The title of this blog should be a good indicator of what is about to come. And yes, I am going to provide you with the definition of insanity. Insanity is doing something over and over again while expecting different results. Some might even say this about both the coal industry and environmentalists. One side believes that if we have a resource in the ground that is to be used, we should use it. Why would this be an option when we know the environmental costs of coal mining and emissions from energy production with the use of coal? On the other hand environmentalists see this as humans overstepping their boundaries as we try to bring the Earth to its knees in hopes that we will someday control it.
I also think that a form of insanity comes along with the task of dismantling careers that support thousands of families. The aforementioned “control” comes in the form of energy production. Something that is important in a world that has a population that is ever growing. The topic of energy production casts a wide shadow with many stones to be overturned; which is what has brought me to the state of Montana. I choose to seek enrollment in the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s (WRFI) Cycle the Rockies course looking for some of these answers. WRFI provides exploratory educational opportunities for students to learn about these issues, as well as being able to talk to individuals who live and work in regions affected by energy production. These opportunities help to bring understanding to these people’s stories and lives in respect to energy production. Oh, one last side note… we will be riding 700 miles by way of bicycle from Billings, MT to Whitefish, MT.
Our first stop on this 700 mile journey brought our bunch to Steve Charter’s cattle ranch near Shepherd, MT. As we approached the driveway of the ranch with sweat-filled brows and sore legs, a new world opened before our eyes. Little did we know that the pungent smells that filled our noses with disgust would soon be a topic of discussion.
The next morning we were able to walk through a small section of Steve’s ranch with his colleague, John Brown, who had a vast knowledge of soil and plant biology. Little did we know what they were trying to achieve on this allotment of land in Southeastern Montana. This was not your average ranch, Steve and John, along with Steve’s two adult children, are adopting a more holistic take on agriculture. One that rivals what they called “more-on” agriculture: that type of agriculture that requires farmers to apply large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous to their fields for ample crop production. John informed us that by doing this you essentially kill off the natural organisms that should be providing plants with these nutrients. They need these grasslands to provide food for their cattle. The problem is cattle also need a solid water supply, which Steve feels could be in jeopardy because of a large coal mine near the Bull Mountains. If only I had some perspective from the individuals who work in those mines…
It just so happens that the next day of our month long journey brought us to the very mine in question, Signal Peak Energy. After a grueling uphill climb we arrived for a tour of the mine, something I had never done before. We met with our guide, Byron, one of multiple generations of workers in the mining industry, currently including his son and daughter. After swapping out tennis shoes and spandex bike shorts for steel toe boots and full body smocks we were off. He displayed the larger conveyor belts that fed the almost monster like crusher. Next, he displayed the holding stacks that fed lines which in turn packed rail cars with coal. The most memorable parts of our conversations revolved around the importance of safety and family. He stated that this mines main purpose is to provide high quality coal while not jeopardizing the safety of their employees. These were people and not the money-hungry coal miners I had envisioned less than 12 hours ago. They had mouths to feed and families to cherish, just like the Charters.
So where does all this insanity come from? Could it be that we have cornered ourselves to believe that coal miners are hell bent on destroying the Earth at the cost of the all mighty dollar? Or that we continually portray those in opposition of fossil fuels as a superhero posturing for the crowd? This makes me think of my own personal life back home in Wisconsin.
With both of my parents working in the paper industry, I have seen first-hand the effects this industry had on the waterways of my hometown. These waterways include but are not limited to the Fox River and Lake Winnebago. With a nickname like Lake Winneseptic it is hard not to be cynical towards an industry that has polluted these waters to eternity. What I would give to see what those ecosystems looked like in their prime. Nonetheless this industry has provided me with a limitless life. A roof over my head, clothes on my back, and most importantly an education. Yet, I still find myself coming to verbal blows with my father over what should be a peaceful cup of coffee. These conversations usually end with the same quote, “Don’t speak ill of something that has given you life.” This quote has flown through my head several times in different situations over the past two days.
I find myself empathetic for people I had not in the past and on the edge of my seat for more information about topics I thoroughly enjoy. Maybe the insanity is not in the production of energy, but something much bigger than that. I think that this insanity comes in the form of stereotypes of each group. When in reality we need to think of new ways to find systems that can provide clean energy that do not degrade the Earth at unsustainable levels. We also need to remember that everyone has needs and potentially have people that rely on them for those needs. Who am I to take food out of someone’s mouth while I try to make myself feel better about shutting down another “dirty” coal mine? On the other hand, who is to say that Steve and his gang do not have the right to maintain his lifestyle and a fair shake at his piece of the pie? Most importantly, when does the Earth gets its time to attempt a recovery of the scars we have left behind? When will we as a society open our eyes to the rapidly changing climate and the implications that has for the human race as a whole?