An American Guilt Trip

by Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis

John Steinbeck once wrote: “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation . . . There is a failure that topples all our success.”

In an effort to witness first-hand the financial, social and personal impact of “black diamonds”—the benefits of which we all enjoy, but the cost of which we all irreproachably disregard—I decided to meander through the unparalleled beauty of the Appalachians in West Virginia, among the oldest mountains on the planet. I wanted to see for myself the origins of the benefits I enjoyed living in my home in Maine. It is easy for Americans, especially environmentalists, to ostracize the coal miners, who, by the way, smashed every stereotypical image I had and instead displayed an unassuming charity and disarming simplicity. Nevertheless, I saw them as tragic pawns in the coal and fracking industries from which all of us reap the benefits with our cozy comforts.

There is good reason why West Virginia has been labeled “almost heaven.” Today, it is eerily close to hell. Mountaintop clearing is out of sight to most Americans and hardly visible from the highways spanning the state, but it has pillaged entire counties and pilfered entire communities. And yet I saw churches mesh mining with misinterpretation of scripture; “Every valley shall be lifted and every mountain lowered” (Isaiah 40.4) to justify mountaintop removal. I passed a church board that read: “Fear not tomorrow; God is there.”

Ironically, more coal is mined in America today than at any other time, though with fewer miners than ever before. However, mining has shifted from underground locations to surface locations and from individual survival to corporate greed. The shift has wreaked havoc on surrounding communities and families, obliterating any potential for alternative economy. Today, mining companies are gradually replaced by scavenger companies reaping the last drop of profit from the region or petrochemical refineries transferring industry from the cancer corridor of the south to the wasteland of the Midwest. Whatever else remains is extracted by fracking carried out by out-of-state and even international companies.

The air is polluted, the water is toxic, the soil is poisoned, and the people are unhealthy. Entire regions are plundered over hundreds of thousands of acres; entire towns have literally disappeared since 2015, razed to the ground by bulldozers, while miners are left with literally nothing but a nostalgic dream of “making America great again”—a fantasy reinforced by politicians and corporations, who leave miners compelled to choose between money and health, family and famine, work and water, ultimately survival and extinction. Have you noticed how political leaders even promote a dishonest division among broader Americans—as if we are somehow obliged to be either for or against coal in order to be either patriotic or ecological, coal miners or tree huggers?

These regions and mountains have stories and names, many going back multiple generations and embracing numerous cultures. Paradoxically, the mining companies promote patriotic names—like Freedom Mine, Independence Coal and Revolution Energy—abruptly declaring bankruptcy in order to avoid responsibilities to employees. The industry establishes mines adjacent to elementary schools, where the land is subsequently contaminated, yet posts signs outside the same schools that read: “The Coal Industry: Partners in Education.” Politicians there adopted the phrase “act of God” for fatal floods resulting from coal ash and mass mining disasters (as recent as 2010) caused by clearing, blasting, dragging, dumping and “reclaiming” the mountains. Ted Nugent sings and Sean Hannity speaks at local festivals.

But it is helpful to remember a couple of things. First, when a mountain is obliterated—and it literally resembles a war scene in Syria—only three percent of the content mined is actually coal; and we know now that this is not the most efficient energy. Second, our global economy thrives on the principle that one region can be sacrificed for the benefit of another. But can we really any longer accept that with a clear conscience? Third, as a local poignantly remarked, the earth can heal itself of natural disasters, but it can never remedy man-made devastation.

As the song goes: “There is a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong.” So I wanted to sense whether it is more difficult to deny climate change or else to avoid the lifestyle change it mandates. The desecration and destruction of the earth for its resources have far too long been protected by corrupt politicians and blessed by fundamentalist Christians, some of them even wearing Orthodox vestments.

For more on what is happening in West Virginia, read Coal Country by Shirley Stewart Burns and Plundering Appalachia by Tom Butler. Movie buffs might look at “Matawan” and the documentary “Blood on the Mountain.” And some political trivia by way of conclusion: The current senator, who was former governor, is personally affiliated with the coal industry. The current governor is a coal baron. Both of them, presumably, without the slightest guilt.

The next time you turn on the heat, try to remember the people of West Virginia. And reflect on the choices you make as an Orthodox Christian. We all owe it to the “maker of heaven and earth” as well as to the creation that we have received and been called to protect.

Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis is a deacon of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.