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The War on Coal - How Environmentalism is Harming Its Own Cause in Appalachia

Ian S.D. MO, United States 0 Ratings 1 Discussions 1 Group posts

Posted by: Ian S.D.

In the Appalachian region of America, Kentucky, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania, the economy is greatly influenced by the coal industry. This region alone produces roughly 66% of all coal in America, and across Appalachia there are entire towns where the majority of the workers are involved in the production of coal. In these coal mining towns, it is easy to see opposition to regulatory efforts: a billboard over the I-77 in Charleston, West Virginia, proclaims the area “Obama’s No Jobs Zone”(New York Times). For years, the people of Appalachia have been opposed to green efforts such as the Obama administration’s campaign to place stricter regulations on mountaintop removal.

However, this wasn’t always the case. There was a time, in the late 1970’s, when environmentalists and Appalachian coal workers shared a common enemy in coal company executives. Green advocates opposed their environmentally harmful decisions, while Appalachian residents were suspicious of the executives’ efforts to break up their unions and take advantage of coal workers (Mother Jones). While this wasn’t the basis for friendship, the coal workers and environmentalists shared an "enemy of my enemy" relationship for some time, and worked together to hold the higher-ups in the coal industry at bay. Certainly the coal workers and environmental advocates didn’t have nearly the same kind of vitriol for each other that they do now.

Fast forward 40 years, and the situation has changed drastically. Many coal corporations have effectively destroyed unions in the area by hiring outside workers who are unlikely to unionize (Mother Jones). This has been causing economic problems in the coal mining towns of Appalachia, and the coal executives have taken this opportunity to put out an extensive advertising campaign to paint environmentalists as the cause of the problem. Blogger Nick Mullins, “The Thoughtful Coalminer”, writes that industry executives have begun to point to environmentalists as an outside threat. “Since the coal industry has the money to promote their message and they have the coal miner’s ear at work and through paychecks, they can paint a picture of environmentalists as being ‘out of touch tree hugging idiots’ who support the ‘War on coal’”, Mullins says.

This in and of itself is nothing new; many environmentally harmful industries have painted environmentalists as soulless, job-destroying monsters. The problem is that many environmentalists seem to be playing right into the hands of these smear campaigns by being openly hostile towards coal workers. Mullins writes “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”. If environmental advocates continue to talk down to coal workers, they will continue to see us as outsiders, and they will never listen to us, even if we are preaching solid, irrefutable facts that could help them. If we want to be heard, we must adapt, and advocate for environmental causes on their terms.

This habit of talking down to workers is especially important, because this is a problem which is not limited to the coal industry. Many people work in and depend on industries often characterized as environmentally unfriendly for their livelihoods. If we continue telling these workers to disregard their livelihoods in order to support green initiatives, we will continue to prove to them that we are incapable of understanding their situations, and we will never garner their support.

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