Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The raping of Appalachian America

Mountain top removal in W Virginia
Facts For Working People received this from a reader and think it is important to share with our readers. We think it is a powerful piece about Appalachian American life and what capitalism is doing to our environment.  We do not agree that voting for Democrats or Obama is the solution but this doesn't detract from the powerful message in this commentary.

I Am responding to the pics of mountain top removal in Wise County, Va, with a bit of socio-political commentary. Having spent a good part of my adult life in central Appalachia (Dickenson County, Va) where I developed an appreciation for Appalachian cultural values, I was always struck by the fact that of all the waves of European immigrants to settle on the continent, Appalachian folk seem to have internalized, much more than others, some of the values of the indigenous population who occupied the land before them.

For nearly a century they lived a 'sustainable society' ethic of relating to the land with a simple and subsistence life style. But in the latter part of the 19th Century, when 'reconstruction' in the South was rebuilding the old colonial and plantation mentality, another kind of 'reconstruction' was going on in terms of Northern industrialists invading the Appalachian region to exploit its natural resources starting with the clear-cutting of timber and then turning to an exploitation of coal; and into the 20th Century it was that reality that was most associated with the region. It turned a 'sustainable society' into what became an 'impoverished' society for many. People were drawn off the land they were farming to support their families and began to live in little coal-town settlements where they became dependent on the proverbial company store.

Many others sold 'mineral rights' under old broad form deed legalities that gave the mineral owners the right to control surface land as well in extracting coal. But to come back to the 'impoverished' reality - a local resident who became involved in some community organizing in the 1970s used to say: "When outsiders talk about us being 'poor' they just don't understand that what they call 'poverty' is just a simple life style, and some people coming in to get 'rich' off some natural resources changed our whole way of living, and we had nothing to say about it."

But one of the things that did not change was a deep sense of family responsibility and the need to provide for family dependents, and that meant for a kind of 'social contract' with exploiting economic interests - even when it went against some fundamental 'self interest' realities. So men - and early on it was only men - would go to work in dangerous working conditions in the mines because they would put family values above personal safety. And if they complained about working conditions, the owners and operators of mines would tell them, "There are a lot of hungry people out here who'd like to have your job." And that crassness was often amplified when an operator would tell a worker to be careful with mules and ponies in certain dangerous sections of a mine - with the miner saying: "But what about me?" And I heard from more than one old miner say that they would be told: "I don't worry about you; I can always hire another man, but I'd have to buy another mule."

Fast forward to 2012. The strip-mining which disrupted vast areas in southern Appalachia from the late 1960s into the 1990s gave way to mountain top removal - and that's what the pictures from Wise County portray. But this 'war on people and the environment' that has always been backed up by legislative legalities and union-busting mentalities now tries to defend itself by talking about a 'war on coal' that enlists a populace dependent on the few jobs it provides to provide popular support for its 'war on regulations’ - and once again, cultural values about providing for family are in conflict with other self-interests.

So a Romney campaign nationally connected to an Allen campaign in Virginia can continue to 'exploit' the region to fuel (and a pun is intended) the narrow interests of an economic elite who have been exploiting workers in the country ever since slavery gave way to slave-wages for an 'owning class' to maintain dominance over a 'non-owning' class. Unfortunately, there are far too many in the 'other' political party who hold to those same values while spouting a rhetoric that supposedly supports that 'non-owning' class. So those pictures reveal a lot more than mere environmental destruction. They are the culmination of an economic and political ethic that has exploited and abused people and the land for over three centuries on this continent, to say nothing of how that has been paralleled in 'the Americas' to the south.

To be sure, supporting the re-election of Barack Obama - to say nothing of electing a Congress than can support his agenda - is quite crucial in the 'class war' that continues (even though that is a reality that we are not supposed to include in our political rhetoric). But we ought to also embrace his rhetoric that real change comes from the 'outside' and not 'inside' Washington where an entrenched socio-economic-political ethic perpetuates the domination of 'the rich' in a society that is inherently racist, materialist, and militarist - to lift up the three major dangers to a just and sustainable society that Martin Luther King, Jr kept reminding us of 50 years ago - with a recognition that a spirit of community organizing around principles of communal, rather than private, ownership that 'redistributes' wealth based on human and environmental needs is primary for those who consider themselves progressive and proponents of a sustainable society.

So again... those pictures say a lot more than merely recording environmental destruction.... those pictures say a lot more than merely recording environmental destruction... and with an awareness of some Appalachian contexts... they invite us to some introspection of our politics and economics... raising some questions about how holding on to some of our own self-interests might be in conflict with some of the transcending visions we claim and pursue.

Don Prange
Ministries in Economic Justice
PO Box 432
Lovettsville, Virginia    

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