We Can Do Better Than This

Reader Contribution by Tricia Shapiro
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Photo by Pixabay/dreamypixel

As I wrote this, in late July, most of the United States was in drought. But my garden, on a finger ridge in southern Appalachia, was lush and productive. It was eerie this season, reading news about drought elsewhere while we had almost daily rain, alternating with plenty of sunshine.

Sure, it was goshawful hot—and steamy! But southern and central Appalachia is now, as it has been for tens of thousands of years, a place of relative climate stability. It’s never been scraped by glaciers or flooded by ocean. Its mountains are millions of years old. Its forest is the most biodiverse temperate hardwood forest in the western hemisphere. And there are still people here who practice ways of living rooted in thousands of years of sustainable human habitation.

Appalachia thus has a wealth of resources, human as well as wild, that we might look to and learn from in this time of global climate change. But those resources, both the land and its people, have long been abused by rapacious mining and timber industry practices. In recent years, that abuse has escalated far beyond the capacity of this most resilient place and people to recover and flourish.

The central question of our time

That question is this: How can we move beyond our use-it-up-and-move-on economy, to more just and sustainable ways of living and making a living?

By “use-it-up-and-move-on,” I mean the pattern of extracting commodities wherever industry can profitably do so, regardless of the long-term cost to land, water, wildlife—and people, too. We see this pattern with industrial agriculture as well as with mining and other extractive industries. It’s a pattern that presumes that after you’ve trashed one place, you can move on to someplace fresh, without paying too much of a penalty or cost.

MTR and fracking 

Nowhere is this pattern clearer, or more devastating, than in the coal-mining and gas-fracking region of Appalachia, a huge area that stretches from southern New York to northern Alabama and covers most of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky, and parts of Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee.

Mountaintop-removal (MTR) strip mining for coal has, since the 1980s, literally blown up hundreds of Appalachian mountains—more than a million acres. It has buried or damaged thousands of miles of streams and rivers. Whole communities of people, too, have been “removed” along with the mountains that once were their homes. As for those who remain: We now know that rates of cancer, birth defects, and other health problems are much higher for those who live near MTR sites than for those who live in otherwise comparable communities nearby.

Hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking), a fairly new technique for extracting natural gas, has in just the past decade or so put perhaps more than a million acres of water aquifers and surface water at risk for poisoning by a wide range of pollutants. If that “perhaps” and “at risk” sound vague, it’s because we’ve allowed the gas industry to proceed with fracturing underground rock formations, injecting chemicals underground, and disposing of their wastes without even knowing what chemicals they’re using, let alone making a proper assessment of the likely environmental and human-health effects of these activities.

Based on what we know about the health and environmental effects of MTR, it’s a pretty safe bet that fracking is causing at least some of the same. Both MTR and fracking, for example, break up vast amounts of rock and allow water to run over the newly exposed rock surfaces, leaching out toxins including acids, heavy metals, and radioactive elements. Bothindustries use various industrial chemicals, some of them highly toxic, which contaminate air and water at mines as well as at processing and disposal sites.

Costs and benefits 

Obviously, these effects are costly. Epidemiological studies have established that MTR has killed thousands of people. Many more have suffered permanent damage to their health. Vast tracts of land and much of the region’s water have been rendered less fit or totally unfit for farming, gardening, forestry, and human habitation. The costs to Appalachia’s economic potential, to the value of homes and forest land and other assets, to the viability of local communities, and to the families of individuals whose health or lives have been lost—all of those costs are real. Added together, they’re huge.

Coal and gas extraction have created benefits, too. A relatively small number of people have made a lot of money. America’s industrial economy has benefited from “cheap” energy.

But those who’ve benefited have not had to pay those huge costs. And if you compare one to the other: Really, aren’t the costs much greater than the benefits?

We can do better than this

On the one hand, we can enforce existing laws and, as needed, pass new ones to prevent further damage to America’s land and people, and to hold industry accountable for the damage it’s already done. We can draw a line in the sand and say: No more.

On the other hand, we can build and support a better economy, starting right now. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprises are one way of connecting small, sustainable businesses with folks who want to support them. But we need more ways of making these connections.

Change is not only possible, it’s inevitable 

“Use it up and move on” is a pattern that’s been so central to the American way of life for so long that it’s easy to despair of changing it.

But change is not only possible, it’s inevitable. Within the next few decades, great change is coming, because the way things are done today literally cannot continue. America’s use-it-up-and-move-on way of life is in its endgame. MTR and fracking are particularly obvious examples of this. But it’s a pattern we can see everywhere our economy touches, in the depletion of topsoil and groundwater by industrial agriculture, in the ever-accumulating proliferation of toxic byproducts poisoning ever-more depleted landscapes and oceans, in the relentless extinction of species and diminishment of biological diversity.

So right now, we can look at all this and know it’s not going to go on forever. Seeing that change is inevitable frees us of the temptation to despair of change ever happening, frees us to use the energy of our anger and the energy of the great change itself to direct that change toward better ways of life. Or at least try to. Whether we succeed or not, we’ve been dealt a much more plausibly hopeful moment than most people in human history have had.

Tricia Shapiro presented workshops at the Seven Springs, Pa. MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR. 

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