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Vision: Fight for a World Without Coal

Philosopher Wendell Berry helped stop the building of the Louisville International Jetport, the damming of the Red River Gorge, and the nuclear power plant on the Ohio River.
 
 
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Editor’s note: Watch video of Berry delivering a speech on page 2 of this article.

The writer and philosopher Wendell Berry, armed with little more than a copy of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and his conscience, has been camped out for three days with a handful of other activists in the governor’s outer office in Frankfurt, Ky. Berry, who is 76 and the author of a number of important books including the “Unsettling of America” and “Life Is a Miracle,” has been sleeping on the floor of Gov. Steve Beshear’s reception area since Friday night with 13 others to protest the continued blasting of mountaintops in eastern Kentucky and the poisoning of watersheds, soil and air by coal companies.

“We’ve come, we’ve lobbied legislators,” he said when I reached him by phone this weekend. “As recently as last May we had an interview with the governor in his office. None of this has produced any effect. There are no changes in the attitudes of the government towards surface mining, and attention from the media is minimal or nonexistent. We understood, not because we like what we are doing, that this was the next thing that had to be done if we were going to carry our efforts any farther towards the elimination of surface mining.”

The extraction and burning of coal in 26 states is perhaps the most urgent environmental concern facing the United States. Nearly 40 percent of our CO 2 emissions come from coal-fired plants. If we do not begin to regulate and control the coal companies and plan for a future without coal, there will be no possibility to thwart the spiraling effects of climate change. Hundreds of thousands of acres, as well as major watersheds, have already been turned into poisoned wastelands, especially as coal companies blast away mountaintops for the last seams of coal. Communities in the coal fields have been poisoned out of existence by the release of mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, manganese, beryllium, chromium and other carcinogenic substances into the air, soil and water. Hundreds of communities are now ghost towns. The health effects in the country’s major coal fields, where the water running out of the tap is often so rancid it is undrinkable and cancer and respiratory illnesses have reached epidemic levels, are spreading far beyond the coal fields. These toxins migrate to us all.

Coal, like oil and natural gas, is in an inexorable decline. There will be major shortages in as little as two decades. The continued extraction and burning of coal at these levels make any alternative energy policy, including carbon credits, a joke. We must begin to prepare for a world without coal. If we continue to wait passively we will be faced with a crisis that will make basic energy consumption unaffordable and create widespread human misery and suffering as increasing parts of the country and the globe become uninhabitable. Corporations, in their relentless quest for profits, shredded the Kyoto Accords. Corporations, which place greed above the protection of life, determine government policy at the state and federal levels. Corporations block serious reform and regulation and keep the country bound to this wheel of fire. The only hope left is to carry out civil disobedience such as the protest under way in Frankfurt. And if you can get to Frankfurt, be there Monday morning for the planned street demonstrations. Details of Monday’s action, and of the occupation of the governor’s outer office, are available by clicking here.

Berry, who has lived and farmed for more than 40 years in Kentucky’s Henry County and who is the author of some 40 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, said he and 13 other activists from the state were able to meet for 20 minutes with the governor on Friday. Gov. Beshear, whose administration has joined with the Kentucky Coal Association to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the EPA’s attempt to enforce the Clean Water Act, agreed to two of the activists’ requests. He said he would visit some of the people and communities affected by the strip mining operations and he promised to oppose what Berry said was “the violent speech” directed at those who defy the coal companies, much of it generated by the coal industry. But Berry said this was not nearly enough. The governor’s continued support for surface mining and his refusal to acknowledge the ecological and social devastation unleashed by strip mining pushed Berry and the other activists to vow to occupy the office until their other demands were met or they were arrested; those demands include the state government’s withdrawal from the lawsuit against the EPA and steps to begin a transition away from coal. The governor’s office has not moved to arrest the group, although this could change Monday when the office reopens.

 
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