Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 2, 2009

Obama and mountaintop removal

Filed under: Ecology,Obama,workers — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Although I have become somewhat inured to Barack Obama’s continuation of the second Bush term, I felt an almost virginal sense of being violated by his latest thumb in the eye of the Democratic Party base. I am speaking of his giving the green light to 42 more mountaintop removal permits, thus proving his fealty to arguably the most viciously anti-environmental sector of American private enterprise.

So disgusting was this action that even Daily Kos, which tends to grovel at Obama’s feet, was forced to take notice. Dgil, a Kos contributor, directed his or her readers to a Los Angeles Times article that broke the story:

With the election of President Obama, environmentalists had expected to see the end of the “Appalachian apocalypse,” their name for exposing coal deposits by blowing the tops off whole mountains.

But in recent weeks, the administration has quietly made a decision to open the way for at least two dozen more mountaintop removals.

In a letter this month to a coal ally, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), the Environmental Protection Agency said it would not block dozens of “surface mining” projects. The list included some controversial mountaintop mines.

Dgil added his own two cents at the end of the post:

So why has the current administration quietly moved forward with a huge expansion of an ecologically destructive mining process? The end result is expansion of an energy source campaigned against, and whose additional mined energy output can be created in ways with little (wind) or no (hydro) additional environmental impact.

The gist of the LAT article is that this decision was made for the crassest of reasons-political expediency to get votes. Additionally, why would an administration that has positioned itself as determined to move forward on trimming atmospheric carbon emissions, purposefully expand the production of highly polluting coal? What benefit will this actually bring the residents of this area? More health problems? A devastated ecology? Destroyed recreational opportunities?

With all due respect (well, maybe half respect) to Markos Moulitsas and company, the real goal is not to get votes. Instead, this decision would have been made even if it cost votes. Obama’s calculation was, is it has always been, to act on behalf of the interests of the bourgeoisie, if I might put it in such crass, unrepentant terms. It goes along with putting a shiv in the back of UAW workers, bombing civilians in Afghanistan, catering to Goldman-Sachs and all the rest. It is called capitalist politics and acts independently of the wishes of the gullible voter. Indeed, despite EPA director Carole Browner’s reputation in liberal circles as being a committed environmentalist, I found her record questionable but I suppose that is what recommended her to Obama.

As a long time environmentalist, converted to the cause after hearing Joel Kovel liken capitalist growth to a metastasizing tumor, there are two issues which grab my attention more than any other. One is overfishing and water pollution, a function no doubt of my love for the lakes and streams of upstate New York growing up. The other is mountaintop removal, a crime that has stirred me from afar. Although I have never been to Appalachia, I cannot help becoming outraged by what strip mining does to people and nature alike. It represents the fanged, merciless and total victory of profits over human need.

I was introduced to mountaintop removal in an article that appeared in the April 2005 Harpers Magazine, a publication that I have been subscribed to for about 30 years. Written by Erik Reece and titled “Death of a Mountain: Radical strip mining and the leveling of Appalachia”, it is one of the most powerful environmentalist critiques I have ever read. (Reece’s expanded his article into a book in 2006 titled “Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness”.)

Since Harpers (regrettably) makes very few articles available to non-subscribers, we are fortunate to be able to read it at http://www.wesjones.com/death.htm. Reece writes about one activist who symbolizes the kind of working class resistance that is on the front lines against polluting corporations across the entire country. Her name is Teri Blanton and she is definitely not the chardonnay drinking, Arugula munching type:

Coal operators are not an easily intimidated bunch. But there is probably no one in the state of Kentucky who rattles their cage like a forty-eight-year-old grandmother named Teri Blanton. A former chairperson of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the state’s largest social-justice organization, Blanton has spent the last two decades helping coalfield residents fight the corporations that have turned so much of eastern Kentucky into what she calls a toxic dump.

One can get a real education in environmental corruption and smash-mouth class warfare by tracking the last twenty years of Blanton’s life. She grew up in a small town called Dayhoit, in Harlan County, where four generations of her family had lived along White Star Hollow. It was the kind of community where neighbors shared their coal in the winter, and on a rare piece of flatland, one man, Millard Sutton, grew enough vegetables to feed nearly everyone in town. Families took turns helping out in his garden. Blanton moved to Michigan in the seventies to start a family, then moved back to Dayhoit in 1981 as a single mother of two. Her career as an activist started shortly afterward, when she phoned the highway department and asked for someone to clean up the large puddle of black water and coal sludge that stood in front of her trailer where her children caught the school bus. The highway department called the coal company that was mining around White Star Hollow, and the company responded by sending a coal truck to slowly circle Blanton’s trailer all day. “That really burnt my ass,” Blanton recalled, “that they thought they could shut me up by intimidation.” That coal company, owned by two brothers, James and Aubra Dean, never did clean up the mess, and in the end, after Blanton’s relentless badgering, the highway department built a new road up to her trailer.

Blanton would seem to have much in common with Maria Gunnoe, another female, working-class activist from the region who is featured in the documentary “Burning the Future” that I reviewed in February 2008 and whose Youtube trailer is linked to at the top of this article. In the review, I take note of the kind of resistance that is sweeping the coal region and that has taken to the streets once again to protest Obama’s sell-out:

Remarkable enough as a muckraking indictment of the coal industry, the movie is also a real breakthrough by showing the capacity of ordinary Americans, most of whom conform to the “Red State” stereotype of country music, NASCAR races, hunting and the Baptist church, to resist the onslaught that has turned their water wells into receptacles of filthy, toxic strip-mining run-off. The documentary, directed by David Novack, is a reminder that political activism is nearly never the result of preaching from above but the experience of daily life under a social, economic, or–in this instance–an environmental crisis. When your children suffer one health emergency after another, it is of no use to tell the parents that this is balanced by “economic progress” in their home state.

Sadly enough, the UMW has endorsed Obama’s mountaintop removal permits, despite the fact that it is a threat to their health and to the natural beauty of the region. Jeff Biggers, a journalist and author of “The United States of Appalachia” was interviewed on Democracy Now on May 29th and spoke about the sad state of the coal miner’s union:

JUAN GONZALEZ: How has the American labor movement dealt with this issue? Clearly, obviously, at least for the mine workers and others, this has meant a loss of jobs. But have they taken a firm stand with their political leaders around this?

JEFF BIGGERS: You know, the United Mine Workers—and I should say, you know, I’m a grandson of a coal miner, and my granddaddy was a union coal miner. He suffered with black lung. And I appreciate the work of the United Mine Workers. They’re the people who gave us our eight-hour workday. You know, we struggled for a hundred years to have a great union movement.

But that movement has been broken really since the 1980s. In West Virginia, in particular, they’re still struggling just to survive. And what I don’t understand is, instead of looking at the ramifications of mountaintop removal that has taken their jobs, that has absolutely plundered the industry and led to skyrocketing poverty rates, the United Mine Workers are hanging onto the scraps, and they’re supporting mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Think about this. There are less than a thousand jobs for the United Mine Workers in mountaintop removal. Less than a thousand jobs. You know, they’re really trying to hang onto the last crumbs of this industry, as opposed to saying, “Let’s come up with another form of underground mining, or let’s actually—let’s shift into some sort of clean energy that we can relocate and we can reeducate and retrain our miners to do.”

One is of course struck by how much another once-powerful union has departed from its militant roots, namely the UAW which has seen its pay and benefits stripped as part of a deal to rescue GM. Perhaps all this is inevitable. Maybe we have to turn back the clock to the early 1930s when industrial union did not exist in the U.S. With the UAW and the UMW functioning like the class-collaborationist craft unions that Samuel Gompers led, a vacuum will open up for a new trade union movement that is committed to the revolutionary ideals that many rank-and-file activists of the 1930s shared. This time, however, we should keep our eyes on the prize and not be tempted to settle for half-measures that leave capitalism intact, as was FDR’s aim. Of course, given Obama’s tendency to operate like Herbert Hoover, the task of educating the left will be a bit less difficult than it was in the 1930s.


  1. […] by Mike E on June 2, 2009 This appeared on Louis’ blog “Unrepentant Marxist,” with the original title: “Obama and Mountaintop […]

    Pingback by Louis Proyect: More on the Mountaintops « Kasama — June 2, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

  2. Great post.

    Check out Ken Ward, Jr.’s blog, Coal Tattoo http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/ from the Charleston Gazette for the latest on West Virginia & national coal politics.

    Comment by Fred — June 2, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

  3. So far all Obama’s thumbs in the eye have only selectively blinded Daily KOS readers. They better get some good eye protection on because with no significant union movement behind their DP base Obama’s going to be thumbing them like a banjo strummer singing that old ruling class tune.

    Meanwhile, ordinary hourly wage earners are going to need the organizational equivalent of full riot helmets to stifle those old tunes & keep their orbs from getting gouged out.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 2, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

  4. I’m sorry. Did you say that the task of organization was going to be less arduous then it was in the 1930s, now that the industrial union leadership has caved to Gompersism?

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — June 3, 2009 @ 2:43 am

  5. I think he implies it has the potential to go in a more radical, dare I say, Trotskyist direction insofar as a new proletarian upsurge will inevitably shun both the limitations of Gomperism on the one hand, and, now that the USSR is gone, the limitations of pro DP Stalinism that permeated the trade union movement of the 30s & 40s on the other hand.

    That’s the cruel irony of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whether it liked it or not, willy nilly the US trade union movement was buoyed by the existence of the USSR as it was the only real counter-hegemonic force to the US ruling class. With the destruction of the USSR the US working class was inexorably immiserated along with the working class of the former Warsaw Pact nations. The only silver lining for these increasingly punished workers therefore is the fact that it can now be unfettered by these former constraints.

    Unfortunately the silver of this particular lining may be so tainted with mercury & lead by the time a new counter-hegemonic force arises that our lakes will be poisoned and the new streams of consciousness tasting of bitter almond.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 3, 2009 @ 3:19 am

  6. I used to spend a lot of time in West Virginia and have been following the devastation of mountain top removal for some time. Good post.

    Comment by Marc — June 3, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  7. […] Mountaintop Removal 2009 June 3 by Jim From Louis Proyect’s Unrepentant Marxist : […]

    Pingback by Mountaintop Removal « Group Casuistry — June 3, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  8. […] Bank of America will no longer finance mountaintop removal coal mining: here. Obama and mountaintop removal mining: here. […]

    Pingback by Dear Kitty. Some blog :: USA: Bush helps destructive mountain top removal mining :: August :: 2007 — June 8, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

  9. So today the Washington Post reports that the EPA will allegedly better scrutinize those 1983 laws that this posted article above shows are easily ignored while giving a big green light to further ripping the tops off mountains like Elaine Benice rips the tops off of muffins:


    The WP’s editorial pages then went on to say that although it will really piss off environmentalists strip mining is “the right thing to do.”


    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 12, 2009 @ 1:06 am

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