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Re-Identifying Environmentalism

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, August 21, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

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.

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 feeding the immensity 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.

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.

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.

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