Here We Go Again In Appalachia, But Is There a Better Alternative, and What Role Should Faith Communities Play?

ASH – Appalachian Storage Hub, the name hardly describes what’s in store for the Ohio River Basin in West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  It will be massive and include massive gas storage as the name suggests, but it will also include massive pipeline networks and a huge petrochemical manufacturing complex up and down the Ohio River.

The industry touts the development of a new Plastics Manufacturing Hub in the region.  And, of course, they claim this will create a huge economic boom with thousands of new jobs and increased tax revenues for local jurisdictions.

But might there be a better alternative to an industry that has never delivered on the jobs promises, the revenue promises, and has always negatively impacted the health of the region’s residents and divided communities between winners and losers?

Over and over again the fossil fuel industry has exploited the poorest and most vulnerable regions of our country, especially Appalachia.  The lives of the first European settlers in Appalachia centered on subsistence agriculture.  A fiercely independent and self-sufficient people, these settlers enjoyed a simple life in a beautiful and healthy natural setting.

Then the railroads came in and started buying up the people’s land, and the coal mines followed soon after.  With reduced available land, farming became less viable, forcing farmers to become miners.  And we know the sad history of mining—the tremendous destruction of the land and water resources and the devastating health effects on the miners and on their families.  The self-sufficient farmers had become poor laborers in one of the most dangerous industries.  Then the coal mines played out, and the shale exploiters came in.  So the exploitation and the destruction continues.

Now think of this situation in the larger context of the planet’s health.  More fossil fuel mining, transporting, processing and use means more global climate disruption.  Planetwide we are already seeing the impacts with stronger hurricanes, more massive and more destructive wildfires, destruction of coral in the ocean, unprecedented species loss, and many more depredations.  So why would anyone in their right minds NOT change course away from fossil fuels’ death and destruction trap? 

There is an alternative.  There is a solution.  Just look at thesolutionsproject.org, the plan by Professor Mark Jacobson and others for each of the 50 states to transition to all-renewable energy sources by mid-century, mainly by transitioning to water, wind, and sun sources of energy.  Of course, it would be a massive project and require massive changes, but it can and SHOULD be done.  Along the way, it will create and maintain millions of new jobs—jobs that cannot be exported as the work must be done right here in the U.S.A.

Is it so massive an undertaking that it can never be done?  Some say so.  Guess who that is.  But can we really doubt that a nation that invented so many things from the telephone to light bulbs to automobiles and jet airplanes that won the Second World War, that sent astronauts to the moon, can we doubt that such a nation can undertake and succeed in a profound energy paradigm transformation?

Instead of drilling pads, imagine wind turbines on the hills of West Virginia and southeast Ohio and southwest Pennsylvania.  Imagine solar panels on private and public buildings everywhere.  Imagine solar collection arrays spread out on the flatlands in the region.  And add into that the hydro power that is already generating electric power.  There would also be the construction of a new continent-spanning smart energy grid.

These things need to be built and maintained.  Industry and transportation need to convert their fossil fuel-powered machines to electric, renewable energy-powered machines.  It can be done, and it must be done if we are to move away from exploiting vulnerable people in vulnerable communities.  And it must be done if are to save planet earth as a habitable planet for humans and other living beings.

 Then why ISN’T this being done?  It appears that the WILL to do it is the missing element.  Yet, many of us ARE willing to support this effort!  But there are obstacles.  The fossil industry is resisting with all its might and all its money and resulting political influence.  That we allow so much money to influence our politics doesn’t help.  So reform in that area is most certainly needed.

But general public education is necessary as well.  This education has to be holistic and comprehensive.  People must be educated to understand basic science, especially earth and life science; and we must also be sure people have a sound understanding of how a democracy is supposed to work and to understand why our democracy is falling so short in meeting people’s needs.  Of course, one of the hoped-for results of this kind of education would be more involvement in the political system by properly educated citizens.

Finally, we must have the voices of morally grounded citizens speaking up.  That is where communities of faith come in.  These communities of faith must come to see that living out one’s faith consists in far more than attending church or temple or mosque one day a week.  Of course, we must have separation of church-temple-mosque and state.  But that does not mean that the voices of people of faith should be absent from public discourse.  And it’s got to be more than voices.  It has to include showing up---being there to help the most vulnerable among us, especially helping the relatively voiceless---not just speaking FOR them but encouraging them and helping them speak up for themselves.

Those of us who are addressing this from a faith perspective, a moral perspective, must be sure to both “walk humbly” AND “do justice.”  In fact, we MUST walk humbly if we are to be effective in doing justice.  Just because people in Appalachia are poor and are being exploited does not mean that they are stupid or naïve.  They are dealing with the hand that they have been dealt the best way they can.   So, as we approach them as volunteers willing to help, our first priority must be to convey respect, and our first task must be to listen.

At the same time as we work with these exploited communities, we must also work in the realm of public discourse to shape public policy so that it serves the needs of people rather than allowing for the wholesale exploitation of vulnerable communities.  Indeed, part of our task in helping these folks is to help empower them to work toward positive policy changes in their own regions.

History will judge our era not for what we do for the rich and the powerful but for how we care for the most vulnerable.  So let’s roll up our sleeves and walk out together—prayerfully, hopefully—from our various places of worship to do good in the world.  We can begin in Appalachia.