Toward the greater good
Viewed from an airplane, it is even more deplorable. The plush green of the Appalachian Mountains ends abruptly, exposing a gray, moon-like surface. Now there are only twisting haul roads and rubble, a vast lifeless plateau. It goes on for miles.
There are no longer valleys between the mountains. Everything that isn’t coal from what was atop the oldest and most diverse broadleaf forest in North America has been blasted apart and shoved over the side, clogging and polluting streams, dispersing wildlife, dismissing an ecosystem.
But this is not in our backyard. Eastern Kentuckians share our love of Big Blue basketball, but their culture is out of our bounds. Those who stand up for their wildlife and 70 species of trees include some activists from their region, but many who oppose mountaintop mining are labeled intruders and elitists – environmental wimps who care more about a few fish that choke from a coal slurry than how mountain folk have to scratch out a living.
Is mountaintop mining our business here in western Kentucky? Should we care? Should we pry? Likewise, is it any business of mountain people when another power plant is announced for our area?
If I’m not an outdoorsman, why should it matter if only half of our state’s streams are fishable and swimmable, or that in just four years, Kentucky’s polluted waterways increased 12 percent? Why should rural residents care about large scale chicken and hog production as long as they don’t live downwind from it? Why should any of us concern ourselves with the clear-cut deforestation going on in the Amazon jungle?
So often, the “not in my backyard” dimension of our personality lies dormant until something perceived as undesirable (a halfway house, for example) is proposed for our neighborhood. But there is also an “I’ll do whatever I damn well please in my backyard” attitude that justifies most anything (including mountaintop mining) for the sake of a livelihood or return on investment.
Recently a good friend who supports oil exploration in the Arctic Wildlife Preserve asked me how many times I’ve traveled to Alaska to see the elk – as if the region only has value as a tourist attraction. Since sight-seers are rare, he reasoned, increased energy production is worth the paltry environmental tradeoffs. No one will know the difference.
Perhaps he has a point, but when do we step back and look at the big picture? Whether in Perry County or the arctic north, when should plants, animals, and living streams be valued intrinsically? When should sacrifice affecting the long-term take precedent over short-term convenience or profit? At what point should we relinquish personal and corporate interest for the greater good?
Perhaps we need a better process, a better means to communicate, to better understand one another’s perspectives. Perhaps we need to sit down across the table and talk calmly and respectfully rather than hustle up petitions or mobilize a crowd to intimidate or shout down the opposition at a public hearing. Perhaps we need all the stakeholders and the public at the table, involved early, identifying and examining options. That way, decisions are more than negotiated settlements between powerful interest groups.
Perhaps we need to remember that we can’t take our bank accounts with us when we die, and that the mountains and the valleys and the oceans really belong to the ages. Perhaps we need to be reminded that we’re all in this together.