In the old times, In the coal mines,
When the rich come around,
Give you pennies, take your rivers,
Take your mountains down.
Take their pleasure, take your treasure,
To them it’s only a game.
Keep you barefoot in chains,
Keep you barefoot in chains.
Now it’s oil trains, now it’s pipelines,
Now it’s eminent domain.
For Old Glory, that’s their story,
But it’s all private gain.
Take your country, Leave you hungry,
They don’t care what remains.
Hundred years, nothin’s changed,
Hundred years, nothin’s changed.
But if you want to be free, if you want to be free,
Trade your pipelines for wind and sunshine,
If you want to be free.
All that resource, bound for China,
Ain’t no use to pretend.
Spilling train cars in your backyard
It’s up to you to defend.
To get the forest,
They start with the poorest,
Get you to sign on that line.
If you’re hungry today,
They’ll take your birthright away.
©Doug Hendren, Nancy Beall 2015
What’s it about?
Economic exploitation of populations by a powerful few has been going on for a long time, expropriating resources and often forcibly dominating a cheap labor force. This has been the standard historical “business model” for imperial powers, including in nations all over the world dominated by the U.S. during the 20th century.
It happens at home, too. One of the most vivid of these is West Virginia, where people have been doing hard, skilled, dangerous work for over a hundred years, yet remain mired in poverty. Attempts of the miners to improve working conditions led to the dramatic West Virginia mine wars in the early 1900s, culminating in the largest armed insurrection in US history, excluding the Civil War.
Particulars change, but in many ways the basic situation has not. The 1% in the US now dominate the 99% more than ever before, with the result that we have lost our democracy, and have the highest wealth inequality among all developed nations in the world. While corporate interests enjoy unprecedented profits and freedom from accountability, the public faces austerity, and threats to education, health care and social security.
Economic abuse often goes hand-in-hand with illness and environmental destruction. In the case of coal mining, consequences include “black lung” pulmonary disease, retardation from mercury poisoning, pollution of air and rivers, and destruction of some of the most beautiful landscapes in America. Known in economic lingo as “negative externalities”, these are hidden taxes, unaccounted costs for what we traditionally think of as a “cheap” fuel. A recent Harvard study calculates the hidden medical costs of coal in the U.S. at $500 billion per year, a silent burden on taxpayers. Needless to say, if these costs were all recognized and accounted for in the market price of coal, it would not be cheap energy at all. At today’s prices, renewable energy sources are cheaper. Hidden subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are enormous, just beginning to get the scrutiny we need to make sensible energy choices as a nation.
Oil trains and pipelines: Coal is now in decline, due to competition from cheap shale gas. West Virginia, however, continues to suffer environmental exploitation from the fossil fuel industry. Recent events include numerous toxic releases, oil train accidents and pipeline explosions, poisoning West Virginia rivers and endangering people and property.
Selling our birthrights: Many fossil fuel developments, including fracking and pipeline development, are promoted by heavy-handed means. Developers commonly first go after the poorest people in the poorest communities, the most desperate and vulnerable. Fracking wells have been shown to cause water contamination, but political influence of this powerful industry has allowed it thus far to evade rational regulation. The risks are only now beginning to be recognized by the courts.
“National Security”? Gas pipelines can explode, and the “blast zone” is surprisingly large, putting people and property at significant risk. Current projects threaten some of our most beautiful landscapes, including the Shenandoah Valley’s George Washington National Forest. These projects are often forced on landowners under the threat of eminent domain, claiming that they are either vital to national security or the public interest. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. The purpose of carrying gas to coastal ports is to ship it to world markets, producing private profits, while the risks of explosion, pollution and property damage are all borne by the public. Owners and promoters of such pipelines, like Dominion Power, are essentially treating the territory as a modern “sacrifice zone” no different from the treatment of coal mining a century ago.
Allowing one’s land and water to be endangered for a one-time cash payment is very risky and short-sighted. In the long run, preservation of our natural heritage is the best investment. A cash payment today will be gone tomorrow. But cared for properly, the land will take care of us indefinitely. As science broadcaster David Suzuki put it: “Trading water for fuel is fracking crazy”. Our only sustainable future lies in leaving fossil fuels in the ground. We have the ability to change to a 100% renewable energy economy today. Believe it. If you want to be free.
Gasland, documentary film on communities affected by the fracking industry.
Facts on Fracking. Lecture from oil geologist Dr. Ingraffea
The World Can Transition to 100% Clean Energy. From Stanford University, The Solutions Project.