April 02, 2009

Noble savages

People seem to be genetically wired to make, tell and see stories and we often tend to endlessly recycle a few basic kinds of story types.

One that's particularly popular in America today is the action movie, with clear good guys and bad guys and a happy ending. That can be entertaining, but it's not always the best lens to look at social problems. As I've argued earlier this week, a lot of life is more like a tragedy of conflicting rights and wrongs.

The coal industry version of the action movie is that coal mining, including mountaintop removal, is the best thing that ever happened to West Virginia and that environmentalists or people serious about regulation are the serpent in this Garden of Eden. (Coal is also clean and carbon neutral, which is kind of like booze without alcohol.) Which is, of course, a product of bovine digestion.

I dislike mountaintop removal, support stronger regulation of the industry, and would like to see it phased out. But I've noticed that some articles on the subject by out of state environmental writers have an action movie of their own going on. According to this one, the good guys are a bunch of Appalachian Noble Savages standing as one against the evil coal companies. The assumption is that if the practice just ended today, everything would be great.

I'm not that worried about the evil coal company part of this action movie frame (which kind of works in some cases) but the rest is over-simplified. While probably a majority of West Virginians oppose the practice according to the public opinion research I've seen, this is a contested issue all the way down. There are noble and ignoble savages and non-savages on different sides of the issue.

There are no doubt people who work on mountaintop removal jobs who don't like it deep down inside. And there are people who personally oppose it but accept it for economic or political reasons. Lots of people are conflicted to one degree or another for various reasons.

The happy ending part is also over-simplified. I think the results for southern West Virginia are going to be tragic no matter what happens. If it goes on as it has in the past, there will be huge environmental devastation, water contamination, floods, coal-related health problems, etc., not to mention more climate change impacts. And if it stops, there will be some job losses and a loss of revenue for public services from coal severance taxes.

According to the US Energy Information Agency, in 2007 there were 6,608 surface mining jobs in West Virginia.

While I don't think coal companies have historically paid enough in taxes in light of the damage they've done and the wealth they've extracted, revenues generated from severance taxes make up an important part of West Virginia's budget, lately bringing over $300 million per year to the state's general revenue fund. According to a state tax official, around 85 percent of that is from coal.

Severance taxes are part of the reason why the state was slower to experience the fiscal impact of the current recession. And around 80 percent of state general revenue funds go to public and higher education and human services. And even if nothing changes as far as coal regulation goes, when it's gone it's gone.

El Cabrero is not seeing a whole lot of happy endings. Whatever happens, I'm seeing more of a tragedy than an action movie.

I'm reminded of a quote attributed to Woody Allen:

“Today we are at a crossroads. One road leads to hopelessness and despair; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we choose wisely.”

I'll try to find a silver lining tomorrow....

WHILE WE'RE AT IT, here's Ken Wards latest blog post on the Obama administration's approach to the issue.

AND THEN THERE'S THIS. This article looks at research on carbon capture.

THE PATH TO WAR (BUT WHERE'S THE EXIT?). The latest edition of the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes From Under the Fig Tree looks at the war in Iraq and especially Afghanistan.

SIGN OF THE TIMES. The recession is filling and stressing libraries.


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