I moved down to West Virginia on May 26th, 2010, two weeks after I graduated from college. The learning curve is steep here. Of the many things this place has taught me, three lessons stand out.
Right here on American soil the most brutal forms of exploitation are taking place. In Appalachia, an alliance of land companies, coal companies, big banks and Wall Street investment firms are tearing this land to pieces. Every hour of every day they dump cocktails of toxic chemicals into its waters. They poison its people with coal dust and liquid waste. They set off explosions that blast away entire mountaintops. They subject the local communities to de facto servitude by locking out all alternative avenues of economic opportunity. All this for the sake of coal and the satisfaction of America’s relentless energy “needs”.
This economic order recognizes no neighbors, takes no responsibility for the land and prioritizes only one thing — the turning of a profit. It is an economic order of businesses too big to care. The people here have lost control of their lives — a story familiar to many Americans as more and more of this country’s political and economic resources are concentrated in the hands of a relatively small handful of individuals and institutions. The economic system — as anyone in Appalachia can tell you — is explicitly anti-democratic. Whether by bribing regulatory officials in backroom deals or bankrolling elections for the court system, the actions of the banks, land companies and the energy industry along with their friends in the local, state and federal governments are cynically calculated to gut the institutions of democracy in this region.
This is not a bad apple scenario. This is not a passing phase. The same forces that are destroying this place and its people are at work all across the planet. Whether in the gold mines of Guatemala, the coal pits of Colombia, the mineral fields of Afghanistan or on the Gulf Coast, the logic of extraction and endless economic growth is ruining lives and land.
I believe the problem is more than a political and economic one. The problem is spiritual and moral in nature. This society has swallowed the lie that only the market can assign value, that only the dollar grants meaning. This is the essence of idolatry — a form of money worshipping that has led us toward the destruction of our Earth and each other. As a member of the generation coming of age, I refuse to take part in that idolatry. I along with many others refuse to sanction the desecration of this earth, our home, and its inhabitants for the sake of a greasy buck.
As modern society has drawn people off the land and into cities and suburbs, a central truth of life on this planet — that land and freedom are inextricably linked — has been lost. Here in Appalachia, however, the truth is alive and well. Forests, fertile soil, the sun and the rain are what give us life and people here know it. Because these things give us life, they offer us the opportunity to be independent. They enable us to provide for ourselves and do good work.
The American Indians knew this essential truth. The Founding Fathers knew it. People know it in Appalachia, in Latin America, all over the world. They know it because they have not been artificially separated from the land. They are intimate with the land and understand the critical role it plays in sustaining life. Most Americans, on the other hand, have been struck by an awful bout of amnesia, and so we allow the land to be bought up, fenced off and destroyed. We allow sick and greedy men to clear cut the forests, pollute the air, poison the water and strip the land to get at lifeless coal, oil and iron ore. This is equivalent to selling your soul for a back massage, some momentary pleasure, some false need. It is the height of stupidity, the height of moral corruption. We need to make it stop or we will lose everything.
Our lives and our freedom depend on the land, but in the last analysis the land is not ours. We are visitors on this earth, placed here for a brief time to take care of it and to take care of each other. Thomas Paine, a real American revolutionary, put it plainly: “Man did not make the earth, and, though he has a natural right to occupy it, he has no right to own as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue.” In other words, God owns the land and we are the tenants. Being a tenant requires humility. It also requires prudence. You don’t rent an apartment and break its windows or burn it to the ground. If you did you would end up on the streets, in jail or with a nightmare credit score. Nevertheless that is what we are doing here, destroying our heritage because we think we own the place. Our man-made reality, our “real world” could not be further from the truth.
I have learned that this is a battle for the heart of Appalachia and the soul of America. On one side are the powerful — wealthy corporations, their investors and their many friends in government — whose vision of the future is endless acres of strip malls, WalMarts and subdivisions, where everyone thinks they need three pick up trucks and five flat screen TVs. On the other side are those — largely working people, poor people and their allies — who seek to develop an alternative vision, one that emphasizes the health of the land, the viability of local community and economic democracy, simplicity, humility and self-reliance.
Which side are you on? It is a question that dates back to the early days of the labor struggle right here in Appalachia when poor and working people made the decision to stand up for themselves despite generations of abuse and apathy. It is a question with many implications, one to consider carefully.
Which side are you on? Think about it. Then take action!