A Pox on the King

by Grant A. Mincy

Image Credit: webecoist.momtastic.com

Image Credit: webecoist.momtastic.com – Coal Fire Power Plant

Of all the complex wicked problems addressed by the current environmental movement, perhaps the most urgent is climate change.  The scientific community overwhelmingly agrees that ecosystems are rather vulnerable to changing climates, with a large number of species (upwards of 40%) at risk of extinction if current warming trends continue. It is well noted in the peer-reviewed literature that concentrations of  important greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) in the atmosphere have increased markedly since the advent of industrial society – a product of anthropogenic utility of fossil fuels (though factors such as deforestation have also played a role). Beyond the human race, the success or failure of the environmental movement holds great implications for all flora and fauna and all of Earths most vast and wondrous landscapes and seascapes

Fossil fuels are the primary source of energy for industrial (and industrializing) societies. Particular to the United States, fossil fuels provide 85% of the nation’s energy. Of the three pillars of the fossil industry – oil, natural gas and coal – coal is king. Coal is the primary source of energy for the United States, providing over half of the electricity consumed by Americans. Coal is king because it fuels the grid of industrialized society. Coal also just so happens to be the most carbon intensive fossil resource. A kilowatt-hour of electricity from coal produces 2.4 lbs of carbon dioxide which is more than double the amount for oil and natural gas. Though responsible for just half the electricity generated in the United States, King Coal is responsible for 80% of the carbon dioxide released by utilities.

Imagine the sense of urgency the environmental movement must have felt, then, in the spring of 2007 when Energy Department analyst Erik Shuster circulated a document proposing 151 new coal-fired power plants be slated for construction. What to do about such a crisis?

Climate Hope, creit to climatehopebook.com

Climate Hope, credit to climatehopebook.com

I have just finished Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal by Ted Nace. This summer I hope to make progress on a study for The Center for a Stateless Society – Flowers of the Dark: A Libertarian Analysis of the Appalachian Coalfields. Nace’s Climate Hope was the first book on my reading list because it describes the extraordinary organizing methods and political engagement of environmental activists that empowered them to halt the construction of 109 of the proposed plants.

Climate Hope is a relatively easy, incredibly engaging read. Climate Hope is a testament to the power of democratic social movements, protest and the mobilization of citizen coalitions. The book tells the story of how organized people, from sit ins at coal surface mines, to blockades of large financial institutions, were able to deliver an incredible blow to what is arguably America’s most powerful industry.

Nace takes a comprehensive look at what the climate and anti-coal movements have experienced first hand – social movements that advance and uphold public welfare, seek justice and progress society. Climate Hope is a first person narrative of the authors own involvement in the environmental movement. The early chapters of the book describe his transformation from a concerned citizen to an activist, while the latter chapters describe in detail the growing anti-coal movement.

Nace opens his narrative with a discussion of climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. In May of 2007, Dr. Hansen, a prominent figure in the climate movement himself, argued that by simply moving beyond coal, 80% of the anthropogenic climate problem could be solved. Hansen, at the time, was a leading climate scientist at NASA and his declaration of “the 80% solution” is what inspired Nace to begin his activist work.

Nace then describes the environmental movement. He starts by looking at the campaigns of rather well-known (NRDC, Sierra Club, RAN, etc) civic sector institutions and how they proposed the United States move beyond coal. To his dismay, there was little being done on the “80% solution,” so Nace started what is now CoalSwarm.org which serves as a global reference center about coal. The site contains information about coal plants (existing and proposed), strip mines, pit mines, industry officials, coal companies, coal politics and local to global environmental groups and actions.

Nace also informs readers about the heart and soul of the anti-coal campaign – democratic social movements. Though large campaigns are very important, those on the frontlines of the fight against coal are self-organizing. Of particular interest to the libertarian is the description of the modern environmental movement. Nace writes:

It was the famed leaderless coordinating style of the youth climate movement. Although direct action is most often associated with protesting against something, the youth climate movement can also be seen as a large, far-flung experiment in new ways to run groups and make decisions without top-down hierarchies and arbitrary authority. This puts the movement in the wide tradition of anarchist, anti-authoritarian social innovation.

And he is dead on with this description. If those of us in the environmental movement are to resist power and domination in our communities, how can we tolerate such forces in our movement? In my own experience organizing against mountaintop removal coal mining I have seen first hand, and been amazed at, how successful this stigmergic organization actually is.  Nace does a great job describing the actions of those from across the nation, from the Great Pacific Northwest to the gentle Appalachian Valley and Ridge. Here are some of the activists, scientists, and political leaders profiled in the book, along with the coal executives they opposed (from climatehopebook.com):

  • Attorney Carol Overland, whose startling revelations of runaway costs eviscerated proposed coal plants in Minnesota and Delaware.
  • Coal baron “Buck” Harless, who rallied his industry to win West Virginia for George Bush in the 2000 election, ensuring that destructive mining practices would continue unabated for eight years.
  • Navajo activist Elouise Brown, whose impromptu blockade in subzero weather turned the tide against Blackstone billionaire Steve Schwarzmann’s Desert Rock power plant.
  • Climatologists James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha, whose calculations identified a phase-out of coal as the key measure capable of staunching climate chaos.
  • Appalachian coalfield activists and Goldman Prize winners Maria Gunnoe, Judy Bonds and Keepers of the Mountains Activist Larry Gibson.
  • Coal flak Bob Henrie, who masterminded the industry’s “clean coal” campaign.
  • Organizer Ted Glick, whose Washington, D.C., hunger strike and Vietnam-era organizing skills inspired and instructed a new generation of activists.
  • Youth activists Hannah Morgan, Kate Rooth, and scores of other direct action protesters who conducted lock-down blockades at mines and coal plants, despite repeated police use of pepper spray, taser guns, and pain compliance holds.
  • Attorney Bruce Nilles, who forged the Sierra Club’s pioneering campaign against coal while most other national environmental groups sat on their hands.
  • Benedictine monk Terrance Kardong, whose 30-year fight to halt the spread of strip mining in North Dakota culminated in a “win for the mouse.”
  • Rainforest Action Network leader Mike Brune, whose organization’s protests against banks exposed the coal industry’s financial underbelly.
  • Organizers Dana Kuhnline and Sierra Murdoch, whose Power Past Coal campaign sparked over three hundred grassroots protests.

Of particular importance to me is his chapter “War Against the Mountains,” which touches on the subject of mountaintop removal coal mining. Coal mining has a long history in Appalachia. The deep pit mines and the “canary in the coal mine” are reminiscent of a mining method whose time has, for the most part, past. The “new school” method of coal extraction is coal surface mining. Through much of Appalachia, the preferred surface mining method is mountaintop removal/valley fill – a process that literally blasts away the tops of mountains and pushes the left over material, deemed overburden, into the valleys and streams below. Since the 1970’s, over 520 mountains have been leveled by the mining technique (an area three times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) and waste from this process has added toxic pollutants to over 2000 miles worth of Appalachian waters. This mining method is rather contentious in the region and in recent years arguments both for and against have grown increasingly heated. On one side of the issue are folks concerned about their cultural and natural heritage, on the other side are those worried about losing the only economic boon in the coalfields. Nace describes this tug of war in Climate Hope, recalling a protest he was part of in a West Virginia holler:

As I watched these scenes of chaos, it was obvious what motivated both sides of the controversy. On the one side were West Virginians whose families had long treasured these beautiful mountains, in some cases for over two hundred years. Most Americans, faced with the destruction of their homes, would fight just as hard. On the other side were workers who feared for their livelihoods and their families. Though they had been manipulated into serving thugs for an unscrupulous corporate boss, their personal concerns were no less valid.

This is a particularly important quote. For some in the environmental movement it is easy to disregard the arguments and emotions of coal miners. It is rather important, however, to carefully consider where they are coming from. Remember, coal is king in Appalachia, and for many, mining coal is what keeps food on the table. Coal mining itself has deep, romantic cultural roots throughout the region. I was happy to see Nace alert readers to the fact that we should be standing with coal miners. Mine workers are being lied to by industry suits, the mechanization of coal is costing thousands of miners their livelihood. Coal surface mining replaces working people with machines, explosives and specialized, outsourced, labor. The promise of a new Appalachia, beyond coal, is a promise to liberate all individuals from economic centralization.

For all the great things Climate Hope is, the book is not an endorsement of  liberty, statelessness or pure democracy. Though direct action is thoroughly discussed, my one objection to the book is its endorsement of wind, solar, geothermal and other “green industry” pathways to transition the United States, and world, off of coal. His economic arguments about the true cost of coal are spot on, and his analysis of falling prices in the green energy sector are largely accurate as well, but I find it disturbing that we are to endorse other large industries as the answer to our energy woes. Don’t get me wrong, these resources are incredible and should absolutely be utilized, but we must transition away from large, hierarchical  industries and allow communities to democratically manage their energy needs in the open market place – no more energy “kings,” no matter how green the alternatives.

In the final analysis, I highly recommend this book. It is an incredible narrative that pays homage to the self organized movement against coal. The book praises numerous citizens groups and individuals that have networked together to take on the challenge of climate change – standing up to one of the most powerful industries on the planet. The movement is incredibly diverse, composed of  coalfield residents, coal miners, climate scientists, religious leaders, students, academics, city slickers (such as myself) and many more from across the planet – all working together on the 80% solution.

This movement has seen crushing defeats along its journey, but has also garnished great triumphs. When feeling low, Nace’s narrative is a great resource to turn to. The environmental movement has the momentum. Climate Hope tells the story of when we fought King Coal and we won.

Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal by Ted Nace, published by Coal Swarm. $4.00