by Christian Diaz, Staff Writer
Award-winning writer, journalist, historian, activist, educator and performer, Jeff Biggers does it all.
His most recent book, “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the “Heartland” discusses the destruction of the “clean” coal industry in southern Illinois, where Biggers was raised.
While covering an “historic” sit-in against mountaintop removal at the governor’s office in Frankfort, Kentucky for The Huffington Post, Biggers took some time to speak with The Echo over the phone about Warren Wilson’s role as a “catalyst” institution for the national environmental movement.
Biggers will be at Warren Wilson on Thursday, Feb. 24 and give a lecture at 7:00 p.m. in Canon Lounge.
Q and A with Biggers
What is going on in Kentucky?
I just interviewed Wendell Barry and 13 others at a sit-in in Frankfurt, Kentucky. They are in the midst of a three-day sit-in in protest of mountain top removal mining. I’m hoping this will trigger other uprisings in the coal field communities. We’ve sort of reached a tipping point. We have to get beyond this mentality that we can regulate an abomination or that we can regulate ultimately what is a human rights and environmental crime. Our attitude is that we shouldn’t be regulating mountaintop removal – we need to abolish it. Especially given the huge human, health and environmental cost – especially given the fact that mountaintop removal is less than five percent of our national coal production. We simply don’t need it.
Why is this movement important?
This is probably one of the most inspir- ing and galvanizing movements we’ve had in our generation. It’s the most important because we all live in the coal fields now. Whether you mine it or burn it, we all have to deal with climate destabilization now. We all have to deal with the fallout of mercury pollution and we have to deal with the contamination of our watersheds. That’s my message: We all live in the coal fields now. Climate change has really brought this to the forefront… We must make a shift to a clean energy future if we are going to survive. This is the one issue we can’t deny anymore.
Why is there so much resistance to the transition from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy?
Big coal simply refuses to give up any part of the industry. The coal industry is an industry of denial. It has always been an industry of denial. Here’s an example: In 1831 we diagnosed black lung disease, which is the inhalation of coal dust by coal miners. My grandfather suffered from black lung disease. Still today, three coal miners die daily from black lung disease. That’s 1,000 people that will die in 2011 from black lung disease, from something we di- agnosed and knew about in 1831. Up until 1968 the coal industry acted as if black lung was okay, acted as if black lung was pure tuberculosis. Talk about incredible denial. That’s but one example of how the coal industry has this incredible public relations front for over 100 years.
The first ad for “clean coal,” which is a ridiculous oxymoron, came out in 1895 in the Chicago Tribune. Every ten years or so, whenever there is a crisis in the coal industry, they trod out that ridiculous slogan as if they can cure everything. We’re talking from workplace safety to industrial strip mining to pollution to, now, CO2 emissions and climate change. We continue to pedal this incredible illusion that there’s
such a thing as clean coal when we know, ultimately, that there isn’t.
It comes down to profit. Profit comes before human rights and environmental jus- tice. That has been the struggle of American democracy for 150 years. [It] is the conflict between commerce and human rights and justice. The same problem today is the same problem we had 200 years ago. This is what I’ll bring into our talk. The coal industry be- gan with the removal of native people from coal-rich areas. The coal industry began with African slaves and African-American slaves, just like tobacco. The coal industry went through a century of regulated manslaugh- ter with no workplace safety laws. Now we are aware of this environmental tragedy of strip mining that we’ve been dealing with for about 100 years. And it’s all the same issue – what is more important, profit and commerce for corporations or the lives and livelihood and the land of the people who live in coal-rich areas? That’s the question, and that’s the same question we’ve been fighting for 200 years.
Why is legislation so slow in responding to moun- taintop removal, which you have often referred to as a “human rights” issue?
The problem with politicians is that they receive a lot of contributions from the coal industry. The other problem is that they are wildly uninformed about this issue. They just don’t know history. They don’t know that coal is costly, deadly and dirty. Every year we spend 62 billion dollars of our tax dollars negating external damages from the coal industry: health care, environmental damages. We subsidize the coal industry with billions upon billions of dollars.
Is coal simply cheaper than alternative energy?
If you look at the external cost of coal mining, and if you look at the external cost of coal burning, and if you look at the external
cost of disposing of coal ash and coal slurry, and if you look at the human cost of coal mining and coal burning – thousands of people die every year because of the coal industry – then you begin to realize that coal is extraordinarily costly. The only people who say “coal is clean” and “coal is cheap” are either on the payroll of the coal companies or they are wildly uninformed.
Is abolishing mountaintop removal the first step in the national environmental movement?
The ultimate goal is a “just transition” to clean energy within 20 years or so. We strip mine in 24 states – from Alaska to Alabama, we do strip mining. Mountaintop removal is just the worst of the worst. If we can’t stop something so egregious like mountaintop removal, then we have no hope of ever having a real just transition. For that it’s our bellwether, it’s a real litmus test for the Obama administration, but for the nation. North Carolina is one of the top consumers of mountaintop removal. If your state can’t find some other resource for energy other than mountaintop removal, then I’m not sure what we’re going to do. There are so many other options. There’s a whole smorgasbord of options out there and mountaintop removal, because it has such devastating impacts, should be the litmus test for making a just transition.
Is the movement picking up momentum? Has progress been made?
We have big coal on the ropes now. Since I have been working up and working around coal for at least a decade and con- sumption has dropped dramatically. Forty to 42% of our energy comes from the coal industry. The revolution is happening. It’s inevitable. The market sees the future and they realize it’s a bad investment now to in- vest in things that are unsustainable. Energy efficiency is going to be a better investment for the market. It’s a better investment for communities.
Warren Wilson is at the forefront of walk- ing the line of really trying to have a low- impact school and that really is incredible. It’s not just admirable, what you guys are doing at Warren Wilson – I think you’re helping to serve as a catalyst for other insti- tutions around the country. Warren Wilson is not an isolated ashram. It plays the role of catalyst for Western North Carolina, south- ern Appalachia and the rest of the nation.