In Perspective: Jon Meacham on ‘The Last Mountain’ and ‘moments’ of environmental concern

Environmental concern is a little like dieting or paying off credit-card debt – an episodically terrific idea that burns brightly and then seems to fade when we realize there’s a reason we need to diet or pay down our debt. The reason is that it’s really, really hard, and too many of us in too many spheres of life choose the easy over the hard.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way with the environment, particularly with climate change, after Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was released in 2006. The Gore film was a key element in what journalists like to think of as a “moment” – a largely artificial construction that attempts to invest current interest in a topic with enduring significance. The problem is most moments are just that: moments, passing instances of concern and engagement. That’s why you hear more talk about “moments,” which come and go, than you do with “milestones,” which tend to be more lasting.

I was thinking about all this recently as I watched a new documentary, “The Last Mountain,” which tells the story of a war in West Virginia between the coal industry and communities determined to save what’s left of their state from big coal’s ferocious mountaintop removal. The film features Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and is directed by Bill Haney. One of the producers is Clara Bingham, a friend and colleague of mine.

In mountaintop removal, coal companies dynamite the tops of mountains in order to harvest the coal inside, disrupting the environment – the air, water and land – in ways a military attack might. “The Last Mountain,” about the Coal River Valley, is a powerful documentary which successfully finds the general in the particular. The story of mountaintop removal is about the forests and streams and people of Appalachia, yes, but it is also inexorably the story of how all of us choose to live, relying on energy – be it foreign oil or coal – that exacts the highest of prices.

The true cost of oil in terms of our national security is well known. The wages of coal are less so, and that’s one reason “The Last Mountain” is worth our attention. Nearly half of the electricity in the United States comes from the burning of coal; 30 percent of that coal comes from the Appalachian mountains. Mountaintop removal has destroyed 500 mountains, one million acres of forest and 2,000 miles of streams.

In terms of health, a new Harvard Medical School survey puts the health and environmental costs at $345 billion annually. I could go on, and the movie does. The key point is that we have no serious national energy strategy to put us on a realistic course toward renewable resources. “The Last Mountain” makes a case for wind power; there are other alternatives, too, including nuclear, that need cold-eyed exploration.

“The Last Mountain” is about the struggle to save a singular place – and it’s a vivid reminder of a larger struggle over energy and the environment that is not the work of a moment, but of generations.

 
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Comments

  • Cpfarleyesq

    The truth keeps coming out…just watch

  • Cpfarleyesq

    The truth keeps coming out…just watch

  • jan

     Darn it.  There you go again, being right and saying something I agree with you about.  Thank you for the text.  My internet doesn’t cycle (?) fast enough to watch your videos.  I consider it part of the broken, disjointed system that America is rapidly developing. 

  • swimmore

    Of course the great irony now is that while national attention is on the travesty of mountaintop removal, the next tragedy in West Virginia is looming in the form of Marcellus Shale.  We’ve hollowed out the mountains and decapitated their peaks, destroying the flora and fauna while imposing havoc on the health and safety of those who chose to live close to the land.  But the next battle is already taking shape as corporations turn to natural gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing. David Bower, former head of the Sierra Club, said, “There are no victories in conservation.”  The battle has to be fought over and over again.  Aldo Leopold beseeched us “to think like the mountain,”  but how can we think like the mountain when the mountain is gone.

    Are we willing to turn West Virginia into a national sacrifice zone over the illusion of cheap energy?  Now it’s coal; soon it will be natural gas.  When will we say, “Enough is enough”?  and turn out the lights.

  • swimmore

    It’s not really all that hard to cut back on electrical use.  Turn the lights off when you leave the room, open your windows in the summer, put an extra sweater on in the winter.  Unplug your rechargers and electrical devices that are rarely uses.

    My electric bill went down 20% last year.  It really isn’t hard.  Just do it.

  • jan

     Please remember that what works for you doesn’t work for everyone.  The elderly and not healthy cannot tolerate the colder room temperatures you advocate.  Not everyone lives in a house or apartment that has enough airflow or enough shade over or near the house to allow for non-use of air conditioners and finally turning off the lights when you leave the room doesn’t work that well unless you’re the only one living in the house. 

  • Mkelly54

    A hundred years from now people will visit West Virginia and wonder what the hell happened to the state’s mountains. My home state of Tennessee has fought the good fight against mountain top removal in the mining of coal, but now that Republicans run both houses of the legislature they’re working to allow it. What they haven’t take into consideration is the financial impact of eco-tourism throughout Tennessee and especially on mountain trails. The Cumberland Plateau in Southeast Tennessee is one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet and it attracts millions of visitors a year. It’s also home to coal buried deep inside the mountains. 

    Coal was mined in traditional fashion for several centuries in this region before it became to expensive/dangerous to remove. I pray every day that mountain top removal will not become the norm in this area of the country and I extend my prayers to West Virginia for a more sane way to remove coal.

    However, my lasting prayer is that we will find an alternative energy source to replace coal and oil.  Inexpensive energy sources, true. Though the long-lasting affects of their use is more than was can or should pay.

  • Mkelly54

    A hundred years from now people will visit West Virginia and wonder what the hell happened to the state’s mountains. My home state of Tennessee has fought the good fight against mountain top removal in the mining of coal, but now that Republicans run both houses of the legislature they’re working to allow it. What they haven’t take into consideration is the financial impact of eco-tourism throughout Tennessee and especially on mountain trails. The Cumberland Plateau in Southeast Tennessee is one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet and it attracts millions of visitors a year. It’s also home to coal buried deep inside the mountains. 

    Coal was mined in traditional fashion for several centuries in this region before it became to expensive/dangerous to remove. I pray every day that mountain top removal will not become the norm in this area of the country and I extend my prayers to West Virginia for a more sane way to remove coal.

    However, my lasting prayer is that we will find an alternative energy source to replace coal and oil.  Inexpensive energy sources, true. Though the long-lasting affects of their use is more than was can or should pay.