MARGARET MEAD WAS RIGHT! A Conversation About Energy, Community, and Justice In A Time Of Great Turmoil Posted: June 29, 2009
A Conversation About Energy, Community, and Justice
In A Time of Great Turmoil
Heartwood Forest Council Annual Meeting
Mount Sterling, Kentucky
May 22, 2009
You are probably wondering about the title of our conversation. Let me share Margaret Mead’s list of things to do that she would give her students – though these are not what the today’s conversation centers on:
Study primitive people
Have a religious conversion and get over it
Have a psychotic episode and get over it
Have an affair with an Old Russian.
(Ms. Mead later qualified this, in response to a student’s inquiry, and said the Russian did not have to be old.)
It is an honor to be here with you today to celebrate the 19th annual gathering of the Heartwood Forest Council. Joyce Bender, (who is an oak in the forest of humanity) and Hugh Archer have given you a sense of place in ecological and geographic terms. I have been asked to give you a sense of place in a political sense – to reflect on the state of Kentucky's environment: where we've been, where we are and where we are going, and most importantly, on the role that each of us plays in shaping our future.
I always like to begin with full disclosure of my background so that you may appropriately discount all that will follow. I direct the Kentucky Resources Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization providing legal and technical assistance without charge to low-income individuals, to community organizations, and to local governments on air, waste, water, land use and resource extraction issues. My perspective has been forged by twenty-nine years of representing those who live downhill, downwind and downstream of mining operations. In that time, I have buried one friend and client who was crushed to death by slurry from a coal waste dam collapse – a dam that like the TVA Kingston impoundment was misclassified, and I have seen the lives and peace of mind of countless others subject to avoidable injury and damage.
Kentucky is “ground zero” for climate change. We are the 46th poorest state in the nation, 93% dependent on coal and 98% dependent on fossil fuels for our electricity, and a major coal-producing state.
Kentucky‘s economic fortunes as a state have been largely linked to cheap energy powered by coal combustion. It is cheap, but it has cost dearly. We have among the lowest combined rates for electricity, yet far from the lowest utility bills, because we have not valued efficiency in conversion and use of that energy.
Kentucky's challenge is how to prepare for the inevitable transition from an economy that has been powered by extractive industries and low-cost electricity, to an economy that can better sustain and meet the needs of all of our state's residents, and remain competitive in a regional and global economy while more fully accounting for the ecological costs of resource extraction, energy generation, and industrial production.
For many counties in eastern and western Kentucky, the state of the environment is inextricably intertwined with extraction of coal, oil and gas, and how the costs associated with that extraction, beneficiation and transportation are accounted for.
My first direct involvement in advocacy on mining regulatory issues was in 1972, but I had read of the ecological damage and human misery inflicted by strip mining even before that time. In the intervening 30 years since the adoption of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, there have been changes in mining practices, and some of the more blatant abuses associated with surface coal mining have been halted – spoil over the outslope, water damage without liability, routine flyrock damage to lands from excessive blasting, disturbance of family cemeteries. We have during those years periodically rediscovered that strip mining has jarring consequences on the environment, and we are in the midst of another cycle of rediscovery.
Yet even as the bar has been raised somewhat in what is expected of the coal mining industry in the management of the mining operations, we have failed and continue to fail to require anything approaching full accountability by the industry, in both ecological and human terms, and the short-term insular interests of the companies and their Boards in maximizing profit are yet allowed to trump the public’s interest. And we are, unfortunately, made complicit in that failure and damage every time we flip the switch.
The new generation of coal-fired power plants that are in planning and under construction are not the solution, nor is gasification or liquefaction of coal, since the sequestration of carbon is an as-yet unresolved problem with any conversion technology for coal. While the new generation of plants may be more efficient that the old, it is important that we look towards more sustainable approaches to power generation and consumption. Margaret Mead was right – “It may be necessary temporarily to accept a lesser evil, but one must never label a necessary evil as good.”
Our great challenge during this period of transition from carbon-intensive power to more sustainable energy services, is to utilize existing tools in local, state and federal law, and where necessary to craft new tools, to demand full accountability from the coal industry for the footprint they leave on land and water resources and on community safety and health. We have raised the bar to a level where abysmal performance has been replaced by mediocrity in engineering design and reclamation planning, yet that is all too often accepted as being the norm. The footprint of coal extraction, in terms of area disturbed and land and water resources diminished, is much larger than it should or could be.
I appreciate the recent, though unfocused attention that has been given to the impacts of mountaintop removal. KRC views these issues in a different screen however – one of minimizing the footprint of all forms of mining – from the area mining operations in eastern and western Kentucky to the mountaintop removal operations, to strip contour, auger, and underground mines. We have failed – as a state, as a nation, to fulfill Congress’ vision – that mining would be a temporary use of land; that the mined land would be restored to beneficial uses; and that mining methods would be driven by proper planning and environmental protection rather than by profit.
When Congress enacted the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, it was concerned with the damage done from the dumping of earth and rock from mining benches into headwater streams in Appalachia.
In order to minimize the damage to land and water resources, and to restore the mined land to productive capability, Congress demanded that the earth and rock (called "spoil") be replaced on the mine bench and that the original contour of the mountain be restored.
An exception to this requirement to restore the approximate original contour was created, allowing the removal of all earth and rock material from over a coal seam (called "mountaintop removal") without having to restore the original contour if specific plans and commitments were demonstrated for development of the land for industrial, commercial, residential, agricultural or public use. Most of the mining operations that are today viewed as mountaintop removal are not technically categorized as such – they are mine plans that use a combination of point removal, area mining and deep contour cuts, and produce similar ecological consequences without the promise of beneficial post-mining uses of value to the community and environment. You could “ban mountaintop removal” tomorrow and the ecological footprint and visual impact would be negligibly different.
In 1977, Congress made a clear choice – that the choice of technology would follow, rather than dictate, environmental protection. Rather than utilizing smaller equipment more appropriate to the terrain and to careful management of materials, the industry has systematically replaced the workforce with larger machines, and has violated the spirit and letter of water and mining laws in order to, literally, move heaven and earth in order to maximize profit.
The tools exist to demand much more accountability in all forms of surface mine planning and performance with respect to mine planning, reducing the size and number of valley fills, reforming blasting regulations to better protect the public, restricting the appropriation of public streams for sediment control, eliminating new high and moderate hazard coal waste impoundments and requiring closure and dewatering of old ones; and broadening monitoring and pollution control obligations of coal companies.
The Obama Administration has two excellent candidates for Director of OSM – Pat McGinley of West Virginia and Joe Childers of Kentucky, and it is tragic that polarization among some groups may cause the Administration to look elsewhere for a candidate. I urge the Heartwood Forest Council and each organization here represented to send a letter to Secretary of interior Ken Salazar supporting both of these excellent candidates and urging that he pick between them and that we will support that choice.
So how we get the job done? What can you and I do to effect positive change?
Just as we are each a part of the problem, by being here you are an important part of the solution. Your voice, your actions, can help to create the changes needed to foster a more just and sustainable community.
You have got power - as a consumer, as a voter, as a citizen, as a mentor, as a student, as a participant in electoral politics. You are components of that “smart grid” we hear of – a community linked by values, by passion, by compassion, and by principle.
With the end use of most of mined coal being coal-fired electricity, you can help cause positive change by helping to change the rules to create incentives for ecological stewardship and excellence and energy efficiency. The current rate-setting formulas for utility companies in most states favor the sale of power, not efficiency in the conversion and use of power. The formula favors the cheapest purchased fuel, which is typically coal, not the energy source that is most ecologically sound, nor even coal that is mined by the most responsible and least-impact methods.
Changes in the rate-setting formula for electric and gas utilities that more fully cost and account for environmental and social costs, will help to end the artificial subsidies that skew the market by allowing those costs to be excluded from consideration and make fuel choices that cost the environment and public dearly, seem inexpensive.
Another issue is that of housing energy efficiency. Housing stock in the south continues to be built and sold with little concern over the costs to homeowners of heating and cooling, and less consideration of efficiency in choice of materials and design. Improving and enforcing state housing codes will save consumers money and reduce energy consumption.
Fuel choices (so called green-power programs where energy derived from sources other than fossil fuels are made available to the consumer) are provided by many of the municipal and other utilities in the Commonwealth. Urge your utilities to diversify their portfolios and to offer green power options.
Investing your consumer food dollars in locally produced, healthy agricultural products providing local farmers with fair prices for their product, is a revolutionary act. Just as you can‘t complain about the loss of your community’s small businesses or the plight of workers not paid a living wage while you’re buying at Wal-Mart, you can’t complain about the inhumane conditions and pollution problems of factory farms while you’re buying factory-produced chicken and pork. The direct link between contract agriculture and farmer’s markets and the consumer is a simple, yet radical, rebuilding of relationships that sustain community.
Margaret Mead was right, when she said “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does!”
Kentucky’s history is replete with examples of how people of good will can become so much more when working together as co-conspirators for positive change.
But the campaigns have largely been "retail" over these decades, focusing on one or two issues and moving them forward, without affecting or altering the policies, the institutions, and the politics that spawn the crises. We must become more focused on the institutions, on the economic policies, on the politics that create such a disconnect between what we profess to value and believe, and the policies of our elected officials and business leaders. How?
* Build coalitions. Retail (issue or crisis-centered) organizing campaigns are exhausting and unsustaining. Durable (wholesale) change comes through the creation and recreation of institutions to meet community needs and to sustain and uplift communities. Respect distinctions while working towards consensus, and make your tent larger by engaging those who might not have been traditional or natural allies.
* Connect the dots and work for reform in governance. When offices go to the highest bidder and the wealthiest candidate, decisions reflecting the broader public interest over the insular interests of those investing in the candidates are rare. When we aspire to mediocrity in governance, when democracy isn't working, the poor, children, the environment, the public's interest suffer. As we go forward together, we must remind ourselves always that accommodating injustice never made the unjust more just.
* Get your hands dirty. Roll up your sleeves and run for office.
* Create contexts for elevating environmental justice and health issues during electoral cycles. Quiz candidates on their environmental platforms – support those who stand for improved environmental quality, and oppose those whose records justify that opposition. Go door to door for those who share your values. Educate those candidates who don't.
* Hold your elected officials accountable.
* Bear witness, risk being thought a fool, lest your silence in the face of injustice be regarded as complicity. Our failure in stewardship of natural resources, and the careless and at times horrific damage inflicted on nature in war and in peace, reflects a moral crisis. Our policies must be driven by values more enduring and more robust, than the quarterly bottom line. Reflecting on a life of advocacy for children, Marian Wright Edelman penned this prayer:
God did not call us to succeed, but to serve.
Not to win, but to work.
Not to be happy, but to be hopeful.
Not to fame, but to faith.
Not to seek power, but to seek peace.
God did not call us to loot the earth and each other,
God called us to love our earth and each other.
Margaret Mead was right when she said “Our humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile and never directly inherited.”
Think about the behaviors you pattern, and sit at the feet of those who came before you, just as you mentor those who follow. Learn from the past in order to make sense of the present and to inform the future. Elders, teach your children. Children, teach your elders.
How do we build a more sustaining, a more just political and economic environment?
As Mother Teresa told the interviewer who wondered how she persevered in the face of overwhelming need – "one soul at a time" beginning with our own. Never despair that your efforts are too small; too little to make a difference.
Recall the words that Marian Wright Edelman penned in prayer
Lord, help me not to be a taker but a tender,
Help me not to be a whiner but a worker,
Help me not to be a getter but a giver,
Help me not to be a hindrance but a help,
Help me not to be a critic but a catalyst for good.
* Be creatively intolerant. Just as accommodating injustice never made an unjust person more just, tolerating mediocrity in environmental pollution never made a polluting industry or an indifferent politician more responsible.
* And last, but certainly not least, approach problem solving with an open mind, since it is in dialogue, in engagement, that we arrive at solutions. Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote these words in the early 1950's at a time like now when, it is at times difficult to find evidence that we have made progress in those things that matter:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime
therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing that is true and beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history
therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe
as it is from our standpoint;
therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
Let us aspire to be less acquisitive, less aggressive in our relationships with each other and our environment. Let us face our tomorrows with hope and humility and continue together in struggle and in fellowship to improve the environmental legacy we will leave to our children’s children.
May your time here be productive, and may your communion with fellow advocates restore your spirits. Thank you for letting me be a part of this weekend.