Water, Hypocrisy, and Hope in West Virginia

The truth of Appalachia
is judgment upon us all.1

Mountaintop Removal Site
This photo of a mountaintop removal site appeared in the Huffington Post‘s article by Jeff Biggers, where he discussed some of the harmful effects of this method of strip-mining.

Penned in 1995, the pastoral letter At Home in the Web of Life presaged the coming of the “post-industrial age” in Appalachia, which would be marked by unemployment, the decline of local business, and environmental destruction, including the widespread practice of strip-mining and “even dumping toxic radioactive materials”.2

Today, nine counties in West Virginia find themselves in a state of emergency following a chemical leak into the Elk River. According to The Charleston Gazette, the leak of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol originated in a compromised storage tank and, unchecked, overwhelmed the backup containment dike before leaking into the river. The results of exposure to the chemical are unknown, but residents in affected areas are being told to avoid any contact with tap water during a clean-up whose duration is yet undetermined.

My heart is heavy as I write, with anxiety, sadness, and responsibility. The truth of Appalachia today is a judgment upon me. The hum of the refrigerator behind me and the flicker of the fluorescent lights above me mock the number of times I have spoken out against destructive coal mining practices when my life is literally powered by those same practices. I eye my water bottle nervously: although we are upstream from the spill and outside of coal country in this corner of Appalachia, the spill reminds me that I live in one of the poorest states in the country, just down the mountain from the type of extreme poverty which time after time I have heard elicit the response, “I never knew this type of poverty existed in America.

The immediacy of the many-faced “other” in today’s context of multiplicity spotlights the hypocrisy inherent in the human condition, stemming from our interconnectedness and the complexity of the web of life affected by our decisions. Try as I might to practice what I preach, despite good intentions I will never perfectly embody the ideals I espouse, just as the ideals I espouse will never be the full picture of goodness. Jesus proclaimed a kingdom of God present in the midst of an anti-kingdom marked by injustice and idolatry. For me, a most salient image of the fullness of the kingdom of God is a world where hypocrisy is not a given, where it easier, even when making decisions ignorant of their total consequence, to do good than to do harm.

According to Jon Sobrino, the anti-kingdom, within and against which the kingdom is proclaimed, is characterized by idol worship. The predecessor of At Home in the Web of Life, a letter called This Land Is Home to Me, identifies worship of the idols of “technological rationalization”  and “Maximization of Profit” as a major player in the widespread powerlessness in Appalachia. Like any idol, they are alluring because they promise their own version of salvation:

The way of life
which these corporate giants
create is called by some
“technological rationalization.”
Its forces contain the promise
of a world where

  • poverty is eliminated,
  • health is cared for,
  • education is available for all,
  • dignity is guaranteed,
  • and old age is secured.3

And yet, like any idol, its promises are empty, drawing people into itself only to leave them empty, too:

Too often, however,
its forces become perverted,
hostile to the dignity of the earth
and of its people.

 Its destructive growth patterns

  • pollute the air
  • foul the water
  • rape the land

 The driving force
behind this perversion is
“Maximization of Profit,”
a principle which too often
converts itself into an idolatrous power.4

Even as I try to eliminate idolatrous practices from my own life, I cannot disembed myself from the fabric of a culture which is idolatrous, wherein the meanings of terms like “freedom” and “self-determination” are ahistorically frozen and absolutized. The temptation, in a world where toxic spills are to be expected and my complicity is unquestionable, is to give into the sense of despair and powerlessness. “Not even your future will be a mystery any more,” writes Wendell Berry, and, indeed, as today’s leak is (slowly and likely only partially) cleaned up, we collectively brace for the next headline beginning with the words “State of Emergency” and hope it refers to some far-off place where no one we love lives.

But to give into despair is to be expected, and the resultant paralysis is just what the toxic systems need to maintain their hold on our imaginations. Tomorrow, I will wake up in a room heated by coal. I will turn on a light lit by coal. I will burn wood in a wood stove to avoid having to use coal, and thus I will contribute to the pollution and deforestation of my immediate environment. I may eventually decide to decrease my dependency on oil by switching to an electric car, powered by – you guessed it – coal. To deny my complicity is foolish and counterproductive. But if today I do not make an effort to turn the light off when I leave the room, or to reduce my carbon footprint, or to write this blog post about the situation of the people in West Virginia, I surrender the power that I have despite my complicity to effect change. I relinquish my role in making the kingdom visible in the midst of the anti-Kingdom and thus lose my ability to see the signs of the kingdom’s presence around me.

Wendell Berry wrote, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts,” and that is the challenge before us, from the hollers of West Virginia to halls of power. Having considered the starkness of the anti-kingdom and our own complicity in its perpetuation, let’s be joyful anyway and try our hardest to change it.

Here are some resources that may serve as inspiration:

The full content of the pastoral letters This Land Is Home to Me and At Home in the Web of Life can be read here.

Calculate your connection to coal here.

Finally, I’ve included the full text of the poem I referenced by Wendell Berry below:

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Copyright Wendell Berry.

1. Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, This Land Is Home to Me (n.p.: Catholic Committee of Appalachia, 1975), 10.
2. Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, At Home in the Web of Life (n.p.: Catholic Committee of Appalachia, 1995), 44.
3. Ibid., 16.
4. Ibid., 16-7.

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