Have environmentalists failed West Virginia?

freedom industries photo
CC BY 2.0 Foo Conner

Mary Anne Hitt just published an important post, urging the environmental community to stand up for the people of West Virginia. And that's beginning to happen. Environmentalists, including many West Virginia based groups, are demanding proper regulation and effective enforcement of the coal industry and its subsidiaries.

That's an urgent challenge to be sure. King coal will be here for some time to come, and those who live in his shadow deserve to be protected from his excesses.

We as environmentalists must also do more, however. We must seek to provide a viable alternative. And to do that, we have to reflect on our movement's own attitudes to cultures, people and economies that live outside of the relatively affluent hotbeds of today's environmentalism.

Don't get me wrong. The perennial accusations of urban elitism that get leveled against environmentalists are simplistic and distorted in the extreme. But like most stereotypes, they hold a grain of truth to them too. I do hear people in the environmental community talking disparagingly about "red necks", red states, and "fly over country". I have sensed, from some, a feeling that West Virginia "got what it deserved" for kowtowing to the coal industry. And I've even had to reflect on my own prejudices about people and places—as I drive regularly through the mountains of West Virginia (in my gas-powered car), I've found my distaste at the Blade Runner-like industrial landscape and big coal billboards morphing into a utterly false sense of superiority about who I am and where I come from.

And that's a notion that we must fundamentally reject. (To be fair, it's not a notion that's confined to environmentalists. I believe elitism - along with corporate pandering - played a key role in the TV networks failure to cover the West Virginia spill.)

The people of West Virginia deserve our support and they deserve our solidarity.

Whether or not they work for the coal industry, they are people doing what people do—they are earning a living, they are feeding their families, and they are seeking opportunities where opportunities exist. They are as much the victims of our destructive economy as anyone else. In many ways, they are more so. From cancer clusters in oil communities to homes lost to coal ash slurry, environmentalists must engage with those living at ground zero of the fossil fuel fight.

When a West Virginian goes to work for the coal industry, he or she is pursuing a proud tradition that has brought much progress and good to humanity—from electric light to refrigeration to respirators at the hospital, coal-fired electricity has in many ways served us well.

But business as usual is no longer an option.

Fossil fuels are destructive and economically ruinous. I make no apologies for wanting them gone. But we can't ignore the very real, human impact of the policies we advocate. Jobs will be lost, communities will change—just ask the former mining communities in Wales.

In the long run, these changes will hopefully be for the better. But the long run means little if your livelihood is on the line and you have mouths to feed and bills to pay. So the environmental movement had better start offering real, scalable alternatives for states like West Virginia. As a first step, we must leave our elitist attitudes at the door and start to see and hear the real needs of these communities too long ignored.

Coal has too often screwed its employees but it's given them a paycheck. Can we do any better? Let's make sure we can.

Tags: Activism | Coal | Economics