Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On the Starting Line

With most of us back in Maine, the Beehive gears are in motion. It's a bit chaotic as we try to mesh our ideas and working styles into an image that will make sense, not only to us, but (hopefully) to all the people we've worked with on our research trip and to the public at large. We just got our studio set up and are trying to reach some sort of agreement about how to organize all the concepts onto a single page. The whole thing's a bit overwhelming and even with our deadline extended a bit into September we're going to be hard-pressed to do justice to the subject matter.

We’ve been asked what we are trying to do with this poster: shut down the coal industry? If so, won't all the people with coal jobs be angry at us? It’s a big question we’ve posed to coalfield residents and ourselves. Coal IS the main economy in that region, even though jobs have dropped drastically with increased mechanization in the last fifteen years. That means anyone who speaks up against the environmental impacts of coal mining and burning risks ostracization at the very least and physical violence at the worst. Family members also risk retaliation.

In Appalachia, most of the people who are able to publicly question the coal industry are somehow independent of that economy, either because they are retired miners on pensions or are lucky enough to have other work. Even those who told us how unsustainable coal is as a fuel source would often temper their criticism by saying things like, "well, I wouldn't have been able to have the opportunities I do [going to college, having a job I love] if it wasn't for somebody in my family working a coal job."

Most of the ex-miner activists we talked to aren't interested in shutting down coal completely; they just want to shut down strip mining, which has stepped up in the last twenty years, employs less people than deep mining and is vastly more destructive. Only a few people are imagining alternative economic options for the region -- for instance, Coal River Mountain Watch is lobbying for a wind power farm on a ridge threatened by strip mining.

It's tricky to balance that reality with the bigger picture of how the coal industry affects the rest of the world. The US produces 50% of its electricity by burning coal, which is by far the dirtiest option even when it's so-called "clean" coal. We're all paying the price in the form of greenhouse gases, heavy pollution, the poisoning of the watersheds and the clearcutting of forests that produce the oxygen we breathe. Rural folks whose groundwater has been poisoned by coal slurry are getting sick, but so are city dwellers who get asthma from breathing particulates spewed by energy plants.

It's easy to describe the problem, but we are also challenging ourselves to depict alternative futures that people are working towards -- wind power, local economies based on the richness of the bioregion, etc. -- that suggest other ways for Appalachia and a fossil-fuel-addicted nation to survive without trashing the delicate webs that sustain us. We have to do it without being preachy or putting our agendas in other people's mouths. It's a lot to figure out in three months, and the poster won't be complete or perfect, but we hope it will get a lot of noggins thinking and more hands on task.

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