Art and Activism Discussed At IdeaFestival and OurPlanet Forum Posted: September 23, 2009
THE ART OF ACTIVISM: How Visual Art, Music and the Written Word Changed History and Shape Our World Today
A Brief Discussion Of Significant Environmental
Issues Facing The Commonwealth
by Tom FitzGerald, Director, KRC
I’ve been asked in my 4 minutes to reflect on the greatest ecological challenges facing our Commonwealth. While water quality and supply, waste management, forest health and other environmental issues are of continued concern, perhaps the two greatest challenges before us are mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change and to the costs of curbing the loading of greenhouse gases into the air, and ending the impoverishment of the Appalachian region’s ecology and communities due to radical mining methods.
We are the 46th poorest state in the nation, and are abjectly dependent on fossil fuels for our energy – 98% dependent on coal and petcoke fueling our aging fleet of pulverized coal-fired plants for our electricity. Our electricity costs are among the lowest in the nation, because we have externalized, shed most of the costs of that fuel – the shearing of mountains and filling of our headwater streams, the occupational diseases and premature deaths associated with mining, and the lack of a diverse economic base in coal-producing regions, among others. We stand with one foot in the present and an unsteady foot in the future. As greenhouse gases are monetized under a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax, we will reap a bitter harvest of our dependency on coal, and will see a potential sticker shock for electricity that will challenge our energy-intensive industries, our fixed and low-income brothers and sisters, and all of us.
The questions we confront are twofold – will we be wise enough to diversify our energy mix, and to invest meaningfully now in energy efficiency on both sides of the meter in order to create a hedge against rising energy costs? And will we begin now, 32 years after Congress created a federal law that sought to minimize the heavy footprint of coal on the land and people, to demand accountability in mine planning and spoil management. Or will we continue to allow the handful of companies that produce strip-mined coal to literally move heaven and earth to maximize their profits.
32 years ago, Congress made several policy choices – that the choice of equipment should follow best mining practices rather than dictate them, that all spoil material possible should be returned to the mining area before any consideration was given to off-loading the rock and dirt into valley fills, that disturbed areas should be contemporaneously reclaimed in order to minimize the time from initial disturbance until reestablishment of vegetation on the mined area. After a brief period from 1978-81 when the law was being implemented as Congress intended, coalfield communities have suffered through 20 years of federal administrations hostile to Congress’ mandate, with 8 years of indifferent administration folded into the mix. The Obama Administration has nominated a state mining agency bureaucrat who appears an unlikely candidate to bring the fundamental reform needed in the federal and state mining programs.
I am an environmental lawyer, representing those who are downhill, downwind, downstream. On my best day, all I can do is to take crude tools and attempt to craft a modicum of justice. On most days, I fall far short of that.
You artists – painters, musicians, poets, expressive artists, can give voice – through all of the expressive forms – to anger, betrayal, sadness, hopelessness, and then, to hope itself. In his “Revolutionary Mandate #1”, Julius Lester stated that the poets and artists and musicians “are responsible for the spirit and soul of the revolution.”
We protect and value what we know, what is personal to us. Art can make a vast world personal. While the ravages of strip mining were generally acknowledged and conveniently overlooked by the public when it began in earnest in the 1960’s, it was the image on the front page of the Courier Journal of 61-year old Ollie Combs being carried forcibly from her land in November of 1965 after she laid down in front of a bulldozer, and the photograph of her peering out from her dimly-lit cell in the Perry County jail on Thanksgiving that year to which Governor Ned Breathitt made reference as he called for and achieved passage of Kentucky’s first strip mining law the following year. "Widow" Combs, who died in 1993, was invited to attend he signing of the 1977 federal mining law and was recognized for her contribution to the passage of the federal Act.
Many years later, it was author Erik Reece who gave a sense of place to the impacts of radical strip mining when he described the destruction of Lost Mountain in a compelling book of that same name.
When, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration began the incessant drumbeat to war in Iraq, abstract artist Robert Shetterly painted a portrait of Sojourner Truth, as the first of what would become a collection of more than 100 “Americans who tell the truth.” The experience brought him a therapeutic calm for a day, and when he began again sulking and railing about the administration, his wife suggested he go paint another portrait because he was driving her nuts. His capturing, in portrait and in spoken word, of Americans from all walks of life who have spoken truth to power, from Cesar Chavez to Robert F. Kennedy, from Rachel Carson to Emma Goldman, from Justice Brandeis to Alice Paul, from Erik Reece to Teri Blanton, have inspired thousands who have viewed the traveling gallery.
Jeff Chapman-Crane’s sculpture of the Agony of Gaia, of mother earth personified and her agony at the ravages of radical mining methods, evokes feelings deep within about the toxic mixture of arrogance and ignorance that punctuates our relationship with the earth and its wonders.
So, artists, here is your challenge moving forward from this moment. Art, NOT for its own sake, but for the sake of our children’s children.
Art to give voice to the voiceless, to shame the shameful, art as therapy to help heal a nation whose soul has been weakened and whose reputation has been tarnished, art to illuminate the dark recesses where fear and greed prey on the human spirit, art to hold accountable those who profit from injustice and the ignorance of others, and ultimately,
art to embody a different, a healthy, a just future.