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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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