10/28/2010 04:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Almost Heaven or Almost Hell? Fossil Fuels, Paychecks and Nature

Like the weather, the fight over mountaintop removal coal mining is heating up. Mountaintop removal is a coal mining technique used in the coalfields of Appalachia. It allows coal operators to access thin seams of coal that cannot be reached by underground mining, and enables them to mine the entire seam of coal instead of accessing only parts of it as in less intensive surface mining techniques. First, the forest is cleared. Next, the rocks and soil above the coal seam are loosened with underground explosives. This action can destroy underground aquifers and damage nearby residents' water wells. The "overburden" is placed in an adjacent valley fill while workers use enormous equipment to mine the coal. After the coal seam is mined, the coal operator may move on to reclamation, perhaps by planting lespedeza sericea, a hardy imported ground cover. Or if another seam exists below, the mining can continue, as if the mountain were a cake to be deconstructed layer by layer. In any case, when the coal is gone, the landscape is left fundamentally altered: lowered by thousands of feet, with forests gone and valleys filled, a drastically simplified ecosystem. At the same time, waste products from mining and coal processing invade the local water supply, making streams and water wells toxic.

Activists from Climate Ground Zero, Rainforest Action Network and other national environmental organizations have teamed up with coalfield organizations like the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Appalachian Voices, and Coal River Mountain Watch to fight this destructive mining technique and the other disastrous effects of coal mining and processing in Appalachia, through protests in the coalfields and in Washington. "Climate ground zero" is appropriate, because although the toxic homogenizing and flattening effects of extraction and processing are the main focus of coalfield activists, ultimately what mountaintop removal does to the environment in Appalachia is only a preview of what a fossil fuel-based energy economy promises us all: more heat, less biodiversity, less clean water, dirtier air, etc.

I grew up in West Virginia, not in the coalfields, but near enough to witness the destruction. In light of the environmental damages caused by mountaintop removal and other intensive coal mining techniques, I had to ask, how do people endure this? Why do some coalfield residents still support the coal industry? (This is a huge question, and I examine it in my book Removing Mountains: Extracting Nature and Identity in the Appalachian Coalfields.) Needless to say, the simplest, most frequently given answer is: for a paycheck. This perspective is so ingrained it hardly seems to merit a second thought. People in coal mining areas depend on coal mining, just as those in the Gulf depend on drilling for oil.

Because this answer -- that people support the industry (whatever industry) because they need a paycheck, is so automatic, so natural, so unquestioned -- it might be beneficial to give it some consideration. At the risk of asking a ridiculous question, what is a paycheck? What precisely does it offer? Because most of us get food from grocery stores or restaurants, we tend to think money equals food. Most assuredly, in contemporary American life, money equals access to food, as well as to everything else. That's why, when the coal industry in Appalachia or the oil industry off the Gulf of Mexico cries about job losses caused by environmental regulation, people get scared. "I love the environment, but my family has got to eat," they say.

It's true that for most people in this country, the paycheck is the proximate source of all good things. In fact, sometimes it seems as though the paycheck and the material prosperity it offers is the very definition of what it means to be American, as when immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, we were asked to get out there and shop, or the terrorists win. I am reminded of an old Wendy's restaurant commercial from the 1980s that featured a Soviet fashion show, with a portly woman modeling an identical dress for all occasions: "Is next, day wear . . . Is next, evening wear." This send up of the monotony of communism underlines the American ideal of economic freedom -- enjoying all the affluence, convenience and choices our economy offers us. In the commercial, the variety on a fast food menu, like the beautiful clothing modeled in a real fashion show, represents democracy and freedom.

The problem is that this kind of freedom only works when you've got a job. And the problem with mountaintop removal and other intensive coal mining techniques is that they greatly reduce the demand for human workers -- replacing many of them with machines. This is a story we've heard before. Although the coal industry produces more coal today than it ever has, it is doing so with about 15% of the workforce that it needed in the 1950s. This has happened thanks to increasing mechanization, which has allowed the industry to earn greater and greater profits by reducing labor costs.

That's the logic of the system. And when the system works, it's great. The luxuries most middle-class Americans can access through this system surpass the wildest dreams of kings from the past: amazing amounts of food, cars, air-conditioning, etc. Whatever we can or can't personally afford, almost everyone in the United States depends on money to access the basic necessities of life, so it is not surprising that wages look like they are the basic necessities of life. And because most of the choices we make are choices in the marketplace, that does feel like freedom.

But this summer's disaster in the Gulf clearly revealed the fallacy of this kind of thinking. When the major sources of food in the Gulf are threatened, the temporary jobs BP offered people cleaning up the spill look like a pretty poor replacement for plentiful shrimp and oysters. Even though most of us don't fish for our suppers we are in big trouble if we don't understand what livelihood really means. 100 years ago, the German sociologist Max Weber warned of an iron cage; a vast bureaucratic apparatus that would run on its own steam, pursuing efficiency for efficiency's sake, accumulating profit for its own sake, until the last lump of coal has been burned. From his perspective, this system brought us less freedom, not more, more discipline, not less. This is one of the things I think about when I ask, what is a paycheck?

While I was in West Virginia doing research for my book, I met an environmentalist who taught me something remarkable. She cited the West Virginia state motto and commented, "Mountaineers are always free, and that's because they can live on the mountains. And the only way they can stop them from being free, is by destroying the mountains." She was talking about how people in coal camps and mountain hollows have always been able to scrape by through economic downturns by hunting and fishing, gardening, or gathering wild forest products. Unfortunately, coal extraction and processing are making these traditions a relic of the past in the coalfields; people can't drink from polluted wells, fish can't live in polluted streams, and mining increasingly encroaches on the forest. These old ways offered a cushion, a way to live outside the bounds of the market economy, to live without much money. True, you don't have the pleasure of shopping, but this is a kind of freedom that the marketplace doesn't offer. It's just not one of our choices.