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People keep asking me, “How do we convince coal miners we need change?” My answers vary from week to week and I do not pretend to be an “expert” on the subject. What I know has come from my own experiences and observations of the many social, economical, and cultural issues impeding change within the hearts of most coal miners.
From the outside it’s easy to realize the need for change. “Outsiders”, and even the “outsiders” who have lived in the mountains all their life, see plainly what’s going on. They understand the various toxins building up in the streams. They see the increase in flooding from mountain top removal, a result of the devastated hydrology that now exists where once forested mountains and streams regulated water flow. They know of the toxicity in slurry impoundments, in coal ash at power plants, and they know it is being released into the atmosphere from the use of coal. They see the higher poverty rates, drug abuse, lack of education, cancer rates and birth defects within coal producing counties. They even witness the coal industry’s frightening influences within our legal and political system each and every time they attempt go to Washington or the State capitols to speak with their government representatives about such problems.
For those of us capable of seeing the bigger picture it is easy to see why change must come, and what the future holds if we allow coal companies to continue strip mining in Appalachia. So why in God’s name can’t coal miners see it?
They don’t want to.
It’s a hard pill to swallow. Some folks would rather believe that coal miners are “trapped” into their profession–that they have no other choice but to work in the coal mines to support their families–but I can tell you–they do have a choice. They have the ability to make conscious decisions, to educate themselves in the facts, to choose whether or not to put a “Friends of Coal” tag or sticker on their vehicle, and the ability to choose which candidates support economic diversity and which support the coal industry. They can choose between a new $50,000 pickup truck or a truck they can only afford with a coal mining wage. They have a choice on between living on a lesser income and being happy, or trying to buy all the things they want. These days, even with the knowledge that they will have a broken body by the time they retire, coal miners are still willing to perform this sacrifice to have more than they need. I myself made those choices but I eventually realized how wrong those decisions were.
If coal miners did see the big picture like “outsiders” do, they’d have to admit their jobs are hurting people. They would realize there could never be pride in knowing that, because of their work, a child living near a coal fired power plant or a strip mine or a prep plant is taking nebulizer treatments off of an oxygen machine to breath. It’s only too bad the parents of that child haven’t got the money to move to a better area.
Instead people within the coal industry want to believe that the child is alive because their job supplies the coal that creates the electricity for the oxygen machine. They feel their job is the only thing keeping people alive in the cold depths of winter or the blazing heat of summer. Appalachian coal miners want people to think all their coal goes to making electricity. They don’t want folks to know the coal they produce is often metallurgical coal used to make steel in foreign industries like China, India, and Europe.
It’s so much easier to believe what they are doing isn’t hurting anyone. There’s no risk involved to their paycheck, there’s no reason to feel bad that people are losing their health and homes because of coal. It just doesn’t happen in their closed minds. It’s easier to go along believing that all of the statistics, the pesky toxicity reports and health impact studies are all just hype from a bunch of dumb, lazy, hippy tree huggers who have nothing better to do than to shut down coal mines to save trees. They hate a treehuggers; and, believe you me, many of them love hating treehuggers. That’s why some have no shame putting up bumper stickers saying “Save a coal miner, shoot a treehugger.” It’s just easier to denounce the facts when you hate the people trying to give them to you.
Now, let’s touch on religion. I’ve heard it time and time again, “God put coal on this earth for us to use.” or as my cousin, a disabled/retired coal miner put it, “Coal is one of the fuels given to us by our creator. Let’s all pull together and keep fighting for our rights to mine coal safely!!!!”
I never did see in the bible where He gave us permission to destroy the land and poison the water to get coal. God gave us coal and He also gave us brains and everything we need to survive a simple life. Some people choose to use their brains to fulfill their love of money. 1 Timothy 6:10 “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” So let’s deduce. The bible doesn’t give us permission to destroy and it denounces the love of money. So how is mining coal not wrong? The only reason we use coal is to make our lives extremely comfortable and more convenient as opposed to say…living hearty happy lives like the Amish. There are other ways for us to obtain a similar level of comfort and convenience through much less destructive renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar, biomass, etc etc. Sure we may not be as comfortable since these forms of energy can’t fully accommodate our voracious appetite for energy, but then again I don’t remember a passage in the bible in which Jesus complained about not having enough hot water or not being able to keep his thermostat set at 75 degrees so he could run around in his house wearing boxer shorts during the middle of winter. If God created this world, why would He say it’s okay to destroy and poison it? When did He tell us it was okay to destroy the forests and mountains He created along with the natural water filters He designed? Did He say it was okay since it gives us money, a little for the workers and a lot for share holders and CEOs?
I don’t believe there is any religion that would condone what’s happening in Appalachia. People are once again manipulating religion to serve their purpose, just like slaughtering the “heathens” who just so happened to be Native Americans living peacefully on land that people wanted to get rich from. Every religion preaches love, kindness, and giving from the heart. Tell me when was the last time you saw the coal industry giving any of the above without wanting something in return…if ever?
Some coal miners do realize what is happening, they do realize the terrible injustices occurring within the coalfields on every level from economics and the environment, to political and social. They are few though, very few. These are the men who often feel “trapped” with little option as they see it. Few industries can use a coal miner’s skills. It would be like starting over again if they were to leave the mountains. A few may have such a deep love for their family and their mountain home that they can’t bare the thought of leaving. Others may have just given up on seeing a better future ahead of themselves and accepted their situation. All of their hearts are in the right place, but they just can’t break free from their own bonds. They believe as I once did, coal mining is the best way and there is no other way. There is still hope though. It takes a lot of work, just a different type or work, and it also takes the realization that life isn’t about money. It takes the belief that you can find abundance in even the littlest things. It took tragedy to break my bonds and it wasn’t just a knick on my leg when my bonds were broken. From the ashes we’ve learned to look at our misfortune as an opportunity even though today we are still in a struggle. Despite it being tough, we are finding more ways to be happy with what we have than all the things we thought we wanted and needed.
So, getting back to how do we get coal miners to change what they believe… A good friend once told me, “You can’t make a person change, they have to change themselves.” I have to agree. No amount of preaching will turn coal miners from what they believe. It will have to be something right in their face affecting the well being of their own family. We can attempt to show them all we want but we cannot keep our hopes up that there will be a massive social upheaval amongst miners and their families. If we look to the history of the coalfields we will see what has brought change. I hope it doesn’t take the same now. I guess we just need to keep doing what we are doing, keeping preaching, keep showing, hoping they realize it before it’s to late. As Reverend English said in a lecture regarding the new documentary “Hawks Nest: Blood Beneath our Feet“…
“We must tell…we must teach….and we must toil.”