Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Aging Parents and Coal Towns
distributed 8/28/15 - ©2015

A month ago, I took on a complex topic -- "an eco-justice perspective on jobs in this time of environmental crisis." I tried to take seriously both the hopeful vision of the People's Climate Movement that "our nation can transition to a clean energy economy that is fair for workers and improves all of our lives", and situations like the potential closure of a Colorado coal mine that would displace hundreds of high-paid workers in a small town.

A dozen of you responded with diverse, thoughtful and passionate comments about the environment vs. jobs tension. Your historical context, strategic analysis, moral principles and practical suggestions have not led me to any simple answers (of course!), but you have kept me thinking about justice in times of rapid transition.

Two more contrasting experiences within the last few weeks inform my ongoing reflections about real-world eco-justice. A week ago, I heard at length from some Colorado and Wyoming coal miners. And a close friend has spoken to me of her struggles of aging and ailing parents. There is a thread that connects those two, and that helps to illuminate some helpful options.

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I'll start with my dear friend Cynthia, who has grappled for some time with the care of her parents. Both her mother and father have had serious health issues -- both physical and mental -- which have made independent living difficult at first, then impossible.

Home healthcare workers covered some of the needs, but Mom and Dad refused to consider moving from their beloved home of 50 years. Cynthia and her siblings -- none of whom live close by -- tried reason, cajoling, and demands in attempts to get these good people to move to an assisted living facility. But the parents were obstinate about staying put, and often expressed anger at their children's efforts.

Earlier this week, Cynthia's mother died, at home, under hospice care. Her father, emotionally distraught on top of his dementia, now will have to move, making his turmoil and stress even worse. It is a deeply painful situation for all involved. It could have been far less traumatic if her parents had accepted the reality of their declining health several years ago and shifted to an appropriate care facility.

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Ten days ago, I spent four hours at a "listening session" called by the Bureau of Land Management to get public input about modifications to the federal coal program. More than 100 of us gathered at the Denver-area session, and 40 of us spoke (with a strict 3-minute limit). The arcane financial topics of coal leases and royalties became more personal as speakers told their stories and shared their perspectives.

If the spoken words were not enough to differentiate the two starkly opposing groups, dueling shirt-front stickers left no doubt: "I Love Coal" vs "Keep it in the ground." Truth was spoken by both sides, but there were few points of contact between the contrasting facts and narratives.

The pro-coal contingent included industry executives, mine workers, and community members. A charter bus brought a large group from Craig, Colorado, the site of the threatened mine that I wrote about a month ago. Speakers from this group told of the importance of coal for cheap and reliable energy; the big financial contributions of coal-related wages, royalties and taxes; and the essential role of mining in rural communities. Fear and anger were just under the surface in many of the comments from businesses and communities who see threats to their existence.

The contingent seeking major changes in the US coal program included "professional environmentalists", volunteers from groups like 350Colorado and the Colorado Renewable Energy Society, and folk from towns where recreation industries are threatened by climate change. Two recurring themes from "our side" were the reality of climate change (both regionally and globally), and the way that astonishingly low prices charged by the BLM (25 cents a ton) and discounted royalties subsidize coal and make other, cleaner energy less competitive.

As I sat through hours of testimony that afternoon, I kept thinking of the conflict between Cynthia and her parents. Yes there is truth about long histories in a beloved home, and of lives making valuable contributions to a strong community. 10 years ago for her parents, or 30 years ago for coal towns, those perspectives were realistic foundations for hopes of a stable future.

But times change, and new situations emerge. Five years ago, Cynthia's parents' health had started to degrade, and it was obvious to everybody else that they could not continue on their own. So, too, recent decades have revealed the exceptional climate damage that comes from coal, and also have seen other energy sources (natural gas, wind and solar) that are displacing coal.

In both cases, a denial of the changing situation has delayed decisions to the point where few options remain. The parents would not move when they could. The coal towns will not acknowledge that climate change involves them. Fear of change -- a change that goes deep into a sense of identity -- creates conflict and cuts off creative possibilities.

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A month ago, I wrote, "A short-hand definition of eco-justice speaks of 'the well-being of all humankind on a thriving Earth.' Workers and ecosystems are both valued, and the legitimate needs of both have to be addressed." The faces and the voices of last week's hearing stick with me, conveying truth from two constituencies that are in conflict.

I think that some form of justice can be found in situations like this, but only when we move past denial. The era of coal is ending. The US cannot maintain policies that are aggressive in limiting climate change, and at the same time encourage the production of the most polluting fuels. A way has to be found to help communities that "love coal" to transition to a different future -- and to start that process as quickly and as vigorously as possible.

A few broad suggestions, which go beyond conflicts over coal, might help to circumvent denial and facilitate planning.

  • There can be clear and objective definitions of communities (towns, counties, even states) that are overwhelmingly dependent on a single industry. If a given percentage of jobs or revenue is tied to a single business, the community is at risk of sudden change in that sector. That's true of coal in Wyoming, agriculture in Iowa, skiing in Colorado's mountains, or tourism in Hawaii. A risk index could be developed and published to show where there is a lack of economic diversity.

  • Communities that hit that measure of non-diversity should be challenged to evaluate the health of their important industries, and to explore options for diversifying their economic base. Communities with high risk factors can receive special help from state and federal agencies, universities, and business associations in evaluating their options for diversity and resilience.

  • Governmental and academic initiatives can identify industries that are most likely to experience rapid change -- both up and down. (Coal and some kinds of ocean fisheries are fading; renewable energy and health care are growing.) Non-diverse communities with fading industries must be targeted for the most aggressive forms of support, job training, economic development and/or transition through decline.

A small town, highly dependent on coal mining, is in trouble. There is no realistic way to maintain that community in its current form.

A just and realistic economic policy will identify the communities and the industries that are facing objectively defined risks, will help the communities evaluate their situation honestly, and will provide strong support in addressing the changing situation.

Whether it is aging parents, or industries that are going bust, denial and delay only increase suffering and injustice. We will do well when we can have honest and supportive approaches to these difficult situations.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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