Reflections on Returning from Kentucky

Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard Secular Spring Break Trip Participants Overlook an Abandoned Strip Mine

Sorry for the blogging-break – I’ve been busy! I’ve just returned from the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard’s 4th annual Secular Spring Break Service Trip. This year, we headed to Harlan, KY, for a week of service-learning focused on the environmentally-damaging practice of mountaintop removal mining. The trip was extremely challenging: physically, of course (my winsome academic frame is not accustomed to planting trees on a windy mountaintop!), but also intellectually and ethically. I’m now much more aware that the question of how we produce electricity – and by extension how we power all the conveniences of modern life, from our laptops and iPads to our fridges and air conditioners – is profoundly complex and fraught with environmental, political, economic, class-based and sociological conundrums.

Harlan is a mining town – a place whose economy, for the longest time, has been dependent on coal mining. Other job options are sparse and large developments unlikely, due to the isolated rural location and the mountainous terrain which makes it difficult to build businesses and expand the economy. As seems common when the economic viability of a location depends on a particular industry, many of the people in the region strongly identify with coal mining: for them, the practice has positive affect and many are extremely proud of the coal-mining history of the area. Despite what activists feel is exploitation of this vulnerable community (communities which are under-educated and lack economic options are ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous employers, and coal mining companies have traditionally been extremely unscrupulous), many proudly demonstrate their affiliation with coal mining through stickers on their cars (“Friend of Coal”) and pro-coal clothing. Many of the stores we visited demonstrated their support of the coal industry in numerous ways, too, with t-shirts for sale supporting the industry and stickers voicing support everywhere.

This puts environmental activists – who tend to be of the opinion that coal mining in general, and mountaintop removal mining in particular, are environmental scourges – in a difficult position. For instance, while the organizers of the service-learning tip were clearly of the mind that mountaintop removal mining is a huge environmental problem, since many of the residents of Harlan, KY (and other areas we visited) were extremely supportive of mining in general, they had to be careful when constructing their message. This led to the rather odd position taken by the trip’s primary organizer: that mountaintop removal mining should be prevented by law, but that the residents of Kentucky should return to underground mining (putting them back into the sort of unsafe conditions, potentially exploitative, which activists have frequently opposed and only delaying, not solving, the environmental problems due to the burning of coal).

Furthermore, traditional environmentalist responses to the practice of coal-mining – reduce consumption, encourage the development of renewable energy etc. – came to me to seem more problematic, not less: the prospect of widespread individual reduction in power consumption seems to me unlikely (by what  mechanism will such a reduction occur?), and renewable energy simply doesn’t seem to be in a position to take up the slack, when coal provided some 42% of America’s energy in 2011 (compared to just over 10% for all renewables combined). This is even more problematic given much of the environmental movement’s opposition to nuclear power, which seems to me one reasonable way we might help meet our increasing energy needs in a way which would not contribute so much to climate change (though I’d  have to do a lot more research to be sure of my stance here). Add in the profound economic and sociological challenges – if you get rid of coal mining what are the people of Harlan people going to do? – and the picture becomes extremely cloudy.

I’m left with many more questions than answers after the trip, which is how it should be – the purpose of such trips, particularly from a Humanist perspective, is to open up generative lines of inquiry into how to solve social problems while also offering concrete assistance. This trip offered both in spades (and shovels, and dibble bars), as we planted trees, insulated houses, moved furniture, and worked, spoke, and danced with the universally welcoming people of the Appalachians.

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