Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Coal mining vs. the Girl Scouts?

Avoiding the backlog of work that confronts me after traveling to visit family and the long list of tasks to tackle with the pending start of the academic year, I decided to check out the news of the day.  For a number of reasons, this story caught my eye on the CNN webpage: Mine Plan Puts Two Kentucky Fixtures on Collision Course.[1]

I have written before about our disturbing addiction to fossil fuels.  Need you more evidence?  We even sacrifice our children's last remaining places of refuge to scrounge more fuel from the ground.  Shame, shame on us.  “We pretty much, as a company, have to have this project,” says one of the company’s co-owners.  Really?  And our girls, our youth, don’t have to have a place that is undisturbed by the ravages of giant machinery, dynamite, and pollution?

There is a strong sense of resignation in the article, a realization of the inevitable, that the coal industry will win, again.  A necessary evil.  "There is talk of creating a coal badge, to teach girls about electricity from the ground up, all part of ‘discover, connect, take action,’ the Girl Scouts’ new leadership code."  How about examining the history of coal with its horrible legacy of environmental destruction (Can I say legacy of raping the land?) and human health problems.  Instead of exploring nature and just being kids at their camp retreats, the Scouts can now explore the perpetual cycle of poverty in coal mining regions.  “Under these piles of rock and this ash, lay the remains of Camp Pennyroyal which was sacrificed for progress” the sign will say.  “DANGER, Do Not Enter.”

Decades ago, when I was in Scouts, we had a pen pal program with a troop in a Kentucky coal region.  I was a grade school student shocked by stories of a type of poor I had not yet encountered:  a single community gathering area where the excitement was for the first television in the village—communally owned; the hope for shoes that fit for Christmas; genuine appreciation for the box of used clothes and games that we sent because we no longer wanted them and because our troop leaders thought it would be a good service project.

Years later, when I was more aware of the disparities in the world, I drove through the mountains and back roads of Kentucky where I imagined my pen pal must have lived.  To put it mildly, I was stunned by the shacks, the tattered clothes and dirty tattered children.  This was the United States?  I have since traveled around the world and, sadly, have seen poverty that is much worse in many places.  But the images from the mountains of Appalachia, many of which have since had their tops blown off, are still strongly entrenched in my memory.  Is this why I so often listen to mournful “coal music”?  A penance for my inability to make a difference?

In 2009, Diane Sawyer (born and raised in Kentucky) and ABC News did a documentary entitled A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains. Many segments of this documentary can be found online; this short clip ( gives a flavor of the ongoing poverty in the eastern part of the state and reminded me of the stories of my pen pal from so many years ago.  I was sad to see that things didn’t seem to have changed much, but glad that some attention was being called to the problem.  Little good has come from the effort though.  And some reviews of the work were not so positive.[2]  The second link that I reference provides the perspective from someone who lives in a coal mining region in West Virginia:  
But I wondered why Sawyer didn’t explore the causes of the poverty and the cycle that kept these places poor. I wondered why she did not bring in a panel of experts to explain how this cycle can be broken and if people want to help, how they can find it. I wondered why she did not cover more of the coal scene in the area, such as ravaging the mountains by mountaintop removal, loss of jobs and the failure of coal operators to give back to the community.

Can this cycle be broken?  Not as long as we continue to demand fossil fuels or drive through these regions to look, to shake our heads in disbelief that this happens in our country, to shed a few tears, but then move on safely to our lives of comfort.

There are some good resources in the Huffington Post commentary and in one of the comments to the latter post there are links to two other documentaries and an interview about Appalachia today.[3]  Clearly, there are differing points of view, and the myriad of social problems are complex.  But the bottom line is that coal mining, poverty, and devastating effects on children remain as constants in the region.  So is it too much to ask that a mere 180 acres be spared this sad legacy, and that we keep one peaceful place for future generations?  I signed an online petition this morning to try to save the camp[4], but am left pondering what can I do that would make a real difference.

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