the billions of sea creatures—the only form of life at the time—who died hundreds of millions of years ago.

These little, effervescent methane bubbles—what we are in such a hurry to extract—are the decomposed bodies of sea lilies and squid. They didn’t decompose as ours do because the chemistry of the Earth was different at the time. They decomposed as bubbles of methane buried in shale.

And methane, of course, is natural gas.

So the beds of shale where fracking is done are actually vast burial grounds, cemeteries, holding the bodies of billions of sea creatures. When you turn the the gas on at your stove, you’re actually using the decomposed bodies of these creatures.

And then she got really excited as she introduced us to organisms that many of us had never heard of: the archaea, a third domain of life (in addition to bacteria and eukaryota—plants, fungi, and animals). My generation never learned about archaea in school because they hadn’t been discovered yet, and they weren’t classified as a separate branch of life until the late 1970s, when I was in college.

First found in extreme environments, like Yellowstone’s hot springs, archaea are now recognized as living everywhere, including in people’s belly buttons. They are one-celled creatures, like bacteria, but their chemistry is different, and many still love the weird chemistry of Earth’s environments 400 million years ago, when archaea evolved, when the oceans were hotter and there was less oxygen, which is why many of them thrive in what we think of as inhospitable conditions.

And that’s where they connect up with the ruinous practice of fracking. Some archaea live deep underground, a mile below the surface of the Earth, where fracking is done. Steingraber said,

The underworld is alive, and I don’t mean in a mystical, Gaia-is-alive kind of way. I mean literally alive. Metabolically alive. With these one-celled creatures.

Archaea are so alive, in fact, that they have figured out ways to move electrons around and alter their environments. The archaea living a mile below the surface lack means to transfer electrons themselves, so they use rock. Steingraber the biologist got all animated at this one:

They send electrons into rock to alter their environments. They send nanowires into rock! They make grids of nanowires. They make complex colonies!

The ooohs and aaahs of the audience underscored our shared amazement. We’d never heard of these creatures. And yet somehow we immediately sensed the larger truth: we’ve been carrying around the wrong metaphor of the underworld. Not a shadowy place of the dead, the deep strata of Earth are very much alive—with colonies of one-celled creatures.

Those living communities of very active creatures deep underground like to wreak havoc with drilling and extraction. (Good on them!) Archaea are so alive and prolific that they tend to clog the pipes and stop the flow of methane. (Smart archaea!) This is why uber-toxic chemicals are added to the fracking fluids—to kill off the communities of microbes and keep the methane flowing. These superconcentrated pesticides are the toxins that can percolate into groundwater when cement casings crack and fail. As Steingraber reminded us,

Because we now know that 5 percent of drill casings fail from the start, and the failure rate continues to increase as the cement casings age, shrink, and crack.

Out of Sandra’s disturbing, discomfiting talk, I took this one piece of joy: the living cacophony of Earth extends far below the surface and is far stranger and more wonderful than we have imagined. Steingraber said,

What we need to take away is that the surface ecosystem extends a lot further underground than we thought. We were wrong about the underworld. It’s very much alive.


For more information:

Sandra Steingraber’s website gives information about her books, including her recent Raising Elijah, calling for heroic actions to match the severity of our current ecological crisis.

Coffee in Jail” from Orion is one of my favorite essays, about landing in the county jail for civil disobedience against fracking and how she discovered a piece of writing in her cell that she didn’t expect.