Friday, April 22, 2011

A Good Earth (Fri)Day

Mountains, now scarred by MTR mining
Last year I spent three weeks in Appalachian Kentucky.  During that time I fell in love with the beautiful landscape and the warm communities, but my heart broke over the systemic poverty as well as the environmental and social damage that the coal industry has done in the communities we visited.  We heard stories about how the coal companies cut corners, putting workers at risk.  People there were frustrated at the disconnect between their own struggling communities and the communities all over the country that are powered by the hard work of coal miners.  About 2 months after I returned, 29 miners were killed in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia.  In the past year there have been more mining accidents around the world.  A major oil spill has devastated the Gulf Coast.  The world is still struggling to fathom the extent of the nuclear crisis in Japan.  On this Good Friday that is also Earth Day, I can't help lamenting that we need to do better.  

In Genesis 1, God creates the earth, and places humans in the center of it.  We are given a habitat where all of our physical, emotional and spiritual needs are met.  We are blessed with the charge to live in shalom with others, and to maintain the shalom of the earth around us.  But today as we look at the news in the Gulf Coast or in northern Japan, or even when we look out our windows, we don't see shalom.  Our TVs are able to stay on because of industries that are destroying mountains, dumping oil into oceans, oozing radiation into the land and sea, blasting chemicals into our backyards, and pumping the air full of toxins - not to mention endangering the lives of their own workers.  We are only now awaking to how harmful our major sources of energy are.  For too long we have been content to trust corporations to keep us safe and tell the truth about the environmental impact of what they do.  But the story is the same over and over: corporations cut corners on safety and lie about their impact on public health and the environment.  We don't know what to do about it, because lets be honest... we want to keep our laptops plugged it.  

The same view, a few decades ago
When I arrived in Kentucky last year, I knew very little about the coal industry, except that I was vaguely against it in a suburban liberal tree-hugger kind of way.  What I discovered was that getting rid of the coal industry would but something like pulling a big nasty weed out of your garden - it will be hard work that must be done carefully or you will risk destroying the other plants. The fossil fuel industries are impossibly entwined in the power structure of this country as a whole, and the communities in which they are digging.  But I also witnessed the complex relationship that individuals in Appalachia have with the coal industry: their homes are being destroyed, their loved ones are endangered in mines and come out with terrible health problems, and they know that the government agencies who are supposed to look out for them are actually in the pockets of King Coal.  And yet if coal goes, their communities will finally be defeated by the poverty against which they have been struggling for generations.  This poverty, by the way, has its roots in industries repeatedly swindling people out of the rich natural resources of the region.  If that isn't a example of systemic poverty and economic oppression, I don't know what is.  

In eastern Kentucky I spoke with dozens of people - pastors, miners, environmentalists, families of miners, activists, and students.  As I started to realize just how clueless I was about the complexity of the coal problem, I began to ask people what they wanted "outsiders" to know about the coal industry.  A common theme began to emerge.  Know where your energy is coming from.  I was told that about 50% of US energy comes from coal, and most people don't appreciate the work and risk that goes into powering the grid.  (The same can be said about the oil industry and petroleum-based products).  An environmental activist and the owner of a small-scale mining operation told me the same thing: use less energy.  Unplug things you aren't using.  Turn off the lights if you don't need them.  Don't keep your laptop plugged in all the time.  I asked the miner what he wanted us to know about the coal industry (he seemed surprised that I was asking).  He thought for a moment, and responded that we need to find a better way, but right now lots of people are doing the best they can with the resources they have.  His company goes in after the big coal companies sloppily get the easy coal; he gleans the smaller coal seams and then does the best he can to restore the site to something resembling a mountain.  I was moved by his honesty; here was a man who was mining coal, and he was trying to be a good steward of the coal resources and his workers.  

Crazy mutated Easter daffodil
The debate over energy policy, like any political issue, is contentious and complicated.  But rather than arguing environmentalist vs. capitalist or liberal vs. conservative, maybe we should be taking a few big steps and lots of little steps toward restoring shalom.  We need to think big about sustainable sources of energy, and in the meantime we need to stop consuming energy without restraint or reason.  We need to stand by the people whose communities and livelihoods are tied up with these industries, and support them in finding ways to breathe new economic life into their region.  In religious language, we need to repent of our environmental and social sins, and seek reconciliation with each other and with the created world.  We are in a Good Friday moment environmentally... we are realizing what our sin has done to the gift that God has given us.  Now is the time to repent and change our ways.  Anyone who has paid attention to spring knows that the created world has a lot to teach us about Easter.  


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12:09 PM  

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