I tend to get flak from both sides of the argument surrounding coal. Environmentalists distance themselves from me because I am often critical of them, and some even hate me these days. Pro-coal folks tend to dislike me for my stance against coal companies. It only goes to show that telling the truth has never been popular, or easy.
So let’s get to it.
Coal mining families are not very receptive to environmentalists—and that’s putting it lightly. Why should they be? In what way have environmentalists approached coal mining families over the past two decades? In what way have environmentalists presented themselves to the public?
Though most environmentalists have their hearts in the right place when it comes to helping other people, I’m afraid they’ve done a poor job of translating it to the public. So when the knee jerk reaction of coal miners and their families is to identify environmentalists as “out of touch,” I am not entirely surprised.
Decades of outside media infiltration has portrayed our people (Appalachians) in a negative way. The “War on Poverty” brought thousands of people from outside the mountains to tell us how to live (like we were too stupid or something). Let’s not forget that the first outsiders to come into the mountains where the land agents and coal companies who would lie, cheat, and steal to take our lands and mineral rights, and would then force us into a mono-economy thereby making us dependent on mining coal to survive.Appalachian people have had enough of outsiders—and for good reasons.
That being said, I am very skeptical of many outsiders myself, and will gladly tell anyone who even remotely appears to be looking down their nose at us to go &#*^ themselves, no matter how “well intentioned” they think they are. But I digress.
For the longest time, unions helped us remind ourselves that coal companies were the outsiders, but when the unions were busted, the industry seized the opportunity to re-image themselves as part of our communities. Through industry public relations organizations, we were told that Appalachia was “coal” (see Bell & York, 2010) and that any threat against coal was a threat to our pride and heritage. They have even pointed to environmentalists as the new outside threat. Since the coal industry has the money to promote their message (see Friends of Coal), they have the coal miner’s ear at work and through paychecks. They can even paint a picture of environmentalists as being “out of touch tree hugging idiots” who support the “War on coal.”
Many environmentalists have played right into this portrayal, sometimes so perfectly that I’ve wondered if it was intentional. Let me repeat that last statement. Many environmentalists have played right into the negative stereotypes created by the industry, so perfectly that I’ve wondered if it was intentional. If the coal companies infiltrated the unions, you know they infiltrated the environmental movement.
But why would the coal industry do such a thing? It all comes down to misinformation. If they could get environmentalists to keep portraying the negative stereotypes people know them for, environmentalist’s credibility within local communities becomes permanently damaged. People would not listen when they were being told about the health impacts caused by mining. Even if they did listen and understand, most people would never speak out for fear of being considered a “tree hugger”(see Bashir, Lockwood, Chasteen, Nadolny, & Noyes, 2013). It is no different than when coal companies placed people inside the unions to push violence. And if you don’t think the industry is that conniving, just read up on your history. Remember that Don Blankenship was caught red handed influencing the State Supreme Court (see Schnayerson, 2008) and that every coal company payout to citizens impacted by mining comes with a gag order to keep them silent about what the companies did. Let’s not forget how they even have an organization to develop school programs that teach children how great coal is. It’s all about image; make the coal companies look good and make the enemies of coal look bad—anyway you can. But I digress…again.
I think everyone has seen the pro-coal/anti-environmentalist bumper stickers, “Save a Surface Miner, Shoot a Tree hugger,” “Coal Keeps the Lights On,” “Don’t like Coal, Don’t Use Electricity,” “Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark” and “I love mountains, the coal underneath them pays my bills” just to name a few. These are aimed directly at environmentalists. I’ve personally been in safety talks where mine management tongue lashed environmentalists and received the vocalized support of the miners. The election of Trump was in direct opposition to environmentalism. Look at the image at the beginning of this post again. Coal mining families show up at environmental protests as the opposition.
I eventually had to ask myself, “How in God’s name can so many environmentalists not realize they are doing more to polarize the situation than to help it? How long can they keep blaming others while not taking accountability for their own actions?”
At the end of the day, I had to realize that perhaps many environmental organizations are just as “out of touch” as Appalachian people think them to be. They’ve kept repeating the same courses of action over and over, they’ve continued acting in ways that conflicted with local culture, and they’ve kept shoving their message down everyone’s throat in the way they wanted it to be given (protests, civil disobedience, all with some participants forcing counter cultural attitudes through their appearance). I’ve even heard some environmentalists say, “I’m fed up with talking to pro-coal people. They won’t LISTEN.” I’m sorry to tell them that 60% or more of people in Central Appalachia are pro-coal because their entire economy depends upon it.
Rather than realizing their approach needs to be changed, rather than understanding that they need to come down off of their lofty moral high ground and start talking to the people on their own terms, environmental organizations have become the uppity, elitist outsiders that Appalachians have distrusted—even despised—for generations.
A few environmental organizations have understood this problem. Their solution was to use a few local citizens to make themselves appear to be “grassroots.” Sorry folks, “grassroots” organizations are organizations in which the majority of people come from the community. It also means that “grassroots” organizations receive guidance and assistance from outside organizations but are in no way controlled or heavily influenced by them or their grant funding. If the majority of Appalachians are tied to coal, then it should also be true that a grassroots organization would be made up predominantly of people who are tied to coal and their main offices be located in the region, not just in the outskirts.
Before we go any further, I should mention that my critical analysis of environmentalism in Appalachia is in no way a lean towards the coal industry. I know my history, and I know they’ve raped us all, taking literally trillions of dollars of coal from our mountains and leaving us with the mess: high poverty rates, black lung, broken backs, drug abuse, water contamination, underfunded schools, and billions of gallons of coal slurry in impoundments all throughout Appalachia. So don’t count me as being pro-coal by any stretch of the imagination.
I’m also not an idiot. I know any change from a coal based mono-economy is going to be long and painful. As I mentioned before, the economy is utterly dependent upon coal, and I can’t help but blame the coal companies, their politicians, and their supporters for keeping it that way. Worst of all, coal won’t last forever. That’s the cold hard truth. Today companies are merely scraping up what’s left; they’re picking through the bones. Everyone should know this by now.
A true just transition will never take place until people living in Appalachia are no longer dependent upon the mono-economy of coal. It will take creating new policies that phase out coal while requiring the companies to clean up their messes, and policies that enable Appalachians to build their own local economies from within while providing them all the necessary resources to do so. Getting there will require electing politicians not easily bought out by coal, and that will only happen when people once again begin to question the coal industry. So long as they are pushed into an ‘us vs. the environmentalists’ debate by well-funded coal associations and environmental activists, we will never expect to see any progress.
At this point, even though the environmentalists are on the side of positive change, they do not have the credibility necessary to persuade people living in Appalachia that change must come. They’ve burned too many bridges. That’s why many organizations working in economic and community development won’t go anywhere near the subject of the environment. That’s why I stray from it as well on this blog. It’s sad too. I have many friends that are environmentalists and I know for a fact they have their hearts in the absolute right place (or else I wouldn’t be friends with them). Hundreds banded together to bring water to people in need during the Charleston, WV water crisis, and not just the city dwellers. Many jump at the chance to help people, be it digging mud out of basements after flooding, raising money to help people who’ve lost everything, to working in people’s gardens, and so much more. Many of them I am proud to call my dearest friends and I believe they are more selfless than most Appalachians I know.
But the truths are there, environmental organizations and activists have no credibility and they won’t have until they can take a long hard look in the mirror and see how they’ve portrayed themselves to coal mining families. I hope to, that coal mining families will read this and realize that all environmentalists aren’t bad people by any stretch of the imagination.
Perhaps coal mining families could open their hearts, show a little forgiveness, and realize what the real problem is, but it won’t happen until people outside the region come off their high horses.
And lastly, when it comes to the environment I will say this. I love being in the woods—what’s left of them at least. I think most people back home do as well. No matter which “side” folks are on, they have to start admitting that the coal industry has done more damage to the land than anyone would like to admit. I think folks need to realize that replacing woodlands, natural springs, and clear streams with acidic mine drainage, runoff from coal slurry impoundments, and strip mines, may actually have something to do with the higher cancer rates we’re seeing. Yes, yes, it also has to do with poor access to health care, poor food choices, smoking, drug abuse, and all the like…but most of those issues are directly related to poverty which is caused by a mono-economy built by the coal industry. In other words, coal is and always has been the problem.
The fact of the matter is, people in distant cities use our mountains and our people as a means to cheaper energy to live fancier lifestyles. We must stand up and say that if they want Appalachia’s energy resources, they’ll have to pay a much higher price for it that includes taking care of us and mitigating the environmental health issues coal mining causes, not just filling the pockets of outside banks, coal company officials, and stockholders. Otherwise, we should seek out reparations for all that has been done to us, and other people who suffer the same issues in similar places across the nation.
Last Updated September 1, 2017
Bashir, N. Y., Lockwood, P., Chasteen, A. L., Nadolny, D., & Noyes, I. (2013). The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence: The ironic impact of activists. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(7), 614–626. http://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.1983
Bell, S. E., & York, R. (2010). Community Economic Identity: The Coal Industry and Ideology Construction in West Virginia. Rural Sociology, 75(1), 111–143.
Schnayerson, M. (2008). Coal River. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.