That Great Coal Nightmare

January 5, 2018

Donald Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs and coal plants, his recent rescinding of the Paris Agreement, and his moves to rollback clean water rules are disheartening to say the least. However, after watching the documentary From the Ashes, I do find some glimmers of hope. 

The film is mostly about the coal industry, with information most of us already know. We know that coal is horrible for the environment, that burning it causes cancer and horrible respiratory problems, and that the emissions are the biggest problem affecting climate change. We know that it only employs ~54,000 people, in comparison to over 200,000 in clean energy. But, what we don’t focus on is the people it really affects (the workers and their families) and the “base” that insists on voting for someone as vile as Donald Trump. 

Unfortunately, coal mining communities are suffering greatly – massive layoffs due to plant closings in recent decades, dealing with the health problems associated with it, and the cleanup (or lack thereof) of mining. Luckily, we are down to 280 coal plants in the U.S, down from over 500 two decades ago. Obviously, that affects workers and their families. However, what I never understood, was that those people lived in poverty in spite of those “wonderful” coal mining jobs. How horrible is that? Places like West Virginia, basically the coal capital of the U.S., was in the bottom 5 as far as poverty when coal was booming. So, as usual, big companies get richer and richer while their laborers suffer, and in this case, literally die (from accidents, related cancers, polluted water, etc.) 

But, what do we do with these people who now (or soon) have no jobs? Donald Trump wants to fight for these 54,000 jobs, but they are not worth fighting for – not at the cost of literally destroying surrounding communities and the ultimate destruction of the planet. For 54,000 jobs in an industry that can never be done cleanly?!? To put that in perspective, Blockbuster Video once employed more than 84,000 people in more than 9,000 stores (Wikipedia). But, I don’t recall any Presidents hooting and hollering about all those lost jobs, or insisting on fighting Netflix or the DVD industry. People move and change with the times – they have to do so to survive. And the “jobs” argument is fraught with hypocrisy. Planned Parenthood operates more than 600 clinics in the U.S. (Glassdoor) which presumably provides hundreds if not thousands of people. Playboy employs 500-1000 people (Glassdoor) not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people who are indirectly employed by selling the magazines on their shelves and people working in merchandising and so forth, and more than 500 people work at the Sierra Club (LinkedIn). I don’t see anyone up in arms to “save these jobs!” I’m pretty sure a lot of Republicans would love to shut down Planned Parenthood, Playboy and the Sierra Club and don’t give a hoot about jobs.

I finished the film with hope. Communities are starting more and more to invest in wind and solar, and they are re-employing affected coal workers bit by bit. It’s the only way these communities can survive. Yes, they clearly need jobs – but not polluting jobs that make absolutely no economic sense. 

It’s an important film to watch because it shows all sides of the issue – affected workers, affected community members, politicians on boths sides, and most importantly – environmentalists and historians. Understanding the history of the coal industry and their contributions to our society today is incredibly important. We can’t get past the history – but we can certainly work towards a better future. 

I watched the film on Hulu and it was definitely worth my time. National Geographic really did a good job with it. You can also find out more information on the issues at the film’s website: 

Psalm 24: 1-2 (NRSV): The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.

Serve all with love.

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