As I reflect on our trip to West Virginia and Washington, D.C., a few things come to mind:
1. Things don’t always go according to plan.
Sometimes you get lost. You make a wrong turn on the highway and drive 15 minutes in the wrong direction. Sometimes you have to drive through D.C. during rush hour because you type “Georgetown University” into your iPhone and it directs you to Georgetown Law instead. Sometimes you get stuck in traffic because of a rockslide or you lose traction driving up a muddy slope on a mountain top removal site and start sliding backwards. Things happen and that is ok. What’s important is how you react. This trip taught us that keeping a positive attitude, staying calm, and remembering that everything works out makes even the most stressful and frustrating situations manageable.
2. Money and power rule the world.
This was iterated several times by coal miners, the President of AEP, Directors of the EPA, Bill McKibben, etc. Most of the people with whom we talked wanted to do the right thing. They wanted to comply with environmental regulations and provide people with jobs, but their hands were tied because of economics. The reality is that our representatives take contributions from diverse interests and this influences their decision-making. For example, the EPA could not pass regulations on mercury contaminants from coal-fired power plants for 25 years because the Bush Administration blocked them. I agree with Bill Mckibben when he says that the environmental movement will never win by fighting against big money. He will always lose because we have far less of it. But we can win, or at least slow down other interests, with numbers. We can take power away from big corporations by refusing to work, by changing whom we purchase goods and services from, by decreasing our consumption, by creating our own businesses, etc. But this is only effective on a large scale, and this is difficult when people have bills to pay and mouths to feed. Money inhibits our country’s ability to truly be democratic. This needs to change.
3. Acknowledge your bias and have an open mind.
Most of the people we talked to had expectations for our group. They assumed we would be liberal, white, upper-middle class students who cared solely for the environment and nothing else. As one man at New River Technical College said, “We thought you were gonna be a bunch of closed-minded hippies.” But we surprised them. As an excited Ruby said after our conversations with dozens of ex-miners, “you all just blew their minds.” This was possible because we went into each and every conversation with an open mind. We listened carefully and engaged in a dialogue. Most importantly, we encouraged everyone we spoke with to ask us questions rather than having it only be the other way around. This broke down barriers of difference and allowed us to be honest with one another.
4. Individuals matter.
One thing that became very evident on our trip was the fact that everyone in West Virginia knows Mike King. At the elementary school we visited on Tuesday, Becky asked the kids if anyone knew Mike King. Six kids raised their hands. I was amazed. Mike is an inspiration. He brings people together and motivates them to adopt a goal and to work hard to reach it. This has led to several successes such as the remediation of Morris Creek Watershed, cleaning up of Mike’s neighborhood, education on river ecosystems in local classrooms, job training opportunities at the New River Technical College, and more. Mike has touched so many people and will continue to do so. His example proves that one person can make a difference, especially if he is passionate about something.
5. It is far easier to place blame than to act.
People rarely take ownership over their problems. For example, several of the ex-miners we talked to were quick to criticize the EPA, government, and coal companies for laying them off, but they were reluctant to do anything about it. They feel powerless, and this makes me so mad. People should feel like they matter. They should feel like they are smart and capable. It only takes one person to motivate a group of individuals to act, to protest, to clean up a neighborhood. We need to give people the tools to do these things, and this begins with an understanding that they have power, that they have the ability to make a difference and change the trajectory of their lives.
6. Always bring an umbrella to D.C.
The sky might rain on you. Our group learned this the hard way as we walked to one of the congressional buildings in the Federal Circle. With squeaky shoes and soaked clothes, we met with one of Senator Manchin’s correspondants. This made our first impression less than ideal, although I think we made up for it with our active listening skills and intelligent questions.
7. Actions are not isolated.
Every environmental issue is nuanced; there are often several factors contributing to it. This makes implementing a solution incredibly difficult because fixing one problem often creates another. For example, the ban on fracking in New York has indeed preserved natural resources in the state. However, because those living in Manhattan continue to demand energy, exploitative practices will simply move to states with less power to prevent them, such as West Virginia. This is unjust, but it is the reality. Our actions have consequences. This doesn’t mean we should not act, but rather that we should consider all repercussions of our actions very carefully before implementing them.
- Sam Parker '15