(originally posted January 23, 2010)
A lot of interesting things happened in West Virginia at the end of January. The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, and Robert Kennedy, Jr. held a public debate on MTR and climate change at the University of Charleston while a tree-sit protest against Massey’s intended blasting of Coal River Mountain lasted for nine days, including the day of the debate, before the protesters descended and were immediately arrested. Earlier in the month, the journal Science published an eleven-author peer reviewed article condemning MTR, which, while significant, really only confirms the effects of MTR most people already knew. Hopefully this article does mean that a different realm of academics will take notice of MTR, but honestly I’m not sure there will be much more of an impact than that.
What I think is more interesting is the concurrence of this hugely important debate and the tree-sit protest. The debate is a long conversation but definitely worth listening to.
Now, I’m clearly not Don Blankenship’s biggest fan (if you read my last post, you can start to see why), but frankly I am not much impressed by Kennedy, either. Ever since I saw his film “Crimes Against Nature,” based on his book of the same title, in a large part I think I’ve had the same reaction to him that a lot of West Virginians have to outsiders who come into the state and think they have to speak for us because we can’t do it for ourselves. It doesn’t help that he loves to reinforce how much of a free-market capitalist he is; rather than considering alternatives to capitalism as much as he considers alternative energy sources, he’s convinced that pure capitalism would hold producers accountable for all the costs of production, and I just don’t think that’s feasible.
This debate began with Kennedy’s attempt to legitimize his presence in West Virginia in the first place, which doesn’t really extend much further than JFK’s War on Poverty beginning in the state and his own love for the mountains, and I certainly do appreciate his passionate plea to save the state I love, too. But of course, Blankenship knows the industry better than Kennedy, and he’s not a stupid guy: he’s able to talk about coal and its role in the growth of the US and that, if coal made us prosperous, we’ve got to keep mining to continue to prosper, which is something a single-industry state like West Virginia does like to hear. For much of this debate, these men are really just talking about completely different things – a lot of people have responded that Kennedy won the debate outright, but really there is absolutely no common ground and Kennedy is simply the more loquacious of the two.
This debate is just one element of a new discovery I’m having about Don Blankenship. People who are on his side like him because he’s from West Virginia, he’s worked in mining for six decades, and he’s only at the top of the coal chain because he got there himself. But he is also a liar; he also supported the apartheid state in South Africa; he also blames all the problems of the coal industry on the “enviros” like the out-of-state tree sitters. Not only did he state during the debate that strip mining causes no meaningful pollution (which was solidly disproven by the Science report on MTR), he also claimed that coal provides more to West Virginian communities than it takes away – even if that means paying people more than their homes are worth to get them to leave so Massey can blast more mountains. I’m pretty sure that mostly profits the absentee landowners who Massey leases the land from in order to be allowed to blast and mine it – there’s just about nothing in it for the West Virginia communities.
Last week I also got the chance to watch a great documentary called Mine War on Blackberry Creek (it’s only 30 minutes and really insightful) about a strike against Massey in 1984 in which Blankenship tries to justify Massey’s investment in multinationals who send jobs to South African mines to “help the people,” despite the fact that they must be paid less than American workers (otherwise why would they export the jobs at all?) and despite the fact that they are working in conditions of slave labor. Considering how he treats mine workers in West Virginia today, his statements through this documentary enlighten viewers to Blankenship’s longstanding obsession with productivity and profit.
It’s hard to tell with Blankenship: has he really kidded himself into thinking that these lies he’s telling himself are true, or does he know better and is really only speaking in the name of the coal industry and money? Somehow I think the latter is a bit more likely, especially considering that his conclusion in the debate was that the EPA’s regulations are unreasonable and that sustainable environmental policy and productivity are irreconcilable. But of course, that’s all because MTR doesn’t create any significant pollution…
But Kennedy is probably kidding himself when he says sustainability and productivity go hand in hand, at least if his definition of “productivity” is the same as Blankenship’s – which, considering how this debate went, it’s probably not. Kennedy’s correct in his facts about the coal industry’s decline as well as about alternative energy opportunities. He really does speak passionately about the destruction caused by MTR, and he certainly doesn’t ignore the human impact it has. Kennedy is more eloquent than Blankenship and probably is the best counterpart to Blankenship in this dominant-male style argument. But I think when Blankenship brings up the activists who aren’t from Appalachia who participate in direct action protests (like the tree sitters and their supporting cast, who came from as far away as New Orleans and Chicago), he’s including Kennedy in that realm of non-native folks who don’t actually get it. And this just brings me back to my first point: why does it have to be someone else speaking for West Virginia?
This choice seems to me to be a gender and class issue in large part. Why not have Blankenship debate with one of the people who has lived through the effects of his company’s practices and who knows Kennedy’s statistics equally well, if not more, and who work with organizations who aren’t just spouting rhetoric about alternative energy sources but actually organizing campaigns for them (like Coal River Mountain Watch – check out their great video)? Is it because many of them are women? Is it because many of them are poor? Is it because many of them are less educated? Is it because of his status as a wealthy white male that Kennedy is seen as of an equal to Blankenship and more fit to meet him in a direct debate (and let’s not forget the mediator, Dr. Ed Welch, president of the University of Charleston and a white man in a stable economic situation…)?
Kennedy may be smart, passionate, and a man with the means to speak out about MTR, but he’ll always be an outsider. And until Don Blankenship has the balls to get up on a stage in front of an enormous audience and on West Virginia public television and tell the people of Appalachia that Massey hasn’t polluted their communities, hasn’t forced them out of their homes, hasn’t stolen their jobs, and hasn’t destroyed their livelihoods – all without lying – then nothing has changed. And until it’s West Virginians sitting in the trees on Coal River Mountain at least alongside the “enviros” from out of state, then those actions remain ineffective. It’s time to stop putting on shows to prove how radically we all are convinced of our positions, Blankenship and Kennedy included, and actually do something to effect sustainable change in West Virginia. I also wouldn’t mind seeing Blankenship’s and Kennedy’s net worth combined and redistributed to the people of Appalachian coal towns, for starters…but I guess that wouldn’t be “purely capitalist” enough for either of them. At least there’s one thing they can agree on.