This Former Coal Miner’s Perspective on Climate Change

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Photo by Nick Mullins

I do not subscribe to the labels being thrown out these days. I do not consider myself an environmentalist, a liberal, nor do I consider myself a conservative either. I am an Appalachian family man who cares about his kids more than the coal companies do.

I’m not naive enough to believe that companies who make a profit extracting and selling coal, oil, or natural gas, are telling us the truth. Instead, they stretch the truth beyond its limits to protect their investments and bottom lines. We see it every day, and miner’s face it when they are injured and seek compensation to continue feeding their families.

Being Appalachian, I also know that many politicians and charitable organizations who have come to “help” us over the years have used our poverty and suffering to gain votes and donations. It is a problem that continues to occur, and after nearly a century’s worth of exploitation from outside entities, it is no wonder we have trust issues.

People are just trying to survive day to day, and when you are just trying to survive, it is difficult to see issues as more than black and white. We don’t have time to ask questions and research answers outside of the information we receive from the most influential people in our lives—friends, family, and sadly, employers.

When it comes to climate change, people rationalize their opinions based on how it affects them. For those of us in Appalachia, the way climate change is affecting us is almost always perceived through the “War on Coal.” Surprisingly, no one seems keen enough to try to navigate around that communications framework with any amount of credibility.

Have humans caused climate change?

Yes. As coal miner’s, we should know this having seen so much coal leave our mountains. We should also know that we aren’t the ones to blame. We only mined the coal, and often at great costs to our health. The only reason our ancestors mined coal was because outside companies swindled away our mineral rights and left us little economic choice. The only reason we continue to mine coal is because of the economic demand for cheap energy and the powerful corporate interests who seek to make a profit maintaining that supply. For them, climate change is bad for business, and they ensure we bare the brunt of market changes to that effect.

Despite knowing these motives, many people continue to believe industry-funded misinformation campaigns, assuming there is a conspiracy behind scientific claims of human-caused climate change. Scientific evidence or no, we just have to look at the world around us along with a few facts about our energy consumption, to come to our own conclusions.

According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2013 the world burned over 8 billion tons of coal. That would fill a coal train that wraps the earth 27 times. We burned it all and we’ve done it year after year. Think about it when you look out over a city at night and see the tens of thousands of lights. Think about where all that energy comes from. When you see countless subdivisions with thousands of homes and countless shopping centers, think about all the energy that is needed to heat and cool them, to power the pumps that supply them water, light their spaces, power refrigeration units, and everything else they contain. It is all being generated somewhere and that requires burning something—a lot of something.

Out of sight, out of mind? Not for me anymore.

And it’s not just coal. In 2010 the world burned 113,000,000,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas. To put that into perspective, a 2,000 square foot home with 8 foot ceilings has 16,000 cubic feet of airspace. 113 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is enough to fill 7 billion homes to 100% concentration. And we burn that year after year.

Every 24 hours in just the US, we burn over 8 million barrels (55 gallons each) of oil, enough to stretch a row of barrels three wide across the US from New York to Los Angeles. That fuel goes into engines and out of tailpipes. Put a balloon on your exhaust pipe and see how long it takes to fill it at idle. Don’t stop thinking about that as you drive at highway speeds where you are going. Don’t stop thinking about it as you pass other vehicles doing the same. Think about all the cars that are on the road at any given time in the US, driving down crowded city streets, interstates, even country back roads. Close your eyes and think about it, everywhere you’ve seen a highway, full of cars at this moment. Every day, day in and day out. How many years have we been doing this? Why have we been doing this? Is it all truly necessary?

The world isn’t too big for us to screw up. We’ve grown from three billion people to seven billion people in just my lifetime. No, I’m not a treehugger, but I’m not ignorant either.

Companies have made billions, if not trillions of dollars off of our energy reserves in Appalachia, and they want to keep it going. Politicians who get their campaign funds from it want to keep it going. What do we really get in return? We extract it for them, they provide us short-term jobs, then file bankruptcy and get federal judges to let them out of having to pay for our retirement healthcare, leaving us to suffer from broken down bodies, black lung, and cancer. In the grand scheme of things, the average coal mining family doesn’t get jack from coal. We never have and never will.

It’s time to think about our place in all of this and our children’s. It’s time to realize the truth. Anyone who tells us differently is only thinking about themselves and their bottom line.

With Liberty and Justice for All*

 

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March 16, 1965: A college student calls for an ambulance to aid a fellow demonstrator, while an injured girl is carried away in the background. Mounted police broke up a march for voting rights in Montgomery. | (AP Photo/Perry Aycock)

The following is an excerpt from a reflection I wrote December 2015.

 


It was a warm afternoon when we arrived in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Our Blue Toyota Corolla was overflowing with camping gear, the large Thule setting us apart as travelers, not locals. We’d never been in Mississippi, but as soon as we crossed the border, I felt a sense of uneasiness. Not fear, nor nervousness necessarily, but I was unsettled. The words of Nikki Giovanni’s convocation at Berea College spoke clearly in my mind, “I still fear when my son travels into the south.” I looked back at the kids and knew we were okay. We were white. I felt sick to my stomach.

Our final destination for the day would be the Chewalla Lake campground where we could stay the night for less than $10, a practice we repeated many times to extend our travel budget for the six-week long tour. As had become customary, we needed to make a stop for supplies before setting up camp that night. Without any local grocers open in Holly Springs, Wal-Mart became our supplier.

My son and I made our way into the restroom, and when it came time to wash our hands, Daniel stood beside me at the adjacent sink and asked solemnly, “Dad, why did someone carve that into the wall?” He pointed towards the words, “I HATE ALL N*****S.” I lowered my head and told him, “Because making things equal by law doesn’t mean it changes some people’s hearts.” I looked up at him and his face was grim. Despite our many discussions about racism, it was his first time seeing it and understanding that it was real. Continue reading

Coal Miners Are Good People

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People ask me “Why do Appalachians vote against their own best interests?” Some are friends who are honestly trying to understand the situation from a point of concern. I know that they seek the cause for the discrepancy, rather than assume coal mining families are incapable of making intelligent political decisions.

The question still stings however,  and whether meant or not, it brings up the age old stereotypes of Appalachian people as being backward and ignorant. Often I can separate those who mean well, from those who are just out to place the blame on someone for our nations current political troubles. The latter tend to follow up their question with another statement— “They are bringing it on themselves.”

Such outright condescension pisses me off and explains much of why people back home vote exactly the way they do.
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Coal, Climate, & Environmental Backlash | 2017-18 Tour

 

Power-Plant-ColorHow did we get to this point?

After countless hours of hard work and millions of dollars of investment in various forms of activism, Donald Trump was still elected as the 45th president of the United States. Almost all of the work towards a just energy transition has been signed away within his first six months, and there are no signs of it stopping anytime soon. To make matter’s worse, Trump is furthering an age old divide at the cost of social justice that has more than once resulted in intense suffering—and even war.

Many people are left wondering what has happened and what to do next. Appalachia has risen as the microcosm for larger issues within our nation’s political divide, but national media has only scratched the surface of the region, often exploiting social issues and leaving the nation to ponder long held stereotypes. Without understanding the deeper issues affecting Appalachia and other regions like it, little will be accomplished in bridging the divides of our national consciousness.

Beginning in October, Nick Mullins, former fifth generation underground coal miner and author of The Thoughtful Coal Miner (www.thethoughtfulcoalminer.com), will be going on the road to tell his personal story and discuss the economic and political forces that turned one of the nation’s largest strongholds of labor rights into a pro-coal, anti-environmentalist region. Through his presentations, Mullins will seek to help audiences understand the larger implications of Appalachia’s recent socioeconomic and political upheavals as they pertain to the nation’s progress towards addressing environmental issues and climate change.

Topics will include:

  • Outside Exploitation of Appalachian Resources and People
  • Corporate Manipulation of Cultural Values
  • Environmental/Liberal Backlash in Rural Communities
  • The Power of the Jobs vs. Environment Debate
  • And Learning How to Communicate Across Political and Cultural Lines

In addition to presentations and lectures, screenings of the documentary film Blood on the Mountain (www.bloodonthemountain.com) will be offered.*


Donations are also being accepted to pay travel and living expenses so that speaking engagements can be offered to groups and venues at reduced rates, or for free where  honorariums cannot be obtained.

For more information, or to schedule a speaking engagement, please use the contact form on the 2017-18 Tour page.

Appalachians Have Lost More Than Coal, We’ve Lost Who We Are

Appalachia, VA – Photo by Nick Mullins

Over the past few 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. For as long as the coal industry has existed, the people of Appalachia have lived at the mercy of a boom and bust market. How did this come to be?

Weren’t the people of Appalachia once known for being robust, resilient, and having an endearing sense of hospitality? Didn’t they live in the mountains for nearly a century before timber and coal companies came in? Weren’t they enjoying the absolute freedom of their lives, without debt, without a want or care for the latest social and cultural trends that placed their urban neighbors into a life of wage slavery? What has happened to Appalachian people that have made these recent layoffs so detrimental?
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The Mono-Economy of Coal or: How to Maintain a Captive Workforce

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Photo by Nick Mullins

There has been no drought of media attention about coal, coal miners, and Appalachia over the past year. I myself have fielded more than a dozen calls from media outlets wanting to know more about the region, each looking for new angles or “ins” with coal mines and coal miners. Though a few have done a decent job contextualizing Appalachia’s deeper issues, many still manage to skip over some very important details about our situation—and that’s a problem. It’s this lack of depth that allows authors like J.D. Vance, and his book Hillbilly Elegy to reach national best seller status and thereby define our existence among an international audience.

So here is something for everyone to consider—the forces that control Appalachia’s economy also seek to maintain a captive workforce aimed at exploiting miners and their families.

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The Manipulation of Southern Pride

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Stone Mountain, Georgia | Photo by Jim Bowen

When I was a teenager, I went to a meeting of the new Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in my home town. I quickly became caught up in the ideals of the SCV and hoped desperately that I could find a Confederate soldier within my lineage so I could join.
I was not racist thanks to a good upbringing, nor were many of the SCV members in my home town. The head of the chapter made it clear to newcomers that racism would not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form. Despite this fact, we were nevertheless engaged in downplaying the atrocity of slavery to reconcile our past and defend our identity as southerners.
In our shallow minded understandings, we believed the war was about classism and freedom from oppression, arguing that the south was fighting over interpretations of the Constitution regarding states’ rights. By being a part of the SCV, I thought I was honoring the tens of thousands of poor southern farmers who fought to defend their families against “northern aggression.” I repeated statements I’d heard about Lincoln’s own racism, along with other facts contrasting the purely social justice narrative we saw as being taught about the war.

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As Coal Production Ramps Up, Companies Should Pay Their Debts to Mining Communities

 

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Abandoned Company Home – Trammel, Virginia. Photo by Nick Mullins

According to reports from the Energy Information Administration, coal production will be on the rise due to increases in electrical generation from coal fired power plants and coal exports. This means that coal companies, who have come out ahead by shirking their financial responsibilities in bankruptcy court, will be primed to make yet another killing.

For a select group of people living in coal mining regions across the nation, this boom will be a short reprieve from the economic suffering felt during the most recent downturn. But those  “lucky” enough to return to the mines will see that the economic desperation created in the last five years has changed the game. Companies will not be begging for workers as they did in the mid-2000s.  Miners will be competing with each other to get what jobs do come available, and those who are hired will face the constant threat of losing their job to the next desperate miner waiting in line. Coupled with reduced mine safety regulations, a concession given by state legislators to help the industry “create jobs,” coal mining families will be facing some truly dangerous times.

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The Self-Serving Hustle of “Hillbilly Elegy” – Reblog

I’ve had multiple people asking my thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy. Between the article below by R. Mike Burr which I have reblogged here, and another article by Ivy Brashear titled “Why Media Must Stop Misrepresenting Appalachia” there is not much for me to add.

The danger that I see is that Hillbilly Elegy has garnered too much publicity for a remarkably shallow insight into Appalachia’s issues. Not only do I blame the media and public at large for taking this book to heart, I blame Vance for taking on the role of “explainer-in-chief of Appalachian issues.”

Sadly, the literature that does explore the depths of corruption and economic exploitation in the region, problems that have created the intense poverty and all the symptoms you would expect of it, seldom receive the level of media attention necessary to educate the public. If one wants to understand what has happened in Appalachia so as to begin a dialogue about a just transition I would suggest…

Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945  Ron D. Eller

High Mountains Rising  – edited by Richard A. Straw and H. Tyler Blothen

Night Comes to the Cumberlands – Harry M. Caudill

 

Tropics of Meta

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As one of a smallish group of liberal Appalachian ex-pats, I have always considered myself an ambassador for my place of birth. I have tried to respond graciously to less than good-natured jokes about familial relations and general backwardness in the Appalachian region, and highlight the pride I still take in the work ethic and common decency of my family and community.

Lately, every inquiry has been framed around J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: whether I have read it or whether conditions for “my people” are as dire as described in the book. Vance’s memoir might have eventually faded from relevance, as there is little glamour to be found in the cored and denuded hills of the region. Then desperate Appalachians came in out droves to back Donald Trump’s improbable run to the White House.

While it is debatable what profit the Appalachian will reap from a Trump presidency, Vance…

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The Ongoing Fight Against Media’s Misrepresentation of Appalachia

 

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Daniel Flatley from Bloomberg News. He was working on a story aimed at understanding why coal miners were not retraining into healthcare careers as the healthcare industry grew in Appalachia. I tried my best to answer his questions and give a broader understanding of miner retraining and economic development issues in the region. Unfortunately, the article was published just as I was heading back home to help with a family emergency. I became aware of it just today.

 

Let me start by saying that I am beyond angry with the title of the article and the image Bloomberg chose. The photo was a quick snapshot, catching two coal workers off guard with the intent of portraying them as senseless animals being enticed with a treat. Is it any wonder that we are upset with urban elitism and the so called “left” media? As I stated in my Yes! Magazine article, stereotyping Appalachians (in this case as being unintelligent) feeds directly into the divisive rhetoric spread by conservative politicians and coal industry associations. It is often so brazen, I honestly wonder if this isn’t the intent.

In terms of my quotes, I did NOT infer that people were actively avoiding retraining or other careers because of gender stereotypes and gender roles within the region. My quote, like the photo, was a snippet of a conversation that lasted 15 minutes. The issue is complex and leaves a great deal of room for speculation.

There is a lot of pride and heritage in coal mining, but very few coal miners would stick with a career in the mines if job alternatives with similar wages and benefits were available in the region.

When it comes to why miners weren’t jumping at job opportunities created by the health care industry, I did state that miners who were already involved in local emergency medical services and rescue squads could easily transition into such work, but there are many miners who would not consider it. This was not to say that they are incapable of the job, or that they have been institutionalized by the coal industry. I tried to explain that it would be a different environment to work in, and many would not pursue it for the same reason a large portion of our population does not pursue jobs in the healthcare industry. It takes a specific type of person to engage in the duties fulfilled by nurses and surgical staff.

I did speculate that many miners were holding out hope for Trump bringing back coal jobs and that many do not participate in retraining because of the lack of jobs available as they exit retraining. I also mentioned that some may fear that companies would not hire them if officials believed they were pursuing career alternatives. The coal industry has a very captive workforce at the moment, and they are seeking only the most dedicated miners to exploit.

This article is just more media misrepresentation of Appalachia not unlike what Ivy Brashear spoke to in her article “Why Media Must Stop Misrepresenting Appalachia.” Speaking of which, stay tuned as I will be addressing Hillbilly Elegy in the near future.