The two domestic news makers of the week should have us concerned for the future

frackingA couple of biggies in the news this week: North Korea’s cyber-attack on Sony Pictures, resulting in the cancellation of the theatrical release of “The Interview,” a Seth Rogen – James Franco movie and the decision by New York governor Andrew Cuomo to agree with his experts, who decided that hydraulic fracturing would be environmentally too risky – hence no fracking in the Empire State.

First, I’ll skip the jokes (one joke, actually) about saving us from another James Franco movie. What North Korea did, apparently with some help from outside internet wizards, was to threaten mayhem unless Sony nixed the flick. The popular debate hasn’t been about the embarrassing emails that were leaked – nobody really cares what Scott Rudin said to Amy Pascal – but about the chilling effect it had on Hollywood’s free speech.

“The company has completely caved, in other words, and the cowardice seems to be catching,” says thestar.com’s Peter Howell. Well-informed policy analysts Rob Lowe, Steve Carell and Jimmy Kimmel have weighed in with ringing denunciations of Sony’s decision. George Clooney himself has expressed dismay. Barack Obama shook his head and wished that “they had come to talk to me.”

Hollywood has a blemished history when it comes to caving in. A handful of rumors and allegations, an inference here and a whisper there: the Hollywood Ten were only the most celebrated victims of the blacklist that ultimately cost thousands of people their jobs.

This time, these times, it may be different. This time, there may be much more at stake than “simply” a failure to defend a work of ham-handed fiction. What’s clear is that cyber attacks can breach our security and invade our data systems with alarming speed and stealth. I wish our debate had less chest-thumping rhetoric about “refusing to bow down to dictators” and more to do with protecting our vulnerable networks. There is a body of thinking that suggests it can happen again and again, and may be worse in the future.

frackingSpeaking of looming threats: New York State has said no to fracking. Governor Cuomo’s health and environmental commissioners laid out the uncertainties about fracking’s impact on groundwater and soil and announced their opposition to the drilling technique. Environmental activists hailed the decision. Oil and gas lobbyists denounced it.

Upstate New York could have used the money from fracking leases, but all is not lost. Casino gambling has been approved for a few depressed areas, with  maybe more on the way. And everybody knows there are no harmful side effects from gambling!

Fracking is already approved in several states and actively employed in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and North Dakota. Pro-fracking scientists speak authoritatively about the safety of the technology and anti-fracking scientists warn about the disasters that await us.

I’m inclined to discount the reassurances and listen to those who remind us of the potential for harm. Safeguards and standards have let us down before: Exxon Valdez,
Deepwater HorizonLove Canal, more than 1,200 Superfund sites. If it were up to me, I’d ban fracking everywhere, along with clear-cutting, strip mining, plastics and a lot of other stuff.

But here’s the thing. It’s necessary to put limits and constraints on extraction. At the same time we need to work harder to put limits and constraints on the consumption of energy. A number of forces are at work to push those limits. Rising temperatures equals more demand for air conditioning. There are about 255 million cars in the U.S. but only about 3 percent are hybrid vehicles, meaning a hell of a lot of gas needs to be pumped.

I thought (and still think) Michael Steele and Sarah Palin’s “drill, baby, drill” was cheap political theater. In fact, we’ve added to our oil bucket by 50 percent since their 2008 campaign. The cry for more and more oil hasn’t died down.

Along with the cheers for standing up to fracking should have come a rousing chorus of support for reduced consumption, alternative and renewable energy sources, tougher emission standards and more. Along with rallying cries to stand up to Pyongyang should have come a sober recognition that our cyberspace is porous and our networks are vulnerable.

It’s very important to say what we are against, loud and clear. It’s very principled to defend free speech against a tyrant, or defend clean water against chemical pollution. I think it’s necessary to do these things, but maybe not sufficient. We also need to be outspoken about what we are for and how we should go about getting it, safely and securely and humanely.

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