Lessons From the Road # 1: Fossil Fuel Ethics Continued

November 26, 2012


I traveled out of Virginia, through West Virginia and across Kentucky to visit family on Thanksgiving week. You can notice a lot of things on that long stretch of road if you pay attention. A similar trek a few years ago spurred my first real blog about environmental ethics vis-a-vis Appalachian Coal Country, which you can glance at here. Back then I mentioned that a candidate perceived as anti-coal has no hope of winning office in my hometown and county, and that certainly proved true in this past election as Romney took more than 70 percent of the popular vote in most Western Kentucky counties, and I would wager that the primary reason for this is the result of Big Coal cementing a popular perception of President Obama as “anti-coal” and thus”anti-coal miners,” but more on that in a bit.

What is highly noticeable as you head through West Virginia is the type of business that does well–it’s not that much of a stretch to claim that if you need to give anyone directions in much of West VA and you mention any visible points of reference, chances are they include coal mines, strip clubs, casinos, and possibly the gigantic anti-Obama billboards that litter the highway. All across the state drivers are heralded into “Obama’s No-Job Zone,” despite the fact that the above mentioned businesses seem to be doing the same amount of business they have for the past ten years or more. I have no idea if those billboards will remain now that the election is over and the current president won’t be able to run for office again in the future, but it will not surprise me to see those same billboards remain where they’ve been for the past 4 years, stirring up anti-Obama sentiment to keep a certain populace antagonistic toward any progress or speech regarding alternative energy sources.

Coal is a fascinating subject with a long strange history and it’s amazing that it has become such a political flash point in many geographic areas in the year 2012. In the months leading up to the Presidential election and in the days afterwards countless people made their every Facebook status in some way tied to coal and the fear that the President has an agenda to take away their jobs. It is in the personal arena where people work and hope to be able to continue to do so to take care of their families that the issue of coal ceases to be one of capitalism and large-scale economics or environmental ethics and instead is one of day to day life and making ends meet. It is in this way that many big-picture thinkers fail to grasp why there is so much hesitancy in the south to embrace progressive environmental policy.

While I was in in Kentucky I heard many comments on coal. One friend said that if he ever happened to mention global warming at all, as he did in the case of recent hurricane sandy, people accuse him of “hating coal” and “wanting people to lose jobs.” I also heard that education is sorely lacking regarding transitioning to future energy sources–that people only hear “they want to take our jobs away” and never hear anything about transition employment, new job development, or even scientific rationale for such changes.. And of course, I have incessantly heard accusations that Obama wants to undermine the occupations of those in the coal industry. The President is in the undesirable position of disappointing those on practically every side of this particular issue. Those in the environmental movement have been very disheartened on his slowness to act in progressive energy policy–in 2012, as the Kyoto Protocol is fast approaching its expiration, this President has been very slow to wean the nation off of Big Dirty Energy. He has even fostered the Oil and Coal business–he really has not slowed it down, it has often slowed itself down in the internal struggle to keep up with yet another dirty energy, the much cheaper natural gas yielded from frakking. Those on the right, especially those in the coal and oil industry, have been led to believe that the President has waged an all-out assault on their way of life–$1,500,000 in Oil/Coal campaign contributions can convince a populace of anything. This is the President who never once mentioned “Global Warming” or “Climate Change” in any of the Presidential debates. But by funding other energy sources and limiting drilling on protected federal land (thank you FDR) he earned the ire of the entire industry.

The problem persists though. No amount of advertisement money can change scientific fact. Global warming is real and it is caused by the greenhouse effect–the greenhouse effect is a result of carbon emissions, which are the result of the burning of fossil fuels. Coal produces the most carbon emissions in its use in comparison with all other fossil fuels, but oil is a close second and we use more oil than coal. Changing weather patterns, melting ice caps, and ever intensifying storms are the living proof that we face due to our dependency on burning dinosaur bones. We continue to break heat records and for the second year in a row the northeast suffered through a hurricane. We are approaching the tipping point and the only way to salvage a future for life on this planet is for us to cease our use of these toxic substances. The good thing is that we can do so–we have the ability to switch to other sources of energy that are renewable and massively available–wind, solar, and other green energies. We can run cars and heat homes without burning fossil fuels but the transition time is here.

I do not wish for anyone to lose their job. Many people I care deeply for have jobs tied to the coal industry. I want those that work in the Coal and Oil industries to find fulfilling, well paying work elsewhere. I’ve had my fair share of bad jobs and I know how soul-crushing bad work can be. For those that mine and hate it, I hope the next industries will be much more to their liking; for those that truly enjoy the work they do tied with these industries, I hope they can find something they like as well or more. Transition is scary–having a bad job, having no job, having a new job, leaving a job you like, any one of these factors is a stress and I can empathize with every one of those aspects myself.  I want the workers of the coal region to find transition jobs when possible. All industries change, and all old forms resist new forms, this has always been the case. But the people of the coal field have been led to believe that they need this industry and that they cannot make it without it–this is not true. This industry has always exploited the workforce and the natural environment of every spot it has taken root, eking out all it can and then moving on. Crushing poverty remains in the areas where coal and oil “used” to employ. No jobs, no industry, no commerce, no technology and no viable way of life remains in such places when entire generations have disappeared into the mines and onto the rigs without plotting ways of life for the future  The industry only pays a solid wage now because the people came together, unionized, and fought for the right to a secure life. Now is a similar such time–the people need to take a role in their own future and be leaders in the next, new, bigger, better industry that awaits.

Here are few possible solutions for how to couch discussions on the environmental needs at hand for the coal regions. One is of financial and economic empowerment: fossil fuel dependent areas must come to view alternative energies as a challenge to build, train, and retake their place in what comes next rather than waiting and being outsourced from their own livelihood  Another way to express the issues at hand is in the area of religion. Ironically, some of the most fossil fuel dependent occupational areas in the the country are also some of the most self-identifying religious ones as well, and the majority self-designation is far and away Christian. Christian teaching and belief points to a Creator, and therefore a Creation. Many liberal churches have made “Creation Care” a central point of faith and ethics for decades now, and it is high time this idea is translated to the more conservative churches. Seeing our responsibility as human beings to care for the blessing this world is should be a no-brainer. Once the idea of the damage done by our current way of life is truly expressed, the need to make a change follows directly.Creation Care as an ethical call for action to even the most “conservative” of churches can enliven Christians to take ownership of their actions, to fight against policies and patterns that endanger, damage, and hurt life on this planet and that are already hurting some of the most vulnerable portions of humanity.

Driving out of Kentucky in the early hours of the morning I passed rolling lines of filled coal trucks. Seeing those trucks roll along, I thought of perception and how it differs so vastly. Where I look and see the perpetuation of a dangerous system, one that makes a lot of money for a group of a very few on top who pay those who do the hardest most dangerous work to earn them their profits as little as they can get away with (which thankfully for many families has been a living wage in recent generations). I see that small group on top as one fully aware of the damage they cause–even the climate science research funded by the Koch brothers turned out to second the majority opinion, and world news has reported for years now how oil and coal magnates plan new areas of development around predictions of changing patterns of weather and land. I see all that–others see a home-grown economy, a living wage, a system of  economic independence and a way to pay for their family’s needs. It’s time to merge those two perceptions–for the workers to realize they can be a part in what comes next and that they deserve a living wage no matter what energy source we must use in the modern day. I must see that any viable plan for the future involves education, training, and as painless as possible transition to good jobs. They must see that this earth is finite and that the system they work in does daily damage to it–but that it’s okay, this has not always been known. Now that it is known, it’s time to take part in what comes next. Sustainability does not mean complete abdication of what we enjoy, how we live, or where we congregate. Sustainability can be a way of life that embraces all the things we love about our life and culture but finds new ways to do those things in a way that can continue on so that future generations can enjoy them too. I can be as much of a Luddite as the next person, and there are things about traditional ways of life and resource usage that I am quite partial to. It’s about trade-offs though, and this is the biggest trade off of our time–how to dump the Old Energy and claim the new one as efficiently and non-destructively as possible. The time is running out though.

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One Response to “Lessons From the Road # 1: Fossil Fuel Ethics Continued”

  1. Well reasoned article. Obama would do well to hire you and put you on the circuit to bring the naysayers along. Win over the conservative churches and progress leaps forward exponentially.

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