Confessions of an Environmentalist

Every week a Hiroshima-sized bomb goes off in Appalachia in the name of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Explosions rattled windows and shook the foundations of Larry Gibson’s home on Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, twice every day for more than 30 years. The roar of industrial mining equipment echoed through the peaceful mountain hollows day and night. Streams ran orange with toxic metals. Several local residents lost their lives when the mines worsened flooding in downstream communities.

For the last three decades of his life, Larry tirelessly campaigned against the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, a technique that involves using explosives to blast the tops off of mountains to access thin seams of coal and dumping the resultant waste and debris into nearby valleys, burying streams. Thousands of people, including myself, were standing on the edge of Larry’s family cemetery on Kayford Mountain when we got our first horrifying look at an active mountaintop removal mine.

Today, these mines have nearly ceased operations. They’re not shutting down because the practice has been made illegal, however, despite the efforts of Larry and others, despite the horrifying detriment the practice has on communities. Mountaintop removal is only ending on Kayford Mountain because all of the most profitable coal—that which could compete with abundant new supplies of fracked natural gas—has been mined out.

Before he died, I had the privilege to travel several times with Larry and speak to groups about the human and environmental destruction wrought by mountaintop removal. Regardless of the audience, I always had the sense that almost everyone who saw the images of mountains and communities destroyed—who saw the human consequences of such wholesale destruction—left our presentation with the belief that mountaintop removal should be abolished.

Even in the region where mountaintop removal provides much-needed jobs, polls show that the practice is unpopular with the local populace. This widespread opposition toward mountaintop removal mining presents a puzzle: If nearly everyone is against it, why is it still happening?

I have spent the past 14 years working to end mountaintop removal, and have a theory about one of the most important barriers to ending it. I believe that the collective inability of the advocacy community to listen deeply to each other, to agree on common goals and to collaborate effectively is the greatest barrier to stopping mountaintop removal and is more problematic than the combined economic and political power of every coal mining company in America.

When I recall the grueling all-day strategy meetings with dozens of local, regional, and national groups, I can feel the stress start taking over my body as a long day of tense interactions, subtle ego-battles, and clash of agendas take their toll. My shoulders raise up and bow forward, my breathing gets shallower, my jaw clenches. Worst of all, my mind begins to shut out everything else that’s happening and fixates on one thought that drowns out all others: “Why aren’t they hearing me?”

A turning point came for me when I realized that I couldn’t even hear what others were saying when I was defensive, agitated, or feeling unheard. This meant that it wasn’t just everyone else that was being unreasonable. I was just as unreasonable!

Unfortunately, simply “deciding” to start listening deeply doesn’t work for very long. We can’t listen deeply if we are feeling threatened or angry or defensive, and we can’t communicate and act with compassion. In short, there’s no space to listen if we are “full of ourselves.”

I realized that becoming a better listener—and thus a better advocate—meant learning to “empty” myself of all my views about what is smart or strategic, as well as my defensiveness and desire for recognition that were preventing me from listening to others. But where does one learn to “empty” oneself? It turns out there are classes for that: At yoga studios and meditation practice centers the world over. To empty oneself, ironically, one must become mindful.

A lot has been written about mindfulness in recent years. One one of the most important reasons to practice mindfulness is that it is the sole tool we have to recognize and transform what Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls habit energies. Habit energies are conditioned tendencies that drive our thoughts and actions any time we are not mindfully focused on the present moment. Many of these habit energies, such as a quickness to anger or a tendency to feel threatened when people disagree, have been built over our lifetime and, in fact, may have been passed on to us through our culture or ancestry. To change ourselves is, by definition, to transform our habit energies.

Meditation teacher and author Tara Brach calls what happens when we are ruled by these kinds of habit energies the “Trance of the ‘Unreal other.'” She explains:

Whenever we are caught in our own self-centered drama, everyone else becomes ‘other’ to us, different and unreal. The world becomes a backdrop to our own special experience and everyone in it serves as supporting cast, some as adversaries, some as allies, most as simply irrelevant. Because involvement with our personal desires and concerns prevents us from paying close attention to anyone else, those around us—even family and friends—can become unreal, two-dimensional cardboard figures, not humans with wants and fears and throbbing hearts.

When we’re not mindful and are driven by habitual tendencies to seek power, security, comfort, and recognition, we see those around us the way a soldier in the heat of battle sees civilians and enemies alike—as “others” toward whom we simply don’t have the “bandwidth” to engage our compassion and understanding. That’s no way to treat an ally and it’s no foundation on which a powerful movement for real change can be built.

Obviously, one person deciding to practice mindfulness is not likely to end mountaintop removal and bring a just and sustainable economic future to Appalachia.  But if there’s one thing I learned from Larry Gibson, it’s the power of a dedicated individual to change the world.

Thirty years ago, when mountaintop removal began on Kayford Mountain, Larry was a lone voice in the wilderness. By the time he died in 2012, mountaintop removal was one of the most widely recognized and reported environmental issues in the country. Seeing the thousands of young people at rallies and protests who were dedicated to ending mountaintop removal would inevitably move Larry to tears during the last few years of his life. Mobilizing those people to protect his beloved mountains was his life’s work.

Transforming the environmental advocacy community to practice mindfulness and deep listening is as daunting a challenge today as the challenge Larry faced 30 years ago when he set out to make mountaintop removal coal mining a national issue. But it’s precisely the challenge faced by those of us who would take up Larry’s torch and try to end mountaintop removal or, for that matter, save the whales, prevent rainforest loss and slow global climate change.

All environmental and social justice activists will at some point have to face the same truth: We can’t change the world if we can’t change ourselves.

Video by Circus Picnic

Matt WassonMatt has worked at Appalachian Voices since 2001 and has served in various capacities ranging from Executive Director to the editor of The Appalachian Voice. Matt has worked on all aspects of the “coal cycle”—from mining, transportation and combustion of coal, to the disposal of power plant waste. Matt also oversees the award-winning online campaign to stop mountaintop removal coal mining, A nationally recognized authority on mountaintop removal coal mining and coal economics, Matt has testified before Congress, appears frequently on expert panels, and is a contributor to high-profile media outlets including Huffington Post, Grist, and Daily Kos.