appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

Month: May, 2016

Comments to the Bureau of Land Management — May 26, 2016 in the Tennessee Theatre.

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Bluegrass for the Long Haul


A recent article in Kentucky’s leading paper, The Lexington Herald Leader, discusses the down-fall of coal in the Bluegrass state. The statistics reported are alarming. Overall, the industry is at a 118-year low as more than 50% of coal jobs have disappeared over the past few years. In a region laden with poverty the hits keep coming.

There is a bright side though. With the fall of coal, the industry’s mono-economy will be shattered. Markets will be freed. A new economics is on the horizon.

Coal industry history in Eastern Kentucky is as dirty as the rock itself. With the expansion of the railroad and rise of extractive industry in the early 1900’s, coal became king. Company towns littered the Appalachians. Workers were paid in company scrip and they shopped at the company store for overpriced goods. Union organizing was discouraged by armed company personnel. Violence was common as Appalachia industrialized. Coal flourished in a state-supported mono-economy. Later, the mechanization of mining, especially throughout the 1970’s, exacerbated the loss of labor in the region.

“>The industry is a system of power and domination. Today, as the system fails, new markets and social power are on the rise.

One such example can be found on Ky. 7, a two-lane road in Eastern Kentucky. Here, a booming artisan market (300 strong) known as Antique Alley is flourishing. Kentucky native Megan Smith, in another article for the Leader, writes: “Entrepreneurism is awakening, plans are unfolding and the arts are gaining strength, despite the decimation of the area’s economic lifeblood: coal.”

Local Bonita Adams, owner of the Kentucky Proud N&S Farm goat’s milk products, is part of this economic transition.“We are trying to realize our potential and put some things in place that will draw people down Route 7 to help bring a little income to our local artists, crafters and musicians,” Adams said. “I hope that opportunities arise for our people. I am not thinking big business; just small ones with big personalities and talents.”

As coal declines social power emerges. And why wouldn’t it? Appalachia is not destitute. Never has been. But now, in a post-industrial landscape, it can truly thrive.

The mountains, full of fern, trillium and wildflower, rhododendron, poplar, oak, spruce and eastern hemlock are breathtakingly beautiful. Water trickles, eddies and carves across ancient rock throughout the valley and ridge. The purple horizons are often smoky, soaked in clouds as the temperate forest produces its own mist. The wildlife is splendid. Appalachia is a living place, a great cradle of biodiversity.

Time will only tell what will come of Appalachia. But, free land, free of the administrators and their maniacal ideas of “progress,” “industrialism,” and “economic development” will provide cultural and supportive ecosystem services to let the region thrive.

The forest can be a place of recreation, physical exertion and reflection. As ecosystems recover from industrial trespass, biodiversity will bounce back. This will bring tourism, restoration ecology and biological education to the region. Local knowledge of the natural environment, rooting ginseng and herbs for example, will develop sustainable markets. The mountains themselves, their biodiversity and climate, will inspire art (good old foot stompin’ bluegrass!), culture and scientific inquiry.

Appalachia is on the verge of a great revolution. The mountains can be a common place — community owned and democratically operated. It’s been a long road, and the journey isn’t over, but as locals are empowered the land inches ever closer to liberty. The Bluegrass State proves it. Appalachia is rising. The transition is coming. State and industry power are being challenged. The movement is awake and in it for the long haul.

Volunteers for the Long Haul

Tennessee Theatre from Gay Street, downtown Knoxville.

Tennessee Theatre from Gay Street, downtown Knoxville.

Good old Knoxville, Tennessee — this scruffy little town that I love — will host the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a dismal bureaucracy, on May 26, 2016. BLM is heading to the iconic Tennessee Theatre in the heart of downtown to take comments pertaining to how “public” lands are utilized for coal mining. Specifically, strip mining will be under the microscope. Moreover, taxpayer-funded, corporate welfare-ridden, landscape-plundering strip mining will be examined.

Though King Coal is in decline it is still a major industry. An estimated 40% of coal extracted in the United States comes from land managed by the BLM. We taxpayers fund the BLM and thus the mining on these landscapes. We then have to watch as the black rock is sold at bargain prices to industry giants. It’s American capitalism. Risk and cost are socialized while profit is privatized. It’s nation against country. State against our lands.

So, if you’re in the area and wish to discuss industrial disasters (such as the TVA ash spill), growing risk and concerns regarding coal and air pollution (one in eight global deaths according to the World Health Organization), the impact of coal on climate in the age of change, the sixth mass extinction and how we cannot afford to lose anymore habitat, or even the rise of Tennessee’s green energy economy then please save the date. At the very least you can enjoy the theatre.

There is another great opportunity here though. It’s a chance to speak to bureaucrats. See what makes them tick. It is an historic opportunity, really. Tell government officials they are not doing a very good job. Join the ranks of organizers, citizens groups and concerned community members and tell the administrators “no more.”

It’s a chance to be part of the “wild” revolution.

In hearings like these individuals can directly challenge the legitimacy of state power. This challenge is a trend that is growing in circles concerned with wilderness and for good reason. The forests, the coasts, the rivers, lakes, across the prairies, down in the canyons and up in the mountains there exists a grandeur that’s irresistible to those who experience it. Wilderness displays true liberty, absolute freedom! From the tiniest of microbes to the towering forest canopy, or the lone plant in competition with its surroundings for water and sun, life is intricately connected in the wild. Life is ruled by no authority but flourishes in an eerie, jubilant, dangerous, heart-breaking  and beautiful complexity. 

Systems of power and domination have no choice but to fear the wild.

Institutions such as BLM possess a centralized landscape vision that is coercively imposed upon the wilderness and the public who wishes to travel her wild splendor. This centralized vision is delusional. Institutions cannot master nature. Wilderness is not something that can be dictated to and controlled by the state. When these landscapes are mined, fracked, dammed and otherwise trespassed upon there are long-term ecological consequences.

So, let’s tell the deskbound number crunchers, the administrators who think “wilderness” is political terminology, that it is time for numerous visions and resource management plans. Demand public lands be democratized and placed under common control of citizen groups and user associations. It’s time for adaptive commons governance. We no longer welcome dictation from Washington DC.

We can stand with one another, shoulder to shoulder, and grow a movement to reclaim our commons. Here, in the Volunteer State, we can lend support to our friends in the north, south and west. The transition is coming. State and industry power are being challenged. The movement is awake and in it for the long haul.

Mountaineers for the Long Haul


Today wild and wonderful West Virginia will hold its presidential primary. Contenders Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have all visited the state looking for working class votes.

All three contenders have a vision for the future of West Virginia’s economy. Republican Trump wants to bring back “Clean Coal” and protect industry jobs. Democratic candidates Sanders and Clinton want to transition the region beyond coal and create sustainable industry in the region. These approaches seem at odds, but they hold one very important factor in common: Washington.

The economy is of great importance to West Virginians. The state has significant poverty, some of the worst in the United States. But, when these candidates say they are going to “bring back clean coal,” or that they are going to make “coal jobs go away,” it is important to remember they are vying for power — power over human labor and the West Virginia (even global) environment. No matter what position one tends to agree with, pro-coal or no-coal, championing any of these candidates empowers Washington.

This is alarming, for it has always been social power, often in confrontation with state power, that has built markets and achieved human liberty in the coalfields.

Transition is coming to the valley and ridge, however, as coal industry profits, wages and employment continues a sharp decline. Instead of listening to those who seek power let’s instead hear the stories of those working to better their communities.One such organizer is Carl Shoupe of Harlan County, Kentucky. Shoupe is a former miner who is now an organizer with the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. The local is quoted in The Nation, saying, “the time to build a new economy that is good for all people — not just a wealthy few — is now,” he then called for the transition of Appalachia’s economy away from coal while at the same time “keeping our promises to the coal miners who powered this country.”

Shoupe’s statement is important. Coal is king in Appalachia, and for many, mining coal is what keeps food on the table. Coal mining itself has romantic cultural roots throughout the region. Mine workers are being lied to by politicians and industry suits as the mechanization of coal costs thousands of miners their livelihoods. Working people are replaced with machines, explosives and specialized, outsourced labor. The promise of a new Appalachia, beyond coal, beyond strip mining, is a promise to liberate all individuals from economic centralization — the very centralization candidates wish to maintain.

An alternative to state organization can be found in the modern Appalachian labor movement. Take the Labor Network for Sustainability (LN4S), a group advocating democratic energy — locally sourced power generation as opposed to conspicuous consumption. The group Coal River Mountain Watch has held off a massive strip mine in West Virginia by doing just this — they are actively organizing a wind farm on the mountain because it is slated for mountaintop removal.  It is locals at the heart of transition, not politicians.

These local groups are of course open to outsiders. It’s an open market. We all carry different skill sets, resources and tactics for achieving mountain justice. In my own work in the coalfields, taking water samples and listening to stories, I have always been welcomed, thanked and invited back. I’ve made some great contacts and met wonderful people. I’ve made friends along the way. It’s just important to remember to respectfully take direction from local leaders. It is their community after all. This is a lesson that Donald, Bernie and Hillary will never understand. It isn’t about them, it’s about Appalachia.

Come November, the Liar-Elect will not care about local organization. But, Appalachia is rising. The transition is coming. State and industry power are being challenged. The movement is awake and in it for the long haul.

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