Friday, April 5, 2013

Mountains of Injustice: Social and Environmental Justice in Appalachia

From time to time I try to publish some of the writings of Fr. John Rausch as a guest blogger. Fr. John is Glenmary priest living in Eastern, KY. This article is a book review that he wrote for Mountains of Injustice: Social and Environmental Justice in Appalachia

Mountaintop removal (MTR), clear-cutting and mishandling of nuclear material offer different case studies of environmental degradation in Appalachia, but with a single conclusion: people of color, the poor and the working class suffer pollution and health hazards disproportionately. “Pollution or poverty” becomes a forced choice in this disadvantaged region. As Mountains of Injustice makes clear, people suffer because they lack the power and influence to prevent unfair practices. That is the theme hammered home in the essays by a dozen university scholars, environmental researchers and local activists.

Mountains describes Appalachia as a broad region that employs workers in diverse occupations. But because extractive industries dominate the economy, this resource-rich region has been designated a “mineral colony” or “sacrifice zone” by corporate America. The great irony: atop enormous wealth dwells dismal poverty.

I’ve focused here on the essay by Stephen J. Scanlan, a sociologist at Ohio University, because he sets the scene. He offers two explanations for the poverty/wealth dichotomy: one cultural, the other structural. The “culture of poverty” model says poverty is transmitted across generations through the lifestyle of people, i.e. lack of personal motivation, multiple-generational welfare and physical isolation keep people from entering the economic mainstream. But, contends Scanlon, by not explaining the exploitation of the region by absentee corporate interests, this approach merely blames the victims.

Scanlon presents the structural approaches from three perspectives: --The “growth center” model picks promising towns for development where rural residents can find employment and commerce. --The “core-periphery” model favors the high-growth urban “cores” that feed off the lagging rural “peripheries” for agriculture and resource extraction. --And, the “internal colonial” model has corporate interests, especially those owning the land and mineral rights, preventing autonomous development to keep the region as a subordinate colony for cheap labor, natural resources and locating hazards.

These three structural models demonstrate the power of corporations and politicians to determine regional development, and reveal the reason there’s no quick-fix to poverty in Appalachia.

To highlight Scanlon is not to diminish the other essays on the ethics of extraction, or pollution’s health effects on local communities, nor disregard the case studies about MTR or handling nuclear material. For example, Mountains’ “Afterword,” written by Jedediah S. Purdy, a lawyer and West Virginia native, is no afterthought, but contains nuggets of insightful reflection that deserve even more space. His essay discusses our relationship to nature. Most Americans believe the natural world exists explicitly for humans. That mindset gives logging and mining companies an avenue for resisting environmental restrictions. Only after World War II with the rise of suburbs, could this prevailing U.S. culture of consumption create a clean landscape for living free of industrial smells and pollution. Writes Purdy, “It drove working nature out of sight and out of mind.” It established clean and neat residential zones for our dwellings and distinct sacrifice zones for producing our food and energy indifferent to the health and beauty of that land. What a thoughtful perspective about the fate of Appalachia.

The Mountains’ case studies’ strategies for change offer important lessons for justice ministry. When clear-cutting threatened western North Carolina in the early 1980s, “wilderness- inspired” environmental campaigns emphasized pristine beauty, but got little traction. Instead, activists switched tactics recognizing that clear-cutting transformed multi-use forests into single- use timbering operations. They organized hunters, tourists and naturalists–basically working class folks–to rally for a multi-use commons environmentalism that won the campaign.

Likewise, in opposing strip-mining and MTR, organizers originally spoke about environmental destruction, reduction in employment and the infringement on the rights of small property owners. Probably the strongest argument today comes from mothers enraged over the health of their children. One wonders how the coal industry can answer the studies linking MTR with higher incidents of cancer, tumors, kidney problems and asthma in children. The insight: organizing strategies, while keeping the ideals, must appeal to a broad base through every day concerns. To the dichotomy of “jobs versus the environment” must be added power analysis and health concerns. Sick children are too high a price to pay for cheap electricity. 

Missing in the book, however, is the moral critique that comes from a faith perspective. Mention is made of the landmark 1987 study by the United Church of Christ, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, but no mention is made of the 1975 Appalachian bishops’ pastoral, This Land Is Home to Me, that put absentee land ownership and the powerlessness of the people in a moral context.

Catholic and ecumenical efforts with their moral appeal deserve at least a slight nod in Appalachian campaigns involving labor, for-profit prisons, MTR and toxic waste dumps. From a ministry perspective, justice activists need to dialogue further about “commons environmentalism” as a strategy, and explore the principle of usufruct. Usufruct allows people to enjoy property belonging to another without destroying it (cited briefly but not developed in the section on “Ethics of Extraction.”) In Appalachian terms that could mean people who live near or frequent a place and know its value and wonders could testify in a court of law for the entire ecological community around a river, valley or mountain before it is despoiled or destroyed.

Overall, Mountains of Injustice keeps environmentalism focused on people and community where people of faith know it belongs.

Mountains of Injustice: Social and Environmental Justice in Appalachia
Edited by Michele Morrone and Geoffrey L. Buckley
Published by Ohio University Press, $49.95
Reviewed by Fr. John S. Rausch

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