Surrounded by the majestic mountains of Appalachia, the area of Welch, West Virginia, located in McDowell County, was once a bustling working-class town completely dependent on the extraction economy of coal. Deeply connected to the dirty energy, Welch was the world’s largest producer of coal. As a child, my mother-in-law would wave goodbye to her father each day as he went into the mines. He earned only a meager daily wage to support his growing family. Miners like him took collective action to secure improved living and working conditions through union strikes, but were nevertheless unable to eliminate the dangers of their profession. Some dangers of the job presented themselves daily, as explosions and mine collapses took life and limb. The more insidious dangers presented themselves only over time, as seasoned miners succumbed to a variety of respiratory ailments commonly known as black lung. Workers and their families were universally aware of these hazards, but every morning men entered the mines. Even if they were to reemerge at day’s end, they were trapped in the mines, not by rockfall, but by an economic dependency on this polluting resource.
Coal mining has left a legacy of inescapable poverty; entire regions are bereft of anything resembling a healthy economy. Having exhausted many of the more accessible veins to the dirty wealth, coal companies have resorted to mountaintop removal; a process that literally tears open the earth with violent and irreparable blasts to expose the coal within. This cheaper model of extraction pollutes streams, poisons air, shatters culture and renders the once beautiful ecosystem into a bleak moonscape. When the coal companies have extracted the last bits of their wealth, they move to a new area, leaving a trail of poverty and pollution in their wake. The level of distress suffered by the population, alongside the vast wealth that continues to be extracted, stand as testament to the string of negative impacts by the coal companies on local communities like McDowell County—today, the county ranks among the poorest in the country.
The coal industry is just one tier of the fossil fuel industry empire, which has developed more methods of extraction since my mother-in-law was a child, such as culling crude oil from bituminous sand and sending fractures deep into the earth to harvest natural gas deposits. While methods of extraction have evolved over the past several decades, some things haven’t changed: as the industry extracts from the earth, it also extracts from nearby communities. From mountaintop coal removal in West Virginia to the tar sands in Alberta, the communities in the wake of this extraction model are exposed to negative and toxic health impacts while the environmental conditions of the place continue to erode. Far too often the people most adversely affected are low-income, minority communities battling the health impacts of the fossil fuel industry’s looting; respiratory issues are common and cancers are epidemic. The numbers are sobering: 71% of black Americans live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards, compared to 58% of white Americans. My mother-in-law continues to battle with asthma after living in Welch for the majority of her life.
The tar sands of Alberta, Canada have become a destination for oil companies. This extremely dirty and energy-intensive model destroys every living system in its path. Each barrel of oil produced from the tar sands takes from 110 to 350 gallons of water (or two to six barrels) of water, and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions are 3.2 to 4.5 times as intensive per barrel than conventional crude oil. But the First Nations people that are deeply impacted by this ravenous natural resource extraction model are standing in resistance and fighting for their cultural heritage, rights to their land and its ecosystems, and the health of their communities. The people mostly affected are fighting back and making progress. The rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline expansion was a major success in this epic battle between good and evil.
The negative ecological and economic impacts that are imposed at the source of extraction are also mirrored at the terminus where the oil is refined. Manchester, Texas, is a low-income, minority community just outside of Houston that is at the mercy of the extraction economy—many crude oil refineries are located in the area. Processing crude oil from tar sands is especially dirty, causing more environmental damage and very real health impacts on the people of Manchester. According to a study by the City of Houston, children living within the area are 56% more likely to develop acute lymphocytic leukemia, and air quality tests positive for at least eight different carcinogens. This negative downstream effect further disenfranchises the community and the rich oil companies are not held accountable.
Just as the First Nations communities in Alberta are working together to save their community, the people of Manchester, TX, are uniting to fight against extractors like Vallero, a company that has committed to refine as much as 75% of the tar sands from Alberta. In the form of protests, educational “toxic tours” of East Houston, and the Tar Sands Blockade, the residents and activists of Manchester are engaging in the fight of their lives.
Inequality continues to morph in other forms throughout the world, where impacts of climate change adversely affect vulnerable communities. Communities that lack the most resources tend to be the greatest affected. Many Pacific Islands are facing the real impacts of climate change where projections of sea level rise are dire, and leaders are being forced to contemplate what to do if their nation disappears. In 2009, in an effort to bring attention to this urgent matter and send a message to world leaders, the president of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, held a government cabinet meeting underwater. As the Maldives government signed a document calling on all countries to cut emissions, they also showcased the very real threat that climate change poses to their people and the world.
At present, the region of Oceania is bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change. Due to frequent floods and the doomsday forecast of their sinking nation, many people in the Marshall Islands have already made the painful decision to leave their country and community. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, Civil Society Representative from the Marshall Islands, said in a compelling speech at the United Nation’s Climate Summit in New York City, “We’ve seen waves crashing into our homes and our breadfruit trees wither from salt and droughts. We look at our children and wonder how they will know themselves or their culture should they lose our islands.” She also called “for a radical change of course” in the fight against climate change. Climate change isn’t a future problem for just a few vulnerable people—it is today’s problem, and it is everyone’s problem.
Vulnerable communities are on the frontlines in this colossal fight against human induced climate change. Climate change disproportionately affects minority and low-income communities, and the mainstream environmental movement needs to broaden its current scope. Many demographic studies show that employees in mainstream environmental organizations are mostly white people from middle-class upbringings. The lack of diversity in the environmental movement stunts its capability and adroitness to help vulnerable communities. How can a homogenous group that is sheltered from many impacts of climate change possibly decide the needs of the people most impacted?
There needs to be a paradigm shift toward inclusiveness within the green community and environmental movement so that voices from the most affected communities are sought and heard. And resources from the mainstream need to be shared. The people who are the most affected are frequently from disenfranchised, low-income, minority communities that lack sufficient resources to fight back. These people are the very real human face of the environmental movement. We all must stand in solidarity, and environmental organizations need to first recognize the frontline activists’ sacrifices and then use their broad platform and resources to tell the activists’ stories.
I can’t help but wonder if the impacts that low-income communities of color are facing should have been the canary in the coal mine several decades ago of the current extraction model and reliance on fossil fuels. Are we facing a future that all communities are stricken by extractive natural resource models where air quality is poor, rivers are poisoned and the very health and livelihood of the people are compromised?
With the most intense El Niño year ever observed brewing in the Pacific, and projections indicating that 2015 will be the warmest year on record by a large margin, the environmental movement needs everyone. Without the inclusion of everyone, the movement simply won’t progress and the negative effects of climate change will continue to unfold. We must abandon exploitative resource extraction altogether. Every community and every demographic must be represented, heard and respected. The defining challenge of our time is to overcome divisiveness, to be united by our humanity; to stand as one in order to support a brighter future for us all.