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Add to Bush's Follies the Rape of his Own Country
Published on Sunday, March 12, 2006 by the Guardian/UK
Add to Bush's Follies the Rape of his Own Country
The despoilment of the Appalachians is typical of the President's bankrupt environmental policies
by Henry Porter
 

Eastern Kentucky is a long way from Britain. What do we care if another million acres of the Appalachian mountain range are lost to strip mining? If the habitat of the flying squirrel and the cerulean warbler is blown up and bulldozed? If one of the oldest temperate forests in the world with some 80 species of trees is destroyed by the greed of a few coal companies? Why should it matter to us?

I'll tell you why. First, because this story exposes the pathological destructiveness of the Republican political and religious elite. Not content with the ruin it has caused in Iraq, George W. Bush's administration lays waste the great American wilderness in a way that tests your faith in the reason of man.

Second, this campaign against nature is being plotted, sanctioned and carried out by men - it is exclusively men - who are on their knees in little, white churches every Sunday praying to a god whom they believe created this earth. The same people who reject Darwin and promote the idea that life on earth is too complex and varied to have been created by evolution, a theory known as intelligent design, are the ones who show such contempt for God's creation.

And let's not forget the last crucial point. With the United States accounting for 30 per cent of the world's CO2 emissions, much of it from heavily polluting, coal-burning power stations, we may all to some extent consider ourselves downwind of what's going on in the coal industry of Kentucky and parts of West Virginia.

In Britain, we are not exposed to the horrors of 'mountaintop removal', but owing to a new book by Erik Reece, Lost Mountain: A year in the Vanishing Wilderness, which I happened on in a New York bookshop, I learned that it has nothing to do with coal mining in the traditional sense. Mountaintop removal is just that. You blow up the top of the mountain with a mixture of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel, the same combination used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing, and bulldoze the millions of tons of debris into the valleys and streams below. A slender seam of coal is then exposed, at which point a fearsome machine called a dragline is deployed to strip out the coal.

The result is that local water supplies are polluted with mercury and the chemicals used in the mining process; the uninterrupted habitat of many rare creatures and plants is destroyed; and the landscape is ruined forever. The scars that you are now able to see on satellite pictures will be there until the end of time.

In the American media, you will find little mention of this shocking state of affairs. Indeed, people generally know more about the burning of Amazon rainforests than they do about the devastation wrought by their own people in their own country.

It is true that a grim picture of strip mining did appear as the background of a recent film called North Country, the story of a woman, played by Charlize Theron, fighting for her rights as a mine-worker. To a European eye, this minor heroic tale is all very well, but why didn't it occur to director Niki Caro that the demonic mess created by strip mining was more than incidental? But perhaps that is where America is - individual rights come way ahead of the trashing of nature in the public's concerns.

In 1968, Bobby Kennedy visited the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia with the message that strip mining was a way of putting miners out of work. His son, environmental campaigner Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has written an excellent account of the rape of Appalachia in Crimes Against Nature, which reveals that mountaintop removal was encouraged by George W. Bush after the Republicans received $20 million from the coal industry.

In 2000, a lobbyist named J. Steven Griles was appointed to Bush's team and swiftly managed, among other things, to get the 'waste' created by mountaintop removal reclassified as 'fill', thus bypassing the Clean Water Act that was impeding the coal companies. He spent four years in the administration, during which he was paid 'severance' at the rate of $250,000 per annum from his lobbying firm. He then returned to the private sector without having suffered a loss of income.

Leaving this shady arrangement aside, it is difficult not to gasp at an administration which clutches the Bible to its chest and mouths those first verses from Genesis: 'And God said, "Let us make man in our image ... and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle, and over all the earth.'

That may appeal to a Texan oil man and cattle rancher but the inconsistency between the professed beliefs of the Christian right on 'intelligent design' and the conduct of environmental policy under Bush is staggering. If the flying squirrel, the copperhead snake and cerulean warbler, the sugar maples, the black gum and hickory trees of the forest of the Appalachians were, indeed, all designed by God, why destroy them so wantonly?

This is partly explained by a certain cultural entitlement to inconsistency which permits some Americans to complain about secondary smoke while climbing aboard their sports utility vehicles and, as Condoleezza Rice did last week, to list the human-rights violations in Iran while ignoring Guantanano. Yet this is not the whole story. A supreme right accorded by American individualism is to make a profit and, somewhere in the psyche of the quail-shooting conservative, decked out in his impeccable weekend hunting gear, is the idea that to assert dominion over the earth you must destroy.

It is all rather depressing, but let me make clear that there are good Americans out there, whose voices are only just being heard above the whir of the Republican money-counting machines - people such as Erik Reece and Robert Kennedy Jr. and many unknown environmental campaigners. They deserve our support during this Appalachian spring, however distant.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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