22 January 2010


22 January 2010

Last night, Bobby Kennedy Jr., the tireless defender of "purple mountain majesties," debated Don Blankenship, president of Massey Coal, the biggest practitioner of mountaintop removal coal mining. Mr. Kennedy was explaining the intricate interrelationship of jobs, energy security, and a healthy environment while Mr. Blankenship responded with simplistic sound bites about terrorism and crippling environmental regulations. These are complex issues that cannot be reduced to one-liners, and somehow the advocates of clean air and clean water must craft a set of key phrases that reach today's over-stimulated audience. Mr. Kennedy tried to explain the devastating effect that mountaintop removal has on the Appalachian hydrology, and in response, Mr. Blankenship held up a plastic bottle of clear looking water proclaiming that it would not pass EPA standards. Of course many of the most toxic substances can't be seen, smelled or tasted, but he didn't mention that. While Kennedy talked about the fact that burning coal is why our waterways are polluted with mercury, Blankenship responded that even were we to stop burning coal, everyone else's coal-burning practices would still poison our fish.

But we have to lead. America has always been out front, and we need to be again. To say that if we don't blast the mountains apart in Appalachia, "them damn Arabs" will attack us again, as Blankenship averred, is false, misleading, and a cheap appeal to the basest fears of Americans. Kennedy is right, our security will come from a future of clean energy, and that is one without coal. As he points out, the jobs in the coal industry are disappearing with mechanization (as Blankenship's piece of the pie grows ever larger.) Blankenship is raking in the cash while ex-miners in WV can't feed their kids or drink their water. But his one-liners about terrorists and "them damn unions" appeal to those looking for simple answers to complex problems.

And here's where art comes in: while the issues are complex and require lengthy explanations, blithely countered with a one liner about terrorism or pesky environmental regulations, a compelling image of destruction tells an irrefutable story. Those of us who want clean air, clean water, and a secure, prosperous future for our children have to get more adept at the tools and techniques that play to the modern media and short attention spans of Americans.

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