Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Swimming Upstream: Fighting Big Coal in Alaska

Beholding the way to Hope, Alaska
August isn't a time when Bees typically stray far from the Hive. As folks who follow our lifecycle know, it's usually a season of friends and fun in Machias, and one of the most abundant and beautiful times of the northern year.

But this summer brought a special request from some folks who love the northlands as much as we do: to come to Anchorage, Alaska and share the cautionary tale of Appalachian coal with folks in Cook Inlet, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and the magestic Kenai Peninsula, where proposed coal expansion threatens the lives and livelihoods of Alaskans and the salmon on whom they depend.

So a small swarm of us busted out our hats and mittens and headed north, hosted by the Matanuska Valley Coalition, to explore the terrain of Alaskan coal. (Read Molly's personal account of our trip and see more photos of us having extracurricular adventures here!)

 The "Last Frontier"

Alaska deserves its reputation as a region of wild beauty, but violent colonization, reckless, sprawling "development" and a politics bought and paid for by extractive industries have made even this place vulnerable to environmental destruction on a massive scale.  Most folks have heard of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, at its time the largest environmental disaster in the history of the United States, while Sarah Palin's infamous rallying cry of "drill baby, drill" still ricoches in the echo chamber of public discourse around fossil fuel extraction. If Alaska's most famous export is salmon, its love affair with extraction is a close second.

The state of Alaska is extremely hospitable to oil companies like Chevron, whose refinery in the low-income community of Richmond, CA (near San Francisco) disasterously caught fire during our tour, poisoning many thousands of residents.

So even here, in a place that calls itself the "Last Frontier," we found ourselves very much at the center of the "coal company town" politics depicted in the graphic, with governments in bed with extractive industries, native nations displaced, abused, and stripped of their sovereignty, and whole workforces and communities imported and conditioned to an extractive way of life. 

Yet there's a glaring difference between, say, West Virginia coalfield politics as usual and what's happening with extractive industries in Alaska today: so far, the people of Alaska are benefiting.

Or rather, some Alaskans are sometimes buffered from the horrific health, economic, and environmental impacts of hosting extractive industries, thanks in part to Alaska's sheer girth. Because so much oil drilling, coal mining, and mineral extraction takes place in areas that are slightly physically removed from where the majority of the white voting public live, and because Alaskan residents receive a small stipend from the oil industry simply for calling the state home, so far the power of industry is perceived as mostly carrot and very little stick.

But with coal mining coming in force to the greater Anchorage area, that's all about to change.

The Costs Come Home

Surveying the 20,000 acres of the Wishbone mine in the Matanuska Valley. Everything visible here will be strip mined should the permits hold up in court. The state of Alaska has never once rejected a coal mining permit.

Coal export hub Seward
As folks trying to halt coal development explained it to us, it's awfully hard to organize communities to fight powerful industries like Big Coal if they perceive the industry as beneficial to their way of life. It's especially hard in Alaska, where there is a widespread belief in the "myth of rigorous permitting," or faith in the ability of regulators to curtail corporate abuses and ensure that "the job is done right."Add in a rugged individualism and an emphasis on privacy, property, and personal autonomy, and suddenly activists must work overtime to build a culture of collective organizing from the ground up... sometimes (as one organizer explained it) starting by running between neighboring houses, communicating messages across dirt roads for neighbors who are reluctant to talk to even each other, let alone attend an organized meeting!

Kirby Spangler of the Castle Mountain Coalition schools us on Salmon. 

But communities who live on or near proposed mine sites are a different story. In Chickaloon, for instance, a small community about an hour and half's drive from Anchorage into the Matanuska Valley, neighbors have come together across wider gulfs than dirt roads to organize to keep coal out. Here, newer resident groups like the Castle Mountain Coalition are working alongside the Chickaloon Village of the Athabaskan Nation, indigenous folks whose roots in the area go back to time immemorial and who have fought coal since the first wave of mining in the area in the 1920s.

Presenting the True Cost of Coal in Chickaloon.
With our friends and hosts at a presentation in Palmer.

Bound Together

Alaskan organizers here have a powerful opportunity: to unite communities who will be heavily impacted by coal extraction BEFORE the extraction is too far gone. And since the new coal developments in Alaska will be directly polluting the air, water, and soil of the Matanuska Valley, where the vast majority of locally produced food is grown, folks in Anchorage (75% of the state's population) now have a direct connection to the threats of coal.

At the end of their lives, salmon return to the freshwater streams where they were born to reproduce. Mining disrupts this ancient journey, threatening the last great remaining wild salmon fishery in the world.

Further, communities across Alaska are bound together beyond different geography by the remarkable lifecycle of salmon, whose disruption for coal mining, processing, and transport will be catastrophic for subsistence and personal use fisheries as well as commercial operations. As one activist put it, "Here, no one argues about how valuable the salmon are. It's not just for environmentalists. What we disagree about is whether we trust the corporations and government agencies to adequately protect them." If lessons from Appalachia and the rest of the world are any indicator of what's to come, it's a far better bet put our faith in the salmon-protective power of organized communities.

We tabled for several rainy days at Salmonstock, a tribute to this best-loved fish. Yup, those are flaming salmon.

Gettin' Busy!

So... we hit the streets. And the festivals. And the community venues. We talked with folks who share our values around healthy land and healthy people with a do-it-yerself attitude, even if they might not have identified as opposed to strip mining if you'd asked them. That's how we do, after all... one conversation at time...

Folks are organizing an action camp to build skills and strategies for keeping Alaskan coal in the ground- help them spread the word!

Hoodwinked in the Hothouse?

IN a glacier.
No, really. IN A GLACIER.

The GLACIER is behind us. That's a 22,000 year old piece of ice.

Finally, everywhere we went in Alaska, we found folks who are experiencing the everyday impacts of climate change. After all, it's a lot harder to deny when you're surrounded by melting glaciers (as above) and wildly erratic weather patterns! Moreover, folks who depend on creatures like salmon to survive have seen dramatic changes in the patterns and availability of wild foods.

Though climate change is obviously a huge threat to all Alaskans, it's also an opportunity for rallying folks around deep system change rather than the false "solutions" and dangerous distractions paraded at events like the "Alaska Renewable Energy Fair" (sponsored by none other than BP, Shell, and Conoco Phillips!).

While we're all about ecological energy solutions, this event was celebrating (among other bad ideas) the Susitna Dam Project, which will be devastating for the Mat-Su Valley should it be constructed. As always, sorting out the good news from the greenwashing is tricky business, but there's one thing we know for sure- stopping coal development CAN'T mean devastating other ecosystems with oil & gas drilling, big hydro, nuclear, or other extractive energy extraction schemes. As folks in Appalachia have told us all along, we've gotta dig deep, look back, build power, and vision forward to create a future that's truly beyond a coal-dependent way of life.

Our hats off to Alaskans fighting the good fight!
Don't forget to check out Molly's Blog! >
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Friday, June 29, 2012

Appalachian coal, meet European coal!

Germany's largest open pit coal mine in the Hambach Forest; that white dot by the digger machine is a monster pickup truck.
We just got back from a whirlwind 3-week tour in Europe, taking the True Cost of Coal for the first time to Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. Whew! So interesting to see how this story plays out in another part of the world so connected to the coal economy.

We started our trip at the Manifesta Biennial in Genk, Belgium, a green, historic coal mining region where the only hills are grassy slag heaps from the mines. The art show is in a giant abandoned building that used to house administration, equipment and locker/shower facilities for 4200 miners. Although we saw two coal-fired power plants on the horizon, over the last 40 years all the mines in the region have been shutting down. We were told, "It's cheaper to buy coal from China."

"The True Cost of Coal" at Manifesta 9 in the closed André Dumont mine, Genk, Belgium
We asked some locals why the town didn't seem economically depressed despite losing such a major industry. Compared to coal towns in Appalachia, Scotland and Wales, this region of Belgium looks quite prosperous, busy with tourists and new construction. The old coal towns look like pretty rowhouses next to bike paths and polished cars. They told us that the coal companies needed to attract so many workers to the mines that the workers had a fair amount of bargaining power (people came from 30+ countries and stayed!) Also, compared to the U.S., the Belgian government strictly regulated the industry, and required companies to invest a good percentage of their profits into a fund to pay for transition costs after the mines closed down. So, another old mine nearby has just re-opened to house a sort of high-art "discovery center" of deep mining along with an art college, a cinema multiplex and a cafe.
Light installation in old miners' transport tunnels
Our heads reeling from Belgium's surreal post-mining economy, we next met up with our German tour collaborators: climate organizers who are also occupying the Hambach Forest to keep it from being eaten by Germany's largest open pit coal mine. We squeezed into a microscopic hatchback and headed straight to Zurich, Switzerland, where activists were occupying a park in the town center for a week-long, unpermitted Climate Camp.

Climate Camp in downtown Zurich
They just showed up with big trucks and started building meeting structures, a four-stall composting toilet, a wood-stove kitchen, and a solar-powered sound and lighting system, and the authorities seemed to be leaving them alone. We did a night-time storytelling by solar LED spotlight, then our German friends did a slideshow about the forest occupation and German climate organizing.

(More photos of Belgium and Zurich)

After Zurich we went to Freiburg and then did a number of events in the Cologne area near the Hambach Forest, as well as in the protest camp itself. The camp is a ten-minute walk from the edge of the mine pit, in an area scheduled for destruction within the year. To see the mine, you walk through a lovely, shady, relatively diverse forest full of singing birds, bees, dragonflies etc. Then you hit the clearcut and it's suddenly sunny and you're picking your way across an obstacle course of dead brush and trees. Then a little further on you hit big ridges of loose dirt. After climbing and sliding down a few of those you're looking over the edge down at skycraper-sized machines, sand, and a layer of thick coal, 300 meters down the hole. When they're finished digging, they promise, they'll turn it into Germany's largest lake.

An old treestump in Hambach Forest
Lilies in a forest wetland

Clearcut at the mine's edge; coal-fired power plant in the distance
Three of the many diggers in the mine pit
The Hambach Forest isn't exactly old growth wilderness, but people drive from far away to walk their dogs and children there because it's the closest thing to "wild" in a densely-populated country whose forests mostly seem to consist of sterile-looking, monoculture pine plantations. They stop by the camp kitchen. They chat. They check out the hanging platforms and defense systems. Some sneer. Some bring water and food.

At the camp storytelling, and in the closest town, it was inspiring to be sitting in a big circle with scruffy direct-action squatters in earnest conversation with longtime locals who are concerned they'll be displaced as the mine continues to expand. (They took the parachuter scene as a starting point! Hurrah!)

Next we headed to East Germany to visit Leipzig and Cottbus, another old coal-mining region, then Berlin and Hamburg, then Amsterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands and DONE!
(More pictures) (And yet more pictures)

How did it compare to touring in the U.S.? 

Unlike in the U.S., even energy companies admit climate change is happening, and that human industry is responsible. The Industrial Revolution is relatively recent and familiar history. (Theft of indigenous lands for resource extraction, on the other hand, is something that happened Over There.) In the countries we visited, coal mining happens in densely-populated areas in plain view, so companies have to work harder to convince people it's a good thing. But the tools of economic coercion and government complicity work there as well as here.

Our attempts to draw "solutions" in the far right of the poster are somewhat simplistic compared to the efforts already underway in some European countries--wind power cooperatives, for example. Utrecht, we're told, is constructing an underground parking garage next to its central train station, designed to hold 20,000 bikes. Amsterdam seems to have more bicycles than people. On the other hand, the Netherlands still gets a big chunk of its electricity from coal, and the gigantic port at the Hook of Holland is a major coal terminal for the rest of Europe.

Double decker bike parking in Utrecht, Netherlands
Our European audiences had a complex understanding of climate change, energy issues and greenwashing schemes, reflecting Europe's longer investment and experience in alternative energy and market-based solutions, their successes and failures. But, just like in the U.S., energy consumption keeps going up, and so do carbon emissions. Although wind turbines decorate the landscape, companies are scheming to build still more coal plants under the shelter of "clean coal" rhetoric. In Germany, people are organizing not only to shut down mine expansion, but also the greenwashing threat of Carbon Capture and Storage and experimental plans to store huge quantitites of CO2 under their villages, fields and towns.

Speaking of, help spread the word! This summer, we know of three Climate Camps in Europe-- gathering places for skillshares, dialogue and action to stop climate change.

July 12-18: Take Back the Land: Douglas Valley action camp (Scotland)
Aug. 3-12: Klimacamp in the Hambach Forest (West Germany)
Aug. 11-18: Klimacamp near Cottbus (East Germany) >
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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Bees in Action

Browse sample photos of our picture-lectures and workshops in a startling variety of venues. This spring we had four separate groups touring in the Southeast, in the Midwest, in the Northeast (including Canada), and even in England!
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Monday, January 31, 2011

Bees Swarming this Spring!

We Bees are currently plotting our SPRING tour schedule, and we’d LOVE to collaborate with you to organize a Beehive presentation in your area. We had a record-breaking fall tour last year with over 200 picture-lectures and graphic workshops, and we are buzzing with excitement to keep up the momentum in the coming months!

From wide-spread hydro-fracking for natural gas and the continued coal exploration across the Abmericas, from the oil spill in the Gulf and Tar Sands development in Canada, the dire fight against fossil fuels has never been more evident on this continent. This spring, we have eager bees and powerful allies ready to swarm all over the Southeast, Northeast, Midwest and Gulf Coast, full of stories and graphics to share.

Plus, we are SUPER excited to announce a special collaborative tour with climate justice organizer Joshua Kahn Russell. Josh will be touring alongside in Appalachia and the Northeast offering additional organizing and social movement strategy workshops to groups and organizations throughout the Spring. And we have more awesome collaborations planned, so keep your ears perked!

YOU can help us cross-pollinate these struggles and communities by hosting the Bees this season; together let’s build this movement for climate justice!

If you are interested in collaborating, or if you know someone else who might be, please visit our TOUR PAGE (http://wwww.beehivecollective.org/booking)for complete workshop descriptions and information about hosting us at your school or venue. >
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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Help KICKSTART the Beehive Collective's 10th Anniversary Print Run!

The BEEHIVE COLLECTIVE has launched a new KICKSTARTER campaign to reprint our full body of work- over a dozen graphic posters!

There's a new-fangled way of doing what Bees do best- fundraising poco-a-poco, little bit by little bit! Through Kickstarter we’ve made a sweet little VIDEO explaining what we do, and are offering lots of special treats to share.

Support the Beehive’s 10th Anniversary Print Run through Kickstarter…… and receive a special collection of limited edition, previously out-of-print, and brand new posters, all shipped direct to your doorstep!

Every lil’ donation makes a big difference; your pledge of $25, $50, or $100 can help us cover the $12,000 total cost of this effort. This will be our biggest, and most diverse, print run to date!

And whether or not you pledge, you can HELP US SPREAD THE WORD by telling your friends, your grandparents, your boss, your siblings, and everyone who’s connected to you on the internet about this kick-startin’ campaign…we need you to help this go viral! >
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