…On Power

Power in the sociopolitical sense is a critical concept for climate justice, as it has been throughout the history of the energy industry. Let’s first consider power, energy, and profit from the perspective of a coal company. It’s quite simple really: dig as much coal as you can for as cheaply as you can, and burn it, using its heat content to create power. A load of the black mineral can only be burned to produce power for a limited amount of time of course, which means your customers will have to keep coming back for more and more coal.

To help facilitate a deeper exploration of the industry, there’s a playlist below with some of my favorite coal mining songs. Listening to these songs helps me reckon with the millions of real human stories that make up the history of fossil fuels: so many workers who’ve sacrificed their health and safety, the unions who’ve stood up to violent crackdowns to gain better protections and fairer pay, and environmental damage to water, land and air that lasts years after the mines are shuttered.

John Prine’s 1971 ode to his family’s homestead, “Paradise,” has always been one of my favorites. The end of the first chorus hits hard: after describing his formative memories in the small Western Kentucky town, we learn “Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” The coal company in that song is not imaginary, it’s Peabody Energy, still the largest private coal mining firm in the world. Images like “the world’s largest shovel” that “tortured the timber and stripped all the land” evokes damage done by any number of other surface mining operations across the world.

Prine paints a vivid picture in just a few verses, but how severe was the damage to Muhlenberg County in the 1950s and ’60s? The mining technique used in Western Kentucky is strip mining, in which layers of rock and soil above the coal seam are removed. Then the coal can simply be blasted into smaller pieces and hauled away in trucks. This method was designed to minimize the workforce and skill of workers needed, so comes at the cost of both severe environmental damage as well as fewer employment opportunities.

All the rock and soil that’s removed has to end up somewhere, and much is placed into nearby valleys. Wherever it is, the loose soil is easily eroded away, clogging nearby streams and choking flora and fauna. Acidification of the water occurs in mining regions when minerals containing sulfur (like pyrite) are exposed, forming sulfuric acid and drastically lowering the pH. Runoff from mines also frequently has heavy metals in it that are extremely harmful for life, polluting wellwater and devastating ecosystems. According to environmental historian Eileen Hagerman, by the mid-’60s, the Green River basin landscape was made up of “silted streams, red copperas-heavy water, dying vegetation and fish, rotted timber in lowlands, acidic wells and ponds, and unpleasant sulfur odors because of the effects of strip mining,” along with mosquitos so thick that farmers had to wear bedsheets in the fields to avoid bites.

Disturbed by the effect of the mines on their farms and on the beautiful countryside, locals built a grassroots opposition movement that was often quite militant, and hoped to abolish the practice of strip mining altogether. Stories of these rural groups are rarely told as a part of the history of environmentalism (Chad Montrie’s books are exceptions), but they were an important part of the eventual improved regulation of strip mining. Four major instances of sabotage in coal mines in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky occurred in 1967-68, including one in which a group tied up the watchman and used the company’s own explosives to blow up their equipment. These acts resulted in over a million dollars in damage to equipment similar to the “world’s largest shovel.” The perpetrators were never caught. David Rovics’ song “East Tennessee” in the playlist above gives a historical fictionalization of one of these events.

It’s been over 50 years since “Paradise” was written, and coal mining continues, in Appalachia, the Mountain West, and many other locations around the world. Some types of environmental damage are even more extreme. The rise of enhanced surface mining processes like mountaintop removal, in which entire tops of mountains are flattened in order to haul out the coal, have affected areas like eastern Kentucky and West Virginia particularly severely. Many of the “Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia” no longer roll; the process of decapitating mountains and filling valleys with rubble has reduced the slope of entire regions by 40%. Residents have faced noise and structural damage from blasting, pollution of the air and water, and increases in flooding events. Dangers of flooding and pollution will persist long after the mines are closed. Denuded slopes allow water to rush downhill much more quickly, and when flooding occurs, toxic chemicals from mines and tailings can leach into ecosystems. All of this susceptibility to flooding is occurring while extreme rainfall events are increasing due to hotter temperatures, a trend that is expected to worsen until fossil fuel burning is stopped.

“It used to take a camp of miners
To load that train and gone
Now there’s four in my crew and we do what we do
To keep your dirty lights on”

As described in Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s “Keep Your Dirty Lights On,” methods like mountaintop removal and strip mining are used because they allow for extraction of coal with many fewer workers, meaning the already precariously employed workers have faced many rounds of layoffs. There are now around 40,000 coal miners in the US, down from 180,000 in the mid-1980s. Coal mining has become three times less efficient in terms of the amount of land that is destroyed per ton of coal extracted. The best coal seams have been fully mined, so the coal that remains is often in thinner layers, embedded more closely to rocks like sandstone. When those rocks are cut through, it releases particles that are even more deadly than coal dust.

He’s lived a hard life, and hard he’ll die.
Black lung’s done got him. His time is nigh.

Hazel Dickens wrote these lyrics to “Black Lung” in 1969 following her own brother’s death from the awful disease, which is caused by inhalation of coal dust or other particles. Over fifty years later, black lung is again surging in Appalachia. Over 75,000 workers have died from black lung in the US since 1970, and in central Appalachia, one in five veteran workers are afflicted right now. Even workers in their 30s have contracted the disease. The resurgence of black lung is related to the enhanced removal techniques which create more dust, and to the excavation of the thinner, more intermingled coal seams that require cutting through more sandstone and quartz. Silicosis is present in these cases of black lung; these two lung diseases are something “More than a Paycheck” that is brought home by workers, described powerfully in Sweet Honey in the Rock’s song in the playlist above.

A perhaps more important factor in the resurgence of black lung disease is the decreasing power of mine workers’ unions, who throughout their history have fought hard to obtain basic protections and fair wages for their workers. Miners unions had important victories in their struggles against black lung cases in the 1960s and ’70s. But since the 1980s, union membership has dropped dramatically. No mine workers’ unions remain in Kentucky, the site of the Harlan County Wars of the 1930s, during which “Which Side are You On?” was written, and the 1973 Brookside Strike depicted in the documentary Harlan County, USA. Now only 17% of miners in Appalachia are union members. Contract workers make up a larger and larger fraction of miners, and they tend to work in more dangerous conditions with longer hours. Decent health care and disability benefits has been another casualty, as miners with black lung struggle to get compensation from the mining companies. Powerful forces are at play; industry challenges 70% of black lung cases, and doctors hired by mining companies diagnose black lung in half as many cases as independent experts. Many die before benefits to their families come through.

Black lung is preventable, with ventilation systems to remove the dust that hangs in the air. Stricter regulations and better enforcement would have protected those tens of thousands of workers. When companies cheat on ventilation requirements, it exposes the workers to more lung-clogging dust, and it also makes the mines much more susceptible to huge disasters. The Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia in 2010 was caused by inadequate ventilation, which the company had been cited for repeatedly, and had allegedly falsified measurements. As grim proof of the hazardous working conditions those miners faced, it was discovered that seventeen out of the 24 miners whose bodies could be tested had black lung, developed in only a few years of work in some cases. Sierra Ferrell’s “29” commemorates this disaster (song in video link only), as do “Big Branch,” “Five Miles In and One Mile Deep,” and “It’s About Blood” in the above playlist.

An important recent shift in the alignment of workers occurred in early 2021, when coal mine workers unions in the US came out in favor of proposals like green infrastructure plans, provided there are provisions for good union jobs in clean energy available to their workers. Indeed, energy policy must prioritize workers whose livelihoods must change, and good policy can accomplish this.

Although the history of U.S. coal mining is described above, many similar battles have played out in other countries around the world, with various degrees of success for workers and communities. Mining is not just necessary for extraction of fuel to be burned, it’s also needed for the production of materials, including infrastructure needed for generation and storage of renewable power. We’ll cover the mining required for the so-called clean energy economy in later chapters. These are important emerging struggles, that are bound to intensify in the coming years.

Sociopolitical power

In mining and other dangerous industries, power struggles between companies and workers have been life-or-death battles. Governments are an important third player in the balance of power, since the right to a safe living and workplaces has not always been protected, and the state’s monopoly on violence is often used to suppress dissent. Duplicities exist among institutions that are supposed to protect: union leadership can become corrupt, as with the United Mines Workers in the mid-1970s, when the rank-and-file supported candidate was murdered by the existing president, depicted in Hazel Dickens’ song “The Yablonski Murder.”

Extractive industries like mining require the existence of , where certain neighborhoods bear the brunt of pollution, affecting their health and their wealth, since property values are reduced too. Since these zones are established without the consent of locals, they require the flexing of some kind of oppressive political power. Sacrifice zones in the United States are much more likely to be in communities of color, lower income communities, and communities where English is the second language, and the targeting is often quite intentional.

In her chapter for the Sunrise Movement’s book Winning the Green New Deal, Rhianna Gunn-Wright suggests an unconventional but apt definition of policy: “a system for creating and distributing power.” Clean energy policies like the Green New Deal (GND), of which Gunn-Wright was a primary architect, actively seek to shift power towards marginalized communities, by reducing income inequality and the racial wealth gap while decarbonizing. The original Green New Deal resolution, despite the fact that it was never voted on, much less enacted, remains one of the most important climate policy documents ever written. It’s worth reading in full, and packs a lot into only 14 short pages of text (ten pages if you don’t count all the introductory “whereas” material).

The GND hit the climate policy landscape with a seismic wave across the globe, with similar policies proposed or enacted in many other countries. It aims high in the scale of emissions reductions (net zero), action (10 year mobilization of the whole economy), and broadness (ensuring adequate health care, education, and affordable housing for all). If the fossil fuel economy is to be nearly eliminated, big changes to the safety net are needed, GND activists argue. Medical care that’s not tied to one’s job, like Medicare for All, would protect fossil fuel workers as their careers transition, and would also help make sure that workers in the expanding green economy have adequate benefits, which is not currently assured. Increasing access to education would help more people to get trained quickly for green jobs. Universal childcare would allow more parents to return to the workforce quickly, especially important after COVID-19 lockdown-induced workplace exits. The GND is a policy that considers the whole system, with all its interrelations. Advocates argue that such foresight and power rebalancing is needed for the plan to stay popular during the critical decades of decarbonization. Fossil fuels power two-thirds of electricity generation, 99% of cars, and many industrial processes; when designing policy that would eliminate these, there is plenty of room to rebuild better, with justice first.

Some scientists oppose or are unwilling to comment on plans like the Green New Deal, arguing that policies should “stick to the science” and avoid “political” aspects of plans. One (of many) problems with this is not the way anyone else sees policy. Most argument about solutions is not from a perspective of knowledge building and legitimate debate, as motivates a scientist, but rather from a protective position: how can our interests make it through this transition with minimum effects on the bottom line? Performing even a cursory power analysis on climate solutions helps to clarify why particular companies promote certain solutions. Carbon capture and storage allows for continued extraction of coal and other fossil fuels: never mind the fact that the capturing part is imperfect and air pollution increases. Forest offsets allow a company to shirk responsibility while keeping on polluting: never mind that the forests frequently go up in smoke or don’t fulfill the carbon reductions they’ve promised.

“Effective, lasting policy changes must change the distributions of power that led to the problem initially, or else the old malefactors will undermine any success,” GND architect Gunn-Wright states in her chapter of Winning the Green New Deal. There’s no reason to yield to the power of the current polluters. Excessive power in the hands of a few is what allows undemocratic, unjust policies of the past to be written. It’s what’s allowed wildly popular clean energy policies to be shot down before implementation time after time. Analysis of any climate policy must recognize power imbalances and how scales will be tipped.

Seeking to flatten power distributions does not necessarily mean that others will be faced with unjust conditions. Take for example the concept of “not in my backyard” (NIMBY), in which wealthy communities are able to reduce the presence of locally unwanted land uses within their own neighborhood. via opposition campaigns. NIMBY opposition is part of the reason for the presence of sacrifice zones in lower income neighborhoods. In the climate justice movement, on the other hand, opposition to polluting projects takes the attitude of “not in anyone’s backyard.” Environmental justice, indeed, requires elimination of sacrifice zones. This has implications for the overall amount of resources that are used, and might mean that some energy choices should be entirely passed over.

It is extremely important to recognize that climate justice cannot be achieved in the United States alone. Far from it. Global emissions must hit zero, and justice needs to be provided to all around the world. Much of the acceleration in emissions over the last 30 years has occurred alongside neoliberal attempts to offshore new sacrifice zones into the Global South. Author Naomi Klein suggests in her book This Changes Everything that this is no coincidence. Globally just climate policies not only stop the extraction of wealth from the Global South into the Global North, but also support the South’s sovereignty. Many international activists suggest that a first step towards this in the US would be to end the history of overthrowing democratically elected leftist governments, as has occurred across the Global South, a case that is also articulated in Max Ajl’s book A People’s Green New Deal. Climate reparations and technology transfer are other methods that have been suggested to assure that climate justice is international in scale.


Appalachian Voices “brings people together to protect the land, air, and water of Central and Southern Appalachia and advance a just transition to a generative and equitable clean energy economy.”