Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Friends of Coal

There is a sociologically and politically interesting phenomenon sweeping the coal fields of Kentucky (similar things are happening is West Virginia) called the Friends of Coal.

Friends of Coal is the brainchild of a coal industry organization Kentucky Coal [note the nearly identical websites]. The Kentucky Coal Association central membership is coal companies and associate members comprised of businesses related to coal mining such as engineering firms, equipment firms, (even law firms) and individuals employed in the coal mining and related industries.

Friends of coal began as an exercise in what political pundits call "AstroTurfing" -- industry sponsored and supported activity posing as grassroots organizing -- but it has become a genuinely popular organization garnering membership, support and funding from thousands of Kentuckians from all walks of life. This may be a political first, a popular movement in support of a particular industry, not by its workers, but by a wide cross section of individuals and families living within the communities where an industry operates.

Not only does one see the bumper stickers, window stickers, yard signs, pins and t-shirts declaring "Friends of Coal" in eastern Kentucky. But most intriguingly, the Friends of Coal organization proposed a special issue Kentucky license plate (see photo at top taken at a stop light in Letcher County), which has been wildly successful and can be seen on cars (and especially trucks) everywhere in eastern Kentucky.

This may be the first time in the United States that an industry actively engaged in whole series of major political battles (over the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, mountain top removal, and fly ash storage) has been able to get the general public to voluntarily help fund their public relations battle through a official state sponsored tax (license plate fees). Usually industries have to use their own monies (albeit coming from customers) for legitimation advertising and activities.

The average person in eastern Kentucky who sports a "Friends of Coal" sticker or license plate views supporting "the coal industry" as identical to supporting "coal miners." A view which flies in the face of the very long record of industry abuses of the health and safety of miners, and successful efforts to undermine unionization of coal mining.

Supporters of Friends of Coal fear that new environmental regulations will bring a sudden and abrupt end to all coal employment in the mountains. They lack awareness that the coal industry has done quite well on its own to cut coal mining employment despite many decades of special treatment and tax advantages from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Employment in coal in Kentucky has dropped by two-thirds from a high of about 48,000 in 1981 to 17,893 in 2006. [graphic from MACED based on data from].

Friday, September 18, 2009


This morning I fired up the tractor, hitched the trailer to it, tossed in the chainsaw, and headed out into the forest. I went to a section containing a lot of downwood -- trees that have fallen of their own accord or that I have cut down because they're dead. They were all small Douglas Firs log, averaging eight inches in diameter. I cut them up into pieces weighing fourty to eighty pounds and then piled them into the trailer. It was hard work; even thought the air temperature was about 60ºF, I was soon sweating profusely. It was also rather dirty work, hauling those log segments around. They don't fall conveniently close to the tractor trail so each one has to be carried 50 to 100 feet to the trailer. When I was done, I drove back to the woodpile and heaved the logs onto the ground. I'll cut them into firewood-sized pieces (18" long) later.

Why do I subject myself to this labor? Primarily for exercise. I've long felt that there's too much artificiality in our lives, and that applies to our exercise. Most people get their exercise on "exercise machines". The very concept seems silly to me. Our bodies were built to DO things, not sit on exercise machines. Such machines concentrate effort on a specific set of muscles. That's stupid; it's like developing your touch-typing skills so that your left hand can type 100 words per minute while your right hand can type only 20 words per minute. It won't do you any good if your biceps outlive your trapezoid muscles. It's your whole body that needs to be healthy, not just a few selected parts.

I've held this belief for many years. While still a teenager, I advocated the "TV dinner that fights back". The concept was that eating is a primal activity, something involving our entire bodies. We shouldn't sit down at a table with napkins and delicately nibble our meal with tiny bites. No, when the meal is cooked, it should leap out of the oven snarling and we should have to chase it all over the house, finally pinning it down and dispatching it with a bite behind the neck. Then we should rip and tear great gobbets of food from the body of our artificial critter, wolfing them down with a possessive growl. THAT's what I call a proper meal.

The same thing goes for exercise. These namby-pamby people esconced in exercise machines, pumping their legs or their arms in mindless repetition, are losing out on the fundamentals of exercise. It's not a matter of merely contracting and relaxing muscles. It requires the entire body and mind to be unified in a single process. Dancing is good exercise. Sports are good exercise. Rote exercise is no more effective than rote learning.

That's why I head out into the woods and fight with logs. It's tough work, but it exercises my entire being. I have to think, move, act, and work. It's not neat work; I trip or stumble, drop things, scratch myself (my wife wonders why my hands, arms, and legs always bear scratches or cuts) and curse occasionally. There's always the chance of serious injury if I'm not careful -- but that's part of the process, too: thinking ahead, planning how to approach tasks in a safe manner. I'm all alone out there in the forest. There's nobody to call 911 if I break a leg. I just have to crawl home in such a case, and I don't like that idea. So I think as I move, something users of exercise machines don't do.

There's more to it, though. There's something about working in the forest, about being there among the trees, and working to improve the forest's health. One doesn't see the effects anytime soon, so it's mostly an appreciation built cognitively. It's constructive labor of the best kind. Sure, I could be writing essays for the Internet or helping people in other ways, but this, this is solid, undeniable betterment of the world.

There are other reasons as well. These forest floors have evolved to adapt to fire. In the natural setting, fire sweeps through the forest floor every thirty to fifty years, clearing out all the deadwood. We humans have blocked that process, so the deadwood builds up such densities that, when a fire does manage to slip past our guard, it explodes to monster size, feeding on a century's worth of accumulated fuel. To prevent that, we must manually cull the fuel, removing the biggest chunks and stomping down the slash (bits of branches and other small stuff) so that it rots faster during the rainy season.

A third reason for all this work is to provide fuel for my fireplace. Now, plain old fireplaces are actually energy wasters: they pull in so much cold air from the outside that their net effect is to cool a house. However, my fireplace has a big iron insert with two fans blowing air over it, and a high chimney that is exposed to the interior of the house. Its overall effect is to heat the house substantially. In winter, once I get the fireplace going, the electric heat pump turns on only to redistribute air around the house. I estimate this saves us about $1000 in electricity each year. Of course, to get that savings I probably invest several hundred hours of work, meaning that my labor is earning me only a few dollars per hour. But saving money is a tertiary goal. My primary goal is healthy exercise; fire safety is the second goal and saving money is the third goal.