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 Frankfort, 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 CO2 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 Frankfort. And if you can get to Frankfort, 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.
“Massive destruction is taking place and this is permanent destruction,” Berry said. “When you destroy a mountain, when you destroy a watershed, when you open the earth so as to permit the escape of trace minerals, acids and other harmful substances into the watershed it permanently affects people’s water supply downstream. That isn’t going to stop within anybody’s lifetime and probably the lifetime of several generations. We would say that that is massive destruction. It involves the oppression of the people who live in the proximity of the mines. Furthermore, it involves a permanent threat to the people who are dependent on these watersheds for drinking water. There is a high incidence in the coal fields of various kinds of cancer. There is oppression.”
“Civil disobedience is all we had left,” he said. “We are not at present being civilly disobedient, but this event we are carrying on now in Frankfort required our willingness to be civil disobedient and to be arrested. In our opinion this was the last resort. We had tried everything in our power to get attention to our problems and to have the existence of the problems even acknowledged in state government in a public way and we had failed year after year. There simply came a time when on the part of a number of people this readiness occurred. And so we are now where we are.”
Berry said that the state and federal governments’ refusal to concern themselves with the rights of citizens and the stewardship of the ecosystem that makes human life possible must now be fought on the ground. The tactics he has employed in Frankfort have to begin to be employed across the country if there is to be any hope of thwarting the effects of climate change and breaking the country’s reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.
“It is possible now to say that this is a controversy involving on one side citizens acting on behalf of the mere earth and its ecosphere for the sake merely of their children, grandchildren and on down into the future,” he said. “On the other side are very powerful and very wealthy interests. The influence of those powerful and wealthy interests upon the government is excessive and unacceptable finally to we who are mere citizens.”
“It’s a mistake to approach this simply from the standpoint of climate change,” Berry went on. “The problems that we’re up against are the problems of greed and waste. If we correct those problems, whether or not we are confronted with climate change, we will certainly improve our lot in this world and our prospects.”
“There is the impulse that goes by the name of denial,” Berry said of those who refuse to confront the environmental crisis. “People don’t want to experience the discomfort of finding something untrue or wrong that they have always assumed to be true or right. There are economic arrangements that enforce that; for instance the bookkeeping in the current economy is very short-term. The people who run corporations are not under obligation to look far into the future, even necessarily at the interests of the very corporations they are working for. What they are working for is as large a dividend as possible in this accounting period to their shareholders. We are living in an economy and a climate in which short-term thinking is not only encouraged but in some ways enforced. There is even a kind of moral mechanism. The people who are in charge of these destructive corporations account to themselves not in terms of the effects on the world, but account for themselves in terms of their obligations to shareholders, which is an entirely different thing. Coal companies may be destroying the world, but they are doing so on behalf of their shareholders.”
“You can’t dismiss quantification as a necessary process, but when you begin to quantify things that are not quantities, then you begin to get in trouble,” Berry said. “The health of an ecosystem, for instance, can’t be reduced to a quantity. The health of a water supply can’t be very easily reduced to a quantity. What we are talking about here is not just that, we’re talking about the faith of neighborliness in these coal fields. We are instructed by everything in our tradition, our local community traditions, to be good neighbors to one another. The coal companies have been historically the worst possible neighbors. If they damage somebody’s home water supply, for instance, they will do anything to keep from paying for it. That record has been established. The mistreatment of individual citizens in these rural neighborhoods has accumulated a long record, a massive record. There has been a lot of bad behavior towards neighbors. This is remembered. This is part of the motivation for our presence here.”
“To accept that there is nothing to do is to despair,” Berry said. “It is to become in some fundamental way less than human. Those of us who are protesting are protesting in part for our own sake to keep ourselves whole as human beings. We don’t agree that it is impossible because we don’t intend trying to stop it. I’m speaking as somebody who’s been involved in these efforts for a long time and we have stopped some things. We stopped the project for damming the Red River Gorge. We stopped the Louisville International Jetport. We stopped the nuclear power plant that was scheduled to be built, and was nearly built, at Marble Hill in southern Indiana on the Ohio River. There is no reason and I don’t believe there ever is a reason to despair that what is wrong by clear moral and ecological standards cannot be corrected.”
“We have to put ourselves in the way of business as usual,” Berry said. “It is a little bit hard to give you a neat answer because we don’t know where this is going from here, we don’t know what’s going to be required of us after this. We are all pretty conscious that what we’ve done here this weekend we are going to belong to for a while and be responsible for.”