I'm reading Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco.
If you know anything about the history of Native Americans in the Southwest, the plight of the urban poor in cities that have been abandoned by industry on the East Coast, or the rural poor in the coalfields Appalachia, the exploitation of these communities that Hedges and Sacco describe won't be news to you. If you've never heard these stories, you're in for an eye-opener. It's absolutely heartbreaking. So far, I've read only the sections about the populations I've mentioned above. I had to put the book down and leave it down for a few days because I found myself overwhelmed with emotion---the anger I felt was too much.
In the case of each population, the authors describe the effects of those motivated by the profit motive who are trying to eke out everything they can--and to hell with the people or the land. In each case, they address the role that government has played (and continues to play), working in coordination with big business, to pursue profit. Also, in each case, they describe how the community is split, such that members come to act against members of their own community, and thus to serve the interests of the oppressors.
I find particularly moving the story of what the coal companies have done to the people and land of Appalachia. The book describes families who have lived in the area for generations who have seen their properties destroyed, and the air, the water, the earth polluted as a consequence of the actions of big coal companies extracting coal in the area. The consequences of the profit-seeking are disparately experienced by those who live there, not those who profit. The companies are able to go into communities, take out what they want without regard to the consequences of their actions on those who live there or their communities, and then leave when they have what they want.
According to the documentary The Last Mountain, between 2000 and 2006, "Massey Energy was cited for 60,000 environmental violations by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, but given a fine of less than 1% of what the regulations call for – and then continued to violate environmental laws 8,500 more times in the subsequent months" (Wikipedia, The Last Mountain). This is the same Massey energy whose negligent actions led to the deaths of 29 miners on April 5, 2010 (The New York Times, May 19, 2011; see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/us/20mine.html?pagewanted=all). I mean, seriously?!
Put simply, this kind of behavior is highly unethical. This form of exploitation of individuals, a community, and the land simply should not be allowed. There ought to be laws that prevent this kind of exploitation and in the case that such laws already exist, they ought to be strictly enforced.
I'm finding more and more problematic that there exist entities whose primary purpose is maximization of profit; this seems to me a sure-fire way to damage all of those who are not benefiting from the profit. As a society, we should not allow these companies to be able to make profit while causing consequences that are felt by our fellow human beings. The costs generated when these companies pursue profit are born by others. And in many cases, the public as a whole must then cough up money to alleviate the problems created by the companies as they ruthlessly pursue profit. For example, Big Coal pollutes the air and water and people get sick. Big Coal extracts what it can from the people and the community, moves to fresh land, people lose their jobs, and then these same people must depend on public health plans to treat their illnesses. The company profits and walks away, the workers suffer, and the public pays.
I think we need to attack the issue at two levels: first, we need to think about how we personally can live our lives such that we minimize our dependence on Big Coal. Participation in the local foods movement, either by growing your own food and livestock and/or buying from community farmers, is a perfect example of one way an individual might help lessen dependence on Big Coal, given the reliance of Big Agriculture and Big Farming on the electricity and other products generated by coal and coal by-products.
But focusing only on how we can make changes in our individual lifestyle lets the big guys off the hook. Effectively, they're the ones that have created the framework that constrains the choices available to us. Derrick Jensen in Endgame, Volume 1, writes:
Yes, it's vital to make lifestyle choices to mitigate damage caused by being a member of industrialized civilization, but to assign primary responsibility to one-self, and to focus primarily on making oneself better, is an immense copout, an abrogation of responsibility. With all the world at stake, it is self-indulgent, self-righteous, and self-important. It is also nearly ubiquitous. And it serves the interests of those in power by keeping our focus off them (p. 174-175).
If we focus only on the individual level, we run the danger of doing little more engaging in masturbation of our conscience. We end up feeling good about ourselves (there's nothing wrong with a little masturbation....) but ultimately our individual choices, even compounded over tens of thousands of people, effect little change in the broad scheme of things. Massey Energy won't stop poisoning communities and destroying the land just because you and I buy most of our produce at the local farmers' market or keep some chickens in our backyard. That's why we need to focus on the big picture, too: holding public official accountable so that they do not cater to the interests of Big Coal through public policy or through the failure to enforce public regulations.
The effects of Big Coal on Appalachia matter and we need to work with the people in those communities to stop what's happening. But the consequences of the actions of Big Coal extend far beyond Appalachia. We need to demand that public officials attend to the consequences (such as global climate change) that follow from the reliance of our society on the products of Big Coal. We must also demand that our elected leaders invest significant public resources into green, renewable energy sources. In the recent series of Presidential debates, neither one of the main party candidates addressed climate change or the critical importance of immediately reducing our consumption of products that contribute to climate change. This is an outrage.
Further Resources on Big Coal
If you're interested in learning more about the situation in Appalachia, the actions of Big Coal to exploit the local communities, the devastating effects on the communities, and the work of local activists to fight back, there are a couple of recent documentaries that I'd highly recommend:
The Last Mountain
Describes the efforts of Appalachian activists and others to fight the mountaintop removal mining methods used by Massey Energy in their community. Also describes the efforts of the residents of Prenter, West Virginia, to hold the local coal companies accountable for the polluting the local well water and possibly causing the high rates of cancer plaguing the community. Provides some insight into the control that the energy companies have over state and federal politicians, at the expense of the people.
On Coal River
This film follows the actions of a former miner and community member who fights to protect his granddaughter and her fellow students from the threat of holding ponds on the mountain above their elementary school. Others in the community describe the health effects of living in close proximity to mountain removal, brought about through contamination of the water supply, air, and soil.
Here are a few organizations working against Big Coal that you might check out:
Coal River Mountain Watch (http://www.crmw.net/) is a small nonprofit whose mission is to stop the destruction of our communities and environment by mountaintop removal mining, to improve the quality of life in our area and to help rebuild sustainable communities.
Appalachian Mountain Advocates (http://www.appalmad.org/) is a non-profit public interest law and policy organization dedicated to protecting the communities and natural resources of central Appalachia and advocating for a just and sustainable economy for the region.
On the lighter side
The oil companies are spending, spending, spending to convince viewers that there is such a thing as clean coal. Here's a cute little spoof-ad, created by the Coen brothers, about the wonders of clean coal:
Reading or viewing suggestions?
Part of my education in moving to the Southwest is learn more about the history of the local populations, focused specifically on the ways that Native Americans were treated as other populations pursued a philosophy of profit maximization. Are there any books or movies you'd recommend about the treatment of Native Americans in the Southwest?