appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

Month: November, 2014

Wild, Wonderful and Free

Don Blankenship, longtime Chief Executive Officer of coal giant Massey Energy, was indicted November 13 on charges that he consistently violated federal mine safety rules at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine until an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 of 31 miners.

The Charleston, West Virginia Gazette reports that a federal grand jury charges Blankenship with “conspiring to cause willful violations of ventilation requirements and coal-dust control rules — meant to prevent deadly mine blasts — during a 15-month period prior to the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation.” The allegations come with a maximum prison sentence of 31 years.

I take no joy in the prospect of another dehumanizing incarceration, but regret that a coal baron held so much power in the first place.

Before industry came to the mountains a unique form of common governance existed. Communities obtained subsistence from the surrounding old growth forest. Everyone understood not to claim more than necessary from the commons. This governance naturally produced the maximum sustainable yield of resources. Locals labored, bartered and brought goods to market together.

As European expansion claimed the new world, land became the ultimate commodity and all eyes were fixed on the pristine forests of Appalachia. Enclosure movements commenced as a cash economy developed in the region for the first time. By the early 19th century violent confrontations ruined native populations. The mass slaughter of indigenous people culminated in the Trail of Tears, eradicating tribes from Appalachian governance.

Decades later, in post-Civil War America, mountain settlers were coaxed into selling mineral rights to would-be industry barons. Broad form deeds were developed to acquire local lands. Mineral rights were obtained for less than a dollar an acre as mountaineers maintained surface rights. Clauses in these deeds, however, allowed industrialists to take over the land at the company’s discretion for resource extraction — even if such acquisition would surprise grandchildren decades later. Locals were forced off of their property to line the pockets of absentee capitalists, often by rights that had been sold generations before. By the end of the Industrial Revolution coal reigned as king.

Industry came to own a vast amount of property in the Central and Southern Appalachians, affording barons incredible power over mountain communities. Company towns popped up near mining operations. Workers lived in company barracks, were paid in company scrip and were required to purchase goods at the company store. Mono-economies developed across the coalfields that still persist today.

Working conditions were incredibly hazardous for miners. Explosions, shaft collapse, Black Lung and Silicosis ran rampant in coal communities, as did poverty. Company scrip kept workers incredibly poor as billions of dollars were  extracted from the region. Worker organization was rather difficult in these company-owned communities, but rebellion and unionization did take place. Unionization failed to liberate labor, however, as class struggle fell to capital. The coal towns acted as an exploitative system of power, impacting every aspect of the lives of miners and their families. Powerlessness produced quiescence.

With the news of Blankenship’s indictment, we are reminded of this historical context and confronted with the realization that not much has changed to this day. Appalachian communities experience some of the worst poverty in the United States. Miner safety is set aside for the sake of capital. Vast ecosystems are destroyed as mountaintop removal blasts its way across the landscape. Broad form deeds, after the boom of strip mining in the 1970s, claimed family hollers throughout the 1980s and 90s. The regulatory state, charged with oversight, continually turns a blind eye to industry violations and worker injuries so coal mines can stay in operation, as recently reported by NPR.

But, for what it is worth, I am an optimist. Restorative justice and regeneration is coming to the coalfields. A beautiful anarchism awaits Appalachia.

Coal has established deep cultural roots in the region and will no doubt remain a market mainstay for some time to come. But coal will no longer reign. Deserved competition will significantly reduce its role. Pristine mountain ecosystems will reclaim prominence in emerging economic orders. Beneficial ecosystem services, far too important for the cash nexus, will reclaim their rightful place in the market. Holistic medicine, decentralized food production, eco-tourism, alternative energy markets and trade cooperatives are just a few examples of market forces that will empower mountain people to reclaim the commons. As opposed to capital, individuals will own the means of production, hold agency over their labor and signal the market.

There are no words to describe the complexity that will follow. Such a liberty can only be imagined by the people of this incredibly diverse, ancient terrain. Appalachia will be wild, wonderful and free.

Quiescence and the Production of Uncertainy

New research, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that a large fallout plume of oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is deposited on the seafloor. This is a significant finding because this 2-million barrels worth of oil was originally thought to be trapped in the deep-sea. We now know that the crude settled across a 1,250 square mile patch of rare habitat around the spot of the blow-out. Furthermore, the study notes the oil is concentrated in the top half-inch of the seafloor and is incredibly patchy. Research suggest this discovery marks anywhere between 4 to 31 percent of the oil lost from the Macondo well. The rest of the oil is likely deposited elsewhere, avoiding detection because of its patchy nature.

There is much discussion over the environmental implications of the BP disaster. Rightly so, the blowout holds rank among the worst industrial disasters in environmental history. However, there is little discussion on how such disasters, all across the globe, continue to occur. In the wake of such disasters, there appears to be a rift between the state and big capital. The public often looks to regulators for habitat protection, biodiversity conservation and to levy punishment on the corporate sector. Industrial disasters do create conflict between these institutions, but it is latent. The state-corporate apparatus has ensured big industry will maintain a lock on the energy market. Because of this, the national economy is dependent on large corporate institutions and the conflict is short-lived. The real story is how big capital and state power produce quiescence and uncertainty within the public arena during and after disasters.

What happened in the Gulf is another unfortunate portrayal of glaring inequality. Most coastal communities in the deep south, especially in Louisiana, exhibit a domination of an elite over the non-elite. Local markets are dependent on healthy coastal ecosystems for resource (fisheries) harvesting and beneficial ecosystem services such as flood mitigation, water purification, storm buffering and more. Big oil maintains a strong presence in coastal communities as well, however, creating numerous problems for locals. From “Cancer Alley” to coastal erosion via dredging, big oil wrecks local economies.

So where’s the rebellion? Why is it that such social deprivation and threats to public/environmental health have failed to yield democratic participation? Perhaps it is the existence of a positive feedback loop between power, capital and quiescence.

Quiescence is often used to portray the legitimacy of systems of power and domination. The state seeks social and economic stability and utilizes power to ensure such stability. Because of this, systems of power and domination are maintained not because of their legitimacy, but because of quiescence itself. This is the very nature of power: Maintain the existing order by further centralization. Sociologist John Gaventa, in his book Power andPowerlessness, discusses this phenomenon:

Power is exercised not just upon participants within the decision-making process but also towards the exclusion of certain participants and issues altogether… The most effective and insidious use of power is to prevent such conflict from arising in the first place.

In regards to natural disasters, the prevention of conflict is achieved by the production of uncertainty. This is important, because it is in discourse over ones own socio-economic environment that the true character of a power system is revealed. Anthropologist and disaster expert Gregory Button, in his book Disaster Culture, notes we live in a highly professionalized culture where public debate is pushed aside by privileged arguments. Button writes:

Lay questions, objections and attempts to resolve uncertainty are often dismissed as uninformed, lacking in scientific vigor, irrational, and at times, almost hysteric. One woman whose life had been changed by the TVA ash spill recalled an exchange with a TVA official who avoided answering her questions and dismissed her reasoning. In response, she said, “Why do you treat us as stupid, why do you reject our arguments while upholding yours as the only reasonable ones?” This frustration typifies the kind of rejection and frustration many disaster victims suffer in contesting official versions of reality.

The tools of uncertainty manufacture consent. From disasters such as the TVA ash spill, the BP Horizon incident, or any industrial disaster, the public arena is dismissed while government/industry scientists, state agencies and the corporate sector dominate the discussion. This allows systems of power and domination, as explained by Button, to both define and control the distribution and interpretation of knowledge, while community members are made to feel as if they are arbitrators of uncertainty. Furthermore, Sociologist Max Weber notes that power systems wish to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping knowledge and intention a secret. This allows the elite to hide knowledge and keep their actions protected from criticism. The control of the discussion governs what is understood about disasters — manufactured uncertainty produces quiescence.

As for the BP Horizon blowout, the facts and uncertainties surrounding the disaster reflect these methods. The actual size of the spill is still unknown and until the PNAS publication we did not know the fate of the sequestered crude. The ecological impact of the spill, especially on rare species, such as migratory sea turtles, is now extended to the ocean dwelling habitat. If public discourse of the study ensues, however, some BP spokesperson will talk about how large spills like this are uncommon or pull out the big guns and call the spill “unprecedented.” There will be an ad campaign managed by BP that will discuss all the money and all the good they have done in the wake of the spill. The Environmental Protection Agency will boast a record of strict oversight. Even though the oil was thought to be in the deep ocean, the public will be ensured, by both state and corporate bureaucrats, that environmental contamination will be mitigated and public health will be protected. The same old song and dance that has occurred for the last four years, even though locals have continuously raised concerns over the official narrative. Of course, all of this ignores that oil spills are a very common occurrence and each raise public and environmental health concerns in their own right. Nevertheless, quiescence will remain because of the production of uncertainty.

There is much discussion in political circles, libertarian and otherwise, over the rise of freed markets and alternatives to fossil fuels. These are good discussions to have, and they are important to thrust into the public arena. It is important to keep the market as liberated as possible — this allows new technology and alternative institutions to develop. It is important to remember that recent shifts to adaptive governance and collaborative models for resource use/extraction are an option for local communities. There is much to be said about decentralization these days, and this is a good thing. It reminds us that social power is still in the fight, chipping away at systems of power and domination. It is equally important to know how entrenched authority manufactures consent and works to suppress social progress. On the road to the decentralized society we must understand power and its hurdles to transition.

Social power is the rebellion: it will lead to the end of uncertainty and thus the end of quiescence.

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