Saturday, August 23, 2014

Laid Off

Over the past four years we have witnessed an amazing downturn in the coal industry. Mines all throughout Appalachia have closed, leaving thousands of coal miners and their families in dire straits with difficult decisions to make. For as long as the coal industry has existed they have placed the people of Appalachia at the mercy of their booms and busts. Each time coal companies face a choice between decent profits now or leaving the coal in the ground until they can make excellent profits, we know what they choose, and we see what happens to the decent hard working coal miners who have already given so much of themselves to the company’s bottom line.

Had these layoffs come 75 or 100 years ago, they would have hurt, but the blow to mountain families would not have not been nearly as severe. Our ancestors had been weary of becoming entirely dependent upon coal mining wages for their food supply and shelter. They didn’t trust banks. They’d known the bondage placed on them by company script, company stores, and perpetual debt. For many, it was a matter of pride to be without debt, for others it was a source of freedom. As my grandfather tried to teach us, “It’s your wants that get you in trouble, not your needs.” But theirs was also a different time. When they lived, there were still enough woods to hunt in and run their hogs. The water coming out of the mountain sides and out of family wells was still good enough to drink. Extended families still owned enough land to graze mule teams and a dairy cow, and they could still plant enough food for themselves and sometimes for their livestock. Today, many of the miners being sent home from the coal mines do not have a farm to go home to. They cannot spend their idle time using their hands to provide for their family in the traditional ways. Each day the mail carrier brings another bill, another reminder of the life they’ve been forced to lead at the mercy of “progress.”

It is truly criminal how much the coal industry has made us dependent upon them. They’ve taken our lands, our water, our dignity—even our freedom. Since they came in, each generation has lost the ability to provide from what God has given us. Without our lands and our forests there are fewer choices when it comes to finding happiness: work for the coal company to enjoy a decent paycheck, find some way to make due with a minimum wage job, or turn to drugs and government checks.

Of course, the coal industry isn’t having the best time. CEOs, board members, and stock holders are reeling with the decline of the coal market, fearful their businesses will falter leaving them without their immense power. It is the power that they truly enjoy, not so much the money. Like generals in a war room, they move their small plastic soldiers, each representing the lives of thousands of men and
Corporate jets on the ramp at Lonesome Pine Airport
women. Open this mine, close that one. Lay off this many, scare the hell out of the others to up
production. Pay into this campaign, pull the strings on the politicians already in office. It is a game to them. They have their millions, their foreign bank accounts, their global investments. They have their mansions in their gated communities. When these industrialists become outplayed by their counterparts in a different industry or in a different part of the world, they do not have to fear losing their homes. They do not have to lay awake at night wondering if they can afford school clothes for their children, whether or not they can afford the next light bill, let alone how they can afford to get their kids to the dentist.

The “War on Coal” is real. But it’s not what they make it out to be. It is a battle between industries, massive oil and natural gas companies vying for profit in the electrical generation sector. It is not being waged by the EPA and politicians. It isn't between environmentalists and coal mining families. As with any war, the wealthy corporations sit back, giving orders to their officers in congress and in the state houses, spreading propaganda to make people fight for their causes and letting the casualties fall upon the lower classes. We fight their battles and suffer their losses. They leave us with a war torn land, water we cannot drink, messes that cannot be cleaned up, and all the public debts that must be repaid. They leave us jobless and broken with children wanting to be their next coal miners, the next to fall victim to their games. Each time they battle for profits the less we are able to pick up the pieces and begin our own lives again. But we can. We must.We are Appalachians.

We can fight back. We can see through their lies, to see them as they truly are. We can remember our history and know that coal companies are not our friends and that we are not Friends of Coal, we are Slaves to Coal. We can find our way back to our own freedom, building our own economy, not being enslaved to theirs. It will not be easy. There will be mistakes, there will be further losses. But we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere begins without a dependence upon coal.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Re-Identifying Environmentalism

Several people have asked me whether or not I will be attending the upcoming climate action march in New York. The answer is no. In light of my intended absence, I wanted to share with you some of my thoughts on the subject.

Mirva Lempiainen - The New York Times

While I am unaware of a detailed history on environmentalism, I do know that modern environmentalism was born from naturalists and the conservation movement most often attributed to men such as John Muir, the “Father of the National Parks.” His activism preserved some of the most spectacular natural places in North America, yet, we must admit that on the whole, the creation of the national parks and all subsequent environmental protections have been miniscule wins in a full out war on the ecological systems of our planet. The results are plain to see throughout the world from global deforestation to dead zones in the oceans, rivers that change colors or catch on fire to toxic waste water ponds that are visible from space. 

Some have sought to address the underlying problems of our present day version of a world war. Of those, Wendell Barry, David Orr, and Wes Jackson come to mind, each speaking volumes to the ways in which present day education, culture, and economy combine to destroy the future health and happiness of most species on this earth. As such, and I am not stating anything new here, it should come as no surprise that until we are able to bring ecological understanding into every classroom, altruistic ideals back into every community, and moderation into the economic principles of the world, we will have no chance of saving future generations from such peril. These are truths that each of us must face, a knowledge that Aldo Leopold began sharing with us long ago.  Anyone who has been within the environmental movement long enough can attest to having found themselves in an emotional dilemma:  spend time fighting inevitability or search out the best place to lead a peaceful life.

In February of 2013, I marched alongside an estimated 40,000 people through the streets of Washington DC at the Forward on Climate Rally organized by As we marched down Constitution Ave, I recollected images and stories of a rally my father attended in Washington DC on Labor Day in 1991. The National Park Service estimated that 250,000 laborers were in attendance: coal miners, nurses, auto workers, steel workers, migrant workers, and a variety of social activists. A quarter of a million people had descended upon DC, receiving extended national news coverage (compared to the climate rally), all of them people that millions of Americans could identify with. They were trying desperately to keep labor alive, to reverse the anti-union trends that were crippling the middle class of this nation. My father was among those marching with the United Mine Workers, still unsure of what life had to offer after his recent lay off at Beth-Elkhorn's Deep Mine 26 after 16 years there.

Despite the 3,500 tour buses that brought the cries of those hundreds of thousands of people to Washington on a hot summer day, the demise of the labor movement has continued. Today more and more states are incorporating right to work laws, more people are forced to work mandatory overtime for wages that have barely increased over 20 years. As I marched along side people wielding their homemade wind turbines on that bitter February day, I kept thinking to myself,  "What makes a group of environmentalists, already ostracized by a nation as unemployed hippies, believe a march will actually garner the support needed to save the world from greed driven over consumption?"

The rally was later heralded as the largest environmental march in the nation’s history— but no one was there to see it. It was a Sunday, a day of the weekend, in a city that all but created bankers hours. There were no people on the sidewalks to hear our rhythmical chants set to the beat of plastic buckets. There was no one peering from the windows of the large office buildings reading our signs, let alone laughing at the group dressed as polar bears or the make shift Keystone XL pipeline. During the late night drive back to Berea we passed by the Ashland, KY oil refinery around 2:00AM. Miles ahead the sky glowed orange before the road dropped down into a sea of orange lights where gas flares burned into the atmosphere. The smell of petroleum poured into the van through the dash vents. Those of us still awake knew the truth. The following day I found that President Obama was not at the White House after all, but golfing with energy industry executives in Florida.

I knew all to well how the system worked having lobbied for water protection laws and bills to create energy efficiency jobs. I had walked into more than three dozen offices between Washington DC and our state capital in Frankfort, KY. I've seen the fake smiles, heard the bullshit "Thanks for coming,"  and passed the coal association lobbyists on the way out the door as they went in to conduct "real" business. I’ve seen how people vote, how political campaigns and the media coincide. Above all I knew the futility of 250,000 hardworking Americans who marched on Washington in 1991. It was going to take more than 40,000 people marching around the Whitehouse to change the way our country does business. It would take millions to change a game where all rules are being set by the 1% . I became embittered, feeling the pointlessness of it all, succumbing to a deep depression that lasted for several months.

Since then, I have had a dim view on the amount of energy and money spent organizing rallies and marches with gimmicks hoping to attract the media. Busloads of people are sent across the nation, spending precious funds all to bang upon the doors of a culture who dismisses them. The cries to protect the health of our children are lost to the perceived stereotypes of long haired bongo beating hippies with too much time on their hands.

For well over 50 years, a fierce battle has been waged to save the health of Appalachian communities from profit driven mining practices. On one side you have the coal industry with a well-established media campaign associating itself as part of the community; on the other, a people who, as no fault of their own, grate against the social and cultural norms of people living in those same communities.
Alpha Natural Resources Facebook
The coal industry fears the power of the Appalachian communities dedicated to caring and protecting one another. This is why the industry has spent the last century dividing people, breaking apart Appalachian communities to rebuild them as “coal” communities. The industry has connected with the people of Appalachia: going to schools and teaching children the industry version of coal mining history, creating good ole boy clubs with organizations such as “Friends of Coal,” and uplifting the pride, heritage, and sacrifices of coal miners, all while placing the fear of God into their families with the “War on Coal.” The coal industry has pitted Appalachia against a new enemy—the truth givers—and in so doing have co-opted the struggles our people have fought against them for over a century.

It's been my experience that anytime environmentalists are spoken of at a mine site or discussed within the coal friendly public, they are referred to as “outside treehuggers,” branding the truth givers as foreigners, not unlike the VISTAs and camera crews that wounded the pride of Appalachian people during the War on Poverty.

Rising Appalachia

Unfortunately, there are a few environmentalists who do not understand this, who feel no need to adapt to the culture. A few hold death grips on their identity, refusing to change how they dress and how they act around Appalachian people. I, like many others, respect their individuality and even appreciate it, but nevertheless, when these people become associated with the work being done to protect the health and environment of Appalachia, they feed into the stereotypes  taught to people by the coal industry and any message is instantly shut out.

The coal industry’s “identity” campaign has resulted in a majority of Appalachian people still seeking to mine coal without a clear understanding of why they shouldn’t. They are still listening to the drum beat of the industry—jobs—jobs—jobs—jobs—jobs—still drinking the “company kool-aid,” believing reclamation is okay, that there is nothing wrong with the water. Until every single Appalachian understands and acts upon the negative health issues caused by coal mining, or we somehow eliminate the world's desire for cheap, abundant energy—every permit that has been denied, every moratorium that has been put into place, will be given another hearing, another chance. The coal industry has the time, money, patience, and lawyers to wait for the next resurgence in coal prices or the next government administration, whichever comes first. To make matters worse, the recent bust in coal, with layoffs reaching into the thousands, is causing another mass out-migration of Appalachian people, leaving fewer and fewer to stand up against the destruction of our ancestral homes. If we don’t act now to ensure our messages get across, all that will be left in Appalachia are dedicated strip miners desperate for jobs with few people living there to stop the inevitable.  

The bleak situation facing Appalachia is not isolated by any means. It can be applied to many other places throughout the world where resource extraction is involved. Wherever there are environmentalists and a small handful of community members fighting to protect the land, there are corporations hard at work identifying themselves as part of the community, part of the people, and shunning environmentalists as being "out-of-touch hippy job killers." Their efforts are made easier when a select few activists unwittingly (or, heaven forbid, intentionally) play the part, culturally separating themselves from the social norms of the communities they are addressing, communities where people must struggle every day to make ends meet, enslaved by the same economy they believe must be upheld at all costs.

This is why we must rethink the way people identify us. It means taking a harder look at the way our messages are given. Are large rallies and marches truly impactful? Will those locked into the daily drudgery of the economy read our cardboard signs and watch our street theatre, feel an overwhelming urge to join in and make a difference? Sadly, there are some people I have met who feel as passionate about saving the environment as we do, but do not wish to join the “circus” as they called it. 

Ethos, Pathos, Logos.
I chose to write this because it is something I have long observed having been on both sides of the debate. It hurts and saddens me to see the message being lost and to even witness the infighting and sense of elitism some groups have in these regards. I realize that I am not saying anything new, that these and other internal problems have been the focus of groups over many years, but the sense of urgency can never be greater that we resolve these problems, that we put aside our differences of opinion and rethink how we are perceived.
One thing is for certain. If we continue working beneath stereotypes placed upon us within the confines of an irrational hope, I fear for the chances of our ever reaching a rational solution, whatever that may be.

I have created a closed group on Facebook to further discuss this matter with the same title as this post.  I invite everyone to join in on this conversation.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Human Condition

And now for something a little different...

The Human Condition

On the way through town we found ourselves following behind this piece of equipment. I took note of its many parts and pieces manufactured from steel and began to deduce the amount of energy it took to produce it. I thought of the raw materials it took to manufacture the steel for each individual part comprising the machine, and even that of the specialized machines it required to manufacture those parts. I thought of the energy it required to extract those raw materials and then the electricity and heat energy necessary to make the steel, and of course all of the the oil consumed to transport materials and completed parts from one location to the next. I considered the resources needed to make the lubricants it contains. I thought of the human energy, the gasoline being used by the machine designers to commute to work everyday, and the electricity that was consumed in their office to keep them comfortable--even the energy it took to grow the food they ate for lunch while on the project. I thought this too of the workers who manufactured the equipment, and the energy use of those who supported the workers, from the payroll workers and those in human resources, to even the resources it took to manufacture the printer and paper used to print their checks and employment/benefits paperwork.

All of this energy and resource usage went to manufacture a very complex machine with a singular purpose. I would like to say that purpose is something truly noble, such as rescuing an individual caught in a perilous situation, or perhaps is used somehow in sustainable agriculture, or to help repair land that has been damaged in some way. Sadly it does none of these things. It is a stump grinder, a large machine designed and manufactured to make the job of removing a stump easier and faster than natural processes will allow. This machine, in all of its complexity, is the epitome of the modern human condition. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The American Dream

The American Dream is not the philosophical pursuit of success. It is the disconnect between everyday life and the destruction of our communities and our world. -Nick Mullins

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Religion of Coal

I usually avoid religion in my posts since it is such an inflammatory subject, but I can longer ignore the inclination of some people back home to apply religious morality to the subject of coal mining.

“If God didn’t want us to use coal, he wouldn’t have put it there!” I've heard it a dozen times from friends and family back home. It's even been preached in sermons to coal miners and their families and proclaimed at coal rallies. Yet, no one seems to ask the question...what if coal wasn't placed here for us to mine and use it as we have?

Let us look at the history of coal.

In the early days of coal mining thousands of men and boys lost their lives every year in the darkness of a mountain. The owners of the coal mines were ruthless and full of greed, paying as little salary as possible and turning coal miners into slaves through company script and hiring mercenaries to maintain the status quo. The coal was shipped off where it would be put to use making steel in massive mills, polluting entire cities and causing countless deaths from respiratory illnesses. The steel mill owners, like the coal company owners, were full of tempestuous greed, treating their workers in much the same ways as in the coal camps.  Though rank and file unions ended many of these abuses, the greed of coal and steel industries continue the exploitation of their workforce, denying them safety in the drive for more production, refusing them black lung benefits, and even finding ways to avoid their pension obligations.

And what of the steel that was made? What purpose has it served? Bridges, railroads, massive skyscrapers and buildings, and even machines of war. Have these things made us a better people, or have they driven us further apart? 

The world created by coal has never been one of justice and equality. Billions of people throughout the world are cast into extreme poverty as the industrialized nations build larger cities and wage wars for more resource wealth. Many people living in these privileged nations drive their cars made of steel to churches erected with steel, heated and cooled by electricity produced by coal. They hear about the salvation of God and learn how to save their souls before going shopping for goods produced in sweatshops across the world.

"More" is the new gospel that bends the backs of thousands of coal miners and abuses their bodies. Blind eyes are turned to the places where coal is extracted, cleaned, and used. The mountains of God's creation are torn down int he name of progress, and the waters of life are turned orange and black.

And so I ask, would a loving God, who created this amazing world full of life, who sent his only begotten son to teach us lessons of love and humility, really place something here that would cause so much harm and hatred? Would He tell us to lay waste to the lands he created to access it?

God provided us with everything we need on this Earth. Have we ever truly needed coal? Did God ever intend for us to need to work in the coal mines for money, destroying our bodies for others profit? Did He intend for us to be devoted to energy,  to lead such materialistic lives?
What if coal isn't a gift from God, but rather one of our greatest temptations?

Matthew 6:24

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon [money].

1 Timothy 6:10

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after , they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Hebrews 13:5

Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have : for he hath said , I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.

Matthew 19:21

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast , and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.