Lou Martin: A Response to Nick Mullins’s December 2015 blog post “The Problem with Environmentalism in Appalachia.”

Thursday, January 14th, 2016
posted by admin

Our friend and ally Lou Martin wrote this (in response to Nick Mullins’s blog post “The Problem with Environmentalism in Appalachia“) and asked us to post it. Although this isn’t an official communique from RAMPS, we’re posting it in the spirit of fostering dialogue so that our movement can be stronger and more effective…

I wish more people knew the environmental movement in central Appalachia the way I have gotten to know it in the last four years.

I have been a longtime fan of Nick Mullins’s blog The Thoughtful Coal Miner, and I hope Nick knows that I appreciate and respect him and his family for their work—work of all kinds—to end mountaintop removal.  And I appreciate this recent blog post because it is grappling with a difficult subject and because, to be effective, we need to take a hard look at ourselves and our strategies.

As I understand the post, the main problem with environmentalism in Appalachia is that environmental organizations have not won over coal mining families.  Nick writes, “Coal mining families are not very receptive to environmentalists—and that’s putting it lightly. Why should they be? In what way have environmentalists approached coal mining families over the past two decades? In what way have environmentalists presented themselves to the public?”

Throughout the blog post he talks about “environmentalists” and “coal mining families” as being two different groups, opposed to each other.  In another place he writes, “At the end of the day, I had to realize that perhaps many environmental organizations are just as ‘out of touch’ as Appalachian people think them to be.”  Here, environmental organizations and Appalachian people as if they are almost mutually exclusive.

When I think back to why I got involved fighting mountaintop removal, I think of the people who inspired me, and almost every one of them came from a coal mining family or were former coal miners—and all those people belonged to environmental organizations.

But Nick is talking about a general perception of “the environmental movement” that someone in the region might get if they only watch the occasional news report or witness a demonstration.  Those people, I suppose, might not really be able to differentiate between a small organization based in the region and a national organization like the Sierra Club.  Between an organization that advocates civil disobedience and those that do not.

My understanding of the movement is different from the general perception.  The people I’ve met come from many walks of life, at different points in their lives, and at different places in their understanding of issues, strategies, and the movement itself.  When Nick wrote that somebody told him they were tired of talking to pro-coal people, I wondered if that was a twenty-year-old who has been at it for a year or a sixty-year-old who has spent a lifetime in the coalfields.  Either one of them may just need a break and will get back into the conversation a year from now.

He writes that environmental organizations’ use strategies—“protests, civil disobedience, all with some participants forcing a counter cultural attitude through their appearance”—that polarize rather than help.  I can think of fifteen to twenty environmental organizations in the region and only two that I know of engage in civil disobedience.  One of them, Mountain Justice, was partly founded by Judy Bonds and Bo Webb, both residents of the Coal River Valley.  They turned to civil disobedience after several years of reporting violations to the DEP, speaking at permit hearings, writing to elected representatives, and petitioning the governor of the state.  After a tragedy in 2004, many local citizens decided that the situation was so urgent and dire that they needed to escalate their tactics to include risking arrest.

I suspect that the organization that most fits Nick’s description is Radical Action for Mountains’ and Peoples’ Survival (RAMPS).  RAMPS activists have risked arrest during several direct actions, but while that may be the most visible of their work it is only a part of it.  RAMPS has helped organize the WV Clean Water Hub, worked with the Kanawha Forest Coalition, advocated for prison reform, engaged youth in Whitesville around non-timber forest products, and supported campaigns of the Dineh people, all on a shoestring budget.

So protests and civil disobedience are only a small part of their work, and they are only one of some twenty organizations doing environmental work in Appalachia.  Many environmental organizations focus on education, legislative lobbying, water testing, research, and lawsuits—just to name some of their activities, but I suppose a lot of this work goes largely unnoticed by the general public.

As for whether direct action polarizes a community, when activists have risked arrest, in some ways it is designed to polarize a community.  As Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

I would argue that when it comes to mountaintop removal, nonviolent direct action has helped to accomplish that in Appalachia.  In 2005, Mountain Justice Summer helped make mountaintop removal a national issue, and some of the outside media types (as well as many homegrown journalists) produced articles, books, and documentaries to help raise awareness around the country of this issue.  In my opinion, Mountain Justice campaigns helped secure a new school for Marsh Fork elementary students, helped save Ison Rock Ridge, and set the stage for other positive results through collaborations with other groups.  I would also argue that there are no longer large, direct action campaigns like there were even a few years ago because activists are adjusting to a new time and using different strategies.

Nick writes that environmentalists have fallen into the well-worn path of other groups of outsiders in Appalachia throughout history, forcing their ideas onto Appalachians, thinking of themselves as better than Appalachians, and playing into the coal industry’s negative stereotypes of environmentalists being outsiders.  I confess that I do know environmentalists who have imagined plans to “help” Appalachian coal miners and know very little about miners’ lives, and those environmentalists tend to be the ones who have spent very little time getting to know the region and the people.

But I would also argue that so-called “outsiders” have played positive roles in the region as well as negative.  Many “outside reformers” have arrived with condescending attitudes, but many learned to love the region, its people, and its culture and joined forces with longtime residents to do some good.  The Appalachian Volunteers, during the War on Poverty, helped local citizens organize the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and the People and train them in the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, tactics that many of the Volunteers had learned from Civil Rights organizations in the South—part of a long chain of activists that have learned and shared ideas through history.  (And many AVs were from the region.)

In an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, my friend Paul Rakes said that complaints about outsiders have been common in American and Appalachian history.  During the Civil Rights Movement, many in the South complained that “there would be no problems among blacks in the South if it weren’t for college students from the North coming in and stirring these things up.”  In the 1920s, many said that the UMWA organizers were communists from outside the region, a charge that came up again during the War on Poverty in the 1960s.  Paul continued, “But the spark where these things began is in that local community.  In Appalachia, in particular in areas such as this [Coal River Valley], usually there’s not that large of a population in these areas, and they need outside help in organizing and strengthening their voice.”

I would also argue that when people, especially activists, get labeled as “outsiders,” it is political and serves the people in power.  Labeling a group “outsiders” is an attempt to marginalize them at the same time that the person who is doing the labeling claims to be more authentic and legitimate, elevating their position above the dreaded outsiders.  Often, the “outsider” label is not just about somebody’s place of origin but is about ways that they differ from the “authentic” people, which often includes appearance, speech, dress, values, and beliefs.

I remember when I was on the 2011 March on Blair Mountain, counter-protestors sometimes yelled, “Go home!”  When one marcher replied, “I’m from Rock Creek,” where he had indeed grown up, the counter-protestor shouted, “That’s Raleigh County!  This is Boone County!”  It really didn’t matter where we were from.  It was our opposition to mountaintop removal that got us labeled “outsiders.”

When Nick asks how environmentalists have reached out to coal mining families, I think that first it’s important to recognize that environmental organizations in Appalachia have not had unlimited resources.  Many of the ones around today grew from very small, local groups in the 1980s and have slowly grown to stable organizations with a handful of full-time staff members.

Even still, there have been door-knocking campaigns and listening projects, numerous documentaries, published health studies, articles, books, poems, a feature film, brochures, and flyers, many of which have been designed to reach regular people including coalfield residents, and very few of these relied on hippies for distribution.  This doesn’t include countless difficult face-to-face conversations that I think we’ve all had with miners and “pro-coal people.”

I agree with Nick that national organizations like the Sierra Club that have a $100 million budget could have done more real organizing in the region, and organizations like it probably have members and even officers who have condescending attitudes about Appalachia and coal miners.

I also agree when he says that change will only come when “the people living in Appalachia pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make it happen themselves.  It will only come when everyone wants change for their children and works towards change.”  This will include electing officials who are not owned by the coal industry and working with those officials to “force the region into a new era of sustainability.”

I would add to that list—and I’m pretty sure Nick would agree—that we need to shift land ownership into local hands, reconstruct community ties that have been broken, and adopt more sustainable lifestyles as individuals.

I already see a lot of environmentalists working toward those things as opposed to following the “same course of action” over and over.  There have been a number of gatherings and conferences (attended by many a treehugger) to consider new ways to revitalize Appalachia and create a new economic future.  I always recommend Ron Eller’s insightful take on this topic.

I understand that Nick, like many others, has put his heart and soul into a movement and is frustrated with how things have turned out, but I would hate to see my friend become just another self-righteous critic of movement, perpetually alienating friends and allies, and living on a tiny island of his creation.

I believe that Nick and others like him are in the perfect position to reach out to coal mining families and push us one step closer to that new era of sustainability.  His blog has been an important voice in the discussion, and I hope he’ll find a path forward, build some bridges, help create change, and show us the way.

Lou Martin
Jan. 11, 2016

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